Shy Writers and Crunchy Numbers: An Author’s Introduction to Advertising

The most basic purpose of book promotion is to let people know that your book exists, why they might want to pick up a copy, and where they can get it.

Some authors aren’t keen on promotion. They might make a brief announcement on their blog, webpage, or mailing list, then put their noses back to grindstone, focusing on The Work. They rely mostly on the kindness of strangers, friends, and their publishers to get the word out.

Many other writers spend countless hours talking their books up at conventions and on message boards. This tactic can work well for gregarious authors with enough social depth perception to avoid becoming annoying. And if they fundamentally enjoy chat-and-post, the time involved may be an energizing boost that enables them to get back to The Work with renewed vigor and enthusiasm.

However, many writers are introverts. Shy, some painfully so. Chatting up strangers at conventions leaves them nervous and exhausted, and even making unobtrusive promo posts on message boards makes them feel tired and uncomfortable.

A shy writer at a convention often ends up needing a few hours of “quiet time” between panels. Sometimes, gin is involved. Or good Scotch if the ruggedly-coiffed Richard Dansky’s been by to commiserate and fill her glass. Either way, she sits there in the comforting dimness of the hotel room gathering her nerves. Slight boredom sets in. She grabs the freebie bag she got at registration and pulls out the souvenir program book. If it looks nice, she starts to thumb through it. In between the fan articles and dedications, she sees shiny advertisements for books from big-name authors.

She touches the ads wistfully. So many nice, pretty books adorned with blurbs, the covers doing all the talking to potential readers … she wishes her publisher would take out some ads for her books.

And then she has a thought: maybe she could take out some ads on her own?

The good news is, she (or her publisher) can! The bad news is, an ad campaign will take varying amounts of time and money — a lot of time if you don’t have much money, or a lot of money if you don’t want to (or can’t) spend time on things like ad creation and statistics analysis. But the good news on top is that smart, well-targeted ads actually do work.

Many writers first consider taking out ads in convention program books or in magazines they read. If you want to suppport the publication or convention in question, taking out an ad may almost be a no-brainer, especially if you’ve already made enough writing money that you’re worried about owing taxes at the end of the year. An ad is a legitimate business expense, and you’d be paying money out to the IRS anyhow, so why not help out projects you like by renting adspace? In that light, the fact that the ads might raise awareness of your book and increase sales is just the cherry on the sundae. If you’re working with a publisher of any size, they probably already have ads you can request through email and then just send along to the publication.

But if you don’t have a tax burden to defray, and if you don’t particularly care about the welfare of the convention or magazine in question, you’ll want to give things a harder look.

The problem with print ads is that:

    1. Unless you take out just one ad at a time, you never really know if a specific ad is working, unless you get the oh-so-rare message from a new reader: “I saw an ad in Weird Tales and I bought your book and wow I really love it!” Otherwise, you’re reduced to sending a bunch of “Are we there yet?” type messages to your publisher to see if there’s been any uptick in sales.


  1. Print ads put a burden of memory and action on the reader that probably won’t end in a sale unless it’s reinforced with word-of-mouth from friends or a bookstore employee, etc.

In his post “What The Nuns Didn’t Teach Me”, Richard Dansky talked about what he and other book store clerks observed as the Pattern of Picking Purchase:

    1. If the book was face-out and the cover was appealing, the reader might pick it up.


    1. If they picked it up, they might scan the front cover for the title, the author, and any blurbs that might have made it to that side of the spine.


    1. If they liked the cover, they might flip it over to read the back-of-book blurb.


    1. If they liked the back-of-book blurb, then they might be interested enough to crack the book open and read a few pages.


  1. And if they liked those few pages, they might then buy the book.

Many people lose interest and put the book aside at each of those steps. Just think of the front-end attrition for people who glance at a magazine ad for a book and think, “Hey, that sounds interesting.” Those people then have to actually remember the name of the book, then get in cars and go to bookstores, where things go crashing to a halt if it’s a title the store doesn’t carry.

It seems to me that the Web is a much more reliable place for readers to find books, and so Web advertisements can reduce many of the barriers between learning about a book and deciding to pick up a copy.

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