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Self-Published Book Marketing Bloopers

Heidi Thorne is a self-publishing advocate and author of nonfiction books, eBooks, and audiobooks. She is a former trade newspaper editor.


A fellow author made a comment that he thought the sci-fi book he’s working on could appeal to young “hipsters.” But then through his research, he discovered that retired servicemen were an audience for his particular genre.

And other creators have similar dilemmas. A fiber artist I follow on TikTok posted about an item that she thought would sell well on Etsy. Nope. Not selling, though other items do. She thinks this one will just sit in her shop forever.

As authors and creators, how do we get these things wrong? Have we really gotten them wrong? How do you drill down to find your real audience?

Let me share my own book marketing blooper.

My Own Book Marketing Blooper

When I launched my first official self published book in 2011, SWAG: How to Choose and Use Promotional Products for Marketing Your Business, my intent was to use it as a business card book, a nonfiction book that would help establish myself as a thought leader, resource, and source for buyers of promotional products for their own marketing efforts. Here’s how that market reacted.

I would personally hand a copy of my book to my customers. The reaction was along the lines of “That’s nice,” said as my clients placed my book on a pile of paperwork on their desks before changing the subject. No followup commentary was ever volunteered or received from them after that.

However, over the years, I’d get comments, questions, and recognition from fellow promotional products distributors. In other words, my competition, even if it was friendly. I got industry speaking engagements because of the book. One promo distributor said that he bought the book for all his salespeople.

Well, that’s embarrassing for someone like me whose career was primarily in sales, marketing, and advertising. Where did I go wrong?

When my clients purchased promo items, they had me (or someone like me) to help them make decisions. They didn’t really want to learn how to do this marketing themselves. As well, people think swag is the easiest thing to buy, even though I can attest that it is not. And that’s probably why there are so few books on the topic anywhere. Nobody really wants to learn how to do it… except if you’re in the industry, like my friendly competitors were.

The book still is one of my top selling titles, now over a decade later. I’m always at or near the top of my topic category. But it’s the old problem of being a big fish in a very small pond.

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What could I have done differently? Well, I could have taken a clue from the lack of books on the topic for sale on Amazon. But as for using the book as a lead generator, it was a fail. Side note, lead generation books are an old time-y tactic that doesn’t work as well anymore, due to information overload, and changes in buying behavior as a result of the internet and the Amazon-ization of retail.

Your Ideal Reader vs. The Ideal Reader

A wise marketing move is to determine your ideal reader for your book. But we have to be very clear about what is ideal. Is ideal a reader that you want to read your book? Or is it the actual people who do read books like yours? This is an important distinction.

My author friend's story is a great example of this problem. He thought that younger, hip readers were his imagined ideal readers. But as he did his research, the ideal reader was much, much older with a military background. While he was able to get some insight on this market targeting issue by listening to other authors in his space, this can sometimes be a difficult thing to determine.

Listening to those in your market demographic, especially on social media, is one way to get this insight. What do I mean by “listening?” I mean that you need to be following those who talk about your genre or topic. A good place to start is by following narrowly defined hashtags that are relevant to your type of content. Who’s talking about what you talk about? How old are they? What do they do for a living? What else do they talk about in addition to your genre? You’ll likely start seeing some common characteristics that can help you identify your ideal reader.

Don’t get it backwards! It’s tempting to force-fit an ideal reader profile. For example, let’s say you think your ideal reader is young moms of learning challenged children. But your real audience may be teachers in public schools. Those are two different readers. Again, look at who’s talking about what you’re talking about in your books, then develop your ideal reader profile.

Niche, But Not Too Niche

If there are very few available titles within your sub-genre or topic on Amazon, that should be a red flag.

On the opposite side of this spectrum, you may also struggle to make sales in bigger, more competitive genres and topics. In this case, you’ll want to do some drilling down to see how you could narrow your niche, again without drilling down to a niche with very few entries. This can also be a difficult call. Look for those niches where you and your book have the best fit and can offer something of value.

My author friend did the right thing in seeking out insight from fellow authors who wrote similar books to his upcoming book. He ran across a conference presentation by an author who writes similar work to his. That’s how he discovered he might need to rethink his targeting.

Some Things Just Won’t Sell... And That's Okay

Even the largest and most powerful companies have sales and product failures. Shall we talk about New Coke? Google Glass? Ford Edsel? Google Plus? Apple’s Lisa computer? Blockbuster in its waning years?

After you’ve done your best to make the best possible decision with the information you have available, and you’ve decided to move forward, realize that the market will then take over and give you feedback on your offering.

Markets change over time. In response to changes, you’ll need to be emotionally able to pull the plug on something that isn’t working.

In self publishing, that means that if a book isn’t selling after your best efforts, don’t keep wasting marketing dollars and effort on something that doesn’t work. It’s all about ROI. You don’t need to unpublish it. You can continue to make it available as a backlist title. Just don’t throw more resources into it. You may even come to the pull-the-plug point before you publish. It’s okay to walk away.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

© 2022 Heidi Thorne

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