Indie Authors – The Publicity Dilemma

“Most books, both traditionally published and self-published, don’t sell well.” – Mark Coker, Smashwords founder

Free Kindle Book
Free Kindle Book

Self-publishing has made the world of books more democratic. Authors who never could find an agent or a publisher’s editor to give their books a chance in the traditional publishing world can now publish and distribute their books through such platforms as Smashwords, Kindle, and CreateSpace.

But then what?

While self-published and small press authors are no longer the black sheep who couldn’t get published by a “real publisher,” book marketing for indie authors partly includes re-training the reading public and partly creating a platform that makes the books worth the time and cost to the reader.

Retraining the Public

Free Kindle Book
Free Kindle Book

When I talk to friends who are not authors, they tell me that 99.99% of the books they buy are traditionally published books from widely known publishers and authors that they heard about from friends, feature stories in newspapers and online publications, and from reviews by professional reviewers. While, book bloggers, social media, and reader reviews are making a dent in reader reliance on old-style marketing techniques, people tend to buy and read what they’ve always bought and read unless we show them something better.

I’m a writer and not a marketing expert, so I’m not going to try and compete with advice you can get from books like the two free Kindle books by Smashwords founder Mark Coker. (If you don’t own a Kindle, download the free “Kindle for PC” application from Amazon and read the books on your computer screen.) Otherwise, here are a few thoughts:

  • Yes, we need to show friends and other prospective readers samples of our work so they’ll see that it’s good. But we also need to talk about other self-published and small press books to let people know there’s a lot of stuff to read out there that’s not coming from giant, traditional publishers. Talk about the authors you’ve discovered in the genres you know your friends like.
  • Yes, we need to converse with other people in “real life” and in the social media, but unless (or until) you’re a celebrity, most people other than your closest friends don’t care what you’re having for dinner tonight or how many times a day your cat threw up a hairball. We need to be accessible while maintaining the ability to morph our off-line and online presence into that of a professional writer.

Platform and Presentation

Naturally, we need to begin with the best book we can write and design. While a small press will usually provide professional editing, formatting and cover design, you will either have to learn how to do such things or pay somebody else to do them if you self-publish.

claytonpublishSince the book will be competing with professionally edited and designed books, asking your kids to create the cover artwork with crayons or your spouse to look through the manuscript for typos isn’t going to cut it. Part of your investment in your book may well include hiring a professional cover designer and editor or finding some very talented beginners or students who will provide great work at a lower cost. Maybe you can barter with other professionals: you write their news releases and they copy edit your books.

There’s a learning curve with professional-level self-publishing. I’m wary of many of the online services that offer help. Perhaps  I’m cynical and think that after I pay $500 for somebody to arrange a blogging tour, will I break even when/if the book starts to sell. Novelist Melinda Clayton has done some of our self-publishing homework for us in her recently published Self-publishing Made Simple: A How-to Guide for the Non-tech-savvy Among Us. Here are a few more thoughts:

  • Developing an online persona in blogs, social media sites, and our own websites can easily trap us into an overall approach that appears to be ALL ABOUT ME. While we’re writing the book, we’re focused on the story and how can best tell it. Sure, some people are curious about such things. But, too much of that, and their eyes glaze over.
  • Yes, an author’s fame helps sell books. Some people will buy everything their favorite author writes as long as it’s good. Prospective new readers will, however, read the reviews, the interviews and the feature stories about an author’s new book. When presented with thousands of prospective books a month, most of us are more likely to reject a book than to try it out. Why? We don’t have time to study each book in depth, so we weed them out quickly. . .wrong price, wrong genre, uninteresting story, unattractive cover. In short, there’s nothing in it for us. Take your best shot fast with something interesting that stops that rejection train.
  • This leads to the true focus of our pitch. It’s not ALL ABOUT ME, it’s ALL ABOUT YOU. We need to show prospective readers the book’s features and benefits. Show them in everything you say and do, including the book’s online description and back-cover copy, what’s in it for them.
  • Avoid blog interviews that rely on generic questions unless there’s a wide variety of them and you get to choose which ones to answer. More often than not, generic questions such as When did you first know you wanted to be a writer and Are you a plotter or a pantser make you sound like an amateur. Plus, they focus on you, your issues, and your writer’s journey rather than what’s in the book for the reader to enjoy.
  • Readers were attracted to Rowling's books before they were attracted to her story about writing them. he story in your novel comes before the story of your life.
    Readers were attracted to Rowling’s books before they were attracted to her story about writing them. The story in your novel comes before the story of your life.

    Sorry about this, but saying you’re a work-at-home mom, an avid reader, or a dad who makes up bedtime stories for his kids isn’t going to sell your book. First, there’s nothing unique about any of that. Those are not the prerequisites for becoming a writer no matter how important they are in your own life. Second, focusing on your personal life is still ALL ABOUT ME. Focus on hobbies, avocations, and career information that not only shows the reader you’re deeply involved and knowledgeable about the people, places and themes in your books, but that you share a common ground.

  • Success Breeds Interest. That’s a long-time proverb from management and supervision courses. I think it’s true of writers and how they relate to the public. Even if we’re not selling loads of books, being negative online about one’s lot in life doesn’t make us very attractive. Obviously, lack-of-success probably breeds apathy. So, a positive approach is the basis of a successful platform. Many writers disagree with me, but I think it’s bad form to ask for reviews and for readers to tell their friends about your book. That sounds like lack of success to me for, if people like your book, they’ll spread the word without being asked. If you’re having trouble with your publisher, your editor, your cover designer, with Amazon, or with anyone else, save comments about that to writers’ forums and private messages. There’s a double standard here, I know: if J.K. Rowling sues somebody, it’s news–if indie writers complain, it’s unattractive and unsuccessful sour grapes. Don’t bash your publisher online.
  • You are not a charity case even if you’re broke. When I worked with nonprofit organizations, a lot of executive directors thought that if they simply announced an event, the public would show up in record numbers. Why? Because the charity or museum is a good cause. Well, there are hundreds of good causes out there, so using that as one’s rationale isn’t going to draw people to weekend events. Nonprofits have to sell the event. What wonders will the public experience by attending it? What’s in it for them? We show our lack of professionalism and continue the ALL ABOUT ME mindset if we present ourselves as people who need to be rescued rather than professional writers to be read if we focus our efforts on asking people to help us succeed. This kind of sentimentalism isn’t going to sell books. Count on it. If you say you’re broke, it suggests that you’re not any good.

If you’re a writer, best of luck finding the combination of publicity techniques and approaches that work for you. If you’re a reader, remember that those of us who focus on storytelling don’t always know how to tell you about our stories.


Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of magical realism novels, including “Lena.”