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10 Common Mistakes to Avoid when Marketing Your Novel

Author Jack Messenger has tried countless strategies for marketing his literary fiction novel, but many of them have failed. In "10 Common Mistakes to Avoid when Marketing Your Novel," he shares his experiences to help other authors avoid following a similar path.

“10 Common Mistakes to Avoid when Marketing Your Novel”

by Jack Messenger

This is the featured photograph for the Independent Book Review article 10 Common Mistakes to Avoid When Marketing Your Novel."

Dickens did it. Now, all writers are expected to put the work in. Here’s what I learned as an independently published author.

The day I began my first novel, I started out with a lot of advantages. I’d had a long and successful career in mainstream publishing, writing, and editing nonfiction. I knew the importance of presentation and accuracy. So my book was written to a high standard, with an attractive professional cover. And when I got reviews, they were invariably excellent. I worked hard at promotion. There was just one problem:

No sales.

After the predictable failure of my latest marketing initiative, I told myself to take stock and draw some conclusions from my experience. Before we go into that, however, you need to know exactly what that experience has been.

“Get a Twitter account,” I read, so I did. Facebook. Goodreads. Amazon author page. Google + for SEO. Who’s SEO? I learned. Get a website. Get a blog. Build your email list. Design a book launch. Set your goals. Comment on blogs. Join online forums. Who are your readers? Find out! Go where they go. Now Facebook ads. Amazon ads. Goodreads ads. Twitter ads. Enter literary competitions. Get plenty of reviews – reviews mean sales. Be helpful, be nice. Give stuff away. Run giveaways. Write more books. Write series. What about audiobooks? Podcasts?

I suppose many of these things must have worked for someone, somewhere, but not for me. And after talking with other writers – independent and small press – it’s obvious I’m not the only one. Why?

Here’s my list of 10 common mistakes to avoid when marketing your novel.


1. The fallacy of extrapolation

“This trick worked great for me, so it’s bound to work for everyone else.” A lot of online entrepreneurs have made their fortunes out of this principle. On the Internet, it only takes a small percentage of the global audience to believe a marketing claim and, suddenly, crowds of people – me included – have paid up for a promising course, a product, a tool that may well turn out to be useless.

Now, whenever I come across the Next Big Thing, I think: “This strategy/plan/tool worked for them, in that time and place, but it doesn’t necessarily mean it will work for me.” And the more I investigate, the less convinced I am. This has saved me a lot of money. You see, we can’t always extrapolate from one person’s experience and apply it to ourselves. Time and context wait for no one.

Do your research. Assess the risk. And (maybe) take a swing.

2. Things change quickly

Modern technology enables ideas to circulate very quickly. We are all much faster now than we once were to respond to the newest trends, the latest bandwagon. So what was true yesterday may not be true today.

Here’s an example: Amazon ads. There are tools that do all the hard work of finding keywords for you so that you can aim your Amazon ads at the right people. These are the ads you might see on your own book page listed as “Sponsored products related to this item.”

This is clearly a good idea in principle, but in practice the results can be disappointing. One of my novels, for instance, is a work of general fiction, yet the sponsored products supposedly related to it comprised page after page of erotica and horror. Or let’s try Dickens again. What comes up for Bleak House? Spy novels, sci-fi thrillers, and law books.

The Next Big Thing might not be for you.

3. Different content means different readers

Most author marketing courses and tools pay absolutely no attention to what you actually write. Courses on how to grow your email list, for example, assume your social media followers and blog subscribers are your fans – even superfans. Apparently, these are the people who really love your work and will throw themselves under a bus to promote your latest book.

Now, for all I know, this could well be true of certain books in certain fiction genres. Some science fiction, for instance, and some horror can have a passionate following. But these are the lucky few we all know about. It’s rare, and even rarer in other genres. If, like me, you’re writing literary fiction, then you might have a problem.

“Rules” and assumptions drawn from one genre or one person’s books cannot simply be exported to all others. Readers vary an awful lot. I have learned that people can like what I write but they won’t kill to get it. My blog subscribers are not my fans. Rather, they are people who like my blog. That’s all.

Get to know your own genre: What are other authors doing well?

4. People make promises, but they are only human

My book launch was pitch perfect. I was in constant touch with my tiny band of “superfans.” As part of the process, they could enter a prize draw and win a valuable prize. Everyone was primed to leave a review the minute the novel was published. Neighbors volunteered, their friends volunteered, even people I’d never met volunteered. I was delighted, but, naturally cautious, I calculated I could safely expect a maximum of twenty reviews on the day. I know that’s not much, but for me, it was the moon.

How many reviews did I actually get? Four. Eventually. A year afterwards. You see, people forget, even when you personally upload your ARC to their iPad. They mean well, but it’s just not important to them.

Don’t count your chickens: Results may only come with time.

5. Quantity is not quality

“Pay us $50 and we’ll blast your book to our 60,000/1 million/2 billion social media followers!” Sounds good! I’ll do it! But wait a minute. Who are these 60,000 followers?

Let’s think about this. How many people do you follow on social media who mean nothing to you? Can you even recall seeing anything they have tweeted/pinned/posted? Now let’s be generous (and simplistic) and assume all those 60,000 followers are avid readers. Divide them into ten genres. That means around 6,000 possible readers of your book. How many of them will see your book blast? A thousand? How many will like the look of it? A hundred? How many will find out more? Ten? How many will buy? You get my drift. I think it explains why nothing came of my $50.

Don’t be blinded by numbers. Appear on the blogs that matter.

6. Readers not writers

Writers are an odd bunch. Believe me, I know, I’m one myself. One good thing is that we often stick together. I’m all for that. Sometimes, though, we need to learn avoidance. There are plenty of groups on social media and lots of online publications in which you can promote your book.

However, most of their readership comprises other writers. It’s readers we should be looking for, not authors. Of course, writers also read, but they – like you – need to promote their own work. So if the members of a Facebook group or the readers of an online journal are all mostly writers, your promotional efforts are probably best made somewhere else.

Also, be sure to associate with writers who take just as much care as you do about their writing, their book covers, and their audience. Writers can help one another with ideas and cross-promotions, but only when everyone’s standards are the best they can be.

Authors and writers might offer support, but they are not your customers.

7. Pretending to be someone you’re not

I’ve done this a lot. Like a lot of writers, I’m a shy introvert, but I have put myself out there, commenting on blog posts, retweeting/liking tweets, responding to people’s Facebook posts about cleaning their oven. I hated it, and it all seemed so pointless. It got so I just couldn’t do it anymore, particularly as I was generally ignored. I had to quit Facebook. With Twitter, I closed my account and started from scratch. Now, I’m much more selective. I’ve got to be me, you’ve got to be you. Be authentic, you’ll live longer. We may as well be ourselves, because being someone else doesn’t work.

Be real, be friendly, be true (especially on social media).

8. Select only your favorite marketer or publicist

Desperate after a series of uninterrupted failures, I paid several thousands of dollars to a PR firm that specialized in book promotion. I put myself entirely in their hands. They’d get me radio interviews and articles in online magazines with huge audiences of just the right people. They suggested a couple of “hooks” for articles related to my book. Hooks are used to “hang” an article about your book by describing it in simple terms – e.g., a novel whose hero drives an Aston Martin can have articles whose hook is fast cars.

It didn’t matter that these hooks had little or no connection to my book because they would get results. And they were right. I had my radio interviews. I got my articles. But not a single sale. Not even the tiniest spike in my website traffic. The hooks took over entirely, so that my book barely got a look in.

Some PR firms tend to impose a framework on you and your books. It’s a framework they can understand because it is comfortable and familiar – to them. And because they appear to know what they’re talking about, it’s easy to go along with them. This PR firm made the classic mistake of equating quality with quantity. “Your local radio station has an audience of one million.” But will they read my book?

Understand your marketer’s strategy. If you have doubts, express them.

9. Potential readers are everywhere

People may tell you to discover where your readers hang out and join them. I no longer believe it’s as simple as that. To think that readers’ interests dictate their location is to think of them as “fans,” but fans are seldom fans all the time. Generally, they are people getting on with their lives.

So it can sometimes seem that readers – actual and potential – are nowhere in particular and everywhere in general. The truth is you never know where you might encounter a new reader. That’s actually good news. A natural, unforced conversation, spontaneous and genuine, can be your greatest marketing tool.

Readers are everywhere. There is no one-stop shop for fans.

10. Have the longest view in the room

I have learned from all these mistakes and have stopped looking for success in all the wrong places.  I feel much more relaxed – that’s a good feeling. So what if my books don’t sell? They’re out there and I wrote them. That’s a real achievement. I am a bona fide writer. Be proud!

I no longer search for the magic bullet, the Next Big Thing, the Secret Plan that always works. In fact, I’ve started to think small instead of big. Maybe it’s better to have a lot of little plans rather than one big one.

I can hope for reviews of my books to accumulate until they reach that mysterious tipping point where they actually lead to sales. I can donate my books to the local library and give my proof copies to a charity shop. I can try to talk to local book groups. Word of mouth is the best kind of marketing, after all.

Looking back at all that advice I received, the one thing I still value is “Be helpful, be nice.” But I like to think I was always that. So I shall continue writing honest book reviews for readers and writers. One day, if we all live that long, perhaps my own books will find their audience. Yours too.

Writers! What’s your experience? Does this all sound familiar or is it just me?


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10 comments on “10 Common Mistakes to Avoid when Marketing Your Novel

  1. Timothy Balding

    Very fine article indeed. This is how it is. I recognise every twist and turn. If this helps a single author avoid investment of his time, perhaps his money, in one or other of these futile actions, it will have been worth writing. Bravo Jack Messenger.

  2. Be helpful. Be nice. I think you hit the core. I too have chased the dreams. It only leads to frustration. This Internet is flooded with those who want to make money off of our dreams. Better to share what we know for free than to give away our books so that other websites can reap the traffic. appreciate the lesson here.

  3. Thank you Rm. Fight the good fight.

  4. Great points, now what? I came to similar conclusions myself recently, but what are our alternatives?

  5. Thank you, Agathazaza. The last line of the article is my own admission of frustration, as I don’t have any recommendations other than the general principles I mention: ‘think twice and think small’ might sum it up. Patience and dogged perseverance will not guarantee results, but neither do they cost anything. If authors can find a publicist they can trust/afford, that might be a start. Authors can help one another as best they can but, if we have only a small readership, then our options are limited. I am open to bright ideas (and try to think of them myself), as long as they do not claim to be all-encompassing solutions.

  6. This is a fresh take on a vexing topic, thank you.

  7. Exactly. Exactly what I’ve been thinking. Thank you. I’ve been through most of these things, with the same conclusions (also a shy introvert, hi). But we’re still in there kicking, right? Best of luck.

  8. Thank you Librepaley, thank you Laurieboris. A lot of writers are in the same boat, which, I suppose, provides a weird kind of comfort.

  9. Thank you.
    Speaking the facts doesn’t go out of style.
    Thanks for the informative website.
    Best of luck with your writing.

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