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Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing: Self Promotion

The myth simply is: “All self promotion for a writer is good.” Nope. Completely false. The truth is sometimes self promotion of your own book can hurt you, sometimes it can help you. The key is not falling for the myth that all self promotion is good.

Right now, in late 2009, the publishing industry is changing so fast that it is often hard to keep up for a writer with his head buried in writing the next book. Things are changing month to month, and the major publishers in New York and around the world are struggling to even stay a year or two behind. Where exactly is all this change happening? In the distribution system, which in turn is causing changes throughout the rest of the system.

For a very easy way to understand publishing, write at the top of a piece of paper the word WRITER. Then draw a line down the center of the page a few inches and write the word PUBLISHER, then continue the line a few more inches and write DISTRIBUTION, and then continue the line to the bottom of the page and write the word READER.





Everything flows from the top to the bottom. For hundreds of years, that was, and still is, the basic structure of the publishing business. The writer supplies product to a publisher who then, creates the book product, promotes, and gets the books into distribution (which includes bookstores), finally ending up in readers’ hands.

On your slip of paper, draw a line across the page between the writer and the publisher. That’s the contract between a writer and a publisher, the paper that defines the terms between the supplier of product and the producer of the product. For a long time, the common knowledge was that a writer never crossed that contract line unless a publisher asked for their help on a tour. And, of course, the publisher always paid all the writer’s expenses for such help. It still works that way with major book tours for writers.

Then in the late 1980s and early 1990s, a few romance writers decided they could help their sales by talking to the truckers, handing out treats early in the morning to truck drivers, create bookmarks, and so on, including paying for their own book tour. It worked for a few early on, then every writer seemed to jump on the band wagon and in short order the bookstores didn’t want to see a writer come though their doors with more crap. Mail boxes were full of junk produced by writers and mailed to everyone they could think of. That sort of self promotion of a book basically became worthless. And very expensive for a writer to do.

And thus, the myth of self promotion was born. Writers coming in since the early 1990’s have heard over and over that you have to self promote your own book or fail.

Hogwash. Let me simply say that what sells a book, both to an editor and to a reader is a well-told story written well and presented well. The better the book, the better it will sell. If your books are not selling, learn how to write better books and learn how to write better proposals and then mail it all to editors. It really is that simple.

Now, that said, here we are in late 2009 and the world has shifted once again. Kindles, Nooks, eBooks, POD, and a dozen other ways of getting a book from a publisher to a reader has arrived. Finally.

Why do I say finally? This change has been thought about and talked about for almost two decades. It was just slow arriving, but when it did finally arrive, it hit the system with an impact.

No one, including me, is sure how or where all these changes are leading. All we can do is follow the news and keep learning. But does it change the fact that a good story, well written and well presented will sell? Nope.

Do the changes in the industry change the self promotion thinking? Yes, some.

So, at this point, in late 2009, what can an author do to help a book get better sales for their publisher?

Before I get to a few ideas on that question, lets talk about how return for self promotion is measured for a writer. It’s a simple formula, actually.

Time Spent + Money Spent = Total cost.

Compare Money Returned in Sales to Total Cost.

Remember that every moment you are spending self promoting an old book is a moment you are not writing a new book. So just as with any business, figure time lost and put an actual dollar figure on that time. (Say it took you three months to write the last book and your advance was $6,000. If you spend one month self promoting the old book, it cost you $2,000 in time lost.)

An example of silly thinking: An author manages to set up his own book tour, spending two weeks traveling, hitting bookstores, doing some signings and such, promoting his new paperback release from Bantam Books. The author will spend upwards of three weeks total time on planning and traveling, three weeks not spent on writing the next book. The actual out-of-pocket expenses will total $5,000 at least not counting the time lost costs.

What will the author get in return? With luck and being very personable, the author manages to sell an extra 500 copies of the book (that’s a lot). The author gets an 8% royalty rate on the $6.00 book, so 48 cents per book. The author will return about $250 bucks. Okay, that’s just silly. Spend $5,000 and three weeks to make $250. A great way to quickly go out of business for any business.

Here’s the worst part. Remember publishing is bottom line focused. Let’s assume that’s the author’s first book for Bantam and he doesn’t do the exact same thing for book number two. What would happen? The second book sales will decline from book number one. The sales trend will be DOWN on the accounting sheets. Not a good thing in publishing and he won’t sell book number three. His promotion tour cost him not only money and writing time, but his book series with Bantam. (I have watched this happen with a good dozen writer friends in the last twenty years. Some changed names and kept going, others are still wondering what went wrong.)

So, why do publishers with major bestsellers push their authors on intense tours? Simply to increase the velocity of sales. Bestseller lists are measured by the sales per week. If a publisher can push up the numbers in certain areas over a short period of time and shove the author onto a bestseller list, then sales pick up overall. In other words, publishers know what they are doing, authors don’t. That simple.

An author’s job is to write a good book. A publisher’s job is to create the book and promote it and sell it. And all that is detailed out in the contracts between the two parties.

So, back to the point of what is good self promotion these days? Following are a few suggestions.

1) A web site. An active one, where you post a few times a week and have photo and buying information for your books. Key to the web site is make it a name that people can find. Notice, my name is this web site. Easy to find. My pen names have web sites as well. It’s simple and takes very little time and allows readers to find your work and your different work.

Also, this helps for sales to editors. An editor with a manuscript in front of them they like will pull up your web site and look at it. If you are badmouthing New York editors or are a real pain on your web site, they will see that and decide life is too short. But if you have a professional web site that promotes your work, then they will look at that as a good thing. It still takes a good book, well written and presented well that fits their line to sell to them, but it never hurts to look professional on your web site. And they are easy to do these days, even for an old fart like me.

2) Facebook and Twitter accounts. I seldom post at the moment on either, but will change that starting this month, now that I have everything moved and the master class is finished. Again, be professional and not too personal. No one really cares what you had for lunch unless you had that lunch with Dean Koontz.

3) Do a signing for your local independent bookstore. That won’t make you enough sales to hurt your numbers, but it is good support of a bookstore that I assume you go into regularly. It will make the stores a few bucks and let your family and friends celebrate your book with you. In other words, it’s fun. But just do one per book. One is enough.

Anything more? Maybe. If you sold your book to a smaller or regional or University press, they might ask you to help some with promotion, because a few extra sales can make a huge difference to a small press. In that case, work smart. Understand what you are good at, what you are poor at, and where you can help sell a few more copies without hurting your writing time. Keep it in balance.

If you are the publisher of your own book, that’s another matter. You are responsible in that case for all promotion, and even the smallest amount can help. Again, the key is to keep it in balance and write the next book.

General Rule of Thumb on Self Promotion: If you are spending more money than a tiny fraction of your advance on self promotion and more time than it took to write the book on self promotion, you are doing it very, very wrong.

Second General Rule of Thumb on Self Promotion Make your next book a better book. That’s the best thing you can do to promote your career and your writing.

Remember that self promotion is in the distribution area of publishing. That is part of the publisher’s job to handle. If you self-publish your own book, then it’s your job, but if you are selling books to New York publishers, keep your focus on the next book.


Notice below that I have added onto this series of chapters a donate button where you can donate if you feel these chapters of this upcoming book helped you in some way and you want to keep me writing them and putting them up here. And if you can’t afford to donate, please feel free to pass this article along to others who might get some help from it. Every week or so I will be adding a new chapter on the myths and sacred cows of publishing. Stay tuned. Upcoming are chapters on bestsellers, research, rejections, and so much more. This business has a lot of myths. An entire book full.

Thanks, Dean