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Self-Publishers: Until You Know How To Market Your Books, Don’t Pay For A Book Marketing Service

Orna Ross Headshot Black and WhiteAs a young, unpublished author, struggling with my sentences, I used to fantasize about how, when the book was published, I’d answer the deeply-interested questions of a certain chat show host.

Now I’m older and wiser, I smile at the memory of this but I still understand it. Writing is hard, and so when writers dream, this is what we dream of: not of writing so much as of having written.

Of being “A Writer”, capital W.

Of getting the respect and attention we’d like to deserve. Chat shows, large followings, double-page spreads in national publications, thousands of readers exposed to our wit and wisdom.

Harmless stuff, as fantasy goes, but our over-active imaginations – a necessary trait for our job –  makes us susceptible to flattery and over-optimistic assessments of the prospects of our work by author marketing services, especially in the slightly crazy post-natal phase, just after we’ve birthed a book.

The problems arising from marketing-service flattery and author susceptibility to it are creating a great deal of conversation within ALLi at the moment. The problem is much more widespread than we thought.

Graphic of book open with lots of sales graphs above it

Marketing Services & ALLi

As most of you know, our association offers a Partner Membership, whereby we vet services of value to indie authors.

These service providers range across the seven stages of the publishing process: editorial, design, production, distribution, marketing, promotion and rights sales (and also those who provide assisted-publishing packages, combining some or all of these).

We evaluate each service that applies for membership against our Code of Standards, and the information from the evaluation process feeds into the reports and ratings here in this self-publishing advice center, and our guidebook, How To Choose A Self-Publishing Service.

The category that is most challenging for us, always, is book marketing, including PR (media interviews, reviews and features).

A quick word here about the difference between marketing and promotion.

Book marketing is letting people know your book exists, book promotion is specific sales-driven activity.

This post is about the more nebulous marketing and PR side of things.

When authors have just published, having finished first the writing, then the production of a book — each a long creative journey in itself which has drawn on various skill sets — they are understandably weary, and possibly overwhelmed.

They hand away marketing and promotion to a service — but without understanding what’s realistic for their book, they wind up disappointed and out of pocket. This can happen even if the service hasn’t made false promises, but many lamentably do, even for books that quite clearly aren’t going to attract media attention.

Of course working with a reputable marketing or PR agency can garner sales, for the right book, at the right time but it is equally true that some books will never win the sort of media attention that makes a difference to sales, no matter how much money is spent.

And it is also true that a double-page feature spread in a newspaper or a broadcasting appearance – while gratifying at many levels, not least to our egotistical dreamer – may not yield any ebook sales at all, especially for fiction.

I have personally experienced this, and seen it many times with other authors.

Such traditional PR works best for print books distributed through bookstores, but digital marketing is what works best for ebooks distributed online, the mainstay for most self-publishers.

Another issue is that so many services offer marketing add-ons that do little to shift the needle on sales.

And so ALLi is now advising authors not to hire a marketing or PR service until they have:

  1. properly located their books within the marketplace, understood its appeal to readers, and done some work themselves on trying to market
  2. satisfied themselves that a proposed service understands what actually sells books like theirs in the current publishing environment (which they probably can’t do until they’ve done 1.)
  3. wised up to author-service flattery

Yes, it is challenging for us to get outside our writing heads, and get real about where our books fall in the publishing/purchasing ecosystem; to engage with what our readers want and work out how to best to attract them.

But at ALLi, we believe these are core skills for successful self-publishing.

What do you think?

Why #selfpub #writers shouldn't rush to hire #bookmarketing or PR services - by @OrnaRoss Click To Tweet

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22 Responses to Self-Publishers: Until You Know How To Market Your Books, Don’t Pay For A Book Marketing Service

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  3. Jan Schmuckler October 17, 2016 at 5:04 pm #

    Thanks very much! As I have been marketing my book, I kept thinking it must be easier if I had a service or an agent. I will soldier on. Your article makes sense!

  4. Jane Steen October 11, 2016 at 8:04 am #

    That’s good advice, Orna, and I’d extend it to advising authors not to shell out for an expensive course on how to market, etc., until they’ve tried it themselves for several months. You’ll get way more out of any advice if it relates to something you already know. I think authors are trying to spare themselves the trial and error involved in learning something that’s alien to you, but it’s the trial and error that are of the most value in finding out who you are as a writer and who your audience are.

    And you do get better. I hated the idea of marketing & promos until I started making targeted efforts and analysing the results. Now I’m enjoying myself, particularly since I can measure the effect in increased book sales. I have targets, I have spreadsheets. I know where I can find advice once I’m at the point where I really need it and can benefit the most from it. The money I spend in the future will be worth spending, unlike my earlier mistakes!

  5. Laurence OBryan October 11, 2016 at 6:32 am #

    This is timely advice Orna.

    We have, many times, been asked to do press releases, but from contacts with journalists I have discovered that many automatically send press releases to spam, unless they provide something genuinely newsworthy.

    A new book, unless accompanied by tens of thousands of sales already generated, is not newsworthy, unless it is written by a celebrity.

    The market for many genres, literary fiction, science fiction, fantasy, children’s, young adult and poetry is awash with great titles and limited options for promotion.

    Setting expectations and training are the key issues.

    If an author can accept that sales will be limited, that these genres are mainly for book shops or genre specific marketing services then disappointment will be reduced.

    Two challenges lie ahead:

    1. To educate authors about marketing and to inform them that even traditional publishers produce mostly books that do not sell, and that their businesses are kept afloat by the one in three hundred published books that become best sellers. Publisher fail far more often than they succeed. It’s why the publish thousands of titles a year. Authors are fodder for their funnels.

    2. The development of genre specific marketing services to serve segments of the market in a professional manner.

    We address the information and training issue, and provide a free 25 point book marketing checklist on the post linked below. Putting a book on the market without addressing these 25 points, and considering all of the issues above, is an act of wishful thinking.

    Here is the link:

    I Am Sorry Book Marketing Is So Hard http://buff.ly/2e2ef2F

  6. Warren Shuman October 11, 2016 at 12:27 am #

    Hi Orna: Thanks again for bringing an unfortunate, but very real situation regarding publishing a writer’s 1st wonderful, and brilliant paper or e-book. I have been an Indie author since 1996. My small business book was written on a Brother word-processor, on paper. (I still have the WP, and it works with floppies.) The best advice that I would give to new authors in this age of e-books for all sorts of devices, is RESEARCH, AND LEARN! Smarten up. For less than a $100.00 you can get your e-book a cover design, formatted, and published for distribution on a large number of sites: Amazon, Smashwords, Draft2Digital, and too many to list. It’s your Business, or it’s a Hobby. There are a large number of firms that are delighted to have the opportunity to help you design a cover, set up a nice text-templet design, format, and publish your paper, or e-book. Marketing and Promotion is at least as much, or more difficult than the fun of writing. Learning the Publishing and Distribution business is Vital to being a successful Indie Author. You must learn to wear these four basic hats: Author, Editor, Publisher, and Marketer, in order to properly evaluate offers from the firms that will offer their services to you. Subscribe to the several weekly and daily Newsletters of the Publishing Industry. Attend annual book conventions, Join indie Author (ALLI) groups and organizations. Read, Study and Learn. You are not alone. It’s a learning curve that we are following. You need roller-skates to keep up with the changes. Plan… if you don’t plan, you’re planning to fail.

  7. Nick Rippington October 10, 2016 at 8:31 pm #

    Hey Orna,
    Great to meet you at the Byte The Book do the other week. As a journalist I managed great publicity with the launch of my book, appearing in regional papers where the book was set, on local radio and in magazines near and far, one even going out in Abu Dhabi!

    If I was to give a couple of tips it would be to research exactly which areas would have the most interest in your book – I chose London and Cardiff, which are two of the settings, and Bristol, because that is my home town. I also appeared on BBC Radio Wales and I released the book, a thriller combining gangsters and rugby, to coincide with the rugby World Cup in Wales.

    The biggest disappointment for me was that the major bookstores wouldn’t stock my book. I contacted both Foyles (who had recently opened a big shop in Bristol) and Waterstones (who have bases in Cardiff and Swansea) and although I jumped through hoops for the latter, getting an agreement with Gardners etc, I had zero luck getting into their stores.

    As a well known blogger with the Bristol Evening Post I thought that, at least, might count with Foyles and included links to articles about the book which had been published online. The whole thing left me very disillusioned. I think sales suffered because of it, too. People might hear the radio interview and then seeing the book on a shelf nudges their memory. They might even go looking for it without luck. It’s OK being on Amazon but people have to log on to their computer virtually straight away after reading or listening to the interview. If they are distracted the potential sale is lost.

    If I was to give writers two pieces of advice about getting into newspapers I would say…
    a. Do your research on the organisation (newspaper, radio or TV station), the person who it would be best to contact, and try to go to them first with a phone call, then follow up with an email. An email on its own will just end up in the trash with thousands of others the news editor gets every day. Emphasise why local people will be interested. Find your ‘hook’.
    b. Write your ‘own’ story. Find the ‘angle’ that will be most appealing for the audience of the organisation you are contacting. If say in Cardiff you could write “Being trapped as a hostage in a Cardiff bank was the inspiration for xxxx xxxx to write his first novel” (that would be a pretty awesome book to be fair). Say why you are best qualified to write the story, a bit about yourself etc etc.
    Do it yourself and use every contact you have, as I did. At the end of it all, though, getting in stores is key, I believe.

  8. Raymond Cook October 10, 2016 at 4:52 pm #

    Thank you so much for the information you shared with us aspiring authors.

    • Orna Ross October 10, 2016 at 4:57 pm #

      Thanks Raymond… keep dreaming! And doing, of course!

  9. Barry Knister October 10, 2016 at 4:47 pm #

    Hello Orna,
    As is invariably the case, your post today sheds light on a serious issue–and I appreciate your distinction between marketing and promotion. I hadn’t realized that before.

    Conventional wisdom tells us that potential readers need to be exposed to a book seven or more times before they buy. As you rightly say, the key ingredient is knowing who a book’s likely readership is, and then identifying where that readership goes to learn about books. For indie books (correct me if I’m wrong), bookstore shelf space or reviews in traditional sources is all but non-existent–exceptions like Fifty Shades aside.

    So, the indie author must do a lot of digging, especially in terms of successful books that are similar to the ones the indie writer is publishing. Learning about those authors can lead to information about their readers, and where they might be found online, etc.

    • Orna Ross October 10, 2016 at 4:56 pm #

      Absolutely Barry! Similar books are fired by online algorithms for a reason! 🙂 BTW, thanks are due to you. This post arose out of a previous communication of yours, that we have since followed up on. And this led to a re-evaluation of a number of services, an investigation that is currently ongoing. Will keep you posted!

      • Barry Knister October 10, 2016 at 11:18 pm #

        Thank you, Orna. To be sure, I know what you’re talking about.

  10. Brad Graber October 10, 2016 at 4:01 pm #

    I think the challenge here is that if you do nothing – nothing will certainly follow – and frankly – we Indie authors can’t really afford to sit on our books and wait for them to be discovered. Like any business – and selling your book is certainly a business – you have to spend money to make money – and as we know – not every effort will garner return. It doesn’t happen in business – it won’t happen with your book. I think we need to be sure – as you suggest – to vet those we are relying on to help us market and promote our books. And also – understand – that you the writer – are not in it for “the day:” but for the long haul. Successful Indie books don’t happen overnight. Time – patience – and diligence win the day.

    • Orna Ross October 10, 2016 at 4:53 pm #

      Good advice, Brad. We are lucky also, these days, in social media where we can connect with potential readers and test our ideas before taking the plunge. Remarkably few marketing services know how to market books (book promotion is better served by the likes of BookBub etc.) It is, as you say, a slow build and consistent exposure wins through. Thanks for reading and commenting, nice to “meet” you here.

    • Raymond Cook October 10, 2016 at 4:54 pm #

      Thank you for your comment.

      “you have to spend money to make money – and as we know – not every effort will garner return.”

      However, as a disabled fiction author my funds are extremely limited in order to “Spend the money to make the money.”

      I think many independent authors are in the same boat.

  11. Jane Davis October 10, 2016 at 3:13 pm #

    The difficulty with this is that PR firms want your books well in advance of publication, preferably 6 months in advance because that’s the lead time for precious magazine slots.

    • Orna Ross October 10, 2016 at 3:21 pm #

      Thanks Jane. I guess I should have said that there is plenty of time to do 1,2 and 3 while you’re writing the book. 🙂 And those lead times in magazines are based on the trade publishing / book shop shelf space made available around a publication date — which all authors are agreed are punishing and unrealistic. Luckily, for indies, it’s different. Nothing to stop us promoting a book whenever we want. And a book is new to a reader the day they meet it, which can be years after first pub date. Indies do best when they pull away from the traditional models, on our observation.

  12. Lynn Emery October 10, 2016 at 3:03 pm #

    I would add that authors should look at the kinds of books the PR company markets and ask for details on their audiences/subscribers, etc. Many PR services will say they reach audiences for all genres, which may be the case only up to a point. Look at their websites, blogs, Facebook page to get a feel for what genre they’re really strongest in marketing. You can read comments and posts to see which kinds of books get the biggest response. Example – a service that seems to mostly have an audience that responds to romance or inspirational self-help books. Your sci-fi horror adventure probably isn’t a fit, and won’t get the same response as those genres. Not saying the service may be willfully trying to mislead you, but they’re not going to turn down money! They may be honestly trying to reach different audiences, but they overestimate what they can do for other genres.

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