Advice for Writers IV

Part four in this series.

Rule Four: Sell

The fourth and final step to becoming a successful author: you have to sell what you publish.

This step is the one where you’re most likely to run up against the limits of your own capabilities. Writing, improving your writing, and publishing your writing can all be done by anyone with sufficient motivation: if you hit problems, you can get around them with sufficient time and effort. Selling can’t. If your book doesn’t have sufficient appeal to a wide enough audience, well, that’s that. That’s a hard thing to accept, so before we get into that, we’ll look at what most people think of when they hear ‘selling’, namely, publicity.


Publicity and marketing is a big field, but the road for new authors is a well-trodden one and it’s not hard to find instructions on how to do it. The goal is to increase your recognition and visibility, so that people are more likely to be exposed to you in the first place and more likely to recognise your name when they do.

If you already have a good publisher, then you’ll get a certain amount of automatic exposure from their publication process: your book will be featured in their listings, pitched to booksellers and reviewers, etc. This will mostly happen behind the scenes with or without your help. You also may or may not get help from their marketing/digital media people for stuff like interviews, convention appearances, and so on. If you’re self-published, none of this applies and you’re on your own (good luck).

Next there’s personal publicity, which you’ll have to do yourself. This takes the form of having a website, social media accounts, personal advertising, and all of the other stuff that new authors do, which mostly takes the form of trying to get your name and book out there in the hope that someone will notice. There’s lots of advice out there for authors on this topic, usually along the lines of ‘you should do more publicity, here’s how’. I’m not going to give any advice of this kind, but I am going to talk a little about the types of publicity, specifically, the difference between additive and multiplicative. (These aren’t official names, just the terms I use for them, but that’s what I’ll stick with for this blog post).

Add or Multiply

Additive publicity adds to your readership, or at least to the category of people exposed to/familiar with you and your book. If you go to a convention and do a panel, that’s additive publicity. Everyone in the room listens to you talk and becomes that much more familiar with you and your writing. With additive publicity, you generally have a good idea from the start of the size of the audience. If you’re giving a talk to 200 people, that’s 200 people who might look you up afterwards. (In practice the number is far lower, but you get the idea.)

Multiplicative publicity multiplies your readership. If 20% of the people who buy your book recommend it to one other person each, then the number of people who might look you up afterwards is 1.2 times the number of people who bought the book in the first place. The main (and best) kind of multiplicative publicity for an author is word of mouth recommendation. One person reads your book and talks about it to someone else.

Basic arithmetic will tell you that additive boosts are better if your starting number is low, multiplicative ones better if your starting number is high. If you have 10 readers, adding 100 is great, multiplying by 1.2 not so much. If you have 10,000 readers, multiplying by 1.2 is amazing, adding 100 less so. Unsurprisingly, the two work best when used in sequence. First you build up a customer base, then you multiply it.

Comparing the Two

The main thing to understand here is that the majority of publicity work that most new authors do – and the kind that’s recommended for new authors to do – is additive publicity. And this is a problem, because additive publicity can easily become a trap.

The big problem with additive publicity is that it requires constant input: if your main way of getting new readers is to spend time on publicity, then to get more readers you have to keep spending more time. This can rapidly become overwhelming. The first interview or convention panel is exciting; the fifth is work; by the time you get up to the twentieth it’s starting to feel like a job. This is fine if your publicity work is producing results appropriate to that of a job, but in practice it’s usually very hard to tell whether this is true.

By contrast, word-of-mouth publicity has its own momentum. Once a book is out there with some legs and a sufficient starting base, it pretty much sells itself. In fact, given sufficient time, word-of-mouth will outperform almost any amount of additive publicity, just because of its viral nature. Yes, you get the odd edge case such as being on Oprah, but for the remaining ninety-nine point nine percent of authors out there, your best publicity tool is your book itself.

The Catch

So if word-of-mouth is so good, you should just rely on that, right? Well, that brings us back to your own capabilities. For word-of-mouth to work, readers have to enjoy and be enthusiastic about a book. Which means you have to make the book appeal to them. Which means this advice ultimately comes down to ‘write a good book’. Which isn’t very helpful, is it?

The answer to that is: no, it’s not. Unfortunately, it’s also true. Publicity can supply a boost, but ultimately, if your book can’t sell itself, then no amount of pushing will get it moving.

Which means that in the very long term, the best way to sell a book tends to be to go away and write a better book. Then repeat that process as many times as necessary. As I said at the beginning, simple things are usually hard.

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