Self-Publishing Essentials – Passive Marketing

So here we are at the point in the discussion that you’ve all been waiting for. Marketing.

red bookMarketing our books has got to be the most time-consuming, frustrating part of the entire self-publishing experience. It’s frustrating for all writers, no matter how you’ve been published. How do we get our books out there? Where do we find readers? How can we get more reviews? Most importantly, how can we hit it big and retire to JUST WRITE. Everything we try seems to come with a cost, and gargantuan effort yields so few sales that we just want to give up and cry in a corner, am I right?

I don’t have the definitive answer about how to become a bestseller. I do have some educated guesses though. At this stage of the game, I’m pretty sure sheer dumb luck plays more of a role in the process than any of us wants to admit. But as they say, we make our own luck. I believe there are a few crucial things we can do to start the marketing ball rolling and to harness the momentum to make something.

As I see it, there are two types of marketing for books: Passive Marketing and Active Marketing. Passive Marketing involves all those seemingly small but ultimately all-important static things that we do to make our books look attractive to readers. I’m going to talk about those today. Active Marketing involves all of those herculean efforts that we go to in our attempts to get our work out there and find readers and reviewers. I’ll be talking about that next week. We tend to focus on and tear our hair out over Active Marketing, but in so many ways it’s the Passive Marketing that catches more eyes and draws more readers in. A lot of people trip themselves up by not paying attention to this aspect.

So what is Passive Marketing?

Passive Marketing are those aspects of our books that are permanent, ever-present, and that reach people whether we know it or not. I’m talking about the quality of the writing itself (write a good book, remember?), editing (developmental and copyediting), formatting, the book cover, and the cover copy. It’s easy to forget about these things, but nothing turns a reader off—or gets them excited—faster than the cover or the blurb or the physical appearance of the inside of the book.

If you look at reviews anywhere from Amazon to Goodreads, chances are it won’t take you long to stumble across a bad review in which the reviewer waxes on about the number of typos, grammar mistakes, continuity errors, or formatting gaffes. It’s so easy to shrug them off as unimportant, but the nit-pickers out there will catch them. And unfortunately, it’s the nit-pickers who review books. Yep, someone who disliked a book for whatever reason is far more likely to take the time to write a review online than someone who liked it.

courtesy of

courtesy of

This is why traditional publishing companies have layers of editors. You need to hire a professional developmental editor to help you work with your story to make your final product smooth, well-paced, complex without being confusing, and engaging. You need to have someone else go through with a red pen to find word misusage, misplaced punctuation, bad grammar, and those awful spelling errors that Spell Check just can’t catch. Yes, I hear you groaning “Do I have to?”. Technically no. But would you rather find those inevitable mistakes right away and fix them or would you rather have a reviewer blast them all over a vicious 1-star review?

Still think it’s not important? I will avoid paying money for a book if I see more than one reviewer go on and on about copyediting mistakes. True story. I’m not the only one.

Another equally important but easy to overlook aspect of Passive Marketing is formatting. Remember that all of these fantastic self-publishing platforms stick your final document through a meat-grinder in order to produce a file that is compatible with everyone’s eReader. Smashwords even calls their converter The Meat-grinder. Smashwords also has this fabulous book called Smashwords Guide to Style which will hold your hand and walk you through the baby-steps of creating a document that will not get torn to shreds in the conversion process. I recommend following it religiously each time you publish a new book. I’ve heard other people in the know recommend following it religiously as well. Formatting errors are not technically your fault as a writer, but again, try telling that to those troll reviewers.

Incidentally, it takes me at least an hour, usually more, to adequately format a book. It’s worth the time.

Then there’s the cover.

Covers are awesome. Some of them are so pretty I want to buy the book based on the cover alone. In those old fashioned places where you can go to get coffee and meet your friends called brick-and-mortar book stores, people take the books off the shelf and look at them to decide whether or not they want to buy them. Don’t think that they don’t do that online too! That tiny little thumbnail is the single biggest factor that will make someone click to find out more about your book or scan on to something that catches their eyes.

Yes, this is it.  This is how you will sell your books!

Yes, this is it. This is how you will sell your books!

So why, pray tell, do so many self-published authors think they can create their own covers? Authors with no professional graphic design training or experience. It is painful when someone who owns a copy of Photoshop and fancies themselves able to use it thinks they can cut financial corners by designing their own cover. This is where humility plays a major role in self-publishing. You may very well be brilliant with a design program, but just like you need someone else’s perspective to edit your book, you need someone with specialized talent to design your cover.

I have had so many compliments on my covers. My good friend, Jonathan, of Pehr Design & Photography makes them for me. He’s been a graphic designer for YEARS. He has his own company. He knows what he’s doing. (He’s looking for more clients, btw) Aside from Pehr Design, there are bunches of companies popping up out there who specialize in cover designs for self-published novels. (Please share designers and companies you know in the comments so we can compile a list!)

Having a beautiful cover is key, but perhaps even more important is what a reader will find when they click on the cover to find out more.

Readers decide to buy a book or pass based on the “back cover blurb”. It is my firm belief that all other factors are secondary to this simple statement of what your book is about. And therein lies the problem. I have read some cover blurbs that do nothing more than tell the reader what the book is about. “Joe is a young boy who is beamed up by a spaceship one night. He goes on adventures through the stars.” Yep. That’s what the book is about all right. And I’m already bored.

We’re writers. In theory, we’ve written tens of thousands of words that spin an exciting story that will have the reader flipping pages. That starts with the blurb. A good blurb orients the reader in the world they’re about to explore, but it also gives them a myriad of reasons why they want to buy the book to explore that world. Fill your blurbs with conflict, with intrigue. Write them in the voice that you use throughout the story. Hook the reader before they know what hit them. Remember, you’re selling your book. Make people want to read it!

The best way I’ve found to write a good blurb is to study the blurbs of bestselling books. I write Romance, so I routinely read the blurbs of all of the books on the top lists for Amazon and iBooks. I’ve even been known to go to bookstores to read the backs of the books on the shelves. Not only do you begin to get a sense for what story information hooks readers, you can also get a sense of what’s going on in your genre, what types of stories are popular.

There’s one other thing that you can add to your Passive Marketing if you’re lucky enough to have it. I’m talking about excerpts from great reviews and/or “blurbs” from other star writers in your genre. Honestly, you can quote a good review from anyone from your aunt Mildred to a random Amazon reviewer, but review quotes from publications or well-respected blogs hold much more weight. In fact, I have very mixed feelings when I see a glowing quote followed by –Amazon Review. As far as “blurbs” from other authors go, again, you have to be careful that the author blurbing you is a big enough deal to make a difference. I was recently part of a discussion in which some well-known authors were commenting that their publishers wouldn’t let certain other authors blurb them because those authors weren’t big enough. It hurts, but they have a point.

And there you have it. Passive Marketing. Next week we’ll look at that big, bad, bugaboo of Active Marketing. What works? What’s a waste of money? How much time do you have to spend on it? We’ll look at it all.

Any questions or tidbits you’d like to add to the conversation? Please do!

17 thoughts on “Self-Publishing Essentials – Passive Marketing

  1. Great blog!! Points I’ve been told repeatedly by friends who make a living with self publishing, and all the research I did.

    Let’s see:

    I have Cali do my covers. I don’t like all of them, but she has some great ones out there that I DO love. She worked with me, and created a cover that fit my novella perfectly, without breaking my bank.

    For my blurb, it’s harder than most as the genre is basically humorous urban fantasy without magic. Nothing dark, nobody dies, nobody’s life is on the line. So instead, I used: and created the one page synopsis, worked the blurb from that. It took two hours to get a decent rough draft, another hour of edits/revisions, and I created a decent 250 word blurb I ran by my Production Manager at work. She’s since asked me to help five other authors create theirs.

    I’m not going on Smashwords – they have said themselves that on their site, the shorter books don’t sell well. As this series is novellas, Amazon is the proven seller. So I contacted some best selling friends and asked them how they formatted for Amazon.

    And the MS is currently at the editor’s … who is liberally splashing red ink all over it, and has already found two weak spots. Since we both work for the same publisher, I know she will be ruthless.

    And yet, despite all of this, and the fact that the novella is free, I have no doubts – I’ll be lucky to have it downloaded a thousand times in the next six months.

    • I don’t really understand why so many people aren’t fans of Smashwords, but there are a lot of folks out there who hate them! I’ve never had any problems with them or their formatting tools. In fact, their customer service has been outstanding a few times. That being said, I don’t publish with them to sell books through their site. I think I may have sold 20 in my entire publishing career. It’s the fact that they distribute to all the other eBook sellers that I love, especially Apple.

      And novellas are becoming more and more popular all the time. I’m about to publish one myself. 🙂

    • Good timing for me! I’m going to self-publish this year– after writing a great blurb, carefully editing, finding a good cover artist! Thanks!

  2. Hey Merry, great advice yet again! I have a question about book covers. I’m not sure if it’s a dumb question or not. Does a cover designer need to read the book they’ll be creating the cover for? Maybe not need as such but should read it in order to craft a cover that reflects the story?

    I’ve been involved with graphic design work for years but I wouldn’t want to design a cover for my book. I’d rather a professional work their magic, leaving me to concentrate on the writing. My writing project is near completion, the current and 8th draft might be the last, though that’s pending having a professional editor work on it!

    I’m keen to look ahead and think about the next step of publishing – I’m very much drawn to Amazon Kindle or Smashwords etc. I haven’t made my mind up where yet, one thing at a time I guess!

    • In my opinion, Dave, the cover designer doesn’t have to have read the book. I don’t think my designer would be interested in reading steamy romance (although his wife loves them!), but he still does an amazing job. I do give him a bit of background about the story and the mood I’d like to create with the cover. We work together a lot. I think there are other cover artists out there who get an idea then go create on their own. The key is finding an artist who works well with your style.

      And you don’t have to choose between Amazon or Smashwords. I publish through both. I publish directly with Amazon (and B&N) and have Smashwords distribute to everyone else (Sony, Kobo, Baker & Taylor, but especially Apple iBooks, where I sell almost as much as Amazon). You can also distribute to Amazon through Smashwords, but you have to meet certain criteria first. It’s so much easier to do Amazon directly though.

      • Ooh I didn’t know that! Awesome stuff, thank you kindly. I plan on spending some time finding the right artist, and though I have been in contact with a marvellous artist from the States, Christina Deubel, I think it would be preferable to meet with someone more local. Thanks for the feedback Merry, appreciate it!

        • No problem, Dave! For the record, my cover designer lives in New Zealand while I live in Philadelphia. He grew up around here and we knew each other in school, but he’s still in New Zealand. We’re able to collaborate well though. 🙂

  3. Fantastic points, Merry. It amazes me how many authors put their books up for sale before the book has been through a content editor, copy-editor or other reviews.

    I have to agree that getting cover quotes from well known authors is very helpful! Tweeted.

    • I don’t know what it is, Ella. I guess it’s a cross between impatience and the belief that the cost outweighs the advantage. It never does, but some people believe it does.

      And I hope someday you can blurb my books! =D

    • Thanks, Angelyn! Again, I don’t really understand the negativity towards Smashwords. They have so many useful tools on their site. Mark Coker (Smashwords founder) also has a great book on marketing that I’ve found helpful. Both the marketing and the formatting books are free on Smashwords.

  4. Another great post, Merry!!! I have two day jobs, one is very part time and that is as a freelance copyeditor, editor, and/or electronic formator through an organization that helps self-pubblished authors. For the books that I only formatted, there were so many novels that would have been absolutely beautiful books, if only they had an editor and copyeditor. As it was, the books have many typos as well as story problems. But for most of these books, with the exception of only one book, the problems were small. It would have taken just a little more time to fix the typos and story issues. Time and money, I know, and some self-pubbed authors feel they don’t have one or the other or either. But from my point of view, what is worse? Disappointing your readers, whom may never read you again? Or handing an editor and copyeditor a little money? That may sound like a hopeless endorsement to keep me employed, but, honestly, I am looking to retire from my day job, one of these days, and JUST WRITE, like all the other writers out there.

    Merry, thank you so much for making these points! As a person who has seen many a book pass by my desk and cringe–not because the books wasn’t wonderful, but because of too many typos–I am so thankful to have someone like you out there advocating to use help when self-publishing!!!

    • Thanks, Lani! And that’s really my point exactly. Would you rather have a professional point out your mistakes in the privacy of pre-publication where you can fix them or would you rather have the trolls of review world point them out for all the world to see once it’s too late? It’s worth every penny to sort it out in advance.

      Also, if you have a website for your editing, I encourage you to leave the link in a comment here so that people coming after can see your services and pay you money! 🙂

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