Kevin Brennan Writes About What It's Like

Self-publishers and guerrilla marketing


I’ve already mentioned that I’m kind of queasy about the risks of self-publishing, the almost 24/7 promotion it takes to be successful (defined as you wish), the schmoozing, the social media obsessing, and the pain-in-the-assing you have to do with friends, family, and random pedestrians. And since I write literary novels — and Yesterday Road is a literary comedy, more than anything else — my chances for getting noticed on Amazon are pretty lousy out of the gate.

I’ve read that you can buy Twitter followers at pennies to the pound, but the other day I learned that the first self-published author to sell a million books on Amazon.com did it, in part, by purchasing five-star reviews! The scheme was later exposed, and his reputation is therefore tarnished, I suppose, though his books are still selling.

Personally, I couldn’t live with myself if I sank to the level of buying reviews. (And they’re not cheap, by the way — a thousand bucks or so for forty reviews.) But, philosophically, I wonder how different this is from HarperCollins, say, buying preferred placement for its books in stores? Most people aren’t aware that’s going on. They just think, These are the popular books, the best books. These are the five-star review books.

And how is it different, really, from celebrities hawking products on TV? We all know they probably don’t use the stuff, or drive the cars, or whatever. They’re paid to say they do. Most marketing is smoke and mirrors to one degree or another.

Let’s face it. Four- and five-star reviews on Amazon are the new Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval. People use them to filter the enormous gob of titles that are available. Why wade through a hundred pages of thumbnails when you can ask to see the best ones in just a couple of pages? It’s not even that the reviews themselves are the selling points. (A lot of people rely more on the poor reviews than the positive ones anyway.) It’s just a way of separating wheat from chaff.

I don’t know. I’d like my book to earn its stars, and yet I can almost smell the futility of my earnestness as I lay the groundwork for self-publishing my little literary comedy in a few months.

It’s war out there — metaphorically, anyhow. What do you think? Do we have to become guerrilla publishers in order to prevail? Lay traps and snares and trick people into buying our books, since diplomacy is clearly not going to cut it?


18 comments on “Self-publishers and guerrilla marketing

  1. Christopher Lee Deards
    May 23, 2013

    I don’t have any answers, but all you can do is promote yourself to the extent that your resources allow and hope that your book does its own selling.
    I’ll give an example. Years ago I found Patrick Rothfuss’s book, The Name of the Wind on my cousin’s bookshelf. I picked it up. Read the first few pages and did not want to put it down. I went out and bought the book. Rushed through it because it was so good. I then told all of my close friends. Two of them took me up on my advice and read the book. They are astounded by the book. They tell their friends…
    That’s how it has to go.

    • Kevin Brennan
      May 24, 2013

      Agreed, but your example highlights the difficulty I expect to encounter with a literary novel. Rothfuss is a fantasy writer. There’s a much bigger potential audience for that kind of material on Amazon. Plus, if I’m not mistaken, he’s published by a traditional publisher. (I don’t know anything about him, but his listed publisher is an arm of Penguin.)

      • Christopher Lee Deards
        May 24, 2013

        Right. He has a big publisher, but plenty of books backed by traditional publishers go nowhere. Word of mouth sustains. Plus, Rothfuss is a slow writer, in my opinion. He’s a great novelist, but his last book, Wise Man’s Fear, was first published in 2010? Name of the Wind came out in 2009. What’s sustained him is word of mouth.
        Plus he’s involved in charitable organizations. I’d check out his blog if you’re interested. Like I said, he’s a great writer, but save for a children’s novel in 2012, he hasn’t put out a novel in the series he’s known for since 2010. Something sustains interest in him.

  2. Victoria Sawyer
    May 23, 2013

    I don’t think you have to outright buy anything, like reviews etc, however there are ways of marketing that will hopefully get you those reviews, in a sort of circular circle jerk fashion. That being said…it’s a lot of freaking work as you say in the first paragraph. I’m living the *cough cough* dream right now. Dream or nightmare, hard to say, but I do know I’m stubborn and I won’t quit until I’ve succeeded or until I die. Whichever comes first. HA. Probably death by social media and groveling. Anyway, don’t be scared. Or do. Oh shi.ooot. Visit my blog if you want the 411 on what it takes…I made a list just the other day of all 101 steps. There are really WAY more than that, but I had to simplify for brevity’s sake. GOOD LUCK!!

    • Kevin Brennan
      May 24, 2013

      “Death by social media.” I can see it happening.

      Cool blog over there at Angst, by the way! I’ll pop in a lot. I think I need to get me a Kindle now just so I can read your book!

      • Victoria Sawyer
        May 24, 2013

        Thanks! I love your dog picture by the way, when it pops up in my comments, I laugh. Also Kindle’s are AWESOME. I love mine so much. I highly recommend it. Oh yeah and my book is dope too.. ha 🙂

  3. cnmill
    May 24, 2013

    I think that buying reviews is just…deplorable. If you’re one of those people who writes for the money and not for the love of writing? Yeah, sure. I’m sure they see no problem in it. It’s business to them, after all.
    I would rather fail with my integrity than succeed without it.

    I’ve been feeling a lot of that same thing, as I’ve put quite a lot of thought into self-publishing my series. The idea of all the self-promotion makes me nauseous. I generally have a difficult time speaking with people. And how different it is from WRITING the book! Ugh. Complete opposite ends of the spectrum.

    Good luck to you though, and have a great day. 🙂

    • Kevin Brennan
      May 24, 2013

      I think some writers see themselves first as entrepreneurs and artists or craftsmen second. But I’m like you: it’s all about the writing. I can’t stand the whole promotion thing, but I’m ready to give it a shot. Thanks for commenting!

  4. L. Marie
    May 24, 2013

    Wow. I hadn’t heard about that scandal! I didn’t know you could purchase a five-star review. Makes sense though. There is corruption in many places. But how sad. No wonder people look askance at some five-star ratings.

    • Kevin Brennan
      May 24, 2013

      Yep, but I did read something that suggested more people are drawn to read the one-star reviews just to see what someone else found wrong with the book. Usually I find one-star reviews as bad as the five-star. Maybe 4 is the sweet spot.

  5. 1WriteWay
    May 24, 2013

    Well, that just is so sad. I figure that writer must be a very lonely soul. I think it would be infinitely more satisfying to, as you say, “earn” your 4- and 5-star reviews.

  6. Kevin Brennan
    May 24, 2013

    Indeed. I’d hate to be the first guy exposed as “the one with all those phony reviews!” Clearly he gets more satisfaction out of watching his sales numbers…

  7. Phillip McCollum
    May 24, 2013

    I may be odd man out, but I don’t begrudge anyone who uses whatever tools are available in an honest manner (e.g. I’m okay if you’re paying people to take the time to read and review your book, but not paying for people to purposefully leave a *good* review).

    As you pointed out, it’s a battle to get yourself recognized in a saturated field. I guess its all about goals too. If you’re happy to just put something out there and let it live its own life, knowing that you’re being ‘artistically pure’, then by all means, more power to you. But if you’re looking to make a living from your writing, why would you put roadblocks in the way of your own goal? Of course, as with most things, there’s a balance that can be achieved.

    Just some rambling thoughts from someone who has yet to publish anything anyway, so feel free to ignore me. 🙂

    • Kevin Brennan
      May 24, 2013

      I don’t disagree with you on that, Phillip. You can buy a Kirkus review for $500, but you run the risk that it’ll be negative or so-so. Clearly the ethical issue here is that the review writers are fake and often didn’t read the book anyway.

      As for making a living from writing, I’d have to imagine that there aren’t a hell of a lot of self-publishers managing that. (Or traditional, for that matter.) But I’m with you on the balance thing. Each of us probably has a line we aren’t willing to cross.

      • Phillip McCollum
        May 25, 2013

        Thanks for the thoughtful response, Kevin.

        Personally, I would be reluctant to throw that type of money toward reviews that, as you mentioned, run the risk of not being so great. But some people have a greater appetite for risk (and a greater income), so I wish them luck.

        Also, good point about the difficulty of making a living in this field. I don’t think many people would do it if they didn’t love to write.

  8. Blaise Lucey
    May 30, 2013

    This is a good catch on this story… and a very interesting moral quandary. Reviews are near-impossible to come by if you’re not a big seller. The three reviews I have on my self-published short story collection are from 2 family members and one friend. Others have claimed they would review it, but to no avail.

    I’m torn between the possibility of buying reviews… what’s the difference, as you say, between that and other promotions? Or book blurbs from friends of the author? Especially considering the way that we consume Amazon reviews. We just want the books we read to be five stars, we don’t necessarily care about reading them other than a cursory skim.

    I think Amazon made a big statement by allowing the book itself to stay in place. It’s all online marketing at this point, and the reader is the decision-maker — how couldn’t they be, if they can preview 10% of the book anyway?

    • Kevin Brennan
      May 30, 2013

      I do think an important element here is the reader. What are the reader’s expectations when they read reviews? Do readers care, in your example, that book blurbs generally come from friendly associates of the author? If you asked someone for a blurb and it was negative, you wouldn’t use it, after all. On the other hand, I think most readers probably assume that Amazon reviews are legit and would be surprised to learn that some are bought and paid for. That could cause a backlash.

      But you’re right. Amazon is wink-winking in allowing these books, or at least these reviews, to stand.

  9. Pingback: Claire Violet Thorpe’s Books | The Claire Violet Thorpe Express

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This entry was posted on May 23, 2013 by in Publishing, Social media, Writing and tagged , , , , , , , .
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