The Biggest Secret of Book Marketing Success

by | Sep 12, 2012

I love the enthusiasm of authors who are new to book publishing. After months or years of work on their book, many are rightfully proud of what they have created.

It’s no easy thing to finish writing a solid, salable book. Pretty easy to start, not so easy to finish, and you should be proud of that accomplishment.

The problem comes in when, after publishing the book, authors start to wonder why they have sold so few copies. Don’t other people realize how great the book is?

Well, the fact is that most authors don’t intuitively understand why books sell. This leads them to start thinking about:

  • Buying advertising
  • Hiring publicists
  • Printing bookmarks

Or other things that usually mean you’ll end up with a lot less money in your pocket than when you started, and no guarantee of any book sales, either.

There’s nothing wrong with ads, publicists or bookmarks when they are part of a plan you have for marketing your books. But all too often we feel like we just have to do something.

There’s a Secret

Here’s the secret that savvy book marketers understand, and that most authors don’t:

No one knows in advance which books will sell and which won’t sell.

Of course I’m not talking about books by niche-market publishers who research and test their products before publication. But by and large, most trade publishing happens with absolutely no guarantee of what the sales of any particular book will be.

This is just as true for big traditional publishers with huge marketing departments as it is for huge Hollywood movie studios and big conglomerate television channels, so don’t feel too bad about it.

All the advertising, promotion and marketing in the world cannot guarantee that real actual people will buy your book.

For example, a long time ago Donald Trump, the real estate investor and television reality show host, published his first book, The Art of the Deal. It was a huge hit.

Of course Trump wanted to follow that up with another blockbuster. A book was created and rolled out in anticipation of huge sales. Books were stacked in huge pyramids of expectation in bookstore display windows.

Problem was, nobody bought the book. The return rate must have been shocking, because they all went right back to the publisher.

No Guarantees

Why is is that no one can guarantee a book will sell? I bet you can find the answer in your own book-buying habits.

It’s because most people buy books based on the recommendation of someone they know and trust. And you can’t buy those recommendations, can you?

This is the holy grail of book marketing, the “word of mouth” influence that travels directly from one individual to another.

By extension, it can also work for trusted book reviewers or others in the media who have earned readers’ trust, but it rarely extends past that.

For instance, I just read Lynne Truss’ Eats, Shoots & Leaves, a fantastic and very funny book about punctuation that I had known about for years but never read. It hasn’t been on television, I haven’t seen a book trailer about it, nor have I seen an ad for it anywhere.

But a friend mentioned it recently and told me I “just had to read it.” Doesn’t that happen to you all the time? And don’t you recommend books exactly the same way to people you know? I know I do.

What Next?

This leads to a big question for authors, and that is how do you get that word of mouth marketing working for you?

Of course, if I had scientifically worked out how to do that, I’d be selling it to some big publisher for a gazillion dollars, wouldn’t I?

But there are things we, as self-published authors, can do to get word of mouth started. You might boil it down to this:

  1. Write the best book you possibly can, and get an editor to make it better.
  2. Make sure the book speaks to the audience you wrote it for, and let readers judge whether you’ve hit your target.
  3. Get your book in front of enough people who don’t know you to get the ball rolling.

Figuring out how to do this is why people hire professional book marketers, and that’s a smart move.

It also pays to really understand how to match up what you have to say with what readers really want to buy. Whether you call it “marketing” or “thinking deeply about the people who read my books” doesn’t much matter.

What does matter is getting the best book you can create in front of the largest number of people who are likely to love it. As an author and a publisher, you can’t do any less.

Because then at least you’ve put it where word of mouth can take over.

This article was originally published in a different form at the Savvy Book Marketer. Amazon links are affiliate links. Photo by Beatrice Murch from Buenos Aires, Argentina (Talking) [CC-BY-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

tbd advanced publishing starter kit


  1. Alan Kurschner

    I think the first principle of marketing is: Make sure the proof is in the pudding, first. That is, the book must be well written; otherwise people will not recommend it. Someone can throw all the money they want at promoting a book, but give me, any day, the value of a book that excites people to promote it to their friends. I would rather invest into that long time value of a book over a transient glitzy campaign.


  2. James R. Vance

    Attracted by the subject matter, I recently purchased a Kindle edition of a novel after reading numerous excellent reviews on Amazon. I found the prose badly written with many typo and grammar errors, the plot boringly repetitive, inconsistent and not even relative to the book’s title.
    I since learned that the author boasted about his ‘rave reviews’, yet openly admitted that friends and relatives supplied the fabrications.
    Beware unsolicited reviews.

  3. Phil Steer

    Joel said:

    > Get your book in front of enough people who
    > don’t know you to get the ball rolling.

    And therein lies the problem! It is a classic “chicken-and-egg” situation. Short of giving away lots of copies (and perhaps that is the answer?) how do you get your book in front of enough people who will then recommended it to others?

    I never expected to sell that many copies of my book, but I did think that there might be a few more “word-of-mouth” sales, as friends and acquaintances (hopefully) recommended it to others.

    The feedback about the book has been overwhelmingly positive (even allowing for the fact that most of the current readership know me). Yet these “word-of-mouth” sales are hardly happening.

    Just a few more would be nice!

    • Joel Friedlander

      Phil, friends and family are probably not going to be enough to get any traction for your book. Giving away books can be a good strategy if you give them to the right people. You might try offering a book to anyone who would consider doing a review on Amazon, which would multiply your efforts, or do a review campaign, since reviewers will also have a multiplying effect. And, of course, none of this happens in a vacuum, so if you can support your marketing in other ways, that will help too.

      • Phil Steer

        Thanks, Joel.

        I do fully appreciate your comment about friends and family not being enough. In fact, my initial audience was a little wider than this, extending to the membership of the church that I belong to (my book is about an aspect of the Christian faith), which I felt gave a slightly greater scope for word-of-mouth recommendation to those in other churches.

        I have actually given away a few review copies (in addition to those I gave to people who helped me with the book) – one to (who published a positive review) and two as giveaways on (resulting in one review and one comment – again, both positive). I’m not sure that either has yet resulted in even one additional sale – but I live in hope! I’d happily give away a few more – if I could find the right people willing to review it. I might have hoped for one or two Amazon reviews from those who have already read it – but then I ask myself, how many books have I ever reviewed (answer, none). I could always ask for a review, but I must admit that I’d feel somewhat awkward doing so.

        In the meantime I’m slowly learning (through your articles, amongst others) how to increase awareness and “meet” potential readers through social media and other avenues.

        Thank you again.

  4. bowerbird

    joel said:
    > if you want to talk about “taking responsibility,”
    > I’ll wait until you drop your anonymity, then we can talk.

    well, let’s take this last thing first.

    i’m not “anonymous”.

    “bowerbird” is my poetry name, a pseudonym,
    and certainly not something i’m using to “hide”,
    since i’ve used it, online and offline, since 1987.

    if i wanted to hide out, i’d use my legal name.

    and here’s my cell-phone number: 310.980.9202.
    if, you know, you wanna call me to see if i exist…

    > Sorry, I’m not going to take responsibility for
    > every spammer or jerk on Twitter who RTs my posts,
    > that just doesn’t make any sense.

    ok, well, i guess that’s where we differ, then.

    because if i was putting out a message which i thought
    might be misunderstood by people in a way that led ’em
    to do something which i would never advocate to them,
    and then i was informed that some people did indeed
    misunderstand _and_ were pointing to _my_content_,
    then i would immediately let ’em know i did not approve,
    and if i was unable to correct their misguided behavior,
    then i would ask them to dissociate themselves from me,
    to protect my own reputation as a non-spamming citizen.

    i mean, i assume there’s almost no “spammers or jerks”
    out there who’d be retweeting my posts, so that this is
    not something that would take up a whole lot of my time.
    and i wouldn’t even do general monitoring to affirm that.

    but i’d want to be informed about any that _did_ exist,
    and i’d want to take action. but maybe that’s just me.

    so, you know, if you feel differently, well… that’s what
    makes a horse race, as they say…


  5. bowerbird

    joel said:
    > Mr. Harmon seems to be sending
    > about 3 tweets per day,
    > not exactly an avalanche of spam.

    um, no. you’re badly mistaken.

    just today, he’s had the #eprdctn hashtag
    on 19 of the 21 tweets he has sent out
    in the last 12 hours! 19 spam tweets!

    and he is abusing other hashtags as well:
    #indieauthor, #indiepub, and #kindle…

    several people asked him, politely, to cease,
    but he seems to be in announce-only mode,
    as he never responds personally to anyone.

    joel, when you beat your marketing drum
    but you’re unwilling to take responsibility
    and action when your message goes bad,
    then maybe you should think about that…


    p.s. but even if it was “only” 3 spams a day,
    how many do _you_ think are “acceptable”?

    • Joel Friedlander

      Yes, I see you are right about the frequency of tweets, my mistake.

      Sorry, I’m not going to take responsibility for every spammer or jerk on Twitter who RTs my posts, that just doesn’t make any sense.

      Although I welcome your contributions here, if you want to talk about “taking responsibility,” I’ll wait until you drop your anonymity, then we can talk.

  6. bowerbird


    this drumbeat for marketing creates a problem
    when some people misunderstand, and spam…

    right now, there’s a guy named mark harmon
    — tweeting under the handle of @epubhelp,
    as he “helps” authors with their marketing —
    who’s spamming the #eprdctn twitter hashtag.

    (that hashtag is utilized by e-book designers,
    who don’t have any need for marketing stuff.)

    among the many tweets that harmon is sending
    are some links to your articles, joel. so perhaps
    you could help get mr. harmon straightened out?

    because he’s making himself — and you! — look
    very bad in the process of doing this spamming.


    • Joel Friedlander


      Thanks for your concern. Mr. Harmon seems to be sending about 3 tweets per day, not exactly an avalanche of spam. And there’s nothing I could do about it anyway, hundreds of people RT my posts within the open environment of Twitter, it’s just the nature of the service.

  7. Terry Dassow

    I’ve never really thought to word “marketing” as “thinking deeply about the people who read my books”. I’m thinking the definition of marketing needs to be re-written just how you’ve re-worded it because without thinking deeply, writers end up just flailing and not knowing how to market (which is why you have written this article). In it’s current stat,e marketing can feel a lot more like being abandoned on an island than working with your own power to reach people who would like to read your book. Thanks for the phrasing, it really helps me rethink how I’ll focus on and reach out to my potential readers.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Thanks for your comment, Terry. It is definitely something to think about.

  8. bowerbird

    ernie said:
    > the best in the business
    > will make a book a bestseller
    > in no time flat. For instance,
    > Brendon Burchard just did that
    > with his book “The Charge.”

    i’d think the big6 would want to
    hire you guys as soon as possible.

    because most books they release
    struggle just to pay off their cost.

    you seem to know things they don’t,
    or they’d make every book they publish
    into a bestseller. and do it in no time flat.


  9. Turndog Millionaire

    Nice post, Joel

    Nothing in this world is certain. A great book won’t always sell, and some poor books will…ahmmmm Fify Shades ahmmmm :)

    But if you create a high quality product and get it in the hands of people who can make a difference (endorsers) then yes, your chances certainly increase.

    I think self published authors should try and connect with book reviewers and bloggers and people who are very much like them. These people hold great sway these days and it certainly increases your chances of getting some exposure.

    Doesn’t guarantee anything, though

    Matthew (Turndog Millionaire)

  10. Ernie Zelinski

    For Tahlia Newland:

    To get your book in front of people, try giving away hundreds of copies, even thousands, to influential people. This is a great way to get word-of-mouth advertising happening.

    I have now given away over 13,000 copies of my books (print editions, not ebooks).

    Don’t cheap out, in other words, if you are so sure that you have a great book. Marlo Morgan gave away over 90,000 copies of her self-published “Mutant Message” in three years, which helped sell over 270,000 copies of the print edition during that time. She then sold the rights to Simon and Shuster for over $1 million.

    For bowerbird:

    No book marketing expert is going to give you a money-back guarantee.

    You are right that I am not for hire. Simply, because I have so many new projects to undertake. And I will be most passionate about marketing my own books instead of someone else’s.

    There are thousands of ways to market books and the best in the business will make a book a bestseller in no time flat. For instance, Brendon Burchard just did that with his book “The Charge.” It has sold over 65,000 copies in the print edition since it was released earlier this year.

    Incidentally, it irritates me when some of the so-called book marketing experts use outright lies such as “Print Is Dead” to market ebook programs. Take it from me, print is dead only if you are brain dead.

    Take Brendon’s course in Las Vegas if you want to learn more about how to make print books and ebooks winners. Here are the details.

    By the way, I am still going to Brendon’s Seminar even though I am a better marketer than 99 percent of authors. Yet I know that authors, the whiners and the complainers, who need Brendon’s advice the most will not go. They expect everything to be given to them for free because they have a sense of entitlement and suffer from the world-owes-me-a-living syndrome.

    For your information, here is a recent article on how to launch a best-seller by Michael Hyatt.

    Here again, I have decided to purchase Michael Hyatt’s book. Even if I learn one small thing, it will be well worth the price. But the people with a sense of entitlement and who suffer from the world-owes-me-a-living syndrome will either want to get it for free or take it out of the library. I tell these people, “If you won’t purchase other people’s books, why should anyone purchase your book or books? Sorry, but you are setting it up subconsciously and through the workings of the Universe so that other people won’t buy your books.”

    This is my last response on this blog post so here is one last piece of advice that I just created for one of my latest books:

    “If you want to learn from the Masters —
    the adventurous souls who are already
    successful and prosperous — and become
    like them, instead of looking for why
    they are wrong, look for why they are right.”
    — from “Look Ma, Life’s Easy” ( )

    • Joel Friedlander

      Thanks for taking the time to contribute to this discussion, Ernie. You always have something to add, and it is appreciated.

  11. bowerbird

    if you can, i’d suggest that you
    hire ernie to do your marketing.

    but my first guess is that
    he’s not available for hire.

    and my second guess is that
    you couldn’t afford him anyway.

    and my third guess is that
    his tactics won’t help your book.

    and my fourth guess is that
    your pay will be minimum wage.

    and my fifth guess is that
    ernie won’t offer to give you
    any money-back guarantee.

    so i guess you’re gonna have to
    eat that elephant all by yourself.

    i hope you’re hungry… :+)


  12. Tahlia Newland

    er, yes, but you still haven’t answered the big question ie how do we get it in front of people?

    • Tracy R. Atkins

      It’s the same as how you just got in front of us Tahlia.


      It’s actually that simple. Socialize and mingle with people. Lots of people. There are dozens of places that cater to your niche, most likely. Start hanging out there and when they get to know you, they get to know your work. Build a reputation and people will buy your ideas.

      How do you eat an Elephant?
      One bite at a time!

  13. bowerbird

    nobody knows how to market a book.


    not even the big6, with their vast
    experience, and very deep pockets.

    and that was true even back in the day
    when they controlled the infrastructure
    of brick-and-mortar bookstores, and thus
    had no competition from self-publishers,
    let alone a non-expiring digital inventory.

    (and notice that _both_ of those forces
    jack the difficulty-factor tremendously.)

    if a book won’t sell itself, by word-of-mouth,
    there’s simply nothing you can do to sell it.


    there are a lot of people who would like to
    take your money by telling you otherwise.

    but if you pay close attention, you will see
    none of ’em give a money-back guarantee.


    • Ernie Zelinski

      I tend to disagree with your statement, “nobody knows how to market a book.” Certain people know how to market books a lot better other people do. First of all, nothing sells by itself. Second, before word-of-mouth can kick in, you have to get your book in the hands of others.

      There is also the point that the total marketing process involves the 4 P’s, not just selling. For instance, the title and subtitle of your book are part of the marketing process. It is not by accident that my “How to Retire Happy, Wild, and Free: Retirement Wisdom That You Won’t Get from Your Financial Advisor” is the best-selling book on Amazon. Note that the title has “retire” in it and the subtitle has “retirement” in it. This is one of the 100 or so things I did to make this the best-selling retirement book in the world.

      I agree with most of what Seth Godin says about marketing. I read his book “The Dip” which is great.

      Unfortunately most people will reject what he says because he speaks the truth. And most people don’t want to hear the truth:

      Here is a passage from the “The Dip” that resonated with me:

      “Being average is for losers.
      Being better than 98 percent
      of the competition used to be
      fine. In the world of Google,
      though, it’s useless.
      If you are not going to get to
      #1, you might as well quit right now.”
      — Seth Godin

      This was an inspiration to me to get several of my retirement websites to either the Number 1, 2, or 3 spots for retirement-related searchces on Google. I can tell by Amazon tracking features that these retirement-related websites have been instrumental big-time in selling my two retirement books (which have sold a total of over 400,000 copies).

      • Tracy R. Atkins


        It seems like Google is always changing the way their algorithm works.

        What do you recommend to get your SEO up to #1 in your niche?

        • Ernie Zelinski

          You are right about Google changing its algorithm. This can drive some people crazy.

          Fact is, there is no guarantee for being number 1 on Google because there are millions competing with you. There are certain things you can do to increase your chances, however. All the things that the experts say about SEO apply, including having great content, attempting to get some quality incoming links, linking outside to quality websites, and having a website with many webpages.

          You have to be active with your websites as well, adding content and trying to figure out what Google is doing. My main website was number 2 for a long time, sometimes number 1, then it was in the sandbox for a month or two – on the 7th or 10 page (for using duplicate content). Then I got it back to number 2 for about a year and then about eight months ago it was dropping to number 7 and then up to number 5 and sometimes on the second page at number 12 or 15. Then I made a change or two and it has been number 1 for two or three months straight. There is no guarantee it will stay there.

          But here is another strategy I use. For the search terms I am vying for, I have 3 or 4 or 5 websites competing with my main one. Don’t use duplicate content with this strategy. Make sure all webpages are significantly different because Google will penalize you (I found out the hard way.). Also don’t copy any one else’s content because Google will know you are doing this! With this strategy, for some of the search terms that I am vying for, sometimes 3 or 4 of my webpages will be in the top 10. Not so long ago I had 15 spots out of the top 30, including number 1, on Google for one of my important search terms.

          Remember that having a web presence does not mean having only one website. It means having 25 or 50 websites. That will
          significantly increase your marketing effectiveness.

          Ernie J. Zelinski
          Best-Selling Author, Innovator, and Prosperity Life Coach
          Author of the Bestseller “How to Retire Happy, Wild, and Free”
          (Over 150,000 copies sold and published in 9 languages)
          and the International Bestseller “The Joy of Not Working’
          (Over 250,000 copies sold and published in 17 languages)

          • Tracy R. Atkins

            That is one heck of a way to get those top SEO spots Ernie!

            Your post prompted me to start reading a bit more on SEO after the March revamp of Google. It seems that many of the things I had learned even a year ago, no longer apply. It’s a good thing in my mind, because a lot of SEO pumping was basically spam. Now that I’m trying to get out and publish, under my name, and be myself, I don’t want that negative connotation on my reputation. I’m glad that things have taken a more content driven approach, and less gaming is required.

            Trading a “black hat” for a white one seems like it will be a lot easier to do now. For me, I am focused on generating real and valuable content. However, as a single author, it will take a lot of effort to generate enough content for 20+ sites, without duplication, while creating something that adds value. I’m going to go out on a limb here and figure that keeping those sites active, even if it’s just a single post a month, is enough? This is something I will have to explore a bit and do some research.

            With social media now a heavily weighted factor, I wonder if Google’s changes reinforce the concept of the hub and outpost model?

  14. RD Meyer

    Word of mouth is definitely the best way to spread your message. If you can get one enthusiastic reader, that’s worth a front page ad right there.

    • Tracy R. Atkins

      From my experiences so far, a single “fan” of your book is worth 100,000 online ad impressions or more.

    • Joel Friedlander


      When I owned a publishing company we had a book we published featured on the front page of the Sunday New York Times Book Review. That’s better than any ad you can buy anywhere, but guess what? The book didn’t sell. It didn’t help that the review was unsympathetic or that the reviewer had little knowledge of the field.

      But in those days we still thought a good book would “sell itself” and didn’t understand the crucial role that marketing can play in bringing books to the attention of large numbers of potential readers. Advertising is rarely the best or most effective way to do that.

  15. Ernie Zelinski

    Great advice as ususal.

    The problem that arises with using a marketing professional is that a lot of money can be spent with little or no results. These quotations, as usual apply. (My quoting Joe Konrath is somewhat unusual because I disagree with a lot of what he has to say about traditional publishers.)

    “Even the most careful and expensive marketing plans cannot sell people a book they don’t want to read.”
    — Michael Korda

    “Write a damn good book. This should be your main priority. It’s also one of the hardest things to do, and the hardest things to judge for yourself if you’ve done it. The problem is, most writers believe their books are good. Even at our most insecure, we believe complete strangers will enjoy our scribblings enough to pay for the privilege.”
    — Joe Konrath

    “No amount of money or marketing can overcome a book that doesn’t deliver. So your first challenge is to write a book that your networks assure you is as good as you want it to be. The content of your books will determine how you sell them to publishers and promote them to book buyers. Content precedes commerce.”
    — Rick Frishman

    Also, as I may have indicated before, this blog post by Bob Baker gives a marketing approach that can create results big time if you have a great book and don’t want to utilize a marketing professional like I don’t. It’s about how you should try doing the opposite of conventional wisdom.

    How to Become a Book Marketing Ninja

    And keep in mind this passage from one of my new books still not published:

    “What Is Your WOW Factor? This applies to both the service that you provide to the world and the way you market it. Make it edgy, make it snappy, and make it punchy. Even make it raunchy — but make it different! Real different!”
    — from “Life’s Secret Handbook (Reminders for Adventurous Souls Who Want to Make a Big Difference in This World)”

    Ernie J. Zelinski
    Best-Selling Author, Innovator, and Prosperity Life Coach
    Author of How to Retire Happy, Wild, and Free
    (Over 150,000 copies sold and published in 9 languages)
    and “The Joy of Not Working”
    (Over 250,000 copies sold and published in 17 languages)

    • Tracy R. Atkins

      The gist of what those comments say, taken together, appear to be:

      Few people take a “blind chance” on a book.
      A recommendation from a friend or trusted source is the main way people select books to read.
      People recommend books they like, books by people they like, or books with ideas they like.

      To sell many books, you the author has to be likable, write a book that is likable and have ideas that are likable. With that trifecta, exposure and sales grow.

      — That was a very good series of quotes Ernie. Thanks for sharing them. Furthermore, thanks for all of the wisdom you bring into every discussion.

      • Bill Peschel

        And when your book marketing advice is accompanied by a link to your book marketing service, writers need to keep your hands on your purses.



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