Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing: Self Promotion

The myth simply is: “All self promotion for a writer is good.” Nope. Completely false. The truth is sometimes self promotion of your own book can hurt you, sometimes it can help you. The key is not falling for the myth that all self promotion is good.

Right now, in late 2009, the publishing industry is changing so fast that it is often hard to keep up for a writer with his head buried in writing the next book. Things are changing month to month, and the major publishers in New York and around the world are struggling to even stay a year or two behind. Where exactly is all this change happening? In the distribution system, which in turn is causing changes throughout the rest of the system.

For a very easy way to understand publishing, write at the top of a piece of paper the word WRITER. Then draw a line down the center of the page a few inches and write the word PUBLISHER, then continue the line a few more inches and write DISTRIBUTION, and then continue the line to the bottom of the page and write the word READER.





Everything flows from the top to the bottom. For hundreds of years, that was, and still is, the basic structure of the publishing business. The writer supplies product to a publisher who then, creates the book product, promotes, and gets the books into distribution (which includes bookstores), finally ending up in readers’ hands.

On your slip of paper, draw a line across the page between the writer and the publisher. That’s the contract between a writer and a publisher, the paper that defines the terms between the supplier of product and the producer of the product. For a long time, the common knowledge was that a writer never crossed that contract line unless a publisher asked for their help on a tour. And, of course, the publisher always paid all the writer’s expenses for such help. It still works that way with major book tours for writers.

Then in the late 1980s and early 1990s, a few romance writers decided they could help their sales by talking to the truckers, handing out treats early in the morning to truck drivers, create bookmarks, and so on, including paying for their own book tour. It worked for a few early on, then every writer seemed to jump on the band wagon and in short order the bookstores didn’t want to see a writer come though their doors with more crap. Mail boxes were full of junk produced by writers and mailed to everyone they could think of. That sort of self promotion of a book basically became worthless. And very expensive for a writer to do.

And thus, the myth of self promotion was born. Writers coming in since the early 1990′s have heard over and over that you have to self promote your own book or fail.

Hogwash. Let me simply say that what sells a book, both to an editor and to a reader is a well-told story written well and presented well. The better the book, the better it will sell. If your books are not selling, learn how to write better books and learn how to write better proposals and then mail it all to editors. It really is that simple.

Now, that said, here we are in late 2009 and the world has shifted once again. Kindles, Nooks, eBooks, POD, and a dozen other ways of getting a book from a publisher to a reader has arrived. Finally.

Why do I say finally? This change has been thought about and talked about for almost two decades. It was just slow arriving, but when it did finally arrive, it hit the system with an impact.

No one, including me, is sure how or where all these changes are leading. All we can do is follow the news and keep learning. But does it change the fact that a good story, well written and well presented will sell? Nope.

Do the changes in the industry change the self promotion thinking? Yes, some.

So, at this point, in late 2009, what can an author do to help a book get better sales for their publisher?

Before I get to a few ideas on that question, lets talk about how return for self promotion is measured for a writer. It’s a simple formula, actually.

Time Spent + Money Spent = Total cost.

Compare Money Returned in Sales to Total Cost.

Remember that every moment you are spending self promoting an old book is a moment you are not writing a new book. So just as with any business, figure time lost and put an actual dollar figure on that time. (Say it took you three months to write the last book and your advance was $6,000. If you spend one month self promoting the old book, it cost you $2,000 in time lost.)

An example of silly thinking: An author manages to set up his own book tour, spending two weeks traveling, hitting bookstores, doing some signings and such, promoting his new paperback release from Bantam Books. The author will spend upwards of three weeks total time on planning and traveling, three weeks not spent on writing the next book. The actual out-of-pocket expenses will total $5,000 at least not counting the time lost costs.

What will the author get in return? With luck and being very personable, the author manages to sell an extra 500 copies of the book (that’s a lot). The author gets an 8% royalty rate on the $6.00 book, so 48 cents per book. The author will return about $250 bucks. Okay, that’s just silly. Spend $5,000 and three weeks to make $250. A great way to quickly go out of business for any business.

Here’s the worst part. Remember publishing is bottom line focused. Let’s assume that’s the author’s first book for Bantam and he doesn’t do the exact same thing for book number two. What would happen? The second book sales will decline from book number one. The sales trend will be DOWN on the accounting sheets. Not a good thing in publishing and he won’t sell book number three. His promotion tour cost him not only money and writing time, but his book series with Bantam. (I have watched this happen with a good dozen writer friends in the last twenty years. Some changed names and kept going, others are still wondering what went wrong.)

So, why do publishers with major bestsellers push their authors on intense tours? Simply to increase the velocity of sales. Bestseller lists are measured by the sales per week. If a publisher can push up the numbers in certain areas over a short period of time and shove the author onto a bestseller list, then sales pick up overall. In other words, publishers know what they are doing, authors don’t. That simple.

An author’s job is to write a good book. A publisher’s job is to create the book and promote it and sell it. And all that is detailed out in the contracts between the two parties.

So, back to the point of what is good self promotion these days? Following are a few suggestions.

1) A web site. An active one, where you post a few times a week and have photo and buying information for your books. Key to the web site is make it a name that people can find. Notice, my name is this web site. Easy to find. My pen names have web sites as well. It’s simple and takes very little time and allows readers to find your work and your different work.

Also, this helps for sales to editors. An editor with a manuscript in front of them they like will pull up your web site and look at it. If you are badmouthing New York editors or are a real pain on your web site, they will see that and decide life is too short. But if you have a professional web site that promotes your work, then they will look at that as a good thing. It still takes a good book, well written and presented well that fits their line to sell to them, but it never hurts to look professional on your web site. And they are easy to do these days, even for an old fart like me.

2) Facebook and Twitter accounts. I seldom post at the moment on either, but will change that starting this month, now that I have everything moved and the master class is finished. Again, be professional and not too personal. No one really cares what you had for lunch unless you had that lunch with Dean Koontz.

3) Do a signing for your local independent bookstore. That won’t make you enough sales to hurt your numbers, but it is good support of a bookstore that I assume you go into regularly. It will make the stores a few bucks and let your family and friends celebrate your book with you. In other words, it’s fun. But just do one per book. One is enough.

Anything more? Maybe. If you sold your book to a smaller or regional or University press, they might ask you to help some with promotion, because a few extra sales can make a huge difference to a small press. In that case, work smart. Understand what you are good at, what you are poor at, and where you can help sell a few more copies without hurting your writing time. Keep it in balance.

If you are the publisher of your own book, that’s another matter. You are responsible in that case for all promotion, and even the smallest amount can help. Again, the key is to keep it in balance and write the next book.

General Rule of Thumb on Self Promotion: If you are spending more money than a tiny fraction of your advance on self promotion and more time than it took to write the book on self promotion, you are doing it very, very wrong.

Second General Rule of Thumb on Self Promotion Make your next book a better book. That’s the best thing you can do to promote your career and your writing.

Remember that self promotion is in the distribution area of publishing. That is part of the publisher’s job to handle. If you self-publish your own book, then it’s your job, but if you are selling books to New York publishers, keep your focus on the next book.


Notice below that I have added onto this series of chapters a donate button where you can donate if you feel these chapters of this upcoming book helped you in some way and you want to keep me writing them and putting them up here. And if you can’t afford to donate, please feel free to pass this article along to others who might get some help from it. Every week or so I will be adding a new chapter on the myths and sacred cows of publishing. Stay tuned. Upcoming are chapters on bestsellers, research, rejections, and so much more. This business has a lot of myths. An entire book full.

Thanks, Dean

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21 Responses to Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing: Self Promotion

  1. Great, great post, Dean. One thing I’d add about creating an effective author Website: add value. That’s one of the keys. If your site is just blantant self-promotion, you won’t get much traffic. But if you’re thinking of ways to add value to others — like what you’re doing with your Sacred Cows series and Kris is with her Freelancer’s series, then people respond. And there’s lots of ways to add value.

  2. Steve Perry says:


    (Which is exactly what I wanted to say, but got a kickback from the saying it was too short, try again, so …)

    Ahem: Amen

  3. Paul Greci says:

    Excellent information. Thanks. My first novel will be out on submission soon.

  4. Steve Lewis says:

    The whole opportunity cost breakdown for promotion was definitely an eye opener. It definitely puts things in perspective.

    I’m actually a little in awe. This kills most, if not all, the hype surrounding self promotion. You can’t argue with the numbers. One of the visions I had in my head was having to hit like 500 bookstores over a summer trying to enlist the aid of the clerks in foisting my Heartbreaking Work Of Staggering Genius™ off on unsuspecting customers. I would have done it but it’s nice to know that it’s not neccessary. I’d much rather concentrate on making the writing better.

    As always, great info Dean.

  5. Nice post and and interesting viewpoint. “Follow the money” is what it essentially boils down to.

    There’s one minor thing you didn’t include in your list of cost-effective self promotion methods. Lining up signings or presentations in places you are already going to be. Hitting a convention in a far off city? Find a couple of local shops and try to set something up. You’re already going to be there and if you are already participating at the convention, you can use it to up your profile there as well.

  6. Mark Terry says:

    You and I are largely on the same page (ahem) with this. I don’t know if that means we’re right, because I’m always leery of wanting to stand up and cheer when someone tells me that book promotion is a waste of time. I’m not sure it’s a waste of time, exactly, so much as, as you say, the return on investment isn’t there (which, I suppose, means it’s a waste of time).

    I do know this. I’m a full-time freelance writer. If I spend hours promoting my upcoming novel, which had a pretty small advance, I’ll probably sell more books, but my income will drop because I’m not spending it writing. In that respect, it’s a pretty straightforward calculation.

    Now, last Friday I had lunch with my publisher and editor, and they threw out the number 65 for a target number of book signings. I was rather noncommittal, although what I thought as: “Are you out of your fucking minds?” Maybe if the advance was $65,000 or $100,000 I’d say, “Hey, absolutely, no problem.” But by my calculation 65 book signings would suck up at least 325 hours (based on 5 hours each, which includes transportation to and from, and that’s a very low estimate). By my aimed for hourly rate (a minimum of $50/hour) I would need to recoup $16,250 of income from those books. Which means I’d have to sell approximately 6,500 copies from those signings. In other words, 100 books per signing. Which ain’t gonna happen. I’ve done signings before.

    Tough business, isn’t it?

    • dwsmith says:

      Mark, it is a tough business. Assume that if they want you to do the 65 signings, they are paying for everything. That should change their tone a little. And if they agree, then they are trying to push your book to a different level and you might want to consider going with them on that. But only if THEY ARE PAYING. (grin)

      Steve, yup, I have always believed in following the money, which is why I’ve been able to make a living with my writing for going on 20 some years (with a few sidetracks to publishing we won’t talk about, or that year I earned my living playing poker, we won’t talk about that either (grin)). I don’t tend to go to conventions much these days, mostly because I’ve been there, bought that tee-shirt a few thousand times. It’s always good to go to see friends, but never occurs to me or Kris to spend our time promoting a book while there. Sure, we mention our new book on panels, and sure, we meet people, and absolutely, we sign every book with our name on it or in it in the dealers room. (That last one is critical. A dealer spends the time and money to bring your book to a convention, you should thank them and sign their copies always.) But if I’m going out into the local surrounding city, last thing I want to see is another bookstore.

      But I do signings set up by the convention, because then I only have to go somewhere and sit where someone tells me to sit and leave when they tell me to leave. I do none of the work.

      Thanks for the comments, guys.

  7. Wise advice. I’ve seen quite a few of my friends putting enormous effort into setting up publicity events that, as far as I can tell, might, if they’re lucky, get them one or two sales.
    Not that I haven’t done that myself. Sometimes even when somebody else does the work to set it up, events don’t make realistic sense. This summer I was invited to the “local author’s book fair” at a library about ten miles away– fun, I suppose, but it took the whole morning (until one– and I left early, because we had another engagement), and the book fair sold exactly two of my books. I got a free lunch out of it– by your calculation for the value of my time, that “free” lunch cost about two hundred dollars.

  8. Lisa Osman says:

    I have always dreaded that whole self promotion part and now I found that it will mostly be unnecessary. Very cheering. (I will point out, though, that just because people did not buy the book right when you were there does not mean that you haven’t sold it to them at a later date.)

    This actually falls in line with what I’ve learned about self promotion from There are a number of people who spend time every day favoriting other people’s work and commenting on their pages as a way of promotion. I tried that, but I was getting very poor returns. I discovered I got a lot more attention from simply posting my art there. And it’s a cumulative effect since people can put you on their watch list.
    But there’s another side to it: Dumping large amounts of art at a time gets you less attention than spacing it out because the people who have you on their watch list and will see every single piece spend less time looking at each and thus are less likely to favorite it. Without their support, it is almost impossible to get your art on the front pages of deviantart where they list the most popular art and therefore you lose a chance at a bigger audience.
    Which reminds me of Prince and how he released large amounts of music at a time against the recording companies wishes and not only lost their support but, well, who remembers any particular song from among those he mass dumped?
    I wonder if writers have a saturation limit like this.

  9. Interesting post, using the cold light of math to make these decisions makes sense, but there is something that bothers me.

    You say, “the better the book, the better it will sell,” linking quality to salability. This certainly not true – the best movies are not the ones that make the most money, and neither are the best books. (Best here being arbitrary, but in any artistic field I think most folks would be hard pressed to say the best seller is the “best” in its category.)

    Aren’t there other factors here in the decision to actually write ($6,000 advance for 3 months of work – and boy you gotta be fast to do that – is not very good money), and in how you promote? If going out on a book tour and talking to readers fills your heart with joy then the simple calculus you presented doesn’t seem like enough. And aren’t there down-stream effects from meeting people in person? If you create a fan on that book tour you may be creating someone who will buy not just this book, but tell friends to buy the book, and buy your future books too.

    While the math should be a major consideration, it is certainly not the only one.

    • dwsmith says:


      Well, not sure how to respond, to be honest, since you are flipping back at me myth after myth after myth. For example, saying that the bestsellers are not the best books being written. Of course they are. As a taste issue, you may not like them, but if one million people buy a book, then trust me, it is a ton better book than a book that sold a thousand copies. Remember, we are a part of the entertainment industry. The bestselling movies are the best movies, no matter what an award vote says, or what you as a person might “like or dislike” taste-wise. The bestselling books are the best books. They are doing the most things correctly when it comes to getting readers to read.

      So when I say write a better book, if your goal is to sell books, write a better book that will sell more copies. I don’t mean have prettier sentences or better grammar or that crap. I’m talking about writing a page-turning story that will carry the reader from page one to the end and then make the reader show it to a friend. That’s a good book!

      A second myth you toss out freely is that the advance is all a writer is going to get for a book. God, if that were the case, I would have never made a living at this business for twenty years, and neither would most writers. Advances are just the start of the cash streams. Just the start. (Unless you are really stupid and sell all rights, then it is the start and the end of the cash stream.) Most original books that start with a $6,000 advance can earn upwards of ten times that over the next ten years. And sometimes a bunch more. For example, on a book that Kris sold 14 years ago here in the states, she just resold in London, making more than her original advance, and taking the total for that book to almost twenty times the original advance, and it never earned a penny of royalties, because the US publisher killed the book. If you are doing this business correctly, the advance is often your smallest check.

      And a third myth you toss out is that by shoving your book into a reader’s hands at a signing, you will make a fan. Oh, crap, no. You will make a fan if you write a page-turning, can’t put down novel. Nothing more. You shove into someone’s hands at a signing a crappy book that they don’t finish, and what you have is that person selling your signed book to a used bookstore and never buying another copy of your book, and ACTIVELY telling others to not buy your book. It never comes down to signings, it ALWAYS comes down to writing better books, meaning books that make a reader finish it, enjoy it, and pass it on to friends, long after you are writing the sixth book down the road.

      I hope you can clear out some of the myths. They will do nothing but hold you back.
      Cheers, Dean

  10. Dean,

    Thanks (sincerely) for taking the time to respond to my comments.

    I think this boils down to my own romantic notion of writing. In my freelance career (programming), I conduction myself differently, and make a good living. I don’t actually care much what I program as long as the pay, the people and the environment are good. I love to program, so it doesn’t matter much to me what it is that I do program (as long as it is not morally objectionable).

    I am having trouble viewing writing that way. In many ways I don’t want it to be that way, I want it to be purer.

    (Probably more sacred cows to slaughter here, and much more for me to chew on).


  11. Great post, Dean. I’ll be forwarding the link to several of my writer friends who were just talking about this.

  12. Just working my way down your posts here :-) Wow, I didn’t know writers paid for their own book tours. It does seem a rather wasteful use of money, especially since you can get alot more done for free on the internet these days. I’m curious though — in the days before internet, what was the best way to promote books? Book reviews? Did author signings and book tours matter more back then?

    • dwsmith says:

      Livia, your question assumes authors need to promote their own books. If that is the case, why bother signing a contract with a New York publisher? It is their job to promote your books, internet or no internet. Your job is to write them. The line is the contract between the two parties.

      Start stepping into their job and all you ask for is problems.


  13. Alex says:

    My God, someone who speaks sense at last. Love your posts – keep ‘em up.

  14. Wow, what a diverse list of comments. I know everyone is different in how they promote. My publisher comments that I am one of their favorites, because I help promote and have other venues to do so, other than book signings.
    My books are my words, like art. The reader loves to connect with the author. They want to know more on how and why. Perhaps I also have the ego that needs to be nurished as well. Because “travel” seems to be my nitch, I gather info and write on my next book while I promote. I make use of every moment.
    Thanks for the reminder of spending too much money in the process. I am a sucker for accepting too many unsuccessful appearances, that result in expense, rather than profit. Way and balance, because we all want different results from our writing. It is not always about the dollar for some of us.

  15. Deborah says:

    Hi Dean,

    Just came upon this

    and thought it kind of fit this topic of yours. Uh, since this is from last year, do you still even update comments? I wasn’t sure.

  16. Rob Cornell says:

    Can’t wait to see the update on this. I hope there’s more about self-publishing and promotion. I recently got sucked into the self-promotion stuff and now I want to step back, because I could be doing a lot more writing of new stuff instead.

  17. Javier says:


    Neil Gaiman has a blog in which he posted information about his book tour. It seemed to me like he wasn’t paying it himself, and that he had a publicist involved, since every place / country he visited, there was an event and interviewers already waiting for him. How do you think that happens? Everything I’ve read on your site makes me think there are two ways of publishing:

    1) Doing everything yourself. It involves what your site and book describe; going 100% by yourself and focusing on the business side as well as the creative process. It’s all free. No lawyers, self-made marketing, etc.

    2) Delegating half of your business. While you still need to look at contracts, pay some stuff from your own pocket and moving to get some interviews, you can relay on an agent or a publicist (no idea which is better, my money goes on the publicist, but needs to be a good one, with connections) which you need to pay too.

    So in short, I believe there are two ways of doing this. Invest money, or do it for free. I highly doubt Neil Gaiman has a charitable publicist that work for free. Either the publisher is paying those publicists that wait for him on every continent and setup interviews, book hotels, etc; or he is investing his own money on a marketing agency.

    What are you thoughts on my theory? Would love to hear them since you are far more experienced than I am to make conclusions.

    • dwsmith says:

      Javier, Neil is a major bestseller. With major bestsellers, the publishing companies do that for the writers. And the publicist is paid by the publisher. But Neil makes a ton more than low six figures, which is the mark I was talking about. If you can sell a book for a half million to a traditional publisher, you have clout on your contract, can get a good contract, and can get this kind of treatment from a publisher, and a publicist.

      No publicist you could hire on your own would be worth your money, and trust me, it’s a lot of money. And as many friends have figure out, publicists are often not worth the money. A good schedule person is worth the wage.

      But where you are really mistaken is thinking you can do everything yourself even as an indie publisher. At first, of course, you have to unless you are rich outside of writing, because it takes time to build up the writing. But even then most people have a proofreader they hire. Or trade with. Some people have covers designed, or books laid out.

      When we started WMG Publishing, I did it all. And I got up over 200 books myself. Then slowly, as the money built up we started hiring more and more people and now WMG Publishing Inc. is a stand-alone publisher, not only publishing Kris and my work, but other authors through Fiction River. And it has seven employees.

      You can never do it all yourself for very long.

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