Self-Publishing Marketing: What You’ve Been Doing Wrong

trustrumMarketing16 Comments

Learn What’s Going Wrong before Learning What to Do Properly re: Self-Publishing Marketing

Self-Publishing Marketing

Self-publishing marketing is indisputably important to any author trying to sell their book on their own and without a publisher. It is also often the least enjoyable part of self-publishing. However, if you want to truly take on writing and selling on your own as a serious endeavour, you must prepare yourself for the less glamorous, fun-killing aspects of the business.

(And never lose sight of the fact that this is what serious self-publishing is: a business.)

Part of realizing what you need to do to develop a proper self-marketing strategy is first tossing aside what you’re doing wrong. That means figuring out what is not working and why. So, let’s have a look at some common ways many authors trip themselves up during self-publishing marketing.

Your First Mistake: Dismissing the Salesmanship Mentality

Learning how to become an author and getting your work out and onto the page is an achievement in its own right, but it’s only half the process. Never forget your ultimate goal as a professional author is to make a sale. Sure, there are other goals to pursue, but being a professional means (literally and how you are perceived by your peers and market) selling.

If you expect to make sales, you must accept that a certain degree of a business owner’s mentality is required — even if that business is just you. Otherwise, you’re most likely not going to see much in the way of profit. Effective self-publishing marketing begins with setting aside your own personal attachments and bias in the product, and adapting the detached perspective of a salesman.

As a self-publisher, no one else is going to do this for you so you cannot afford to misunderstand your role in selling your own product. You may find it unseemly or embarrassing, but knowing how to effectively sell your writing is an unavoidable and invaluable aspect of self-publication.

For far too many authors, self-publishing marketing extends only so far as finishing their product, making it available for sale and sitting back to wait for the customers to come by (and buy.) Unless you already have a very strong customer base, this won’t get you anywhere. (And even if you do have such a profitable following, it is still a huge mistake to stop your marketing efforts.) Your product is merely available to the market at this point, but it is up to you to become the salesman who will effectively make your market aware of it and convince them to buy.

If you’re not familiar with sales — and with online selling and marketing specifically — you should take the time to read up on the subject. At the very least, get a firm understanding of the basics of online marketing and social media selling. You can find plenty of online articles, not to mention books, on both subjects. I’m lucky in this regard because I’m a published author, a self-publishing author, and a marketing professional. I can draw upon all of those skills and experiences, but that’s certainly not the norm, so you had better do your homework!

(In later articles, I’ll discuss some relevant, valuable online marketing techniques that are especially useful for developing a self-publishing marketing strategy that is sales-oriented. However, the topic is too detailed and lengthy to go into here.)

Stop Thinking Locally — Success means Selling Globally

Another common selling technique that is often brought up by self-publishing authors is the act of going out and spreading the word to make sales oneself, in person. This is all well and good if you’re travelling around doing book signings with name recognition and market interest on your side to draw in the masses, but it’s otherwise mostly a waste of time.

When answering “how do you market your books?” I’ve seen responses ranging from “I give copies to my friends and families” to “I sell at my church on Sunday” to “I go to the farmer’s market and county fair.” These are not effective self-publishing marketing techniques. They are methods of making direct sales that waste time trying for a few sales. This is time better spent on actual self-publishing marketing that gives you a chance at making many sales to a larger market.

Stop wasting selling directly to people at your church, for example. With the time you spend doing that, you could instead be shipping complimentary copies of your book to regional, national, or even international church organizations, if such is your market. Provide a heartfelt-yet-professional pitch about why you think their organization should take an interest in your publications. Include a few complimentary copies to show what you are selling (yes, sometimes self-fulfilling marketing means spending money to make money.) If they like what they see, they may just talk their distributor into contacting you.

The Internet is the single most powerful global marketing tool available today, and it’s at your fingertips for free. So, why are you wasting your time going to the customer and making sales in person? You should be figuring out how to make the customer come to you.

I mostly publish role-playing games rather than novels, but you won’t catch me spending time walking into my local game stores to convince them to put a few copies on their shelves. Instead, I’m figuring out self-publishing marketing strategies that will attract potential customers around the world. For example, I employ a wide-ranging campaign of ever-adapting social media techniques that continue to expand my products’ exposure to the market.

If you cannot similarly make the transition from amateur hopeful-about-town to professional author with a far-reaching, self-publishing marketing plan, your business will not succeed.

Why Other Authors may not be the Best Sources of Self-Publishing Marketing Advice

When the time comes to build their self-publishing marketing strategy, it is understandable to turn to peers already operating in the market. However, do not confuse experience, “time in,” and exposure for the credentials of someone who is a marketing authority. Do not, for example, assume that another author knows anything about proper self-publishing marketing simply because they send you a link to a book of theirs with eighty excellent reviews.

An unfortunate amount of self-publishing authors are “in the business” (but not really) because they always wanted to write, making is secondary to the accomplishment of publishing it. This is why you’ll see many authors getting bogged down by what I call the “artiste author” attitude rather than considering the ins and outs of self-publishing marketing. (As I describe them, surely most of you will recognize the sort of authors I’m talking about.)

The artiste author is a writer (self-publishing or otherwise) who considers their work to be a goal unto itself. It is not to be sullied by such dirty notions as putting time and energy into trying to sell it. After all, time and money spent on self-publishing marketing is time and money not being spent creating more masterpieces, right?  (I only wish I was exaggerating.)

To the artiste author, putting thought and effort into any form of marketing is to insult their hard work. To their mind, the market will simply recognize quality when they see it, and that’s when the money starts to roll in!

This is not to say that there is no benefit or merit to be found in valuing one’s own work, or that writing for its own sake is not a noble objective. What I’m talking about is the author who extends this into some sort of belief their genius and work is somehow owed something by the market. To them, their writing is a work of art or gift that must be shared with others. Those who are wise enough to read their work will undoubtedly recognize it for what it is and be willing to pay.

For example, using loss leaders is a time-tested and easily proven means to sell just about anything, including books. However, to even consider giving away freebies as a matter of a self-publishing marketing plan is an outrage to the artiste author! After all the time put into their work, how can they just give it away for free? Giving something away for free means it has no value, right?


Ultimately, the artiste author is not a business person, and will most likely fail to make a successful business of self-publishing. (Or, if they do, it will be in spite of their attitude, and not because of it. They’d better hope their talent is even half as good as they believe it to be.) Such an attitude is all well and good when you’re working with a publisher who will do your ego’s heavy lifting, but it is a career killer when everything rests on your shoulders.

The artiste author is more concerned with having their dream and talent validated and acknowledged than they are with making sales. For them, a good review is just as good (if not better) than a dozen sales. Of course, this is not a healthy business mentality if you don’t want to get your hands dirty figuring out how to turn that review into profit.

As such, do not take another self-publishing author at their word just because they tell you a given technique is working for them. If you’re dealing with an artiste author but don’t yet realize it, their definition of “what is working” is certainly going to be different from someone trying to make money from their work.

When you are given self-publishing marketing advice from a fellow author, research their advice before taking it to heart. Begin by comparing it to what marketing experts, in general, have to say. Although selling books has its own specific factors to consider, the ground work for marketing is relatively unchanged between most consumer markets.

If you want to take advice from an author, be sure they are a) actually making sales, and b) see selling as necessary rather than believing profit will fall into their lap. Even then, experiment with their advice first to see how it performs for you rather than fully committing to it.

Don’t Mistake Your Readers for Your Market

Far too many authors attempting self-publishing marketing erroneously confuse the process of getting their books noticed versus actually selling them. It’s no surprise considering the strong relationship between the two, but authors need to realize there is a distinct line between these two objectives, and understand how and where that line is drawn.

A simple fact many authors overlook is that readership is always going to be larger than one’s customers base when it comes to books. Books end up in libraries, they make it into second hand stores, and they get shared between friends (yes, even e-books.) A single sold copy of a book can exchange hands many times without generating a single additional sale. Unfortunately, spending lots of time and energy on increasing readership will not necessarily result in a sale — the focus is erroneously placed upon the former and does not push beyond that goal to obtain the latter.

This is one of the ways self-publishing marketing strategies that offer freebies can fail if not properly thought out and implemented. Many authors falsely believe that “spreading the word” about their product via freebies will entice people back to buy more, and they are right to a degree if they saturate the market enough. However, if you’ve introduced a potential customer to your books via a freebie, you’ve also sent them the message that it’s possible for them to read your work without paying for it. So how do you bypass that message and still make a sale?

My article on using freebies to make sales touches on several techniques for doing so, but all of them involve a strategy that is more involved than just giving stuff away and hoping for the best. Providing freebies or using other methods to expand readership should always be framed as a purposeful, direct sales pitch. The objective is to make a sale by convincing someone to read your work, and not just to get them to read your work for its own sake (which is where most artiste authors end up getting confused with regards to what constitutes successful self-publishing marketing.)

This is also a common misunderstanding that leads many authors to wasting the selling potential of social media. Far too many authors use social media to try and get people interested in their work, but they keep the conversation rolling in social media instead of introducing a call to action that then pulls interested potential customers off social media and into your conversion funnel.

In other words, at some point you’ve got to make your sales pitch or you’re just wasting your time.

It’s all well and good to have thousands of followers in social media who have read your books, but if all they are doing is talking about how great your book is amongst yourself and with you, you’re not using social media to its full potential. You need to be pulling your fans and readership off of social media and into an environment where you have greater control over what they see and how they interact with you, such as a blog that also provides access to the means to buy your work.

Think of your readership as a niche market within the overall market you are selling to. They are already biased in your favour, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t still be trying to convince them to buy from you any less than the effort you put into convincing the general market to do so. When it comes to effective self-publishing marketing, assuming your readership is already in your pocket, sales wise, is an unforgivable mistake.

Reviews are Okay, but Sales are Better

Many authors make the mistake of confusing getting their books reviewed to be synonymous with self-publishing marketing. It is not. They believe reviews to be the gold standard of increasing readership and making sales, but it’s actually fool’s gold, for the most part.

Product reviews are just another tool in the toolbox of someone skilled at self-publishing marketing, but its usefulness is extremely limited if you don’t have a more extensive strategy for them. Obtaining product reviews should be a means to an end, not an end unto itself. After all, what good are reviews going to do you if you haven’t figured out how to get potential customers to come and read them in the first place so that the review may be used to convince someone to buy your book?

When it comes to self-publishing marketing, your strategy should be geared towards selling your books in a vacuum, without any reviews (or even with bad reviews.) The reason for this is simple: beyond the quality of your work, you cannot control public opinion, so using it as the linchpin for your marketing strategy is an unreliable tactic — and certainly not one that is proactive. If you build your self-publishing marketing strategy around the product itself rather than the perception of others, however, your strategy doesn’t need to likewise shift about when that perception does.

This is the part that trips up most self-publishing authors — I see it time and time again when authors gather to discuss marketing. People will predictably provide the opinion that sales just naturally follow reviews, and think no more on the matter. Frankly, their understanding of the relationship between their work and the market does not allow them to see differently.

For authors who hold to such an opinion, I ask you: how do you get people to make those reviews in the first place? What is it that’s drawing people in to the point where they make a sale and then a review (putting aside “gaming” the system by getting friends, family, and other authors to stack the deck in your favour)?

In such discussions, one will quickly learn that a depressingly small minority of the reviews these authors are counting on for their self-publishing marketing reviews strategy are actually from customers. Most of the reviews are from complimentary copies they’ve traded with other authors in exchange for the mutual promise of “honestly” reviewing each other’s works. (This is a practice I find especially distasteful and misleading for the purpose of informing legitimate potential customers.)

More than the undertones of dishonesty this (unfortunately) common practice suffers from, it does nothing to address how you will then get customers into your conversion funnel so they can read those reviews in the first place. All this process shows is you know how to get other authors to review you. Listening to most authors who swear by reviews as a selling method speak on the matter, it is quickly apparent they not only have no idea what the concept of a conversion funnel is, but it never even occurred to them that it is a necessary aspect of selling, regardless of the actual variation employed.

Typically, the presumption is that potential customers will simply just find their way to the product somehow and, at that point, the review will be what convinces people to buy.

That’s a lot to take on faith.

Then there’s the process of giving out free copies to independent reviewers not driven by such a quid pro quo incentive. This is a more reliable prospect, but that still means spending time to chase down reviewers without taking the time to build traffic. The obvious exception is gaining access to reviewers who have their own blog or other access to your market that will quickly spread the word, but most solicited reviews available to the majority of self-publishing authors (especially neophytes) will not be of this nature.

Although it is true that reviews are especially helpful for convincing someone to make a purchase at the point of sale, you need a proper marketing effort to get them to that point in the first place. If you’re smart, you’ll use your best reviews in your self-publishing marketing material to entice people to progress down your conversion funnel and become a sale. If you’re not so wise, you’ll do nothing with them beyond including them on your product’s sales page and hope for the best.

Your choice.

So, now that I’ve presented some of the ways that things go wrong, where do you go from here? In the future, I’ll tackle the subject from the flip side of the coin by discussing proven self-publishing marketing strategies.

16 Comments on “Self-Publishing Marketing: What You’ve Been Doing Wrong”

  1. John Kent

    Hey Steve,

    Have you seen the Amazon machine at work? Your reviews beget suggestions for other potential customers. “people who bought this also bought… Insert the title of your book.”
    Also, what social media do you take advantage of? Is there one you use more than others?

    You have been publishing for awhile now. Do you find it to be a long game? Or do your release parties generate quick sales?

    1. Steven Trustrum

      Yeah, I know how Amazon reviews work … but my point is that doesn’t do much good unless you’re already getting people to go there. “Walkthrough” traffic on Amazon is pretty useless considering the products range up into the hundreds of thousands. You need to bring people to your Amazon products on your own if you want a reliable chance of getting sales from them. Because Amazon only posts so many “also bought” listings, the amount of reviews you need to get to have ongoing listings in that service is going to be incredibly high, or tied to existing sales amounts.

      And I use multiple social media networks. You need to find out what works best for you. I’ll be talking more about social media strategies in an upcoming article.

      As for publishing and sales, you need to approach it from the perspective of immediate benefits and the long game. You should experience an immediate burst of sales upon release if you’re marketing properly, but then you continue marketing using your new releases to push your back catalog. This is another thing I’m going to address in another article.

      1. John Kent

        Ah, OK so I think I understand it better now. I thought if you had one review It would have the Amazon affect. Granted yes you need to get people there I just meant it’s a good boost to your traffic.

        Do you suggest a landing page for your articles to get people to follow you before reading an article?

        I have to admit that I started late for promoting myself with respect to the timing of my book release. It’s too late to put the genie back in the bottle, so I am trying to right my marketing ship.

        1. Steven Trustrum

          Yeah, if you have a small catalog you really need to start marketing much earlier than release. Misfit Studios can afford late marketing because I’ve an established network, but if you’re just starting out you cannot do so.

          With a small catalog, a single landing page focused on each product is a good idea but link directly to your sales point from it and nothing else.

          The thing to remember with Amazon is there’s a low bar entry point and the amount of competition is massive. And you’re not just competing with other authors — because of the breadth of products sold there, you’re competing against everything on site for the customer’s attention. I’m sure their recommendation algorithm takes even more than sales and reviews into account — like traffic and bounce rate.

  2. Jeanne

    Steve, Yours is the most professionally written article I’ve ever seen on this topic. As a businesswoman, I understand sales (not so much retail marketing). Yet, I am only an “ambitious amateur” because every on-line sales tactic I’ve seen assumes an existing huge base of followers. There is no one (or few) to click on my Call to Action button. That list of e-mail addresses and on-line followers seems to be the place to start, but how? I look forward to future articles for the how-to.

    1. Steven Trustrum

      That’s a big one to tackle, Jeanne, and certainly deserving of its own article. What I will say here is that you need to keep “focus” in mind. Everything has to lead somewhere, and directly linking all of your marketing directly to your point of sale may seem the natural choice, but not necessarily. Try building a book-specific landing page separate from the rest of your website and direct your marketing efforts there. This page only has links to your points of sale and not to the rest of your site. That way, you control the message, are channeling traffic to a call to action/sales pitch, and can monitor the traffic to see what marketing sources (such as specific social media services) are working for you and which are not. For my publishing company, my focus is either landing pages of this sort or my blog, within which I include links to related products.

      If there’s no focus for your marketing efforts beyond your point of sale, you have no control or means of measuring how well what you’re doing is working. Collecting data of this nature is essential to success.

  3. Jeanne

    I see the end goal. Are you saying that the product (my books) should have their own website…or just their own page with no other links away from it? Other pages would link to the book page, but not the other way around. Yes? Or separate website all together? Thanks for your suggestions.

    1. Steven Trustrum

      Jeanne, their own page built into your website rather than their own website each (although you can certainly go with the latter if you can afford it.) You can link to them from your main website so that webcrawlers will keep an eye on them, but the only links they should have on them is to your point of sale.

      1. Jeanne

        Thanks, Steven. Do you recommend using Paypal or something to sell from an author\’s website or directing visitors to the Amazon site as I do? Considering I don\’t even know how to create an opt-in form, that\’s probably over my head.

        1. Steven Trustrum

          I’d recommend both.

          Selling from Amazon gives you a hassle free system you don’t have to worry about maintaining, plus their branding. Selling directly from your page lets you keep more profit and presents customers with more options (especially since a growing amount of people refuse to buy from Amazon.)

  4. Sandra Nachlinger

    Given the lack of support most publishers seem to give their authors these days, your sage advice applies to traditionally published authors as well as self-pubs. Thank you for this post. I’ll be watching for your social media strategies article.

  5. Wendy Unsworth

    Hi Steven, just wanted to add my thanks for this article ( came to you via The Fussy Librarian!) I am a typical ‘first time’ author who always wanted to write a book and didn’t even consider what would be involved once the amazon ‘Go’ button had been pressed. I think maybe newer authors are becoming more savvy now as the new-style self-publishing has been around for a while and hopefully there are not so many that trust that everything will be okay from point of publication onwards.
    I have a couple more books available since that first title and I took the advice ‘write, write, write early on – build yourself a catalogue. However ‘marketing’ has always seemed overwhelmingly diverse with so much to consider (and learn) and I have ‘dabbled’ without any real plan.
    I look forward to your articles; a strategy is what I need!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *