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If Publicity Doesn’t Sell Books, What Does?

UPDATE: The winner of The Edge of Maybe contest is …


It was a tough decision for Ericka, so she took her top six choices and randomized them. Kristan, please email me your latest address, so I can forward it to Ericka. And everyone else, if you’re in the Bay Area, don’t miss Ericka’s book launch tonight: A Night On The Edge. I’ll be there!

And now back to our regularly scheduled blog post:

One of the advantages of working out of the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto is all the wonderful conversations—about writing, about publishing, and about marketing—that take place over lunch and on our listserv. Last month, a blog post by Joe Konrath titled “The Value of Publicity” and another by Michael Ellsberg, titled “The Tim Ferriss Effect”, sparked an e-mail thread about what sells books. According to Konrath, the publicity he got in the Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, the LA Times, etc. did nothing to increase his book sales. According to Ellsberg, a spot on prime-time CNN and an editorial he wrote for the New York Times did little to increase his book sales. So, if publicity doesn’t sell books, what does?

According to Konrath, good writing, an extensive backlist and proper positioning on Amazon are the keys to his success: “[M]y fame and my past have little to do with my current success. … The majority of my sales come from Amazon and my ability to use the tools they provide.”

According to Ellsberg, coverage on a popular single-author blog with a wide sphere of influence is what put his book on the map. (By the way, there is a distinction between publicity and marketing. Publicity means spots on radio and television shows, advertising, and articles and book reviews in newspapers and magazines. While publicity is short-lived—the biggest push done within the first month that a book is out—marketing is an ongoing effort that can last months, even years.)

Grotto writers chimed in with their own thoughts about what sells books and, with their permission, I’ve reprinted their comments here:

Zoe Fitzgerald Carter, author of Imperfect Endings: A Daughter’s Tale of Life and Death, agrees with Konrath and Ellsberg: “I certainly found that mentions in The New York Times, excerpts in O magazine, and getting reviewed in People did almost nothing in terms of my sales. And all that endless social media? Not so much …”

Heather Donahue, author of Growgirl: How My Life After the Blair Witch Project Went to Pot emphasizes the importance of “knowing your core audience, knowing that books are a niche business, and having a laser focus on the top 500 individual readers. Finding them. Knowing your tribe and building from there.”

“Having pieces in Slate, The Awl, and The Nervous Breakdown worked every bit as good as being on The View because you want to sell books to people who read them,” Donahue said in an interview. In addition to a Q&A in The Awl/The Hairpin, which The Rumpus cross-posted, and 21 Questions in The Nervous Breakdown, Donahue had an interview in Bust, two pages in Entertainment Weekly, and a healthy response from Facebook, where she has 1286 friends and 549 likes on her professional page. Donahue says that because her book came out quickly, she didn’t have time to build a large following on Twitter, but she thinks the cumulative effect of the marketing she did was every bit as important as the publicity garnered by her publicists—both the in-house publicist her publisher assigned her and the one she hired on her own. Would she still hire a publicist next time? Yes, if she goes with a traditional publisher next time. Donahue spent so much time marketing her book that she would liked to have seen a larger cut of the profits. “I’d rather find a middle ground partner. Someone who could handle some of the design stuff and do more of a 50/50 split on royalties, to share some of the outgoing publication costs but also share on the incoming profits.”

Janis Cooke Newman, author of The Russian Word for Snow: A True Story of Adoption and Mary, a novel about Mary Todd Lincoln, agrees that knowing your tribe is key. “While we like to think that everybody is going to find our books fascinating, the truth is that it is a niche business. One email blast to an online chat group of people interested in adopting from Eastern Europe put my memoir at number 200 on Amazon—at least for a couple of hours—and practically sold out the admittedly meager first printing. And at a recent appearance at a Civil War literary conference, the local bookseller ran out of my novel. National TV is cool, but finding your niche readers and making it easy for them to buy your book—even years after publication—seems to be the best way to keep those royalty checks coming.”

Constance Hale, author of Sin and Syntax and the forthcoming Vex, Hex, Smash, Smooch, echoes Donahue and Newman’s sentiments. “Have a really sharp, really defined sense of who your reader is (emphasis on the “read”) and/or who would buy your book and then think really hard about how to get to that person, how to let that person know your book is out there. … Being in The New Yorker is highly cool, but again, does it put your name on the radar or does it sell books? Are New Yorker readers the ones who will BUY your book and READ your book and then TELL their friends to buy your book?”

Hale cautions, however, that there is no one-size-fits-all solution to zeroing in on your audience. “Every book is different. My readers are writers who want to write better, so I have taught anywhere that gets the title of the book on a course catalog (reaching tens of thousands of people), I have led countless workshops at countless writers conferences, I have given workshops in bookstores, I have worked on tags and SEO on my Web site, I’ve built modest but loyal FB and Twitter and mailing-list followings, and I give out teachers lessons plans for free. I put my book title in every bio I write. I accept all offers for any kind of publicity: I get up for drive-time radio, I write articles for free if I know it gets to my readers. I work closely with the publisher’s publicity people and I hire my own publicist to help me strategize. Not strategize how to get famous. Strategize about how to reach my readers/buyers.

“It’s a one-two punch. Publicity gets your name and your book on the radar,
maybe helps you build cred. … Marketing identifies your
market/tribe/reader/buyer and focuses aggressively to let those people know
about the book and to make them want to buy it. Publicity lasts for a month. Sometimes you strike gold right away and get an instant bestseller. Marketing
continues for years and can build slowly.”

Speaking from the perspective of a self-proclaimed “readaholic,” Jason Roberts, author of A Sense of The World, says the problem with some publicity is that it breeds familiarity with a book, not intrigue. You know those movie trailers that make you feel like you’ve already seen the movie? That happens with books, too. “Sometimes, a book has fallen off my To Buy list because of one article, one interview, one TV appearance too many. … If I had my druthers, I’d prefer a PR campaign that focused not so much on the book as a quantum of content, but as an experience. How will it surprise me, enlighten me, draw me in? Will it subvert my expectations, shed light on mysteries, go behind the scenes or between the lines? Is it, simply put, not only a book but a story? … Sell the experience, not just the facts. (And don’t sit around waiting for reviewers to tell you what that experience is; decide for yourself, and market accordingly).”

Gerard Jones, author of Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters, and the Birth of the Comic Book, reminds writers that although book sales are nice, they are not the only way for authors to make money. “I’ve gotten a lot of paying gigs talking to colleges and other institutions, and those can keep rolling in long after the shelf-life of the book. … In terms of perceptible Amazon up-ticks, the only broadcast media that ever helped were NPR interviews where I got to talk about the content of the book at some length (Fresh Air helped, but the biggest jump was after Talk of the Nation). Mass-audience radio never did squat, not even Howard Stern in his pre-satellite days, nor did TV. But a speaking agency picked me up and landed me a series of public debates after I appeared on the Today Show, which in turn led to other stuff. I also had a university events programmer tell me he was already interested in bringing me in but didn’t really decide until he saw that I’d been on Bill O’Reilly’s show. 
I’ve also picked up quite a few article- and editorial-writing gigs off my books, at least some of which were helped along by publicity. A BBC appearance got me an offer from the Guardian to write something, and I think that may be why the Times of London asked me for something soon after. I think it just looks better in the pitch if you can list a bunch of high-profile appearances too.
I’ve found that initial sales usually don’t matter that much; publication is usually the beginning of a long trudge. But the rewards of the trudge can be a lot more rewarding than you think they might be while you’re still processing the realization that you’re not going to soar onto the NYT bestseller list. … And the publicity that seems not to be doing a damned bit of good in the moment can pay off down that road.”

Although there are a number of authors who have launched bestsellers after strategically and methodically (as Hale puts it) building an online presence like Rebecca Skloot , author of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project, and Ferriss himself, T.J. Stiles, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt, cautions that no one really knows what makes a book successful. “When a book DOES succeed, publicity is usually an element,” Stiles says. “What makes a book succeed? If anyone could figure out a formula for that, then publishers wouldn’t lose money (or just break even) on 70% of the books they release. Only about 30% make money. Everyone’s in the dark—not when it comes to what makes a good book, but what makes a commercially successful one. So many great books don’t make money. … as William Goldman said about Hollywood, ‘Nobody knows anything.’”

30 comments to If Publicity Doesn’t Sell Books, What Does?

  • I read this quote some months ago, and it has stuck me. I think it applies here.

    “Become someone worth knowing. Then your book will become something worth buying.” – C. Hope Clark

  • great post, Meghan, and timely – I'm taking Mollie Glick's class at the Grotto on writing a nonfiction book proposal and we talked over marketing and PR last night…this is good food for thought for this week's homework of writing that section of the proposal!

    • meghancward

      How is that class going, Nancy? I thought about taking Molly's one-day workshop a couple of weeks ago, but ended up not being able to make it.

  • Well, as someone trying to flog his own book, this topic is of course dear to my heart. I had what I thought was a pretty good (and cheap) guerrilla publicity/marketing idea for my book, but alas it doesn't apply now that I've gone ahead and published it as an ebook. I think it's really true that no one knows what sells books. Word-of-mouth is obviously important. But just getting the knowledge out there that your book is available is half the battle (and my current source of frustration). Obviously, if no one knows your book exists, they won't take a look at it, much less decide to buy it. I might never had purchased Said Sayrafiezadeh's "When Skareboards Will Be Free," for example, which I thought one of the best books I've read in a long, long time, if I hadn't happened on an article about it in the NYT one day. Otherwise, I doubt I'd have ever known about it. Hearing about it was simply a happy accident.

    • meghancward

      Sigh. Yes, Steven, that is the big challenge! Getting on a blog like Tim Ferriss's probably isn't much easier than getting a review in the New York Times. Good luck with your ongoing marketing.

  • Meghan, your posts are always so comprehensive and well researched. Lots of info here. But the bottom line certainly seems to be…nobody knows. I certainly haven't found my niche yet. My books sell best in the UK, where I have very little marketing presence. Once I saw that happening, I decided to concentrate more on that market, but who knows? We're all guinea pigs in a brand new 21st cent. experiment, I think.

    • meghancward

      Anne, Do you think your books sell best in the UK because you're working with Mark Williams? Is he doing much UK marketing for your books? And you're right – who the heck knows what sells books!

      • The weird thing is, my most popular book in the UK is a book I didn't publish with Mark Williams. It's with my US publisher. But it sells better in the UK than here–and better than any of my other books. No idea why.

  • Kristan

    "What makes a book succeed? If anyone could figure out a formula for that, then publishers wouldn’t lose money…"

    Great roundup of insights, thank you for sharing! I think that last paragraph says it all, though. Try as we might, we can't conjure up a magic formula. We're all going to have to do some trial and error for our books to see what works and what doesn't. In a way that's reassuring. We're all in the same boat, you know?

    • meghancward

      I agree, but I think that seeking out your tribe and finding which publications they read, what conferences they attend, what classes they take, etc. is really valuable. Like Donahue said, interviews in Bust, The Awl, etc. were as valuable as being on The View. Good to know for those of us who may never make it on national TV.

  • I liked the part, "…beginning of a long trudge." That is how I look at it and I take solace in knowing that I've sold some books which people have enjoyed. That keeps me motivated to continue to push forward and dream of further success.

  • OMG, failure certainly speaks louder than success. What a sad perspective.

    JA Konrath’s experience with media may be due to a lot of things. But to me what appears to have happened is that whatever the media published certainly didn’t result in him “turning his people on”. I don’t see that as a reason to conclude that “Publicity Doesn’t Work”. I see that a failure to use communicate well and utilize the media opportunity effectively.

    Last week, one of my clients, JJ Smith, did one interview on The Steve Harris Morning Show, and sold over 6,000 books and made it to the top of Amazon’s best seller list ahead of The Hunger Games Trilogy. Sure, it was only for 24 hours or so, but it was a single talk show interview that did it.

    One of my favorite authors, Vince Flynn, did an interview with USA Today on Feb 6. He’s a best selling author of 13 books. He was asked three questions, and he spent one to two minutes more or less, answering each question. I was tickled to see how he handled a question from the USA Today interviewer, that he apparently had never been asked before – “What is it about your stories that brings the reader in?”

    For those of you who have worked with me, I challenge you with this very same question “what do you do that turns people on?” whenever we seek get media coverage whether it is for a review, a feature story, or an interview.

    If you want to be a successful author you not only have to write a really good book, but when you get in front of media you need to turn your audience on. You have to learn how to do that everywhere you go.

    I believe that you can learn to do this anywhere. I call this the miracle of the microcosm because I’ve found that it doesn’t matter where you are. You can learn what to say that turns people on one person at a time. You’ll find hints in your reviewer comments and testimonials where people tell you why they love what you do. The miracle is that once you learn the magic words that produce the action you want, you can then you can use all the media and other marcom technologies as a force multiplier to repeat the message and keep reproducing the effect.

    In a nation with 330 million people, you have very good reason to focus on that message. Even if you are successful in reaching and converting an itsy bitsy tiny percent, you can be phenomenally successful.

    Before you think that doing publicity or any other MarCom (marketing communications) technology is going to help you, you really need to learn what you can say and do that turns your people on. You need to develop a script that produces action. Can you stand in front of 50 people and talk for three minutes so that half the people come flying out of their chairs and hand you money? That is what you need to be able to do. You need to hit their hot buttons by being the very best you can be. You need to give people a transcendental emotionally engaging experience.

    The same is true by the way with social media. The real promise of social media is only achieved when what you’ve done is so good people rave about it to all their friends. If it’s not good enough, it’s just panned.

    If you learn how to turn people on, and then use that in your targeted communications so that you help the people you can help the most, you’ll see your success with the media hit maximum levels. This isn’t easy to do. But if you are strategic and test, improve, and prove your communications systematically, it can be done.

    Make sure that the content you offer is like candy. Create a recipe that tastes so good that people just can’t get enough of it. and they want the whole bag.

    Paul J. Krupin, Publicist

    Comments welcome.

  • […] Ward (right) at Writerland posed a question that I’ve been mulling over for a long time: “If Publicity Doesn’t Sell Books, What Does?” Several authors from the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto weigh in on what worked — and […]

  • […] If Publicity Doesn’t Sell Books, What Does? by Meghan Ward – “According to Konrath, the publicity he got in the Wall Street […]

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