Selling Yourself

Quentin BatesGuest Post
by Quentin Bates

How do you sell a book in the digital era? It’s a fraught question and if I had a sure-fire formula for authors to sell successfully, then I’d make a lot more marketing that than writing books of my own.

I came to this down the traditional route, via an agent (a small, energetic one) and a traditional publisher – until its recent takeover, one of the last of the old-school independent publishers with a long history. In fact, I can be proud of sharing a publisher with Bram Stoker, although he probably shifted a great many more books than I ever will.

These days times are harder than they were not all than many years ago. Publishers will do publicity to an extent, especially for a first novel, but after that the focus changes and writers are very much out on their own, unless that first novel turns out to be a runaway success. It’s rare, but it does happen.

So what options are there? The obvious one is the internet, that sprawling virtual world that provides so many opportunities and so many pitfalls. One of the unknown factors is being unable to quantify how useful online efforts really are. I have the usual presences, Twitter, Goodreads, Facebook, a (sadly neglected) blog of my own and a regular spot on a respected blog shared with several other authors.

I’ve written around a thousand words a week for the Reality Check for the last few years, a volume of words that probably equated roughly to a full-length novel, and I have no idea how useful that, or any of the other online activities, have been in promoting the books I write. Presumably there are a few sales that come from people who have seen me pontificating on the internet somewhere – and I have to admit that I write the Reality Check stuff primarily because I enjoy it rather than for any other reason.

It’s practically impossible to tell how useful any of the Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads, etc, presences are in terms of sales. I doubt that these do any harm, but I do frequently wonder if it might be more productive to simply shut off the internet and devote the time to something that may or may not be more productive – like writing another book. There’s no denying that maintaining an online presence is time-consuming, and I’m nowhere near as diligent at this as some. It’s also certain that it’s not something that can be neglected. Your followers rapidly start to fade away if you only show up sporadically.

Then there are the events.These can be hard work and every author has tales of driving three hours each way to turn up at a library somewhere and speak to three ladies and a small dog, two of whom were probably expecting someone completely different. My best one was a two hour journey to a library event where the staff outnumbered those attending by two to one. I’m dubious about doing these now, and unless I’m fairly sure there’ll be a decent showing, I prefer not to do them – preferably sticking to the ones where there’s a more eminent writer than I am as a bigger draw.

What does pay dividends is specific genre events. Panels and readings make a difference, especially if you enter into the spirit of the thing at events that aren’t necessarily commercial and offer to chair panels. I write a particular brand of crime fiction, so I do crime fiction events when they’re available and go out of my way to make myself available, as these provide a clear opportunity to reach precisely the right people.

In fact, interacting with readers is probably the single most effective approach I have been able to use so far and had a wonderful experience with (similar to Goodreads) when one of my books appeared in German. The organisers set up a forum that was hugely rewarding with a couple of dozen readers taking part over several weeks.

But my gut feeling is that quality publicity costs money. I know it hurts to say it, but in the overcrowded marketplace that is Twitter, Facebook, et al, a superhuman effort is now needed to be heard above the clamour. So this time, for the first time, I’m using a PR outfit to reach beyond the relatively small circle where my stuff is already known. It’s daunting. Will it work? I hope so – watch this space.

The old adage that the cream always rises to the top no longer applies, largely because there is just so much good writing out there that there isn’t room at the top. Many outstanding writers fall by the wayside because they can’t make themselves heard – so you have to shout and find a way to shout louder than everyone else.

Quentin Bates fell into journalism largely by accident after a career as a factory hand, netmaker, trawlerman, truck driver and (mercifully briefly) teaching. Having long held the opinion that writing fiction was a complete mug’s game, there was nothing for it but to give it a try. His novels are Frozen Out (US title: Frozen Assets), Cold Comfort and Chilled to the Bone, kindle-only novels are Winterlude and the recently published Cold Steal, as well as a translation of Gudlaugur Arason’s Bowline. You can learn more about Quentin on his website and at his Author Central page.


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19 thoughts on “Selling Yourself”

  1. Thanks, Quentin, for your words. What can we add to that? The slush pile is made of rotten cadavers that fill all the spaces and gaps from the bottom to the surface. It is no matter question of floating to the top, but of digging one’s way up through corpses using teeth and nails.

  2. I tend to agree that at some point publicity costs money (not always a very popular view!). I think we have to be really careful how, how much, and where we spend money, but I see writing and publishing as a small business, and it’s difficult (if not impossible) for any small business to succeed without putting money into it.

    1. We can easily spend more on one blog tour or one news release than our book is likely to make. It’s necessary, but very risky unless one has funds s/he can afford to lose. Long term, though, we hope for saturation and platform building over time.

      1. We definitely have to be careful and do research before spending. My personal measuring stick is that I won’t spend more per month than I reasonably believe I can earn back. I also check Alexa rank, discussion threads, and writer groups (among other things) before signing up for any paid promotion. Too often I’ve seen writers spend money to sign up for a promotional package for a site that has an Alexa rank of several million (a waste of money, because obviously no one is visiting that site).

      2. Malcolm,

        I think the key thing is, before you spend money, figure out if it’s something you can do yourself. Writing a press release is something you can do yourself. Setting up a blog tour is something you can do yourself. It’s going to take you more time to set it up yourself because of the learning curve and lack of established relationships with blogs, but it’s certainly doable when you have more time to spend than money.

        Like Melinda said, the key is to look at the value of anything before putting money into it. If you’re considering advertising on a website, check it’s Alexa ranking, and also click on the books that are advertised on the site. What’s their Amazon ranking? Decent, or 500,000+. If all the books the site is advertising are ranked poorly after the ad, you may not want to use that site. Some people are about exposure, others about dollars and cents ROI, and I think you have to ask yourself what you want and evaluate what sites/use of money will help you get that.

  3. Your comment that interacting with readers seems to work best fits with my experience, too. Perhaps that’s why I sell more paper books than e-books. It’s face to face.

  4. Quentin, I agree with you — you’ve got to spend some cash for promotion. The problem is figuring out where to spend the money so you get the biggest bang for your buck.

    I’m with you on personal appearances. I rarely do them — largely because I assume I’ll get the two-old-ladies-and-a-dog kind of crowd more often than not. 😀

  5. You’ve addressed the one aspect of a writer’s life that’s even harder than writing the book in the first place – selling it after it’s written. Marketing will always be a challenge, but if we want to be read widely, it’s a necessary evil.

  6. Some indie authors manage to come up with great sales using a variety of content-rich blogs, tweets, giveaways, blog tours, FB updates, etc. Yet, those who are making noticeable money are few and far between. Most of the books most of us hear about and read still come, I think, from traditional publishing. It’s hard to compete with the PR departments of publishers who still think promotion at Kirus, PW, the NYT and other influential outlets is important. I hope your experiment with the PR firm works.

  7. Thank you, Quentin, for the article. I have also contemplated hiring a PR firm to help me promote, but so far I haven’t gotten past he contemplation. I’m wondering if they have told you what they will do for you? Will they do things that you could already do, freeing you up to write instead of promote, or do they do things beyond the ken of mortals like ourselves?

  8. Great post, Quentin. It’s important to put yourself out there, but sometimes authors need to spend cash, too. It’s a fine balancing line, and I think it’s important to know when you’ve reached the limit of what you can achieve on your own and when you need additional help.

    Please let us know how your experiment with the PR firm goes. I think Shawn asked some great questions above.

  9. Good post. Keep us updated on your results. Marketing for authors is a nightmare. I saw another book being advertised on TV! I can’t compete with that advertising budget and hope it doesn’t become the norm. Best of luck.

  10. A good publicist is invaluable. When you think what you spend on editing, cover work etc. you owe it to yourself to invest in your brand. There are publicists out there that are reasonable, the trick getting one without too many clients and to be sure they are in your media. I plan on using the same approach in the near future. I agree we still need to social network, however I also believe it has seen its day.

    Thank you for your post, and the best of luck.

    1. I agree. I think there was a time that Facebooking, blogging, tweeting, etc. could be highly effective (it was, to an extent, with my first book). But I think it would be incredibly hard to stand out in any of those ways now as an individual author simply because of the numbers. Some people manage to do it, but I never could.

  11. Thanks Quentin. You confirmed many of the things I’ve been thinking. Personally I have neither the time nor the inclination to compete with the clamorous throng. I have a full-time career I love, two renovation projects on the go, etc. etc. So I’m coming to terms with the fact that my writing will be what it has always been before publication – a hobby. A serious one, but a hobby nonetheless.

    Personally I don’t mind the “three ladies and a small dog” scenario. I rather enjoy the intimate, personal interaction. I’d wager it has more lasting impact that many of the hours I’ve spent on the internet.

  12. Thank you for posting this. I agree, there has to be some money going out on marketing. I have just now set up a spot on an audiobook radio show. The marketing cost was very reasonable, which was the only way I could do it. There are no secrets, as some things that work for some authors do not always work for another. We just need to find what works best for each. I will be watching your posts. There is a lot of great information in them.

  13. Thoroughly enjoyed your post, Quentin. I have to confess that hiring a publicist got me media exposure, interest from magazines and started the ball rolling for me as a writer. (If you’d like to know more about my experiences with PR companies please don’t hesitate to contact me.)

  14. Wow… far more comments than I expected! Carole, yes, I’d be interested to know how you got on with PR companies.
    My own PR experiment appears to have underway fairly gradually with a few results so far but no fireworks yet.
    Of course, I could have written my own press release easily enough as I have a day job as a journalist but I had a couple of reasons for going to someone else for this. Firstly, I don’t know the books business well enough, as I work in a very different field, and wanted someone with a little specialist knowledge. The other reason is that it makes a difference where a press release comes from. I receive dozens every week and have to admit that more than half of them are deleted unread – probably more on a really busy day. So I figured that the name of a PR outfit known in the media world would work in my favour.
    That’s the theory, anyway. Hoping it works out…

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