Thursday, July 24, 2014

Book Promotion: What Worked, What Didn't

Copyright © 2013 Michael W. Davis
Originally Published by 1st Turning Point

If you’re a newbie to the fiction-writing business, the day you get The Call, you are ecstatic.  Your heart starts to flutter like the first time you made, well, you know what I mean.  A month later, when you receive your marketing query package from the publisher, you become confused.  After all, you did your part, right?  You created a fantastic story.  Someone else is supposed to promote your book, right?  Sorry, wrong answer.  You are an integral part of the promotion process.
Although the degree of involvement will vary depending on the size of your publisher’s purse strings, we all have to do it.  Need proof?  I live on a lake where numerous authors reside, including one well-known “big eight” writer, yet I know he promotes locally with appearances and booksignings within our small community, just like I do.  Question is, if you’re like me, both your time and personal promotion budget are small.  How do you choose which marketing avenues provide the most return on investment (both in revenue and spent hours) for your particular situation?  I ended up in that very dilemma myself about four years ago.
Being an applied mathematician in a previous life, and wanting to concentrate as much time as possible on writing, I decided it was necessary to do some research on exactly where I should sink my limited resources.  In the dozens of sources I consulted, the opinions were mixed, leaving me perplexed.  Not being one to give up easily, I turned to my old pastime of conducting statistical analysis using site hit data and supporting revenue statements.  This three-part series offers what I’ve learned over the last four years from self-promotion of my novels.  Conclusions are data driven from recording deep hit visits to my website (discussed in the second part of this article) during periods when various promotional activities were being conducted.  I discuss promotion avenues I’ve attempted, some of which worked, and some of which did not.  In the third part of the series, I will actually rank 21 promotion activities I have used in terms of their return on investment to me.
Part 2—Some Background and General Observations
Let’s begin with a little background.  I’ve been writing fiction for six years and was contracted by an independent publisher in May 2007.  Once my first book was released, I was amazed at the level of effort involved in promoting one’s own books.  I’m sure authors associated with the big eight (Random House, Penguin, etc.) have a different experience, but for the 99.98% of us associated with independent (non-vanity) publishers, self-promotion is an essential element of our daily routine.  The degree to which my time became absorbed in promotion activities was a major surprise.  Yet, I’ve learned from discussing this topic with other authors, I wasn’t the only one shell-shocked by what it takes to push your books.
In the first few months, I became aware of a problem.  Every few weeks a new promotional opportunity would pop up.  Thing was, with so few hours in the day, I was forced to allocate time between my muse (the very reason I started writing) and promotion.  I decided to collect statistics that would reflect the effectiveness of each marketing activity.  Those that clearly had a significant impact, I would continue; those that did not, I would discard.  I share this experience in the hope newbies just entering the profession will have a leg up over the time I spent struggling through the swamp.  My observations are offered as is—others may disagree and I’m happy to discuss what they have observed.  I am open to questions via the contact box on my website.
The Basis of My Observations—I’ve kept website statistics since December 2007 and my observations are derived from an analysis of those results.  I started only one new promotion activity at a time—in that way, any effect I witnessed was not convoluted across multiple promotion avenues.
Terminology—The best statistic to use in order to evaluate if a promo avenue works would be increases in sells during the recording period.  Unfortunately, there is a six-month lag between when I enact a promotion  activity and when I get my royalty statement.  Thus, I fell back on two metrics that should correlate to some degree with event sells, namely: Deep hits and buy page visits.  I’ll explain those in a minute.  I do not record shallow hits to my site based on the logic that such visits were most likely a false hit; my site was not what they were looking for in their search.
  • Deep hits—If a visitor to my site stays longer then two minutes, or visits my excerpt, review, or trailer pages, I assume they were interested enough to at least read further.
  • Shallow hits—If a visitor simply enters my website via the home page and exits, I assume it was a mistaken search/hit and I discard it.  Rule of thumb:  I get 12 to 18 times the number of shallow versus deep hits.
  • Buy page ratio—I compute the percentage of deep hits in a week that exit my site via a visit to the buy page.
  • Base rate—The average rate (computed across three weeks) of deep hits when no special promotion activities are going on.
General Observations
  1. Each promotion activity has a shelf life of its own ranging from one to six weeks.
  2. Repeatedly doing the same, exact promo activity quickly wears out your audience.
  3. A promotion campaign must be continuous.  Otherwise your hits quickly decline to the base rate.
  4. Many authors believe promotion activities have a long-term benefit of establishing name awareness.  It’s not that I disagree, rather that the data collected is not aligned to evaluate such effects.
Stay tuned for part three of the series, where I discuss actual activities that worked for me, along with those that did not.

Part 3—Comparison of Promotion Avenues
In this final part of my article on self-promotion of novels, we will discuss the meat, namely:  what worked for me and to what degree.  Understand that the results presented here are based on my observations and collected data.  Other authors may have different results or conclusions.
Below are 21 activities I have conducted in an attempt to promote my stories.  In addition to these activities, there were certain “background” activities being conducted routinely by myself and my publisher.  I collected ambient levels for four months to evaluate the nature and effectiveness of such promotion and adjusted my analysis of other avenues accordingly.
The numbers in front of the activities below (e.g., “100″) indicate their relative benefit in promoting my books when compared to time spent.  The scoring does not deal with intangible return (e.g., the activity is just fun to do, etc.)  Note that a “100″ score represents five times the benefit of a score of 20.  All scores above 50, I considered effective in terms of the time spent and I repeat those activities as active components of my marketing plan.  Scores below 20, to me, were not worth the effort in terms of the time involved and were “generally” dropped from my bag of marketing avenues.  Scores between 20 and 50 were done if I had time.
100  Special Recognitions—The events that resulted in the largest return on investment were awards (or nominations for awards).  Here are three examples:
  • When I won the “Author of the Year” award, I expended maybe an hour to announce it on a few social network sites.  For that investment my deep hits increased 350% and buy page visits increased 250%.
  • My novel Forgotten Children was nominated as “best romantic suspense” by two sites.  That event increased deep hits 220% and buy page hits 130%.
  • When my short SF story The Treasure hit the Fictionwise book outlet’s bestseller page, the hit rate jumped 260% (the buy page visits only increased 50%).
I’ve discussed this with two other authors and their experiences have been the same.  Regrettably, most of these events happen on their own.  I do on occasion submit my work to non-profit groups for considerations, but there are few of those (I do not submit to the profit-oriented contests).
90  Reviews—Whenever I have a new release, I submit the novel for review to various websites, plus my publisher has their own list of review sites to which they submit.  The level of effort to submit is minimal, yet, when you receive a top review (like a five-star review, or “Reviewer’s Best Pick”), the deep hit rate and buy page visits roughly double, but it’s short lived (about two to four weeks).  After that, your review is replaced by other new reviews on the sites’ “Top review” page.
70  Site Participative Contests—Websites conduct contests where they enlist visitors to participate in the author’s world by asking readers to go to the author’s site and bring back some interesting factoid.  Deep hits increase about 160 to 210% depending on the site.  This is another avenue you cannot really orchestrate yourself, however, any time I’m notified of one of these types of contests, I participate gladly.
50  Shared linking—For about a dozen published author friends, I reciprocate writer news (new releases, reviews, awards, etc.) and links.  The number of deep hits from links on their websites is relatively low (three to five a week), but so is the cost in time (mere minutes every month or so), and unlike other promotion activities that die off in a few days or weeks, once added to your website, the effect goes on indefinitely.
40  My Participative Contests—The only contests I now run myself are those where I encourage the visitors to participate and stay for a while and at least read about my stories (trailers, excerpts, etc.)  The participation comes in the form of questions they need answered or things for which they must search.  Deep hits increase 60% to 90% and buy page visits go up about 30%.  Problem is these avenues take a tremendous amount of time to send out to 900 past players and to manage the answers from the 170-220 responding participants.  To me, the true return that justifies this activity is the input I get from potential readers.  I solicit views from visitors on titles or tag lines for future releases and I find this feedback extremely useful.
35  Interviews—On average, I received 12 to 20 deep hits the first week an interview was released, tapering to three or four by the third week but disappearing altogether after about six weeks.  The problem is the amount of time required to complete a detailed interview is significant.  Could be the genre in which I write (suspense with a romantic core) while most of the websites conducting the interviews are pure romance.
35  Special chats—Every few months my publisher will schedule an author chat and their roster of writers interact with each other and readers on a variety of topics.  Whenever the chat sponsor is new, or has not hosted a chat for a long period, my deep hit rate increases 40% to 50%, and my buy page visits go up by about 30%.  Although the benefit is significant, the commitment of time is major (chat durations reach from two to 12 hours in length.) Nonetheless, I always do the chats orchestrated by my publisher or author friends.  They spend a lot of time setting them up, plus I believe in supporting other authors.
30  Video Trailers—I researched opinions on the web and views were split.  I decided to conduct an experiment and developed videos for two of my novels (they are available on my website).  I posted the trailers on two dozen posting sites (YouTube, Vimeo, Seven up, Photobucket, etc.) Although the videos were viewed several hundred times, and even given five stars by the audience, by the second week views on the posted site dropped to about 12 per week and by week four they trickled in at two or three a week.  The real problem is that there was no change in deep hit rate or visits to the buy page, at all.  This was a surprise to me.  Afterwards, however, the results made sense.  The posting sites reflect a broad based audience versus just book readers, thus they viewed the video as a random interest, but really weren’t in a buying posture.  Since that experiment I have observed a logical but unanticipated benefit—of those that did deep visit my site and actually view one of my book videos, the visits to a buy source increased 110%.  Videos do take a major effort to create (eight days for both trailers), but they are fun and do increase the buy page visit rate, so if I have time, I will do them again.
30  Bookmarkers—I use two styles of bookmarkers:  a 2″x6″ glossy marker aimed at a new release; and a business-card size that reflects cover art and bulleted five star reviews for two books (one on each side).  The large ones cost $.10 each while the small cost $.02 each.  I use the larger ones at talks/signings and for trivia contests during chats, and the smaller ones are conveniently in my wallet when someone asks for my website.  I do not leave them in random non-audience specific locations (like restaurants, coffee shops, etc.)  I actually tested leaving markers in such places on trips with the result that I received no hits from those locations afterwards (my stat package tracks server location).  I do use them, but the expensive markers are rationed to special events because of their cost.
25  Blogs—From all I’d heard and read, I expected posting articles on blogs to have a major impact, at least in turns of deep hits.  Yet each time I posted on blogs, I saw no measureable increase.  I found that peculiar and decided to stop all other promo activities and posted 13 articles on different blogs over a month’s time.  Again, I saw no significant increase in site visits.  There were a few redirected hits, but nothing that justified the effort in writing all the articles.  That could be because of the articles I post, or the blogs on which I posted, or my genre itself, or the fact that I’m a big guy writing in an area generally thought to be women-oriented, but that was the result for me.  I do enjoy the interaction and emails from readers so I participate in selected blogs with author friends.
25  Libraries—I support local libraries when I can by contributing free books and free goodies (pens, bookmarkers, etc.)  I’ve noticed very little return from these, but that’s not the reason I do it.  I just like the idea of people having the opportunity to broaden their horizons in areas to which they might not otherwise be exposed.
10  Book Signings—My first signing was at a B&N.  I was shocked to see over 90 people attend.  Yet I only sold about a dozen books, while the cost to get to the store (two-hour drive) outweighed the commission from my sells.  It could have been me, maybe my deodorant wasn’t working, or a variety of other factors.  I’ve talked to other authors who had similar experiences (their book sells ranged from zero to less than ten at an event), yet they still do them in the belief it provides exposure.  In that light, I do book signings when offered the opportunity, but I don’t seek them out like when I first started.
10  Routine Chats—Chats with authors and readers that are done on a frequent basis (e.g., each month) tend to lose effectiveness over time because you’re interacting with the same readers and lurkers that have seen your excerpts, reviews, blurbs, etc.  I do support my publisher in every promotion event they organize, but I no longer seek out chats that I have done several times at author social network sites.
10  Loops—Yahoo has a ton of writer/reader loops where visitors discuss issues about stories/authors they like.  Half the threads posted are by authors/publishers promoting their books (excerpts, releases, contests, etc.)  I tried for several months but noticed no significant increase in deep hits or buy page visits.  Although the idea appears fruitful and the visitors seem to enjoy the interactions offered by the loop chat; I think they quickly get saturated by promotion material posted by authors/publishers and skip those threads.
10  Articles—On occasion I will write an article (like this one) to share the writing experience with readers or to offer lessons learned to other writers.  About one third of the time, they are self-generated (I get an idea and write about it).  The remainder occurs when I’m asked if I would be interested in writing an article.  I’ve observed roughly a 15% to 20% increase in deep hits and no significant increase in buy page visits.  However, I do still write them when I feel the urge to share (I’m just weird that way) or a friend or publisher requests me to write an article.
10  General Giveaway Contests—General “submit your name” random drawings have not panned out for me.  I did get a ton of hits, sadly, virtually all were shallow hits.  I talked to several other authors and their experiences on general contests were the same.
5  Social Networks—I’d heard great things about social networks (Facebook, Myspace, Twitter, etc.) in terms of promoting your work, so I spent two entire months joining about a dozen sites and monitoring resulting hits.  My personal results were almost nonexistent.  It’s possible that some of the general search engine hits I received are correlated to seeing my work on the social network pages, but subjectively my sense is that social networks are on the low end as a promotion activity.  Of course, that could be my genre, or the fact that I do not actively spend hours per week sending out bulletins and news updates.  I did this for a while, and saw no increase in deep hits.  I’ve discussed this avenue with two other authors that shared my experience, but a couple of writer buds swear by this mechanism as key to promoting their books.
5  Rings—There are several rings that will freely link your site to those within each group you select if you insert HTML banner code at the bottom of your home page.  As a member of each ring, your site will be randomly displayed in the banner so that potential visitors can click and be transferred to your home page.  I have tried two rings and received about a dozen referred hits each week, but they were virtually all shallow hits.  Plus, for some reason, the ring periodically changes its code, which requires an update.  I decided this was not an effective promotion avenue, at least for me.
5  Directories—There are a bunch of websites that will freely list your website in their directory, and I have tried dozens.  Problem is, all referred hits were shallow.
1  Advertising—During my first 12 months, I spent a chunk of change advertising my novels across about a dozen sites.  The results were abominable.  I tried new sites, I tried different site pages, I tried different kinds of ads, but to my surprise the result was always the same.  I would get a handful of hits–so few I was spending about a buck to earn eight cents worth of royalties.  I’ve discussed this with four other authors and their experiences have been the same.  However, on occasion, I do advertise in sites with a low ad page cost that actually support general authors by reviewing their books.  The larger sites charge a disproportional amount for the few returned hits, and seem to only review their favorite authors.  I spent a couple hundred a year on this activity based primarily on principle.  If sites will at least review general authors, in my view they deserve to be supported (no, I do not receive five stars from all of these sites, but I still believe in them).
? Conferences—Three author friends attend writer conferences and have found them a useful means of promotion.  I have never attempted such conferences because I write in a mixed genre (suspense with a romantic core), which appears void of such opportunities, but if you write SF or pure romance this avenue may be something you want to check out to see if it works for you.
Wrap-up—I hope newbie authors find this information helpful in designing their own marketing plans.  If nothing more, it may introduce several avenues you haven’t considered yet.  Like I said at the beginning, your experience might be different for a variety of reasons.  If you have questions or comments, email me through the contact page of my website.
In 2005, Michael Davis retired from supporting the military and intelligence sector and began his writing career. He currently resides in SW VA and has authored 18 novels and short stories. In 2008, he was selected Author of the Year and in 2012 received the Award of Excellence. in 2009, his book BLIND CONSENT won the Rose Award for best romantic suspense. Five star rated titles include: TAINTED HERO, FORGOTTEN CHILDREN, SHADOW OF GUILT, WHISPERS OF INNOCENCE and FINAL SOLUTION. In 2010, he fought Satan’s spawn (cancer) for 10 months and came out a wiser man on the other side of darkness. Five star reviews, awards, excerpts, and videos for all his work can be seen at

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