Posted in Book promotion, Social Media

When book promotion gets annoying

tweet loudlyIt was many years ago. My husband was on a television show that was, at that time, Canada’s answer to Oprah in the days when Oprah was still that kind of daytime talk show where the on-stage panel was deliberately provocative and the audience was stacked with people representing the points of view that were most likely to cause controversy. I know because I was sitting in that studio audience. The topic was sex with your doctor. Couldn’t get much more provocative, could it?

My husband, then chairing the Ethics Committee of the Canadian Medical Association, was representing the medical profession;  one of the other panelists, a patient who had evidently had a long-term, in-office liaison with her family doctor, was in disguise (because that’s the way these TV shows rolled in those days); the third member was a psychiatrist from California. He had written a book. He wasn’t going to let anyone forget it.  No sir.  If we heard the title once, we heard it practically every time he exhaled.  It was a fundamental lesson in book promotion for us self-effacing Canadians, and one that we would often laugh about in the intervening years when we co-authored four consumer health books.  That lesson was so basic and so fundamental and so necessary for authors to understand. 

Your potential readers cannot read a book that they do not know about and cannot find.

It’s that simple, but as we fast-forward to 2015 and beyond, it becomes clear that this simple, fundamental truth about book promotion is no longer so simple in its execution.  Back when we first learned it, there were few ways to get the name of your book in front of potential readers.  Being on television was a coveted one.  That’s why good publicists were so important.

The first time I was taken on a book tour across Canada, I was thrilled.  I was picked up at the airports by publicists and driven to interviews: television talk shows, radio station interviews and call-in shows, press interviews.  It was such fun, but to tell you the truth, had only limited success in reaching the right audience. [You can read about it at The fun of an author tour]  Those were the days when I was still writing those consumer health books, and was considered something of an expert.  This is still an important entrée into media coverage even today, but things are a lot more complicated.  As a result, I’ve come to observe that there is perhaps a line over which authors can cross when book promotion is nothing short of annoying to those of us on the receiving end.  I mean, how many times can you be bombarded by tweets and posts that scream, “Buy my book!” before you get so annoyed you click ‘unfollow.’  And are these authors really doing themselves any favors?  I think not, but I know who is benefiting: all of those thousands of sites and companies who will sell you their services to tweet your book all over the place.

I am often followed on Twitter by book tweeting services who, I guess, expect me to follow them back.  I always look at profiles before I do that and if a new follower is following 25,000 accounts, I NEVER follow back.  No one monitoring that feed would ever see a single one of my puny little tweets in the first place.  In the second place, I will then be bombarded by those thousands of automated tweets they put out every minute of every day shouting at me to buy books.  And in the third place, and this is the kicker, they will then stop following me anyway. What they really want is for me to follow them.  Without thousands of followers, they nave nothing to sell to those authors desperate for book tweets. follow me

Ever wonder where your followers go?  Well, you may find that if you don’t follow back, you’ll be dropped. Those new followers are more interested in their new followers than in what you have to offer on Twitter.What they really want is for us to follow them.  Without thousands of followers, they nave nothing to sell to those authors desperate for book tweets.

So, now I come to the end of my rant and bring myself back on topic and to that fundamental truth that has not changed.  Your potential new readers will never become real readers if they can’t find your book.  I just hope that we all recognize that there does come a time when enough is enough.  Just as that psychiatrist plugged his book at every available opportunity on television: after a while it was just annoying.

Posted in Book marketing, Book promotion, Electronic Publishing, Ethics

When is a bestseller not a bestseller?

bestseller 2So, what does it take to be a bestselling writer? In fact, what does it take for a book to be a bestseller? Have you ever gazed on the New York Times bestseller list, or the Amazon list of today’s best sellers and wondered how these books got there?  I know I have, and even more to the point, recently I’ve often wondered what it really means when an author’s LinkedIn or Twitter profile says “bestselling author of…” and I’ve never heard of them. The truth is that whatever you may have thought through the years, whatever you infer from those “bestselling” monikers, all bets are off.  The landscape has changed.  It ain’t what it used to be. And that’s important – for readers.  And for writers who actually care.

So I did some research (you’re welcome).

What is a bestseller?

Let’s begin by going back to definitions – dictionary and other.  The Oxford English Dictionary, arguably one of the premier arbiters of word meanings in our language, says that a bestseller is “[a] book or other product that sells in very large numbers.”[1]  Okay, this definition implies that there ought to be some kind of quantitative measure of what it takes to be a bestseller, although falling short of actually telling us what that number might be.  However, the phrase “very large numbers” does have some resonance, n’est ce pas?

Back as far as 1955 a bestseller was defined as “a book for which demand, within a short time of that book’s initial publication, vastly exceeds what is then considered to be big sales.”[2] Again the concepts both of high demand and bigger than “big” sales.

Next, we’ll join the twenty-first century and see what other online definitions might offer to us in our quest for understanding.  Of course, next stop Wikipedia which says this:

“A bestseller is a book that is identified as extremely popular by its inclusion on lists of currently top selling or frequently borrowed titles that are based on publishing industry and book trade figures and library circulation statistics and then published by newspapers, magazines, or book store chains.”[3]

Wikipedia further suggests that the term is evidently not associated with any specific number of sales and that the term is often applied rather “loosely” often as a marketing ploy, but that it does, in fact, refer to a book that is “extremely popular.”

It seems, then, that a real bestseller is a popular book in high demand with high sales.  As reasonably intelligent readers (or writers) we can conclude that a book isn’t a bestseller unless it sells lots and lots of copies.  So how is it possible that so many of these online self-published authors suggest that they are bestselling authors?   Remember what I said earlier?  The landscape has shifted.  Dramatically.

The Making of a Bestseller

In the past few years, it’s become clear that there are ways of manipulating online book sales figures to artificially create a bestseller, thereby giving the author marketing cred, even if it is a bit disingenuous.  However, don’t be fooled into thinking that this is just a recent, eBook phenomenon.

Back in 1995, two ambitious consultants wrote a book titled The Discipline of Market Leaders which was published by Addison-Wesley. Rather than let it languish in a warehouse or gather dust on bookstore shelves only to be returned if unsold (the dreaded ‘returns’ of the book selling business – don’t get me started), the authors decided to figure out a way to get that book on the New York Times bestseller list so that they could use this as a springboard to marketing themselves as consultants, and thereby make more money.  As business experts, they were willing to make a financial investment and take the risk that it would have a big payout in the end.

In summary (you can read the whole story in the online archive of Business Week linked in my footnotes below[4]) they spent $250,000 buying 10,000 copies of their own $25 book from small and large bookstores throughout the US resulting in it climbing to #8 on the NYT bestseller list where it stayed for 15 weeks and peaked at #1 on the BusinessWeek list.  The results of this manipulation were spectacular for their consulting business: speaking engagements, new clients, future book deals.  Illegal?  No.  Unethical?  Clearly.  Readers draw the conclusion that a book on the top of the bestseller list has made it there on its own merits.  When it didn’t, those who colluded to get it there are effectively lying.  That was then.  This is now.  And the opportunities for this kind of manipulation are even more available.

amazon bestsellerIn 2013 Publisher’s Weekly tried to get bestseller numbers from Amazon, but were unsuccessful, so they decided to try to figure it out by looking at the status of a couple of books over the course of two weeks.  They began with the hypothesis that was widely held that a book would have to sell 300 copies a day to reach the top five on Amazon’s list and found that this wasn’t far off, but that it varies considerably depending on the time of year.[5]  For example, in holiday sales times, the numbers would have to be higher.  Nevertheless, if you can get approach this level of sales for a day or two, whatever ranking you achieve on the bestsellers list sticks with the book based on the Amazon algorithm.  And there you have a “bestseller” that doesn’t even come close to the definitions above, nor the connotation associated with it by potential readers.  So, just about anyone can use the term bestselling author based on just about any criteria he or she decides applies.  Hmm.

So, when is a best seller not a best seller?

A few years ago, my husband and I wrote a piece on our travel blog The Discerning Travelers about when a perk (from an airline, a hotel etc. via loyalty programs) is not a perk.  We concluded that a perk is not a perk when everyone has it (for our full explanation read The ups and downs of travel loyalty programs: When is a perk not a perk?).  It loses its real meaning.

I submit to you that when everyone is a so-called bestselling author, no one is.  And that is sad.  I’d love to be a bestselling author, but I’m more interested in being a writer.  When the term bestseller now applies to everyone and his or her dog, I don’t really care about that anymore.  How about you?


[2] Steinberg, S. H. 1955. Five Hundred Years of Printing. as quoted in Wikipedia.


[4] Did dirty tricks create a bestseller? August 7, 1995. Business Week (from the online web archive),

[5] Gabe Habash. March 10, 2013.  How Many Copies Does It Take To Be an Amazon Bestseller? Not So Much.

Posted in Book promotion, Self-Publishing

Who will buy your book?

Someday I hope to write a book where the royalties will pay for the copies I give away. — Clarence Darrow

freeOh how I empathize with Clarence Darrow.  I cannot tell you how many books I’ve given away over the years, and these days of the hideous deluge of ‘free’ eBooks as promotional tools makes the problem even worse.  I often wonder how many of other writers’ relatives and friends actually buy their books.

My family, for example, largely feels that they are entitled to receive free copies of my books.  Well, with the most recent one, I decided that this wasn’t going to happen anymore.  Even my 91-year old mother didn’t get a copy (to be fair, I really didn’t really want her to read it – to much *sex*).  The only family member who actually received a hard copy (and that was after he downloaded and paid for an e-book) was my 25-year old son who was one of my final editors.  His keen eye and firm grasp of the English language made him an ideal beta reader for which I paid him.  The least I could do was to give him a copy of the book when he was home from London last weekend.

Should I give it away?
Should I give it away?

Then there are all those other copies we give away.  And this refers equally to my books (and your books) published by traditional publishers and the self-published ones.  These are the review copies.

There is little doubt that review copies are important, however, it can get out of hand.  In addition it seems to me these days that we need to be vigilant that a so-called reviewer does not feel obligated to be a bit less critical of a book that he or she has received gratis.  (Although some bloggers seem to think that a free book might end up as a more critical review.  Not sure why.)

When I wrote the piece When is a book review not a book review? I was thinking about these kinds of issues.  So, we need to consider carefully how many books we give away for free in the hope of acquiring a positive review.

And then there are those free book giveaways that started this rant.  There is little doubt that giving books away can help you to accrue new readers: sometimes, readers who would otherwise pass over your books might try them and like them, then return to buy future offerings.  So that seems like a good investment in marketing.  We need to be very mindful, however, that if as writers we don’t value our work, we can hardly expect others to value it either.  In fact, many readers are just as likely to troll the online bookstores seeking only free books, never returning to your work when the book is not free.  There is no actual hard data on either of these situations although you’ll find plenty of anecdotal stories extolling the virtues of giving away your work.

It would be my greatest wish that writers value their work.  I often wonder if writers who don’t value their work know in their hearts that it isn’t really that good.  There is a difference, however, between the writing a book specifically for yourself and to give away to others, and one you hope to sell.  This is the kind of book you may write simply hoping that a few others might benefit from it in one way or another.

It is quite a different matter to work hard on a piece of writing that you hope readers, unknown to you at this point, will buy, read and appreciate.  This is the kind of work that we have to stop giving away so freely.

So, fellow writers, keep a very careful count of how many copies of your work you give away and the return on that investment.  I’d love to know how it has worked for you.  Perhaps we can build a database of information.  There are marketing reasons to give your work away, but that needs to be balanced by a sense of value.  Tread carefully.

It might be worth remembering what Jules Renard once wrote:

Writing is the only profession where no one considers you ridiculous if you earn no money.”

Now I think I’ll surf over to Amazon and set up a free book giveaway and see what happens!!

For a few different perspectives on this issue, here are some ideas from other sources:

Why Successful Authors Are Giving Their Books Away for Free

Why publishers should give away eBooks