Rethinking Book Promotion…Again

Recently, the woman who was promoting my books through social media announced she is quitting the “virtual assistant” business. She just can’t make a go of it anymore. And no wonder. The results I get from her promotional efforts have dwindled each month, and I’m sure other authors who use her services have seen the same trend. We can no longer justify paying for promotion that doesn’t increase our sales, which means our promoter is out of a job.

I signed up for her virtual assistant services nearly a year ago, as a means of reducing my guilt over my own pathetic promotional efforts. In our arrangement, I would pick a couple of my books each month, and she would tweet about them and feature them in her e-newsletter. At first, I could see results. My sales for the books featured would increase. I also credit her for helping my most recently published book hover in the top 50 list in its sub-genre for several weeks last fall. But now, unless I do a 99 cent sale (which reduces my income on the books to a depressing level), I can’t see a difference between the books she’s promoting and sales of my other titles.

I’ve tried several other promotional services. I’ve spent relatively small amounts: $40 here, $20 there, and once, $99 for a promotion that was supposed to get me twenty-five reviews. (I ended up with about fifteen.) Most of the services were busts. Recently, I paid a company $40 to feature my 99 cent book in their newsletter for a week, and had zero sales of the book for the week.

Other authors I know are becoming similarly frustrated. Oh, there are promotions that work, like Bookbub, but they cost hundreds of dollars and they are very picky about the books they feature, especially those from indie-authors. Also, you have to make the featured book free or 99 cents, which means unless you sell thousands and thousands of books, and/or you have several books out and the promotion significantly increases sales of your other titles, it isn’t possible to earn back what you spent.

The most troubling aspect of recent developments is that a year ago a lot of these promotional tools/techniques worked. When I first indie-published my backlist four years ago, there were proven ways to promote your book and increase sales. Every year since then, fewer and fewer things seem to succeed. The industry and the promotional dynamics keep changing, always in a negative way.

In her letter to her clients, my virtual assistant pointed out that part of the problem, besides there being so many books available, is that there are now so many competing companies doing the same thing. Book promotion has become a whole industry in itself, attracting large numbers of social media savvy people looking for a way to make a living or to at least supplement their income.

Not every author is in my situation. Several authors I know have cracked bestseller lists and done very well. And done it without spending a fortune either. But in most cases, they write series and have been slowly building up their following to get to that “break-out” book. And/or they write in a genre that is particularly popular right now.

Those are the only proven things that seem to help sales:  writing a series and writing in a popular sub-genre. There is one other secret, and that is having a new book out every few months, the more often the better. Neither of my series have really caught on, and I refuse to write books in a particular genre simply because it’s popular. (My muse would mutiny, and I’d never get anything done.) So all I can do is keep plugging away and writing steadily, hoping that if I keep publishing I will eventually gain ground. Maybe if I completely give up dabbling in promotion, the time and energy I save will help me write a little faster and gets books out more often. It’s worth a shot.

Mary Gillgannon
Mary Gillgannon writes romance novels set in the Dark Ages, medieval, and English Regency time periods and fantasy and historical novels with Celtic influences. Her books have been published in Russia, China, the Netherlands, and Germany. Raised in the Midwest, she now lives in Wyoming and works at a public library. She is married and has two grown children. When not working or writing, she enjoys gardening, traveling, and reading, of course! More about Mary on her website.

5 thoughts on “Rethinking Book Promotion…Again

  1. There’s a lot to unpack here.

    Many authors share your frustration with social media marketing. I’m not one of them but I use a different strategy on social media. I wrote a piece about it for the RMFW newsletter last month so I won’t recap that here.

    I think you’ve put your finger on the crux of the issue with this:

    “Several authors I know have cracked bestseller lists and done very well. And done it without spending a fortune either. But in most cases, they write series and have been slowly building up their following to get to that “break-out” book. And/or they write in a genre that is particularly popular right now.”

    I’ve cracked subgenre best seller lists but never broken above #100 on Amazon Paid. I don’t spend money on advertising – although I did try it last November and it worked much better than I expected. My general philosophy that ads can give you a punch in the arm, but it can’t give you sticking power.

    Part of that philosophy holds that publicists and marketing managers might work for deep pocket presses but that indies need a much tighter and more efficient form of promotion.

    Yes. Writing in a series is a great way to get–and keep–readers. Readers who liked the last book will likely buy the next book. Using your mailing list to reach them is one of the key tools. Keeping people on your list and paying attention to what you’re sending them is as important as getting people on the list to begin with. You seem to write in a series – or at least have in the past.

    Yes. Slowly building your following is the second part of any formula that is supposed to end with “4. Profit.” I gave my books away in audio for three years before I tried to sell any. It took another couple of years until I could make a living at it, but since then it’s snowballed. You’ve been building a following since at least 2011 in your indie career.

    No. Writing in a popular genre is not actually a good way to crack a bestseller list. Popular genres have lots of competition. A sub sub cat with a hundred books in it means that the 101st one has a good shot at cracking the top 100 list. One with 100,000 books? Not so much. I write in space opera and compete against about 17,000 titles for the top slots. Getting to the top of that list means I need to break above #89 in Kindle this morning. That’s probably 1000 sales. It’ll probably be a different title tomorrow. The number 2 book is a Silverberg title with a BookBub yesterday. To get into the top 20 (that first page of best sellers), I’d only need to crack the top #1000 which is more like 300 sales.

    You’ve got an advantage in that you’re writing for a market that is at least 50% larger than SF according to RWA statistics. Demand for romance titles is huge. I wish I wrote romance but I haven’t mastered that art. On Amazon you’re competing against 10,000 titles in Historical > Regency, 5,000 titles in Historical > Victorian, and only 2,000 titles in Historical > Scottish.

    This morning the #1 title in Victorian and Regency has a sales rank of #232 on a 99c novella that’s only 162 pages long. (Same book on the top of both lists). I doubt that it will stay there long. That’s about 300 sales over the last 48 hrs or so. She had a BookBub on Wednesday and probably supplemented that with one of the other promos – maybe Fussy Librarian. it’s also a book that’s over a year old and is helping to push readers to her backlist. That title will drop off the top 20 list by this time next week, I bet.

    The bottom of the top-20 list in Regency is at #1500. That’s maybe 50-100 sales over the last few days. It’s a boxed set priced in the $1.99 purgatory slot. I suspect there’s a promo deal in the wings or just passed.

    What those spreads mean is that a relatively small number of titles in those sub sub cats have the attention of the market. If it’s anything like space opera, the same three or four people have most of those slots and get most of the eyes, but that’s an advantage for you that I don’t have. You’ve got a backlist. You’re in a market that is one of the largest selling genres on the planet. You’ve got solid novel length works to put up against novellas and short novels.

    The only thing you’re lacking is visibility.

    And you can get that with a new release – like maybe End of the Rainbow.

    Can you get the people in your rom-writing groups to help pass the word when the time comes?

    • Thanks a lot for your thoughtful comments. I’ll have to look up your article. Sometimes I don’t get around to reading the newsletter. (I did much better in the old days when it arrived in print and I could see it around and be reminded to read it.) And yes, promotions do seem to work for some authors much better than others. I think your point that it has to be part of an on-going organized marketing effort is well taken. I tend to forget about marketing between books and then as my sales slump, throw some money out for promotion and hope for the best. Not a very effective strategy. As for my books being in a market that is much larger than yours, that’s true, but there are also an incredible number of books available for readers, so you genre/sub-genre might actually be easier to crack.

      For all I know, the point of my post is to convince myself that my sporadic promo efforts aren’t worthwhile and it’s OK to ignore the whole issue and focus on writing the next book. But I do think it might be helpful to other authors to learn about my experiences and to be wary of the many book promo companies out there so they don’t waste their money.

  2. Just to be clear…

    I’m not suggesting there’s a formula that you can actually follow to reliably get sales like some recipe for bread that turns out loaves and fishes in a predictable quantity.

    Although I am fond of that “Step 4. Profit” idea, it’s the three steps before it that seem to cause the most problems.


  3. There are many books that have little or no quality to them. I get very frustrated when I am spending most of my time trying to figure out how to pronounce the names of people and places. In my isolated area I have worked at building up a following for my writing. I price my books reasonably and have them in central areas such as the local bookstore, drugstore, gallery and so on. I donate copies to the local libraries to get my name out there and offer small writing workshops through our local Adult Education society. I will not get rich this way but I have a great feeling of satisfaction. Sometimes our own local market is where we will be most effective and best known.
    I have books on Kobo and on Amazon, but independently publish my own work. Sales through those mediums is far too competitive and unless you are a well established writer our writing becomes just another in the list of 100,000 others.This way I have control over my sales, and am finding that using my own facebook, account,local paper interviews that my base is growing.
    I don’t know if this is useful information but sometimes the grass is greener on our side of the fence.

    • I’m glad the angle of promoting yourself as a local author works well for you. Part of the issue for me is that my books are pretty steamy and not everyone is going to be comfortable reading them, so I tend not to promote them locally as much as I would if they were sweet romances or mysteries or something along that line. The local authors I know whose books have broader appeal have done better at promoting locally, but even they have to work very hard at it. I’ve been doing this a long time and given my past experiences with local promotion, it’s hard for me to get motivated and put a lot of effort into that. Which is ultimately my problem. Good marketing requires a constant, sustained effort, which I’m simply not capable of anymore. So my post is probably about rationalizing my decision to give up, at least until I have another book out.

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