Tuesday 13 September 2016

On the promotion of a book.

Everyone would hope that if you write a great book, not just a good one, but a book that really has something special, then it will sell itself.

We would hope that as in the old adage "you can't keep a good man (or woman) down" a book of sufficient excellence will rise to the top, clawing its way there by merit, lifted by word of mouth.

Look at it another way though. We've all tried and failed to light a fire in our lives. There's no argument that fire is a supremely successful way of generating heat through oxidation ... and matches are perfectly sensible ways to initiate one ... and wood burns...


how often have we just ended up with burnt fingers, blackened kindling, and rapidly dissipating smoke?

If your book is not the sort that will get the typical reader to demand the next person picks it up then you are trying to light a fire in a swamp. In the rain.

If your book is The Name of the Wind then you are trying to light a fire in a tinder-dry forest.

If you have a big publisher behind you that's rather like having a friend with a ten gallon drum of gasoline to help you start the fire. Even then, if the book you're selling really isn't that good (or commercial if you prefer) the fire will peter out after carbonizing a few acres (selling ten thousand books), but nobody will be able to say it didn't have every opportunity to spread.
(Note, that not everyone published by a big 5 publisher has that publisher 'behind them'. Plenty of those releases are left to fend largely for themselves.)

A good small publisher could be likened to a friend with some firelighters, scrunched up, newspapers, and a cigarette lighter. A bad one is more like an acquaintance who grudgingly hands over one match.

When you're self-published you have a stick. Not a matchstick. Your job is to break it in half and rub the two pieces together and set the world alight.

Josiah Bancroft has been standing in a tinder-dry forest for three years waving his stick around gamely. Lightning did not strike. There was no fire.

It would be unfair to say that Josiah is bad at self-promotion. He's done more than I ever could just by going to conventions and hand-selling his book. I lack almost every one of the necessary skills and personality traits to do that. I'd probably be asked to leave.

I'm not sure what else he could have done if I'm honest. There's no secret path to self-published success. I think the main 'trick' he missed out on is becoming a bigger part of the self-published community itself. If you strike the right notes on the right self-publisher forums then your fellow writers become the gasoline and can give you a decent start.

Anyway, after 3 years Senlin Ascends had fewer than 50 ratings on Goodreads.

In April Senlin Ascends was entered for the Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off, 2016. In June it got a blisteringly good review from Pornokitsch. In August I read first Senlin Ascends, then the follow-up Arm of the Sphinx, and reviewed them on Goodreads and raved about them in general. In September I somehow got Goodreads' global #1 best reviewer (with 50,000+ followers) to read Senlin, and she loved it.

Here's how these events impacted the book's "to read" and "ratings" stats on Goodreads (click for detail).

To Read


Those "to reads" won't all translate into purchases, but some of them will, and each read is another spark that could push the embers into the full-fledged inferno the book deserves.

The only note of caution here is that this book isn't the kind of work that I (perhaps wrongly) associate with a viral self-pub wildfire. For example it's nothing like Ryan's excellent Blood Song. It is not a high octane kill-fest, there is no cool sword swinging hero. It is (at the risk of sounding pompous) a book for the thoughtful, the clever, and the experienced. It is perhaps a book most suited to traditional publication. But I'm hoping that the push it's been given will let it find its way regardless.

Returning to the main point. Self-publishing is HARD. Excellence by no means guarantees success. And there may be dozens of utterly brilliant books out there, the authors busy rubbing those two sticks together, and doomed never to get a flame.

It's clear that the importance of the super-fan, the reader who goes out and actively evangelizes on behalf of a book that has really meant something to them, cannot be over-estimated. Especially when an author is starting off. You might ask, what can one person do? But a passionate independent voice can make a huge difference. If you love a book, talk about it. Talk about it to friends and family in the real world, talk about it on social media, talk about it on forums. It makes a difference. It can make *all* the difference. You can be the spark.

In any event, all of this makes me very glad to have set the ball rolling on the SPFBO!


On January 16th 2018 Senlin Ascends gets its release with Orbit and will be on bookshelves at good bookshops all over America, the UK and beyond!

And even before traditional publication those 50 ratings on Goodreads have now exceeded 2000. There are no guarantees in publishing but the future for this author looks bright!


  1. Ugh, thank you for this. You're exactly right in how difficult self (or even "indie") publishing is. Having a small team working with you, to at least help you get a finished product, is only the beginning...like, step one of a thousand other steps to get to. Sometimes the days run together and I forget what I'm supposed to be doing, if I'm supposed to be continuing to write or blog or Tweet something random in the slim chance of attracting another one or two followers that day. Anyway, on to another day....

    1. Just read your hiking blog K.S., so thanks for that and keep going :)

  2. Excellent post. Thanks for introducing me to Senlin. Reading Arm of the Sphinx now!

  3. Thanks for leading me to Josiah Bancroft. He's bloody brilliant.

  4. I love the analogy used here, since I've struggled to start a fire using flint and steel for about two hours straight in the past. No, seriously. But at least I tried! Having the support - in general - of an author you admire (Mark in this case) is a wonderful thing and there are many of us who have felt that since SPFBO 2015, and now again with SPFBO 2016. In a way, Mark, you're a super fan to us all!

  5. Great article Mark. I tend to agree that you're more likely to succeed as a self-pubber if you're highly active in certain on-line forums or Facebook groups. That said, plenty of self-pubbers in those groups don't sell anything either.

    For what it's worth, I think you need a great story, good editing, and a fantastic cover. After that, it's in the lap of the gods as to whether you remain an undiscovered gem or take off. I really don't think anyone has a proper handle on marketing for self-published yet.

  6. P.S. Are you running a SPFBO 2017, and if so when does it launch. I missed it last year and want to get a reminder in my diary :)