Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Self Promotion and Lyda's Question

In her post below Lyda poses the question:

But it does seem to work for some people on some level, and I always end up wondering by what magic is that done?

I think it's pretty straightforward actually, and it all comes down to that word seem. Here's how I think it works (all numbers made up).

If fifty percent of all authors do self-promotion, and a random six percent of all authors cross over into best-sellerdom than three percent of authors who do lots of self-promotion are going to cross over into best-sellerdom purely by chance. Then, at least some of those authors are going to figure that it was self-promotion which made the difference whether it had anything to do with it or not.

Likewise, if you're watching from the outside, you might think the only thing that differentiates them from the herd is that self-promotion, and then leap to the same conclusion. For that matter, I will even concede that some particularly clever bit of self-promotion that hasn't already been done a bunch of times might catch the mood and go viral, but I think that's as much a form of luck as having the book do the same thing.

Great books with tons of self-promotion die. Barely adequate books that get very little push become best sellers. Most of the difference there is luck in hitting the right literary kink for the moment.

We want the industry to make sense, so we tell ourselves stories--we're authors, telling stories is what we do. That book did so well because the author came up with the really awesome book trailer. That one did poorly because the cover sucked. This one over here is a best-seller simply because it's that good.

But the truth is, nobody knows what's going to make a book take off. If there was a real answer, there's be a publisher somewhere that didn't sell anything but best sellers.


lydamorehouse said...

I might even agree with this post, Kelly, except advertising works. Companies spend billions of dollars on various ways to get people to buy products. It's not JUST luck.

Kelly McCullough said...

Well, we know that some percentage of advertising works for some products, most notably easily identifiable brands of consumer products. But if you talk to people who work in advertising many of them will tell you that they don't know what percentage of advertising works, nor which percentage it is. So for every hundred buck spent on advertising 10 dollars might actually be doing something, but the don't know which ten percent.

Further, we know that the book business doesn't work like the commodities business, which is why publishers often run into trouble with accountants who come from other industries. So even if half of all advertising works for commodities we don't have a model for how to translate that the to the book business, or if it is translatable to the book business, or (assuming it is translatable) whether it's cost effective. If you have to spend dollars on ads for every dollar you earn then it's not effective.

Kelly McCullough said...

Also, there are huge difference between what can be managed with self-promotion and what a major publisher can do. I know I don't have a 100k ad budget.

lydamorehouse said...

This is where our argument always deteroates because I can think of any number of books that I bought because of a well placed ad.

I picked up the first of Rachel Caine's Weather Warden series because I kept seeing ads for it in LOCUS, Publisher's Weekly, and Romantic Times. By the time I picked it up at Uncle's, I really felt like I WANTED it, you know?

Kelly McCullough said...

But that's not "self-promotion" which is what I thought we were talking about. That's your publisher dropping tens of thousands of dollars on multiple print ads. Unless you're thinking that one can do that for oneself, I'm not sure how it's relevant to a discussion of self-promotion.

For that matter, I can also point to any number of ads that have made me want to go see a big budget movie that then tanked and lost the studio a hundred million dollars after dropping tens of millions on advertising. Sure, that ad worked for me, but clearly the ad campaign didn't work for the movie or it wouldn't have crashed and burned. Some ads work sometimes, and nobody knows which are going to do it. Which is why I keep coming back to luck.

Honestly, I think that the number one thing that advertising sells is the idea that advertising works. Any product it happens to move is secondary to the goal of making sure that people keep paying the ad firms big money to do something.

tate hallaway said...

Well, you might be right about the idea that adversting has convinced me that advertising works. I can see that.

It's very prevalient, though, isn't it? I can't shake the idea that there's some magic pill out there that will boost the signal in some important way.

Anonymous said...

The only thing I can think of is the handshake method--the one where you spend years of your time getting to know the people who are at the informational cross-roads--so that when you r book comes out, they want to promote it for you.

I think, more and more in today's jaded society, any extended self-promotion--aside from a simple "I have a new book coming out, so if your a fan of X genre, check it out!"--falls flatter, and looks more desperate, than doing none at all. I've been at those book signings and readings where the crickets don't even show up. It's enough of an industry trope that it's even skewered in "This is Spinal Tap."

I think if you want to do events because they are light and fun and help you enjoy the process of writing and publishing, then that's the reason to do them. I think successful self-promotion is the rare exception to the rule.

Jon said...

You know what works the most for me these days? Reviews on liked minded websites. Scalzi, Io9, etc... This is what brings the books to my attention these days. I can't remember the last time a bookmark or print ad or an Amazon recommendation did that for me.

On the other hand, I haven't bought a single book because of a book trailers.