The “M” word

That would be marketing. Now that I am independently publishing my books (Murder at Old St. Thomas’s is due out March 6), it is time to look at how to get them noticed.

Let me say first that I am a terrible customer. I do not respond well to marketing. When I want to buy something, I go find it. I do not enjoy the feeling that I am being manipulated. I use an ad blocker on my browser and the mute button on my remote. I find advertising interesting as a sociological demonstration of society’s concerns, but the last vendor I’d consider for anything is someone whose ad I’ve seen. I figure their company is spending too much on advertising to have a good product.

But now I have something to sell. This brings up ethical and personal considerations for me that many authors just don’t bother with.

The prejudice against independently published books

Everyone agrees that marketing books is amazingly difficult. With a traditional publisher, one would think it might be easier, but even there today’s authors are expected to market themselves. In fact, the only advantage to a traditional publisher seems to be the name recognition, and possibly getting ones books in bookstores.

Independently published books are of highly varying quality. So, in fact, are traditionally published books, but somehow no one blames the publisher for that. But it means that self-published books get a bad rap. Sometimes this is totally valid: I am reading a mystery right now that has so many errors it should never have been printed. But I’ve also just finished several that were wonderful, and better than some of the traditionally published books I’ve recently purchased.

Doing it on one’s own, all sorts of advice is available, and I’ve spent some time learning. Here are some recommended ways to market my books, and why I’m struggling with them.

Make it free

It is advised that if one is writing a series, one should make the first book free. Prices are already ridiculously low (99 cents for an e-book), and few authors talk about how this devalues books. My first book is literary fiction. It does not deserve to be in a 99 cent junk pile with a “non-fiction” book on how to talk to your cat.

It is also recommended that if one is publishing an e-book, it’s a good idea to enroll in Kindle Unlimited. KU, as it’s called, is a subscription service. Customers pay a monthly fee and get to read all the KU books they want. The author is paid in tiny percentages based on how many pages are tracked as being read. Trouble is, enrolling as an author means a contract where you cannot sell your e-book anywhere else, for 90 days at a time. Plus, it’s Amazon, who ran out all the other bookstores in the universe. So there’s an ethical problem here.

Take returns and give a 55% discount

Photo by Ashley Byrd on Unsplash

To get your books in physical bookstores, you must agree to accept returns. This means that if a bookstore orders, say, 20 of your books, and sells one and that’s it, they return 19 to your printer. The printer refunds the bookstore’s money, and you have to pay for these books. That can be incredibly expensive, and it seems to happen quite a bit. It’s kind of ok not to make money because one’s books don’t sell, but to owe money is a different story.

When you decide your price, you decide what discount bookstores will get when buying your book. This discount is set for all the print versions, not just those going to physical bookstores. If you choose less than 55%, bookstores won’t carry it. So your profit from a $10 book is $4.50 minus the amount it costs to print it (in my case, $4.44). The minimum at Ingram is 30% even if you don’t care about bookstores.

Sell them yourself

The alternative to bookstores and aggregators and Amazon is to sell the books yourself, ordering boxes of them and keeping them in your garage, mailing them out. Then you have to charge/pay postage, package and mail your orders, take returns (or not). This is a job in itself.

And, if you’re going to sell them, you need a seller’s license in most cities, so that’s a thing. Plus you must charge and keep track of sales tax.

Publish it at Amazon

I actually took this advice, to a point. I am publishing the e-books at an aggregator, Draft2Digital, but without allowing them to distribute to Amazon. Then I am publishing the e-book separately with Amazon for them to sell.

Amazon also offers publication of paperback, and now hardback, versions. When I chose to publish with IngramSpark instead, Amazon started screwing around with my book, first posting it, then a day later fobbing it off to BookDepository with a huge markup, then another third-party vendor with an even bigger markup. No matter what their price, I get the same amount. Amazon clearly makes it difficult, deliberately, for you to sell any book versions not published through them.

Get reviews

The only way anyone will notice your book is if it has reviews. The only way to get reviews is if you are already noticed.

Money, of course, gets around this conundrum. You can buy reviews. The most respected reviewer is Kirkus, where the price starts at $425. For those with less cash, you can use a site like Book Siren, where an account costs $10 and each copy of your book downloaded by a potential reviewer is $2.

Note the word “potential”. It is illegal/ill-advised/crass to pay directly for a review, because it’s assumed the review wouldn’t be honest. Book review sites get around this by not promising a review. So you offer free books to a certain number of people, hoping for a review. A rate of 60% is considered damn good.

What you really want is a review by Someone Who Matters, so you can quote it. People do this even on the cover, which I think is really tacky. To get a review by Someone Who Matters, you need to kiss up to them in groups of mutual interest (see “Join a community” below), or write and beg.

Win a prize

There are zillions of writing and book contests out there. Big organizations, like Mystery Writers of America, hold their own. Many do not accept independently published books; only major publishers can enter works. Some that are more inviting charge money to enter the contest, and may create the contest to collect entry fees, some of which are given as a prize. Others don’t charge to enter, but you have to buy the product if you win. I published a story inĀ  a collection for one of these contests, and had to then purchase the collection to see my work in print.

Have a website

This was the easiest thing for me to do, so I did. It’s here. I’m not sure anyone knows it’s there. But it’s supposed to be connected to . . .

Start a mail list and newsletter

This is touted as the absolute “must have” for authors, especially independently published authors. You dangle something out there, like a short story, as a prize to get people to sign up for your email list. Then you send out a newsletter occasionally, but you wouldn’t want to be crass and just advertize your next book, so you need to have content. This content might be fun things about yourself, or your writing, or your dog.

I looked into this. I got a free account at MailerLite. I set it all up, and put the code on my new website. Then I read in one of the communities I joined (see below) that there is this interesting law called CAN-SPAM, and that you must have a lot of provisions to get around it legally. I don’t like getting around legal things, especially those that are protecting me from spam. I don’t want to receive email advertising. Why would I be ok with producing it?

Then there’s the content. The idea is to get known, to connect with readers. As I’ve mentioned before, this is not a good use of my time. I want readers to connect with my work, not with me. I hate to be all Hemingway about this, but it’s one thing to market my books, and another to market myself. I’m actually a very private person. I am on all the social media outlets and hardly ever post about my family or my personal life. My work is out there, not my self.

Photo by Museums Victoria on Unsplash

Buy ads

There is some disagreement as to whether Facebook ads or Amazon ads are more effective — some swear by one, some by the other. They don’t cost much to run a few ads over a week or so, but cost much more to actually have them work. And we’re talking those horrid little square ads that pop up everywhere, the ones I complain about, and skip or block with my ad blocker. Again, subjecting others to something I won’t allow myself to be subjected to seems unethical.

Go social

I’ve been advised to post on Instagram, Facebook, and TikTok. Post what, I ask? About yourself, what you’re writing, what you’re working on. Who cares, I ask myself. Then I look and see that what people are posting is just their book, an image or video (some professionally produced) to get people to buy their book. Could I do that? Yes, I could. Would it sell books? Well, I have “friends” lists in the mere dozens, so not likely. I will consider focusing on hashtags of people who buy books, but I have noticed that most of those are just filled with authors trying to sell books.

Do Book Tours

A book tour online is apparently posting about your book on a “book blog”, a blog run by someone who reads and reviews books. I went looking, and most of these are authors themselves. You can hire a company that does book tours, and they slate a blog post spot on some book blogs for a period of time. Apparently people go to those blogs to look for books to read. You can pay to just have posts, or schedule interviews, guest posts, that sort of thing. The more you pay, the more you get.

Join a community

I have joined several online communities related to writing, but I only belong to two or three having to do with history. The ones related to writing are very useful for learning about the process, and there are a couple of groups where I really enjoy the people. But the people are all authors, trying to sell their books and help each other sell theirs. So you don’t meet readers that way, but rather get the kind of advice I’m listing here.

Join groups about your era of history, they say. Well, there’s nothing that annoys me more than someone joining a history group to advertise their book. So should I do that?

But here’s the kicker

I’m a voracious reader of books. I decide what I am going to read based on books I already have (I liked the book, or used the bibliography), recommendations by friends, and the London Review of Books. I have never bought a book because it’s free, on Amazon, gotten reviews at places like Kirkus, or won a prize (well, once, and I regretted it). Nor have I bought one because of an author’s mail list or newsletter (I didn’t even know there were such things), social media profile, ads, book tours (didn’t know about those either), or belonging to a common community or organization. Never.

Now some would say, I am not a typical book buyer. That is true. But I am the sort of book buyer that I would like to buy my book. I honestly don’t think that a person who relies on a relationship with me as an author, or wants my newsletter, or responds to advertizing is the type of person who would enjoy my work. I realized this sounds like not wanting to be in a club that would have me for a member. So I’ll just have to think about it some more.

2 thoughts to “The “M” word”

  1. …and this is why I don’t bother trying to get anything published. Or stand in my yard to catch meteorites.

    1. I’m not against publishing things, but I do want to be clear-eyed about the process!

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