The Book-Promotion Balloon: Where’s the Helium?


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.


  1. says

    Wow, you said it all. Your experience is much like mine,
    and I’ve read many of the same books. If the writing didn’t hold
    personal lessons, why would we do it? Best of luck to you.

    • says

      Carol, yes, though some of this post’s personal lessons I might rather not have learned. But it is our work with words that’s paramount. Though spreadsheets now seem to figure into today’s writing recipes, I hope they are added in dollops, and not in gallons.

      Of course most writers (me included) do want to SHARE our personal storytelling lessons on a broader canvas than merely among our first cousins who promise to read our books because they lost at the weekly poker game. Keep seeking—and expressing—story.

    • John Purcell says

      I enjoyed the post about not seeing the helium with your promotions. I was therefore wondering if you had actually tried or Both are interesting and have a large following.

      • says

        John, and here I thought helium was created just to make funny voices at frat parties. Thanks for the links.

        I actually am a member of some similar sites for whom I do article writing (for some entities like Forbes Connect, for very competitive fees), so I don’t think I need to add to that roster. But I will check ’em out.

  2. says

    A very interesting and enlightening post on the process you needed to go through for a short story collection. I recently have been rushing the rounds for antho, and I learned so many things after the fact that still boggle my mind.

    Always more to learn. Thanks for the links, as well!

    • says

      Alex, yep, minds are made to be boggled. My mind has been sloshing about in my skull soup for a long time, but it’s still knocked overboard on a regular basis. Thanks for reading.

  3. says

    Your transparency is admirable! Here’s the thing I’ve learned after a year of having my book out. It seems to be hit or miss, and what works for one person may not work for the next. I really do believe there is a certain amount of luck involved, and our job is to get the book into the right positioning for the hopeful lightening strike.

    But we can’t depend on the lightening strike. After stressing out over marketing and doing it “right,” I’m currently putting my time into finding readers one at a time by “facing out” (to use the term Porter Anderson used a while ago.) It’s a lot more fun. It may be slow, but a career is about the long-haul, not about the instant win. And, of course, having excellent books. :)

    • Marcy McKay says

      Oooooh, Lara. I’m fairly new to WU and didn’t read Porter’s post on “facing out,” but LOVE the concept. Sounds like building a readership like we do writing our books….word by word. Thanks.

    • says

      Lara, what? You mean I can’t just plunk my folding chair and book table on a busy downtown corner with an “Esteemed Author Peddles Words for Reviews” and hit the NYT best-seller list? Luck has to be a part of it? I’m flummoxed!

      I do think luck is one of the elements, to be sure. But Porter’s tribe-building “facing out” counsel is sound, and something that’s more under our control. As well as always working on the writing part of it, which I’m not as consistent with as I should. Long-haul is indicated on the map, as you say.

      This writing stuff, such torment. But sweet torment.

  4. says

    I have to admit I got a bit tired just reading about all the things you went through to publicize your book, Tom. I made some notes and bookmarked this piece though for further reference. I wish you great success in your future career. With your determination experience, I feel sure you’ll do well.

    • says

      P.S., I’m with you: I got tired WRITING all that stuff. So this next time I’m hiring a Manhattan publicist and a PR firm and a swat team and a gluten-free speechwriter to do all of these ninja sorties for me. When I get the inheritance, that is.

      Best of success in your own writing back at you!

  5. says

    Hi Tom! I can relate to all the hoops you’ve jumped thru. I only debuted in Nov last year, and I have to agree with Lara above. It’s hit or miss. So many factors play into it. If pop culture happens to be interested in what you’ve written about, if it’s being seen by the right readers, cover, blurb, etc.
    In the end, I think we can only give it our best shot to make it visible, and simply focus on writing the next book. From a recent survey, most indie authors who’ve found success have books out in a series and/or a huge backlist. So as we put out more product, so will we become more visible. And you just never know when you’re going to break out.

    • says

      PK, agreed—give the book its best shot, not obsess over things out of our control, work on the next writing project with as Zen of a mind as one can muster (though “mustering” might not be classic Zen practice, but you know what i mean), and sally forth.

      I’m convinced on the series/backlist issue too, in particular by the Truant/Platt book’s overview of how that can work to great advantage in developing and sustaining an audience, and the power of having multiple “pipelines” in place.

  6. Denise Willson says

    Thank you for sharing, Tom. No ‘boo hoo Bently’ happening here. It’s a tough gig, and you’re giving it your best shot. Kudos to you.

    Denise Willson
    Author of A Keeper’s Truth and GOT

  7. says

    Yep, been there done that. I would have given up long ago except the majority of people who read my first novel loved it. Unfortunately the second one fizzled, so I’m on to my third with an idea for a fourth. I will keep going also because I believe in myself and my writing.

    • says

      “I believe in myself and my writing.” Susan, that’s better than a bumper sticker—strong stuff. Keep believing, keep going and keep writing.

      (Hey, if I don’t make it as a writer, I’m going to get into this motivational thing. It’s fun!)

  8. Marcy McKay says

    You’re one hard-working man, Tom. Very insightful post. Thanks for sharing the good, the bad & ugly.

    • Marcy McKay says

      Tom, please don’t scold the bad and the ugly. They have a very important job of showing up reality and making us MAD, so that we take action. The bad and the ugly are our friend — big, hairy, ugly friends.

  9. says

    Janine, being a wise guy has never meant that I’m wise, but it can substitute some smiles for the sours. Resiliency—that comes from yoga, right? (Or maybe just flexibility, good too.) Thank you, and keep on keeping on yourself.

  10. Tina says

    Tom, thank you for sharing. What a ton of work!
    I think that you can do more with your short story collection. You wrote them several years ago and now see flaws in them. You could write a non-fiction, craft book which showcases the stories you wrote years ago and what the flaws are and how to fix the flaws. If you write a craft book and it sells, then you will sell more of your other books. The craft writing books sell more often than the fiction and you could cross-promote.
    (I think Ms. Bronte is on facebook.)

    • says

      Tina, that’s an interesting concept. I’ve written some longish craft pieces before, and who better to disembowel my writing than the bearer of the bowels? (Uh, don’t delve into that, but you know what I mean.)

      I actually have a good deal more success selling my nonfiction stuff to magazines and online than the stories, though of course fiction writing twangs my heartstrings with more resonance. Though it is jolly to get paid for something.

      Dang, Charlotte’s on Facebook, that little minx! I don’t do Facebook myself, so I’ll have to seek her out on other writer’s forums, where she’s probably lurking under some “Rochester” moniker.

  11. says


    You are so funny!

    Maybe you should switch to writing humor. You made me laugh out loud at least five times.

    It’s comforting to know it’s not only me who can’t sell books by doing all the things the “experts” say works.

  12. says

    Carolyn, if you think my writing’s funny, you should see me dance.

    As for the experts, do remember Bertrand Russell’s line: “Even when the experts all agree, they may well be mistaken.” Thanks for enjoying the piece!

  13. says

    Thank you, Tom, for having the courage to express the feelings that I am sure the vast majority of small press/indie published authors are feeling. Those that do make the big figures (with the appropriate bragging rights) are a very small minority. For most the cost of marketing/promotion outweighs actual returns and the message is “Keep the day job – you can “build it” but it doesn’t mean they will come”.

    • says

      Alison, definitely the prospect of deep and sustained devotion to marketing is daunting. Particularly if you aren’t seeing any returns. But as others of said here (and in many discussions on the site), developing an audience is a long-haul process.

      There are hits and misses in that process (sorry I delivered so many misses here), and the results are individualized as to your genre, your backlist, your platform, your luck and of course—and titanically so—on the quality of your writing.

      Keep writing and moving forward. (And I’ll take my own advice here too.)

  14. says

    Thanks for sharing, I was so happy to read you, recognizing myself in every word you wrote! And I thought I was the only one that sucked at marketing…I’ve done those free day promotions twice, and you know what? Never again! I’m starting tomorrow (I mean 27 February) a “countdown deal”, that’s KDP Select’s latest gimmick now that they know free days don’t cut the ice anymore. We’ll see how it goes but I’m not going to break my back on it. Just a couple of places where I’ve advertised and then tomorrow shall post it on my blog, and that’s it!

    I’m curious to see whether it works at all.

    But I’m like you: what really is so irritating/frustrating/galling/you name it, is the time LOST in book promotion. Not to mention the fact that you wonder whether you’re viewed by everyone as a hopeless spammer. I don’t dare tweet about my books anymore!

  15. says

    And….in the midst of that Kafkaesque trial (and I’m speaking from personal experience and gratitude) you have managed to find the time to help and support other writers struggling with similar issues.

    Your post is clearly intended to do the same and I appreciate it, will study it, and no doubt learn things from it that I can apply to the promotion of my new environmental thriller, “The Straw That Broke.”

    I trust others will as well.

    My take—the gods are punishing you for having such a cool soul-patch and full head of hair.

    My one suggestion: you should consider a (not sure which term to chose—indie, speciality, cooperative) publisher next time like Raven’s Eye Press. It will help you retain both your hair and your thankfully still present sense of humor.

    • says

      Greg, thanks. As you can see from my wild splashings in publishing’s pool, I’ll try just about anything. As for the hair and soul patch, those came mail order.

  16. says

    Claude, the lousy thing for me is that one of the hats I wear is that of a marketing copywriter—sheesh, is this a bad advertisement for my services or what? It is good that you keep experimenting with the promotions—I found some decent results from Goodreads and the percentages were with me from Story Cartel.

    But even more important, I suspect, is organically developing your audience, by participating in forums, getting to know some book bloggers and reviewers (and obviously not pleading with them for attention but engaging in bookish discussions that can lead to naturally integrating the matters of your own writing), checking out book blog tours and the like. That’s time spent, surely, but there is a wide range of ways to get in front of an audience without wasting as much time as I did. Though I don’t really consider it time wasted—I learn from all the attempts.

    And I still tweet about my stuff, but it’s one of those 80/20 percentages or the like, where in whatever forum (Pinterest, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Google+—whatever is most comfortable to you), you provide links to interesting articles, personal observations that might be amusing or entertaining, and a smattering of your book news, which can also be presented as entertainment, rather than spam.

    Lots of work indeed, but experimenting in the areas where you are comfortable might secure you a place where you start to gain ground, and the whole of promotion seems more natural and not a chore. Thanks for reading!

  17. says

    Hi Ron. Not entirely sure what you are asking here, but a landing page is a “micro-site” of sorts, usually a single web page, usually devoted to impel the reader to one object: order a product, download a report, read a blog post, or maybe to just consider what Mr. Dylan might suggest: “if you hear vague traces of skipping’ reels of rhyme, to your tambourine in time, it’s just a ragged clown behind …”

    In the case of my short story collection’s landing page, I asked the reader to download the title story of the collection, which in hindsight might not have been the best selection, since it has a somber outcome that could be considered bleak. But hey, I’m a moody guy.

  18. says

    Hulloo, Tommy my lad.

    Sheesh. No wonder you were cranky last month. Okay, not cranky, but there was that one moment where you weren’t laughing audibly.

    Elucidating, my good man. Amazing how much non-movement something efforts engender. But lovely to see that Story Cartel pulled some weight.

    I still think you have an excellent shot at some Wodehousian hysterics.