Regarding the graphic above, man, was I glad I was able to bear down on those lolling tuna boats Dickens and Hugo—they need to get up from their on-deck hammocks and at least think about hitting the book-peddling accelerator before I catch them. Though I do hope I didn’t peeve dear Charlotte; however, she being the eldest of the sisters, she’s learned how to take these roller-coasterings.

But alas, all that glitters is not gold stars: this image of my book billowings was as ephemeral as the electrons it’s printed on.

But alas, all that glitters is not gold stars: this image of my book billowings was as ephemeral as the electrons it’s printed on. A mere bit of pictorial whimsy, where I got to sit at the reading table (even if I had to use a high chair) with a pantheon of literary greats, but in truth, it’s one of those deceptive snapshots in time: if a photo is taken at just the right moment, a sedentary couch surfer might be seen to be leaping onto a moving stallion.

However, in the case of this Amazon KDP Select book promotion, my stallion never really left the stall. Here’s KDP Select in a nutshell, stolen from a post by CJ Lyons at Jane Friedman’s site: “In exchange for giving Amazon exclusive use of a piece of digital content for 90 days, you receive five days (any five you choose) to make your digital content available for free, and you also get paid for any of your e-books that are lent through the Amazon Prime library.” (You will see in the Lyons post comments that the whole KDP Select process has fallen out of favor with authors as a solid promotional tack.)

However, the main point in this piece is not to dissect KDP Select, but to discuss the travails and treats (?) of book promotion in general, in a time when authors, even those thin-shouldered ones like me, must shoulder the book-peddling burden.

My Kingdom for a Review
My interest in using KDP wasn’t to later sell copies of that promoted novel, but indeed to induce some positive reviews, in the hopes that might promote, fiendish marketer I am, the sale of my short story collection, which had been published by a small press after my novel’s self-publication. People who had successfully used the KDP program had noted that it was often helpful in the selling of other works; you will see many authors sell a novel for .99 as a loss leader, while their other works are priced much higher.

And it’s not simply a matter of “either/or” in regards free or paid. Many self-published authors on Amazon and other venues commonly adjust the price of their work downward (including free) for promotional boost, and upward again to find a sweet spot where there are measured sales without a high-price deterrent.

I was quite successful in my promotion in NOT selling copies of the novel, as well as very successful in not getting reviews, and resoundingly not successful in getting new sales of the short story book. Broken down, the 5 days of free KDP promotion garnered 3,288 downloads.

I did get one review of the free novel: it was titled “Lame,” and its one-star designation says nothing happens in the book except some x-rated language.

A month after my promo ended, I had 0 post-KDP sales of the novel. There was probably one sale of the short story book, maybe two. I did get one review of the free novel: it was titled “Lame,” and its one-star designation says nothing happens in the book except some x-rated language. Damn, I’m almost sure something happens, but I didn’t realize there was so much shitty language.

Looky at My Booky, Pretty Please?

The KDP Select giveaway for the novel took place almost a year after the short-story collection was released. I spent a fair amount of time prior to that (and prior to the book’s release) researching book promotion, mentioning the upcoming publication on my blog and contacting potential book reviewers a few months before that (and after). Some of the things I did:

I put together a landing page for the books with links out to Amazon and B&N:

I implemented some (won’t break down specifically here) of the good pre-pub approaches in The Ultimate Book Marketing Master Spreadsheet:
Just prior to its release and for a couple of months afterward, I:

  • Spruced up my Amazon author page
  • Sent out a press release through 7 or 8 free release distribution services
  • Did a book trailer—containing actual trailers!
  • Sent the landing page URL or the press release within the email to 30–40 publications (including big names, why not?) that review books
  • Sent the same to perhaps 75 recommended book bloggers/reviewers
  • Set up a couple of 5-book giveaways on Goodreads
  • Had a post on short stories being “the weird sister of the publishing world” on the Guide to Literary Agents (big traffic) site with a book giveaway, and with links, naturally, to my book
  • Put some signed books in one of my local bookstores
  • Put a Google alert on “Short story publications” and some variants; got some review leads from there and did some follow-up
  • Tweeted more often, mostly on writing-related subjects; more Google+ posts too; both of my profiles there mention my fiction writing and my website
  • Bought an ad ($250) in Shelf Unbound, good online lit pub with over 100,000 circulation, which ran over several issues because they made an error in the original ad
  • Read MANY more posts on book promotion and a few other books on the subject, among them:
  • Book Marketing Guide (Mark Coker of Smashwords)
  • The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published (Arielle Ekstut and David Sterry; marketing info too)
  • APE: Author, Publisher, Entrepreneur (Guy Kawasaki)
  • Read between 5–10 ebooks (some extensive) by various authors on book promotion and marketing
  • Commented (on topic, not as a salesperson) on various writing-related blogs with a book-listed signature that linked back to my site
  • Attended publishing and book-promotion webinars online that took up ooodles of time
  • Continued to send out review requests, though at less volume
  • And, one of those object lessons in promotion obscurity: Put my book on Competwition (yes, the name sounds a bit bozo), where you set up something to be given away (in this case, your book), tweet the Competwition book page to all your Twitter followers so they can enter (and learn about your book). The page is also seen by other site visitors who are looking to win a book, or perhaps found by site users looking at any of the other myriad items on the site.
  • The only people who entered to win my Competnitwit book (and thus also become my Twitter followers, and broadcast the book giveaway to their followers) were professional contest-enterers, of all things. So all their tweets were about entering to win a kayak paddle, or a monkey-brains cookbook or a piranha under glass or some sort of thing.

    Just for luck after all the above endeavors, I ate burning coals, sacrificed a goat (chocolate goat, no blood), stopped curling my hair, became verklempt and had to talk amongst my selves.

    My latest effort was a three-week free download on Story Cartel.  But I kinda ran out of steam on the promotion engine for that one. Didn’t try to put the notice up on giveaway sites, didn’t tweet it much, did one blog post. Interesting results: 54 downloads, 6 reviews so far, mostly positive. So, on a mathematical basis, Story Cartel’s bushel of downloads resulted in many more review potatoes than thousands of KDP tomatoes.

    Oh, and right now I’m reading the quite good Write. Publish. Repeat. by Sean Platt and Johnny Truant.

    The Results Are In (and Out)

    So, what did this flurry get me? Not too much. I’ve sold a couple of hundred books, a small percentage of which were to people that already know me—yes, the tribal effect. (I didn’t make my mom pay for one.) No big-name or even little-name reviewers took me up on the offer to send them my book for potential review. Nor the book bloggers. It’s going on two years, and I’ve been able to wheedle less than 20 Amazon reviews, though I’d asked people (politely) I knew who had read the book to say ANYTHING good or bad about the book, just a sentence or two, since Amazon reviews, even some tepid ones, can drive sales. But most folks I know don’t want to put their words up for the world, and I don’t blame them.

    One thing I want to emphasize, is that in no way was I looking to get bullshit sock-puppeted reviews. The giveaway grounds on Goodreads and Story Cartel clearly state that reviewers of the free works give their honest thoughts on the work, and I wouldn’t have it otherwise. Sure, getting it for free might bring a reader to put a little sugar in their survey, but as my “Lame” review suggested, not everyone sweetens the pot. And when I do put something on Google+ or Twitter about my own writing, it’s in there with a vastly larger amount of posts/tweets with links to writing resources or to quirky weirdnesses the world needs to know.

    But man, this was time-consuming stuff, and for me, for marginal rewards. And a critical matter is that all the promo means less time to write. (And perhaps can cast your reflections on your writing efforts from a weirdly commercial state of mind. But, he sighs, these are the times in which we live.) I hope this doesn’t sound like a long ululation of “poor me, Boo Hoo Bentley.” Despite my many misgivings, I do appreciate knowing more about the process. I think.

    Short story collections are known for being a difficult sell, unless you’re Alice Munro or Grace Paley. I am going to use one of their names as an author pseudonym on my next book. And let’s face it: perhaps the stories just aren’t that good. I’d written the bulk of them more than 10 years ago, some older than that, and can see their flaws. I still think there is merit in them, but perhaps it’s just time to move on.

    And What Flaming Arrows for a New Novel?
    My second novel is essentially finished, though I’ve continued to tinker with it. Despite the tinkering, I’ve sent out at least 40 queries to agents, with some limited interest in partials and fulls, but no bites. I might consider self-publishing as I did with my first novel, if it feels truly finished—and if I fully resist the temptation of thinking that because I’m an editor, I can edit my own work. I know that’s stupid, but my ear is tugged by that siren song, which thrillingly trills that the hardest thing to resist is a bad idea.

    I know more about marketing and platform-building than I did before, and I’d do some things differently next time. And perhaps by that time, I will have a wider reach because of more organic platform-building. I try valiantly to swim upstream of all the publishing currents, and goodness, I avidly read the across-the-ether posts of our own Porter Anderson on the trumpet blasts and clarion calls of the industry! (times two).

    Oh, one thing that must be said, aside from getting into all of the platform/brand muckety-muck, and one thing that to me is more important than all of that blather: write the best book you can. That probably goes without saying, but the deeper motivation to present a work—whether fiction or non—that has craft, art, soul and dimension. There’s the redemption, the justification, the bloody beating heart of it.

    However, if anyone does need advice on how not to sell books, I am apparently an expert. I’m not sure how well that Dickens guy did on his actual sales after his promo, but as you know, he has a lot of ghosts working for him on his behalf. I’m thinking of engaging the Ghost of Christmas Future to work on my next book promo.

    I don’t have a great line to end this, but Samuel Beckett does. At the end of The Unnamable he said: I can’t go on. I’ll go on.

    Working on a new novel now. Let’s go.

    PS Just saw this resource and tools list—looks deep and good: 7 Strategies and 110 Tools to Help Indie Authors Find Readers and Reviewers

    So, you at WU: how do you promote your books? What would you have done differently? Do you have Charlotte Bronte’s email address?


    About Tom Bentley

    Tom Bentley is still trying to figure out what flavor of writer he is, but so far he’s a short story writer, novelist, essayist, travel writer, journalist, and business copywriter. He edits all that stuff too. His new book, Think Like a Writer: How to Write the Stories You See is available as an ebook on Amazon. His singing has been known to frighten the horses.