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

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Self-Publishing Marketing Mistakes

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 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 for the business’ less glamorous, fun-killing aspects. (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. However, writing is only half the journey of becoming a success. Never forget your ultimate goal as a professional author is to make sales. Sure, there are other goals to pursue, but being a professional means selling.

If you expect to make sales, you must accept that a certain degree of a business owner’s mentality is required. This holds even if that business is just you. Otherwise, it’s unlikely you’ll see much profit. Effective self-publishing marketing begins with setting aside your own personal attachments and bias towards the product. Instead, adopt the detached perspective of a salesman.

Self-Publishing Means Selling You and Your Product

As a self-publisher, you cannot afford to misunderstand your role in selling your product. 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. They believe that making it available to the market allows them to sit back and wait for the sales to start rolling in. Unless you already have a very strong customer base, this approach won’t get you anywhere. (And even if you do have such a profitable following, it is still a huge mistake to discontinue marketing efforts.) It is up to you to become the salesman who will effectively make your market aware of your product and convince them to buy.

Take the time to read up on the subject if you’re not familiar with sales (with online selling and marketing specifically.) At the very least, get a firm understanding of the online and social media marketing’s basics. 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. This certainly is not the norm, so you had better do your homework!


Stop Thinking Locally — Success means Selling Globally

Another common, self-publishing selling technique is going out and spreading the word to make sales 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. Otherwise, face-to-face sales are mostly a waste of the self-publishing author’s time. (The exception is selling in bulk, of course.)

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 the county fair.” These are not effective self-publishing marketing techniques. They are methods of making direct sales that waste a lot of 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, if that’s your market. With the time you spend doing that, you could instead pursuing regional, national, or even international church organizations. 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-publishing 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 Your Friend

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 convincing local game stores to put my product 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’ market exposure.

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


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

It is understandable to turn to peers already operating in the market when the time comes to build their self-publishing marketing strategy. However, do not confuse writing experience and exposure for marketing credentials. 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. Successfully making sales is often secondary to the accomplishment of publishing something. This is why you’ll see many authors getting bogged down by what I call the “artiste author” attitude. They focus entirely on the creation process and disregard the ins and outs of self-publishing marketing as inconsequential or “beneath” them. (Surely, most of you will recognize the sort of authors I’m talking about.)

The Artiste Author is a Creator, Not a Seller

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 salesmanship. After all, time and money spent on self-publishing marketing is time and money not spent creating more masterpieces, right?

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. Similarly, this doesn’t mean 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 that the market owes them something. 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?


Skilled Writing Doesn’t Forgive Lazy Salesmanship

Ultimately, the artiste author is not a business person. As such, they 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.) A publisher who will do your ego’s heavy lifting may forgive such an attitude, 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 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 can’t figure out how to turn reviews 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. (Yes, I’m aware of the irony of me, a self-publishing author, saying this to you.) An artiste author’s definition of “what is working” is certainly going to be different from someone trying to make money from their work, for instance. When you are given self-publishing marketing advice, verify it with research before taking it to heart. Begin by comparing the advice to what general marketing experts have to say. Although selling books has its own specific factors to consider, the groundwork for marketing is relatively unchanged between most consumer markets.

Experience Does Not Always Equal Expertise

If you want to take advice from an author, first be sure they are a) actually making sales. Next, ensure they 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 self-publishing authors erroneously confuse the process of getting their books noticed with actually selling them. It’s no surprise considering the strong relationship between the two objectives. However, authors must understand there is a distinct line between these goals and identify 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. 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 book can change hands many times without generating a single additional sale. This means spending lots of time and energy on increasing readership will not necessarily result in more sales. Such a strategy is erroneously placed upon obtaining readers and does not push beyond that goal to obtain sales.

Have You Tried Giving Product Away?

Pursuing readership rather than salesmanship using freebies is a self-publishing marketing strategy that can easily fail if not properly implemented. Many authors falsely believe that “spreading the word” using freebies will entice people back to buy more. And they may be correct, to a degree, if they sufficiently saturate the market with free product. 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. However, the suggested techniques 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 get them invested in seeing more. Reading what is put in front of them and being content with that will not result in a sale. (This is where most artiste authors end up getting confused regarding what constitutes successful self-publishing marketing.)

How are You Using Social Media?

Readership over salesmanship is also a common misunderstanding that leads many authors to waste social media’s selling potential. From a public relations perspective, it’s all well and good to have thousands of social media followers who have read your books. If all they are doing is talking about how great your book is on your social media, however, you’re not using this resource to its full potential. You need to be directing 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. Far too many authors don’t know what to do once they have people’s attention. They keep the conversation rolling in social media instead of introducing a call to action that directs 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.

Think of your readership as a niche market within the overall market you are selling to. They are already biased in your favour by interacting with your social media, so take advantage of that. Now that you have their attention, you must still convince them to buy from you much as you must convince 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 as 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 one someone skilled at self-publishing marketing may employ. A review’s usefulness is extremely limited if you don’t have a more extensive strategy for taking advantage of it, however. Obtaining product reviews should be a means to an end, not an end unto itself. After all, what good are reviews if you haven’t figured out how to get potential customers to come and read them in the first place? How can good reviews convince someone to buy your book if no one is seeing it?

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. Using public opinion your marketing strategy’s cornerstone is an unreliable tactic — and certainly not one that is proactive. Selling based on existing reviews can be disastrous if even one noticeably bad opinion appears where you’re driving traffic. If you build your self-publishing marketing strategy around the product itself instead, your strategy doesn’t need to shift if reviews sour.

The Problem of the Cart Ahead of the Horse

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 to the point where they make a sale and then a review?

Dishonest Reviews

Typically, one will quickly learn that a depressingly small minority of the reviews 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.) And then there’s the practice of getting friends, family, and the like to stop by and say something nice. Even paying for good reviews is not unheard of.

Beyond the dishonesty of such (unfortunately) common practice, such reviews don’t get customers into your conversion funnel to read those reviews in the first place. The reviews exist in a falsely defined environment, so little if any buzz extends outward from them through legitimate readers. Listening to most authors who swear by reviews as a selling method reveals they are unfamiliar with the conversion funnel. Typically, they presume potential customers simply find their way to the product somehow and good reviews will convert sales for them.

That’s a lot to take on faith.

Combining the Free Product and Review Tactics

Dispense free copies to independent reviewers not driven by such a quid pro quo incentive. This is a more reliable prospect, but that still means chasing down reviewers instead of directly building traffic. The obvious exception is reviewers who have their own blog or other access to your market that will quickly spread the word. Yet, most solicited reviews available to the majority of self-publishing authors (especially neophytes) will not be of this nature.


Where Do You Go From Here?

Although reviews are especially helpful for convincing someone to make a purchase at the point of sale, you still need a proper marketing strategy. Use your best reviews in your self-publishing marketing material to entice people to progress down your conversion funnel and become a sale. Doing nothing with reviews beyond including them on your product’s sales page and hoping for the best won’t get you far.

Now that I’ve presented some of the ways that things go wrong, what’s next? In the future, I’ll tackle the subject from the flip side by discussing proven self-publishing marketing strategies.

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John Kent
9 years ago

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?

John Kent
Reply to  Steven Trustrum
9 years ago

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.

Frank O'Neill
9 years ago

Look forward to seeing your next post, Steven.

9 years ago

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.

Bill Judge
9 years ago

As a starting point for marketing, this was a good article. I am interested in some meatier articles in the future. Thank you for the post.

9 years ago

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.

Reply to  Steven Trustrum
9 years ago

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.

Sandra Nachlinger
9 years ago

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.

Wendy Unsworth
Wendy Unsworth
9 years ago

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!

Alicia Thomas-Woolf
8 years ago

Hi Steven

I wanted to thank you for this blog, the link of which I have urged people to visit three different times now from my blog. ( My own experiences following your advice regarding ‘reader chooses price’ validate what you say above. Again, thank you so much for sharing your expertise.