Thoughts on Self-Promotion

Writer BewarePosted by Victoria Strauss

As I close in on the end of my current writing project, the issue of self-promotion is much on my mind. I don’t mind admitting that it’s a prospect I contemplate with dread. I’m one of those I-just-want-to-sit-in-my-room-with-my-laptop writers who really is not constitutionally suited for a world in which the definition of “author” also includes “huckster” (or, if you want to be a bit more diplomatic about it, “entrepreneur”).

Nevertheless, self-promotion is a fact of life for today’s book writer, an issue that’s explored in an interesting article by Neely Tucker of the Washington Post. The article explores the dizzying array of self-promotional options that are made possible, in large part, by the Internet. To relatively old-school methods like readings, signings, and author websites, the Web has added blogs, blog tours, social networking, book trailers, and more.

“Being an author has become much more of an ongoing relationship with your audience through the Web, rather than just writing a book and disappearing while you write the next one,” says Liate Stehlik, publisher of William Morrow and Avon Books. “You have to be out there in the online world, talking and participating.”

Typically, the article starts out with a success story: Kelly Corrigan, whose cancer-survivor memoir was not tagged by her publisher for any extra promotional perks, and who took promotion into her own hands. Corrigan created a book trailer, got friends to host book parties, put together her own book tour, hand-sold her books, and posted a video of one of her readings on YouTube. The end result: 20 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, and a second career as a paid speaker.

Does this give me hope for the success of my own self-promotional plan, whatever it may eventually be? Does it make me more motivated to roll up my sleeves and dive into the self-promotion ocean? Well, sure. But there are also some things I’m keeping in mind.

The article ties some of the trend toward self-promotion to publishers’ shrinking publicity budgets. But the truth is that publishers never provided significant promotion for more than a handful of their authors, even in pre-Internet days. What’s really driving the self-promotional frenzy, in my opinion, is the dilution of the market. As the article points out, 560,000 books were published in the USA last year (more than were published in the entire 10-year period between 1980 and 1989, when title output averaged around 51,000 per year). Even if you subtract the nearly 300,000 that were self- or micropress-published, that’s way too many books. How do you make your book stand out from thousands of others in your subject or genre? Go forth, intrepid author, and self-promote!

But if the book market is overcrowded and fragmented, the new self-promotional frontier of the Internet is even more so. Not only is there a tremendous number of different options, every other author with a new book to flog is rushing to take advantage of them. For each new Web-based self-promotional strategy that comes along, there’s a narrow window of opportunity in which it’s actually possible to grab some eyeballs; thereafter, everyone piles on, and you wind up struggling not just for the visibility of your book, but for the visibility of your book trailer or blog or Twitterfeed or whatever. So as I plan my self-promotion strategy, I need to remember that, just as my book will be competing against too many others, so will my efforts to promote it.

Another thing to note: Kelly Corrigan’s book was nonfiction, a memoir about cancer survival. This gave her advantage–not just over fiction authors (the market for nonfiction is much bigger than for fiction, and nonfiction audiences are often easier to identify and target) but over many nonfiction authors, since cancer is a subject of urgent interest to enormous numbers of people.

Often, however, when self-promotion is discussed, it’s discussed as if all books are more or less the same, and any and all self-promotional methods are equally applicable. But books are not the same, nor are readers. Though there’s always some overlap, the audience for nonfiction is different from the audience for fiction. The audience for romance is different from the audience for thrillers. The audience for YA is different from the audience for middle grade. In other words, the method that worked for one author will not necessarily work for you. In planning my self-promotional strategy, I’ll look at everything, but I’ll look most closely at what authors in my own market area are doing.

And that brings me to the final thing I’ll be keeping in mind as I think about self-promotion: no one actually knows what works. Agent Richard Pine, quoted in the Post article, praises Kelly Corrigan’s self-promotional moxie, but points out that “Her videos could have not worked just as easily as it turned out they did.” The article goes on to say:

So all these shiny things that go fast are really fun to produce, and some are even fun to watch. But do they move units any better than the old-fashioned author signings in a local bookstore? Do they help a book sell more copies, or merely keep pace with others in the marketplace?

Nobody really knows, a range of publishers and industry watchers say. There is not a clear-cut means of connecting Web site traffic, say, to results in sales, and some experts warn new authors not to go overboard.

In this, despite the bells and whistles of the Internet, the promotional game has not changed at all. Publishers have never really been able to reliably tie sales data to promotional methods–and even if, in some cases, they can, what’s effective for one book will not necessarily be effective for another.

The key, I think, is to be realistic. Have a plan. Do your research. Know the options. Keep your head–don’t get carried away by the hype that surrounds every new self-promotional strategy. Keep it reasonable–for your budget, your time- and energy-level (don’t let self-promotion cut too deeply into the time you allot to your real job, writing), and your personality (do conventions stress you out? Do you despise Twitter? Then focus your efforts elsewhere). Even if you can’t really know what will work, be aware of what probably won’t–press releases, email blasts, “marketing” services that will charge you an arm and a leg for Web-based strategies that are either not worth doing or doable on your own (here’s one example).

And never forget that the basis of all self-promotion is something very simple, and infinitely complex: a good book. There really is no substitute.