Nick Green tells all! The Secret of Online Marketing Success

Me at work. Someone took my chair.
‘A truly shocking thriller for young readers.’

That’s my favourite bit of work from my old job, back when I made a living from writing sales copy for children’s fiction. I won’t tell you which book it refers to, but it did make me chuckle to see that line in the catalogue. 

No idea what this is

Most of the time, I promise, I gave every book the best possible write-up. Even if I hated some of them, it was my job to make each one look good. I worked for those old book clubs, you may recall their junk mail on your doormat: get half a dozen books very cheaply, and then we own your soul for the next ten years. It was all in the small print, which I helped to write, so there. Only very infrequently did a book darken my desk that was so bad, I had to give it a sarcastic review.

I was doing that job, mostly seriously, for about five years. As a result, I like to think I know a little bit about marketing, especially when it comes to children’s books. I knew this would stand me in good stead when it came to promoting my own work online. I knew how to write a decent blurb, knew how to sum up a book in 30 or even 15 words, knew about age ranges, target readerships, genres, you name it.

It was armed with this unfair advantage that I embarked on marketing my first independent ebook. Before I clicked ‘Publish’ on KDP, I put together a detailed strategy document, designed to maximise early exposure through social media, to capitalise and build on this, while also drawing on my considerable network of contacts gained through being a traditionally published author.
Friends and network just out of shot

Also – being a traditionally published author – I didn’t of course expect miracles. All I expected was a better-than-average showing for a self-published ebook. After all, I had an existing readership, influential bloggers as fans, friends in the industry, and all that marketing experience behind me. I put together a book trailer, engaged a viral marketing service, took out adverts, did video and web radio interviews, hired slots on high-traffic book sites, Facebook pages and Twitter accounts, and paid for a 45-stop blog tour that had me answering interview questions (often the same or similar ones) late into the night, until I half believed the answers myself. And I did plenty of other stuff – I think – but you get the gist. Idle I was not.

So did it work?

As an experiment it was fascinating. Because I’d been careful to draw up that strategy document and keep a careful track of every campaign on it, and because Amazon allows you to track sales by the day, I could identify very clearly the ongoing effectiveness of each initiative, and compare one against the other. I knew this would help me find the most efficient strategy in the long term. So, which online marketing approaches were the most effective?

The surprising answer appeared to be: none of them.

In the graph of sales over time, there is barely a spike, nor even an uplift, to correspond to any of the approaches that I tried. There are sales, yes, but slow and sporadic, with no noticeable variation, except when I had a ‘free download’ day. On the free days I ‘sold’ hundreds of books, but these are the only blips on the graph, and for obvious reasons don’t really count. Everywhere else, the sales quite literally flatline.

I’m not moaning. I’m actually as pleased as a physicist who’s found a Higgs Boson in his bowl of Cheerios. E-publishing for me is an experiment in progress, and these are the first really interesting data. They lead me to the inescapable conclusion that online marketing doesn’t really work. Not on the scale at which a cash-strapped, busy individual can muster it.  The virtual world is simply too big now. The problem may be compounded if, like me, you write for children, who don’t seem to be flocking to ebooks as fast as one might expect, and are also harder to reach, marketing-wise (and as a parent I’m all for that).

Bin Weevils. Be afraid. Be very afraid.

So perhaps I could have saved myself all that time and expense. In a way, I knew that all along. Because speaking for myself, I never bought a book on the strength of an advert, a YouTube trailer, a blog post, a tweet, a Facebook page, or even (I don’t think) a five-star Amazon review. I buy books when I happen to stumble upon them and like the look of them, or when (more often) a friend recommends them. And the great thing about that, of course, is that it doesn’t cost the author or the publisher a penny.


JO said…
Phew - what a wonderful post. This is my experience, too - but it's good to know that trying to do stuff differently, or more of it, will make not a monkey's toss of a difference.
Jan Needle said…
fascinating stuff, nick. i suppose you wouldn't fancy repeating the whole thing all over again for adult books? i think i could afford to lend you a chair, even!

incidentally, i heard tom clancy quoted yesterday. his advice on selling was this: Get writing. Get lucky. I did!

sad really, innit?
Chris Longmuir said…
I had suspected as much, Nick. I know when I first published I spent an inordinate amount of time trying to spread myself over all aspects of the social media, although I never went so far as millions upon millions of 'buy my book' posts. I don't do nearly as much now and I'm relieved to hear it doesn't work anyway. It's a lot more productive if I spend my time writing. Thanks for a great post.
Lee said…
Indeed. Everyone should stop proselytising about marketing and self-promotion. It's not only pointless, but downright misleading.
Spend your time reading and writing--and maybe living a bit more recklessly (heheh, Nick) in the real world.
Lee said…
BTW, I do buy books on the basis of blog posts, but only when the blogger is a sound reviewer/critic/reader whose judgement I've come to respect.
Jenny Alexander said…
This is so timely for me! I've just self-published a new edition of my o/p parenting title on bullying but haven't bothered to promote it, hoping it will sell a steady trickle on the back of my children's books on the subject, which get great reviews and sell well. I was thinking that when I self-pub my child-of-the-heart book on dreams+writing I should plan a proper launch campaign etc, but I'm getting the sense that building a community through blogging might be the most effective way of getting the word out, as well as being something I really enjoy
Lydia Bennet said…
hm very thought-provoking. But if we don't try to market the books online, how will anyone stumble across them? There are so many books now on amazon - currently on fb some of us are discovering the types of porn on there, yesterday it was dinosaur porn and today it's 'gay cuttlefish shapeshifter porn' which is very specific!
Dennis Hamley said…
Nick, I've done none of those things and my sales progress sounds suspiciously like yours so it seems your central thesis is right! Yet last night I was at a meeting on marketing and social media addressed by our own Dan Holloway and I came away feeling really quite cheered. He presented what seemed to me a different, human-scale philosophy about social media which delighted me. What was it? Well, perhaps Dan will speak for himself one day.
Nick Green said…
I should add that I don't think it's totally useless. Just a drop in the ocean. But even that may be better than no marketing at all.
Dan Holloway said…
Great post - and one of the great unmentioned truisms that new writers rarely get to hear.

Dennis, thank you! I am going to post an article based on last night's talk on Monday!
Lee said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
Lee said…
Dan, I'm looking forward to your piece. Maybe you'll change my mind that a drop in Nick's ocean is worth the effort. Maybe.
Dennis Hamley said…
That's great Dan. Bring it on!
Debbie Bennett said…
So how *do* we sell without marketing? Because I do. Steadily. I'm not setting the world on fire, but I'm selling ebooks with no marketing or advertising other than interacting with friends on facebook and the occasional blog post. I don't think I've even tweeted more than a couple of tweets in the last few months. There must be something going on and I wish I knew what it was so I could harness it!
There seems to be very little rhyme or reason to it. Part of the problem is that such marketing as is done even by traditional publishers doesn't really work, either. My sales trundle along quite nicely. I'm not making any fortunes, but I'm selling books. There are spikes in sales but it's hard to say how and why they happen. Amazon's 'also bought' recommendations work - if you can get them. One of them worked for me last night (and presumably for the author in question!) when I was browsing for something to read, saw a book flagged up that I would never otherwise have found, bought it and was reading it within the hour. It gave me pause for thought about bookstores as well. I could have browsed my local chain bookshop for hours and never found this book. What WOULD have worked would have been some version of the old indie bookstore (which was closed down years ago by the advent of the big chains) where the owner took time and trouble to know and talk to her customers, and would therefore have known that I would love a new version of an old fashioned ghost story. But even then, living where I do, would I have waited and travelled ten miles into town on the off chance of finding something I wanted to read? Or would I have hit that buy-it-now button? I think the future probably lies with some combination of the two but the harsh reality is that I'm more likely to buy on impulse in Amazon than I am in a bookshop - and I do buy a lot of books.

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