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Book Marketing: Advertising Challenges

"…it is useless to be a creative, original thinker unless you can also sell what you create." - David Ogilvy

Ogilvy's aphorism is absolutely true for books, one of the purist forms of creativity. Unless a new author composes only for themselves or is arrogant enough to expect that their readership will form spontaneously, they must promote their work. Tactics for driving up awareness of a book include: word-of-mouth, cool websites, book reviews, signings/readings, discounts, and attending literary festivals. However, these mostly passive devices rely on someone stumbling across the literary work. Advertising proactively reaches out to folks beyond an intimate circle of initiates who haven't heard of either the author or their creative efforts. Further, by placing your own ads, you control the message.

The focus of this post will be on digital advertising rather than traditional media (e.g. print ads) because digital ad's relatively modest cost and broad reach seem to make it suited to the challenges of promoting books. However, in a fluid, inchoate period for the publishing industry, the post doesn't pretend to comprehensively describe book ads. Also, I don't explore the intricacies of outwitting a particular social media platform's algorithmic logic to get an ad to an ideal reader. Instead, the post reflects my modest, but growing, experience introducing my contemporary fantasy novel (The Lords of Oblivion) to a wider readership and examines challenges common to many genres in light of this experience.

Unlike other analysis of book advertising, this critique isn't clickbait for paid eLearning courses or expensive marketing primers. Indeed, I'll try to avoid the usual bromides and received wisdom on this topic. Read that elsewhere if so inclined; a virtual cottage industry has grown to provide guidance of varying quality in this area. In addition, though this post is intended for rookie, self-published authors, it's also relevant to traditionally-published, yet lesser-known writers whose editors will delegate the lion's share of promotion right back to the author.

Overall Challenge - Advertising books appears relatively easy until the author tries it. In principle, the tools to target ads toward a precisely defined audience potentially interested in the author's work are more readily available than ever. Facebook (FB), Twitter, Instagram, Google and other platforms offer cook-book instructions for the mechanics of creating and launching such ads. This is complimented by an army of internet advisers offering sometimes contradictory instruction on optimizing your promotion and, by the way, touting their own marketing material. However, even a cursory look at actual author experience achieving sales traction based on ads provides a sobering counterweight to Panglossian thinking about the power of social media. Advertising on Amazon and other online shopping platforms is another means of supporting book sales, but here also experience should temper a writer's expectations.

Though I argue that at least some advertising is essential, men and women of letters need to be measured, cynical even, in their expectations about generating speedy sales for their work (even if they get many 'clicks' and 'likes'). Social media platforms' business is to monetize their membership's personal data on a gargantuan scale. Their size renders them unaware and unconcerned with the success of individual authors spending a pittance on advertising. Even big publishing houses appear to struggle with converting a social media presence into sales of individual books in their catalogs . Given this daunting environment, authors should be: 1) agnostic about which platform(s) to use; 2) parsimonious until they can gauge what works; and 3) inquisitive enough to develop a working knowledge of the platforms.

"…one of the greatest dangers of advertising is not that of misleading people, but that of boring them to death." - Leo Burnett

Hostility to ads - People have developed filters that render them partly immune to torrents of promotions - including book ads. Indeed, perhaps a tad hypocritically, the author of this very post is a diligent user of adblockers and, further, pays little attention to those ads that do leak through (sort of my own internal adblocker). Ambivalence toward marketing isn't new and digital advertising hasn't fundamentally changed consumers' attitudes in this regard. What is new is public appreciation of the Orwellian scale of efforts to collect and curate personal data. This has amplified consumer concern about receiving advertising which they might rightly assume has been targeted to them based on unknowingly and unwillingly collected data on their class, income, interests, and other demographics. Ironically, you'll be using this data to create bespoke ads promoting your book.

While readers want to hear about upcoming work from favorite authors whom they're actively following, they'll be a lot less amused if they're beset by random ads from indie writers. Instead, readers are more receptive to recommendations about a book from trusted sources such as their friends or respected reviewers…though, as a newbie author, you won't get many recommendations (or even awareness) from these sources. Promotions may sidestep this conundrum and spread the gospel of your oeuvre, but be prepared for the fact that ads are often unproductive - just read Goodreads author commentary on this topic. However, you have at least a fighting chance if your ads are concise, visual and respect your book's integrity and the audience's intelligence. Easier said than done, of course, but the writer should observe other ads in their genre and copy what's appealing and adapt that to their own promotions. Further, the writer will need to review their ad's metrics and iteratively make improvments based on what resonates with ad recipients.

Ad inefficiency - Aligned with the points above, whether you promote on social media or online sales platforms (or both), expect wastage. Trying to highlight the idiosyncratic appeal of a literary work on enormous, impersonal platforms using a writer's penurious ad budget will take trial and error.

For example, placing a FB ad for my (very cool) fantasy, The Lords of Oblivion, was mechanically easy. However, applying intuition and research about my potential readership to reach them effectively with the ad was challenging. I wanted customers living close to San Francisco where the story is set, but limiting ad distribution to a locale was problematic as FB's algorithm seemed to include not only San Francisco residents, but anyone else who was inferred to have any sort of interest whatever in the city; many of the ad's recipients didn't seem to live anywhere near the city or even in California.

More broadly, despite all the data on individuals, there sometimes is only a tenuous connection between presumed and real interests. Though I specified ad distribution to fiction and literature readers, many of the recipients apparently had no interest at all in reading-related activities. A look at your own FB identified interests may convince you that your profile differs significantly from the actual you. If authors have a large following, this may help FB more accurately target advertisements by mirroring the author's existing followers. However, indie authors may not have tons of followers.

Compounding these challenges, customers don't actually purchase much based on social media ads. In fact, getting them to do anything is tough. Click through rates are about 1% across business types; people simply aren't in shopping mode on platforms like FB. Instead, the goal is to create awareness, pique interest, and establish relationships. Thus, an author-advertiser might content themselves with prompting visits to their webpage and obtaining e-mail addresses for subsequent communications. It's all a bit indirect which is why some large corporations are taking up the challenge of shifting from building brand awareness to driving consumer action. Although not related to books, Ford is an example of using the exquisite precision of social media to place ads in front of consumers at the moment they're likely to buy - though they have a multi-billion dollar advertising budget to support their efforts (Stoll, Wall Street Journal, 2018).

In contrast to social media, visitors to online sales platforms like Amazon are in shopping mode and more prone to acting on ads. Well, maybe…if they can find a given author's ad. Considering the volume of promotions on this platform - many of them giving books away for free - a reader browsing for an exciting new novel will have to be attentive indeed to spot a specific ad even if they're narrowly searching within a particular genre. Further, some ad formats work to steer customers toward books similar to those they've historically liked. However, if your book doesn't fit neatly into popular genres as defined by the platform's keywords, it may not be positioned for visibility vs a vs other books.

"To swear off making mistakes is very easy. All you have to do is to swear off having ideas." - Leo Burnett

Creating good ads is complicated - Initially, an indie author's digital advertisements may not be very good. However, working to understand the platforms' sometimes abstruse logic for ad deployment allows the writer to refine their design and targeting. This also presupposes understanding of a book's potential readership (e.g. male and female fantasy readers who like George R R Martin and Celtic mythology). Indeed, planning an ad forces the writer to better define their audience. Importantly, authors should pilot ad design/copy on a micro (or nano) scale before rolling it out more broadly and peruse their ad's performance metrics carefully to determine what works. Trial and error validates inference about readership characteristics.

Self-publishing books has low barriers to entry, but ad complexity creates a barrier to success for authors unwilling to dedicate resources to announcing their work. In other words, developing a few rudimentary advertising skills sets you apart from the tens of thousands of other neophyte writers in a given genre.

Advertising distracts from writing - For sure, advertising is a fresh capability for many authors that they'd rather not learn. However, unless they already have a robust reputation, their work won't sell itself. Further, learning ad basics by focusing on a limited number of platforms (or perhaps just one) moderates the time demand. Also, an unsung benefit of designing ads is that it makes the writer better understand their literature: What audience will its message resonate with? How to reach this audience without diluting ad spend across readers with no interest in their genre? Why is your book better than others in the same space and how can ads call this out?

In self-promoting, you'll need to think through issues including how ads fit into your overall marketing plan; the size of your budget; the strengths and limitations of various media to promote your book; and when 'traditional' media could work better than digital advertising. So, how about hiring a publicist to do all this? For starters, publicists can be expensive for an indie writer and you'll still need significant time to explain what makes your book special so that the publicist can leverage this uniqueness. In addition, capability varies widely with some publicists providing rather generic guidance offering no insight beyond what could be gleaned yourself (more on publicists in a separate post). While there are discerning publicists, finding the right fit can be tough.

Conclusion - Theoretically, digital advertising offers unprecedented access to a global readership. However, despite smiley-faced optimism, platforms are not necessarily optimally configured for most self-published authors' minuscule budgets and limited marketing expertise. Further, though loads of advice is available, much of it is either: 1) banal and not very useful; 2) time-consuming to digest; or 3) expensive. Moreover, like other aspects of the publishing ecosystem, platforms capitalize on authors' desperation for sales. Caveat emptor. With common sense, some creativity and testable predictions about who you intended to read your book, the author can achieve a lot on their own. Further, without advertising, a new author's work is destined for a closed casket funeral; readership will be quite limited.

Importantly, advertising is a trial and error process where the author tests the appeal of various designs and placements. There may be surprising results, but these can refine the next generation of ads. I plan to continue this process for my modern fantasy, THE LORDS OF OBLIVION

Digital advertising is a dynamic space, so further posts on this and other topics related to the business of being an indie author are in the offing.

Peter Blaisdell
Blaisdell Literary Enterprises

James A. Cox
Midwest Book Review
278 Orchard Drive
Oregon, WI 53575-1129
phone: 1-608-835-7937

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