There is a lot of marketing advice for writers out there of varying helpfulness but very little of it is vetted and analyzed by actual marketing professionals. The exception to that is Kameron Hurley. A novelist as well as a professional marketing writer, Kameron is a loud and passionate advocate for writers to work smarter and harder to market their work. She has also been a great champion for writers to keep their day jobs for stability and to maximize creative freedom. I’ve benefited greatly from her advice and jumped at the chance to have her drop by here and share her experiences with readers outside of her traditional science fiction and fantasy audience. Today she visits at the end of her massive blog tour in support of her newest novel Empire Ascendant. Go buy many copies and tell your friends. Welcome, Kameron.
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I find it rather appropriate that the last post I’m writing for the blog tour I’ve been doing the last three weeks… four weeks?… for my latest epic fantasy release, Empire Ascendant, is about book marketing. Bryon suggested I swing by and do a quick and dirty “5 things” post, and how could I refuse?
So, without further ado, here are the top five things I think every writer should know about book marketing:
1. Getting the word out about your book won’t make you a bestseller, but it will help keep you in contracts. I hear folks deride all of the efforts that authors and publishers put forth into the gaping maw of the widget machine, insisting that bestsellers aren’t made via marketing. There’s some truth to the “magic” component of the bestseller. Who guessed The Girl on the Train could sell 2.5 million copies in two months? But what book tours and blog stops and interviews and video chats and podcast appearances and all the rest (compressed into the 3-6 weeks around your release date) can do is help you get noticed in an ever-rushing stream of new authors and new titles. The reality is that the world is full of noise, and speaking up and speaking out can make the difference between you selling a few hundred copies and a few thousand copies. That may not sound like much, but if your advance is $5,000 it can make a difference in whether or not you pick up another contract.
2. Don’t do stuff you don’t like. I don’t like doing readings. I’ll do a signing, or a Q&A, but standing up there reading from my work makes me feel like a trained monkey trying to weasel people out of peanuts. In truth, because public appearances of all sorts take a lot out of me, I try to limit them to three or four a year. This goes against a lot of perceived wisdom, though: in-person relationships that you forge with fans and booksellers at events are actually one of the most effective ways to sell books. And not just books, either: there’s a reason that even in this digital age, companies still cling to their human sales people. Humans like to do business with people they like. That’s a truism I see here in advertising all the time. If clients do not like you, they are not likely to do business with you, no matter how much logic you bring to the table. Yet I recognize that the price I have to pay for endless public appearances is just too high for the possible payoff. My sanity, and my ability to write books, gets severely impacting if I don’t watch myself.
3. Double down on what you’re good at and reward true fans. What I do enjoy is writing blog posts, making swag for fans, doing giveaways, and working out the next fun deal for folks who subscribe to my mailing list. This taps into my crafty side and also has some logic backing it up. No matter what industry you’re in, 80% of your business generally comes from just 20% of your customers. My core fan base right now is about 500-1000 people, which may not seem like a lot until you realize that they not only buy every book at least twice (and many have bought my work in various collections three times or more), but they gift it to others, recommend it to friends, and ask their local libraries to order copies, too. Suddenly the net effect of those folks grows wider and wider, like ripples on a lake. I try to reward those fans with fun extras whenever I can via my mailing list or in-person swag. Mailing list swag also tips me off when I meet new fans, too. When I’m asked to sign a book that already has a book plate on it that I only sent to mailing list subscribers, I know I’m not speaking to a casual reader, but a super fan.
4. Spend big money at your own peril. There are certain business expenses that one can understand: paying to have a website refreshed, printing out a hundred bookplates, going to a local convention. But paying a PR firm the entirety of your advance and hoping they’ll perform miracles is probably a bad investment. Having worked in advertising, I can tell you that unless you’re willing to pay thousands of dollars for publicity, there’s very little anyone can do for you aside from write and send out press releases and maybe pitch some stories to local newspapers, all things you could do yourself for a far better per-hour rate. I heard one anecdotal story of an author who spent $100,000 on publicity and sold 20,000 copies of their novel. And that was a generous story. I’ve heard far more stories about people who spent $10,000 or $20,000 and sold just 1,500 copies. This is a tough business. The truth is that spending a lot of money on marketing isn’t going to guarantee a success. Ask any publisher. What one is more likely to see is a publisher spending money on a book that has already gained traction through word of mouth, giving it an additional boost, or supporting work that’s already a known quantity. You must be willing to put in your own three week or six week push around the novel’s release in the most cost effective and fun way that works for you. Though it’s wonderful if your publisher supports you, you can’t rely on anyone else to do the lion’s share but you. I wish that wasn’t true. I wish it with every publisher I work with. But no one will love your book more than you. No one can champion it like you can. People don’t buy books they don’t know about. You have to be willing to reach out to them.
5. Know when to talk about your book, and when to write your book. I cancelled five additional blog posts during this tour because of deadline collisions. At the end of the day I had to ask myself if those five posts were more important to my career than a story in a possible anthology and the deadline for my next book. The reality was that here in week three or four of the tour, with strong first week sales and copyedits for another book bearing down on me, they were not worth further pushing back or cancelling deadlines associated with creating new work. At some point you must know when to put a book to bed and get back to work. At the end of the day, it’s still true that authors have very little control over how their work is received. All you can do is give it everything you have for the time you have allotted for it, and get back to work.
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Kameron Hurley is the author of The Worldbreaker Saga and the God’s War Trilogy. Hurley has won the Hugo Award, Kitschy Award, and Sydney J. Bounds Award for Best Newcomer; she has also been a finalist for the Arthur C. Clarke Award, Nebula Award, the Locus Award, BFS Award, the Gemmell Morningstar Award and the BSFA Award for Best Novel. Her short fiction has appeared in Popular Science Magazine, Lightspeed Magazine, Year’s Best SF, The Lowest Heaven, and Meeting Infinity. Her nonfiction has been featured in The Atlantic, Locus Magazine, and the upcoming collection The Geek Feminist Revolution.