Sunday, September 1, 2013

How might indie authors be like carney barkers?

The 1970s -- the decade in which I evolved from being an overly-self-conscious elementary-school pupil to a fairly-self-assured college student. What an amazing ten years! One of the more-curious rituals of many of those years was heading over to the Kansas Free Fair fairgrounds (which amazingly enough was but a few blocks from my boyhood home there in Topeka).

A couple times during the Fair (which ran for at least a week the first part of September), I remember helping out at the 4H hamburger/hotdog stand. I suppose I could add it was from within that hot, cramped greasy and smoky 10'x 12' screened-in enclosure that I both learned how to grill hamburgers fit for human consumption. (The tales of my fast-food and other restaurant experiences is slated to be revealed in yet another blogpost.)

A good reason for "volunteering" to help out with the annual 4H fund-raiser was to gain free access into the Kansas Free Fair. (Yeah, I know; what's the sense in calling it a "Free Fair" when it cost a few bucks to get inside?) It was fun to visit the different agricultural pavilions as well as the rather-curious side-shows which included "The World's Hairiest Man," etc.

But the area I really wanted to visit was the arcades

Ah yes ... the arcades! That multi-colored strip of Rust-oleum-covered steel, cracked and faded plastic and gaudy and obtrusive neon lights! The arcades ... where for a quarter softballs were thrown at bowling pins for the chance to win a 5-foot teddy bear!

And who worked at the arcades? Why none other than the carnival barker! And what did the carnival barker do to entice young teens try their luck at their amusement stands? They yelled, screamed, cajoled, teased, bantered, hollered, shouted ... all of these combined! Too often than not, the loudest, crudest, cruelest ... even the rudest ... barkers seemed to attract the bigger crowds. The booths were all the same size, the prizes similar and the results, pathetically enough, too-often identical. The lights, the noise, the personalities ... all three combined to make the arcades an example of Americana unlike any other.

"Crass advertising"? "Pandering to the basest element of the human psyche"? You could say that. But it worked. And how do we know it worked? Because the carney barkers returned ... year after year after year.

Now on to the business of marketing books.

Are successful indie authors approaching the marketing of their wares like a carnival barker? Should they? How about we take a look at what those who populate The Writers' Cafe think about this topic!  

"I imagine many writers face this dilemma: you have created a book. You are (at least relatively) satisfied with it. You are not rich and you have no 'connections.' You are not on the inside track of Culture Merchantry. How do you rise above the Cosmic Slush Pile, whether at Kindle or an agent's office? And, like so many artists and writers, self-promotion, hustling your book, carnival barking, and all go against your very genetic make-up, which is to not obnoxiously push yourself on people. And it does not appear to matter whether your book is good, bad, or anything along the grey scale in between: what matters is raw salesmanship."

"If you aren't interested in promotion, don't do it. Start writing the next book instead. Repeat this cycle until something catches on. It's a perfectly viable path to success. Lots of 'overnight' successes are 10 years in the making--so you've got a while to go before declaring success or failure if you just finished your first book. You are mistaken about raw salesmanship being the only/primary thing that matters, though it certainly doesn't hurt. Your book may or may not sell whether you don't promote at all, or you're a killer salesman. No one promised you (or me, or any of us) a career in publishing at all, but it's nearly always a marathon rather than a sprint if you luck into one."

"The way I look at it, a combination of writing the next book (and the next) and a moderate amount of self promotion is probably the most practical approach. You don't need to knock yourself out or play the shill. Go places online, like this one or Goodreads, and post about your book where it's permitted. Then join the discussions elsewhere on such sites. Make yourself known, talk to people, and stay within the rules for author participation. It actually makes a pleasant break from writing."

"Yes, it's necessary to be something of a carnival barker. And like a carnival barker, 99% of the people will ignore you. But you need that 1% that listens and gives you a chance. You have to respect their time by providing something that will knock their socks off - so quality IS paramount. Coming from a marketing background, I'm comfortable with the tools available, the strategies, etc. But I'm uncomfortable marketing myself. I'm used to being paid to market other people, or their products. It's more nerve wracking when I'm the brand and my baby is the product. You have to choose your target audience and find ways to reach them, at least to get the ball rolling. Save up some money and throw it at a narrowly-targeted audience. A lot of this promotion stuff is trial and error, so you don't want to put all your eggs in one basket. Personally, I've found Twitter to be a dud. Now, with a mere 50 followers, I expect MY tweets to die empty deaths. But I've had others tweet on my behalf to thousands, and while there's an occasional retweet or favorite, they don't appear to do anything for sales. Not enough to show on the radar, anyway. I'll still do it, because it costs nothing but a few minutes of my time every few days. Facebook has worked for me, at least to a degree. You can target specific Facebook groups. There are genre-specific fan groups, groups for writers and readers. Using KDP free days, if you're in KDP Select, may or may not work. It seems to work well for some people, to get their book shotgunned out to a wide group of people, some of whom will actually read it and may talk it up (especially if that quality thing is there.) Myself, I have no intention of giving away my hard work. Now, there could be something that changes my perspective on that, but that's where I am now. I'll take the long view and be patient. Pricing strategy may also help. On the advice of some fine folks here at KBoards, I'm keeping my price higher than the 'Cosmic Slush Pile' which may provide separation from the chaff. Subconsciously, price = quality (but to get people to spread the word, I have to DELIVER on that quality. Remember when I said quality is paramount? I meant it.) I ran my book at $2.99 for two weeks after release, then ramped it up to $4.99 and sales only increased. Google AdWords was a bust, but a cheap one. I hit a deal where if I spent $25 on AdWords, Google would credit my account another $100. I've burned through it all, and there's been exactly zero evidence of AdWords increasing my sales, despite ample clickthroughs. Publicity articles placed on blogs may or may not impact sales, but at least they provide added material for search engines and therefore, credibility outside of Amazon. Inexpensive advertising is available, if you target it. I wrote a zombie apocalypse novel, so I put together an ad to run on a zombie-themed online game I play, There's not a lot of people playing it these days, but it reached a few thousand. I can't say whether many people there bought the book (though I know some did), but at least it was exposure. But it absolutely matters whether the book is good or bad. A bad book will always be bad and could taint your brand for future endeavors. A good book may be overlooked, but will take on a life of its own once it is discovered, even if it takes months or years. An eye-catching cover and a concise, sales-oriented blurb are vital. They speak to the quality the reader can expect. They get people to read the sample, and if the sample is good enough, they'll buy. I have anecdotal evidence of that working. As an unknown, first-time author, however, the main thing I'm after is reviews. The more reviews, the more credibility is built. I've only got 7, and I'm always begging people for more. Obviously, begging isn't working as I have so few. But I'll keep working at it. There are several more reviews that should be showing up soon, as I've gifted the book to some reviewers, but many of them have months-long backlogs before they'll get to mine - some as long as a year. That's fine; I'll gift copies for reviews. I get 70% back and it counts as a sale. The long and short of it is, there is no magic bullet. If there were, everyone would do it. I've taken almost a month off from writing, just to try and get the ball rolling on my first novel. Then I'm going to forget it's there and focus on book #2, and let my novel sink or swim on its own. I might juice it with an ad once in a while, but mostly I'll leave it to word of mouth. (Cool story: my niece was talking to a friend, who recommended my book, not knowing my connection to her. It was a very cool feeling when I found out, as it personalized my work.)"

"If you feel like a hawker, then you're doing it wrong. Using Twitter and Facebook as megaphones not only doesn't work, it annoys the crap out of everyone. If you think you should be selling your book, you're doing it wrong. The product, in the promoting game, is you, not a single book. You want people to recommend your name, not your specific book, to others. You are the brand. You do this by writing more books and by being engaging and involved on social media, not by spamming."

"It's the American work ethic, isn't it? -- keep on working, working, working, working and good things will happen. But there is an central problem: there is only so much time in the world and every contributor the Kindle system is a competitor for that time and for that audience. Isn't it a giant pyramid? Whether by genuine quality work or by simple hustling, a few rise and the masses remain the stepping stone, the backdrop, for them."

"Study the successful authors in your genre. See what they do and mimic them. Odds are they are not carnival barkers."

"I'm not in favour of carnival barking. The bottom line is you need some personal motivation for writing fiction. You need to get a kick out of doing it, a buzz from the creative process. If you are doing it only for the money, then there are easier ways to make a fast buck. I'm not saying we don't want the money, but you have to be motivated to write, or to play music, or to go on stage, or to create art. You get my drift. If you are writing to become the next bestselling indie, then you may soon become discouraged. If you write because you love the sound of the words and phrases in your head, the touch of the keyboard as your story unfolds, the emotions you feel with your characters as you read and rewrite each draft, and the heart pang you feel when you know that you've finished and are ready to share it with others; then you will not be disappointed regardless of how your books sell. This is not to say it's not nice to sell well and make money. But perhaps writers driven to write by the inherent satisfaction of it are more likely to appear enduringly optimistic, because they love what they do."

"One piece of advice I'd give you moving forward is this: consider that some of your best promotional opportunities will come through fellow authors and cross-promotions."

"There's a lot you can do to build awareness of your book. None of it is overnight and all of it requires time and effort. If you're not optimistic about your book, who else will be?  The most successful people have a tendency to be optimistic, to expect success and to then make sure they 'get lucky' by putting in the hard work ... they make their own luck."

"Being pushy isn't effective promotion; it turns people off fast. The best ways to sell your books are the ones that appeal to you. With everything else, your distaste or discomfort will inevitably bleed through. So if the only thing you're comfortable with is writing and publishing, you're better off just sticking to that. If it ends up taking you longer to sell books than someone who's doing brilliant promo? Well, that's the trade-off for not having to do something you find gross."

"The counsel to just write and let sales take care of themselves is akin to telling publishers not to worry about marketing, promotions, pricing, etc. and just hope for the best. It's the worst sort of silliness, in my opinion, if you're talking about operating a book selling business. Contrary to that wisdom, books do not sell themselves. Nothing really sells itself, so if you're in the selling business, you need to get good at selling, not just writing, which is a TOTALLY different business. FYI, effective sales and marketing is not carny barking, but that's a whole different topic. If you're going to try to brave the trad pub slushpile, you are marketing your wares to a different audience. So you need to decide whether you want to market to those who are supposed to sell your product (agents, who sell it to publishers, who sell it to readers), or ignore that as well, and simply write more. I think it's pretty clear that ignoring whatever your target market is, whether trad or readers, is a lousy strategy for selling a product. There is wisdom in creating a substantial body of work. Wisdom in the sense that it gives your bookselling business more products to sell. But having more products, other than getting you more virtual shelf space in a limitless shelf space environment, only does so much."

"A good chunk of this job is actually business administration. Secretary work. Lists. Spreadsheets. Emails. Work. Sending emails. Keep track of what you're doing. It's much easier to 'refuse to be a carnival barker' than to refuse to do business administration, because that just sounds ridiculous, right?"

"Some seem to embrace an idea that writers are too delicate, sensitive, and special to work in the market place like everyone else does. I don't see any basis for that."

"I'm a firm believer that the overwhelming majority of your 'work' time should be spent actually producing new, completed works. For me, this involves 3 stages of a product (plotting, drafting, editing)--and it's my goal to spend the majority of my time on one of those tasks. You can spend a lot of time on marketing. You can spend entire days learning what to do, devising a strategy, executing the strategy, and reviewing the strategy. The problem, especially for new writers, is that you don't have a backlog of products that are going to benefit from your marketing prowess. Spend an hour a day on marketing--or two hours if you've churned out a huge number of words--and get more familiar with the marketing landscape of your genre. In that hour a day you can: research what others are doing, develop a marketing strategy, and begin implementing that strategy. All the while you should be working to produce more and more products that said strategy will sell. Keep the pipeline moving. You don't know which books are going to resonate with readers, and marketing doesn't guarantee success. Building a following and producing a steady stream of new content, along with slowly and steadily improving your ability to market that product, will lead you to your goals, whatever they may be."

"There's another consideration for the new author: do you want to be a published author or a financially successful published author? I have a friend who put up a non-fiction book on Kindle, with a suggested retail price of $5.99. One book. No author profile. No reviews. Guess how many sales? But he's a published author!Then there are my friends who do careful genre and sub-genre research, crank out books and series of books like sausage makers and make some money from them. Some use cool marketing stuff. Some just keep their butt-in-chair and write the next book. All are profitable, because, eventually, one of their books took off and then the rest got noticed and took off, too.The main marketing device that the profitable ones use is at the end of the book: 'Visit my profile, take a look at the other stuff I've written, leave me a review so I can improve my next work.' All of these folks have writing talent. The financially successful ones concentrate on writing more books. Eventually, they will be able to retire, if they choose, and live off the fat of their waffle-butt, so to speak."

"It's all in the attitude. Treat it like it's fun, and it will be. Treat it like it's a chore, and it will be. Treat it like carnival barking, and you'll come off that way and probably never sell a thing because you're being a hard-sell jerk about it. Personally, I never buy from hard-sell jerks. I go out of my way to avoid buying anything from them. If I encounter someone willing to answer a few questions I already have? That's good. If I encounter someone in a mall who picks me out of a crowd, gets in my face, and says, 'HEY! WANNA TRY PRODUCT X?' I will NEVER buy from them, even if it's something I need (and usually it's not). If I'm in the market for a widget, the last thing I'll do is buy from in-your-face-guy. I'll go somewhere else where Product X is sold and buy Product X from someone with basic manners. But you don't have to be hard-sell-jerk-guy to market your books. You just have to seek out opportunities to talk about yourself and your work to folks able to spread the word."

"I'm not afraid to admit that I do write to produce an income. For 'the money,' as some put it. Does that mean I shortcut the reader to maximize profits? No, I'm not one looking to shortcut anyone. Does that mean I write in genres that I'm not passionate about, simply to increase my income? Again, no: clearly horror isn't necessarily the hottest-selling genre of late, and yet that's what I've spent the last year and a half writing in. I could make more money doing the 1,394th version of YA vampire romance and how some mousy, quiet, surly girl starts believing in herself because she's secretly the queen of some other dimension and before she knows what's going on, she has two incredibly hot guys competing for her attention, because mousy, quiet, surly girls are SO hot. To vampires. I could make more money doing new adult, or romance, or, heck, even erotica. But none of those genres are my thing, either. I like horror. I enjoy Stephen King. My stories are influenced by everything I've learned by reading his books, about how to tell a story. It's hardly original to like King; any horror writer worth their salt would love to be comparable to him. I don't think I'm King, per se; I'm just influenced by his work. But that's the sort of stories I like to tell, too. So that's generally what I tell, within the filter of my own background, experiences, and voice. So, all that said... yes, I want to make money off my books. I want them to be found, bought, and (ideally) enjoyed by as many people as possible. In the best of all worlds, I reach enough readers to do that and make a decent living at it. Maybe not rich; maybe not Amanda Hocking-level income and sales... but enough to be able to pay bills and rent and buy the necessities of life? Abso-fricking-lutely. I think wanting to make a living at your craft often gets denigrated by idealists, but is as fully a legitimate goal and aspiration as 'I do it for art's sake,' or 'I write because I have to,' or 'I just do it for the kicks.' There's nothing wrong with any of those motives. Just as there's nothing wrong with 'doing it to make a living/for the money.' I mean, let's be honest: did Steve Jobs start Apple only because 'he loved technology' or because he wanted to make a living off his love for technology? I suggest the most honest answer is: both. After all, isn't it the definition of the American dream to find work you love AND make a living doing that work? So yeah, in that sense, I absolutely do it for the money. Doesn't make me any less of an author, either."


  1. Interesting comparison. I think with the average indie author, less is more when it comes to the carnival barker approach. At least with a carnival barker, you go into things knowing that the game is less than fair and will probably leave you empty handed. With a book, you could be getting a literary masterpiece or a pile of unreadable drivel. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately), authors who spend all day, every day, screaming about their book on social media channels tend to be associated with the former. A little self-promotion goes a long way, but in this case, I think an author's time is better spent networking with potential readers directly than begging for sales on Twitter.

  2. Hey there Janel! I haven't done much networking with readers via Goodreads. And to keep my conscience clear I hardly ever tweet links to my books.