On Writing,  publishing

The New World of Publishing: Promotion

I actually should do this under the “Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing” series of articles, but decided that since so many newer fiction writers have bought into the myth of promotion, hook, line, and sinker, this should go here along with the “Seasons of Publishing” article I just did a week or so ago.

I understand I am going to step on a few feelings (called land mines) with this post. If this makes you angry, come and talk to me when you have over a hundred novels published and been making your living with your fiction for over thirty years. At least get past your anger enough to consider what I am talking about. Then ignore it if you want.

So all those warnings done, let me start off with the following summary statement: Promotion can help book sales when done right and for the right reasons.

The problem is, of course, most indie writers only believe the myths of promotion and wouldn’t have a clue on how to do it right. But then the question is: What is the right kind of promotion? I’ll get to that.

Some basic history

Up until fifteen or twenty years ago, no author thought about doing promotion for any book on their own. Never happened. Publishers sometimes asked authors to go out and do a tour, on the publisher’s dime, but past that it never happened. Publishers all knew it was worthless.

One day I was at the Pocket Book offices in New York when one of the editors slammed down the phone and made a swearing sound. Someone asked what was wrong and the editor went on about how this author was badgering to have a promotion tour. All of us laughed because the author was just a low-level media writer and a beginner.

Then another editor laughed and said, “Give him a mercy tour and let him discover what it is like to sit alone in a bookstore for a few hours.”

That was the first time I had heard that term “mercy tour” spoken out loud. But not the last. Basically it means let the author go to some bookstores, have a publicist at the company spend an hour or so to set up a few things. The reason it was called a “mercy tour” was to get the author out of the hair of the editor. It would not sell one extra copy of the book and everyone knew it, but it made the baby author happy. And it allowed the editor some breathing room from the annoying author. (Mercy for the editor.)

Way back in the dark ages of the previous form of publishing (meaning mid-1990s), the romance writers started the idea of going off to give distributor truck drivers copies of their books and cookies as bribes to put their books on the top rack. (Added note: I have been told that Louis L’amour started this much earlier and the romance writers picked it up.)

The romance writers also started authors doing bookmarks and flyers and God-knows-what kind of thing to get bookstores to buy their books.

Without one thought to the poor bookstore owner on the other side of the garbage being poured at him.


And as I discovered from a bookstore owner friend of mine this spring, the crap has not stopped coming by the box load every week. When I asked him what he did with it all, he said “Tossed it into the recycling.”

“Without looking at it?”

“Yup,” he said. “No point.”

And now with all the social media, it’s even crazier than it was back then, and the myth that you must promote your book is still solidly roaring along.

Let me be clear here. I am talking about an author promoting their own work as an author. 

So first, some things to NOT DO as an author.

1… DO NOT do bookmarks or any such flyer garbage with just the author name on it. Authors do not sell books. Publishers sell books.

2… DO NOT post more than once per week, at most, about your new book on Twitter, Facebook, or any other social media site. All you do it annoy your friends. And then post only if you have something interesting to report. People will pay a little attention if you do it that way instead of just tuning you out.

3… DO NOT spend all your time promoting your book through reviewers or bloggers or worrying about bad reviews or even caring about any of that. A complete waste of your time.

4… DO NOT pester bookstores for signings or things like that unless they come to you and ask you to be part of something they are doing. Otherwise, as an author, LEAVE THEM ALONE!

5… DO NOT blog about writing or your writing process. No real book buyer cares. If you must blog, write about the content of your books. If you are doing books with cooking, blog about cooking. And so on. Otherwise, don’t blog. Again a huge waste of time.

Again, let me remind you all, I am talking about an author promoting himself.

So what is good promotion for an author?

1… Write the next book. That is the best thing you can do for your last book. Turn around, face the future, become a writer, and write the next book, and then the next, and then the next… get it to a publisher or your own publishing company and then go back to writing.

2… Be nice. Being a jerk will lose you readers and if you can’t help it, stay home. Only do signings when a bookstore asks and then not always. Go to conventions or conferences to have fun and keep learning, not to sell books.

3… Never, anywhere (except with your closest friends), talk about politics or religion. Anywhere. Just will cost you a ton of readers. (Added note: Fine to write about it in your fiction. Just don’t talk about it in your social media. You want everyone to buy your book, not just people who agree with you.)

4… Make every book better in writing skills. Yes, I am talking about plotting and pacing and cliffhangers and so on and make every book better than the one before. Make your characters so unforgettable that readers will ask for the next one instead of you having to push the next one into their hands. In other words, keep learning and working to make every story or every book better than the one before.

5… Keep learning the business of publishing. It is stunning how your career can move forward when you stop being blind to business.

6… Sell short fiction to major magazines.  That is the best promotion you can ask for. And you get paid for doing it.

Summary on this part.

If your books and stories don’t find a readership or have an editor buy it, maybe you should learn how to write better stories in the next books instead of annoying people to buy your crappy first books.

Personal note: My first two novels thankfully never saw the light of day and I still cringe at some things in my third novel, which was my first published novel. And the next two novels also never saw the light of day, thankfully. It takes time to learn how to write fiction someone will want to read.

When to Promote

Remember, authors do not promote their own books. They write more books and stories learn how to write better books. Publishers promote books.

But now, in this new world, writers are also publishers. Indie or Small Press Publishers.

So the question becomes how to promote a book that you published under your own company?

Some basic things you must understand to do promotion right as a publisher.

First… make sure you have a clear publisher name, clear publisher web site, and clear publisher bank accounts.  (The columns above under “Think Like a Publisher” are free and tell you how to do that.) When I say “clear” I mean very different from your author name.

Second… pick carefully which book or story you want to promote. Don’t do them all. One or two per year at most. Just get the rest out and let them fly on their own.

Third… for heaven’s sake, don’t even bother if you only have ten or so titles out. Start promoting select titles when you get past twenty-five or more titles. A total waste of time before that because you get no reader rebound to your other work.

Fourth… have at least three author names in your published list. (Yes, pen names…it makes you look more like a real publisher.)

Fifth… kill every myth you ever heard about promotion and start studying what promotion works and what doesn’t work for publishers.

Sixth… set expectations in a real place and get out of spoiled-fruit thinking… in other words, plan and promote for sales over a very long term, not short term.

Seventh… set your prices in the correct places (not discounts) and have trade paper or hardback copies of every book. For example, if you have a $15.99 trade paper, extended distribution needs to be over $2.00 on CreateSpace and your electronic book price should not be under $6.99.

Eighth… start adding in audio books as well so that any listing of your books has an audio option, a paperback option, and an electronic option. That makes the book look professional.

So How to Promote an Indie Publisher’s Books

1… Act like a real publisher. Do a catalog regularly, set schedules and lists for coming books.

2… Join the ABA as a publisher. Take advantage of a few of their box programs and other programs for special books.

3… Sell your books on your publisher web site. Easy to do these days with Paypal and other e-commerse plug-ins.

4… Set up a dealer page on your publisher web site. A dealer discount page on your site. Suggested prices are 2-5 copies…45% discount plus shipping.  6-9 copies 50% discount plus shipping. Over 10 copies 50% discount and free shipping. And they can mix and match titles in orders. Have an order form on your web site as well.

5… Set up a mailing list for both bookstores and for fans. This is also easy with plug-ins. That way you can tell your fans when a new book is out. Do not do this more than four or five times per year, at most.

That is some basics. Very basic, and yes I know I missed a lot of details. Trust me, in the POD workshop, we spent hours on details on how publishers can find readers and get to them.

If the above feels overwhelming to you, or you only have a few books, stop worrying about it and go back to writing. Writing is the most important thing you can do. Period. There is not even  a close second. Then when you have enough titles and are ready, then you can start adding in some of these details.


Author promotion is worthless (except for selling to magazines or major publishers). Period. Best thing an author can do is write the next story and book.

Indie Publisher promotion can sometimes work if done correctly. But it has to be done correctly.

A point to remember for those of you stuck on one electronic site and all the games you all like playing with a reviews, tags, bestseller lists and other crap like that in your small world. Electronic books are easy to do, but are only just over 20 percent of the total book sales. The overall sales of electronic books will climb to around 30% of all books sold in time and that will include all the shifts in power of electronic book distributors. Kobo is going to be a major player very, very shortly. Keep that in mind.

To promote effectively, you need to promote to the ENTIRE world. Do not ignore the 70-plus-percent of all books sold. Do not go exclusive to any one small site or publisher and cut out fans all over the world. That is actually negative promotion and very short-sighted. So caution on thinking something like that is helping you in the long run. It might help a few of you in the short term, but once a reader is lost or angry at you because they couldn’t get your book, they are lost forever.

Final words on promotion.

Authors, don’t bother. Keep writing and selling.

Indie or small press publishers, do it carefully and only after you have enough titles. Some promotion will help, but the key is long-term thinking.

Keep focusing forward on the next story or novel. Keep writing. Keep working to learn how to tell a better story. The fans will find you in time.

Sometimes that time will be years, but if your focus is writing and learning, what does it matter?

And keep having fun.


Copyright © 2012 Dean Wesley Smith

Cover art copyright Philcold/Dreamstime