A Few Words About Advertising Your Books

Times SquareLast week I chatted a bit about marketing my books, what has worked, and how revisiting my core strategy required some shifts in my current methods (that sounded  like jargon-speak).

At one point I mentioned that advertising was a pretty lousy way to sell books. That may have been a bit of an overstatement. The phrase “advertising” is broad and I don’t think one blanket judgment sums up my thoughts on the subject very well.

When I said that advertising is a lousy way to sell books, I was referring to the ads that most people think about whenever this project comes up in conversation. Big ads. Showy ads. Expensive, one-time ads. For instance, a lot of people have suggested that I price out a billboard in Times Square. I doubt highly that I could afford something like that, but, living in New York, most people throw that idea out. I mean, why not at least get a price quote?

Well, because I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t do anything. For one, the signal to noise ratio down there is absurd. But, more importantly, the advertisements in Times Square are parts of much larger marketing campaigns. Those billboards are not sole attempts to have those products interact with the masses in midtown. Those billboards are usually marquis ads for large brands that also have lord knows how many other ads, signs, catalogues, etc. where they can catch a hold of someone’s eyeballs, if only for a moment. And if you can catch someone’s attention with your product a few times in a few different ways, well then you’ve got something

AD building by By Straws pulled at random from FlickrThe other types of ads in Times Squares are ads for musicals. These ads are much easier for me to relate to. Why? Well, why are there musicals advertising in Times Square? Because that’s where the theaters are in New York. It’s Broadway. You’ve got the ads, then you’ve got the theaters themselves with copy all over them, you’ve got tickets for sale right there in any number of formats, it’s just a great place for musicals to advertise. That sort of overlap is, as I said, easier for me to relate to than the mega-campaigns of GAP or Apple. And, more importantly, that sort of overlap is achievable by me on the web.

There are four basic methods I have tried for advertising my books online. Here are my thoughts and conclusions on each.

1. Designing an ad and buying ad space on a specific website, such as a popular book blog.

This has not worked and I don’t recommend it…for me. I think this method would work wonderfully for a book whose genre is easily accessible. If you write Urban Fantasy as that genre is perceived by the current market,  sexy vampire/werewolf/ghost/human who is out hunting/being hunted by a sexy ghost/werewolf/vampire/human, then I think buying an ad on an Urban Fantasy blog could be great. The audience is primed for you, they came there looking for exactly what you’re offering, and, though it can be costly time-wise or money-wise to put a good design together, you’d just have to hit the proper notes to get clicks.

Me? My books? I have no idea what genre they are. They’ve been eviscerated by urban fantasy fans and adored by urban fantasy fans. I ask people what genre I write in and I get a complete hodgepodge of responses. Fantasy? Thriller? Literary? I mean there’s a scene in my book where an undead ronin saves a two-thousand year old Roman slave from being incinerated by his combined efforts with Isaac Newton to come up with a unified theory of gravity.

What the fuck genre is that?

So, no. This method has not been good to me.

2. Google Ads

Google ads were where I first started experimenting with advertising and I highly recommend you do so if you’re an indie author. It’s cheap, as low as a dollar a day, and you should treat the experience as a crash course in marketing. Don’t just set it and forget it, really dig deep into the data. That’s where this method had its merits. I started thinking about genres (yes, I know I just said I was genre-less but I still have to try to target something), what other authors my readers enjoy, and I definitely learned a lot about simple hooks and call to actions to put into an ad in order to get a higher response. “Click now!” sounds like a stupidly annoying thing to put into your ad, but, seriously, it works.

So Google is a great place to hone, or discover, a wide number of tools that are needed for advertising and bigger picture marketing.

The problem? It’s just too damn big. And the space you’re given to write an ad is laughable. Honestly. It’s like writing haiku.

Facebook by Scott Beale / Laughing SquidIf I was selling vacuums, okay.  “Vacuums on sale. Low prices. Click now.” I mean, it’s easy to get to the point with some products. With books though? It’s hard enough to get across that you’re selling your specific book, not just books in general. You have to cram in your personality and flavor and a sense of your genre. And that’s not so bad, but unfortunately Google awards you when the words in your ad match up with the words you choose to trigger your ad during searches.

So I had to try to get all of the above stuff in while fitting in words like “books,” “urban fantasy,” “thriller,” “zombies.” It’s rough.

And it’s made rougher by the fact that Google doesn’t understand English. If I write, “Probability Angels by Joseph Devon,” well that’s quite obviously a book. The tiny word “by” in there conveys that concept. But for Google this phrase has nothing to do with books because the word book doesn’t appear.

Short answer? It’s cheap and a great place to get your feet wet. But I found composing ads that got clicks, showed up for the searches I wanted to, and weren’t slowly tuned out by Google more difficult than writing a freaking book.

3. Facebook Ads

Now we’re on to something. Equally cheap, which is nice. You can start with a few dollars a day and experiment with their interface and what they like to see in ads. More importantly, they have great targeting. I know that my writing gets compared to Neil Gaiman, for example.

How do I know this? I’ve asked people, and researched what key words have brought people to my site, and taken note of what books amazon pairs me up with. And on Facebook I can write an ad, have my book cover up there, and then target it only to people who have “Liked” Neil Gaiman. This is wonderful stuff.

Furthermore, I can create a larger campaign. Instead of one ad, I have a series of ads. They all  run under the same budget, so I’m not adding dollars here. They all have the same basic info, but they all are offer new angles into my books. Most of them are memorable quotes from my characters. Catching, jarring quotes. Someones sees one, okay, they do a double take and they move on. But that person will see various quotes over time and, again, engaging a target in different ways helps your product sink in. This isn’t quite as varied as the mega-campaigns I mentioned earlier, but it is variation within my ads. The reader is exposed to different characters and their tones while the basic ad image remains the same. It feels much more like a marketing campaign instead of just ads.

And, most importantly, it’s working. Sales are up. Can’t argue with that.

Recent Reads by giveawayboy on Flickr4. Goodreads Ads

I have high hopes for this. Remember the musicals advertising in Times Square from earlier? Well this is the same concept. Goodreads is one of the largest social book networks out there. Eventually I’ll poke around Shelfari and Librarything too but for now I’m learning the ropes at Goodreads.

One thing I like here is that my ads click through to my book’s Goodreads page. My visitor has no sense of leaving one site and landing at my site, which can be jarring. They’re in familiar territory the whole way and they know perfectly well how to ad my book to their “To-Read” pile. You can also choose to have a tally of your reviews included in your ad. That’s great data to throw in there and, again, it’s data that Goodreads users understand.

Plus, you can create multiple ads under one budget so you can come at people from a few different angles just as with my Facebook ads, which I love.

The downside? Currently there’s a massive site-wide bug in their advertising code that is causing zero ads to show. So I have no idea if this idea will pan out. But I think it will. It seems like a good system.

So those are my thoughts and experiences from the trenches. I’ve got a lot of online ad campaigns under my belt and I really hope that my blunders can help others find a quicker and easier path to their audience.

Now…who wants to fund my billboard in Times Square?

Marketing as an Indie Publisher, the Amazon Algorithm, and Why My Books Are No Longer Free

I was talking to a friend of mine once about what I’m trying to accomplish in the world of independent publishing and he commented with a quickly astute, “Huh. Sounds like a lot of chicken and egg stuff.”

Every time I try to gather my thoughts and plan my next move for my books, I come back to that comment and it has continued to ring true.

I put out a new story? Great, so I want to get readers for it. So I tweet and post on Facebook and write about it on here…but that only reaches the readers I already have. Some of them are die-hards and they go on to tweet and write about it (if they like it), but then it fizzles out pretty quickly.

Which is to say that when I want to grow my fan base, I turn to people who already read my work and tell them about it. It makes sense sort of…in the proper light. But when you think about it, it’s…well it’s chicken and egg work.

The annual art contest is another great example. I love the art contest and have loved every entry I’ve received over the past three years, but all I know to do to promote it is to tell my readers about it and encourage them to pass it forward. And that’s effective to some degree, but it doesn’t exactly “go viral” ever.

My initial thoughts, years ago, on how this would work would be that one person would read a short story, enjoy it, then tell two other people about it and my words would spread ever outward. But social connections and influences don’t work like that. It isn’t a clean pyramid of 1 influences 2, then 2 influence 4, then 4 influence 16 and so on.

Generic two-step flow network diagram by esagor Flickr

No. No, social networks tend to look something more like this:

Community and Group formation in a Social Network by BigSee from Flickr

You’re the dot on the left.

Which is to say that some random reader could influence dozens of people simply because they have an upbeat attitude while a huge fan who is more of a thinker might not even share my work with someone else, preferring instead to digest it slowly in their own way.

I think about this quite a bit and the notion of “going viral” is a rather intricate phenomenon.

That being said, I do think the best way of getting there is to not over-analyze it and to find new readers wherever you can, make them aware of your work, and represent yourself professionally but with your own attitude thrown in. Shake every tree but focus on those most likely to bear fruit, like groups you seem to have a high reader-to-fan conversion rate in. Then? Lather, rinse, repeat.

I have definitely been growing my fan base using these methods over the years, but it hasn’t exploded. Which brings me to the very weird question of, “How do I find new readers?”

I mean, again, when I put out a new work I mainly tell my current readers, but that doesn’t get new readers, does it?

Sadly I have no answers. I just know what hasn’t worked, and I know what I’ve had to tweak.

Advertising, for example, has proven to be a pretty lousy way to spread the word. I’m now of the opinion that advertising needs to be just one part of a larger marketing strategy, not a stand alone investment thrown into the world with no real connections to anything else.

There’s a notion in marketing, a sort of “Rule of Three,” when it comes to ads. Think about the first time you see an ad for a new product that pertains to you. You look it over, nod, and then immediately forget about it. Once isn’t enough. But if you see an ad, then read an article, and then it comes up in conversation with friends? Well then that product sticks. It takes about three different entry points into the cranium before an idea will lodge there firmly.

So advertising alone never made much sense or impact. Campaigns would see a rise in hits on the site and then nothing more would happen.

Recently though, I’ve started thinking about this project as a whole again, something I haven’t done in awhile. And some core ideas had to be revisited.

One of the larger tools I always knew I had at my disposal was the Amazon algorithm. Simply put, when Amazon gets a feel for your shopping style it starts to recommend books based on similar shoppers’ previous purchases. If a book, any book, starts getting linked up in Amazon’s big ol’ brain to a popular book, then that other book starts getting pushed on consumers in the world’s largest book store.

That’s a powerful tool, but it’s one that fell by the wayside in my plan over time.

Why?

Because when I first started this site the Kindle didn’t exist. The iPhone didn’t exist. Hell, I didn’t even have a laptop. The thinking was to put all my work up online for free. I figured that if someone was going to read an entire book off of a computer, well then that was a FAN, all caps, and I’d gladly give up the royalty for that reader just to have them on my side. Most other readers who became hooked would get sick of reading on a screen and then go purchase a book. And most of them would purchase from Amazon.

Over the years, though, so much has changed. I now happily read books on my phone. People can download PDF’s into any number of devices designed for easy reading. People have more choices than, “Read my entire book off of their computer monitor or buy a paperback.”

So in order to bring my overall plan back into focus, a slowly built audience with a large percentage of them purchasing me on Amazon, I’ve done something I never expected myself to do. I’ve stopped offering my books on my site for free.

This is annoying because I firmly believe that, in five or ten years, books for free on authors’ websites will be the norm. I think new tools for monetizing readers will continue to come along and income for authors will be made based on web visitors. Or at least a larger portion of it than occurs today.

Hell, I think that would work for any already broken-in author with a core fan base.

But for an author trying to find that fan base, when the Amazon algorithm is a major tool being used, well…I need those damned sales. Not for the royalties, but for the PR.

Again, this is a complete turn around from my plan of five years ago, but, again, so much has changed that my plan needed to be revisited.

Plus I can take comfort knowing that my books cost NINETY-NINE FREAKING CENTS for their e-versions and that this isn’t a suicidal price point, but one at which I earn a healthy royalty.

The world has changed.

Somehow I forgot that such things happen.

Time to change with it.

Recent Photographs

So I’ve been taking a lot more photographs than usual lately. I made a New Year’s Resolution to take my camera out with me more and I’ve actually been doing a pretty good job of keeping up with that. I also go to a lot of bars. So the end result is a lot of pictures from bars…well and some other places.

At any rate, I always find it amazing how easy it is to share my work on the internet, and yet how difficult it is to share my work. Most people know to come here for my words but I have my photographs up at Tumblr and Flickr (I just noticed the use of “r” with no vowels before it to end both those words…I don’t understand how the internet names things). Actually some of my pics have been pretty popular in those circles but I don’t know if those people looking at them there are the same people looking at them here and, well, whatever I figure every once and awhile posting some popular pics here isn’t a bad idea.

Plus, I’ll remind you that you can either check out my Flickr photostream here.

Or you can check them out on Tumblr here.

So according to the will of the people here are the most popular pics. Please click through for larger views.

Here is a beer (cider actually):

Magner's Irish Cider

Here is a bar sign:

Neon Bar SignHere is a three olive martini:

Three Olive Martini

Here is the 59th Street Bridge:

59th Street Bridge

Here is a vodka tonic:

Heaven is a vodka tonic

Here are some Gray’s Papaya hot dogs:

Gray's Papaya hot dogs

Here is a bird’s nest in a traffic light:

Bird's Nest in a Traffic Light

And here is some traffic on Park Avenue:

Traffic on Park Avenue

Tons more stuff up at the sites I mentioned above and, if I can keep up with my New Year’s resolution, more to come.

3rd Annual Joseph Devon Art Contest

Just wanted to drop a quick word this week to start plugging the 3rd Annual Joseph Devon Art Contest. Technically it’s been open since the last one ended but the deadline is now officially a few months out so it’s time to chat it up. The winner can choose from a handful of great prizes including an iPad or a Wacom tablet. It’s open to the world (which I love) and I encourage anyone and everyone to send in entries.

You all are, collectively, the most awesome fans anywhere and it always amazes me what people send in. It’s probably one of the more rewarding times of the year when I get to see your creations that my creations brought to light.

So send in your art! I want it! All of it! I demand that you let my books inspire you! Go gogogogogogogo……