Adventures in Self-Publishing: Is Paying for Book Promotion Worth it?

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One of the more difficult issues the author of a self-published book faces is whether to pay others to help promote their book. Broadly speaking, such services fall into three categories: creating sales materials (postcards, posters, press releases), reaching out to influencers (reviewers, bloggers and interviewers) and direct selling (via mailings, social media and advertising). Most print on demand (POD) publishers offer at least the first, some provide the second, and a few may provide some of the third.

Assistance with sales collateral such as postcards, posters and the like makes sense, if you actually intend to use them. But what of the other services, which tend to be very expensive? Are they worth it or not?

As a rule I think that spending money to promote a book is (as the Brits say) a mug’s game. There are legitimate businesses out there, I’m sure, that will deliver, but the question is “deliver what?” Even if you spend thousands of dollars on hiring a promotional agency to see if they can secure interviews and the like, the impact on actual sales of books appears to be, at best, iffy.

I engaged with one of the well-regarded PR companies some months back which charges thousands of dollars a month to mount a promotional campaign, and was totally mystified with the degree of effort I had to put into trying to determine what, if anything, I could expect to result from making an investment of that magnitude. I began by asking what the typical results of a sales campaign might be, and the answer was, “Well, we really can’t predict.  There are so many variables, and there’s really no way to guarantee how any particular book will do.”

Fair enough.  How could you expect the reality to be any different? What I didn’t expect was how hard it would be to get anything more definite than that from the representative I tied up with. After all, as a service provider, I’m well aware that while you should never promise what you can’t deliver, you shouldn’t expect anyone to hire you if you can’t provide real examples of situations where you had delivered what the customer wants to buy.

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So I tried to circle around the question and come at it from a different angle, and asked, “Can you give me some examples, though, of the results of a campaign or two that you’ve conducted recently?” Same answer.

The most I was ever able to achieve (after asking the same question at least four different ways) was to get a sample schedule of what the PR firm had been able to arrange for a couple of its authors. And to be fair, what they had achieved was impressive – they contacted thousands of media targets, and generated numerous inquiries, requests for review copies, and reviews.

But when I checked out the Amazon ranks for the books in question, they were each below 1,000,000.  Meaning that they hadn’t sold a copy in weeks. So while the success of the campaign may have been real, in the sense that the results targeted by the campaign were achieved, those targets proved not to be effective in achieving the real goal, which was not getting reviews for their own sake, but seeding the ground to yield a sustaining audience of readers.

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I’m not too surprised that this would be true. After all, with everything else in the publishing world turned upside down, why should the traditional methodology of book promotion still be successful? Like so many other aspects, it seems that we are still in the “destruction” part of the creative destruction process, and the “creative” part has yet to kick in, or at least settle down into new, reliable modes of book promotion that can be taken on by a PR firm for an author, let alone by the authors themselves.

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So what’s an aspiring author to do?

Most of what you read today says that promotion is all up to you and your efforts, and it appears that this is indeed the case. The consensus is that it takes effort, every day, and indeed doing several things every day, to keep your sales alive.

Problem is, not everyone has that kind of time. Even if they did, it’s questionable whether that level of effort is adequately rewarded by moving a few books a week in hopes of eventually establishing, more by luck than anything else, a real beach head in the marketplace (which also, by the way, involves writing a new book once or twice a year).

The result is that I haven’t spent almost anything to date on third-party assistance marketing my book. But I have been on the lookout for any services that seem to stand a credible shot of producing sales with the intention of giving a few a try.

That hasn’t included Google ads, as not only has this seemed like a very long (and expensive) shot to me, but I haven’t heard of fiction writers having much success with this approach. Earlier this week, though I decided to drop a little cash on an outfit called I had already listed my book with them (for free) here, and set up an author page here.

BookDaily is a site I stumbled on some time back, with a an interesting model: every day, they send out alerts to those that sign up to receive a sample chapter from one emerging author, and one established one writer, every day. The established author provides the teaser even if the title of the emerging author’s book doesn’t, but hopefully you’ll spend a moment on the emerging author’s work either way to see if it piques your interest. It’s a clever idea, especially where the emerging author’s book is priced at the low, impulse-purchase end of the pricing scale.

I don’t read the alerts every day, but when I do, I find that it’s an excellent way to compare writing styles, and focus on what works and what doesn’t. Often the samples are pretty intriguing. I also get exposed to genres I don’t normally read, which let’s me appreciate writing styles that I wouldn’t otherwise take the time to find. Back at the BookDaily site, you can sample lots of other books before you buy them. Authors can log their books in for free, including uploading up to 10,000 words of text by way of a sample of their work. The site has a clean, friendly, (although slightly out of date) style, and you don’t feel overwhelmed. It’s easy for readers to browse, and for authors to update.

Predictably, sells (unobtrusive) advertising, and for $49 a month, they will include your sample in one of their emails to at least 25,000 subscribers. They’ll also highlight it to a degree in other ways on their site.

It’s not often that I see a promotional model that seems to make sense, but I found the BookDaily approach appealing. The question was, would it work?

To my surprise, although I had signed up for the service only this last Sunday, I received an email the next day stating that my book would be featured in an email that would go out around 5:00 on Wednesday to an appropriate email list.  Sure enough, on Wednesday just after 5:00, my book showed up as the second of two books.

The book I was paired with in the email was The Columbus Affair: A Novel (with bonus short story The Admiral’s Mark), by Steve Berry, which at the moment has an Amazon rank, in Kindle, of 1,831 and 229 customer reviews with an average of 3.7.  Berry is a well-reviewed author of top-selling genre books – 11 in all, with over 15 million copies in print in 51 countries – so BookDaily was certainly delivering on its promises with my match. According to BookDaily, the email went to a total of 20,400 recipients.

So what was the result?

At this point, I need to digress to touch on a real problem for gauging the effect of any promotional effect. As the consultants are fond of saying, “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.” In other words, if you can’t tell which of your marketing efforts work and which don’t, there’s no way to know where and how to direct your efforts. And sadly, there is no way to tell how many books you are selling through your various channels until weeks, or even months (depending on your publisher) later. When you do receive the data, it won’t be broken down by days, but will most likely be aggregated by the month.

Which leaves you with only one ready measure: your book’s Amazon rank, which is supposedly update hourly. In fact, this doesn’t always seem to be the case, but it does update often enough that it can provide, if not exact data, at least a trend line, assuming that enough additional books are selling as a result of your latest efforts to move the needle above the already existing trend line.

In the case of the BookDaily email, I could attribute at best a couple of eBook (and no print) sales to the ad. This is particularly relevant, because the BookDaily sales page includes a direct link to your book’s Amazon page.

So what’s the takeaway here?

I can’t fault BookDaily. They certainly delivered on their promise. What this experiment shows is just how difficult it is to find really cost-effective ways to generate interest in a book. In the long-term, the service they provide for free (listing my book and an excerpt) promises to be more useful in the long-term than the paid service was in the short-term. That’s fine, but the value I can expect from the free service is small. More important, though, is its incremental value – another of the many bits of bread an author needs to spread on the available waters in hopes that the totality of the effort will have the desired result.

I’ll continue to keep my eye out for promising, affordable promotional services, and will report on those that I try.

If you’re interested in self-publishing, check out my author’s blog, Tales of Adversego, where I write more frequently on that topic.