Does Promotion Work for Small Press Authors?

PJ Nunn

I get asked similar questions quite a bit and the topic came up yet again today so I thought I’d take a minute or two and share my thoughts with you here.

If you’re reading this, you already know how competitive it is out there. Getting attention for a single title – whether print or ebook – is like trying to identify a particular grain of sand on an endless beach. Some days it really feels hopeless. How can a little-known, small press or self-published author successfully promote his or her book to the point that there’s a visible increase in sales?

I wish I had an easy answer. If anyone tells you there is one, don’t believe them. First of all, understand that while writers and those within the book industry seem inordinately aware of who the publisher is of any title, readers can rarely tell you who published the book they just read. In fact, in working with broadcast media, they rarely ask me about the publisher. Truth is, they just don’t seem to care. Stores care. Libraries care. Newspapers care. There are ways around that.

So, while there is a negative stereotype against self-published books and small presses within the industry (gasp! Not everyone feels that way, but some do), it doesn’t preclude successful promotion efforts. It can, however, make it seem impossible to have a chance at getting your book on many or any store shelves. There are ways around that, too. And, since these days, nobody’s book is in every store, you have a good chance of getting yours in some stores if you really want that. But we’ll get to that in a minute.

If you’ve heard you’re at a disadvantage because your publisher can’t afford to do much marketing, guess what? NO publisher these days can afford to do much marketing. I work with several large publishers in addition to the small press and self-published authors I represent. In the last five years I’ve seen many in-house publicists laid off while those that remained took on twice and even three times the client load they once had. For the same pay. Yikes! Every one I work with tries really hard to get good attention for their authors, but one person can only do so much, even when I often talk to them still in the office at 6 or 7 pm “just finishing up one more project”.

That said, when books from small presses, or any presses, fail to achieve much recognition these days, it’s usually more a problem of too little promotion or too intense in a short time. Slow and steady is what wins the race these days. Repeat, consistent exposure. Too much too soon can make it feel like you’re getting somewhere, but six weeks after the blitz, will anyone remember you? Have you ever heard a short author interview on the radio during drive time on the way to work and swerved off the highway in search of a bookstore to buy the book you just heard about? I know I haven’t.  But I have tucked the name away in my mind if it sounded interesting, then promptly forgot about it later. UNTIL a few weeks down the road maybe I heard it again on another program. Or saw a review of it in the paper. Or maybe just happened to catch a tweet about it online. If the name keeps popping up, sooner or later I’ll pay attention. And so will somebody else.

Because it’s unlikely that anyone will rush out and buy your book the very first time they see your name or title, it’s hard to gauge the success of a campaign. But in the 14 years I’ve been doing this, it’s invariably the ones who just keep going who ultimately build a following and see sales increase. Granted it doesn’t come overnight or without effort, but if you do it right and keep doing it, it will pay off. The question then is how bad do you want it and how much is it worth?

That can be hard to calculate because it’s almost impossible to judge which promotional effort affected which sales. Still, if you’re diligent, you can estimate your cost and approximately how many books you need to sell to cover it. The main problem is you can still be reaping sales for months after the fact. I suggest that you take time to figure out what you make on the sale of each book so you can determine what your sales goals are for a twelve month period. Or until you estimate your next book will come out. Once you’ve determined a realistic sales goal, make sure your promo budget stays beneath that figure. That way you can plan a campaign that won’t put undue financial strain on you, but will still assist you in getting the job done.

At one time, a few years back, the average lifetime sales of a self-published or small press title was 200 – 500 copies. That’s all. IF the book is trade paper and sells for $14.95, and IF you make a 15% royalty ($2.24 per copy) and IF you sell 500 copies, you’ll gross a whopping $1,120. If your only real promotional expense is postage you’ll turn a profit, but most have a few more expenses than that, even without hiring someone like me. So how can you make that work? Obviously you have to sell quite a few more books. Selling 1500 instead of 500 raises your gross to $3,360. Double that at 3000 and so on. Those are reasonable goals. Of course we’d all love to break that 100,000 mark but it might be best to aim a little lower the first time. Like someone once said, if you aim for heaven and fall a little short, you’ll still have reached the sky!

Once you have that budget established, you can map out a campaign to fit. I always promote the author more than any one title, but I do focus on the latest title, unless there’s a special audience that might be more interested in a previous book for some reason. The goal is to make your name familiar so that ultimately when a reader hears you have a new book out they’ll want to read it, whatever its title is. I’ve found a lot of authors would rather focus entirely on the book and don’t like to feel they’re promoting themselves. And other authors, who don’t mind promoting themselves, sometimes come across as conceited and abrasive. There’s a fine line and it’s important for you to learn how to put yourself out there gracefully. In order to accomplish that, we’d want to target several different markets in a variety of venues. Establish yourself as an expert and a professional so that media hosts want to talk to you, journalists want to interview you and store personnel want to get to know you. Most of all, readers will want to read your book!

Back to books not being in stores – that’s the way of the future at this point. There are so many more books being released each month, and so many fewer stores that it’s difficult to get books on the shelves unless you’re touring. Even then it can be a challenge, because so many stores don’t do signing events anymore and it’s so expensive to travel, but it’s doable. The more reasonable goal for most is to make sure they know about your books and know how to order them. That’s one way radio interviews can be of help.

If at all possible, we contact independent stores in the area when we schedule you for a radio interview and ask them to order in a few copies, then make sure you mention on the air that the book is available at such and such a store. Most stores (particularly independent stores) are happy to get the free mention on the radio, and often they’ll continue to carry your books long after. That’s just one way. It can seem endless thinking you have to do that one store at a time, but book promotion is nothing if not a snowball effect. One event builds on another then another and after a while, you’ve created a good trail. It doesn’t come easy and it doesn’t come quick, but it will come as long as the book is good.

Only one thing is truly a guarantee – if you don’t promote it, you won’t sell many. So stop thinking about reasons why promotion won’t work for you, and start finding ways that it can!

12 thoughts on “Does Promotion Work for Small Press Authors?

  1. carlbrookins says:

    Good one! I’ve always believed, and like you, PJ I’ve been around tbe block a few times, that persistence is the ultimate key to success. The trick is to set realistic goals and stay in the game long enough.

  2. Karen Syed says:

    And that, Mr. Brookins is why it is such a pleasure to publish your work. You actually get it.

    Karen Syed

  3. pjnunn says:

    It’s so true, Carl. I just hate to see good authors give up too soon! And Karen, you’re the epitome of persistence. It’s not always easy, but so worth it.

  4. Kate Flora says:

    Thanks for such a positive take. After doing this time after time, I think about all that needs to be done and let myself get discouraged. I need to be reminded that I can do it the way you eat a whale…one bite at a time. One group of libraries. Bookstores. Readers. Event. And to keep it up, even if everyone isn’t responsive. After all, who believes in our books more than we do? No one.

  5. pjnunn says:

    I believe in your books, Kate! Glad to see you’re still going strong! It’s challenging, I know, but what seems like no response is often really just a delayed response. I try never to gauge the success of any one event at the event. It’s always more of a ripple effect. Keep at it!

  6. Like Kate, I’ve been feeling overwhelmed by all the things that I could do and feel like I should do, which leads to feeling discouraged and not eager to do the next thing on the list. But in the few months that my book’s been out, I’ve seen the impact. Thanks for the reminder to keep going — one bite of the whale at a time!

  7. Yes, indeedy, I learned by seeing statistics during many years in retail sales (Interior Design furnishings) that it often takes many mentions before a client remembers your ad or product. So–make yourself memorable in some way, and promote yourself, your ideas, and your writing over and over. Fortunately today there is an ever increasing amount of methods to get your name and written product (otherwise known as “book”) before the reading public. This is a great blogsite, by the way.

  8. I talked to an author the other day who has 45 books in print and many more short stories. Now that my first book is coming out in March I feel like one of those grains of sand you discribed. Great post. thanks for the advice

  9. Interesting thoughts, thank you. When I teach about publishing today, I mention three distinct paths, right for different authors and different books at different times. Slow and steady is one of the big advantages to the small press or self-published path.

    But you’re right…nobody really knows what works.

  10. Excellent article. As you say, PJ, it comes down to a combination of the authors’ efforts. A slow and steady pace, even while you’re working on that next novel. I try to engage in some kind of promotion every day, whether free or paid advertising. It all adds up. Not much point in all that hard work bringing your novel to fruition, if no one knows about you or your book. Start with your own home town. Tour if you can.

    My latest suspense release is ‘The Deepest Dark’. 🙂

    Best, Joan.

    • pjnunn says:

      Hi Joan! Nice to hear from you. It’s so true – it does add up. And I’ve learned that often consistency brings better results than sporadic quantity. So even when we feel as if we’re just plodding along, give it time and you’ll start seeing results!

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