Ed’s Casual Friday: So *that* is why they advertise…

I hate promo.

I really do. And I don’t mean other people’s promo (OPP?), though I’m not a fan of it, either. I mean I hate doing it myself – flogging my book hither, thither, and yon. And yet, it seems to be at least half of the Indie gig, as all the time and energy spent getting the good cover and crafting the effective blurb and gathering reviews, let alone writing and editing a whole book in the first place, won’t matter at all if nobody ever sees it. Not if no one ever visits that listing on Amazon or B&N or the iStore.

Some authors, it seems, have had some success doing things like maximizing their “tags” – those little descriptors that are supposed to make a book pop up higher if somebody happens to type the right term into a search engine, be it “fantasy” or “mystery” or “New Jersey” or “Sheltie.” There are those who swear by the process, and on any writers’ group or page or board there are usually threads dedicated to authors tagging each other in some weird homage to a never-ending recess game at a virtual elementary school playground. I guess it has worked to get more exposure for some people, or they probably wouldn’t bother. But if you ever look at the tags on any “bestseller,” they usually seem to be an afterthought, if there are many there at all. The handful of tags on Game of Thrones or The Hunger Games does not seem to be detrimental to their success. Tags might help someone find a book if they don’t know what they are looking for, but that doesn’t seem to be the way an awful lot of people find something to read. More often, they hear or read about a book that sounds interesting, and they go find it for themselves.

And thus, readers get spammed by authors. And as all of us authors are readers, too, we spam each other, which is easy as we are usually all hanging out together at the same virtual places. Like fish in a barrel. Some spammers go wide and shallow, littering identical “Buy my book” posts across twelve Facebook pages in the space of four minutes. Some put up “Wow! Look at this awesome/awful review I got!” on a daily basis, or “check out my cover,” or “could you hit ‘like’ on this page?” on and on, spinning into infinity. And while I’m sure a lot of those posts are earnest solicitations for congratulations or commiseration, support or advice, it seems unlikely that nobody is hoping a fellow author who clicks their book listing might not be so overwhelmed by the magnificence thereby revealed, that they go on to click “buy.”

That’s what I hate doing myself. Though I like to think I never went acutely heinous or overbearing on dropping promo right and left, I’ll do it on a promotional thread, or a page specifically for book listings, etc., etc. And I’ll frequent “reader” pages that are specifically for promo (though I suspect there are really no non-authors on any of them), and do my dirty little business. And it sucks, and I hate it, and it makes me wonder: If I’m going to have to be a salesman all the time, then why am I a writer at all?

As I mentioned in my “One-year-anniversary-as-an-Indie” column last week, I have decided to do all that stuff a lot less this year, and try to write more. Now with two months of data, I can say something about how that is going.

First, I’m only looking at my three “main” books, the first three volumes of the Norothian Cycle, and only on Amazon US. Honestly, I’m not trying to make this a camouflaged promo post, so I’ll just call them books One, Two, and Three, and say that they are in the fantasy genre. On average, as 2011 was ending, Book One was doing maybe a little better than a sale a day at $2.99, and the $4.99 sequels maybe a dozen a month between them. They are all long books, 120K words or more, and all get well reviewed. My biggest month ever last year, between the three of them, was still well under a hundred copies total.

January. I started spending a lot less time on social media altogether, maybe dropped a couple promo links in places specifically for it, but basically did nothing to “push” my books. Amazon US sales for the month, which were slow for a lot of titles (particularly outside of the “Select” program), were 15, 6, and 6.

So yes, all that blundering about on social media may in fact have been making some difference, as sales were about half of what they’d been averaging. But still, miniscule.

On February 1st, however, I ran an ad on Book One. For $100, it was the e-book of the day on Ereader News Today (ENT), and that day it sold 110 copies at $2.99, got to #1100 in all paid titles on Kindle, and top 10 or 20 in a couple of those subsidiary categories with about six degrees of separation. Sales continued at a faster-than-normal pace all month, and the $4.99 sequels picked up some as well (usually both of them getting a sale at the same time), so February ended with sales of 173, 26, and 24.

That’s just data, here’s what I *think* I learned. First, while “promo” can work some, “advertising” can work a lot better. People don’t really mind being exposed to advertising, in fact they’ll actually go looking for it (ENT is their own site). What they don’t like (witness the joy on the Kindle Forums when all self-promo was banned) is being constantly hit over the head with spam everywhere they go.

Two, if there were enough reputable sites like ENT, with enough readers who trust them, I could in theory have done much, much better over the course of my first year as an Indie by buying one ad a month, and totally ignoring all social media altogether. I’m sure not every ad would have worked as well for me as ENT did, paying for itself before lunchtime on day one, but even if I had only sold a quarter of as many books on a monthly basis, that still would have been more than all my shucking and jiving around Facebook and Twitter and Goodreads et al sold for me. And I would have had, literally, dozens more hours a week during which I could have been writing. I could have traded money for time, at a pretty manageable rate, and ended up with more readers.

The flaw in actually making that a strategy, however, is that there are only so many sites like ENT, and their advertising opportunities fill up quick. Also, it’s likely that a second ad run on the same site for the same book would drop off considerably. More and more similar sites will appear of course, which will likely dilute the effectiveness of all but a few of them. Oh, and of course the prices for advertising on the good ones will climb and climb.

So in the end, I don’t have any expectation that my promo-ing days are over, and I’ll still be doing this stuff that I loathe so well. But it’s nice to know there are other options to make use of from time to time. Options that can work, options that leave me more time to write, and options that make me feel less icky.


As always in closing, an excerpt from an actual review of a real book, by a real reader.

“Follett looks so smug on the back cover w/his black turtleneck”
(from a one-star review of Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follet.)

*     *     *     *     *

M. Edward McNally is the author of the Norothian Cycle books: The Sable City, Death of a Kingdom, and The Wind from Miilark, and multiple free short story volumes titled Eddie’s Shorts. He has been writing for twenty of the last thirty years and does not recommend the ten year spell of writer’s block in the middle. Ed is a contributor at Indies Unlimited (IU Bio Page) and tilts at his own windmills over at http://sablecity.wordpress.com/


Author: M. Edward McNally

Epic fantasy author M. Edward McNally is a North Carolinian of Irish/Mexican extraction. He has a Masters in English Lit from ISU and Russian/East European History from ASU. He grew up mostly in the Midwest along I-35 northbound (KS, IA, MN), and now resides in the scrub brush surrounding Phoenix AZ, where the scorpions and javelinas play. Learn more about Ed at his blog, and his Amazon author page.

32 thoughts on “Ed’s Casual Friday: So *that* is why they advertise…”

  1. Thanks for your honesty, insight and for taking the time to share your experience. It's still a new terrain this self-publishing lark and I totally agree with you that it is frustrating to have to promote when really you just want to be left alone to write!

    What I found most interesting was your usage and the result of using paid for advertising. This was a new thing for me to read about from a self-publisher's perspective. Good luck with your novels! x

    1. Remains to be seen if it is sustainable strategy given how much "advertising" sites can vary in their reach and effectiveness. But it does seem like a little of this can go a lot farther than a lot of promo sometimes. 😉

  2. Great post, Ed! You've just validated my secret desire of late never to have to flog my work in social media again. No, really, I'll keep up on Twitter, but I have cut back on Facebook. Interesting data about your ads. Thanks for your honesty! Now off to write some more…

  3. On the contrary I think,ad streams will increase exposure and support the idea that cheap or free ads should be the norm. I am on a free ad site it has not been superduper successful but it has shifted some books and I think I can better my exposure when I start to blog more widely.

    1. Exposure is the name of the game, particularly early on. I've run some stuff on free places as well, but for me at least is hasn't had a comparable effect to buying an ad on a site with thousands of people who go there specifically looking for something new to read.

  4. Thanks, MEMcN – I have found that no matter what I do, and even if I do nothing, the slow simmer at which my books go out to the world does not vary much. Whenever I put out a new book, it spikes a bit, and then goes back to its usual simmer, which is not far from yours. Mind you, each semester, I find there is an improvement, so I must be doing something right… and that is writing more books.

    1. That probably is the most effective thing, Rosanne, as the easiest way of having someone find your work is of course by having more of it out there for them to find. 🙂

  5. Great post Ed, and thanks for sharing the numbers, always insightful.

    Another similar site is Kindle Nation Daily, their ads run a little pricier and with their success, the prices just went up again. I ran one in June when there was nothing but crickets with my one novel, and it jumped up to #15 on the Kindle bestseller list (in my category). Another huge drawback is that they are sold out for about 4 months.

    I thought that it was a wise investment because nothing I had done really got noticed until then (although I didn't earn the ad price back… it was close enough though)

    Now, six months later without ads, the book does better, which I think leads to the other side of the coin on social media.

    We're not just selling books, were building a platform and following. It's those gracious friends on social media with 15,000 followers that RT your stuff that expands the universe.

    You are right on the money about the time issue, that is the ultimate killer, if we spend time pimping and not writing, your not growing.

    1. True that, Jim, and Pixel of Ink (POI) which has been another good ad site for a lot of people recently went to $300. I do think the few sites that can actually get people results will continue to raise prices, as there are just so many of us out here looking for some attention.

      And of course I don't mean to devalue building relationships on social media with other writers as well as readers, as that's how I wound up here on IU. 😉

  6. I've been wondering about advertising … but I've been reluctant to bend the plastic to buy, worrying that the return won't cover my credit card bill … but I'm hearing that maybe it will. Of course, there is still the concern that any royalties gained will be spent on beer.

    1. It can work, but it's a matter of finding the right site. Some genres do better in different places, all depends on the readership base of the subscribers (Mysteries/Thrillers do particuarly well on Pixel of Ink, for example). I'd ask around writers groups/pages, you'll probably find at least a few people who have tried about every venue out there.

  7. Good post. I'm just getting into this promo stuff, and like you, can't say I like it. I'd rather be writing also. Going to do some looking about for advertising…some exposure at not to high of price 😉 Thanks for sharing…gave me something to hope for instead of badgering my friends all the time, lol

  8. I think you're right about tags. When I first published my own book, I joined a bunch of different tag-exchange threads all over the place and I learned two things: approximately one half of people won't reciprocate—they take the tags but don't tag back—and the other thing I learned is that despite around two hundred tags in each of my main categories (a number that means I tagged around 400 books, which is a large investment of time in itself), I still don't sell any more or any less. I don't think the vast majority of Amazon customers use tags as a search method.

    I really dislike the promo, too.

    Oh, one last quick thought: the greatest advantage of the social media approach is already staring us in the face, whether it's increased sales or not: the social aspect itself. Friendships forged in a common pursuit. That at least, to ironically paraphrase a large credit card company, is priceless.

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  10. I hate promo, too. Although I engage in all the unsavory practices you mention. I try to push other people's books along with my own and that makes me feel less sleazy. Honestly, I find that the more erratic my behavior is the more books I sell, so I am concentrating now on just losing my freaking mind for the entertainment of the masses and hope it converts to sales.

    I also find flogging my books much more pleasurable if I wear my vinyl maid's costume. Ball gag, of course.

    Flog on gentle soldier. You are a gentleman and I am a whore and someday we will remake a literary Pretty Woman together.

    1. Dammit, Mader, I was trying to keep it all classy and thoughtful up there and you just made me snort basmati rice into a sinus and I can't get it out.

  11. I still don't have a good handle on tags and key-words. But what you say rings true for me as well. If it were not for the banter in this group things could get VERY depressing. I just hope I get enough books out thee before I kick the bucket to begin to get noticed. There are disadvatnages to being a late (very late) bloomer.

    1. Yvonne, you have a lot longer as a "late bloomer" than I do. You are younger than me by quite a few years and you already have books out there. I have none yet, though am getting close to having one. I'll probably kick the bucket long before you. Although, come to think of it, my genes indicate I may live for a long time. My mother lived to 97, my grandparents on my dad's side to 89, my dad's brother 96. So who knows, I might just have another 30 years to get a dozen or more books out there. 🙂

  12. Good stuff, Ed. It's interesting how things work out differently for each author. I suppose all we can do is try. I don't like the idea of promotion either but I know it is essential. I haven't got far enough to do any yet, but hope I'm building some sort of reputation online and hope it's a good one. Then when I do get some books out there I'll really have to start pushing. I have some ideas for one book that wouldn't necessarily work for others simply because of the genre. I guess we have to be creative in writing, then creative in promoting. Do we ever get time to refill our creative wells?

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