How NOT to promote your self-published novel

Posted on April 11, 2012 (Subscribe to Blog)

I went along to a book signing at the local library yesterday and, as is usually the case with book signings, only sold a few. Was it worth it? Well, the alternative was not bothering at all, but then I would have sold none. Sometimes one sale, or even just a chat, will lead to more sales later, as was the case at another event a couple of years ago when I happened to pass a copy of Island of Fog to a representative of Barnes & Noble Booksellers, which led to my books being available on the shelves in the local store.

So yes, it was worth it – not for the individual sales themselves, but for the networking. But this got me thinking about how there's a fine line between networking and... well, wasting time. I actually enjoyed the visit to the library yesterday, and I was interviewed by a newspaper reporter, but I've been to book signings in the past that were literally a complete waste of time and, worse, aggravating. I once met an author so determined to sell his book that he came over and waved it in my face and told me – TOLD me – that I'd enjoy it, never mind the fact that it was a genre I have zero interest in. I can't imagine how many customers shuffled away with a copy of his book.

Anyway, all this got me thinking (again) about ways to promote my novels, and equally important, ways NOT to promote them:

Don't push too hard. If you're sitting at a table and a potential customer comes over, you can often get a sense of whether they want to talk to you about your books or just look for themselves. If you do end up talking to the customer, don't try and persuade him/her to buy a copy, and certainly don't be misleading about the content. If the customer likes romance, don't try and suggest your fantasy novel will be a good fit because it happens to contain a bit of romance as well. Don't try and sell the customer on a genre they aren't normally into. Selling books is nice, but what's even nicer is if the customer goes home, reads and enjoys the book, and recommends it to others. Most of the time you'll hear nothing back from the customer, but you never know – they could be blogging or facebooking or tweeting about your book; the question is, are they saying nice things about it? Or are they complaining about how you "pressured them into buying a piece of junk"? If you somehow mislead a murder-mystery reader into reading a horror novel on the basis that it contains romance, the reader might toss it aside and call it junk simply because it's in the wrong genre. It could be the best novel ever written, a literary masterpiece, but if a reader doesn't like fantasy then it's going to seem like junk – and the message others will hear is "this author writes junk." Gentle-selling to two avid fantasy fans is far better in the long run than force-selling to twenty vehement anti-fantasy readers.

Don't swap books with an author of another genre. When you share a book signing with other authors, the chances are they're selling something entirely different to your own unless the event is themed. You may be eager to put your book in their hands so they can promote it on their blog, but they're just as eager to put their book in yours. You both smile and say, "Sure, I'll read this and blog about it," but will you really? Will the other author? And if your books are in a different genre, what use would it be anyway? If your books and blog are all about fantasy, why would you suddenly promote a chick-lit romance on your blog? Would your fantasy readers be interested? No. So avoid the time it takes to "swap reviews" unless you're swapping with someone in the same genre and you're both genuinely interested in reading and promoting each other's books. Also, don't feel obliged to buy another author's book just because he bought yours.

Don't spend too much time selling to individuals. This is advice I need to heed myself. You might spend 5-10 minutes talking to someone about your book in the hope they'll be interested enough to buy it. And for what? One more notch on your sales records, and a few extra dollars? It seems crazy when you consider that the same amount of time could be spent preparing a media blast and sending it out to newspapers, or participating in a blog interview, therefore reaching hundreds or thousands of readers at once. I find it too easy to get sucked into one-on-one sales, and I forget the bigger picture. At the library yesterday, I was interviewed by the Walker County Messenger and was told an article would go out later this week. I'll keep my eyes peeled for it. I don't know how many sales I'll generate from that (if any at all), but it should in theory "reach the masses." Also, today I completed a 750-word article that will be going out on a "recommended reads" blog on April 13th. Now THAT's worth spending 30 minutes on.

Anyway, just a few thoughts. I'll post links to both above-mentioned articles when they become available.

Comment by SHANDA on Wednesday, April 11, 2012...

Good to see you yesterday! Great advice...and not just for selling books!

Comment by BRIAN CLOPPER on Thursday, April 12, 2012...

Great advice, Keith. One of my weak areas is in promoting my work. I'd rather be writing than doing the legwork and taxing social aspect that comes with it. I like talking to people, but it leaves my introverted self exhausted afterward. I'm much more charged by my time spent at the keyboard. It's a battle that I know has held me back in terms of where my books could be right now. I admire the ease at which you engage your reader both here and out in the real world. You exhibit winning qualities in those areas and that's why it's so easy to say that you're a safe bet in the world of becoming a full-blown success.

I read somewhere the years you spend to reach the top of your field equals the years of success in that field. Sure would be nice to see that payoff for the many deserving writers out there such as yourself and Roger.

Comment by ROGER ESCHBACHER on Friday, April 13, 2012...

Boy, I can relate to your signing experience, Keith. Back when my picture books were out, I had a few "0" sales appearances and lots of "under tens." I also agree that it was worth it for the chance to network with readers, booksellers, and other authors — regardless of the number of books sold.

Your other points are dead on, too, especially the recommendation to soft sell the book. Being friendly, informative, and non-pushy has always worked better for me. I can remember at least two signings where, frankly, I sold more books than the pushy picture book author sitting at the next table because (I believe) they were too aggressive in trying to wrangle shoppers over to their table. Low-key and approachable wins the race or something like that.

Thanks for the shout out, Brian!

Comment by KEITH ROBINSON on Friday, April 13, 2012...

Thanks, Shanda, Brian and Roger! I find the promotional side of things an uphill slog. I don't mind the work (as long as I have time!) but I find much of it kind of "false," especially forums, where it seems most authors kind of hang out and engage in conversations while gently plugging their books. A lot of these authors seem to do well, too, so obviously they're doing something right. But I find it hard to just show up and join in. It feels like I'm walking into a room where everyone knows each other and pretending to be interested in their conversations when all I really want to do is say, "Hey, look at MY book!"

On the other hand, I've genuinely got sucked into conversations, too. If people talk about punctuation or something, I'm in there. So I COULD soft-sell myself in that way, but it would take a LOT of time away from writing and other things. So it's hard to know what's best. Actually, I DO know — the best thing would be to earn enough money writing to give up work. Then I could spend all my time writing and promoting. That's the answer. Easy really, when you think about it. :-)

I promised to provide a link to a blog interview when it became available. Heather Sutherlin read Island of Fog and enjoyed it, and I love what she said in her Gotta Read Review. And you can read what I had to say on the Free Book Friday page. Thanks ever-so, Heather!

The article in the Walker County Messenger hasn't appeared yet; I'll keep looking out for it.

Comment by BRIAN CLOPPER on Saturday, April 14, 2012...

Wondering if you would do a post about the ins and outs of getting your books in the hands of those who review on GoodReads. I really don't know much about that site.

Comment by KEITH ROBINSON on Saturday, April 14, 2012...

Ha! Brian, if I knew the answer, I'd be sure to tell you. I do have reviews on GoodReads but it's taken ages to get them and I haven't really "done" anything except open an account and review a few novels. I'm guessing that one way of garnering reviews is to "do the rounds" — go find readers of your genre and "friend" them. The soft-sell, if you like. Whenever someone introduces themselves to me in this way, I normally look at their profile and if I see that they're an author as well, there's a good chance I'll be interested in delving deeper. The golden rule seems to be, "Don't ever be too pushy." If you introduce yourself with a bunch of links to your website, you'll probably be ignored. So just introduce yourself politely and let them find their way to you.

Of course, it would also be helpful to have a link to your GoodReads profile on your website. People might find you that too.

Comment by RALPH CORDEROY on Sunday, April 15, 2012...

How do you manage the quantity of books on display during the signing? Just set out some at the beginning and re-stock if sales go well? Not put out too many so it looks as if they're not selling? Quietly shuffle a few off the desk back into their box every hour to make it look like they are? :-)

Comment by KEITH ROBINSON on Sunday, April 15, 2012...

Good question, Ralph! I tend to not to worry about it; it's futile. In the early days I did wonder if it would look better to "look like books are flying out the door" and give the impression there's something "big" going on here and you'd better buy a copy quick. But that's not really how it goes. And what's to say I don't immediately replace a sold book with another just to keep the stacks looking nice? It's just not worth worrying about.

Comment by J.P. GRIDER on Thursday, September 6, 2012...

I sincerely enjoyed your post, as well as all these comments. I'm a self-published author looking for any advice I can get. So, thank you very much.

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