How to Self Promote Without Selling Your Soul

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My parents own an import business, and we often talked about their work around the dinner table. I remember a conversation about “Brian,” one of the sales reps. When Brian first moved into sales from accounting, he had a hard time because he felt like he was forever pushing merchandise onto people. But eventually he began to see his role differently, as a service provider who guided people toward products that matched their needs.

At the time, being my cynical high-school self, my reaction was "Uh huh, whatever makes you feel better, greedy capitalist." But I've been thinking about that conversation recently, after reading Nathan Bransford's recent article on self promotion. The gist of his post is that self-promotion is uncomfortable and somewhat unpleasant, but as a modern author, you have to do it anyways.

Now Nathan has more social media and marketing ninja skills in his left pinky than I could ever hope to obtain, and I can definitely see where he's coming from. It’s hard to step out of your comfort zone and tell people about your book. But whereas many authors see self-promotion as a necessary evil, I actually enjoy it. Perhaps because I'm the daughter of entrepreneurs, perhaps because I'm an only child and attention-monger, or perhaps because my stunted MIT social skills prevent me from realizing when people are annoyed at me.

Whatever the reason, I'd like to present a more sanguine view of self promotion.

Catchphrases like marketing, target audience and branding, have a negative connotation among artists. There's the stereotype of the money grabbing capitalist, out to get money while true artists just focus on their art and let people (the deserving ones at least) come to them. But the thing is, in a good business transaction, everybody ends up happy. The seller feels adequately compensated. The customer feels like she has obtained something of value. And that's the first point that shy authors tend to forget. You’re not asking for donations. You're offering something of value for a fair price.

So if selling is not inherently evil, then you're home free right? Forget your qualms, grit your teeth, and start tweeting.

Well, not quite. Instead if you're feeling guilty about self-promotion, try stepping back and ask yourself these three questions.

1. Are you offering a quality product?

If you’re truly convinced that people will gain value from your book, you’ll be less shy to tell people about it. Are you up to industry standards for copyediting, layout, and cover design? Have you had test readers? (See my beta reader series here) You don't have to have a book that everybody loves, but you should have a book that resonates with a certain segment of the population, which leads to the next point…

2. Are you marketing to the right people?

Go door-to-door selling pinup magazines at a frat house, and you'll likely get high-fives and an invitation to beer pong. Do the same thing at a convent, and you'll end up with restraining order. These are extreme examples, but they show how the same methods of self-promotion can be welcomed by one group and loathed by another.

And again we have idea of target audience, which we recently discussed. You want to reach people who, upon hearing about your book, will think “Hey, that’s right up my alley.” We often discuss target audience with a focus on the sale, but more important is what customers do after they read your book. If you have a strong platform to a non-target audience or have loyal friends with money to spare, those folks might buy your book just to support you. But if you only concentrate on those people, you lose out on one of the most important aspects of book growth: word-of-mouth. It's not enough just to sell that first book. You want to sell it to someone who will read it, love it, and pass it on.

One last thought about target audience: It doesn't have to be a yes or no thing. It can be a gradient, and you can adapt your marketing efforts accordingly. When From Words to Brain first came out in December, I  blogged about it but didn’t tell my friends and family. Most of them aren't into neuroscience or writing, and I didn't want to pressure them into buying an essay that wasn't really their thing.

But when my essay went on sale for $.99 last February, I did do the e-mail blast to friends and family. Most of them liked me enough, and were curious enough about my “writing thing”, to want to spend a dollar and check it out. And in the following weeks I got lots of grinning friends coming up to me and saying “Hey Livia, I read your book!” Some of them read the whole thing, enjoyed it, and told other people about it (Thanks, K, C, G!). Some read a few pages and moved on, but for a dollar it was a worthwhile risk for them.

3. Is your method of self-promotion adding value?

It's been said 1 million times, but only because it's so true. The most important question in marketing is "What's in it for me?" You can get on a mountaintop and shout “Plz check out my new book available now on Amazon” all day, but you’ll be roundly ignored unless there is something in it for the person on the other end. It's no coincidence that the marketing campaigns that go viral are the ones that offer something -- either entertainment, inspiration, or advice. See Old Spice Guy, The Noticer Project,  John Locke’s blog entries, for examples.

There are also more conventional ways, like building a platform with an entertaining or useful blog (see The Internet is a Playground, Unclutterer, The Simple Dollar). And there are plenty of blogs in the writing blogosphere that do this as well. J A Konrath, Joanna Penn, Kristine Rusch, Bob Mayer and many others write valuable blog posts teaching people about the process of publishing while also getting the their own books out there. Moses Siregar cohosts a podcast on science fiction, and also recently launched his novel. (Note: Though, again, think target audience here. Both Joanna and Joe have mentioned that they don’t think their writing platforms overlap heavily with their fiction audience.)

And don't forget free samples! Many authors find their audience through podcasts, online comics, etc. Zoe Winters offers her first book for free download  for joining her mailing list.  I recently bought Girl of Fire and Thorns after reading 85 pages on the HarperCollins website. Come to think of it, there are few products as conducive to free sampling as novels. I mean, if someone reads half the book and still doesn't want to continue, then they're probably not a good fit.

So in conclusion, yes, self promotion can be uncomfortable. But you can do more than just grit your teeth and forge ahead. Just as there are concrete steps you can take to fix a sagging plot or flat characters, there are concrete changes in approach that you can take to make the process less awkward.

What do you think? Is it possible to self promote without selling your soul?

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  1. Thanks for this lovely article. I'm uncomfortable with self-promotion, so this was helpful.

    I've recently written about getting more followers to my blog...discussing much the same aspects of self-promotion, though probably not so well :)

  2. I too have been reflecting on Nathan Bransford's post, and I appreciate your thoughtful take on it. I agree that avoiding that selling your soul feeling really comes down to not blindly marketing AT people, but offering something worthwhile in return for your target's attention. As Bransford says in this related post, to create an online presence you're comfortable with, your best bet is being yourself.

  3. Great point about successful transactions adding value for both parties. I admire people who self-promote in a way that's fun and interesting and not annoying. It doesn't come easily to everyone, but I agree that it doesn't have to be painful or evil. Thanks for the tips!

  4. Fantastic post. I do think it's a very fine line to walk, self-promo without losing either, your friends or your integrity. Pandering to a nameless crowd isn't my thing at all, but in order to get my book out, that's exactly what I have to do.

    I think subtle is good. There are blog fests and hops and parties all over the place, and quite frankly, they don't entice me to buy the book. It actually annoys me. I am definately going with a much quieter approach.

    A friend of mine did an experiment on her blog. She announced she had a book for sale on Kindle with one line at the bottom of one of her regular posts one day. Just once. I asked her how it's been going and she said, even without advertising or any kind of coverage, she's averaging almost 50 sales a week through word of mouth and reviews. Which I think is pretty cool.

    I think the free aspect is a good idea. I've already written a short novella to come out for free on the day I announce my book out to Kindle. I'm hoping that's all the promotion I need.

  5. I want to dog-ear this post forever! This post is extremely helpful and packed full of good, useful information. Thank you so much for posting this!

  6. Someone told me not too long ago, though I can't remember who, that she hates talking to readers about her books, so she's learned to pretend that she's talking about her favorite author's books, not her own, and it becomes easy. She loves her own stories so as long as she pretends (in her head) that she's not talking about herself it works.

    I like the idea that there is value on both sides of the transaction, too. That will definitely be integrated into my thinking when selling my books!

    Thanks for casting a new light on self-marketing!

  7. I think this has been the aspect that has made me most hesitant to put my book "out there" whether with an agent or without--that scary marketing part. The idea that we're offering something great, not being a whiny beggar, is SO helpful to keep in mind.

  8. Thanks, I needed to hear this, as I'm considering going indie on one of my novels.

  9. You have certainly addressed my concerns! and happily diffused them (to a tolerable level). I know when the time comes I'm going to have to abandon my bad attitude, just not think about it and jump. I will bookmark this for courage! Thanks so much!

  10. Fantastic post! It's easy to forget that self-promotion isn't about begging for people to click your link or buy your book--it's about offering something of value to your readers. Point taken.

  11. Great post. I'm pretty sure you know my take on self-promotion -- it's important, but it doesn't have to be the hard sell, used car salesman schtick. Loved your line: "But the thing is, in a good business transaction, everybody ends up happy." That's it exactly. You're not trying to trick people. Sometimes, I think the hardest part of promotion is really believing in your story enough to think "you'll like this. You'll have a good time."

  12. Livia,

    This was a great post for the laywriter. I don't think selling our words comes naturally--at least not in the sense of self-promotion. By thinking about it in terms of product promotion, the process becomes easier and less about us and more about connecting readers to words they may enjoy.


  13. Damyanti - glad you found it helpful. Good luck with your blog!

    theinklesspress - Yeah, I also saw the branding post. Again kinda I also half agreed, half disagreed. Mostly I thought he was right, but didn't have the same negative view of the word "brand". I wrote a response in the comments section.

    linda - yeah, definitely takes some creativity to be interesting and not annoying. But then, we are writers, so hopefully we're good at being creative :-)

    Anne - It helps sometimes if you can put names to the nameless crowd, either by building a network and getting to know people, or creating an imaginary person that is your target audience. It feels more concrete that way. That's a good idea with the short novella. Let me know how that goes!

    Gina - :-) and thanks again for your response post.

    Laurin - that's a good trick about pretending it's another author's! I wonder if I can pull that off…

    Laurel - yes, that's why it's so helpful to get positive response from test readers. Then you can really start convincing yourself that people enjoy it.

    Catherine -- Good luck!

    jbchicoine - yes, go be brave! In a smart, creative way of course :-)

    Ava - yeah, the way I see it, if you have to beg people for something, then there is something wrong with either your audience or your product. Granted, you do have to let people know about things so that they can decide whether or not they want it, but after that, it's up to them.

    Cathy - good to see you again! Yeah, exactly. You're not trying to trick people. I think it definitely helps to be genuine, and interact with your readers so you actually see what value they're getting from it.

    catwoods - glad you found it useful! Selling is definitely a different skill set, but hopefully authors can find at least a few techniques that work for them.

  14. In a perfect world, you'd have legions of ravenous fans, waiting to devour your work. You'd only have to tell one of them your book was ready, and they would telephone the message out on their way to the store.
    In a next to perfect world, your agent and publisher would handle these messy details, send out press releases, set up events, contact potential reviewers and so forth, and do it exactly the way you'd like them to do it.
    Odds are, you don't live in either of those worlds. Odds are, you have to let people know you've created something, and they might like it. As long as that is your goal, and you're not excessively Machiavellian in your approach- it doesn't have to be a bad thing. Advertising/marketing can be fun, if you do it right.

  15. I hear reviews are really important. With Kirkus now gone, writers are turning to resources like the to get their books to reviewers. What do you think of these services?

  16. Jesse -- And maybe once you get the ball rolling, you'll get the legions of ravenous fans :-)

    Anonymous -- I don't know much about those sites. Sounds interesting though.