Hey, all. This is going to be quick and dirty today, because I got an e-mail in the night from Glamour Magazine UK, a product of the national publishing conglomerate Conde Nast, and it really pissed me off. It looks legit, although I’m still waiting for confirmation from Conde Nast about whether they actually sent it or not.


Screenshot of the e-mail pitch I received


But that’s not the point, because legit or not, the problem exists everywhere, and I need to give writers some free advice about advertising.

Don’t do it.

Just trust me on this. I’ve worked in marketing, and I know that it’s equal parts witchcraft and bullshit. I give out marketing advice to our clients, but I won’t take a dime for the advice I give, because I have no idea what the hell is going to make the book tip. But I know what’s not going to do it, and paying a thousand dollars to Glamour magazine to share an advertorial with five other victims writers will not do anything for you except make you poorer while predatory marketers whistle to the bank.

Now, that’s not to say that big companies who spend big money on marketing don’t get a return on it. They absolutely do. But if your individual marketing budget is less than $100k — and that’s a laughably small marketing budget for the big time — then you shouldn’t be sending any money at all to Glamour or similar high-profile magazines.

Marketing is complicated, and for small-business owners, it’s even more so. I was a Creative Services Director for a local television station for a while, which means I was in charge of the local commercial production, and I can tell you that most of those commercials were wasted money, for the simple reason that it’s about reach (how many people see your ad) and frequency (how many times they see it). If you have frequency without reach, or reach without frequency, you’re throwing your money away. Back in 2000, when I was doing this work, the number of impressions (how many times one person sees your product) needed before someone took action was between five and seven, which meant you’d have to make sure that your ad ran often enough during enough high-rated shows to hit the same person five to seven times. By the time that math played out, most advertisers were expensed out of the game. So we sold them packages with bigger reach, but no frequency, and packages with bigger frequency, but no reach, and took their money without a qualm, even though we knew it wasn’t going to do anything for their business.

So, that’s the extent of my expertise, and it’s by no means exhaustive. My understanding of the economics of marketing is limited to the paragraph I just wrote, and there’s a good chance that any number of people reading this post will know more about it than I do, so by all means, hit the comments. But my problem here is concern for independent authors, who are an easy target for two reasons: they see the money as a business investment, and they don’t understand how advertising really works.

Right now, our signal to noise ratio is lower than ever before. A message that needed five to seven impressions in 2000 will need exponentially more now; we’re so inundated with messages that we ignore most of them. And when you consider average book sales numbers for the independent author just starting out, that’s money they will never make back. Ever.


So while it may seem really exciting and — excuse me — glamorous to have Conde Nast knocking on your door with this incredible reach number to dangle in front of your face, it means nothing. And they know that. But they’re counting on the fact that the writers won’t know that. They were counting on me not knowing when they sent me this message.

So now that I’ve bored the hell out of you with the economics, let me give you a few easy marketing rules for an independent author.

Good books sell books. Spend your time, money and energy writing books. Each book is an advertisement for the other books, and good books sell more good books. Spend that money on copyediting, cover design and marketing copy. Yes, I know, I offer these services, but don’t use me if you think that’s why I’m saying this. Find someone else, with my blessing. E-mail me for references, and I’ll send you to off to merrily give money to other people. I’m giving you this advice because you need it and because it’s true, not because I’m looking to make a dime.

Advertising will not do anything for you unless you’ve got a deep marketing budget. Websites that are specific to what you write — say, a romance writer advertising on Smart Bitches — are the only possible exception to this rule, and even then, if you don’t have money to get both reach and frequency, I don’t recommend it.

Social media engagement helps… but only if you’re engaged. There are loads of people who will take your money to tell you how to work social media, bring up those Twitter numbers, etc. I’m gonna tell you the three things you need to know for free.

  1. Don’t swap follows, and never pay for followers. Your followers only have meaning if they follow you because they’re interested in you, not because you paid them to follow you, and not because you followed them back. That means nothing; there’s no engagement there. Those people never look at your messages, and they don’t care. Follow the people you’re interested in, and be interesting enough to follow.
  2. Don’t shill. It’s okay, if you’ve got something new out or something on sale, to mention it. Your followers want to know about it, and they’ll be annoyed if you don’t tell them. But if you’re just shouting at people about your books, you’re playing a losing game. Plus, it’s no fun. Share things that make you happy, things that you find smart and interesting, any clever thoughts you may have. Chat with followers about interesting things, and don’t sweat the links to buy. They’re smart; they’ll find your stuff on their own.
  3. Engage. Talk with people. Be interesting. Respect the people who like you, and block the assholes.

Be realistic. Many authors hear these stories of overnight success and think that writing is a lottery ticket. It’s not. It’s a small business, it’s hard work, it’s all the time, it’s exhausting and you probably won’t see a profit for a few years. That’s okay, that’s how it’s supposed to work. Anyone who promises you that you’ll hit it big without working hard is full of it. And all those “overnight successes” didn’t happen overnight. Every author who has hit it big worked their ass off before they did. Overnight success isn’t a thing.

But business is, and the opportunity to be your own small business as a writer is a fucking miracle. This is possible now, and it wasn’t before, and I think that’s amazing. But your money, your time and your energy needs to go into writing, not Conde Nast, not website advertising.

The most effective marketing is word of mouth, and you can only pay for that with good books. Write a good book, get word of mouth going, write another good book, more word of mouth. That’s the only way to fly, and it doesn’t cost money. It takes faith, courage and moxie, and if I know independent authors, you’ve got that in spades already.

And that’s it; that’s my marketing advice. Take it and run. Don’t spend more than $1500 on a book, and that should cover copyediting, cover and marketing copy. Then write another good book, and keep going. Build your business, and keep your money.