2022 Retrospective: Book Writing & Marketing

2022 was perhaps the least-productive year I’ve had, in terms of writing. That said, I tried a lot and learned a lot around book marketing, and have really had to come to grips with why I write in the first place. I thought it might be useful to share some of these things.

Books

First, the only book I released this year was Clara Thorn, the witch that was found. I really went all-in on this novel, which I actually started toward the end of 2021. I did a detailed outline and scene blocking, and then worked with a development editor to fine-tune that outline. I wrote the book, did another dev edit pass, and then did a copyedit pass. Two, actually. So this is perhaps the most-edited book I’ve done. I commissioned custom cover art, which I’m absolutely in love with. I did the book layout in Vellum, and I’m incredibly pleased with the results. It’s a beautiful book.

Beta-reader responses were equally encouraging: most people said they loved the story and the characters, and that they couldn’t wait for the sequel. Overall, a win, right? Well… it depends on your goals. I decided to try and give a strong push for marketing, setting aside a substantial budget for myself to try and get eyes-on.

And you know, that’s not quite true: Endless Sky: Truthsayer also came out in 2022, and it’s a book I released with an actual publisher. It flopped. And I know why: I wrote a sci-fi LitRPG, a story where the characters all exist in a fully-immersive virtual reality game. They’re aware they’re in a game, and the narrative includes all the game prompts about leveling-up and such. I love the concept of LitRPG, but I dislike most of the books in the genre. They’re nearly all swords-and-sorcery, which gets a bit old, and some of them literally start out with a prologue that’s a 30-page manual on how to read the game’s character sheets. Most of them dash from level-up to level-up with little in the way of story, and frankly a lot of them seem to basically bestow progress on the main character without making them work much for it. Well, it turns out that’s how many RPG game players are: they’re not in it for the story, they’re in it for the “progress,” which is why cheating is apparently so commonplace in MMORPGs. I tried to have a fun plot, do some solid world-building, give my characters some motivation and obstacles, and add some neat twists—and by and large, the LitRPG genre doesn’t do those things. I cut back on the in-game prompts, and that’s what the LitRPG readers want. I’m probably still going to do a sequel to Endless Sky, but I may wind up self-publishing it as I don’t want to drag the (very nice) publisher down with me, and I’ll just do it for fun. FWIW, my husband insists it’s his favorite of all my novels, so I’ll write it for him if nobody else.

The Marketing

I’m going to list these in no particular order, since I did most of them more or less in parallel to try and market Clara.

We’ll start with BooksGoSocial.com. I think of this as a “marketing scutwork” service: they do social media graphics, a small number of Amazon ads, they help with category selection and keyword selection, and they do a NetGalley listing. Overall, this was a “meh” for me. PublishRocket didn’t think much of the keywords they selected, the social media graphics I could have easily done myself in half the time, and the NetGalley listing netted me a whopping one review (I counted twice to be sure). I’d skip this.

I stacked a whole bunch of one-day free ebook promotions: GoodReads, Free Books, Fussy Librarian, BookRaid, Book Doggy. These generated about 1,300 downloads between them, but those generated roughly 2 Amazon reviews. My perceived problem with these services is that, while they’re cheap, a crapload of authors use them—and so they encourage their newsletter readers to more or less download-and-horde. I’ve no idea how many people actually read my book, or ever will. To me, these felt a bit like “raising awareness for cancer,” in that “awareness” is neither the problem nor the solution. I’m not sure I’d spend on these again.

I did a GoodReads giveaway; this I guess generated a couple more Amazon reviews, but again, I think they primarily encourage book-hoarding, not actual reading. They do a bit more to perhaps raise awareness, at least for readers who use GoodReads to discover new books, and the base level giveaway isn’t insanely priced. I have mixed feelings about this one.

I bought a BooksShelf promo package, which includes a newsletter ad, book of the day spot, featured spots, a written review, a promo video (of sorts), a whole mess of stuff. I can’t say it generated any sales, based on my KDP dashboard. It wasn’t expensive, but it feels a bit like an incredibly large mixed bag of vapor: it seems like you get a lot for the money, but in the end it didn’t do much.

I did Reedsy Discovery. This was also a firm “meh.” It’s an inexpensive review, and the one I got was well-written and complimentary, so if you’re using reviews as part of your marketing (e.g., in the Amazon description), this is cheaper than Kirkus or BookLife (which I also paid for reviews from). But you have to get a TON of votes to push your book into their newsletter. My friends rallied and I was 2nd place for the cycle, so I got in… and as far as I can tell nothing came of it. Like, zero buys within the week the newsletter came out.

I also bought a package from SelfPublishingReview.com. These guys basically market your book to their newsletter, with the goal of either driving purchases to get you into a category top 10, or for getting net-new reviews. You’re not paying for reviews per se; they just keep marketing you until your review count hits the agreed-upon number. This was expensive, but worked OK in that I got what I paid for. They will try to coach you into changing your book categories to tiny ones where you have a better shot of breaking the top 10 with a hundred sales or so, and in my case the categories they suggested were a huge stretch for my novel, so I declined. I did break the top 100, which was nice, but I obviously won’t stay there, and I’m not sure what long-term effect that will have on Amazon’s algorithm (“none,” I suspect). Again, not sure I’d do this again.

Introspection

I’m not mad that I set the money aside for all these things. We recently sold some real estate, so I had the money, and this is one of those “if I don’t try it, I’ll never know” things. And I didn’t just pay for these services: I also did all the other marketing things you’re meant to do: reaching out to bloggers, podcasters, and BookTokkers, coordinating all the marketing services, and all that. In the end though, it felt mainly like a big fail.

That created a lot of depression for me. I know my two main fantasy series are good (Clara Thorn and Daniel Scratch: a story of witchkind). They’ve both been professionally development- and copy-edited, at a cost of about $3k per book total. They get great reviews. I have friends and colleagues who routinely bug me about sequels, because they want to get back into the world. I loved writing them, and I want to get back into those worlds myself. But none of that’s enough to make me, say, a Will Wight—a self-published, Kindle Select author whose writing I enjoy immensely and whose success I’m stupidly envious of. “Get the Word Out” is obviously the right step, but in my case none of getting the word out resulted in people buying or reading books.

So I’ve had to come to grips with why I write. If it’s to become a financially successful author, then I feel I should probably just quit. On the other hand, if it’s because I love writing my stories and sharing them with the handful of people who’ll read them… well, I can do that. I can budget for copyediting on a couple of novels a year, at least. I can skip all the marketing, since it doesn’t seem to work for my novels anyway. It’ll just be a hobby that’s perhaps no more expensive than other hobbies I could choose, and it’s a hobby that makes me happy and helps me relax.

With that in mind, I’ve set up a Patreon page. If you’d like to support my work, help defray the costs of development and copyediting, and get every novel and short story I write—take a look. I’m planning to share each chapter as I write them, so for folks who like a continual stream of low-volume reading, you can treat each novel as a serial of sorts. And if you’re a fan of physical books, I’ll be offering each new novel in hardcover format—and there’s a membership option to get every one sent right to you.

Optimism

I don’t think I’ve entirely given up on my books being financially successful. I mean, I need to basically sell around 1500 copies, in most cases, to break even on hard production costs. A bit more if you factor in custom cover art. That’s a lot of copies. But I think I’ve just made peace with my writing being a hobby; I’ll absolutely cherish every reader who enjoys my stories, but I’m going to write for them, and for me, and not so much for financial success. If it comes one day, I’ll be happier and prouder than anyone can possibly imagine… but if it doesn’t, I’ll still be awfully happy.

Your thoughts?