Mistakes Authors Make

by Michelle Gagnon

I recently read an excellent post by Rowena Cherry on some of the cardinal sins writers commit, and it really struck a chord, probably because in the past I’ve been guilty of most of them.

So here’s my advice on how to to make blatant self-promotion (aka BSP) less blatant…

  • Mailing lists: only add people who actually agree to be added. I’ve opened my inbox to discover newsletters from people I served on panels with, people I helped out by reading their manuscripts, and people I’ve never even heard of. As it is, I receive a few hundred emails a day- the last thing I want is more to sift through, UNLESS I signed up independently. The irony is that some of these newsletters I probably would be interested in, but being added without my permission is such a turn-off, it puts a black mark next to that writer’s name for me.

  • Newsletters: Send them out occasionally, and as John so aptly said on Friday, only when you have real news to report. If I’m getting a newsletter from someone on a weekly basis, I tend to delete it without opening, or to unsubscribe. Not many of us have exciting news occurring on a daily basis (I’m lucky to have one exciting thing happen a month, actually). I tend to send out newsletters 4-6 times/year, mostly clustered around release dates.

  • Newsgroups: A large portion of those hundreds of emails that I receive originate from various newsgroups and listservs. And invariably, on almost a daily basis, there’s a post that starts, “If you like reading such-and-so, you’ll love my new thriller about…The best way to get people interested in your book is not to push it every time someone starts a thread about Lee Child. Participate: if you enjoy those author’s books as well, say so. Be an active member of a listserv, not just popping out of lurkdom to announce the release of your latest opus. Because unless the other participants have some familiarity with you, chances are it will do more harm than good. As you build up a presence, then you can-OCCASIONALLY- mention your next book. Better yet, just include the title and release date as part of your signature. As members start to recognize your name, they’ll most likely become curious about your work, too. Anything else smacks of tooting your own horn.

  • Groups like GoodReads, 4MA, Shelfari, Dorothy L, and many others exist mainly for fans. I remember one time when the author of one group’s monthly read discovered they were discussing his book. He joined the list, and popped up with all sorts of explanations. And the conversation promptly shut down. Because the truth is, sometimes fans are thrilled to have an author participate in their discussions- but if that’s what they want, they’ll usually invite you. If you show up unannounced, you become the equivalent of a party crasher. They clearly were not about to say anything negative about the book when the author was reading every word (after all, some of these fans have their own manuscripts tucked away in a drawer, and wisely didn’t want to annoy someone they might seek a blurb from down the line). If you’re going to take part in these groups, do so as a fan. If you want to directly promote your book, take part in GoodReads giveaway program, or buy advertising with one of the sites targeted to readers of your genre.

  • Likewise, if all you do on your Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter pages is post updates on your own work, everyone outside of immediate family will probably rapidly tire of it. It’s the virtual equivalent of the guy at a cocktail party who won’t stop talking about himself. Instead, post links to interesting articles you stumble across, writing-related or otherwise. Respond to people who take the time to comment on your links. Answer messages people send. The trick is to have a real dialogue, rather than perpetually shouting the title of your book from the rooftops.
  • Poking, hugging, and otherwise molesting social network friends: personally, I find the deluge of emails inviting me to join fairy kingdoms, battle mobsters, or start a farm annoying. I barely have time to maintain my ongoing feud with the Petriarca family in real life, for Pete’s sake, never mind planting green beans that I could actually eat. Now, I know there are people out there who love those aspects of Facebook and MySpace; but don’t assume that others want to participate. That checkbox, where you can invite all your friends? I recommend avoiding it. Same goes for virtual hugs, flowers, postcards, angels, and whatever else is out there.

Now, what you can do…

  • Make it easy for people to sign up for your newsletter, and to friend you on the social networking sites (in other words, clear and user-friendly website design is crucial). Also make sure to keep the information on your website current.
  • If you see that someone has read your books on Shelfari or Goodreads, extend a friend invitation- then it’s their choice (this works better with people who liked your books).
  • Keep your author pages up to date across all social networking sites, focusing mainly on the ones you have the time and inclination to maintain.
  • Bring a notebook to any and all author events, making it clear that people only need sign it if they want to join your newsletter mailing list.
  • When you craft a newsletter, keep it short, to the point, and interesting.
  • On the newsgroups, follow my Southern friend’s “ABC” rule- Always Be Charming. Getting into a spirited debate is fine, but there are people on the listservs who quickly become notorious for abrasive or obnoxious posts. That sort of behavior definitely won’t help sell books.

And finally, remember that the most important thing is to achieve a balance. Don’t spend so much time discussing other people’s books that you neglect to work on your own.

18 thoughts on “Mistakes Authors Make

  1. Great checklist, Michelle. There are so many avenues available in the electronic universe to market our books, but they all come with time-consuming responsibilities. Sometimes it’s easy to forget that the writing should always come first.

  2. Great tips here. And many of these apply to people NOT promoting books. I wish the whole world would follow these social networking guidelines! But for writers, like Joe said, the writing should always come first.
    Now I think I’ll tweet this and digg it and…:P


  3. All solid advice, Michelle. The most important item, as both Joe and Michele have seconded, is that it must not take away from your writing. Heavy networking does take mental energy. It’s sort of like a pro baseball player who plays Frisbee at the park all day, then goes into a night game. Maybe he doesn’t feel it at first, but he’ll be a little weaker.

  4. Really great advice, Michelle. I will adopt the one about befriending people who have read your book. I also chortled at the advice about newsletters. I recently got a newsletter from an author, and soon after I got another one with “More news about Author”. Made me want to unsubscribe

  5. Right, Kathryn. The newsletter has to be handled with care. It should be safe, legal and rare. And when it comes, it should have something of value to the readers. I like to at least include a little story or quote that stands alone.

  6. Just another reason I love you, Michelle. If I might add one more thing: if a blogger reviews your book, positively or negatively, leave a nice, gracious comment. I hear time and again how impressed and flattered bloggers are when an author leaves a kind comment, yet hardly anyone does this. It takes very little time, yet is worth 100x the 5 minutes you’ll spend leaving a comment.

  7. Well said, and great reminders for all of us. I stand with you about all of the invites and gifts… I never know whether to ignore or delete, I certainly do not want to offend, and no, I don’t have the time!

  8. Thank you, Michelle. I especially liked your advice not to inundate people with Farmville, etc. announcements. They drive me nuts as well. Fortunately, I can block future notices from most of these applications the first time they pop up. Unfortunately, when the “friend” sends something about his/her latest achievement in some time-consuming game, I have to make the decision to put up with it or lose the friend.

  9. After several invites to Mafia and Farmville I decided to play along and sent a hitman to take care of the farmer.

    Funny thing…no one wanted to play with me anymore.

  10. This checklist is great. I’m sure I’ve sinned on some occasions in the past but I really try to keep the promotion low-key especially on social networking sites – as everyone has reiterated the mental energy to keep up with all the email groups, lists and social networking sites can easily detract from the writing process.

  11. Basil, you always make me laugh. Why didn’t I think of that?
    Trish, that’s interesting- I’m never sure whether or not to post on review comments because I’m worried about stifling the discussion. But I’ll definitely do so in the future…
    And it is easy to get sucked in, because usually the discussions are so interesting. I try to turn off my wireless connection when I start writing so I won’t be tempted.

  12. Michelle,

    On the one hand, every piece of advice you offer here is solid and sound.

    On the other hand, my first publisher, Kunati, basically encouraged its authors to do Every Single Thing that you (correctly) advise against.

    They are now bankrupt.

  13. I tell new, worried writers to do what they can without:

    1. Taking away from the quality of their writing

    2. Taking away from the quality of their relationships

    3. Going into debt

  14. This is on the off-topic side and I apologize, but it is currently ripping up Twitter among writers and agents. A nice example of how fast news can spread in the virtual world.

    It is also freaking hilarious! I am a member of the Publish America bewares faithful on Absolute Write. The PA shenanigans are usually pretty sad, but this one takes the proverbial cake.


    I promise, no more derailing . . .


    WV: “promizyy” I really promizyy that there will be no more derailing.

  15. “I enjoyed reading your post, and am so glad that the consensus is that newsletters should be rare.”

    I am going to somewhat disagree.

    While I don’t really need to know about your new cat (unless it’s really cool) or your kids making the honor roll., I like to hear regularly from the newsletter lists I am on (no less than quarterly). Doesn’t have to be a big deal, but it gives me a feeling of connection. I really like to hear about signings and conference appearances in case one might be close by (hint: think Kansas City)

  16. Wow, Terri, that is fascinating. I’d never heard of PA before, but the increasing number of vanity publishers the past few years has been astonishing.
    And I think there is some leeway on newsletters- my main offenders are people who send them out weekly, or even daily.
    Josh- I hadn’t heard that Kunati went under. That’s actually said, they were at least trying to do the right thing.
    Rowena, so glad you stumbled across this, your post really got me thinking about these issues.

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