Why Traditional Marketing Doesn't Sell Books

Ah, it’s the last WANA Wednesday of 2011, and we are careening toward 2012. There are all kinds of writers and all kinds of paths to publication these days, but the down-side is that the competition is growing exponentially by the day. Many writers who would have simply made a resolution to query an agent with that finished manuscript are now just going to bypass the agent and upload their novel for sale. Not that this is a bad thing, but it can open a Pandora’s box of problems. We will talk more about that in the coming weeks.

The Tough Truth About the Brave New World of Publishing

Here’s the hard reality. Saying we are a “published author” these days means almost nothing. It did mean something when back when publishing was locked up tighter than Martha Stuart’s liquor cabinet with gatekeepers. To say we were published meant our work met a certain standard of quality. These days? Rankings and sales will probably become the new mark of author validation. Ok, we are published, but are we #5,339,076 on Amazon? Or are we in the top 100? 50? 10?

I’ve met writers who proudly paid to have beautiful covers designed and build web sites for their self-pubbed book, and yet, when I got a look at their first pages, I wish I could have stopped them. That’s the problem with being new. When we are really new, we are too dumb to know what we don’t know.

So before we make a decision to self-publish, we must make sure we get a professional to look at our book and let us know the hard truth, even if it hurts. It is way easier to have an editor send a private e-mail telling us that our book is a disaster than for a book reviewer to do it on a blog or for readers to blast us on Amazon. Also the BEST way to positively impact sales is to write excellent books. No amount of social media can help a bad book.

But this is another blog.

Not all self-pubbed or indie pubbed books are poorly written. Quite the contrary! Some of the freshest and most innovative writing is now coming from the non-traditional routes. Yet, when an author decides to go it alone, without any support from a traditional publisher, it is a lot of work no matter how excellent the writing.  Don’t let anyone fool you. When we go it alone, we are an entrepreneur and we will have to work like a dog to be successful. Ah, but here is where I can help. Why work harder when we can work smarter?

Writers are Not Car Insurance and Books are Not Tacos

There are a lot of marketing experts who are benevolently offering flawed advice. They don’t mean to. Most of these experts (at least the ones I have met) have a genuine desire to help and serve others. They see writers who need to market so they offer what they believe is a good plan. And, it very may well be a good plan…just not for books.

The problem is that most marketing experts have a disconnect. Since most of them are not writers to begin with and haven’t worked in the publishing industry, they often fail to appreciate that not only are writers unique, but our product is too. What works for Starbuck’s and Levis and Joe’s Car Wash will not work for authors and books. Why?

Yes, Writers Really are Special, Unique Snowflakes

First, the CEO of Honda is not personally responsible for building every car. An author, however, is solely responsible for producing the product. Not just a product, but an EXCELLENT product and in a timely fashion. Writers cannot be on a half a zillion sites, doing blog tours and pod casts and on and on…and still have time to write good books.

Yet, even if we could change the fabric of space-time and add more hours to the day, it wouldn’t matter how many social platforms we blitzed with marketing. Why? Traditional marketing does not sell books. Never has and never will. Don’t ask my opinion, mega-agent Donald Maass  (and anyone working in publishing) will tell you that there are only TWO things that sell books…good book and word of mouth. Period.

I remember years ago hearing that traditional marketing didn’t work for selling books. I didn’t want to believe them and I did a lot of running my head into a wall. Finally, I realized they were right, so I wanted to understand what made this particular product (books) so different from pizza, televisions and Frappuccinos. After a lot of study, a few cases of Red Bull and a massive brain cramp, I came up with my own theory that I call The WANA Theory of Book Economics—WANATBE (get it? Wanna to be? I crack myself up). We have talked about this before, but it is worthy of mentioning again, especially this time of year.

Why Does Traditional Marketing Bomb when it Comes to Books?

The WANATBE  is going to super-duper simplify Marketing 101 so you guys can plainly see why blitzing and advertising about your books non-stop is a bad plan that will do little to drive sales. Yes, traditional marketing will drive some sales, but won’t offer the life-changing numbers all of us want. WANATBE is very simplified, but I tend to believe in Occam’s Razor—the simplest explanation is usually correct. Time to explore why traditional marketing doesn’t sell books.

Commodities are often divided into two types of commodities:

Low Consideration Purchases

High Consideration Purchases

Low consideration purchases are of low social influence. If I drop three bucks to buy a tube of toothpaste and hate it, it is not big deal to toss it in the trash and buy a different kind….unless you are my mother.

Most of us aren’t paying attention to friend recommendations for toothpaste and I would guarantee we aren’t surfing the web looking for blogs and articles about the latest developments in fluoride so we can finally settle the Crest versus Aquafresh debate. We won’t need support and approval from peers that we made a good choice in toothpaste.

And if you do? That’s, uh kinda weird.

High consideration purchases on the other hand, are like cars, vacations, 3-D televisions, and jet skis. These are products where peer opinion weighs heavily upon the decision. If I am about to drop 30 grand on a bass boat, you better believe I have lost my mind I am going to check out consumer reports and on-line resources to get opinions from others.

High-consideration purchases are almost always emotionally driven.

Corvette. Enough said.

But what about books? Some books cost even less than a tube of toothpaste and none cost nearly as much as a flat screen TV. Are books high-consideration or low-consideration?

Reconsider the Potential Market—Tunnel-Vision Will Get Ya Killed

First, I want all of you to forget the mythos of the Book-A-Week Reader. To the person who devours books like candy, books are a low-consideration purchase. The problem, however, is that this type of reader makes up a VERY small fraction of the overall literate population in need of entertaining or informing.

You want to know how Stephenie Meyers, J.K. Rowling, and Dan Brown became such mega-huge successes? They mobilized the fat part of the bell curve made up of people who normally would not define themselves as readers. There are people out there who have never read any other books, but who own every last hard cover of Harry Potter. These books ignited word of mouth so powerful, that they were able to mobilize the largest segment of the population that is traditionally the toughest to move.

Peer Pressure–Not Just for Teenagers

These authors’ books became so popular that they transformed into a social definition. I would have never picked up The DaVinci Code or Twilight on my own. But, finally so many of my peers had read the books that I felt like an outsider. To “fit in” with my peers, I had to read the books.

Peer pressure is the only explanation I have for why The Girl books are popular. I tried reading The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and I just couldn’t get into it (Please don’t send me letters. I don’t have to like all books). Yet, I can’t count how many times someone has said, “Oh, the first 100 pages are rough, but once you get past those the books are amazing!”

Who in their right mind would give a book A HUNDRED pages to get interesting? Peer pressure is what makes the difference. Peer pressure was the only reason I gave the book 50. I NEVER give books more than 20. Ah, but with peer pressure, everything changes. Enough people around are promising a pay-off.

Back to my point…

The fat part of the bell curve—people who believe they do not enjoy reading—is like a huge boulder sitting on the edge of a cliff. It takes a lot of energy to get moving, but once it does? There is no stopping it. And this is how legends are made.

Yet, too many writers are focusing all of their efforts looking for the ever-elusive avid reader. Why? Who cares if someone only reads one book a year if it is your book?

How much advertising is happening in bookstores, on book blogs, book review sites, author web sites, and in Facebook “reader groups” (which is code for “bunch of authors trying to sell books”)…the very places we will probably NEVER find regular people in need of entertaining or informing? Writers are all in search of the White Stag (the avid reader) and, in the process, passing up thousands of brown deer. Wait too long on an anomaly and we can starve.

So What is Our Mission?

A massive percentage of Americans do not consider themselves to be readers, so to them, books are now a high consideration purchase. If we merely look at price, we can get sucked into this notion that books and toothpaste require the same low-consideration purchase approach. But, when we look closer, we see that books cost something more precious than money…TIME.

Books are tricky. To the avid reader, books are a low-consideration purchase. This is why traditional marketing does not drive the big sales numbers. Traditional marketing (for books) targets a select group of people who already love to read. They don’t have to be talked into giving up their time to read. This person was going to be reading anyway. Traditional marketing does work for this small percentage of the population, because they love books and simply need help choosing from all the options.

Yet, for the BIG numbers, we have to mobilize the fat part of the bell curve, and that can be a MONUMENTAL task. We have to convince this non-reading group that our book is worth giving 12 hours of undivided attention (average time to read a novel). Unlike music or video, reading is not a passive activity where we just soak up entertainment like a sponge. We can watch a movie while we fold laundry or listen to music while we do dishes. Books are different. They require our full attention.

Thus, our job is to convince this non-reading group to forgo all other fun hobbies for an activity they don’t even believe they enjoy. We have to convince them to turn off Monday Night Football, stop chain-sawing monsters on X-Box, or turn off Dancing with the Stars. Traditional marketing does not have the power to do this. If writers approach social media using a traditional marketing approach, what happens is we become no better than spam. It’s a TON of work for very little pay-off and it will leave next to no time to do what’s most important….write more books.

Learning to affect peer influence is not as tough as it might seem, but we are out of time. We will talk more about this next week. If you must know the answers right away, I encourage you to pick up a copy of my best-selling book We Are Not Alone—The Writer’s Guide to Social Media.

What are your thoughts? Opinions? Challenges? I love hearing from you.

And to prove it and show my love, for the month of December, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. If you leave a comment, and link back to my blog, and mention my book We Are Not Alone in your blog…you get your name in the hat THREE times. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly.

I will pick a winner every week for a critique of your first five pages. At the end of December I will pick a winner for the grand prize. A free critique from me on the first 15 pages of your novel. Good luck!

I also hope you pick up copies of my best-selling books We Are Not Alone–The Writer’s Guide to Social Media and Are You There, Blog? It’s Me, Writer . Both books are ON SALE for $4.99!!!! And both are recommended by the hottest agents and biggest authors in the biz. My methods teach you how to make building your author platform FUN. Build a platform and still have time left to write great books!


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  1. Patience is key, IMHO. It takes a long time to get really good at anything, and that includes writing. I’ve met many authors who were tired of waiting and tired of hearing no. When asked how long they’ve been waiting, how long they’ve been hearing ‘no’, it usually comes down to a year, maybe two.

    That’s nothing.

    Agents, editors, publishers, all know what the reader knows, and when a literary professional says ‘no’, it’s a good idea to find out why. The answer could be the dreaded, ‘it’s not right for me’. Or it could be, ‘you are not ready’. Both answers are frustrating, but while we can’t change a person’s taste (not right for me), we can keep working on our craft. And that’s power.

    1. Go, Sherry! My critique partner is just getting to the publishing phase after 14 years…sometimes it takes time.

    • D.J. Lutz on December 28, 2011 at 12:22 pm
    • Reply

    This will get my reality-check post of the year award. Well said, especially the part about the term “published author” being meaningless now! Heck, I know 2 dogs who are published now, thanks to an instant-we-publish-anything company.

  2. It’s odd, I get a lot of traffic looking at my (Sadly out of date) Tweet Deck Guides. More traffic than anything else I put on my blog. Obviously, I have access to a larger audience than is actively talking to me, and it makes me curious how many would buy a book once I have it out.

    I think what I’m trying to say is that the fat part of the curve are also the least likely to respond in the first place. They may be there, but you won’t hear them or see them, but they’ll have an effect if you look for it.

  3. What an awesome post, Kristen. I’m a marketing student and I propably still haven’t got my brain re-wired to promote books well. Books are a very unique product to sell. Not to mention all the different genres and the possible target markets within them and how to speak to exactly your kind of readers in the right way that resonates. Basically, even if you market to readers of the same genre who are somewhat similar than another writer’s fans, your blog and social media presence will be quite different. Because you’re different people and have different experiences, writing styles and voices and personalities. Unique snowflakes indeed.

  4. Kristen,

    I twice gave books 100 pages. “Shogun,” by James Clavell, and “The Host,” by Stephanie Meyer. Both turned into favourites.

    In general you’re right, if it hasn’t got me in 20 pages, my time is important, and I’ve got less of it to waste these days.

    Old Harry has informed me that a special pit is being prepared at his place for those writers who don’t learn to edit propah!


  5. Too many writers forget that the first part of writing is to produce a good book. They want instant gratification and now that it’s available, they jump in without a net. Sure, I want to be a published author (even if that is meaningless now), but I also want to sell books 2, 3, & so on. If book 1 sucks, then it will be even harder to convince people to buy my other books.

    I’m with Sherry ~ patience is key. So is doing the hard work of writing a damn good book.

    1. Oh, how much I agree with this! Patience, determination, and resilience — those are what make successful writers.

      First thing is to have an excellent book — and too many people are too eager or easily frustrated to put in the effort for that. It takes time, a lot of criticism, and a LOT of rewriting. And then the whole process over again. But I believe it’s worth it — that’s why I do it.

  6. Once again, good advice. I never delete your email w/out reading it. Thanks

  7. A friend who “never reads” finished my novel and told me she will read my next one. That should have clued me in. As always, nail on the proverbial head.

  8. What scares me about publishing these days is that anyone can publish. Doesn’t matter if the book is worth a readers time or not. That model seems likely to drive people away from the market because people will get burned by a bad book (or several) and that will make it harder for a self-published author with a good product to convince readers that their book is worth the time. As you said, time is worth a lot more than money. That is the only reason I haven’t published my current book myself. I’m confident in it, since I’m getting very positive responses from agents now (though even they can be wrong given some of the things that have gotten published through an agent). I am not confident in the market.

    *sigh* What to do? Wait and see if things settle? Dive in and sink or swim? I don’t believe I have the answer yet.

    1. I’m sorry, Nikki, but I have to disagree with your point. Why shouldn’t anyone be able to publish if he or she has the means? Last time I checked, we live in a “free country.” The USA is a market-driven, capitalistic society. If I have the means to open a diner, I can, even if I’m a lousy cook. Eventually people will figure out I’m a lousy cook and my diner will go out of business. That doesn’t mean people will then believe every diner is horrible. Most people, who start small businesses, fail regardless of the business. That doesn’t mean people should not be allowed to try. Most often, we don’t know what will be successful at any given time or even why.

      1. I don’t disagree with you. I do, however, have a profound respect for people and the time I am asking them to give me when I ask them to read my work. I would hope that others would feel the same about the time they ask people to give them when they put their work out for consumption. I don’t know that everyone who is self-publishing has the knowledge or skill to expect that investment and, I worry that some people don’t care or even realize the importance of an authors relationship with their audience.

        Essentially – I feel that, because digital publishing is so easy, there are people doing it who don’t care about their audience. They care more about being able to say they are an author then about the product or the people who will view that product. I think that lessens us all as authors.

        Writing is not a solitary business. It is a contract between the author, who is saying their book is worth reading, and the reader, who is willing to trust them with their most precious commodity – time.

        With respect.

        1. Well said, Nikki.

  9. Brilliant blog post for end of 2011 to give a reality check to writers on the state of the publishing industry. Your critique of those who call themselves inbound marketing specialists is spot on: they don’t know squat about books despite their landing page lingo and technical bells and whistles. Content rules across all platforms. Thanks for writing this and I plan to share it with other authors.

  10. Very interesting look at book marketing. Even through traditional publishing, there is a lot of pressure on the author to be able to market his/her book. I know writers through online groups who are heavy into marketing and making a presence in social media. While I know that’s important, it just seems to me that the only people they attract are other writers, and I couldn’t figure out how that could work. I’m looking forward to next week’s post on driving peer influence.

    1. Lanette,

      While I write a bit, I do it for the pain rather than the money. Please regard my words as those of a consumer.

      Kristen states the marketing thing just right. I followed one writer, whose book I had already purchased and reviewed, only to get five tweets a day sent by robot, reminding me to buy the darn thing.

      You gotta get out there, but hold back the Spam.

      Since I bought the kindles, I’ve spent more than $1,000 on ebooks, so I do buy. If a writer had the moxie to state openly on the cover that the book was properly edited, I’d buy it on the basis of that statement alone. The carp out there is unbearable and unforgivable.

      The amateurs and eejits who can’t write for taffy are a curse. Edit and don’t Spam.

      Enuff of Vampires and Zombies. I’m sick of ’em.



      1. I’ve had the same experience, Brendan. I’ve read a lot of books that I learned about through twitter, and for me it’s been an object lesson. Do. Not. Publish. Without. Professional. Editing.

        Period. I will not do that. Even if I have to put off publishing while I come up with the money for a Pro Editor.

        There are too many wonderful stories out there which needed to be held back for at least another year of rewrites.

        It’s depressing.

        I remember reading an excerpt from a best selling ebook kindle author, which was imbedded in his/her book about how to sell using social media. Apart from recommending using a twitter bot (whooooee), the excerpt was horrifyingly awful.

        I agree with Neyska above. I’m asking people to spend their life involved in my story, my characters, my writing. They deserve my best.

  11. The stigma of self publishing is a heavy load to carry, and the internet does not really help remove it. Simply means that more people as you say, can publish what they have. Without recourse to proofreading, editing or formatting. Sometimes without even spell-checking. Its unfortunate because I am sure there are good writers out there who are buried beneath the overwhelming pile of bad to nearly good books.

    Sometimes I am grabbed in the first page, or like the style if not the immediate story. Mostly, if it gets too bad I dump it. Much easier on a kindle etc. No wasteful paper to recycle. Just my online carbon footprint to ponder. I wonder which is smaller?

    I never thought about marketing since I’ve never been published, and have not yet decided to self-publish, I have tried out kindles self manufacturing site, I am curious about these things but reading the small print (because I don’t trust them to be altruistic) and was quite shocked by all the tie-ups and wrinkled in their favour. Seller beware in this case. Maybe there are other routes to online publishing? I will check this out to see, and look at the differences.


  12. Yep, yep, yep. I had a reality check about non-readers over the holidays. A close friend was telling me that her son (a high school senior with multiple academic scholarship offers from top universities) wouldn’t even read an article in a celebrity magazine b/c he hates reading so much!


  13. Bang on, as usual, Kristen. With your books in hand, I’m ready to attack 2012 with gusto … but the right kind of gusto! Thanks!

  14. I used to cowrite with a marketer, so I’ve had a full dose of marketing. When I initially started it, I thought it was a great idea. To me, even following some of the basic genre elements is a form of marketing. Even when I was recently finishing up my final draft, I finally figured out my marketing message, and it meant a few changes in the story in the emphasis of one particular character. But when I mentioned marketing years ago as something to think about on a message board, I was darn near tarred and feathered. The writers did not want anything to do with any kind of marketing. One of those writers who blasted me is today tweeting woefully about how no one is buying her many books, and she has yet to figure out how to market them.

    But marketing went really wrong with cowriter. He couldn’t grasp that book marketing was different than regular marketing. Since we were writing a thriller set during the Civil War, he thought a great marketing tool would be to attend re-enactments and have me dress up in Civil War clothing. Even with what I didn’t know then, that didn’t make sense to me. The book was set in the Civil War, but we weren’t writing in the niche of Civil War books. How was going to re-enactments going to help me market book 2? I actually had the first part of where I needed to market already in the story, and that’s the one that got him nervous when it came time to submit the story. When we started receiving the usual rounds of rejections, he wanted to change the story. He wanted to change sentences or sections that he felt weren’t going to be marketable–but he couldn’t give story reasons for the changes. I tried to tell him that a good story is the best marketing tool, but it went in one ear and out the other. He kept thinking we had blown the marketing and that’s why the agents weren’t taking it (it wasn’t. After working through problems on another book, I know exactly what was getting the rejections). Then he grabbed every comment we’d ever received in the critique from our proposed audience (women) and used marketing to justify why the story had to be changed. The most appalling was a critique that we had both dismissed because the person in question had hated the book. We later figured out that she was vehemently anti-gun, so not a good beta for a Civil War thriller. Since she hated guns, he drew the conclusion that guns meant bad marketing to women and therefore they had to come out. Thriller. Civil War. No guns is a fast way to lose credibility across the board.

    I think cowriter ran into problems because he couldn’t move outside the lines, even when it was obvious staying in the lines wasn’t working. It showed me most important marketing aspect is still the book, and the second most important aspect is to be flexible and willing to try new things.

  15. Well said, Kristen.

  16. Very intriguing article with many good points. The downside? You made me want to buy a taco.

  17. So in line with what I have going on for 2012. My first self-publishing experience (2008) taught me all of the lessons you mention, leaving marketing as my last hurdle. I’ve since been trying to learn all I can about that while polishing my third novel. I plan to self-publish it as well as I actually enjoy the process. So of course, I’ll be back to the blog and looking to buy your book ASAP. Thanks!

  18. Your post confirmed what I suspected. I have been on a learning curve since my book “The Truth About Vashtai” was released October 2010.
    My sales have been slow and steady unlike some of my peers who had a great one time sales, which allowed them to be a “best seller” briefly. As I prepare to release my next book with another to follow quickly I believe I have a loyal following of readers outside of friends and family.

  19. Great post, Kristen. I do have your We Are Not Alone – the Writer’s Guide to Social Media and I am loving it. It’s definitely a book I’ll read several times to glean all the good information.

    BTW, I have linked back to you and mentioned your book.

  20. The more I read your blog, the more I doubt the quality of my work! I am not sure if this is good or bad, perhaps I do need to revise my first few chapters because I do believe that the beginning can make or break a story. The problem for writers is that not all feedback is honest. If 50 people (family and friends usually) read your book and tell you it’s wonderful followed by one (stranger) who hates the first ½ of your book, who do you believe? Who do you trust? I call this the ‘Love Factor’ and it’s not an easy issue to overcome.

    If you visit reader and review sites, you get the opportunity to read some really terrible writing. Scroll down to read the comments and you see things like ‘OMG, you had me from the first word’ ‘This is amazing! You go girl’ after 50 of these comments and ‘1255 likes’ you have to wonder if you just read the same piece of writing.

    When I read The De Vinci Code I had to force myself to read past the first 5 chapters or so until I got into the ‘good part’. With Twilight it was over a third of the book. I still can’t force myself to read The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo! I read about 10 pages and that was it.

    Harry Potter was different on all levels, so I understand that success better.

    If the beginnings of these books are so terrible how do they become such grand successes? Who is telling people to read these books? When does peer pressure kick-in and override the need for actual good story telling?

    You would think that a story with a slow and boring beginning would stop these books becoming mega-successful. I think sometimes there is a mysterious element that neither good writing nor good marketing can explain. This is certainly the case with the Twilight Series.

    1. I understand your frustration and frankly I can’t answer all of your questions. Some things hit big because they were in the right place at the right time and the planets were in line.

      Relying on friends and family for feedback is dangerous. They love you and most likely aren;t going to tell you that your novel made their eyes bleed. I know I still feel terribly for making my family and friends read my first novel. I was just blessed enough to have a mom and an aunt who could lovingly tell me I needed to grow more.

      Some big errors I see with new writers are:

      No core story problem in need of being solved.

      No core antagonist.

      Flawed or nonexistent narrative structure. 80,000 words of pretty prose does not a novel make.

      Head-hopping the point the reader needs Dramamine.

      Too many POVs that dilute the strength of the story

      Over-fascination with world-building at the expense of the story (I see this in sci-fi and fantasy a lot)

      If you CAN:

      Create a story-worthy problem

      Create a formidable and interesting antagonist

      Make sure you are fleshing your story over a solid narrative skeleton (Normal World, Inciting Incident, TP ACt I, TP Act II, etc.)

      Maintain consistent POV

      Choose the BEST POV (POVs) for the story (We cannot care intimately about the journey of a half a dozen characters)

      Focus on STORY about PEOPLE (Gadgets, magic and technology are decoration, not story)

      If you can do all those things I listed and not totally butcher spelling and grammar, you should be all right. A good, professional editor who doesn’t care if she is your friend is a really excellent investment.

      1. Thanks for the advice Kristen,

        I think the ‘Love Factor’ is why so many bad books get published.

        Editing is another issue (probably for another day). SadIy, I expect it is the high cost of hiring a good professional editor that cause most self published authors to do it themselves!

      2. Maintaining consistent POV is something my critique partners often point out to me. Other than that, I think I have most of the “CAN” items covered although I recognize there’s always room for improvement, which is why I mention your blog, this post, and your book in my blog post today:


      3. I am half-way through the first draft of my Women’s Fiction, and in many ways the antagonist is also the main protag. I have other minor antagonists — the sister who is in perpetual therapy, the birth father who kidnapped the MC’s adopted daughter, and the old high school boyfriend who is now the daughter’s psychologist, but the main antagonist is the MC herself because of her own self-sabotage. Is this a viable antagonist for the genre?

  21. This was interesting. I’m going to link back to it on my Sunday Entertainment post, as I’m like most writers and have mostly other writers reading my blog :D. Preaching to the choir at every turn, but I think this is great information for us to have. Thanks. (I’ll come back with the link on Sunday)

  22. Not fair, Kristen, you had me at the Tacos comment and I eagerly awaited to find out HOW to capture that elusive fat part of the bell curve and now I have to wait another week! Lol…FABULOUS post…especially for a beginner writer like myself who is trying to sift through a ton of “helpful” information to try and find out what will REALLY be helpful to my future…


  23. Kristen, once again thank you for opening my eyes to other forms of media and getting ones work out. I’m not one of those social FB hard sales that only goes to sights to sell their wares, I want to learn what others are doing to not just promote but also to read how they think.

  24. Great post. I am rereading your books and have signed for your course. I need all the help I can get. Don’t have a MS ready for publication yet but forewarned is forearmed. I want somebody to read what I’ve written.

  25. Aggrrrhhh! I knew you were going to leave me hanging! As someone who has just published my 1st novel Serarching for My Wand, I want all the answers right now please!

  26. Hi Kristen,

    Some good perspectives in this post.

    “If writers approach social media using a traditional marketing approach, what happens is we become no better than spam. It’s a TON of work for very little pay-off and it will leave next to no time to do what’s most important….write more books.”

    Interesting statement. What approach should writers take when utilizing social media?

    Before social media (as known today), books were made known by some very spammy advertizing and merchandizing ploys … Actually, I don’t feel much of the core is very different today RE marketing books than it ever has been.

    I found just as many bad books as good under the traditional publishing system and the new more direct author to reader path made possible by new tech, I suspect, will reflect the same statistics … just formulated by the general readership rather than so-called ‘critics’.

  27. I love this post for so many reasons. I ended up ruminating on this in my blog post tonight after reading both your post and Kristin McFarland’s (oddly not from the pingback on your blog). I have been focused on getting my book into a presentable state for the past month, and though I think I’m my own harshest critic at the moment, it still has a way to go before I can proudly show it to agents in a few weeks.

    I linked back to your blog and mentioned WANA on my blog today. Thanks again for an informative and honest post.

  28. Hi Kristen!
    The difficulty I’m finding is in how to get word out to those fat curvy people!
    I’m building my social networks slowly and making friends, but I have trouble asking a new friend to buy my book, let alone getting them to tell all their friends to buy it!
    I get the ‘one person at a time’ philosophy, but translating that from acquiring friends to acquiring customers is one reach further than I’m accomplishing…
    I’m really looking forward to your post, where it sounds like you’ll be touching on this issue.
    Hope you had a nice Christmas!
    Best wishes,

  29. Ha, love the idea of the fat part of the bell curve:) Your posts are always enlightening even if the truth is a little confronting…

  30. Thanks for another very helpful post as we writers traverse this brave new world of publishing. I especially liked your header “Writers are Not Car Insurance and Books are Not Tacos”. Back many moons ago when I was knocking on doors in NY, the editors I met at conferences told us that the problem in many houses was that the marketing departments were now running the business and they didn’t know squat about story. They didn’t care what was on the pages. They wanted to know how they could market the concept, the author, or a really great cover. One editor called it “assembly-line publishing.”

  31. Kristen, Best analysis of this issue I’ve read. Bravo! Now if I could only write books, that the vast unreaders would want.

  32. Thanks Kristen, I learned a lot in one reading. I think also that getting a nich group for an audience will help as well. I am getting ready to start a rewrite that hits a group not well written for in the past but I hope to make inroads there. I am hoping that they will read those books, see the others, and try them or do the ‘word-of-mouth’ advertising and grow my market. I’ll be looking forward to your next blog installment.

  33. There is so much wisdom in this post. Every writer needs to read it. I’ll go Tweet some peer pressure…

    • M. Christine Weber on December 29, 2011 at 4:13 pm
    • Reply

    Oh I agree! Fabulously said! As a book reviewer/blogger (who does NOT eat books like candy but prefers to enjoy them at a slower pace, which means I only review one a month), I find that my followers hit up the library for the majority of their books. If they don’t like something or if they end up not having the time to read it, they can take it back with nothing lost. Very rarely will they actually PURCHASE a book. And when they do? The purchase is based almost solely on some aspect of relational connection–relationship either with a book reviewer or friend, with the author (through following the author’s site or twitter feed–wherein the author displays they are an actual real and likable person), or else via relationship to a past work by the author. Of course, if a book has enough hype and it sports a fancy cover, they’re more inclined to purchase it as well, but that can still be trumped by a relational recommendation. Readers want to know that a PERSON (not a marketing expert or spammy twitter friend or money-hungry author/publisher/machine) is attached to the book if they’re going to make the investment of time and money.

    I experienced a very light example of this yesterday at a local shop when, walking by a display table with my husband and kids, I stopped by a book table that a young lady (early 20’s) was searching over. I smiled at her, and then my hubs and I started chatting with each other about the various books on the table. I noticed the girl tune in while her hands brushed over the array of beautiful covers. I mentioned to my husband some various points I liked about the books there, and then casually pointed out a novel on my to-read list and said, “THIS one is supposed to be amazing.” The girl’s eyes darted to where I was pointing. A minute later, we casually moved off, but when I got a few yards away, something prompted me to look back. I was just in time to see the girl reach over, grab the book I’d pointed to, flip to the back cover for 20 seconds, and then promptly carry it up to the front register. Now of course I’m not lame enough to see myself as the sole influencer for her buying decision, but I honestly think that hearing another reader, who had no other motive other than a love of books, exclaim excitement over it, may have tipped the scales. ;0)

  34. My knee-jerk reaction to your analysis was ‘She’s crazy! Of *course* books are a low-consideration purchase.’ Which is why I dread my next move with a terrible dread!

    You’re right, of course. To people like myself, who picks up books faster than I can read them (which is still fairly quick), they’re low. But for most, shall we call them ‘normal’ people with ‘lives,’ they are certainly not. Great stuff!

    • Russell on December 29, 2011 at 6:03 pm
    • Reply

    My strategy is to bribe the bell shaped non-readers with lots and lots of delicious tacos. I bet they have a secret stash of cookbooks hidden at home with drool on every page.

    I really enjoyed this post, and the comments. Word of mouth is the best advertisment that money cannot buy.

  35. Well said!

  36. SO looking forward to #WANA112 (you crack me up, too). I recently received your books and hope to use them to augment what we learn in Blogging to Build Brand. (My excuse for not getting them read over the Holidays. It was either your books or cookies and wrapped gifts and holiday ho-ho. Your books took the hit for the ho-ho team.)

    I hope to learn how to reach future readers without sacrificing SO much time blogging.

    In fairness to myself (Hey! The world doesn’t have to be fair to me. I choose to make up for that.), I’m new to blogging. With each post I fear rejection nearly as intense as when I sent queries, subbed a partial or full, or entered contests.

    My words (those precious ‘babies’) are dressed for school (proper format “uniform”), but did I remember to blow their noses?

  37. Insightful. You’re right, deciding to read/buy a book is not just an outlay of money, it is an outlay of time. Sometimes, when I give a book as a gift, that person will thank me and look at me in a way that I can only now define (thanks to you): they are surprised that I think they would want to spend their time reading a book.

  38. What do you think of the new KDP Select program? It allows unknown writers to share their work for a total of 5 days for free on Amazon. This program so far has not worked for me (although I am working on it), but I know a handful of writers whose work gained traction in the broader Kindle market thanks to this program (i.e. when the free period ended, sales kept going). For them it was just a matter of being able to gain visibility in the broader market; this was the only thing that was holding their books back.

  39. The last time that I commented here, I complained about your typo/grammar/spelling errors. You have cleaned things up a lot (though in response to this post: we don’t wait “on” an anomaly, we wait “for” it). That being said, this is one of the most important essays that an independent author could read… but I wonder how many of them will believe it. It makes perfect sense yet is so at odds with what most people, especially authors, believe that I wonder if you are sweeping water against the tide. But, if they don’t believe it, that’s O.K. with me. Those people can go off and do their own thing and fail. It will leave less competition for my own books. Me? I’m going to pay attention. I’m coming back here to read what’s next. I might even buy your book. And, even though I don’t need a critique, I’m going to mention and link to this post in my own blog. See you next week.

  40. I am totally with you on the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

  41. Thank you for all your help, Kristen. I bought both your books and am learning so much from them. I’m not sure why, but I began reading the second one first, but I’m almost finished and plan to begin reading WANA as soon as I’m done.

    I was reading your chapters on SEO last night and had one question about tags. WordPress support says that if I add too many tags (>10, I think), that my blog will be less likely to be featured in the WordPress tag listing. What does that mean, exactly? Will the extra tags help me on Google but hurt me on WordPress? Or should I try to keep it below 10. Do you advise putting my name on every blog post?

  42. Hey, thanks for saying what most of us creatives are thinking and feeling. The frustration of finding an audience is exhausting and it sounds like you`ve got a good handle on the problems. I`ll be interested to hear some of your solutions.

  43. Great post and comments! Selling books is easily one of the greatest mysteries of life. Why does one book succeed while others, perhaps equally good or better, fail to sell? I love novelist and screenwriter William Goldman’s famous phrase: “Nobody knows anything” about why one catches fire and one doesn’t.

  44. This is my first post here, so please forgive me if I make a newbie mistake. I found out about this blog from a friend’s post on FB.

    First of all, I am a professional marketer. Mind you I work in a small aspect of marketing/advertising, and I am quite sure all of what I know does not apply to books. That being said, let me (perhaps rudely) point out a few flaws in your otherwise well thought out post.

    1) ” the competition is growing exponentially by the day” I’m sorry, but this is simply not true. The book market has been saturated for years. Ebooks are not suddenly making the market worse, although they do tend to lower the average quality of books in general. The market already had too many authors. This was true way back when all we had was dead tree books. Readers only have so much spare time. What we try to market to (as you correctly pointed out) is this spare time.

    2) There is no “single” plan for book marketing. Good book marketing requires an in depth analysis of each author’s marketing needs. This is because what authors write, and what they sell varies greatly. Self-help books sell to a different audience than genre fiction, and should be marketed differently. You are so right that most book marketing focuses on preaching to the converted. This is because it is the least expensive way to sell a book. Especially for a new author.

    The thing is, selling to the “converted” (established readers) is not a bad idea, it is just a limited idea. Its good in that it is cheap. Its bad in that it is selling to a limited market. If your goal is to sell a million books, than relying upon this kind of marketing alone will not cut it. However, if your goal is to make a modest living as an author, and you have an established fan base, then this type of marketing can be economical.

    3) Word of mouth is the bomb, which you so correctly point out. Alas it is notoriously difficult to market to, and almost impossible to predict let alone sell to. The reality is that some books sell for reasons that have nothing to do with their quality or their marketing. They are the “perfect storm” in terms of word of mouth, with so many factors building upon their success it is impossible to tell how their success came about, or (more importantly) how a unknown author can take advantage of them. IOW, Stephenie Meyers, J.K. Rowling, and Dan Brown did not market themselves into their relative positions, they got lucky and road a wave.

    4) The first rule of any good marketing is to establish a clear, attainable, and cost effective goals. While becoming another Brown or Rowling is a wonderful dream, it is not a reasonable marketing goal. Establishing a few hundred fans per book IS an attainable goal. Building up an author’s fan base until it gets into the thousands and tens of thousands IS an attainable goal. It simply takes time, and a lot of quality writing.

    Telling or even suggesting to authors they can be another Rowling is at best a disservice, and at worst is a blatant lie. Please understand I am not accusing you of this. I have not read enough of your work, and realize this post is but one of many. However I have seen a lot of bad marketing advice out there, preying upon the fears and exaggerated grandiosity of authors (or any other creative type), carefully disguised as the “best” book marketing advice.

    5) Finally, authors are not singular in their problems. They face almost the exact same issues as other creative types who are attempting to make money from their creative output. This list includes actors, musicians, screen-writers, and fine artists. All of these groups exhibit an economic pyramid (with a tiny few on the top making good money and the vast majority on the bottom making little to nothing), a saturated market (with far more producers than potential buyers), and their own myths and legends about how one attains success.

    You can sit in a bar in this town and hear a group of actors talk about the “star power” of Michael Douglas, and at the text table hear a group of musicians discuss the early marketing strategies of Motley Crew, while at a third table overhear the writing secrets of Arron Sorkin or the marketing techniques of Andy Worhol. All of these creative types pursue their work with inflated ideas about the possibility of their success. Frankly, I don’t they would do it otherwise. But with rare exception, none of them are willing or able to look behind the curtain at the “brass tacks” of their chosen industries.

    Writing, just like acting, painting, or music is an artistic endeavor. But as soon as one wishes to make money from their endeavor it becomes a business. And business in this country means a very uncaring focus on the bottom line, and a very real and rather nasty form of competition.

    1. And I don’t disagree with any of that and I never promised anyone they would be the next J.K.Rowling. I merely pointed out that the reason authors like this became huge was because of word of mouth that managed to break the inertia of the fat part of the Bell Curve. It was the conversion of the “non-reader” that catapulted them to mega-fame. Plenty of non-readers read The DaVinci Code.

      I think writers decide to market and they all join “Reader Groups” and “Book Fan Clubs” which is code for “bunch of writers hoping to hawk a book, but mainly are all selling to each other.” I see writers not wanting to tell friends and family about their writing until they are successful, yet that is counterproductive. The intimate networks can be some of the biggest cheerleaders and can help us tap into pools of people who aren’t being constantly hounded to buy a book.

      This article to to explain why spamming and offering 99 cent books and getting on book review sites is a limited plan. It is a plan, but maybe not the best plan. It is to show WHY books don’t follow the same rules as a tube of toothpaste.

      The market is more saturated than it has ever been. Yes, you are correct, it was probably over-saturated to begin with but now the dam had broken and EVERYONE can be published. The choke point is no longer distribution but visibility as Bob Mayer pointed out.

      What I teach is how to do forge relationships. Serve others first. Put out good content and be authentic. My methods have taken authors from nobodies to #1 best-sellers. Do I promise this? No. Still have to have a great book and you are correct. Sometimes it is just that the stars aligned correctly.

      Yet, in a world where people are spammed non-stop, pulled at and pitched to, I think if we serve more of what people dread, we cannot expect success. Thank you for such a thoughtful comment and we agree on almost everything. My book We Are Not Alone is such a plan that is step by step and all my methods are free….since most writers are broke, LOL.

      And to be blunt, all success is a pyramid. About 5% will make it big. But generally those are the people willing to outwork and outlast their competition. The harder they worked the luckier they got 😉 And that is true no matter what method we use.

      If you are interested to learn more about what I do feel can affect word of mouth, I recommend an earlier post about learning to get sticky.

  45. As promised, my link back: http://jaime-samms.net/2012/01/01/sunday-entertainment-january-01-2012/ thanks again for the entertaining and informative post!

  46. Great info, as always Kristin, but my heartfelt thanks go out to you not for the content but for making me feel like less of a freak for not giving the Girl With The Dragon Tattoo a hundred pages to win me over. The older I get, and the busier, the less time I have for reading… I have put down more books after 20 lousy pages in the last two years than in my entire preceding life. (And clearly, I agree with you about reading being a high consideration purchase.)

    Also, as a marketing and advertising professional, I think your ideas about targeting are right on… and just as valid for non-book marketing. The amount of time and effort wasted advertising to the wrong people is staggering and appalling, and has been the source of more friction with clients and colleagues in my career than nearly any other issue.

    • Donald Bueltmann on January 3, 2012 at 2:06 pm
    • Reply

    I read a lot of comments in today’s blog that mention poor editing. One of my favorite rants is the lack of editing in the books published by professionals. Some of the authors or editors seem to have not even used a spellchecker to catch obvious mistakes much less missing words. Did anyone read these books critically? I have to admit that after I have critically reviewed one of my books myself, my wife still manages to find mistakes. I tell her that I purposely put them in there to make her feel justified. 🙂

  47. Hi there! I just would like to give a huge thumbs up for the great info you will have here on this post. I will probably be coming back to your blog for more soon.

  48. Very much enjoyed the post, Kristen – and the back-and-forth debate in the comments. I love that it is constructive and open to differing opinions and view-points.

    It’s no longer enough to be “just” a writer these days.. we need to be entrepreneurs. We must consider ourselves the CEO of our own company. The same applies to acting (I am a professional actor) as I’m sure it applies to many other creative fields. I’ve heard far too many actors sit at the pub and lament that they’re not working, but they refuse to do what it takes to even get the auditions in the first place.

    The publishing world is going to continue to get more and more saturated. It’s going to become harder and harder to stand out among the rest – to separate ourselves from the sludge.

    thanks again for the post!

  49. I agree. Writing a book is not easy. Writing a book that’s worth reading is a hard and complicated task. Writing a book which will leave an important message to mankind will only come from very much talented people. We can all try; but, we all have to listen to the advice from experts. Our intention is good. We want to write; but, only experts can guide us, or be sincere and tell us to look for another path to express our thoughts and feelings.

  50. A fascinating blog post, thank you. But there’s a lot of talk around about how important it is to have a big email list, so you can get readers interested in your new book. What are your thoughts on that?

    1. Yes, I really want MORE e-mail. Opinions vary on this. I think most people are OVER e-mail. It was awesome ten years ago but then it was simply abused too much.

    • Chere Evans on October 24, 2017 at 6:24 pm
    • Reply

    I LOVE this. Very well written and poignant. I have just one issue… and maybe it’s silly. I want to find the sequel (the post said “next week” there would be more.) but I can’t. I haven’t figured out how to find any of your archives outside of searching for keywords or looking at the “recent posts” widget. Am I missing something? I’ll keep hunting around the blog. Your way of addressing this topic is excellent and I want to read everything you have said. (and I’m going to buy one of your books on the topic RIGHT NOW. 🙂 )

    1. I transitioned from a free hosted site to self-hosted and yeah you are caught in the move. My book “Rise of the Machines” will answer anything you have on this topic and working on getting the place organized. Thanks for your patience and enthusiasm and great to meet you!

  1. […] Kristen Lamb’s post for today got me thinking about this yet again. She says, I’ve met writers who proudly paid to have beautiful covers designed and build web sites for their self-pubbed book, and yet, when I got a look at their first pages, I wish I could have stopped them. That’s the problem with being new. When we are really new, we are too dumb to know what we don’t know. […]

  2. […] print-on-demand and Kindle direct services. After reading Kirsten Lamb’s blog post, Why Traditional Marketing Doesn’t Sell Books, I’m going to hold off and […]

  3. […] Kristen Lamb's Blog HomeAbout Kristen LambJoin the Love Revolution #MyWANAThe Pants of Shame « Why Traditional Marketing Doesn’t Sell Books […]

  4. […] On Kristen Lamb’s blog, and article on why tradiotional advertising won’t sell your book. It made a lot of sense to me, and it might to you, too. Go read the post here. […]

  5. […] Why Traditional Marketing Doesn’t Sell Books from Kristen Lamb. […]

  6. […] week we talked about why traditional marketing doesn’t sell books and why marketing for writers requires a very different approach. We also discussed what critical […]

  7. […] My social media approach is very different from a lot of other experts. I believe that traditional marketing is an almost total waste of time and does little to drive book sales. Here is WHY. […]

  8. […] 7. Give back. Having passion generally means we have something to give—our energy, knowledge, talents… Volunteer to share your talents with others. Support the work of others with similar passions. When it comes to social media, sharing of ourselves and supporting others are the BEST ways to go. To learn more, visit best-selling author/social media guru Kristen Lamb’s fantastic post: Why Traditional Marketing Doesn’t Sell Books. […]

  9. […] Lamb did a great post awhile back about Why Traditional Marketing Doesn’t Sell Books where she talks about “the fat part of the bell curve” and how THOSE are the readers we […]

  10. […] If you love our books, your promotion means a thousand times more than any ad I could pay for. Ads and marketing don’t sell books. Never did and never will. Only thing that sells books is word of […]

  11. […] you love our books, your promotion means a thousand times more than any ad I could pay for. Ads and marketing don’t sell books. Never did and never will. Only thing that sells books is word of […]

  12. […] If you love our books, your promotion means a thousand times more than any ad I could pay for. Ads and marketing don’t sell books. Never did and never will. Only thing that sells books is word of […]

  13. […] marketing does not sell books. Never has. For more on why, check out Why Traditional Marketing Doesn’t Sell Books. I have had to unfollow writers on Facebook who do nothing but promote one book over and over and […]

  14. […] marketing does not sell books. Never has. For more on why, check out Why Traditional Marketing Doesn’t Sell Books. I have had to unfollow writers on Facebook who do nothing but promote one book over and over and […]

  15. […] If you love our books, your promotion means a thousand times more than any ad we could pay for. Ads and marketing don’t sell books. Never did and never will. Only thing that sells books is word of […]

  16. […] If you love our books, your promotion means a thousand times more than any ad we could pay for. Ads and marketing don’t sell books. Never did and never will. Only thing that sells books is word of […]

  17. […] we understand WHY (read this post) and fully appreciate that books are a wholly unique product that requires a different approach […]

  18. […] we understand WHY (read this post) and fully appreciate that books are a wholly unique product that requires a different approach […]

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