Does Anybody Really Know What Marketing Works?

I spent my morning writing about marketing for a thing I am obligated to do because I promised. I don’t know how many times I’ve written about marketing. Feels like a lot.

Feels like I’m done.

Chicago is in my head.

Does anybody really know what time it is
(I don’t)
Does anybody really care
If so I can’t imagine why
(about time)
We’ve all got time enough to cry
Oh no, no
And I was walking down the street one day
Being pushed and shoved by people trying to beat the clock,
oh, so I just don’t know,
I just don’t know
And I said, yes I said
Background Vocal:
People runnin’ everywhere
Don’t know the way to go
Don’t know where I am
Can’t see past the next step
Don’t have to think past the last mile
Have no time to look around
Just run around, run around and think why

For one thing, I’m totally insecure about this right now. Like, more than usual. About the fact that my second book was just shy of cracking the Kindle top 1000 but didn’t quite make it. And now it’s hovering around 3000. And my first book, even though it sat in the 400-500s for a long spell, even though it recently peeked back into the 2000s, is once again in freefall and hovering around 10,000. And looking at it now you really can’t tell what an awesome run it had once upon a time.

And I’m left going: I’ve never even made the Kindle top 100, why are you even asking me? Half the time I feel like a fraud. At least half the time. I am just starting to get the point where I feel like it’s okay to use the term “bestseller” in my marketing, even though I didn’t make that overall top 100 list. But I see other respectable people making that claim, so… maybe I’ve been unreasonably hard on myself. (What? Me? Hard on myself? Shut the front door.) Kait and I agree that I have no reasonable perception of reality. She’s mainly talking about the sales stuff, but I see this as a general rule of thumb.

I’m being asked for marketing advice when I haven’t even taken advantage of a term like bestseller.

But I don’t know that most people really care where the advice is coming from. Just like everyone gives out writing advice before they’re published, everyone passes around marketing advice too. And I’m not ragging on that. I’m just saying that this whole thing I have where I’m so uptight about whether or not I even have credibility to answer these requests is probably unfounded because it seems like people don’t really care anymore where their information is coming from.

And then I start to think that if they don’t care, why am I bothering? Why do I feel obligated to step up to these requests when no one really cares if these techniques actually yield results? Just, if  someone has some free time, go write a Wikipedia article on it and we’ll all go cite that as Truth and be happy.

After all, the real truth of it is:

Nobody knows.

There. I said it. When someone invites you to come talk about marketing, that’s about the last thing they want you to say, right? But that’s how it feels right now. No one knows what works because what worked this time last year or even last month doesn’t work now. What worked for Author A doesn’t work for Author B.

The truth part B:

Write a good book.

Do you know how hard it is for me to say that? Because to say that is to suggest that I did and someone else didn’t. Which is to invite the Universe to come and smite me. But this obsession with marketing just seems to be out of control and I gotta say something.

Five years ago, all the blogs were talking about writing. Now how many of them are devoted to building a platform? And I get how building a platform before the book would be really helpful. I do. But if my fellow writers are spending the kind of time learning about that and doing it that I have been in the last year, I have no idea how they’re getting the time to put into learning to write a novel. Which explains how many very unfortunate books I come across.

I know that wishing isn’t particularly useful, but I wish we could go back to the time when we could just learn to craft novels. I’m tired of talking about marketing to people who aren’t ready to market stuff yet and will do it anyway, and don’t care if the advice-giver has any credibility, or if the information has any validity. Which it kind of doesn’t because nobody knows.

/frustranxiety-powered rant


Filed under writing

16 responses to “Does Anybody Really Know What Marketing Works?

  1. Bravo! You’re totally right. Look, there are the basic things that work for everyone in getting your name out there – blog, Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads – and then there are the things that work for some and don’t work for others OR worked for some on their first book and don’t on their second. If it was as easy as, “write a book, make it 99 cents, write another book, make it $2.99,” we’d all have one meelion dollars.
    I frequently wish that I could stop marketing and just write books, but then the fear of destroying the platform I’ve built makes me keep at it and try new things.
    I mean, I’ve got 8 books under my belt, a couple of which did really well for six months before taking a nosedive, and I don’t effin’ know why they did well or why they dropped off the face of the planet.
    Seriously, it’s like, 99% luck. And, no, I’m not talking about Oprah preparation meets inspiration luck, because there are a lot of unprepared, uninspired writers out there doing awesome.
    Wow. You got me in a tizzy. 🙂

  2. Fantastic post, well done! You’re absolutely right, of course, and I was saying the same thing myself just last night. Things are changing so fast all anyone can tell is what worked for them, but since that’s already in the past, no one knows what’s going to work in the future, so it’s pretty much all just made up. Which is fine, if we acknowledge that it’s made up. Not so good if people are holding up this or that as being the absolute answer.

    Well said. And I don’t think the universe will smite thee. You did write a good book. Two, in fact 🙂

  3. I hear ya, Susan. I think everyone has to find their own particular formula for marketing success, and even then, what works today might not work for the next book. Maybe the best thing we can do is work on building that “guaranteed buyer” list John Locke talks about, and I think the way to do that is to keep on writing books your audience will love.

  4. I say talk about what you know, and if you don’t know, say you don’t know. Does that make sense? I would never tell someone how to market a book. But I could tell them what’s helped me. I can’t tell them if that would work for them. So that’s not really advice, just telling my experiences. I have no idea how one of my novellas got up to 135 in rank at one point. I did very little marketing. I can’t explain it, except maybe it was the title. Which I actually think you suggested.

    Write a good book? But, then, what’s a good book for one person won’t be a good book for another person. There’s the subjective thing. Of course, there are some books that are obviously bad. The thing is, YOU DID write a good book. You wrote a great book. Two great books. So you can say that with confidence. And sometimes it takes awhile for it to gain momentum. One book I published in January didn’t really sell well until July where it gained momentum through August and September. I wish I knew what triggered things like that.

    I think you’re right about one thing…nobody knows.

  5. As far as I can tell, it’s a freaking crap-shoot, and yet we keep on truckin’. I’ll let y’all know if I stumble upon some sort of miracle marketing solution…

  6. This post is perfect. 🙂

    There are so many unknowns and people telling us how they did it, but in the end I’ve chosen to go with what is the most *fun* for me to do, in regards to marketing. Sometimes that means I don’t market at all. Sometimes it means I spend hours scouring review blogs and emailing queries.

    Of course, my book hasn’t even broken the top 10,000 on amazon as far as I know, but on the other hand I’m not sick to death of marketing, and I’m not feeling like I’m more of a marketer than a writer. We’ll see what comes along as I put out more material.

  7. Amy

    Excellent post. I really don’t expect everyone to know everything, or even close to everything. But I’ve started to post what things I HAVE learned and love getting clues from other people. No, not everything that works for me will work for you and visa versa, but when I recently posted my poor experience trying out “Twiends” to gain Twitter followers for example, I hope that is one less thing of the MILLION THINGS out there that someone will have to try before the go on to the next! (And that it is SOME payback for the input I’ve received from people like you posting their experiences!)

  8. David Hoyt

    I wonder of Amazon “Recommends” bias to maximize their profits, make deals w/ publishers and the like. It certainly recommends new or upcoming books are recommended way more than “mature” books. There are books and authors that I’m amazed I haven’t seen in my recommendations. They are becoming a more powerful marketing force than any of the big publishing houses.

    To some extent, that’s not too different from the large bricks and mortar bookstores. Even in the few small remaining personal stores (usually independent), they usually have “splash” events. Book signings, &c. On the other hand, they also come to know you and what you like. I’ve had people recommend me books that are no longer in print; even offer to try tracking down a copy.

    B&N stores definitely push newer books. The probably get “incentives” by the publishers on what books are displayed for what length of time. Most of their clerks are clueless about the customer and most “mature” authors and books. I once asked about “Robertson Davies”; complete blank look. I think I would have gotten the same response if I asked for “Jane Austin.” Even when I’ve asked about a new popular book, they often have to go to their computer to find it. Which takes them about 15 minutes for each book. As to their online recommendation system, I’m clueless on what it does.

    Goodreads is starting to provide some independent recommendations but is immature. Writer’s blogs help with self marketing and cross author recommendations. Outside of that, I don’t know of any way to continue to market. Groups the “The League of Reluctant Adults” are good cross marketing blogs. The blogs are transitory, so newness is focused in that media as well.

    In the publishing world and the large bookstores, “new” is pushed hard. That true even for e-books. Aside from Rowlings I don’t think anyone has stayed in the NYT top 10 (or 100) for any length of time. Roberts always seem to have a half dozen, but those are rotate out as the next book comes out. Generally, everyone from the publisher to the book sellers to the book reviewers focus on the new.

    Perhaps the best thing that can be done is in your personal web site. Your “Books” area should be broken down by series (even if standalone) presented in copyright, reading and timeline orders; probably by tags as well (e.g. young adult, paranormal, mystery). Also cross-link to Favorite Authors, Favorite Series, Favorite Books, &c. Those lists should be condensed. If you want to add commentary, probably link to the details, or have the details below. The whole site is geared to the consumer, so make it easy for them to find the information quickly.

    Don’t forget to add “Swallows and Amazons,” Patricia Wrede,” “Jane Austin;” assuming they were important to you. Again, constantly present the new and the old. Cross linking between authors’ web-sites, blogs and so on will maximize the quality of google searches. Someone who’s searching for “Dorthy Sayers” might well come across your site and discover you for the first time.

    Sadly, the marketing world only focuses on the new. I think the only hope for long term marketing is good self promotion, cross linking between authors and maintaining a good list of your favorite influences. That’s going to be difficult and possibly expensive. You’re a writer, not a web programmer. You (and me) want your books written.

    Wasting time programming shouldn’t be a priority. Unfortunately, it costs money to write and host a good site. You’ll probably need to hire out for that (expensive). Perhaps you could union/co-op/corporation with other writers to create the structure to share the costs. Then add your own content.

    Finally, make sure you have an ISBN for your book. Think of your e-book as a hardcover book. That means front and back covers, liner notes, reviews and recommendations. Add tags to your book, a good table of contents. That probably means that you need a book designer. Again your co-op might help there. Make sure the reviews and recommendations, tags are posted in sites like Goodreads. Have a chapter or two “preview.” Help them with their recommendations as well. Perhaps use the default Goodreads tags. Sell on Smashwords, AllRomance, as well as Amazon and B&N. The more sales channels the better. Print on demand can be an option as well. Facebook, Twitter even G+ links to your web site(s) will help.

    This all sounds like what a typical publishing house might do. But Random House is a pain to get noticed in the first place. Again, that’s where the co-op might help.

    I could blather on for days. But I do think that self promotion, usable websites with lots of cross linking is the only choice at the moment. Every other force seems only to care about the new. Some publishers get repeat buyers by publishing omnibus books with new titles, creating new with the old; but you don’t want to do that too soon.

  9. @Stacey- That fear of destroying the platform thing…that’s a thing. I go away sometimes and come back and I’m not sure anything bad really happens. I’m in a state now where I probably should go away for a spell. (Couldya tell?) Maybe the platform is just an illusion.

    @AM- I think I just need to not accept any more invitations to talk about this crap because the senselessness is getting to me. 🙂

    @Lisa- I just stumbled across Locke’s book on Amazon the other day, but didn’t get it. I’m guess a guaranteed buyer is kind of like a big fan?

    @LL- Yes! Guardian Vampire was my title and I’m totally taking credit for your rocket to fame and fortune! My marketing guru status is now secure!! Thanks.

    @Christel- Before or after you go all infommercial with it?

    @Madeline- You are brilliant. I think I want to be just like you.

    @Amy- No Twiends. Check. And there’s a thing. I have to make everything such a big deal, totally analyze stuff, and turn it into some big write up. If I could just say, I did this, it kind of sucked, I don’t recommend it, the end, I’d have time for lunch.

    @David- Wow, thanks for taking the time to leave that awesome reply. I can’t even start to process all that but I’m so happy to have it here where I can come back to it. There are some backroomish time things I’ve been wondering about. Like the thing where Amazon changed the algorithm to favor books with some longevity over books that spike sales in any given hour makes sense to me, but it should also favor traditional publishing over indies in general because they’ve been around longer. So I wonder if that wasn’t a bit of concession to get something they wanted. Last year when I published I was allowed to choose 4 or 5 categories (I have 4 but I think 5 were allowed). This year when I published it was only 2. So now my new book isn’t showing up on as many bestseller lists. I wonder if the number of categories for traditionally published books is different. Last year when I published I was a new release for 90 days. Meaning I got exposure on the Hot New Releases Bestseller list in my categories for 90 days. This year: 30 days. Who’s more likely to hit the bestseller list within 30 days of publication, an indie author or a publisher-backed author. Plus, a LOT of the books on the Hot New Releases Bestseller lists are pre-orders. They’re not even available yet. Most indies don’t get pre-orders up on Amazon, but trads do. In short, I wonder if our level playing field isn’t shifting under our feet.

  10. YES! Susan, I totally agree with you. I went from commercial writing, where I felt like I had some basic sense of what kind of marketing worked and what didn’t, to fiction writing, where all bets are off. I *think* I wrote a pretty decent books–reviews have been pretty good–but who knows? It’s not taking off. So… what works? I don’t know.

    But what I’ve decided is… I don’t care. I’ll just keep writing, publishing, and blogging (lather, rinse, repeat), and eventually, I’ll be an “overnight” success. I’ll get better and better (Oh, dear God, I hope I’ll get better!), and eventually, someone will notice and people will spread the word.

    Thank you for saying what so many other people sorta kinda know but don’t want to say. 🙂

    • @Amy- Yeah, that’s where I am, throwing up my hands and just trying to get back to writing books instead of whatever else it is I’ve been writing.

      You last line makes me of “The things we think and do not say,” like I’m all Jerry Maguire and shit.

      It was a mission statement!

  11. Wanna know something creepy? Right after I clicked on this post, my husband put on a Chicago record (yes, a record) and played “Anyone know what time it is?” Spoooooooky!

    My book’s not out yet, so as for “marketing” I’m just making friends with authors and just being myself. But priority #1 will always be to produce the best writing and stories possible.

  12. techsurgeons

    Hi Susan,

    People are fickle creatures. And marketing techniques that worked in the past have been rendered completely obsolete – thinks back to my sister needing some magical wave inducing hair curler she read about in “Teen Beat.”

    I’ve been wondering if you get fan mail from those in your target audience and if you can use it to better get in their peer’s head.
    (My friends are annoyed with me for trying to push “Hush Money” on them with 2 minutes to go in the last quarter but I’m still trying.)

    With respect to branding and platforms, YA& MG authors have it doubly tough because they’re often -not- in the genre they write. So given limited time, where should the platform’s focus be? The author and her writing? A site interesting to the target market? Both, but what if that takes the author away from writing? It’s headache inducing.

    I know you’re frustrated, but you are doing the right things. I’d suggest patience but you’ll laugh me off the blog if I do.


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