Tuesday, May 15, 2007

More on Self-Promotion, Some Numbers

I'm unconvinced that anything besides writing more and better books has much of significant impact on career/sales, and the more I learn about the business, the more that I feel that way.

Self-promotion can have a sales spike effect. Of that I have no doubt. But how big a spike? And how important is that spike in relation to the kinds of numbers involved in a successful book or, more importantly, a successful career? Take my first book. In the first six months I sold an average of 75 copies* a day every day. That earned out my advance plus ten percent.

This is fabulous and I'm delighted. But in order to have any real impact on sales (the kind of impact that would really change advances or earnings) I'd need to find something that would improve that by a minimum of something like ten books per day every day for a similar period. To have a career that will allow me to survive without a second job (which most writers have) or a spouse who is the primary source of income and insurance (my case) I would need to sell at least 150 books a day every day for the rest of my life +inflation. To make a decent living I'd need to make that something more like 300 books a day. To crack six figures it'd have to be ~800 books a day.

I would love to believe that I could come up with a self-promotional effort that would have a several hundred books per day kind of impact on my sales and that wouldn't eat up so much time that it would counterproductive in terms of producing the next book (or preferably the next several books).

However, I'm pretty sure that if I take the same amount of effort that kind of promotion-driven sales bump would require and apply it to writing, I can produce a complete extra book (or even two). Given that the best promotion that I know of is to have another book come out, one that's as good or better than the last one, that seems like a simple bet. Especially when you consider that in addition to a new book's impact on backlist a new book generates its own sales to add to that per day number, and it will hopefully help me build a personal brand as a fast reliable author (both with publishers and readers).

So currently that's where I'm focusing my main effort--writing spec books in the gaps between contract books. Will it work better than all the other self-promo stuff? I don't know for sure, but I personally find writing more books both more rewarding and more quantifiable than any other promotional effort I could engage in--I love writing, that's why I do this.

Of course, that's not going to be everybody's answer and I completely respect people who've chosen to do more self-promotion than I have, but it's just not my thing.

Thoughts? Comments? Questions?


*all numbers in this post are for mass market paperbacks.


lydamorehouse said...

So currently that's where I'm focusing my main effort--writing spec books in the gaps between contract books. Will it work better than all the other self-promo stuff?

I think that'll work just dandy as long as you can continue to find markets willing to buy novels by you.

However, one of the reasons I engage in various kinds of self-promotion is because it is my belief that publishers are more than happy to cut an author loose based on their numbers. If you've got seventy books stockpiled, I don't know if it will make much of a difference if no editor will touch you (psuedonymously or not) because your sales figures suck and follow you wherever you go.

I say this keeping in mind that for most authors their psuedonym is at MOST only a secret between themselves and their readers, NOT between themselves and their editors/publishers.

Kelly McCullough said...


That assumes that the other self-promotional stuff has enough of an impact to really matter to sales. I don't believe that it does, not with the kind of numbers necessary to make a successful book.

Let's say I go to a con and make a fantastic impression and sell an extra hundred novels (a huge number to expect from something like that) and then I have a book signing which sells 20 books I wouldn't have otherwise (again a large number given the situation) and then I do a newspaper interview and sell a fabulous 180 books based on how well I do. And let's be honest and admit those are all pretty optimistic numbers.

If I do all that, it still only represents 300 books sold, or four days of my average sales over that first six months for my first small print run novel. That's litterally a drop in the bucket. It's cool and it makes something like $135.00 but it's at best a percent and a half on even my relatively tiny initial print run.

lydamorehouse said...

I'm not disagreeing with you at all. I'm just saying that there may be NOTHING we can do -- not even writing more and better books -- to escape bad numbers, should they befall us.

Kelly McCullough said...

Okay, there I agree with you completely. The book biz really is mostly a lottery with a very high entry fee--writing a book being a whole lot more expensive than a plain old ticket--and all of us who are playing it are at least a little bit crazy.

Maybe the best way to talk about this is to say that the way that works best for me to retain what sanity I can is to write more, better, and faster and in more genres. Your methods are going to be different and clearly they work for you or you wouldn't still be here with seven books in print to date.

And we'll probably never know which way works better because even if we both stay in the business for the next forty years and end up with wildly divergent careers, trying to trace that back to approach is going to be nothing but guess work.

It's crazy-making.

Shauna Roberts said...

I'm willing to buy a book based on the cover and back cover blurb, even if I've never heard of the author. But I get the impression many people are unwilling to shell out $7.99 (softcover) or $25 (hardcover) for a book by an author they have never heard of.

There's no way to prove it, of course, but I would guess that to the extent promotion makes an author's name familiar to potential readers, it makes those people much more likely to consider buying that book or future books.

Muneraven said...

I personally don't think postcards and pens and stickers and other author-related doo-dads sell many books (thought they CAN remind those who care that you have a book coming out soon).

I also don't think readings and signings and con appearances sell a LOT of books directly.

However, those personal appearances can eventually create fans (providing the author is not a social disaster). And I think FANS sell a fair amount of books for writers. The word of mouth thing among readers is huge.

SO I think you promote yourself and your work to get fans. Fans sell your books. There are other ways to sell books (like being an amazing writer, lol) but having a healthy fan base shouldn't be ignored. IMHO.

Kelly Swails said...

The word-of-mouth aspect can not be ignored. You can self-promote yourself until you're blue in the face but it won't do you much good unless strangers meet you and like you enough to buy your book or at least talk about it with other people. And having a back-list is crucial. Lots of folks (myself included) when trolling a bookstore, looking for a new author to read, won't buy one book unless there's two or three others by the same author on the shelf.

Here I will stop before I depress myself.

lydamorehouse said...

The backlist issue makes me crazy, given that my backlist is out of print -- and was IN THE MIDDLE OF THE SERIES. Talk about crazy making... when Fallen Host made it on the Nebula Preliminary ballot the publisher made the decision to remaindrer it... with two more books under contract.

'Splain that logic...


Anonymous said...

The day job is going to wonder why I run up and hug it tomorrow.


Erik Buchanan said...

All I've been reading about self promotion relates to building word of mouth.

The idea is to get your book out to people who talk to lots of people, and let them spread the word of mouth for you, because nothing else sells books the way that does.

Of course, reaching these people is a whole other challenge.

I'll test drive it when the beast hits the shelves (Small Magics, June 15, 2007 - promote, promote) and see how well it works.

Kelly McCullough said...


Yes, I agree with you and Kelly X, and Erik, that word of mouth is huge, and I do go to cons and the like (more because I enjoy it than because I believe it'll really help). Shauna makes an excellent point about name recognition too.

The problem, and the reason I don't really do any promotional stuff that I wouldn't enjoy whether it helped the book or not, is that for a new writer that word of mouth needs to happen simultaneouly all over the U.S. (or whatever market) and it has to happen within about three weeks of launch.

And that's because if the book doesn't sell briskly from the get-go it gets taken off the shelves at about three months and that decision is made pretty much within the first month of sales.

Because WebMage sold very well in that initial window it's still sitting around in an awful lot of big chains waiting for more people to find it (the sales were good enough to prevent that). But even so, it's not being restocked by about half those chains because at 9 months it's old.

I suspect that there was a window around the end of the 80s when self-promotion could make a huge difference in long term career prospects, but the book business has changed radically since then in a way that (imo) serves to make self-promotion less and less relevant.

lydamorehouse said...

But isn't all the stuff you just discussed (short shelf life, etc.) all the more reason to try to find self-promotion things that do work?

I'm just as unconvinced as you, really, though I tend to try (and continue to try) a lot more things, but when I look at people like John Scalzi who seems to have become largely successful by virtue of having name recognition through his blog well before his book came out.

Kelly McCullough said...

Short shelf life means that most self-promotion doesn't happen fast enough to do you any good, again imo. And Scalzi's a special case, just like Doctorow. They both had huge megaphones from the get go and a special sort of highly directed personal fame. Being famous has always been a way of selling books and always will be. However, becoming famous is also at least as hard as writing books and an entirely different skill set.

Kelly McCullough said...

Oh, and if I could find a self-promotion tool that I believed worked I'd be all over it. My contention has never been that successful self-promotion is bad. It's that the vast majority of self-promotion isn't successful and that the effort spent on it would be better spent elsewhere.