I’m not telling you anything new when I say that the publishing industry has changed a great deal in the last twenty years. However, throughout these decades of upheaval, there are two things I’ve observed that have remained pretty damned consistent:
- Writers worrying about how much effort they should put into marketing their books.
- Writers’ efforts at marketing their books doesn’t work.
Case in point: Twenty years ago I met a woman who was about to have her first book debut. We met at a convention (one of the last ones I attended), and she told me of all the things she’d done to help market her book. She printed up bookmarks and postcards, she scheduled readings and convention appearances. She even (and I thought this was rather ingenious) baked cookies and brought them down to the docks where the teamsters loaded their trucks with books, because she knew that these were the actual guys who would load up those book displays in the grocery stores; her thinking was that, if they remembered her fondly, they would keep her book on the shelves a little bit longer.
Her book won an award, but despite her tireless work, it did not become a bestseller, it did not go into extra pressings, and it was many years before her next book was published.
Case in point: Just last year, a friend of mine had his own first novel debut. He’s a very connected guy. He knows everyone in his genre: writers, editors, publishers, booksellers. Everyone. A veteran of countless conventions and book fairs, he parlayed his network into a long book tour for himself, traveled up and down the West Coast, reading, signing, promoting his book.
The book got starred reviews from reputable outlets and did well, but not well enough. A short while ago my friend learned that his publisher was not going to pick up the sequel (which he’d already written).
If you think these anecdotes are just outliers in a larger bell-curve of success, you’re wrong. But don’t take my word for it. Go over to Delilah Dawson’s Whimsy Dark blog and read her take on the value of authors marketing their own work via social media. In short, social media marketing is a “push” model—the author pushes their book at potential readers—instead of a “pull” model, where the reader finds the book independently.
Pushing is aggressive and off-putting, while the opposite is how most readers want to discover new reading material. The problem, of course, is that it’s damned-near impossible to manufacture a “pull.” Word-of-mouth, “customers also bought” links, getting strangers to actually show up at your reading when they’ve never ever heard of you, these are not within the control of the author. Hell, they’re not even within the control of the publisher (assuming the publisher is doing anything to promote your book).
So…what to do?
Yes, that’s it. Screw all the marketing. Just write.
Writing is a crap-shoot in the best of circumstances, and making a bunch of side bets is a waste of time, money, and energy. Writing, that’s your big bet. Write, and improve, which improves your chances on the big bet. If you lose the bet, it won’t be because you didn’t go to that convention or because you didn’t bake cookies for those teamsters.
Write, you fools!
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go and take my own advice.