Marketing Quicksand

Writers dream of publishing their first book to widespread acclaim and skyrocketing sales as the world embraces a new blockbuster novel, genuflects at the author’s very name (and attractive single men throw champagne, long stemmed roses and room keys her way. OK, one of us added that, this being Valentine’s Day and all). The reality is that sales are more apt to only reach as far as one’s circle of friends and relatives (in our case, since we are a writing team and related, that’s one less book sale right off the bat, dang it). So unless you can fill the Rose Bowl with your cousins, you probably need to do some marketing. “Marketing” is the fancy business school term for “shameless self-promotion in hopes you can get more moolah from the effort than you actually spent on it.”

We’ve mentioned before that this is not just a self-publishing issue; all authors are expected to invest time and energy in promoting their books. If you have a publisher, they have worker bees who do things like arrange book signings, press interviews, random people to throw rose petals at you when you get out of a limousine, etc. If you self publish, and have to do all the above yourself (Can you throw rose petals at yourself? Does it count if you do?) All that represents time and energy that you could be using to write the next book, or clean up after an incontinent puppy (one of us has reason to know about this subject in alarmingly messy and smelly detail. All in, though, she considers “spot treating carpets four times a day” to be less of a hassle than self-promotion exercises). In other words, authors cannot just be writers. Each author is a small business and he/she must promote that business. Sure, publishing companies help in that process, but the author is a major mover of his/her – or in our case, their – own book.

One of us was given a list of websites where one can market a book. What these websites have in common is a readership looking for eBook deals (preferably free). Authors are provided several ways in which they can ‘sponsor’ their books on the site. ‘Sponsor’ is a fancy way of saying “pay good money so the site owner can say nice things about your book – the one you are giving away for next-to-nothing.”  That is, be listed as eBook of the day, thriller of the week, deal of the day, sucker of the century (OK, I made that last one up), etc. These sponsorship opportunities generally cost from $60 to $300 and come with glowing testimonials from former sponsors. (Sound like a literary Ponzi scheme?) Is it the least suspicious that no more than a handful of glowing testimonials are provided when each of these websites has four hundred or more sponsors each year?  Nawwww.  (One of us wonders if this site is run by the same nice people in Nigeria offering to help her make money on the Internet. She’s pretty sure it’s a similar financial model and has about the same return on investment.)

We’d like to give kudos to the one site that actually provided statistics on book sales before and after sponsorship. But we won’t, because the reward for providing some data is that we’ll analyze their data and rip the site apart. For purposes of this blog, let’s call this website If you think that’s harsh, the ones that don’t provide any data about sales could be called Black Holes.con, and we do mean con. (Though at least black holes really exist. It’s not clear that an uptick in sales from using most of these sites does exist. Especially when you consider that the main site endorsements are from the Tooth Fairy and Santa Claus.) Seriously, if you want to spend money without really knowing what you’re getting, it’s okay with us. In fact, send us a check and we’ll talk up your book. (We’ll even leave a ringing endorsement in your Christmas stocking or under your pillow.)

On the MoneyPit site, there is a spreadsheet of authors and books sponsored over the past several months, including the price of the book, the type of sponsorship, Amazon sales rank before the promotion and highest rank reached. At first glance, the figures are impressive, as most books recorded incredible jumps in their Amazon sales ranks. Second glances are always more revealing. (Kind of like meeting a real person on after viewing their profile photo –  an airbrushed college graduation picture from 25 years ago – “goods not quite as advertised.”)

Amazon does not provide sales figures correlated to rank. It’s a religious thing. People being what they are, a number of analytical types have made a stab at deducing sales versus rank, so we turn to those figures to determine how many actual book sales authors realized from the promotions. Now, our figures aren’t exact, but the general conclusion is that MoneyPit lives up to its name. If one just wants to sell books, it may be a good place to invest, but very few authors sell enough to recoup their investment.

Fact One: About 1/3rd of the authors spent an average of $170 promoting their free books. In other words, the buyer got it for free, the author lost real money. Doesn’t sound like a sustainable business model to us.

Fact Two: The % increase in Amazon sales rank is almost meaningless. For instance, Book A experienced a 1700% increase in rank (from 230,000 to 12,000). Impressed? Don’t be: they sold 8 books. Book B sales increased a mere 200% (from 9000 to 3000) but sold about 30 books.

Fact Three: Of those that actually charged for their eBook, no more than 20% recouped their investments through increased sales. Not a surprise. If you spend $170 to promote a $1.99 book, you’d have to sell 125 books to recover your costs.

Fact Four: Higher priced books (over $2.99) don’t generally see large bumps in sales, but because of the book price, they are more apt to recover their costs.

Conclusion: Despite the fact we’ve ripped these sites as meaningful investments (nobody advertises: “spend oodles with us and get absolutely nothing for it! But wait, order now, and you can throw even more money down a rat hole faster!”) That said, they could be good for authors who want to get their names out and make sales. However, it will require investing multiple times or multiple sites to make any headway on book sales. And the effect of these promos will be short lived. The readers of these sites are primarily looking for ‘deals’ so they are best perhaps for low (or zero) priced books. And really, after all the work you put into it, do you think your book should be free? You get what you pay for, and you “sell” what it’s priced for.

Will we be sponsoring our book through any of these sites? Perhaps later. For now, we are focused on completing book 2. When that is published, we may take the opportunity to promote both books together. For now, we are still working through our marketing plan. (And continuing to clean up after a very adorable but still slightly incontinent puppy, which, on some occasions, one of us does think about offering for sale on

Any Way’s The Right Way

When one of us took her first fiction writing class, the instructor wrote on the board of the very first lesson, “any way’s the right way.” His point was that there is no formula for how to write a story or, more broadly, a novel. It’s whatever works.  Another writer, Annie Lamott, wrote a book on writing called Bird by Bird that includes a chapter entitled “Sh-tty First Drafts.” (Her point being, just get stuff on paper, because you are going to rewrite, and rewrite and rewrite before your story is done. It’s OK to write “sh-tty first drafts.”)

That doesn’t mean there aren’t some “helpful hints for self actualization as a novelist” that might include how long a story needs to be to be called a novel (rather than a novelette or short story), the fact that novels usually have one or more subplots, and so forth. But in terms of the actual writing, there are no rules. Or, to quote one of us who as a naval reservist defeated (more correctly, “whupped”) active duty Marines in a field exercise by smuggling in night vision scopes (an action that was, strictly speaking, against the rules of engagement): “Rules? There are no rules. This is war!”

“Any way’s the right way” is an apt description of how we write, especially since we each have different ways of writing. One of us is a plotter and planner, and the other is more a “just start writing” person who writes scenes, then figures out where they go and how they get glued together. Which method works the best? “Yes.”

Take Book 3, which is as yet untitled (though Blue Scream of Death might be a winner). The current construction of Book 3 resembles nothing so much as the Winchester Mystery House (for the uninitiated, the widow of William Wirt Winchester, he of “Winchester rifle” fame, believed that if she stopped building, she would die, which is why her house has rooms with no discernible purpose, halls that lead nowhere, and so forth: they were just stuck there to keep the house going and growing. Eventually, we’d like the Winchester Mystery House of Book 3 to magically morph into something grand like Kedleston (a particularly lovely neoclassic house in Great Britain and a particularly fine example of the work of architect Robert Adam).

As of today:

We know most of the story takes place in Hawai’i.

We know Emma is working on some kind of financial system implementation – and she hates financial system implementations – at a to-be-decided military activity in Hawai’I that has an acronym nobody understands except a few people in the Navy. But the name ends in “PAC” because every Navy activity in the Pacific area ends in PAC. (Like ComNavBaskRobPac, the Baskin Robbins concession at Navy bases in the Pacific. OK, I made that up.) We know that the military has “different” requirements for systems that causes Emma to be more interested in the assignment than would otherwise be the case (e.g., ships deploy, submarines submerge, and you don’t always have wireless or other connectivity when you want it).

We know Emma gets a lot of surfing in and also spends a lot of time in traffic jams on the H1 (doesn’t everybody?)

We know that Hawaiian culture plays a significant part in the story, both “true” Hawaiian culture (Hawaiian language, lua (Hawaiian martial arts), hula, and so on as well as ‘fun stuff about Hawai’I’ – pidgin, tiki drinks, etc. not to mention strange tourist apparel. (And is there ever strange tourist apparel in Hawai’i, starting with the number of people (men included) who really, really should not be wearing a thong. A burkha would be a public service. I’m just sayin.’)

We know Keoni is back on the mainland going to graduate school, and he hates surfing in the cold, sharky waters of northern California (doesn’t everybody?) after the warm, perfect waves of Hawai’i.

We know that Emma’s mom comes to visit and helps her investigate. Oh boy.

Oh, and we know we have a dead body. Or pieces of one, eew (you’ll have to read the book).

As it stands, Book 3 has a lot of sections written where character’s names are XX and YY, we haven’t developed backstory on those characters, and we haven’t quite figured out the timeline (that is, when does chapter 1 take place, chapter 2, and so forth), in short, we have the literary equivalent of Mrs. Winchester’s halls that go nowhere. But we are going through the existing chapters, creating a timeline, fleshing out the plot – including subplots – and making sure that we follow through on character quirks from other books (after all, our characters are getting older, even if slowly). And lastly, while we are not quite to the point of “literary liposuction,” we do practice “flesh out and flush out.” We flesh out dialogues, descriptions, scenes and settings that need “more detail and a sense of place and time.” We “flush out” because, as much as we love turning a clever phrase, no matter how entranced we get with a section – a character, dialogue, a scene, whatever – if it does not work or does not advance the story, it gets flushed. (Sometimes we cut cute sections and stick it in a Word document for possible resurrection in another book, another form, another scene.)

One of us who is particularly gun shy (Winchester shy?) about organization keeps telling herself, “any way is the right way.” And so she – and we – proceed to dream about, and remember, and place ourselves in Hawai’i and in Emma’s shoes, or “slippahs,” brah. And with that, we are off to find inspiration in a Mai Tai.