The New World of Publishing: Promotion

I actually should do this under the “Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing” series of articles, but decided that since so many newer fiction writers have bought into the myth of promotion, hook, line, and sinker, this should go here along with the “Seasons of Publishing” article I just did a week or so ago.

I understand I am going to step on a few feelings (called land mines) with this post. If this makes you angry, come and talk to me when you have over a hundred novels published and been making your living with your fiction for over thirty years. At least get past your anger enough to consider what I am talking about. Then ignore it if you want.

So all those warnings done, let me start off with the following summary statement: Promotion can help book sales when done right and for the right reasons.

The problem is, of course, most indie writers only believe the myths of promotion and wouldn’t have a clue on how to do it right. But then the question is: What is the right kind of promotion? I’ll get to that.

Some basic history

Up until fifteen or twenty years ago, no author thought about doing promotion for any book on their own. Never happened. Publishers sometimes asked authors to go out and do a tour, on the publisher’s dime, but past that it never happened. Publishers all knew it was worthless.

One day I was at the Pocket Book offices in New York when one of the editors slammed down the phone and made a swearing sound. Someone asked what was wrong and the editor went on about how this author was badgering to have a promotion tour. All of us laughed because the author was just a low-level media writer and a beginner.

Then another editor laughed and said, “Give him a mercy tour and let him discover what it is like to sit alone in a bookstore for a few hours.”

That was the first time I had heard that term “mercy tour” spoken out loud. But not the last. Basically it means let the author go to some bookstores, have a publicist at the company spend an hour or so to set up a few things. The reason it was called a “mercy tour” was to get the author out of the hair of the editor. It would not sell one extra copy of the book and everyone knew it, but it made the baby author happy. And it allowed the editor some breathing room from the annoying author. (Mercy for the editor.)

Way back in the dark ages of the previous form of publishing (meaning mid-1990s), the romance writers started the idea of going off to give distributor truck drivers copies of their books and cookies as bribes to put their books on the top rack. (Added note: I have been told that Louis L’amour started this much earlier and the romance writers picked it up.)

The romance writers also started authors doing bookmarks and flyers and God-knows-what kind of thing to get bookstores to buy their books.

Without one thought to the poor bookstore owner on the other side of the garbage being poured at him.


And as I discovered from a bookstore owner friend of mine this spring, the crap has not stopped coming by the box load every week. When I asked him what he did with it all, he said “Tossed it into the recycling.”

“Without looking at it?”

“Yup,” he said. “No point.”

And now with all the social media, it’s even crazier than it was back then, and the myth that you must promote your book is still solidly roaring along.

Let me be clear here. I am talking about an author promoting their own work as an author. 

So first, some things to NOT DO as an author.

1… DO NOT do bookmarks or any such flyer garbage with just the author name on it. Authors do not sell books. Publishers sell books.

2… DO NOT post more than once per week, at most, about your new book on Twitter, Facebook, or any other social media site. All you do it annoy your friends. And then post only if you have something interesting to report. People will pay a little attention if you do it that way instead of just tuning you out.

3… DO NOT spend all your time promoting your book through reviewers or bloggers or worrying about bad reviews or even caring about any of that. A complete waste of your time.

4… DO NOT pester bookstores for signings or things like that unless they come to you and ask you to be part of something they are doing. Otherwise, as an author, LEAVE THEM ALONE!

5… DO NOT blog about writing or your writing process. No real book buyer cares. If you must blog, write about the content of your books. If you are doing books with cooking, blog about cooking. And so on. Otherwise, don’t blog. Again a huge waste of time.

Again, let me remind you all, I am talking about an author promoting himself.

So what is good promotion for an author?

1… Write the next book. That is the best thing you can do for your last book. Turn around, face the future, become a writer, and write the next book, and then the next, and then the next… get it to a publisher or your own publishing company and then go back to writing.

2… Be nice. Being a jerk will lose you readers and if you can’t help it, stay home. Only do signings when a bookstore asks and then not always. Go to conventions or conferences to have fun and keep learning, not to sell books.

3… Never, anywhere (except with your closest friends), talk about politics or religion. Anywhere. Just will cost you a ton of readers. (Added note: Fine to write about it in your fiction. Just don’t talk about it in your social media. You want everyone to buy your book, not just people who agree with you.)

4… Make every book better in writing skills. Yes, I am talking about plotting and pacing and cliffhangers and so on and make every book better than the one before. Make your characters so unforgettable that readers will ask for the next one instead of you having to push the next one into their hands. In other words, keep learning and working to make every story or every book better than the one before.

5… Keep learning the business of publishing. It is stunning how your career can move forward when you stop being blind to business.

6… Sell short fiction to major magazines.  That is the best promotion you can ask for. And you get paid for doing it.

Summary on this part.

If your books and stories don’t find a readership or have an editor buy it, maybe you should learn how to write better stories in the next books instead of annoying people to buy your crappy first books.

Personal note: My first two novels thankfully never saw the light of day and I still cringe at some things in my third novel, which was my first published novel. And the next two novels also never saw the light of day, thankfully. It takes time to learn how to write fiction someone will want to read.

When to Promote

Remember, authors do not promote their own books. They write more books and stories learn how to write better books. Publishers promote books.

But now, in this new world, writers are also publishers. Indie or Small Press Publishers.

So the question becomes how to promote a book that you published under your own company?

Some basic things you must understand to do promotion right as a publisher.

First… make sure you have a clear publisher name, clear publisher web site, and clear publisher bank accounts.  (The columns above under “Think Like a Publisher” are free and tell you how to do that.) When I say “clear” I mean very different from your author name.

Second… pick carefully which book or story you want to promote. Don’t do them all. One or two per year at most. Just get the rest out and let them fly on their own.

Third… for heaven’s sake, don’t even bother if you only have ten or so titles out. Start promoting select titles when you get past twenty-five or more titles. A total waste of time before that because you get no reader rebound to your other work.

Fourth… have at least three author names in your published list. (Yes, pen names…it makes you look more like a real publisher.)

Fifth… kill every myth you ever heard about promotion and start studying what promotion works and what doesn’t work for publishers.

Sixth… set expectations in a real place and get out of spoiled-fruit thinking… in other words, plan and promote for sales over a very long term, not short term.

Seventh… set your prices in the correct places (not discounts) and have trade paper or hardback copies of every book. For example, if you have a $15.99 trade paper, extended distribution needs to be over $2.00 on CreateSpace and your electronic book price should not be under $6.99.

Eighth… start adding in audio books as well so that any listing of your books has an audio option, a paperback option, and an electronic option. That makes the book look professional.

So How to Promote an Indie Publisher’s Books

1… Act like a real publisher. Do a catalog regularly, set schedules and lists for coming books.

2… Join the ABA as a publisher. Take advantage of a few of their box programs and other programs for special books.

3… Sell your books on your publisher web site. Easy to do these days with Paypal and other e-commerse plug-ins.

4… Set up a dealer page on your publisher web site. A dealer discount page on your site. Suggested prices are 2-5 copies…45% discount plus shipping.  6-9 copies 50% discount plus shipping. Over 10 copies 50% discount and free shipping. And they can mix and match titles in orders. Have an order form on your web site as well.

5… Set up a mailing list for both bookstores and for fans. This is also easy with plug-ins. That way you can tell your fans when a new book is out. Do not do this more than four or five times per year, at most.

That is some basics. Very basic, and yes I know I missed a lot of details. Trust me, in the POD workshop, we spent hours on details on how publishers can find readers and get to them.

If the above feels overwhelming to you, or you only have a few books, stop worrying about it and go back to writing. Writing is the most important thing you can do. Period. There is not even  a close second. Then when you have enough titles and are ready, then you can start adding in some of these details.


Author promotion is worthless (except for selling to magazines or major publishers). Period. Best thing an author can do is write the next story and book.

Indie Publisher promotion can sometimes work if done correctly. But it has to be done correctly.

A point to remember for those of you stuck on one electronic site and all the games you all like playing with a reviews, tags, bestseller lists and other crap like that in your small world. Electronic books are easy to do, but are only just over 20 percent of the total book sales. The overall sales of electronic books will climb to around 30% of all books sold in time and that will include all the shifts in power of electronic book distributors. Kobo is going to be a major player very, very shortly. Keep that in mind.

To promote effectively, you need to promote to the ENTIRE world. Do not ignore the 70-plus-percent of all books sold. Do not go exclusive to any one small site or publisher and cut out fans all over the world. That is actually negative promotion and very short-sighted. So caution on thinking something like that is helping you in the long run. It might help a few of you in the short term, but once a reader is lost or angry at you because they couldn’t get your book, they are lost forever.

Final words on promotion.

Authors, don’t bother. Keep writing and selling.

Indie or small press publishers, do it carefully and only after you have enough titles. Some promotion will help, but the key is long-term thinking.

Keep focusing forward on the next story or novel. Keep writing. Keep working to learn how to tell a better story. The fans will find you in time.

Sometimes that time will be years, but if your focus is writing and learning, what does it matter?

And keep having fun.


Copyright © 2012 Dean Wesley Smith

Cover art copyright Philcold/Dreamstime

This entry was posted in On Writing, publishing and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

160 Responses to The New World of Publishing: Promotion

  1. T. K. says:

    Dean, thanks.

    I had a true “ah ha” moment reading through the comments. I finally get it. I understood all along the folly of self-promoting, but now I see how my own ego needs were getting in the way of enjoying my writing life. You’ve been saying these things all along — the difference between writer and author, don’t set goal which involve other people doing something which you can’t control — but now I really get it. Thanks.

  2. What about Amanda Hocking’s success? She wouldn’t have been able to achieve all that she has without the tremendous amount of social media promotion that she did, although I realize stories like hers are far and few between.

    • dwsmith says:


      What I find really interesting and is the subject of my next article following this promotion article is that how Amanda and no one else except me and a few others credit Amanda’s success to her great storytelling. Trust me, if the stories weren’t great, New York would have never paid her 4 million. If her entire success was based on blogging, she would not have been paid a dime for those novels. Nope, her promotion had nothing to do with it. Her great stories brought her the fans. He blogs just didn’t push them away too often.

  3. Cherry Hill says:

    I agree with most of this, as an author. “Publishers promote books” Not mine. Wish she would read this. Too much work for her. So guess I, the author, have to do it. Hence, why my next book wont be with her. And I know MANY midlist and NY Times bestselling authors who are pretty much required to do most of their own marketing – including tours if they want. So they do skype tours to save on cost. Publishers only throw money at the big guys who make them a ton of money. A known fact. The midlist is dead.

    • dwsmith says:

      Cherry, sorry, if the “midlist” was dead, every publisher would only have one book on their list to sell per month. There will always be a midlist and it will always, as it has ALWAYS had, no promotion. And unless you are signing a really bad contract with small publisher, you are not required to promote anything, and shouldn’t, as a writer. Nothing has changed. Authors just think it has.

      And no one really knows what the term “midlist” means or they wouldn’t toss it around like they do. That the “midlist” is dead is a horrid myth I grew tired of twenty years ago.

      And for those of you who don’t know what a “midlist” means, imagine a list of five books on a publisher’s list. Books, 2, 3, 4 are midlist books. Book #5 is either a first author or a series or media book. That’s what that term means. Sigh…

  4. Hi Dean,
    I love not promoting/minimally promoting my work. But I do write about politics occasionally.

    Of course I know most people go on Facebook for entertainment and connection. But I still post sometimes about the earth, animals, and oppressed people. Even if no one “likes” it. Even if no one comments. Even if I lose “friends” over it.
    Why? Because I don’t believe I’m here just to sell books or get “likes.” I want to leave the earth a slightly better place, if possible. So yes, I will occasionally point out injustice.
    Because I can. Because I’m lucky enough to live in a society where I can speak out.
    It’s possible to be political and entertaining.

    But then I decided that while the majority of any population goes along with the status quo, there will always be some dissidents. There will always be some people to whom popularity without morality, without justice, is a hollow victory.
    I do care about what’s right. In the emergency room, if I wanted to do what was easy, I would just hand out antibiotics, narcotics, and sedatives to anyone who asks. Instead, I have to spend my time explaining why those things are not always in the patient’s best interest.
    And I will continue to speak out on social media.
    It’s really no skin off the reader’s nose either way: you can click a few keys to sign a petition, or you move on to your other millions of Facebook friends who commiserate with you about how work sucks but your dog is awesome!!!!!!

    • dwsmith says:

      Melissa, edited your post to make it fit the rules here. No names. And I flat don’t agree that putting anything political on Facebook or any other form will change any mind about anything. It’s just talking to the choir and the people who aren’t in your choir just leave and don’t buy your books either. I consider it a no-win situation. Sorry, we have to disagree on that one.

    • Melissa, I do the same thing. Facebook might not change any minds, but a lie told and not refuted enough becomes functional truth, and I’m sick of all the lies, and my life and well-being are important enough that I’m willing to risk readers. Of course, I keep my author page and my personal profile separate so there’s not a lot of cross-pollination. There are very few authors whose political views get in my way of enjoying their books if they’re good enough. An author who can write a good book is an author who can express that story and its truths across party lines of politics and/or religion. For authors I really enjoy, it’s less about the author and more about the stories they tell anyway, and the less I know about those authors, the happier I am.

      And Facebook is becoming a bust anyway now that they’re attempting to monetize your reach through pages.

      I know not every reader is going to be my reader. And I know massaging likes, tags, blogs, or algorithms isn’t going to do much if all I’ve got is one book out there. I’m concentrating on the stories. Story begets story. Practice makes better.

  5. Thank you!

    I’ve seen authors swearing by this bad self-promo bookmark touring blah-blah advice since my first novel was published in 2001. It didn’t work then and it doesn’t work now.

    Common sense, people. Look at how you choose which books to read. Nary a mercy tour or silly bribe in your selection process.

  6. Loved this, Dean. Thanks for the thoughtful post. Reminds me to get crack-a-lackin’ on the manuscripts, because content is king.

  7. George K says:

    Hi Dean

    I loved your post (again). But this line hit me:
    “I understand I am going to step on a few feelings (called land mines) with this post. If this makes you angry, come and talk to me when you have over a hundred novels published and been making your living with your fiction for over thirty years. At least get past your anger enough to consider what I am talking about. Then ignore it if you want”

    For me I see what you post on here as a gift to writers who are not where you areon the writer’s journey; it baffles me that people would be angry at your advice. You published over 100 books. You are a grandmaster ’nuff said. I’ve decided, I will not only listen to your advice but heed it. Eventually hope to come to a seminar in person, but right now I am in awe that you are kind enough to give us all these insights via your posts. Very generous and very kind. People who agree are legion I’m, even if some are like the ones you described in the quote above. But I’m sure you know this.

    I wanted to ask you about one of the rules:
    “Never, anywhere (except with your closest friends), talk about politics or religion. Anywhere. Just will cost you a ton of readers. (Added note: Fine to write about it in your fiction. Just don’t talk about it in your social media. You want everyone to buy your book, not just people who agree with you.)”

    Very sound advice. It reminds me of Stan Lee. I’m sure you remember Stan’s Soapbox? I told myself if I blog it will be (as you said) about the content of the fiction I write AND I will follow the Stan principle. Stan’s soapbox either promoted a comic or item (with gusto) or wrote about GOOD news or events, it was ALWAYS a bright, feel good column. He never wrote a controversial one or even one dealing with bad news (events politics). Never a downer among them. That’s what I want to do with my blog (and definitely not write about writing etc). But you’ve convinced me the blog is not a necessity so I’ve decided not to keep up the daily postings on it.
    You see the only thing I really want to do is write fiction. Supernatural horror fiction (and other stuff). I dont want to blog or facebook or twit or whistle or cough or whatever the hell they do out there. I just want to write and publish it.

    My concern: you said writing about politics, religion and other heavies is okay in fiction. I have a fear that if I write how I really feel about certain topics I will not only get hate mail but will lose readers. For example, I’m no C.S. Lewis but I agree with some of his religious views. If I were to make some of my protaginsts like that and not the ‘average agnostic american’ character I see in some fiction (though I use that type too) I’m sure I would get hate mail or lose readers. I know that must sound silly to you but its one of the few things that sometimes gives me pause when I write and I hate that. I want to write freely. Now when I read Arthur C. Clarke I enjoy him very much, even though I share none of his athiesm at all. And I have an atheist friend who enjoys C.S. Lewis (actually both Heinlein and Clarke had high praise for lewis in their letters), but I wonder if the average reader of today’s internet culture would be so charitable towards me? I mean in the light of the internet where anon troll hate abounds. For example I heard of one woman who wrote about a man who killed a dog and she had trolls arrange a huge slew of neg feedback on her amazon account saying her book was badly written (because they knew full well that the charge of dog hatred is a personal opinion/bias/taste and has nothing to do with the writer’s talent). Her name escapes me and this happened a while ago.

    Anyway, are we as writers really free to write how we want in this new world of publishing? You are certain about this? (sorry if that sounds silly but I wonder if you can turn people off via politics/religion talk on facebook why wouldn’t have the same effect by writing your fiction from your viewpoints on whatever matter).

    note: I do not want to be a “religious writer” but a writer who happens to have a religion (difference between CS Lewis and say Dean Koontz (believing Catholic) and August Dereleth (ditto)).

    • dwsmith says:

      George, thanks for the kind words. But I have a few more hundred novels to write before I’ll feel like a grandmaster. Maybe not even then. (grin)

      And yes, we are free to write what we want, when we want, in our fiction. I’ve written about mass murderers and I hope no one thinks I am one. I’ve written Christian novels and Star Trek novels, so I know religions but don’t allow my personal beliefs in any of them out in these blogs. I killed a bunch of alien trees in one of my Men in Black novels and I eat salads, but I don’t hate plants in general. (But I do hire a trained plant trainer and killer to keep things in shape around my house…called a gardner.)

      And I’ve written political thrillers but would never talk politics with anyone. (In fact, I’ve ghosted books for both a right wing and a left wing talking head. Not kidding.)

      So write what you want. Just keep your personal beliefs to yourself and let your writing speak for itself. That’s the key.

      Thanks again for the kind words. Keep having fun.

    • Vera Bryant says:

      Hey, George: Maybe a separate pen name for those. Agatha Christie had a pen name for some romantic novels she wrote. (BTW, I wish you would write those. Who knows what great stories you are holding back?)

      • George K says:

        Thank you Vera, that really helps me when people tell me they want me to write those. Very kind, I will do it, I promise. I’ve printed up some of Dean’s lessons from on here and posted them on the wall. I’m writing furiously to get some good books out before Christmas.

        Sorry I did not replay sooner, I would check the bottom of the page instead of where the last comments are, silly mistake I thought all newer comments would be at the bottom. You can tell I spend alot of time on forums. If it wasn’t for dean’s site here I wouldn’t be on any comment section anywhere. I’ve also gotten rid of my internet at the writer’s getaway.

    • George K, I’m not a Christian of any stripe, but I still find it very interesting to read about characters of any type of strong faith being presented with moral dilemmas, stressful situations, the paranormal, the terrible, etc. I don’t think you have to be a religious person to enjoy a good story with a religious character, and neither do I believe that a non-religious person can’t enjoy a good story with a religious character, either. I think people–readers in particular–are smarter than we give them credit for.

      I think it’s a marketing function to want to “ghetto-ize” fiction with faith characters and themes because it makes for such an easy built-in audience with guaranteed sales. “I only shop at Christian (or Mystery or whatever) bookstores, who stock Christian (or Mystery or whatever) fiction” means someone else has gatekept or curated or screened for content the reading material there and what’s passed the sniff test has a seal of approval and creates a positive connotation in the mind of the buyer/reader. Someone’s more likely to impulse-buy any product that’s “guaranteed” — or at least, more likely — to be the kind of thing they’re looking for, whether it’s cleaning products or books.

      Write your book. The audience will find it, whether they come from church or the bar (or both! 😉 )

      • George K says:

        Hi Athena, I knew it! I knew there are more people like you out there. It wasn’t just my friend (the lewis loving atheist I mentioned earlier).
        you said: “I don’t think you have to be a religious person to enjoy a good story with a religious character, and neither do I believe that a non-religious person can’t enjoy a good story with a religious character, either.”

        Yes I agree. And I think also a relgious person can enjoy the story of a character of a different religion too, if the book is well done. That’s happened to me and a few of my friends. Its the spice of life I feel.

        About the marketing and curating I think you are right on the money there. I remember as a kid I would only read SF and my friends and I were in a ‘geek ghetto’, I finally branched out when I started to pay attention in school when we read Shakespeare and started to see there are other worlds out there too.

        (btw I’m Greek by heritage —so I love your name Athena –goes way back for us Hellenics. )

        you said:”Write your book. The audience will find it, whether they come from church or the bar (or both!)”

        Thank you so much! I am sick of living on a holding pattern, I’m just going to go ahead and write.

  8. George K says:

    lol love your style of thought. Yeah that’s what I thought. I’m just going to write.
    you wrote from the left the right, christian, star trek, etc WOW –I did not know that. very versatile. As for blogging controversial (and every position has its detractors) you are saying in fiction its all fair game. But leave it all in there dont blog it. Better to be a mystery to people in a sense too. Nothing to sour folks from giving you their beer money (as Heinlein called it). I get it, thank you sir!

  9. Maryann says:

    I truly love this blog, and have never commented because I’m such a newbie writer. However, as an avid reader, I must tell George K.: I would LOVE to find more contemporary novels that are written by someone with values similar to CS Lewis, but who doesn’t preach or use the typical tropes and lingo found in the current “Christian fiction” genre. My friends are looking for books like this too. Potential readers are out there!

    • George K says:

      Hi Maryann

      thank you for that! very kind, I’m so glad to know there are people who’d appreciate it. Yes its what I’m trying to do now. I come from a different tradition than the pop christianity you get in those books. I was inspired by the great Art Critic HR Rookmaaker from his little book: ART NEEDS NO JUSTIFICATION. He mentions how some protestant circles esp in the US have turned it into a little churchianity ghetto in comparison to the great art done by christians in Europe in ages past by believers. Shakespeare for example is beloved the world over but he was quite religious in his private life. compare his works to say the ghetto churchianity stuff you get nowadays. The difference has to do with honesty and as Stephen King said: “resonance”.

      Obviously Im exaggerating a bit re:Lewis because was brilliant and his That Hideous Strength won a Hugo award. rookmaaker’s point in his lecture book is that good art is in the best sense ‘christian’ because it is high quality. People think being religious is being ‘obvious’ instead of being ‘honest’. Anyway I dont want to take away from Dean’s thread. If you have the interest find out Rookmaakers book. its in public domain now.

  10. Thanks for the article Dean and the good advice. I think some of the pressure authors feel to promote (even when it doesn’t work) comes from editors, agents and publishers. I just attended an SCBWI conference and heard representatives from 3 major publishers tell a room full of aspiring authors that it was expected that authors would help to promote their books. Online presence was mentioned as a “must”, including a website and a choice of social media. Other things they suggested included blog tours. I wonder if the editors/publishers really believe that promotion works? If not, why do they ask the authors to take time away from writing in order to keep up with it? Another mystery of publishing. :-)

    • dwsmith says:

      Oh, I know why exactly, Amy. It’s to keep the authors busy. You think I’m kidding, I’m not. Remember, traditional publishing can only handle one to three books per year from a writer, depending on genre. And if the writer can work an entire hour per day at 1,000 words per hour, they will write four novels. And that scares hell out of editors and traditional publishers. So they have come up with this stuff that they know does no good at all to keep writers busy.

      I am not kidding.

      Having an author web site is critical, that much I agree with. And having some social media presence helps when the book is announced. That will sell a few copies to family and friends. Beyond that, it’s to slow the author down and make each book into an “Event” for the author. And when book publication starts becoming “events” you no longer have a writer, but an author. And I’ve talked about that distinction.

      • George K says:

        I love Robert Sawyer but I remember talking to him about how many events he does and promos and he did say it took away from his writing time (naturally). The publsihers seemed to expect it, now I am seeing why.

  11. Thank you so much for this article.
    I did a lot of those “not to do things” to promote my one and only mid-list novel from a traditional publisher. I got burnt out on all this promotion with nothing left to sell to editors after this because I spend all my time on promotion. It took me a while but I finally realized that I was best to hide away from all this, use social media for my own amusement, and just write, write some more and learn to write better books.
    Nice to see my thoughts about author promo expressed so clearly here.

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