Friday, April 29, 2011

Book Promotion and Reader Trust

by L.J. Sellers

Authors may feel pressured to invent new ways to promote their work, but unfortunately, some tactics are less ethical than others. We’ve all heard complaints from readers about five-star reviews written by the author’s family, but now some novelists have taken Amazon-ranking manipulation to a new level by gifting books to readers.

What’s wrong with giving away books? Nothing, in theory. I’ve given away hundreds of copies of my novels, both print and digital. But when an author gifts a book through Amazon, the transaction counts as a sale, and a lot of sales all at once can push a book higher in the rankings. Better visibility then results in more sales. I understand the motivation to do this, yet it strikes me as deceptive. The practice leads readers to purchase the book based on the assumption that many other readers have already done so. If readers knew the author was the main buyer of those copies, they might make a different decision.

So what is ethical and what is not? Having a friend or two read your book and post good reviews on various forums seems fine. For myself, I rarely solicit reviews, I’ve never asked anyone to post a review they didn’t fully support, and none of my family members have ever posted reviews of my novels. (At least not that I know about. If they’re posting anonymously, it might explain a few things. :) But having friends post five-star reviews of a book they didn’t read or didn’t like is not okay. Directly giving away copies of your books in any format is great promotion and lots of fun, but buying your own books to manipulate rankings is probably not a good idea.

As a guideline, I believe anything that would make a reader feel manipulated or lied to should be avoided. A lot of book promotion falls into a huge gray area of social networking and doesn’t have clear boundaries. For example, it's typically okay to talk about your books if someone else brings them up, but readers hate it when writers sidetrack a discussion to talk about their own novels. They get annoyed when writers anonymously start discussions about their work. Writers can openly start discussions about their work...if they've been participating in the forum long enough to make friends. It's a delicate social balance.

Some readers have become super sensitive to this trend. Last month, a reader started a thread about my Jackson books, just because she loved the series and wanted to share her discovery. Another forum participant immediately assumed I, or someone connected to me, had initiated the thread. I’ve never done that and the participant had no reason to believe I would, but clearly, enough authors engage in that sort of thing to make all of us look bad. I was delighted when other participants defended both me and my series, but the incident made me aware that writers as a group are developing a problem with reader trust.

Here’s another gray area: When is it okay to add someone to your email database? I’ve always assumed that if readers contact me about my novels or enter a contest to win a book, they'll expect me to add them to my newsletter file. Once they receive my mailing, which only goes out to announce new releases, they can immediately unsubscribe. Yet, this is not a clear area, and some readers may not want to be emailed without explicit permission. I’m still grappling with the ethics of this tactic.

This subject could be endless, so I’ll only bring up one more point. Writers who use Facebook and Twitter to exclusively promote their work do themselves more harm than good. It’s spam. Sending people you don’t really know invitations to read your work is also spam.

I’m not perfect, and I’ve made mistakes along the way. This post is intended to not only encourage authors to be ethical in their promotion but also to let readers know their trust is important to me.

Readers: What else do you consider annoying or unethical?
Writers: What has been your experience with these situations?

L.J. Sellers writes the bestselling Detective Jackson mysteries and standalone thrillers


  1. Wow! Your post really got me thinking about myself and my own practices on Facebook, Twitter and in my emailings out. Your ideas are well-thought out and presented, and will no doubt get a lot of us thinking, LJ.

    Since most of my Facebook friends are writers, and most of the people on my email list are past or potential clients of my freelance editing business, I hope it's okay to tell them about articles I post on blogs on various effective fiction techniques. After all, their writing could well benefit from the well-researched craft topics I write about, and they'd save time and money not having to buy and read all those books themselves. What do you think?

  2. Well said, LJ! I've had more than one person who found me on DorothyL send me promotional emails (I call them spam) about their books. SO not cool.

  3. It's a fine line for authors to walk, between "I'm an author, buy my books" and "I'm a person, how are YOU today?" But I try to live by Lee Child's advice: Write good books and be nice to people.

    That being said, I did request some Amazon reviews from anyone who has actually read my book and liked it, just because I'd like it to get to places like DailyCheapReads and Kindle Nation, and they look at Amazon reviews. I can see why they do it, but good god, I hate asking.

  4. Short-sited, in-your-face, me-me-me is not the way to build a long career. In anything.

    I receive emails from book pushers and I have no idea where or how we ever made a connection. I work hard to train those emails to my spam folder.

    L.J., you epitomize class in your approach to readers and marketing your books. "Anything that would make a reader feel manipulated or lied to should be avoided." Hear, hear!

  5. Gayle, I think it's perfectly fine to ask for an Amazon review from people who have read your book and have told you (or others) they liked it. I enjoy a lot of books but write very few reviews on Amazon, and if the author of a book I raved about asked me to write a review of it, I'd be very pleased to do so. Sometimes, as readers, we just need a little nudge. I'm always glad to support good writers, whether I know them personally or not, but in our busy lives, sometimes we need a reminder of how we can show our appreciation.

  6. It seems to me that nobody should send anything via email to anyone unless they've actually asked for it.

    When it comes to forums, however, I feel that reducing dialog to the lowest common demoninator (nobody complains) stifles, if not completely eliminates dialog. There will ALWAYS be someone who complains about any discussion they are not part of. It doesn't matter whether it's about a new book, an old book or about typewriters (grin).

    Cheers --- Larry

  7. It's unfortunate because many readers have grown wary of authors due to the tactics of others. Blatant self promotion gets you nowhere and in fact will defeat more than help. What would your reaction be if you saw someone screaming out: "I'm wonderful! I'm wonderful!" Likely, you'd suspect just the opposite ... and then run the other way.

    Same thing applies here.

  8. Sound advice, LJ. The best way to promote anything is to let the product speak for itself through referrals rather than in a self-attention seeking manner. I buy almost all my books (and other products) based on word of mouth. I love to use Twitter and FB to chat about all sorts of things, including books I've read and enjoyed.

  9. BSP...BSP
    what to do with thee...
    I love my book,
    and I want you
    to have a look,
    and when you do,
    you will love it too.

    With a little imagination, couched in humor and self-deprecation, like Parnell Hall's musical videos that demonstrate an "empty" bookstore with his signage and books stacked up beside his lonely self, yet he sings on and the band playing on the Titanic as she slips below the surface...

    IF BSP can reach out in such a way as to make prospective readerd see something in the author's approach, be that entertaining, hilarious, or self-efacing, you'd be amazed at what good can come of BSP.

    This is how I try to approach things, and there are ways to present info on your book that is unique. On facebook for instance, you can talk about your research-- on setting, on a given issue, on a given character, etc. Recently, I brought up the fact that an historical figure I use in Children of Salem was put together a bit like Mrs. Roger Rabbit "don't hate me cause I'm beautiful' for instance, so my Tituba Indian is a highly sexed but trapped creature, a deadly combination. So why not see if anyone out there has ever thought of this iconic figure from the Salem Witch Hunt strikes them this way.

    Or you bring up the idea that any yahoo with a PC now can start a New Religion or Church, even a serial killer just like in your book!

    There are interesting ways to approach this 'job' of getting attention for that which you believe in. Personally, it's working for me.

    Rob Walker - blog on how to kMove ebooks off the i.e.shelf.

  10. It's a difficult situation. I do resent getting emails from people promoting their books just because I happen to be in their address book. I only send my newsletter to people who signed up for it, not my entire address book. The two are separate. On the flip side, on Facebook, I don't put my personal life out there like some people do. It just isn't who I am or what I was taught to be in Special Forces. So I might put pictures of my dogs, but mainly I talk about my books and writing. So I probably lean too much toward promotion on FB, but it's not a place I spend much time. On Twitter, I think it's fine to announce workshops or conferences. Once in a while post about a book.
    Still, though, let's be honest. We want to sell our book. So we push what we can, without being obnoxious. Word of mouth sells books and bad word of mouth can kill a book. I post every 7 days on Kindleboards as allowed and bump my thread. But on UK Kindleboards, I've learned I have to act differently. There is so little traffic there that when I was doing a bump every 7 days for every one of my titles, I ended up having half the PR board and people resented it, so I've had to adjust and bundle my books and do a lot less posts.
    So. Hmm. Anyway. Hey, go buy one of my books.

    Actually, something I'm discussing right now is donating 100% of my royalties on my latest release to a charity I really believe in. Am I being altruistic? No. I hope to sell a lot of books and get people interested in them and get this title moving up the charts. But the money will do good for people who need it. So again, it's a fine line.

  11. I read something recently that suggested marketing in an e-book environment is completely different from marketing in the 'old world' environment.

    For a traditional book launch, there is a very limited shelf time. You've only got a few weeks to create an impact.

    With e-books, there's an opportunity to slowly build a base of loyal readers over an infinite amount of time. You don't, and shouldn't, force the issue. At the same time, you don't want your books to languish.

    Maybe L.J. will do another post in the future about ways to present your novels to readers in ways they'll notice, take action on, and be happy they did.

    Bob, I just bought a book because 50% of the proceeds went to what I consider a worthwhile organization. And Brenda Novak does an annual fundraiser for diabetes research. The important thing, I think, is to make sure it's real and personal. Otherwise it has a tinge of PR.

  12. Interesting you should write this today, LJ, when I posted my first ever news about my own work on DorothyL (usually I am pointing people to authors who appear on my blog or elsewhere). I really struggled with whether or not to do that--the news was my first ever publication and I sold the story several weeks ago and didn't say much (except on my own FB page). But then a couple of people wrote to ask, Hey, why didn't I know about it?

    So I sent around a post, feeling just a little...sticky about it.

    And the reaction was great. People seemed genuinely glad to know. I really hope they were.

    For myself, I think you nailed it with the, If it feels dishonest thing.

    I hate getting newsletters that are obviously generic with a "Hi Your Name". They're pretending to be personal and they're clearly not. Just say, Hi everyone, or Hi readers.

    I am also very sensitive to tone in these things. Way too often the tone strikes me as cocky or smug. Win a book from me! Would you like to win a chance for me to call in to your next book club meeting?

    If readers want to tell the author her book--r or better yet her voice--would be a great prize, let them say so. But there's a fine line when we start acting as if we're the prize.

    I agree it's subtle and I'm sure I'll make a fine mess of it betimes. It's great just to ask the question, and let readers know you want to reach out in ways that are pleasant and add to their lives.

  13. I think we can all agree sending mass emails is a bad idea. Posting your link on someone's page without their permission is another no-no.

    It's hard to know who is really reading or watching you. There are people out there that are waiting for you to put something out. Perhaps they read your posts and never leave a comment, but they are there.

    Occasionally I'll have someone post a comment telling me they love my posts. If you don't tell them how are they going to know. I read tons of blogs on writing because I'm that hungry. I value the writers that put out useful information without charging a dime. These are the writers I'll buy an ebook from.

    My Facebook page is about me and my writing, and that is who I am. I don't post one question a day and leave it at that. I interact with everyone that takes the time to comment.

  14. Madison, you wrote: "I read tons of blogs on writing because I'm that hungry. I value the writers that put out useful information without charging a dime." People tell me all the time how my published articles on effective fiction techniques have helped their writing, and they won't know they're there unless I tell them, so I'll probably continue to let people know about my blog posts on the craft of writing.


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