THE BLOG
09/05/2014 01:28 pm ET Updated Nov 05, 2014

Success Bias

Klaus Vedfelt via Getty Images

I was giving advice the other day about short story self-publishing. It wasn't great advice, really, because aside from "it's very easy" and "people will pay to read your stories" I don't have all that much to offer. I think it's easy and I think it's lucrative, but as my friend pointed out, I already have a built-in audience, and so my perspective on the whole thing is skewed. She was right. I have readers, and that makes all of my promotional efforts easier, because the best way to get readers is to already have them.

This got me thinking about self-promotion, how difficult it is, how much it sucks and how often it fails. And how rarely anyone says that.

Success bias

You will see a lot of advice online from authors who have successfully self-promoted their writing by doing A, B or C, and I'm not saying any of that advice is necessarily wrong or right. I'm saying advice from successful people has a built-in bias. Let's call it success bias. It's the same thing you get if you ask a guy who hits home runs how he hits them. "I see the pitch, I swing the bat very hard, and the ball goes over the fence" is the answer. But that isn't useful advice.

New authors are told to set up Twitter accounts and Facebook Author Pages, and Pinterest, and a Tumblr, and a GoodReads profile, and a mailing list, and a blog, and good Lord, probably 15 other online things. And that's just the beginning. Individual novels should also have devoted fan pages, their own Twitter and Tumblr accounts, and blog tours, plus of course a book listing on GoodReads, and maybe even a book trailer. And giveaways! There have to be things to give away, like bookmarks and T-shirts, and excised chapters from the novel, and extra Advance Reader Copies.

If none of that works? Well, you're doing it wrong, according to the next wave of successful author advice-givers who are out there to tell you the way to leverage your twitter account better and attach the best keywords to your blog, and reblog the right things on Tumblr.

Many of you will soon discover that Twitter is an echo chamber of authors promoting each other to each other. Also, the only people following you as an author on Facebook are the friends you asked to join -- whether they've read your books or not -- and your mom. On top of that, your blog isn't heavily trafficked, nobody is joining your mailing list, those Tumblr blogs aren't getting any followers, and basically none of this is working.

This isn't because you're doing anything wrong. It's because the advice for self-promotion from successful authors is really advice on how to keep people interested in your writing. It's a whole lot easier to get readers if you already have readers, in other words. It makes perfect sense for established writers, people who are already famous for some other reason, and to an extent, people transitioning from fan fiction or another form of online writing. People with existing fan bases.

Starting from zero

Getting new readers -- building that initial base of fans -- is different, much more difficult, and harder to predict. It may involve one or all of the above websites and services, but just because there are social media success stories out there doesn't mean the same thing will work for anyone else. Not everyone can hit a home run.

The question of whether it actually did work is also a very real one. Readers are mysterious creatures who travel in herds in the dark. Nobody knows when they will stampede or in which direction, and anyone who tells you otherwise works in marketing. A sales bump could have been because of the last tweet you sent, or that podcast, or your latest Huffington Post article. It could also have been an influential reader, or Amazon adding your novel to a promotional email, or the debut of a TV show with a similar title. It could also have been nothing and people just started buying the book and nobody knows why.

An example: my novels Immortal and Hellenic Immortal sold extremely well in 2012 and 2013, and it may have been because I appeared on two television interviews in May of 2012, but that was only one thing in a long and wide-ranging media campaign. To say the campaign worked is to ignore the fact that sales didn't turn around until three months after the campaign ended. It probably did, but I couldn't say for certain which aspect of the campaign did it or if it was an aggregation of things, or if it was nothing. In other words, I have no idea what thing worked--if it was only one thing--or why.

Nobody knows

This is my ultimate point. Self-promotion is simultaneously necessary and potentially useless. It's possible now to write a thing, self-publish it, and then sit back and see what happens. I know someone who did this, with no marketing, and saw enormous success. I know 10 people who did the same thing and saw no success. Likewise, I know dozens of authors that self-promote constantly, and only one or two that see real sales. If this were a science experiment the conclusion would almost have to be that there is no correlation between self-promotion and sales.

It's not a science experiment, though, so I'll sign off with a different conclusion: Find a way to get readers. Any way you can think of, anything you think might work. Be prolific, be professional, and be available on social media for them. Maybe, if you're very lucky, the stampede will turn in your direction.

Gene Doucette is the author of the Immortal Trilogy -- Immortal, Hellenic Immortal and the upcoming Immortal at the Edge of the World. His short stories include The Immortal Chronicles -- Immortal at Sea, Hard-Boiled Immortal, and Immortal and the Madman, and the thriller Surviving Hector. He has also written the sci-fi thriller Fixer, and as G Doucette the dark erotic novel Sapphire Blue.