The Elusive Fifty Percent

by Michelle Gagnon

There’s an old adage in marketing: fifty percent of your advertising will work. The kicker is that you’ll probably never know which fifty percent.
Large companies spend a lot of time and money trying to figure out which of their campaigns succeeded through surveys. But the little people (myself included) don’t have access to that option.

Which leads me to this week’s conundrum: trying to figure out how to divide my marketing money for The Gatekeeper. I would hate to eliminate an effort that made a difference last time- the trouble is, I have no idea which aspect of my marketing campaign impacted sales.

In an effort to narrow it down, I asked for help from the MIRA marketing team. Was there anywhere in particular where Boneyard posted more sales? In the Northeast, perhaps, or even in specific stores and chains?

Nope, they said. At least, not as far as they could determine- the best information they had to go on (which, as we’ve discussed in earlier posts, is limited at best) came from Bookscan, and the numbers appeared to be divided equally nationwide.

For other products, there are more options. You could try online ads one month, then print ads the next: if your sales showed more of a bump in the first month, the next time around you could focus more energy online.

Unfortunately, authors don’t have that luxury. Our books have a very limited shelf life. At least with my publisher, the first six weeks count most. Just one month after The Gatekeeper’s release date, many of the copies will already have been taken off the shelves. Hardcovers and trade paperbacks hang in there a bit longer, but for all of us, the next wave of releases knock us off the front racks and back to the stacks (or, worse yet, to the remaindering pile).

Which means that all of my marketing efforts are focused on that six week window. Which results in a madcap book tour, and thousands of dollars scattered in a dozen different directions. Let’s call it the “buckshot” approach to book marketing – throw out everything you can afford in every direction imaginable, and keep your fingers crossed.

I know what didn’t work with my first book. A mass mailing to over a hundred bookstores, which cost a third of my budget and hours of time, most likely ended up in the trash/recycling bin at most of them. Elaine Petrocelli of Book Passage illustrated this at a conference by holding up an enormous trash can filled to the brim with promotional materials from authors and publishers. All collected in ONE WEEK.
Obviously, the next time around I skipped that option.
Even ARCs end up in stacks in the booksellers’ backrooms, most never touched by a single staff member.

Advertising online has some advantages. On sites like Facebook, you pay per click – but whether or not those clicks actually turn into sales remains a big question mark. Some people even run strange programs to make fake clicks for these, meaning that it’s super important to invest in something like click guardian to keep your finances sound. It’s a bit of a minefield otherwise, and without the backing of a big agency individual authors can really risk a sizable amount of revenue just on making sure no one abuses those adverts on the platform. This is why some people choose to use some other method to utilize this system, with places like KlientBoost and other pay per click advertising agencies that could assist your business with pay per click marketing services.

The blog tour I did last time around had an added advantage in that it cost nothing but time- a lot of it, however. By the end of the thirty stop tour, I’d written more than 33,000 words, a full third of a book. And did that help sales? Impossible to know.

I doubt I’m alone in wondering if there might not be a better way. Now that the full burden of marketing has fallen on most authors’ shoulders, couldn’t publishers help by providing more feedback on where they see sales happening? Wouldn’t it behoove them to come up with a more accurate measure than Bookscan? If I knew, for example, that a significant chink of my sales were happening in Kroger’s stores in Arkansas, I’d make a personal effort to connect with those retailers.

Anyway, that’s my rant for the day. I’ve decided to create bookmarks, chapbooks, and magnets per usual- they don’t cost much, and are easy to pass out. I’ll probably do a more limited book tour this time around, and will focus my actual tour on visiting some stores I was forced to skip last year. Aside from that, I’m still at a loss, staring at my Boneyard marketing spreadsheet, wondering what else to include and what to cut. Any and all suggestions are welcome- what’s worked for you in the past? Has anything in particular compelled you to buy a book you might not have known about otherwise?


15 thoughts on “The Elusive Fifty Percent

  1. WOO HOO! First comment! What gets me to buy a book . . .

    1. Blogs like this, that little flashing widget held my attention for several minutes as I watched the covers flash by.

    2. Covers. “The Gatekeeper” caught my attention and now I want to go check out the cover text to learn more.

    3. Appearances at conferences and fan events. Not just bookstores, but events with the like-minded. I love my autographed books.

    4. Blurbs from writers I know and love. I’m inclined to give a book a chance if Jeffrey Deavers or Stephen King gives it the thumbs-up. It’s not always a reliable indicator, but it helps me focus my attention.

    5. Pitches from agency professionals like agent and editor blogs. If I like someone’s style and they like a book, I’m inclined to give it a second look.

    6. Fun little contests like the ‘Liar Liar’ contest here. Let me compete in something entertaining and win one of your older books. I like it, I’m very likely to come back for more. For example, I won a book in the ‘Tiara Day’ flash fiction contest held by writer Susan Adrian on her blog. I got a crime thriller and I can’t wait to get it! It will go to the top of the to-be-read pile.

    Print ads and mailers are unlikely to catch my eye unless they have something more to them like a coupon or special offer.

    I looked back over my list and the theme seem to be what works best for me is something that is interactive and engaging.

    Great question! Terri

  2. That’s valuable feedback, Terri. All those things, and every other marketing tool, gets you only a “first look.” After that, the book itself has to do the heavy lifting, generating word of mouth, getting the readers wanting more. That’s the most important marketing tool. As Mickey Spillane said, “Your last chapter sells your next book.”

  3. I’d be happy to carry the marketing water for a publisher. (Assuming one ever buys a book.) What frosts me in advance is they appear to just say, “go market the book,” without any guidance. They have marketing depertments for the big authors. How about meeting us halfway and sharing some leads, best practices, stuff like thta, instead of acting like they did you a huge favor by agreeing to publish?

  4. What Bell said. Marketing is a first look attention grabber, after that the book must sell itself.

    That having been said how are you going to extract that first look, and make the buyer look long & hard, and start salivating uncontrollably, then clutch your book to their chest and dance with delight as they rush to register with tears streaming down their cheeks saying “Yes! Yes! Yes!” then buy a dozen copies for their friends and relatives and the homeless guy that lives in a culvert in the park by their bus stop.

    That’s the hard part.

    How does one get their book on all of the Costco/Sams Club warehouses across the country?

    How about getting an interview with Hannity, Beck or O’Reilly or other talk hosts. One may agree or not with their politics, but the audiences are in the millions… almost as good as Opra.

    What about unorthodox methods? Podcast an audio version of the book, or even a different story altogether and release it via podiobooks, iTunes, etc. Blog tours probably work a bit too.

    Mind control rays might be another option.

  5. Oooh! Idea:

    Follow CNN or FoxNews camera crews around and whenever they go on the air hold up a sign with the book cover just behind the reporter.

    …I should’a been in marketing

  6. Terri: what James said- great feedback. I’m so glad that Gatekeeper caught your eye, too- I fought hard to have some changes made to the initial cover, and am thankful that the publisher listened in the end.
    I’m trying something a little different this time- all of my newsletter subscribers will be entered in a drawing for a MacBook laptop computer, and if they answer a question pertaining to two of my books, they receive ten more free entries. I figure it’s worth it to devote money to a larger prize, rather than spread it out via a series of more minor ones (which I did last time around).

    And Dana, I couldn’t agree more. In lieu of committing marketing money and manpower to a campaign, helpful suggestions from your publisher (like “don’t bother with mass mailings to bookstores”) would benefit everyone. I still don’t understand why publishers don’t pair well-known authors with lesser known ones for tours- the work of planning the tour has already been done, why not seize the opportunity to introduce readers to another book in the same vein?

    Basil: you’re hired. When can you start?

  7. Michelle, your post hits the target. Last time I also tried doing ad clicks over at YouTube (you bid on search key words, and when a user does a search for that keyword, your book video appears). I seemed to notice a slight lift in sales associated with the timing of the ad campaign, but as you point out, there is no way to know for sure. I wish some enterprising would would do some real market research on what compels readers to buy a book. Has that type of research ever been done, does anyone know?

  8. If I meet an author and I’m taken with that author I will buy their book. Appearances are so important – they connect the author to the reader as a real person. I’ve bought books that I would have never picked up because the author so impressed me. So I think appearances are very important. I know you can’t be everywhere at once all across the country, but where ever you can appear will help.

  9. In order, here is what gets me to trade my hard-earned cash for a story: Cover, title, paragraph on back cover or inside flaps, first page. If I know I like an author, I might overlook a sloppy attempt at the first two. If the third sparks my curiosity even in the faintest degree, I’ll read the first page. However, the last crucial step for me is for the story to grab me either through action, suspense, surprise, confusion, humor, an interesting character or really (and I mean really) good writing. Why would I give away my money for anything less? Hope this helps. God bless.

  10. Stephen- this makes me especially glad that I’ll be able to stop by the LA Mystery Bookstore again in November (thank you, Virgin America, for your cheap SF/LA flights!)

    And Anon- covers are so critical. Which makes it especially puzzling that authors have so little input. I’m always asked to fill out an art sheet detailing what I would prefer. Which in turn seems to be roundly ignored by the art department.
    In the past this hasn’t been a problem, but this time around my agent and I really didn’t like what they sent. Initially when we provided our feedback, the response was, “sorry, it’s too late.” (and this was nearly nine months before the release date).
    We kicked and screamed, and ended up convincing them to make some changes to the color scheme and overall layout.
    But since the cover tends to be a critical element for book marketing, as you pointed out, it’s so important to get it right.

  11. I always read reviews on Amazon before purchasing a book. If reviews are negative, I will second guess buying a book.

    Also, be sure to email me any promo materials (contest, synopsis etc). I will spotlight you on a blog entry (FB, Twitter, FF). Free press! Keep me posted…


    Terri had some great comments.

  12. Hello Michelle,

    I’m French and I just finished your book called “La forêt de la peur” (“Boneyard”). I loved loved loved it so much, I was surprised it was only your second book (well I hope I’m right, because I can’t find anything else on Amazon).

    You’re a very good writer and I can’t wait to read your next book.

    I love reading thrillers but it’s the first time I really want to talk to the author to congratulate him/her. I saw your next events but I don’t see anything around DC. I live in Washington DC and I would love to meet you if you come in the area.

    Anyway, concerning other readers’ comments on Amazon, I only read them after my reading to see if they think the same as me. It’s funny because I’m generally in sync with the majority.

    So how do I choose my books ? I have some authors that I like, so I will follow them as long as they don’t disappoint me. I also like to go to stores and I read the back cover to see if the story will interest me. If not, then I put it back. But I read a lot, so it’s very hard to not interest me. What I hate the most is when on the back cover there’s just the biography of the author… sorry, but that’s the best way to make me put it back on the shelf.

    Anyway, you’re now on my short “favourite authors” list and I’ll speak about you to my friends.


  13. Hi Sandrine-

    Thanks so very much for the kind words, I appreciate them! Sadly, I won’t be in DC this time around- but hopefully next year.
    Interesting point about back covers without any copy- that does seem to be happening more and more, and I agree that it’s a mistake.
    Best wishes,


  14. I confess that I’m only a Kindle reader now. Many of the new authors I’ve discovered, offered an older book as a free download. If I like it, then I am always willing to pay for a newer one.

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