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Authorpreneurship 101: Shameless Self-Promotion vs. Shameful Self-Promotion

| Posted in Book Marketing |

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As I’ve mentioned before, selling your first 1,000 books or so is excruciating (unless you’re one of those rare authors who love marketing and think nothing of carrying a crate of your books around in the trunk of your car, so you can foist them upon unsuspecting people at malls and grocery stores). After you sell a thousand, things get a little easier, especially at Amazon where algorithms designed to promote books that are proven sellers kick in. Until then… it’s a hustle.

As an author today, you have to be willing to self-promote if you want to sell books. That’s just the way it is. And, as with most things, there are good ways to go about it and bad ways, or, as I’m calling them shameless ways and shameful ways. The former can earn you new readers and the respect of your peers. The latter…

Unfortunately, there’s a lot of shameful self-promotion going on these days, and these methods can not only hurt your prospects of selling books, but they can also leave bad tastes in people’s mouths. Self-published authors, in particular, seem to be big offenders.

Note: traditionally published authors can be just as guilty of shameful self-promotion, but I believe the real-time sales reporting we indies have access to through CreateSpace, Amazon, B&N, and others makes us a little crazier. We can see exactly how well our book is selling (or isn’t), whereas traditionally published authors can only guess based on sales ranking, so it’s not until they get their royalty statements many months later that they know how well their book did (or didn’t).

So, what are examples of shameful self-promotion? Here are some that I see (trust me, as a blogger and active Twitter person, I probably get more of this than the average reader):

  • Emailing people who didn’t opt into a newsletter signup on your site or who didn’t otherwise ask to be kept abreast of your releases. Most of the buy-my-book email spam (yes, I’m going to call it that) I’ve received violates the CAN-SPAM Act. While it’s unlikely that there will be legal repercussions, if enough people complain to your internet service provider, you could find yourself with a disabled email account. Regardless, people loathe email spam (oddly, we get more ticked off about this than we do about junk mail in our physical boxes), and you won’t sell any books this way.
  • Leaving blatant plugs for your book in people’s blog comments. It is possible to leave comments as a way of getting your name out there and, maybe, enticing people back to your site, but you need to add some value to the topic being discussed and find a subtle way to mention your book (if you mention it at all — leaving an awesome comment and simply working in the fact that you’re an author may entice folks to click).
  • Leaving blatant plugs for your book on other authors’ Facebook pages. This is rude and likely to irk the author, someone who’s already gone through all the hard work of selling those first books and building up a fan base. Said author might actually be in a position to help you in a way that would be far superior to your spammy link, but you’d have to earn her respect first (more on that further down).
  • Sending people direct messages (ie. check out my site/check out my book) on Twitter. Some people are easy-going on Twitter and they’re open to following people who follow them. But a follow isn’t an invitation to try to sell junk to them. They’re opening the door when you ring the bell, and if you stuff a flyer in their face, they’ll probably slam it shut (and let the pitbulls loose). Instead, if someone opens the door, strike up a conversation. Don’t ask for anything, at least not until you’ve given them something (retweets or plugs for their blog posts/books, for example). Even then, I’d be careful about asking. There are a lot of magnanimous folks out there, but they want to be magnanimous based on their own whims, not because they feel socially obligated.
  • Joining forums just to promote your book. Over at the Amazon forums, there are a lot of people who will tell you how much they loathe self-published authors, because they’ve had to scroll through so many self-serving plugs (now, the forums are highly monitored, and posts get deleted anyway). If you’re genuinely interested in becoming a helpful part of a community, then, by all means, join a forum (many of them allow signatures with links to your site or your books), but don’t expect to get anything out if it if your only goal is to sell books.
  • Asking other authors to read/review your book, especially if this is your first contact with that author. Your first contact with anybody shouldn’t be a request for a favor. If an author’s popular enough to have attracted your attention, assume that they receive quite a bit of email, including requests for favors from new authors. They’re also busy writing the next book to keep their fans happy. If you establish an online relationship with the author first, again doing favors for them before thinking of asking anything in return, he or she may be willing to help you down the line, but I still wouldn’t ask them to read your book. I know you think your book is brilliant, but chances are said author is just going to see it as a 10-hour (or however long it would take to read the book) burden on their precious time.
  • Inventing schemes that are ultimately designed to pressure or trick someone into trying your book. As an example, one fellow on the Kindleboards mentioned that he’d been trying to get a national newspaper to review his book, so he asked his friends to email an editor there, recommending that the paper cover the book. The author eventually received an email back from the editor to the tune of, “Tell your people to quit spamming me.” The author had good intentions and didn’t see his efforts as spam, but now he’s likely blackballed at that paper and will never get a review. Worse, editors talk to other editors, and it’s a smaller industry than you’d think. You don’t want to become known that way.

Okay, so if all these tactics are off the books, what’s allowed? What’s considered shameless self-promotion?

The term for what’s effective (and unlikely to earn you enemies) in the 21st Century is permission-based marketing.

You can promote all you want… to people who have raised their hands and said they want to hear your message. These are your blog readers, your Twitter followers, your Facebook fans, your newsletter subscribers, and the people holding a copy of your book right now. You still won’t want to bludgeon them with marketing messages every day, but they’ve come to you, so you know they’re interested in your work.

How do you get these people to come to your site, your social media pages, and to sign up for your newsletter? Here are some things I’ve done as an author:

  • Plug your sites and your newsletter at the end of your books (with ebooks and e-readers, in particular, people can finish the story, click the link, and open up a web page right from the comfort of their chosen reading spot). Make sure to answer the what’s-in-it-for-them question (i.e. freebies? cut scenes? character interviews?). No, this doesn’t sell the original book, but it builds and perpetuates your brand. Let me say that again, because it’s important. This is how, as an author of fiction, you build your platform. People will not become fans until they’ve read at least one of your stories from start to finish, so it’s utterly worthless to try to get them to sign up for anything until that has happened.
  • Give away a free ebook (I started with a short story) to get the ball rolling — People who won’t drop $5 or even $0.99 to try an unknown, untrusted author, will say, “What the heck? It’s free” and download a freebie that sounds promising. If they make it to the end, that’s when you give them your marketing message (as detailed above). Ideally, you have non-free books for them to go on and try, but if you get them on your mailing list or to subscribe to your blog/feed, that’s a good start as well. Then, when you release the next book, you’ll have fans ready to go out and buy it.
  • Get to know the “connectors” in your niche. These are people who, be they authors or bloggers or social butterflies, have the power to reach a lot of people with their message. If they recommend your book, or perhaps a helpful blog post you’ve written, you’ll get a noticeable amount of attention, far more than you would if Joe Schmoe recommends you (not that we don’t like the Joe Schmoes, too, but the connectors are the ones who can make your career). Do not, as we discussed above, pop out of the blue and ask for a favor from these people. You have to court them. Bring them flowers (leave helpful comments on their blogs), bring them chocolates (retweet their posts on Twitter), and compliment their hygiene (mention them and link to them from your blog), thus to develop a relationship, or at least distinguish yourself from other suitors, before asking for a favor, preferably a both-parties-win favor (i.e. offer to give them a day off blogging by writing up a helpful guest post for their site). You might not even have to ask for a favor. If you’re publishing good content on your blog, they might simply link to you of their own accord.

Not only are these shameless methods of self-promotion going to give you better results than the shameful methods, but, by employing them, you’ll be building your platform and establishing your forever-and-ever brand, not simply selling books.

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Comments (38)

Excellent post. I think it is amazing how much damage an author can do to themselves if they go the shameful route. I also think it is amazing that so many authors think that endless promotion is what will sell their work. Some is good, but in the end, it is really quality and word of mouth from unsolicited readers. I will never forget the first time one of my works made it onto the top 100 paid lists on Amazon. I put up a note on Facebook about it while at the library and got slammed with messages from authors asking what promotion strategy I used to get my book ranked like that. Most then told me I was lying when I let them know that I didn’t even have a web connection to my apartment and therefore didn’t really do much beyond sending out review copies to websites and blogs that had asked to review my work. It really caught me off guard.

“I put up a note on Facebook about it while at the library and got slammed with messages from authors asking what promotion strategy I used to get my book ranked like that.”

I’ve seen that on the Kindleboards, too, William! Hey, congratulations on your success, and what did you do so I can do it too??? ;)

Haha, I wish I knew because my sales took a nosedive after that and still haven’t recovered yet. One of my books went from being the number 2 horror and thriller title in the UK in March and April to only selling around twenty copies total in the last three months over there. This is why I always tell new authors that all they really have control over is the amount of writing they do. Everything else is a crapshoot. There are little things one can do to maybe get their work some attention, but overall it is pretty much out of their hands.

I also tell them to follow your blog and read it regularly, because it is full of great information and always inspiring :)

Thanks for plugging the site, William!

I’ve had a couple of the shameful ones. Probably everyone has. I ignore them and they go away.

My biggest peeve are the auto-DMs after you follow someone: “Thanks for the follow. Hey, here’s where you can buy XYZ!” That usually earns a quick unfollow. I’m on Twitter for the community…I don’t mind some marketing, but let me get to know you as a person, too…

Agreed. :)

I know. I don’t usually unfollow folks for promoting, but I certainly ignore those links.

Yeah, I’ve had COMPLETE strangers ask me to blurb their books–and in the request assure me that I don’t even have to read it first! Wow, that really makes you sound ethical!

Well, you know, if you actually read it, you might not have anything nice to say about it… ;)

I’m trying the “give away a free short story” thing for the first time this month. Up to now, I didn’t have enough of a body of work to make it feasable. I never would have thought of doing that if it weren’t for your blog post about it awhile back, so thanks for that!

Good luck, Margaret! My free short story didn’t turn me into a bestseller, but it was when I first started seeing regular sales (more than one a day! :P) at Barnes & Noble, in particular.

I like your social butterfly comment, I think I have gotten 12-15 people to read EE, including my book club. it helps that the book is free b/c it’s risk free for them. of those, 4 have gone on to read the rest of the series thus far that I know of and a few have also read the Flashgold series so maybe 20 books were/will be sold as a result of word of mouth.

Awesome, thank you, Sue!

It’s easier to, ahem, stalk the people with blogs and big online presences, but offline word-of-mouth can make a huge difference too. I still giggle about one lady who emailed me and said she was a hairdresser recommending the books to her clients, and that they’d read them if they knew what was good for them… *snip, snip* ;)

Great post–and for someone just dipper their toes into these waters, some excellent advice for me to keep in mind.
I echo the free book idea, too; I read Ice Cracker II just last Sunday, and became instantly invested in the characters. Now the rest of the series is on my reading list, and I’ve been telling others about EE. I plan to do the same thing when I finish my first collection of short stories.

Thanks for giving the adventures a read, James! Good luck with your own stories! :)

Fantastic post as always, Lindsay. I’m really not good at blowing my own trumpet which means that I don’t normally have to worry about ‘shameful’ promotion. However, it’s the shameless promotion that doesn’t come easy….it’s a work in progress ;)

It’s not in my nature either, Geoff. That’s why I like the stuff that’s sort of a, “Hey, if you liked the book, come sign up for my newsletter and say hi on Twitter, but, ya know, no pressure…” You’re mostly letting the story do the talking, but you’ve got the “call to action” at the end.

Great post. I’ve seen enough self-promoters tweets to know I’d never go that route. I think you & other commenters are right – word of mouth through others, figuring out how to get reviews without being pushy, and building connections.

Thanks for a lot of useful info. The prospect of self-promotion is daunting to some and pieces like this help a great deal.
Thank
Joe

Very interesting and useful post -your indepth writing on self-publishing is always my fav. I’m more of the hermit variety of writer and social media gives me hives.

It seems like you’re highly interactive on your author Facebook page. Would you say Facebook is a necessary evil for promotion? I’m still trying to reconcile and weed out my college internet persona – not sure if reactivating Facebook would help or hinder.

I was slow to jump on the Facebook bandwagon and create an author page, but, yes, I think it’s a good idea. You can interact with readers, and they can ask questions or comment with you and each other, and it’s all visible, so it helps build a sense of community.

I’m pretty sure the EE reader forum came out of some comments on my Facebook page. (I remember a couple of people asking about a forum, and then someone else made it happen.)

The ability for interaction seems to be key for Facebook. Not sure, about you, but I know writer do a lot of Facebook only polls and contests for their Facebook fans. Not that I have a fan-base to start worrying about, but I do worry about the potential of alienating the subset of readers that don’t have a Facebook – but I suppose that’s where the Goodreads author pages and websites pick up the slack.

I think the thing that I need, and I guess other authors, to keep in mind is that you can’t choose your fanbase.

To some extent you can narrow the age group and gender, but the desired arena for interaction at some point just isn’t up to you.

If the majority of your readers are on Facebook, which one would assume that most people under 25 are, then logic follows that you would have to maintain a presence on Facebook. You can’t depend on the idea that everyone is as paranoid and stubborn as you.

Thanks, been there, done that, but I feel your pain. Edward Smith.

VERY helpful pieces of advice, Lindsay! Thanks for providing clear cut examples of what to do and what NOT to do. :-)

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Great post, Lindsay.

The worst kind of promotion, to me, seems to be endless spamming of sales links on Twitter. On one hand, I feel frustrated for the spammers, as I want to reach out and tell them that they could genuinely earn a few more fans if they changed their methods somewhat. But mostly, they just annoy me.

Sharing useful links and building contacts is a much better form of ‘marketing’, I find. :)

Great post. Will RT.

How to be unfollowed, unfriended and unsubscribed: 1) Send “thanks” for a Twitter follow that says “Like my FB page and follow my blog for tips on how to become a published author” to somebody who’s been publishing for years. 2) Post ads for your books on my FB wall 3) Send me announcements of online book launches–in a genre I don’t read–and insist I RSVP.

Very good post. A lot of writers don’t understand the damage they can do if they promote poorly. Spamming comments or approaching people you don’t know is a quick was to destroy your career, because you’ll have no reputation beyond “spammer.”

I think it’s a simple matter of etiquette to ask before posting a plug in the comments. IMO, it should be done in a private email to a trusted source where the two of you have communicated before, not someone you picked up off a blogroll and thought, “Hey, they have a lot of followers.”

As to getting others to ask publications to plug your work, I’ve always thought I was the one supposed to ask the editor, not some surrogate, and certainly not through spam.

I don’t do anything by half. I pour my heart and soul into my writing journey of many years. I’ve studied it, made myself ill with it, working way too hard on it practically every minute of the day… and I’ve gotten quite good at it; I’ve attracted some pretty important people on occasion, respected international best selling authors finding me interesting, even, and it’s said that I have inimitable style, humour, those that I do manage, SOMEHOW, to get to read my work, enjoy it, and they retweet, whatever. But I’m no better in the digital world of social media than I ever was in the physical one; can’t even GIVE my stuff away for the most part. I am not a shameful promoter, I don’t even let family and friends review, for I’m too honest like that, don’t actually want that kind of help, need people to come by their own volition because they might think I have something of interest.

It’s simply common sense not to be shameful, as it is in life, but one wonders (sometimes) if taking that route would bring more success, unabashed as it is, but nonetheless not an option for me; completely outside of my realm.

These last nine months, I have spent studying the art of promoting and marketing myself online, something I hate to do, having to force myself. But, apparently, it’s necessary, and doing everything that I should be doing – ‘cept for posting all the silly status’ that I see other ‘more popular’ members of the so called ‘writing community’ that I’ve become a part of do – even if I do know the importance of putting up the odd entertaining unrelated to writing thing up, an interesting article, story, photos, whatever – most of which are passed around like a joint in a hippy commune when I do. But never anything to do with my work, no, that doesn’t even merit ONE engaged person on FB, none of them clicking the link to my blog or commenting on a new book cover design, or on an excerpt, not even clicking, the link for ‘more’ in the FB itself when it overspills the space right there in the status box (for we all have stats that tell us how unpopular we are). No, all I got in return for joining in the community is the odd interesting link to something, but mostly a barrage of fluff.

It doesn’t matter what I do though, it’s those that are constantly posting mildly amusing ridiculousness that seem to gather the most ‘followers’ and people willing to share their posts for them… from what I see anyway… and when they do post something about their work, getting all the likes in the world, all the shares, because that person had posted every little detail, every little feeling, from their daily lives and pictures of kitty cats in unusual positions, all of which somehow culminate to obligate or enamour people, making them feel they know that person. No, it simply boils down to popularity much of the time, yes, the ability to engage people with nonsense, seeming to be the key, from what I can tell.

I can put up the exact same message as many of them and won’t get one response out of hundreds of people that are supposed to be there helping each other – and yes, I do try, I try to be congenial, I do comment on people’s posts, on FB, have tried to write intelligent entertaining everyday blogs etc; but I don’t sound like them and I guess they see it, just like they always did in the real world. But it’s me, not them, I know, no amount of social media coaching can help me… I’m a freak… a hopeless case, a lone wolf, au contraire, piss elegant, strange, very very strange. No, I’ll just have to wait for someone important to tell them all that it’s me they’re going to like next, because that’s the nature of people; can’t make their own minds up, evidently. Yes, I need help I tells ya… help!

Funnily enough, today I have come across a number of blogs about despondency with using social media in general, people, like me, saying it does nothing for them, and I was glad to start seeing that kind of honesty at least; sick of everybody saying how successful they are at it when many aren’t at all. But all part of the game. No doubt it is a skill, and social networking a valuable tool, but like everything else a large part of it is completely and utterly fake – and so, in a way, I should be glad that I suck at it.

Forget it also, if you happen to go against any grain; strive to be original – that’s a big no-no; people really don’t seem to want to embrace anything outside of the latest trend, no, that will also put them off you. But again, it’s me, I tells ya, I’m a weirdo. Today, I offered a two part book on FB, looking for book bloggers to at least try and help, as I’ve seen others do, as I’ve seen others be responded to immediately about when they’ve done it. Do you think there are any takers for mine, any comment, any likes, any THING at all? Answers on an ecard please. No, I obviously suck at everything – either that or that vat of invisible ink I fell … okay… dived… into that one time as a child, really did work.

No, no one can ever mention my new book designs, nothing, no encouragement, critique, love or hate, because, simply, i don’t come on in the morning and talk about my crumbled muffin.

Phhh… off to jump out the window now… but it’s alright don’t worry; I live on the ground floor… and even if I didn’t, I don’t think I’d be missed by the online social community.

Plays sad trombone and exits – with a little harp play sneaking in there too, it has to be said, a little piano solo maybe, and finally a strum or two of a Spanish guitar to pluck the heartstrings. At least my dog likes me.

S P,

I feel for ya, I really do. I’ve been there, in the depths, and daily I fight to keep the shadows at bay. It might surprise you that most writers struggle with the same feelings of hopelessness, helplessness, worthlessness, and whatever other lessnesses you can think of. Yes, really. You are not alone in your despair, however special it makes you feel.

But…

Only you can solve your problems. Only you can decide to shut the demons back in their closet. Yes, therapy might help. It does help some people. But even a therapist can’t wave a magic wand and bring up sunshine and roses.

You have to decide whether to continue the mantra “I suck” or whether you’re ready to face the fact that life isn’t easy and you’re just going to have to deal with it. You are not as different as you think you are. You are not as worthless as you say you are. But if you’re going to accomplish anything, you have to stop wallowing in self-pity.

I know. You are me from a few years ago. It can be done, but only if you’re ready to change the way you see yourself and the world. I hope you will, because within your diatribe of self-loathing, I do see talent.

And you’re right. Your dog does like you.

Hi, thanks, my ‘self loathing’ comments here were actually tongue-in-cheek, the dry humour I have a tendency for, coming out late night. No, I’m actually a very positive person, just having a gripe here before bedtime at not being great at pushing myself on social media and trying to be funny with it – one thing I’ve never had the luxury of is self pity actually, neither could I go through life like that, an optimist even in the face of adversity. I know what I’m good at and what I’m not so good at… but yes I know that many writers have these same feelings; common, such at is, normal. Sometimes it’s good to just joke around with it though, I find, provides some release. I actually admire people who can be all bright and breezy on social media, sometimes wish I could be like that, but the one thing I DO know is that I’m USUALLY far too private, too honest, and therein I believe the REAL reason that I’m not all that great with it – despite the fact I’m an armchair psychologist! As far as the way I see the world, well, ain’t never gonna change, in fact, coincidentally I just did about a six page blog on that not so insignificant matter recently… introspective of an introvert… ‘Precipice of an alternate plane’ about what makes me the way I am. Anyway… thanks for your response… must get on with the bright sunny day out there and go smile at people! LOL. Thanks again. :D

Word of mouth is quite a powerful selling medium. Proof! I hear you shout. I have a cab collect me after my dialysis session and on this particular day, I jumped in beside the driver who was glued to a Kindle. ‘What are you reading’ I politely asked. ‘An adventure story a friend recommended,’ he replied. Finally we pulled away and headed for home. On the way, I asked him what the book was called. He had a job pronouncing the title, but the first syllable he uttered told me it was mine. As he dropped me off, I couldn’t resist saying. ‘By the way, driver…Know that book you were reading?…He nodded…’Well, I wrote it.’ You know that look you get when you tell someone the truth and they don’t believe you?

Lindsay,

Thanks for this very informative article. I realize that I’m coming rather late to the party, but I only just now discovered your article thanks to PG (the “Passive Guy”).

In my experience, making one’s work available for free through Amazon’s KDP Select program is probably the most effective way to self-promote. The number of books “sold” will spike over the period of one’s promotion, then just as suddenly cease and desist.

Unfortunately, the only thing one can do at that point is sit back and hope for a review or two.

Do reviews help? Anyone’s guess. I’ve now got 21 for my novel, Trompe-l’oeil. Are they helping to move the novel? Once again, anyone’s guess.

Your suggestion about joining one or several of Amazon’s forums is probably also accurate. However, I’ve always wondered how many of them contain little more than authors talking to other authors.

Thanks again, Lindsay.

Russell

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Great article, Lindsay. You’ve really concisely captured what authors into self-promotion need to hear most. Thanks for posting this…

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