Marketing for Self-Publishers: My Successes and Failures of 2015

I think this is how investment works. I could be wrong.

I think this is how money works. I could be wrong.

It’s very tempting to believe that the exploding popularity of self-publishing has revolutionized literature in all the right ways.  After all, anyone with a computer and a word processor can instantly access millions of eager readers worldwide, with no filters, no pesky gatekeepers, and no steep cuts into the royalty checks.

In an ideal world, self-publishers would live along their traditional peers on the best sellers’ lists, as the cream of the crop rises to enthrall the same coveted, discerning audiences.  Indie books would proudly decorate the shelves at big-box book retailers, and Hollywood options would follow soon enough.  Anyone could write the next commercial smash hit – and as soon as they do, all the stigma around independent publishing will instantly vanish.

But the reality, of course, has been quite different.  The majority of self-publishers struggle to lure any readers at all to their wares.  They coast along with minimal sales, and still get plenty of flak from the traditional world for even daring to do so.

That massive pool of readers is still out there, but the right book buyers and the right book sellers have a devil of a time finding each other.  There is no established mechanism for separating the wheat from the chaff, and excellent self-publishing authors still linger in the shadows, unable to break free from the mobs of competitors offering less-than-satisfactory products to disillusioned customers.

The commonly accepted solution to these problems is marketing.  Create ads, they say.  Be seen on social media.  Rope in readers with goodies and contests.  Badger everyone you know to write reviews.  Enter contests.  Hire a professional PR agency if you really want to pull out the big guns.  Do as much as you possibly can to create that elusive buzz everyone craves.

All of these things can have a major impact on sales – but they require something that many self-publishers just don’t have.  Money.

Luckily for the destitute among us, there are some effective but low-cost ways of promoting your newest book.  Even more luckily, there are some foolish bloggers like me who will invest in these strategies for you, and let you know where you should really put your money.  You’re welcome.

Between October of 2014 and the end of 2015, I published Dark the Night Descending and Dark the Dreamer’s Shadow, and I tried a lot of different marketing strategies to try to build interest in my first proper fantasy series.  Some of them worked relatively well…and some of them didn’t.

So here’s the rundown of some of the major things I paid money for over the past few years.  Your results may vary, but I hope this anecdotal roundup will help you decide where to invest your hard-earned marketing dollars in the New Year.

Facebook and Goodreads ads

What: Basic sidebar ads on Goodreads and tailored newsfeed ads on Facebook

How much I spent:  Approximately $30.00

The verdict: Failure

Why: You can read all about this experiment in my blog post here, but basically, Goodreads and Facebook ads were a bust.  Low click-through rates, even lower customer engagement, and no actual sales means that 30 bucks is gone for good.

Neither website provides enough detailed targeting for a good enough price for this to be worthwhile for the small-time budget.  You won’t be able to reach a large enough cohort of people to maybe, possibly snag a highly qualified reader, and if you don’t have previous experience with online marketing, developing a meaningful and cost-effective ad campaign can be very difficult.

Goodreads giveaways

What: Three separate chances to win a total of twelve paperbacks of Dark the Night Descending

How much I spent: Approximately $200.00

The verdict: Success…ish?

Why: Goodreads giveaways look great at first glance.  Thousands of interested readers vying to win free books with the unspoken expectation that they will leave you a nice review appears to be a tempting offer for authors.

Goodreads-Logo-1024x576-7abf5bd8d98b9d10And indeed, you don’t have to do anything other than list your contest to garner hundreds of entries with no effort.

Most of the people entering the giveaway will also add your book to their “to-read” lists, which gives you a nice little pad of potential readers for your novel’s homepage.

Unfortunately, it’s not as wonderful as it seems.  First of all, you have to purchase hard copies of your novels (10 bucks a pop for Dark the Night), plus you have to pay for the shipping costs.  During my first contest, I made the mistake of allowing international entries.  Even a lightweight paperback is pretty expensive to ship to the UK.

And guess what?  Only three of the 845 people who added my book to their lists due to the giveaway have left a rating.  Only one of those twelve winners ever wrote me a review.  It was a great review, and I’m thankful for it.  But I’m not sure the return on the total investment is really worthwhile.

You can read more about my giveaway experience here.

Writer’s Digest contests

What: Two writing competitions sponsored by Writer’s Digest.  One short story contest in September of 2014 (“The Terracotta Girl”), and one self-published novel contest in 2013 (The Last Death of Tev Chrisini)

How much I spent: $20.00 for the short story contest; $100.00 for the novel

The verdict: Failure

Why: Well, I didn’t win.

IPR License

What: A marketplace for the display and sale of international trade rights and permissions.

How much I spent: $150.00 (USD) for a one-year membership

The verdict: Failure (with extra warning bells)

Why: This UK-based rights licensing marketplace looked really intriguing when it was first pitched to me by a very nice sales rep.  In exchange for the membership fee, I was offered a prime listing in their international book fair catalogue and the chance to be discovered by foreign agents looking for English-language best sellers for their home countries.

Danger, Will Robinson!

Danger, Will Robinson!

IPR would handle all the legal stuff, including vetting the respectability of foreign agents before passing on their offers to me, and would take the standard 15% cut of any royalties I might accrue.

My sales rep was very cagy when I asked what my chances of success would be, and how many deals they had made for self-published authors so far.  She kept bringing up a single example of a woman who parlayed international success into a US-based traditional publishing contract, but she couldn’t give me any hard numbers or other details, ostensibly because their offerings were so new.

That should really have been the clue that this is not really a sound investment.  First of all, a listing in a database means very little unless you can do something special to draw attention to yourself.  I could have paid even more for additional listings in some of their catalogues, which are distributed at the Big Five international book fairs, but the prices were a little too high when added on to my original membership.  So I’m left with nothing other than a name card and a hope that some of my keywords will help a reputable agent seek me out.  Not gonna happen, right?

I don’t think this is a scam, per se, but I don’t think it’s the best use of your money.  Unless you’re very familiar with the international rights scene, I think you should avoid this company and any offers similar to it.


What: A two-month listing for downloadable review copies of Dark the Night Descending

How much I spent: $50.00 through my Broad Universe membership (which costs $30.00 per year on its own, but comes with unrelated perks)

The verdict: Success!

Why: Reviews!  Seven of them!  Most of them very good!  NetGalley is really the place you want to be for gathering book reviews, because its sole purpose is to connect rabid readers and established reviewers with authors of all statures.

Half of the people who were approved for a free digital copy (no shipping costs!) of my book left a review on NetGalley, and several of those people also cross-posted to their own blogs, Amazon, and Goodreads.  Compared to the $200 review I got from the giveaways, that’s a pretty sound investment.

Listing prices are a little higher if you don’t get a special deal like I did, but they are not exorbitant, and I think it’s well worth it.  It’s also one of the few places where highbrow traditionally published books and self-published books seem to mingle with little discrimination.  I will probably put one or more of my books up for offer again at some point in the future.

WordPress blogging

What: This blog, dude.  Sheesh.

How much I spent: $26.00 per year for my domain name; $30.00 per year for additional custom blog design features

The verdict: Success!

Why: You’re here, aren’t you?  I mean, chances are that you’ll never buy a book from me, but that’s okay.  This is free content for you to enjoy, to share, and maybe even to learn from.  If you happen to remember my name when it comes time for filling a hole in your reading list, that would be fantastic, but that’s not really what an author’s blog should be about.  It should be a resource and a destination all on its own, and I hope I have provided that for you – and that I continue to do so.

Gold_Star.svgBlogging has helped me become a better writer, connected me with a few dedicated readers (to whom I am eternally grateful), and allowed me to share my meager knowledge with the rest of the world.  I’ve been so tickled and honored to be a featured member of the WordPress community, and to share bits of my life with strangers who reflect my own experiences back to me.

My blog has definitely been my best investment over the past few years, even though it costs a lot more in time than it does in money.

You can create lots of different types of blogs for free, of course, and I absolutely recommend that all self-publishers offer their readers a landing page of some sort.  At the bare minimum, it should contain an author’s bio, contact information, and a link to the place where they can buy your books.  For such a small fee each year, I think it’s worth buying a custom domain name, just to make you easy to find.

As we close out 2015 and look ahead towards a brand new year, I’d like to thank both my new followers and my long-term readers for being a part of this crazy self-publishing journey.  In 2016, I’m planning to publish the last two books of the Paderborn Chronicles, and then we’ll see what happens after that.  I hope you’ll all stay tuned!


9 thoughts on “Marketing for Self-Publishers: My Successes and Failures of 2015

  1. Excellent article, I think giving books away for free is one of the pitfalls of self publishing, people don’t really care for freebies, especially books. However, there are great writers like you who I’m certain would succeed in their chosen craft at the long run. Wishing you all the best in the coming year!
    Cheers. 🙂

  2. Thanks for your honest insight. I am nowhere close to self publishing anything, but I had a huge curiosity about it. You’ve answered so many questions that I am likely to have.

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