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I am in the process of writing a book and I'm considering setting up my own publishing agency to get it published, or else publish solely through the internet, but there is the obvious problem of distribution that arises. If and when I actually finish writing it to a level that I deem satisfactory I would not be personally particularly opposed to taking out a loan if that is what is necessary to get it promoted, though I wouldn't want to take out a loan without knowing what I'd first do with that money. As such, I suppose that this one question is really more akin to two:

Can I effectively promote a self-published work via the internet for minimal cost, or would I require a loan to get my name out there?

How would I go about doing paid advertisements of a book? I have never seen an ad in the beginning of a movie for a book, nor on television, nor on a billboard - where would I advertise instead?

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    This may be a country-specific thing - I live in london (UK), and I see ads for books all the time, on (the uk equivalent of) billboards. Presumably they work, or the publishers wouldn't bother. – Benubird Aug 10 '17 at 9:39
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    Who is your audience? Maybe there exist online forums for your audience. If you make a name for yourself there, maybe you can use the recognition there to boost publicity for your book. – mathreadler Aug 10 '17 at 20:19
  • This depends completely on the type of book. Is it a calculus textbook? A mystery novel? A guide to rock climbing areas in east-central Utah? People would buy these different types of books for different reasons, they would find out about them in different ways, and each would go through different marketing and distribution channels. Search on the internet for recent success stories of self-published writers who are working in an area as similar as possible to yours. Have reasonable expectations, and keep in mind that readers are doing you a favor by even reading one page of your writing. – Ben Crowell Aug 10 '17 at 23:35
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The fact that you have never seen an ad for a book should tell you something. Advertising doesn't sell books. If advertizing sold books, you would see lots of advertisements for books, because publishers would do what works. (As the comments indicate, publishers do certain amounts of targeted advertising in some markets. Nothing so far indicates that ads help an unknown self published novel, however.)

What does sell books? I'm no expert, but as far as I can tell, it comes down to word of mouth, hand selling, and bookstore placement.

Word of mouth happens when a few people read you book, love it, and tell their friends, who then tell their friends, etc. etc. You only need a few initial readers to spark a word of mouth expansion, but you also need a really good book. (There are stories of books that languished unnoticed for years before a word of mouth expansion suddenly vaulted them to prominence.)

Hand selling means that someone -- the author or a bookseller -- personally talks up the book to a customer, usually in a book store, but possibly in another venue (I have hand sold my technical books at industry conferences). Hand selling a book yourself is, of course, incredibly expensive and time consuming and is only really going to pay off if the book gains enough momentum to start a word of mouth expansion and to inspire hand selling by book sellers.

Bookstore placement means that your book gets on the rack at the front of the store, gets placed on an end cap, or turned face out on the shelf -- anything to make it more noticeable to a reader who is just browsing with no clear idea in mind of who or what they are looking for. You get bookstore placement by being published by a major publisher with a lot of clout with bookstores who is willing to promote your work through their sales channels. In other words, if you self publish, you don't get bookstore placement (except maybe from your local independent bookstore if you chat up the owner).

There is also reviews in prominent publications, Oprah's book club, and the major literary prizes. But a self-published book is not likely to get within a country mile of any of those. The major publishing houses own the pipelines to those places. You would need to already be a major self-publishing success story to even have a chance of being looked at by any of these.

When it comes to seeding your word of mouth campaign on social media, I don't think the necessarily costs you anything more than time, but my impression is that you are more likely to succeed in pitching your book to your already established social media following than you are to build a following around the book itself, at least until the book itself, or you as an author, already have an established reputation.

In short, if you want to be successful self publishing, I think you have to be prepared to do a lot of hand selling. And, of course, you have to write an exceptionally good book.

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    Publishers do advertise books. But it is in places like Publishers Weekly and magazines/sites devoted to librarians and booksellers. They do run ads for their major writers after they have become well established – DCook Aug 9 '17 at 19:46
  • True, but neither of those are likely to do much good for a self published author. – user16226 Aug 9 '17 at 20:58
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    Is it just a British thing to advertise books at train stations? I see tonnes of ads (mainly for thrillers, I guess to perk up the lives of bored commuters) at stations. – LangeHaare Aug 10 '17 at 11:12
  • @LangeHaare I can't ever remember seeing an ad for a book at an American of Canadian train station or airport. Every airport has a bookstore, so it is not like people are not reading (though more and more planes resemble missions control -- ranks on ranks for people fixated by glowing computer screens). Commuter rail stations here tend to be more like bus stations than UK train stations. Just a shelter and a ticket machine. – user16226 Aug 10 '17 at 11:24
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    @LangeHaare Train stations specifically may be a British thing, but general book advertising is definitely not. There are many book adverts here in the Czech Republic too (usually posters on public transport). – Reinstate Monica Aug 10 '17 at 14:40
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Mark has covered your question admirably and I agree with everything he has said. I would offer only a few minor additions.

If you want to write a successful book, you need to look at marketing before everything else. You need to consider how you can market your writing before you decide on what audience you are targeting, what genre(s) you will embrace, and long before even the earliest sketches of who your characters are or what their world looks like. If you define success in terms of reader counts and financial compensation, you need to put marketing first.

But as Mark has explained, marketing doesn't usually work for books. We, as general market readers, don't turn to conventional advertising mediums for advice on what to read next. Most of us don't even consider who is currently on the NYTimes Best Sellers list, except for when it is shoved in our face by a book jacket or bookstore display. Entertainment literature is just one of those products which cannot be supported effectively by conventional advertising.

Except when it can...

I used to run a small writing group and one day an unpublished author brought in her work in progress, a tell-all for the private yachting community. She was a chef who had built a career signing on to various yacht crews, producing wonderful food while cruising to the most beautiful ports in the world. Along the way, she had picked up hundreds of anecdotes and humorous stories which she was assembling into a semi-fictionalized set of linked short stories. The writing was crisp and joyful and the stories never failed to cheer. But more importantly in context of this question, her work in progress was marketable!

The private yachting community is full of people who draw major parts of their self-image and identity from their link to boating. They are a group set apart from all others; a group which is served by multiple magazines, hundreds of websites, forums and boating supply stores. Unlike most general market readers, yacht owners will take reading recommendations from their community media, especially if it promises to be full of people like them, doing the things they love to do.

This rare book came, not only with a built in audience, but with a variety of methods for reaching them... methods which would respond to marketing dollars.

This is what I mean by marketing having to be your first consideration. I encountered hundreds of skillfully crafted and joy-to-read works in progress during my time with that writing group. Excellence in story-craft is not as rare as the proud among us might wish. But as far as I know, none of those artfully worded works ever developed a major following once published. They were great, but they didn't stand out in terms of marketability. The ideas at their cores didn't come with a built in accessible audience. ...so conventional advertising couldn't help them.

Books sell by word of mouth. Finding a method to reach your first thousand mouths is more important than your dashing hero, your vile villain or your beautiful prose. Nothing you can do as an author is more important toward the success of your book, than what you can do as a marketing strategist. You must answer the question, "How am I going to sell this?" before you even start considering what "this" is going to grow up to be.

Some final thoughts...

  • Your marketing concept needs to be a vital part of your story. It cannot be inserted in after the fun part of the writing is done.

  • A built-in audience is not the only marketing strategy to consider but it is a good one. Set your story among a group that is usually disrespected in modern fiction (Conservative-Christians, Survivalists, Politicians) and treat them with respect and dignity in your prose. Then by applying your marketing dollars to their trade-journals and forums, you may win their readership.

  • Be genuine! Even though we write fiction doesn't mean we have to lie all the time.

  • Regarding marketing, I'm reminded of this passage of one of Robert Kiyosaki's books, where he discusses choosing the title If You Want To Be Rich and Happy, Don't Go to School? for free publicity. :) – Wildcard Aug 9 '17 at 23:40
  • Upvoted, but one quibble: "marketing doesn't usually work for books" should be "advertizing doesn't usually work for books". Advertizing is only a tiny part of marketing.Marketing encompases not only everything you do to promote a book and to make it available for sale, but also everything you do to research the market for the book and target the book to appeal to that market. – user16226 Aug 16 '17 at 11:28
  • @MarkBaker, Thanks for the clarification. I will edit my answer later today. – Henry Taylor Aug 16 '17 at 13:50
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From experience: If you self-publish, you have to take on all of the jobs the publisher usually does. Before you do that, you should assess your ability to do those jobs, your knowledge of how to do them AND your motivation to do them. My self-published book sold briskly when I was aggressively selling it by hand, and booking speaking engagements around it. But I rapidly reached my personal limit with doing that job.

There's also a steep learning curve on much of this work. A lot of people think they can take out some ads and spend their way into a best-seller. But when is the last time you read a book based on an ad? You have to be able to distance yourself from the book and put yourself in the book buyer's shoes. How did you find your last great book? Because of a good review in the New York Times? Because it was placed front and center at Barnes & Nobles? Because your brother recommended it? Can you ensure any one of those promotional opportunities for your book? If not, then you yourself wouldn't buy it. And distribution itself is a full-time career, not a hobby.

As I've mentioned repeatedly on this SE: Successful self-publishers (who do exist!) are very good and tireless salespeople. The quality of the book is actually secondary to the salesmanship. What works, typically, are speaking engagements, hand-selling, networking, and a well-targeted niche audience. As long as you are committed to selling each copy of your book personally, you can basically sell as many as you want.

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Covering off two points in your question separately.

Firstly, the distribution - I chose to go with Type & Tell, which is a self-pub spin off from the Bonnier Group. The UK country manager (Jon Watt) knows his stuff, so everything from typesetting to blurb to initial PR was done when thinking of the final product. Distribution is a pain in the neck; I was the COO of a successful niche publishing company for several years, and working with Ingram and Gardeners to get the right quantity printed and into retail bookshops is enough to send the average person running. Therefore, I outsourced to T&T so that I could focus on the writing and the selling.

I'm now CEO of an established e-commerce company, so I feel relatively confident in my ability to reach my audience. I'll add a few caveats to my advice, though - firstly, my book might be rubbish and people demand refunds in droves; secondly, this is the first time I've done this for this specific product range; finally, being in the UK means that we don't have access to Amazon Marketing Services (AMS), which would be a game changer for us.

The channels that I use to sell must be as close to free as possible. Everything must be cost per action (CPA) or at worst cost per click (CPC). Key platforms are obviously Google and Facebook, with outsourced agents selling for me in different regions on CPA of $0.50 per book sold. If I make ~$0.80 per book sold (I make more, but tax, unforeseen costs, etc), then it's scalable.

Billboards, TV, magazines, etc are good for established brands (Just Eat vs Deliveroo), but for us new guys on a book by book unit sale, find something measurable and risk-light. Get a free website on Wix, etc and make sure that your social handles are claimed, even if you don't use them yet.

Also, don't forget to collect emails via a call to action (CTA) at the back of every book. That allows you to connect to people for free next time. Read Mark Dawson's interviews, listen to some of the numerous podcasts covering this subject.

  • As an addendum - social ads sell, social posts rarely do. I use social as a reminder or a "honey trap", not a primary route. – Brereton Aug 16 '17 at 4:25
  • Interesting, but could your please expand your acronyms. I suspect many readers won't know what CPC, CPA, and CTA mean. – user16226 Aug 16 '17 at 11:15
  • Sorry - CPA is cost per action, which means that you don't pay anything until a book is sold. CPC is cost per click - you pay whenever someone clicks on your advert, and I normally go as low as $0.15 for some platforms. CTA means a call to action, basically an advert or a "for more information, sign up" paragraph at the back of your book. – Brereton Aug 16 '17 at 11:17
  • Thanks. Also, what is AMS? – user16226 Aug 16 '17 at 11:21
  • AMS is Amazon marketing services - ams.amazon.co.uk. In the US you can target advertising to similar authors or genres for as little as $0.10 per click. Currently it's not available in the EU. – Brereton Aug 16 '17 at 11:23
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I can only speak as a reader, but... Publish your books online, one chapter at a time, at regular intervals. This is how Brandon Sanderson and E. William Brown got me to buy their books - you publish one book for free, then the first few chapters of the next book, and ask people to pay for the rest.

I recommend using online forums for this, such as spacebattles, fictionpress, etc - there are a lot of these sites. Hit as many as you can, there plenty of people who will read whatever shows up in the 'last updated' list, and publishing regularly will get you a lot of exposure.

Some advice, drawn from my experience as a long-time reader and lurker on such forums:

  • Publish chapters at least 2 days apart (otherwise readers get overwhelmed and stop following), but no more than a week (or they lose interest).
  • Try and keep chapters to around 5000 words. Smaller than 3000, and it's too short to retain interest; longer than 10000, and people will not have time to finish it. Remember that when you're reading on a webpage, it's not easy to bookmark halfway through a chapter, so it needs to be short enough that people can read it in one sitting.
  • Finally, make sure that any authors notes you attach to each chapter, are no more than half the length of the chapter itself. If you want to write commentary, post it separately, so as not to break the flow of the book.
  • How would this advice apply to something like publishing on Amazon Kindle? – Michael Sep 30 '18 at 2:01
  • @Michael I've noticed a lot of authors publish their books like this on an online forum (there are a number of self-publishing sites that do this, e.g. royalroadl.com), and then when it is ready for release they delete it from the site to publish with amazon. It's actually quite common now. – Benubird Oct 1 '18 at 9:00

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