Mark Terry

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

NOBODY Knows What Sells Books

November 8, 2006
I've been musing a bit on book promotion, partly because within this small world of the blogosphere of authors and aspiring authors, book promotion seems to be a hotter topic than actually writing. And some of those writers getting great buzz on their sites seem to at least write with rock-solid confidence that theirs is the TRUE PATH.

Hmmm. I doubt it. I was sort of relieved to find on a recent post of Joe Konrath's, where he was talking about promoting all the time, that both MJ Rose and Allison Brennan weighed in to suggest that they both require time away from promotion in order to write, and MJ noted that this issue is a little different for everybody.


I think I've done a fair amount to promote THE DEVIL'S PITCHFORK. I sent out nearly 2000 flyers (expensive and probably both a waste of time and money, so although I might send out a limited number of postcards in the future, I won't be making this effort again), paid to have my website professionally redone (very much worth it, I think), my publisher flipped for AuthorBuzz, an e-mail notification and I was quite pleased with the result and will consider it for my next book if my publisher doesn't plan to cover it, and I've visited something like 20 or so bookstores in the area. There's also this blog and the E-Newsletters and I sponsored a contest on the website.

In the past I've also hired a publicist, done book signings, gone to conferences, given Rotary Club talks and given library talks. I'm sure I'll do some of those again.

Unlike Joe, but I bet like a lot of writers, I don't necessarily need a break from promoting in order to write, but I MUST HAVE a break from promoting for my mental health. I feel like the opening sequence for Bill Bixby's "The Hulk," where he warns the reporter, "Don't make me angry. You won't like me when I'm angry." I know that I will hit a point in promotion, especially in-person promotion, where I can no longer put on my happy face successfully and go out and meet the public. When the process starts to piss me off just thinking about it, it's time to take a break for a while. I'm rapidly approaching that place.

That isn't to say I won't do it, and hopefully with grace and enthusiasm. It just means that it's no longer at the top of my to-do list.

I also want to emphasize that in no way does this mean that I'm not wildly appreciative of readers and any folks who have ponied up the bucks to buy one of my books. Quite the contrary . Those folks are golden and I cherish each and every one of you (or both of you, whichever the case may be). It's just that I need a hybernation period in which I crawl back in my den for a while or I can't bring myself to do it any more.

And I'm reminded of something my former agent, Ben Camardi with the Harold Matson Company, told me once: "Nobody knows why a book becomes a bestseller. If they did, that's all they would publish."

I may be fooling myself, but I believe that in terms of novels, there becomes a point of diminishing returns in promotion. Yes, the more you do the more you'll sell. But at some point you may still be doing a lot that's really not inspiring many book sales, but is wearing you out or wasting your time and money.

One of the reasons I was thinking about this was I heard Public Radio news guy McLehrer on NPR yesterday promoting his 16th novel. And I thought, most everybody in the U.S. knows this guy and he probably sells a lot of books, but he's not a bestseller, is he? And I thought about John Jance, who also writes novels, but is an aviation expert on ABC, and thought the same thing. By most standards, these guys have so much exposure and so much name recognition that their novels should rocket up the bestseller lists, but don't seem to.

That isn't to say they don't sell well. They probably do.

My point is, as I've sort of belabored here, is in terms of book promotion you need to do what you can and what you can afford and what you can put up with, but none of it will guarantee great sales or even continued book contracts. So for God sakes don't short-shrift yourself (or your readers) on putting out the best possible book you can, because that should be a higher priority than the promotion.

Mark Terry


Anonymous hx said...

it's hard times for the new, independent, and small press folk. the big boys have their fingers in every advertising avenue. there's only so much time in a persons day to see and absorb marketing material and the small fry can hardly get a piece of the pie. it's especially difficult now while a war is going on. the general public prefers safety consistency and things they know. making it an established authors market, unless of course you happen to be writing about the war or how to make money (which are some of the best selling books right now). our only advantage is that you're right, no one knows what actually sells a book. the big press has been pumping out books for years and they don't exactly know.

"I have suddenly found myself trafficking in myself like an illicit narcotic into veins and noses of the lost souls who can’t follow anyone but the leader."

9:56 AM  
Blogger Mark said...

I'm not sure the "big boys" actually DO have their fingers in every advertising avenue. I think there are fewer and fewer venues for books to be promoted that aren't Internet and there are very few small or indie presses that could actually afford an ad in the New York Times, USA Today or the LA Times, and it's fairly doubtful if the $10,000 a big player pays for those ads recoups their cost in sales unless the book's already fairly hot as it is.

Yeah, books about the Bush admin and the War seem fairly hot right now, but as Paul Levine pointed out once, the hottest books tend to have titles like "Slim Thighs in 30 Days" or "The South Beach Diet," or topics in which the author can get on either Oprah or Larry King Live, which not only excludes most authors, excludes most fiction.

10:20 AM  
Anonymous Eric Mayer said...

As I always say, I'm a writer, not a salesman. If I wanted to be a salesman I'd pick something more profitable to sell than books.

Authors will go on endlesly about their promotional efforts. However, it is good to remember that feeling like one is doing something useful doesn't actually mean that anything useful is actually being accomplished. No one gets a star, let alone extra sales, for industriously wasting one's time.

I tend to think the main value of most promotion is for the author -- getting out and meeting a fw readers and getting some sense that on'e books are appreciated by someone.

I also suppose that if your publisher thinks you should do some promotion than doing promotion may assist you in continuing to get published.

2:13 PM  
Blogger Mark said...

"No one gets a star, let alone extra sales, for industriously wasting one's time."

Wow! An idea for my next contest. Anybody who handsells one of my books to a friend (or buys them a copy) gets a gold star!

Nah, probably won't fly.

I've been rather industriously wasting my time today doing freebie work for the ITW newsletter. Yes, I suppose it's all a matter of how we waste our time.

2:32 PM  
Anonymous spyscribbler said...

Now, Mark, don't underestimate how hard people will work for a sticker. Even adults. Heck, I work my a-- off to get a little piece of tape on the end of my taekwondo belt. :-)

As your old agent said, no one knows what makes a bestseller. Yes, promoting can sell books, but in the end, the book, author, voice and/or subject matter itself has to resonate with the public. If a formula was proven to work, we'd all be writing it.

Besides, the music biz did find a formula and forced it upon their musicians. Wanna know what happened? As soon as the public heard the formula broken by a few musicians, those musicians became rich and famous.

8:05 PM  
Blogger Aimless Writer said...

Wow, can't wait till I have these kind of problems....

4:38 AM  
Blogger Mark said...

I know what you mean about the tape on your belt. I study Sanchin Ryu, which is an American-Okinawan style of karate and I remind myself that it's just a piece of colored cloth and there's no particular hurry.

One of my concerns (or suspicions) is as more and more and more writers decide they have to promote and do these book drive-bys, etc., that the only way to be effective is to do something really odd--and I have no clue what that is. I get the sense also that we tend to be preaching to the choir, that the people we reach this way are people who are actually looking for us, which is fine, but probably the clue to real financial success is to somehow reach past the typical thriller, mystery, SF, fantasy, romance, etc., reader and appeal (somehow) to others. I'm not sure it's in your control as a writer.

David Morrell in his book on writing notes that when Grisham's "The Firm" came out in paperback he was at an airport and the cover had a silhouette of a businessman in a tight suit carrying a briefcase being manipulated with marionette strings, and he said you could actually see business travelers staring at the book, then picking it up and buying it. And you can see how that particular story, about a lawyer caught between the so-called rock (the firm) and the hard place (the FBI) would appeal to harried business people.

So it's a crapshoot, in other words.

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