Monday, March 23, 2015

Don't buy Joanne Penn's How to Market a Book

At the meeting this past Sunday, I mentioned how books for indie publishing are different than books for small businesses.  One of the things I mentioned is the centrality of money and research to small business publications.

Since I am revving up to indie publish, and spurred on by the conversation, I got a copy of Joanna Penn's How to Market a Book.  It is very well received on Amazon.  It has 5 stars with 134 reviews.  This depresses me.  Broadly speaking, I think this is precisely the sort of book that has been sold to writers over the years, saying it will help them get published but offering nothing of substance.

Most of it is personal anecdotes, which is a very far cry from data.  In particular, it doesn't answer the question of how many people did everything Penn did and failed.  What is the actual success rate?  What are the real financial, business and personal risks?  Penn doesn't talk about them, doesn't do much research at all, and often simply brags about her success.  She also repeatedly tries to sell the reader other books about the subject of her book, or directs you to other media instead of presenting it in her own book.

I'm about a quarter of a way through it and . . . it sorta stinks.  It starts off with a lot of the same cheerleading that you'll find in any marketing book.  But then something weird happens . . .

In a normal marketing book, they'd start talking money.  The only place Penn talks about money is estimating that it will take between $500 and $3500 to have your book professionally edited.  For actual marketing?  She bangs the drum of what she ridiculously calls "co-eptition", a clumsy portmanteau of cooperation and competition, but actually meaning cooperation - that an indie writer is best served by networking with other like-minded writers for success.

While I think that's a good idea for reasons artistic and social, she only offers her own experience as proof of this model.  This is one of the really serious departures from a how-to book on a small business model.  If a book on small business said something like that, they'd have some research to back it up.  I understand that indie publishing is a new field, so there aren't a lot of trade organizations or government data about the field, and it isn't like places like Amazon are opening their data vaults about indie publishers.  But one of the key jobs of a writer writing a non-fiction book is research, especially a non-fiction book.

Sure, I get it, you've succeeded.  (And much of the book reads like an extended commercial for her novels, I should add, which is also quite a bit different than a good book on small business.)  But it's bad reasoning.  The question is not whether Penn succeeded, but the extent to which her success was based on a specific plan of action that can be repeated by other indie publishers.

So, every time she tells some little anecdote from her success story, I roll my eyes.  Yeah, I get it, you succeeded.  Good for you.  But what are the NUMBERS?  The data?  What methodology did you use?  What arguments are you making?

Additionally, my scam-o-meter is going off, big time.  When a person tells me that, due to technological advances, you don't need to spend money . . . ?  That's a very slight variant of get-rich-quick schemes that are old as dirt.  When someone comes to me and says that they have a system through which you have to do something not very hard (network online) to get financial rewards?  I look in serious askance, particularly when they don't have verifiable data.  I just find it incredibly hard to believe that money doesn't really factor into success in marketing.  I mean, sure, I find it easy to believe that a publishing house style full court press doesn't work due to differences in the business model, but the idea that money is removed from the equation altogether seems beyond belief.

Some of the advice is good - such as the importance of understanding keyword searches - but her advice is, basically, "Read these other books."  Again, it smacks of a distinct lack of research.  Why the hell did I buy YOUR book if you're just going to tell me to buy someone else's book?  Isn't it Penn's job, as the author of a book that's literally about marketing books, to distill that research into usable form to assist your readers in accomplishing their goals?  I think so.  And it is commonplace in books about, y'know, real marketing and small business.

The short answer - it looks like Penn scammed me.  As I can afford it, fiscally, and have the kind of mind and education that is on the lookout for trickery, I won't waste too much of my time with this drivel - but I feel sorry for people who are lured into the promises of easy success and spend their time following instructions like "network with blog sites", without being given any concrete, specific advice what that means or where to go, instead of the nuts and bolts of real marketing in the digital age.

I will also point out that Penn repeats over and over that there are no rules, that the field changes constantly, that there are no guarantees of success.  All of this is true, but the frequency of the reminders feels like a cooling off process - where the author gets up your hopes and then covers their ass so when you try her advice and it fails, she can just say, "Oops, I guess things changed.  So sorry."


Going through various price strategies, Penn gives no concrete data.  So, a lower (or even free) price for a book at the start of a series MIGHT be a good idea.  Her "research" amounts to one interview with one writer.  What is the general effect?  I guess that would take research and that's hard or something.

She ends the section on pricing with advising a person to read another book . . . which is part of her strategy, I suppose.  "Co-eptition" in part works by inserting other people's works into your own.  But this has the net effect of reducing the value of Penn's book and creates a scam.

Again, this is a common scam.  You buy something and then learn that to get what you really want?  You've got to spend more money!  It would not surprise me if the book on pricing suggested yet more books to buy to get the information one needs to make rational marketing decisions (perhaps closing the loop by referring Penn's book) . . .

Which, while we're on the subject, makes me think about one of Penn's premises - that you should be ethical in your marketing.  I mean, I am not stunned that a person claims ethics and then engages in bait-and-switch tactics, luring you in to spend more money to get what you need from the book you bought.  The first thing unethical people do is appeal to ethics, after all, assert their honesty.

Let me speak to Joanna Penn: bait-and-switch isn't ethical, Joanna.  If you buy a car and find you've go to spend extra for the fuel tank, well, no one does that because it's unethical bullshit.


Chapter 3 is about short-term marketing.  The header is "no platform needed."  Hmm.

The sections about long-term and short-term marketing are the make-or-break parts of the book.  If you're reading these words, it's because part 3 and 4 broke the book.  I don't care if there are personal anecdontes in other sections so long as these sections provide useful information.

No stories.  Not recommendations for other books.  Information.

Let me go read part 3.


Nearly the first thing the author does is buy reviews.  At the book's start, Penn says it's terribly UNETHICAL to buy reviews, but in part 3, well, she describes how she gave out free books to people on her mailing list, asking them to review it ONLY if they liked it.  She included a smiley face, so I guess it's not trying to buy reviews . . . ?

No, let us be clear.  She is giving away merchandise for positive reviews.  If buying reviews is unethical, this is unethical.  She calls it a "soft pitch with no pressure".  It is not.  It's trying to buy positive reviews.

(The ethical way to handle it, by the by, is simply to give out the books without mentioning reviews one way or the other, or a general call asking for a review.  By specifically asking only for positive reviews, she breaks the code of ethics she spoke about in such big letters earlier in the book.  I mean, sure, her readers don't have to give a positive review, but that's equally true of any reviewer who gets something for their review.  They CAN just take the money and give a crappy review.)

While unethical by her own standards and a mere anecdote, she says that 30 percent respond with 4 or 5 star reviews.  She does not mention if any give bad reviews - but I suspect few if any do, since she's specifically asking them NOT to review her book unless it's a good review.

She then says, in big ass bold letters that "Sending free review copies is totally normal and accepted in the publishing industry."  So it's okay because someone else is doing it?  Plus, these aren't merely review copies.  If that was the case, sure, but she's specifically asking for only good reviews, she's asking that people with bad reviews do not review the book.

She goes on to say that it's okay because she hasn't paid them.  Unless, y'know, a free copy of the book might count as "payment".  (Hint: it does.)

And the horror keeps going on.  She says that this only works with fans of your genre, and that you want honest reviews.  Unless, of course, they're bad ones.  In that case, she doesn't want them.

She includes a link to an article about targeting Amazon's top reviewers.  So, y'know, once again I've bought a book that references me to something else instead of giving me the data that I thought I had paid for.  She then goes on to talk about an Amazon premium option - giving a link to an interview she did with someone else instead of, I don't fucking know, WRITE A SUMMARY OF THE INTERVIEW.

Hellfire and damnation, this woman is a horrible writer!

Then she goes on to talk about book bloggers, how to contact them and such.  This part isn't so bad, but again, no numbers.  But, again, a link to a thirty minute interview Penn did with someone else.  Really?  I thought I bought a book and apparently I bought an advertisement for other products!

Then there's a section on "what not to do."  She beats the drum, again, about not buying reviews after starting the chapter on how she buys reviews.  It's unethical!

. . .

Okay, I know this thing is getting long, but here's the thing about ethics and advertising - I don't know where the line is but I do have some thoughts on the subject.

It is increasingly commonplace for companies to buy ads that look like copy.  It is not illegal, at least not in the US.  We have a very high level of freedom of speech, here, and specific jurisprudence (Citizens United!) that says spending money is identical to freedom of speech.

I do not think that because something is legal that it is automatically ethical.  But, on the other hand, I'm not sure why big, powerful companies can create ads that look like copy but individuals can't.  To me, that sounds hypocritical, or at least extremely naive (I believe that Penn, in his regard, is naive; it isn't like she did a lot of research into advertising norms as practiced on Madison Avenue).

So, where's the ethical line with marketing?  I dunno.  But I do know when you're giving away a book for free and asking people who don't like it to not review it, you're actually buying reviews.  So I know that Penn is being a hypocrite.

Ahem.  Moving on:

In 3.2 she finally gets to paid advertising.  Oh, joy.

She suggests paid promotional sites that have lists of avid readers who might be interested in your book.

On the other hand, she says one ought not buy email lists, calling them a scam.  Eh.  Spam works.  It's not illegal.  It's not even fundamentally unethical.  Americans have the right to communicate with their neighbors for commercial purposes.  It's the reason why spam isn't flatly illegal, it's the reason why mailing lists aren't illegal, or door-to-door salespeople.  There is no legal way to distinguish between people who engage in mass mailings (electronic or otherwise) or door-to-door activities who are there "legitimately", since certain kinds of speech are strongly permitted (religious and political, for instance) and because people's standards differ.

Penn's ethical biases are childish.  I understand that a person might hate spam.  I do, that's for sure, and I don't see myself using it, but she beats the drum of ethics time and again in ways that are absurd.

While offering no real proof, she provides more anecdotes about how she used paid promotions successfully.  She then goes on to talk about what Bookbub is and . . . says she has no idea if it works.  That it's expensive, requires a monthly fee, but each author has to decide if it works for them.

Again, data?  Fuck that shit.

Then she gives a fairly extended anecdote about her one experience.  It starts with the obligatory cooling off, saying that there's a large number of factors that go into things and an given person's experiences are likely to be different than hers.

That's why you need to do research.  Instead of just taking your experiences and writing about them, you attempt to create a representative sample, collate the data and present THOSE results.  That's what I actually paid you to do.  If I wanted anecdotes?  Jesus.  The Internet is FULL of anecdotes!  I did not buy a book for ANECDOTE!

Neither should you, by the way.

It's a crappy anecdote, too.  It's about her experience with Bookbub and she gives a very little data on how much she made - though only in the first two days of the promotion.  She gives some Amazon and Kobo stats for both the peak and a week after, but no numbers on total sales or money made.  Weaksauce.

Then she dismisses Facebook paid adverts by saying she's not a fan.  Again, anecdotes offered instead of data.  She mentioned Goodreads paid advertising but only mentions it, then Kirkus Reviews, a quote from one person who did well with it (that's what qualifies as research to her - she got one quotation, done and done!) and another anecdote on her experience with Kirkus (weakly negative).

Then she speaks about her experiences with traditional media.  It didn't work for her.  She gives reasons why she thinks this is the case, but without attribution, though some of it seems legit (not targeted enough, too long between seeing her and the opportunity to buy her book, no specific call to action - sounds reasonable, sure, but where's the data?).

Then Penn talked about hiring a publicist.  To me, a competent publicist would seem a godsend - someone who can efficiently and skillfully do the marketing tasks that a given writer might stink at and certainly has no experience with.

Almost nothing is given beyond a suggestion that you do your research and budget carefully to maximize your chances of successful.  I get the feeling that Penn hasn't used a publicist (no anecdotes!) and, as ever, no research.  She points out that it's expensive relative to the other techniques in the book.

VERY disappointing.  Even in my minimalist research at this point, I'm aware there are a bunch of different kinds of publicists.  Particularly, in this day and age there are a number that specialize not in traditional media but digital media, but also many others besides.  To characterize a publicist as someone who operates solely in traditional media is to do a serious disservice to their service, as well as to lead the readers of Penn's book astray.

This is keeping in context with her researchless style.  If she has never used a publicist, well, since she does no research, why should she look into the success and failures that other people might have had with publicists?  Creating representative samples isn't in her wheelhouse, apparently.

She spends, for instance, a LOT more time on getting a good photographer than a publicist.  Really?

Then she talks about a press kit, gives a few websites about them, and how to contact the press.  The amount of effort she puts into this is slightly strange given her attitude towards traditional media . . . though the reason becomes clear when she gives her multi-page success story about her press releases.

Remember, she can't guarantee doing what she does will be successful, but she really likes telling you about her personal experiences!

She also talks about her experiences with TV and radio.  Now we're in the world of outright bragging.  Around about her section about press releases, there is no longer any context about how this improved even her own sales.  She made no attempt to link her experiences with the press, TV and radio with anything so pedestrian as sales spikes or anything else.  She devolved into pure braggadocio.

Needless to say, not what I wanted to read.

Almost no talk about how much things cost or, really, any data at all.  Overall, her advice on short-term marketing is both "do as I do" and "don't expect it to work", personal stories that she seems to know don't mean very much, but yet are the focus of the chapter!


In chapter four, we get to long term marketing with a "platform".  It starts out with backlash against the idea of having a platform (I suspect I'm part of that backlash - a lot of it seems to offer much and return little, but always allowing a person to spend more and more time in the minutae of social media networking).

Since I think she's going to mention it a lot, Penn really loves the work "karma".  I dislike the way it's used in English, because it smacks of orientalism.  Karma is a Hindu and Buddhist religious concept about the accumulation of one's deeds on one's soul and the effects this has over multiple generations.  It is not "what goes around comes around", though it is used that way with great frequency.  I feel that's insensitive, if not racist.

That said, I have some interest in this section.  I am an engaging public speaker.  I would very much like to get up on stage and tell people who awesome and clever I am, convincing them to buy my books, stuff like that.  I expect to get some anecdotes, though.

It's worse than I thought.  It is clear that part of the reason Penn suggests this is because she likes it.  It's fun!  I'm told this repeatedly.  I'll make friends!  I have friends.  It's totally worth it!  Why?  Uh, because she likes it.  It is magic, she says.  She literally calls it magic.

It is not.  She calls herself an introvert, but I think that we need a bunch of new terms.  For a person such as myself, who constantly struggles against competitiveness, social media can easily become an incredible drag.  Strangers barging into my life, expecting to be taken seriously, who I often find are fucking morons.  I get competitive, then I get mean.

I don't think this is very strange.  Interacting with a large and shifting group of strangers is challenging.  Much in the same way that some people are better at groups, some people are going to be better at social media.  I greatly prefer speaking to large bodies of people than getting attention from strangers because of some post I wrote.

I am also very aware that during Penn's rhapsodizing praise of platform, there are no numbers attached as regarding publishing.  WHY a person selling books should create a platform is unclear for an indie writer (she rightly points out that traditional publishers love that kind of stuff, though having looked into that there's no good reason why for them, either - I think it's a legacy issue, harkening back to the days when speaking engagements and such were the only way for a writer to reach an audience).

Penn does say that having a good platform can become a business onto itself.  She gets speaking gigs, for instance.  She attributes this platform to her being a full-time author-entrepreneur.

But this is weak.  I mean, I speak well.  I would love to supplement my income with speaking gigs.  I'm seriously considering both interviews and podcasts because I think I'd be good at them and there's enough intrinsic joy in them that I would want to do them regardless of their "success".

(Interestingly, and I think this is a big lacuna, at no point does Penn talk about other kinds of marketing.  She doesn't have T-shirts, coffee mugs or other merch for people to buy relating to her books.  Hmm.)

Afterward, Penn talks a little about brand management.  She talks again about authenticity.  She fuckin' loves that word like crackheads love the pipe!

Let me be clear.  Authenticity doesn't mean very much.  I don't mean that a person shouldn't be authentic, but in the sense that the word has little meaning in a promotional sense, except as something you wish to inculcate into your fanbase.

OK, that's not actually clear.  What I'm trying to say is that it's great to have people think you're "authentic" but there's no real standard of what that is, artistically.  It is, at best, sublime.

Not to mention the little problem that maybe you're an asshole.  If you're "yourself" but you're a jerk?  Maybe you should try to be someone else, someone, I dunno, more marketable.

And, indeed, a lot of the advice is irrelevant of any authentic experience.  So, for instance, I should be authentic but also stay focused.  But . . . I, Chris Bradley, am authentically diverse.  I like different things.  Today, it's writing about this terrible marketing book.  Tomorrow, it might be something about my cats, or something political, or a recipe I like.

See?  Be authentic but consistent, stay focused . . . I guess it helps if you're that kind of person.

Otherwise, fake authenticity, I guess.

Then there are the calls to spend more money on other books as well as the inevitable interview podcast.  Because this book isn't about actually providing you with data, but bragging and advertising.

Then there's a very long section about pen names.  I'm not sure why, probably because it was easy to write.

I also think Penn dances around the gender issue instead of gripping the bull by the horns.  The truth is that it's harder being a woman than being a man in most cases.  (Though in the case of, say, paranormal romance author, being a woman is a pretty solid plan.)  But to say that, after going on and on and on about authenticity is hard.  If you're lying about being a man because you write science-fiction, are you being authentic?

It's a touchy issue and she handles it poorly is what I'm saying.  For my money, I would have preferred a simple practical guide.  I wasn't looking for ethical advice from this book, but marketing advice.  Whether or not it is authentic or ethical or anything else to craft a nom de plume but the marketing reasons to do so.  Whether an author then wants to ignore that advice because they find it distasteful can and should be up to them, I figure.

Then there's some stuff about websites, but it was so banal I skipped it.  If you're going to have a website, it's probably best to hire a pro.  Knew that!

Then, she suggests an email list.  This part isn't bad, probably because Penn's career has been strongly influenced by her mailing list.  She's clearly anti-spam (which is fine, as I am, too, though in a truly useful marketing book I think that spam should be addressed as a potentially useful marketing technique; I do not pick up how-to books for ethics but data and options).

Really, she should have started out with this.  It is easy to do and a vital tool of direct marketing.  I accept that every author should have one as being obviously true.

Then she talked about blogging.  It's a good idea because it changed her life.  Once again, who cares?  Penn's personal story isn't the point to this!  I bought a book on marketing, not her life story, not a biography!

I dislike blogging as marketing - I mean, I hate it - so I won't be doing it and mostly skipped the section about how it changed her life.  Maybe if I had some confidence it would be about more than her personal experiences blogging, including research data about its efficacy, I would have slogged through it, but she's a terrible writer who should suffer in the pits of hell for her affronts to nature and humanity.

Indeed, I then stopped.  Clearly, there isn't much here for me since I'm not looking for ways to make ending my own life easier.  It's a terrible, nasty, boring book that doesn't redeem itself by providing useful research or data.

It is, unfortunately, typical of its breed.  Indie publishing is likely the right course for me, but the books about it seem designed to take advantage of people.  This is pretty normal in the publishing industry, though - a fair bit of publishing is about lying to writers, after all, and taking advantage of their hopes and inexperience to make a quick buck.