Writing Excuses 16.8: Smart Promotion
Key Points: Promotion has revolutions, so focus your effort on writing your next thing. Make sure you have a solid website with a newsletter that you control. Pay attention to the way readers are finding out about books, not just where writers congregate. Don’t forget that word-of-mouth is one of the most powerful promotional tools. Then, start looking at social media. Pick the places where people are talking about your books, and that you find easy to use. You want to be part of the discussion. Pick the areas where you can write good content.
[Season 16, Episode 8]
[Dan] This is Writing Excuses, Smart Promotion.
[Erin] 15 minutes long.
[Brandon] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Howard] And we’re not that smart.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Erin] I’m Erin.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Howard] I’m Howard.
[Dan] We are talking about smart promotion, how to promote yourself smartly.
[Dan] So, it’s… This is something that I am terrible at, so I am genuinely excited to hear what Brandon has to say, because it’s very easy to waste a lot of time and energy on promoting yourself in ways that have no return on your investment. So, what can you tell us, Brandon, about how to do this right?
[Brandon] Well, number one, write your next thing. This has been the only constant throughout my entire career, because promotion has had a huge, multiple huge revolutions during the time that I’ve been a writer. I started trying to break in in the late 90s and even mid-90s, when email was not a thing you could assume people had. Right? I ended up breaking in in 2005, before Audible and e-books on Amazon were a thing. I had broken… I broke in before Twitter existed. Right? I broke in when MySpace was a thing. I have watched social media revolutions happen over and over, but the only big constant is you should be focused mostly on writing your next thing. We’re going to talk about promotion, we’re going to talk about all the different ways you can promote. The thing about it is, these ways have consistently stopped working for… They’ll work for some authors, and not for others. They will work for a time, and then stop working entirely. The entire game changes so frequently that if you’re not consistently working on the next thing, you’re going to be in trouble because that’s the only standby thing you can know will be useful.
[Dan] I can give a great example of this. Back when I was doing Partials, so we’re talking nine or 10 years ago, book blogs were all the rage. They were huge. I did a blog tour on a bunch of different book blogs, and it launched Partials through the stratosphere. It was fantastic. Three years later, when I launched my next YA science fiction series, book blogs were gone. They… I mean, they’re still around, but they’re not effective anymore. They’re not a useful form of author promotion. So, we had to completely restructure all of our promotion for that series.
[Brandon] Yeah, when I broke in, I remember going to San Diego and driving to every bookstore and delivering… Hand delivering a copy of my paperback. I would walk into the store and say, “Who is your science fiction reader? Can I give them a free book?” I would say, “Hey, if you’ll read this, I’ll give you this free book. Here’s a short pitch on it.” I was able to go to 24 bookstores in San Diego. When I last was there, and look to see which bookstores I could go to, there were four that carried my books. So, things have changed dramatically. Now, that’s partially because San Diego was saturated with Borders. Places where Barnes & Noble had a stronger foothold have still… More of those metropolitan areas didn’t lose as many stores. But even still, the physical book market… My most recent book, Rhythm of War, which came out in November 2020, it was over 50% audiobook in its first week. The fact that… And even now, it’s evened out at about 40% audio and around… The rest is split, hardcover and e-book. This is a really different world. If I’m going to say right now, the big revolution happening right now that’s happened the last couple of years is book marketing has become pay to play. That’s been the trend over the last few years. Unfortunately, all the major social media sites, now, if you want to get eyeballs on your posts, you need to pay for them. Indeed, the big, big change was Amazon deciding to charge authors a lot of money to promote books on different pages. If you are now… If you are an indie author, the biggest change that probably happened in the last few years is, once uupon a time, you could put books up on Amazon… There was a wild west period in 2010, even lasting into the mid-2000 teens, where if you were writing really fast and putting out good books and beating the traditional publishers to the market, you were able to sell huge numbers of books. To sell those books now on Amazon, you need to pay six figures income. I had two indie authors in my writing course at BYU last year, and both of them were spending 5 to 6 figures on marketing their indie books to make back about that much money. Which means that Amazon used to pay you a 70% royalty. They still do, but actually they’re charging you half of that back in advertising money, and Amazon is no longer paying more money to indie authors than traditional publishing pays to traditional authors. That’s gone now. That’s a really big change in the way that marketing happens on the… In the modern era.
[Howard] One of the things that I… A soapbox I’ve been on for 15 years now, that I’m happy to still have as a functioning soapbox, is the idea that your brand, your identity online, needs to have a home that you own. Your domain name, your server, your blog posts or photos or comics or whatever, and you don’t let go of that. Everything else you do, whether it’s Twitter or Instagram or whatever else, all of those things are under someone else’s control and they can cut you off in an instant just by going out of business, and a lot of them will. So this…
[Brandon] Now this is… This was point number two on my list, Howard. Of things to say.
[Howard] Oh, okay.
[Brandon] We didn’t… I didn’t even share this, but you nailed it.
[Brandon] Number two. Once you’re writing your new book, number two is to make sure to have a solid website with a newsletter sign-up that you are keeping up-to-date. People don’t go to individual websites as much as they used to. Your individual website is not going to get the hits that your social media does, but it can’t be taken away from you. It actually can’t. Remember, when we talked about how publishers are not your friends. I’ve had multiple friends that when they launch a big new series, their publisher comes in and says, “We’re going to build a really cool new website for this series.” They said, “Great.” They’re like, “We’re going to spend like money on this,” and it’s been great, except the publisher owns that website. That website is in all of the books. It is branding the series and not the author. My recommendation to you is to say to them, “No, thanks. My website should be the main Brandon website. You should not be building one on Scholastic.com for me that you are sending people to. We’re not going to publish in the books that website that you want to put up.” Put your foot down, because that’s going to brand the series and not you, and it’s going to take the power away from you in one of the few areas you can maintain it in your publicity career.
[Dan] Yeah. Once the publisher decides that it’s no longer going to support that website, then all of those people who are being driven there from the books, they’re finding nothing. You have no control over it, you can’t use it for updates, you can’t cross promote other books. It’s… Now better than just saying don’t do this is providing an alternative. Suggesting how about we take some of that same marketing money and we do this with it. But, Erin, I cut you off. What were you going to say?
[Erin] I was going to make a horrible analogy and say that it’s sort of like when your work… Like, anybody worked and, like, they gave you a Blackberry, like, a work Blackberry, and they’re like, “Just do everything on this. Cancel your personal cell phone plan.” Fast forward like five years later, you’re quitting that job, and you’re like, “Oh, wait. My entire life is on something that I didn’t actually have control of, even though it was in my house and I felt like I did. I didn’t.” One other thing though that Brandon said reminded me the idea of having not as many people going to your website and more people going to social media is that I think there’s also a difference between what writers do and what readers do. It’s always important to remember that you are both a writer and a reader. So, where are you, as a reader, finding out about the books, the stories, the things that you’re consuming? A lot of times, I love Twitter, and, like, I love talking to people on Twitter about my work, but I find more writers congregate on Twitter and talk amongst each other about the field, whereas when people are looking for a book recommendation, they may be more likely to find that through some other source. So I think it’s important to think about, like, what are you doing, and would you find out about your own book in the way that you’re promoting it. If the answer is no, then you should probably change that up a little bit.
[Howard] A fun example from… And I have… We have three of the key participants here. Typecast RPG, which Dan launched, two years ago now? Two and a half years ago?
[Dan] Yeah. Something like that.
[Howard] It’s a live streaming of role-playing games. Dan’s the GM, I’m one of the players, Erin’s one of the players. For a year and 1/2, we were trying to do Twitter marketing, Instagram marketing, whatever. We talked a little bit about setting up a Discord channel for us. The response was always, “Why would we do Discord?” Then, we’re recording this in December of 2020, literally three weeks ago, I sat up and realized at the end of an episode, we end these episodes and our audiences having this fun interaction in the chat room in Twitch. Then we stop, and they all have to go home. They can’t keep talking. If we set up a Discord channel and link them to it, suddenly our fans, our viewers can keep having their conversations, and by having those conversations, and I’ve said this explicitly to them so it’s okay, by having these conversations, some of them may become evangelists for our show, talking about it in other places and doing our marketing for us. I feel like an idiot for not making this connection 18 months ago. I guess the lesson there is we all get to feel like an idiot for not having made the right decision sooner. But that decision is always going to be one that you have to look at. The landscape is going to be changing, and you’re going to discover that something that you previously said, “Why would I even use that?” is actually the thing that you should absolutely be using right now.
[Dan] You can go right now and join our Discord if you want to be part of our Typecast community. I’m sure will put the notes in the liner notes.
[Dan] We need to do a book of the week and this week it is coming from Brandon.
[Brandon] So, one of the fun things about being a published novelist of some renown is that you get offered a lot of books before they come out. We looked at the schedule for this year and work sure that I was going to be on an episode, because were frontloading my episodes, when this book comes out, so I’m sorry, I’m promoting it to you several months early. But, the book of the week is Andy Weir’s Project Hail Mary. Andy Weir, you may know, is the author of The Martian which is a fantastic book and movie. Project Hail Mary is his new book coming out in May. I loved this book. Just absolutely. 100% loved it. I like it more than The Martian, which is a great book. This is more of a me book. It’s got a little bit more of a far future feel to it, even though it’s kind of happening now. The science and technology is more science fiction-y. It’s… There’s just something, just pleasantly fun about this book and the problem-solving, and I can’t even tell you really what the book is about without giving you huge spoilers. But it is written… There is a non-linear fashion to it, where you’re getting flashbacks to find out character… It’s what we call a white room book. Character wakes up without any memories in a white room, and he has no idea how he got there, what’s going on, and what his situation is. He slowly pieces together his past and his history as he is trying to keep himself from dying and to solve a big problem. It is delightful, and I recommend it to anyone. One of the things I love about Andy Weir is he is kind of bringing hard science fiction to the masses. I count myself in that. I bounce off a lot of hard science fiction and I force myself to read it because I know it’s good for me, and there are some really interesting hard science fiction books. Andy Weir’s, I never feel like I’m forcing myself to read. I’m having a wonderful pleasant time. So, Project Hail Mary.
[Brandon] Also is a really good pun, because the character’s name is Grace. Hail Mary and Grace play into what’s going on in an interesting way that is never mentioned in the book, and is just a delightful pun.
[Erin] You know…
[Dan] Well, awesome. Sounds good.
[Erin] Listening to that, I have to say, reminds me that word-of-mouth and people telling you to read something is one of the, like, most powerful promotional tools out there.
[Brandon] It really is.
[Erin] It’s so important and something that I think about in terms of marketing just generally, is, “Is your book, is your work, in… Like, on the lips of the people who are talking about the works you love and that you want to be in conversations with?” If you’re like, “I am also writing hard science fiction for the masses,”… I’m not, but let’s say I was. Like, I also want people to say, like, “Oh, if you like that Andy… If that’s what you like about Andy Weir, you’ll also love Erin’s next novel.” So, really figuring out what are those people doing who you want to be, like, your book and your work to be mentioned alongside. How are they promoting themselves? Who are they getting in front of? What can you do that similar? Is a good way to try to like get that word-of-mouth that is so powerful.
[Brandon] That’s actually a brilliant thing to bring up that I didn’t even have in my list of notes here, Erin, because I have several friends whose careers him were made by the fact that a series got really big, that they had a book similar to, at the same time. Kind of just been bought or just on submission. That they were able to then get on those bookstore talkers, where they’re like, “If you like this, here are books like it,” and get that halo effect, and it made their careers. You could say that I… My career was made kind of by that. By picking up the Wheel of Time in a similar way and things like that. But I do want to get to the third point on my list of things. Number one is write your next thing. Number two is make sure you have a solid website with a newsletter. We didn’t talk enough about the newsletter, we’ve talked about them before. Newsletters are one of the most valuable resources you can have, because those are people who opt in and who want to get an email from you telling them when a new thing is out. You will have, generally, a smaller number of people on your newsletter then you will have following you in various social media settings. But the buy-in, you don’t have to… Like, on Facebook, you make have 100,000 followers, but when you post on Facebook, you don’t promote it, 15 of them will see it. I’m exaggerating, but you know what I mean.
[Brandon] Your newsletter often will have a 30 to 40% response rate, is very common. They’re annoying to set up, you have to get something like MailChimp, it takes a little bit of upfront set up an understanding, but it is absolutely worth your time to have a newsletter, and to be writing one at least every year, or I try to do them quarterly.
[Dan] Well, I wanted to just jump in quick and say, per our earlier discussion, newsletters have been one of the longest lasting promotional outlets. They have outlived five or six generations of other promotional systems, and they’re still effective.
[Brandon] Yep. You can’t… They can’t be taken away from you. Again, you control that newsletter and you can send it to people. Now, there are ways to do this right so that you’re not ending up in spam folders, and there is the fact that people generally get a lot of newsletters because unscrupulous sites sign you up for their newsletter knowing that it is one of the best marketing tools. I would recommend that you be upfront with your newsletter and not have one of those big pop-ups and not just automatically sign people up. Treat your fans with respect. These are the people who are going to be spreading the word-of-mouth. Give them a good return on their newsletter. Generally, a good tip is to put some exclusive stuff in the newsletter, like exclusive fiction, previews of things, or, oftentimes a newsletter promotion is very handy, and things like that. But point number three is, after you’ve done those things, then you can start to look at social media platforms. Understand that social media, we’re still in the wild west in social media. It’s less than 20 years that social media has been a force. Early in social media, new platforms would rise and fall every couple of years. That’s stopped happening, and big platforms have started to get a foothold, but what we found is that people tend to calcify on their given platform, and, like, you’ll find Facebook and Twitter having this problem, they don’t pick up new people very often. The people who were active on them stay active, but they don’t pick up the new people. The new people go to a new generation of platform and are there. So you can drive yourself mad trying to be on all the platforms and reach all the people. I would recommend doing what Erin has said. Find out where the discussions about your books are happening, or find out the social media platforms that are most easy for you to use, that you will be consistent on. Because being consistent is more important than being in the place that is the most popular. If you’re in the place that’s most popular, but you are bad on that platform, it’s not going to do you as much good as having a nice Twitter timeline where you are consistently updating and are writing interesting things.
[Howard] One of the most powerful things about social media, and, again, Erin mentioned this with regard to word-of-mouth, is the idea that other people are talking about your work. I’ve had people say, “Howard Tayler is writing the finest hard science fiction in the market today.” That is not something I would ever dream of saying about myself. People are not going to believe it if I said about myself. But if someone else says it, I can retweet it and say, “Thank you. You are very kind.” Now I have accomplished some promotion and expressed an opinion or amplified an opinion about my work that I could not have done myself. The social aspect of it is key. I can’t just shout my brand into a void, I have to participate in a discussion.
[Brandon] Yeah. Knowing what your social media is trying to do is another thing to think about. During the years when blogs were a big deal, becoming a platform writer was a thing you could do. John Scalzi and Cory Doctorow both kind of broke out as platform writers, where they were having a big platform where they were writing really interesting things and people work coming to them for the other things that they were writing. Also, they started writing books and selling to that audience. Harder to do now than it used to be. You can still do it. But that’s very different from, for instance, my social media presence. Because I have the luxury of having a large audience already. My social media platform does not have to draw new readers. My social media platforms are there for existing readers to get information that they want. That’s a very different type of social media platform. Like, my Twitter is very different from Howard’s. If you want to read a Twitter that you’re just going to have fun with, go to Howard’s Twitter. Right? If you want to know specifically about what Brandon is doing, that’s the reason to go to my Twitter. I’m not going to entertain you on my Twitter. I don’t have to. But I will probably entertain you on Reddit, where I’m posting still mostly about my books, but in much more expensive ways and doing updates and things like that, because I’m on Reddit and I’m just there as part of that community. It was very easy for me to do updates on Reddit that are interesting and engaging for me to write an interesting to the people who are going there. So I have made a focus in the areas where I am most likely to write good content.
[Dan] Now, that kind of leads into… I know that we still wanted to talk about targeting your audience, but I’m afraid at this point we have to can-of-worms that for a future episode, because it sounds like effective promotion is something we could talk about forever. So we promise we will come back to this at some point in the future.
[Dan] But this episode is wildly over time, and we need to cut it off now, with a little bit of homework from Brandon.
[Brandon] So, this can actually tie into that targeting your audience thing. Which is, I would recommend you take the authors that you read and go see what their social media presences look like. Because you can learn a lot by looking at what different people are doing and seeing what you think is effective. Take that author and kind of… You’re going to have to kind of lump them in groups based on their sales and their awareness of them in the market, and see what kind of responses they’re getting on various social media platforms. Use this to kind of start building an idea for yourself how you would want to approach this. These are things you can start while you’re not published yet. You can spend too much time on them, so don’t do that. But be watching what people are doing and be thinking about this.
[Dan] Awesome. Well, this is Writing Excuses. You are out of excuses. Now go write.