Book promotion sucks.
I have spent the better part of a year promoting my books, both my self-published titles and my published backlist. I have spent more time, energy and money doing this than I do for my “day job,” which is as a freelance journalist. I have spent more time on book promotion than I’ve actually spent on book writing. At my agent’s insistence, I have tried (and paid for) everything from blog tours to Facebook ads to sexy professional covers to NetGalley listings. I’ve leveraged social media, taking advantage of every Facebook book readers’ group and Twitter hashtag you can possibly imagine, including some that turned some colleagues of mine (and fellow clients of my current literary agent) into New York Times bestsellers. I’ve bought Facebook ads, done “boosted posts” because I fell victim to Facebook’s newest bait-and-switch ad-buying scam (which I blogged about, here).
And do you know what? Nothing works. Seriously. Not a thing.
I’m convinced that all the “promo” we authors (especially those of us that are indie) feel we have to do is a waste of time and money. I certainly haven’t seen any return on my investment. Of the things that I have done, I got the most new sales via reader groups on public Facebook pages with tens of thousands of followers, but even that has dried up because a) Facebook changed its algorithms to penalize anyone who doesn’t buy ads and b) I fell for the bait and bought some Facebook ads, and they didn’t work. (I wasted my money). All the social-media campaigning, giveaways, blog tour post writing, trolling of GoodReads and so on has done is eat up huge chunks of my writing time, stress me out, and frustrate me because I’m not seeing any of those gargantuan efforts translate into actual results. I have gotten lots of reviewers download my books on NetGalley, but very few of those downloads ever result in any reviews being posted anywhere. (The other day I even got a notification from NetGalley that somebody who downloaded an ARC of mine from the site THREE YEARS AGO just now got around to posting a review, and said book got that very late review is now out of print, so that too, was a waste of my time and money.) Even though I’m still using it, I’m becoming rather cynical even about NetGalley, and given the very low percentage of published reviews versus downloads by “reviewers” is leading me to believe that those “reviewers” are just using NetGalley to get free books.
Now I know that all of these various marketing efforts do work for some people. Some authors, like Cora Carmack, have rocketed to the bestseller lists literally overnight because they just so happened to get a stellar review on a popular blog for one of their indie books. But I just haven’t been able to capture that kind of lightning-in-a-bottle sales zeitgeist. It’s not because my books aren’t good—-on the contrary, my average review rating on Goodreads is 4.31 stars out of 5 (from a couple hundred reviews), which I think any author would envy. I’ve just been in the wrong places at the wrong times. I got on the social-media promotion bandwagon too late, I don’t have enough inside connections to top review bloggers (most of the “big” bloggers won’t even give me the time of day), I have bad luck, ad nauseum.
I don’t pretend to understand what leads one writer to become tomorrow’s instantly-gone-viral Internet publishing sensation versus the writer who toils away in obscurity. I don’t think anybody really understands how that “magic” really works, but I don’t think it necessarily has to do with a book’s literary quality. It’s more of a tapping into the right moment in time, with just the right message that fits the right number of people who all happen to be looking at their computer screens at exactly the same time. You can’t duplicate that—you might as well try to find a way to explain string theory to a three-year-old while simultaneously trying to invent cold fusion.
Here’s one thing I do know for sure, though. Book promotion has actually damaged my writing career. Why? Because I’ve spent way too much time and energy (not to mention money) doing pointless “promotion” at the expense of my craft. Social media is a ridiculous time-sucker even if you’re just talking with your buddies about 80s videogames on Facebook or livetweeting how bad Carrie Underwood was in the Sound of Music. So if you can waste a lot of time on it having fun, just imagine how much time, energy and creativity social media sucks out of you when you’re trying to use it professionally to market your writing. Believe me, readers, no greater evil succubus has ever been invented.
Which is not to say social media is all bad. It’s not—-like anything else, it’s just a tool. But as all of these media platforms who’ve built up their user bases over the past few years for free now search for ways to turn an actual profit from “free” platforms, I really think they’re all gonna go the way of Myspace. (You remember Myspace, right? It used to be cool, until it turned into the world’s biggest nonstop commercial for stupid shit nobody wanted. And then Justin Timberlake bought it, so that kind of speaks for itself.) Here’s another thing that I know. When I decided to stop wasting so much time and energy trying to market myself on Facebook, I decided to write a little blog post about it. That blog post went viral. I’ve picked up literally thousands of new readers to my blog from around the world in the past few days. My posts got retweeted, other bloggers started commenting on what I’d said. What I wrote resonated with a lot of people. In other words, I was at the right place at the right time. All the new readers here to this site haven’t necessarily translated into more sales for my books, but it still indicates to me that there’s a pretty big potential audience out there that’s interested in what I have to say.
So given that, I’m gonna get off the “promo” bandwagon and just get back to what I do best—-writing. Hopefully my words will speak for themselves, and enough new readers here will decide to pop over to check out my books, and maybe buy a few. Social media is an emotional drain as well as a timesucker. I have had to deal with so much dysfunctional shit on social media the past couple of years, up to and including verbal abuse, stalking, harassment, and all sorts of other downright creepy shit that upset me, ruined some of my friendships, and generally cut into my creativity. So that’s another reason for me not to use it so much. I’ve found that social media works best for me when it comes to blogging, and sharing my blot posts. Blogging captures a lot of the best elements of social media while still putting up a decent barrier between you and your readers. Social media just makes you too damn easy to reach by too many people—-i.e., it destroys your privacy. We writers are a solitary lot, and privacy is very good for us, especially when we’re plugging away at difficult novel manuscripts. We don’t need every Tom, Dick and Douchebag popping their heads into our virtual office bugging us every three seconds—-with blogging, we can control the content AND the message a lot better than some of those flame wars you see erupt on Facebook every eighteen seconds.
Another way that social media can really mess with your psyche is via “success envy.” The other day my literary agent posted this USAToday article about one of her other clients, Heidi Cullinan. I’ve followed Heidi’s career for a while now on social media, and I have to admit I’ve gotten jealous of her book sales (she’s landed on multiple bestseller lists). I often asked myself why my own books weren’t selling that well, why I haven’t “arrived” yet despite having the same literary representation, etc. Then as I read through the article, I saw that she was very open about how much (or rather, how little) money she was making. I’m a full-time freelance writer (which already makes me the envy of many others, even though the bulk of my income comes from journalism rather than books). And I saw, to my pleasant surprise (sorry, Heidi), that I WAY outearn her, and have for years.
Maybe the bulk of my writing income isn’t from book royalties, but it’s still from writing. And I choose whom I write for, and my topics, and I get read by people worldwide. Why on earth would I have any reason to be jealous? Social media can really warp your perceptions, and make you think you’re not doing nearly as well as you actually are. So, that’s yet another reason to get off the damn merry-go-round and focus on what really counts.
I wrote my first novel, TEMPLAND, on the sly when I was working a corporate day job that I hated. I wrote it because I thought I had something to say that the world needed to hear. Maybe I was wrong about that, but it seems the world is interested in what I have to say here on this blog. Today somebody visited my blog from the Republic of Andorra, if that doesn’t tell you something. I’ll keep on plugging away, giving the readers what they want, and then maybe a few of them will do the same.