“The only constant in business and marketing is everything is constantly changing.”
These were the words my professors told our class in both my intro to business and intro to marketing classes in college. I have found no truer words in all the classes I took while studying for my business management degree. If someone out there insists that they know how something in business works every. Single. TIME, without fail, I have one word for you – run.
Anyone who has spent more than two minutes in any type of business, but especially in the publishing industry, knows the one thing which never changes is nothing ever stays the same. There is no one-size-fits-all marketing plan that will work 100% of the time for 100% of the authors for 100% of all fiction books, without fail. Anyone trying to tell you different doesn’t know as much about business as the average college student still sitting in Intro to Business/Marketing 101. Veteran authors know you have to go back to the drawing board every single time, every single book, every single launch. Just like we have to have our fingers on the pulse of the next hot new trope, we also must be able to roll with the latest marketing strategies that get results.
Not sure if someone is trying to sell you snake oil or if they really know what they are talking about? Take a look at how they are actually making their money. Does the bulk of their income come from selling courses and other services that target authors, or are they making their money off doing the thing they are teaching? If you are not sure, then ask yourself these two simple questions.
Question 1: If this course worked so well, and they were able to truly turn anyone into a bestselling author making thousands of dollars every month, then why would they want to share that secret? Why wouldn’t they just do this wonderful business strategy they are peddling to produce their own bestselling books and make thousands of dollars like they claim they can do for other authors?
Question 2: Why would they also then create more competition for themselves in the publishing industry by helping other authors hit bestseller status?
The long and short of it is – it simply doesn’t make economic sense to sell an earth-shattering money-making secret and simultaneously create even more competition for yourself in the market, unless the way they are making their money isn’t by using their own advice, but selling said advice to other authors while promising them the moon (and a six figure income to boot).
This brings me to an important case study I came across when I began researching the best ways to market an indie book. Everyone knows what a “success story” 50 Shades was (and still is, considering we recently got the same book from a different POV which also sold millions of copes). However, what most people don’t know (and what EL James has tried to scrub from the internet but hey, screenshots are forever) is James used a combination of gorilla marketing and a huge pot of her own money to basically buy her way into bestseller status. Let’s take a look at the backstory.
Some people may not be aware, but before James became a world renowned author, she was relatively famous in her own circle of readers on a Twilight fanfic site. That’s right, 50 Shades started out as fanfic. But you probably already knew this. The book was initially called Master of His Universe and after prompting from readers, James self-published the book. She coerced her former fanfic fan base into nominating and then voting for the book in one of Good Reads’ many lists and contests that used to frequent the site where it ranked very well. The book would later be picked up and published by an Australian press before Vintage Books (now owned by Random House) offered her a contract. (there is a lot of interesting details to this story and I highly recommend doing some in-depths search if you can still find anything from the old archives. You’ll want to look for articles written between 2010 and 2013, anything written in the past 3 to 5 years mentions little to nothing about the origins of how all this really came about) According to one case study I came across, James spent somewhere in the neighborhood of $100K of her own money on marketing and promoting the book. If rumor serves, I believe the deals for the first movie was also signed, or at least in the works, when she was signed on with VB.
Now, James will vehemently deny spending this much money. In her own words, “I didn’t even have $100K!” But as I said, the internet is forever, and try as she did to scrub this sordid backstory from the catacombs of the past, those of us who were lucky enough to see the articles and the original posts, etc. know the real story. Fanfic and bitchy attitudes aside, there is still a correlation between this story and what it has to do with selling and buying marketing courses in the publishing industry. As far as that goes, there is a direct correlation between this story and what it takes to actually make money as an indie author. That in itself is no big secret – you have to have money, and lots of it. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
In a nutshell, if you toss enough money at it, you can literally make any book into a bestseller. And while I used 50 Shades as an example, there are other books out there where authors have tossed even more of their own money into marketing their books in order to crack bestseller status. I came across one romance author who admitted to sinking $1K a day into Amazon ads just to keep her books ranked in the top 10K overall on Amazon. It’s the age-old adage where if you throw enough shit at the wall, something will eventually stick. To be blunt, publishing has turned into a pay-to-play industry where only authors who have a hefty marketing budget are able to gain any real traction. And this is a tiny little tidbit which many marketing gurus and those peddling author courses that promise to turn you into a $100K/year earning author conveniently leave out of their own marketing pitches.
I’m sure there are marketing coaches out there reading this shaking their heads muttering, “But I show authors exactly what to do and exactly how to word their ad campaigns and exactly where to marketing/promote, and the exact set of keywords they need to use on the Amazon ads to make them effect. If they follow my directions and do what I tell them then they are guaranteed to make big money!”
And what happens when the book doesn’t make the author lots of money? What is the excuse then? Will the coaches then claim it’s because the book didn’t get a proper edit or have a good enough cover or wasn’t a very well written novel? I’m sure they can sell you all those services. And do they even bother to tell authors their books aren’t up to par? What if they don’t? Then who is at fault when authors shell out thousands of dollars on these courses only to find out they didn’t have a marketable product to begin with? Where does the money pit end?
Let’s look at the flipside of that argument. What if their book has everything going for it? What if it has a killer cover, edited within an inch of its life, perfectly formatted, and written to market yet it still fails to become a bestseller? The author does everything to the letter but the book still fails to perform. Who is at fault then? Is it because the author didn’t have the money to spend on marketing (something which isn’t their fault and definitely should have been disclosed prior to signing up for any of these courses), or is it because the one-size-fits-all marketing plan just flat doesn’t work? Either way, it disproves every sales pitch used in order to get authors to sign up for their courses. You can’t very well claim that it’s just the course/advise/service that is earning an author $100K/year if they also have to sink $100K/year into various marketing avenues. When it comes down to it, any book with that kind of marketing dollars behind it will have a fairly decent ROI, as 50 Shades has proven time and again.
Do you see where this is going? There simply isn’t any way anyone can claim to make any author into a bestseller making thousands of dollars a month, no matter how “fool proof” the courses are. When the books fail to thrive, and there are many which will, it begs of the question of where the fault lies.
Thus there are two very important lessons to learn which lies at the heart of marketing courses – the first being how much time and money will ultimately be required for an author to find something that truly works for them (throw enough shit at the wall to see what sticks) through trial and error, even when following step-by-step instructions on what to do. (I wrote another article on this very thing – the three “missing ingredients” or “secret sauce” these courses do not tell you about) And second – when the book fails to thrive, where does the blame fall? Even when the book is up to par, and an author follows everything to the letter, where does the fault lie? Is there a money-back guarantee? .
This brings me to a few important questions to ask prior to signing up for any course.
1. Is there a money-back guarantee? If the book fails to perform, regardless of the reasons, is there a money-back guarantee offered? If not, or if they offer other of their services instead of a monetary refund, then you may want to seriously rethink their offer.
2. How much money will you need to spend on marketing and promotions after you have completed their courses and/or services? If they have a very specific marketing plan in place, then they should know how much money their plan will require to at least get it started. If they can’t give you an answer on how much money you will ultimately have to shell out to make their plan/course/services work (it just depends on your book and the genre and the keywords you use, but if you follow my instructions you’ll start seeing a ROI in no time!), then you may want to give pause. Trial-and-Error should not be a part of their sales pitch – they should be giving you hard data that clearly shows how much money their average author is spending on marketing when using their courses/services, how many sales that marketing strategy is generating, and how much net profit the author is seeing. Claims like creating thousands of authors making six-figures or that they have thousands of happy authors or pointing you to a bunch of reviews of their services should not ever be offered up instead of hard data. If the claims can’t be backed up by hard numbers, then you may want to pass it on by. And never, ever, let the company harass you, guilt you, or threaten you. Above all else, do your due diligence and research the person/company across the internet, including keywords such as “scam” and “scandal” with their names. It should go without saying any company wanting to bully, harass, or threaten you or your career, who otherwise act in an unprofessional manner online, even in private groups, should not warrant your money or time. If you even suspect the company of doing this, even in the past, it should be an automatic hard pass no matter how many raving reviews from authors. It’s not worth your hard-built career chasing after rainbows which may end up getting your butt scorched by the lightning that comes out of the thunderstorm. The quickest way to taint your name is to have it associated with a person or company who has been known to scam authors, be in legal negotiations/have been sued, who use threats/bullying, or have otherwise been involved with, suggested, or used black hat/immortal business practices to further their careers or the authors they are selling services to.
3. Does it require signing a contract or NDA? Again, there is literally nothing anyone can teach you that isn’t already out there on the internet somewhere, in some form, if you know where to look and how to research it. Anyone who thinks otherwise and tries to force you into signing some type of contract or NDA or calling any of their ideas “trade secrets” is an immediate red flag, especially if the contract gives the company/person the right to cancel their services without a refund because the author was “suspected of leaking secrets” or otherwise discussing or disclosing any of the information. This is a loophole which gives the company a legal way to pull their services without a refund and without prior warning. Imagine shelling out thousands for a marketing course only to have the company ban you from receiving any more of the information because they suspected you had “leaked” something from their course. Short of getting a lawyer, there is little recourse for authors so again. It bears repeating for you to do your due diligence and be wary of any company who makes you sign any type of NDA or contract to gain access to courses and marketing information. And if one does require it, have a lawyer look over it before signing it. The last thing you want to do is sink your life savings into these courses only to be banned from receiving the rest of the course/service you paid for because of something in that agreement.
Right now I know there are multiples of you shaking your head mumbling, “But what about the ones who truly want to help authors out of the kindness of their heats?” To this I’m going to say, “Bull. SHIT.” and here’s why. If they were really interested in helping authors they wouldn’t be charging for their services. I’m not saying charging for things isn’t good, but let’s not sugar coat this. We’re all adults, and whether you want to admit it or not, making money off of authors has become big business in recent years. No one is doing this because they legitimately want to help others make money; they are selling these types of courses and services for one very simple reason: to make money for themselves. And that’s fine, but thanks to an influx of authors over the years because of the ease of self-publishing, it now means scammers and snake oil peddlers have a never-ending supply of authors who do not know any better, who do not do their due diligence, and are easily taken in by anyone claiming they can make all your writing dreams come true. While it is a sad fact, it is still a fact nonetheless. So again, ask yourself – if their advice works so well they claim they can easily make you rich as an author selling books, why aren’t they using this advice themselves and getting rich off of selling their own books?
For all you authors out there, be you a newbie or a veteran, take heed and use caution. If something sounds too good to be true, it usually is.
** Chances are, I’ve hit a very big nerve with this article. Authors who were taken in by these companies and individuals who don’t want to admit they made a mistake, scammers who are pissed that I’m shedding light on this sordid topic and will begin to do damage control, and readers who may feel they were taken advantage of by buying into a hyped up book that turned out to be just another average story written by an average author. I don’t write these articles for anyone but my fellow authors as a warning. So long as we are quiet about the dark side of this industry, it allows the scammers to thrive and spread like a cancer. By not talking about it, we are indirectly supporting such companies and scammers. If nothing else, do your due diligence and stay away from any suspect company or person. Even if you are not shouting names from the rooftops, at least warn your closest author friends who may not do as much research as is required to fully steer clear of the sharks swimming in the waters. I also know there are going to be those out there who wonder what my qualifications are that makes me such an expert on all this. 30 years. That’s my expertise. I’ve spent 30+ years in this business. I have spent decades researching authors, marketing courses, promotional strategies, and everything remotely related to the publishing industry. I have been both traditionally and independently published. While I may no longer be a “bestselling” author, I have been an Amazon international “bestseller” several times over the years. What I haven’t done, however, is lost thousands of dollars on sketchy author courses and marketing classes. I did research, I compared the information available in the classes to what I could find for free online, and I asked questions of my fellow authors, many of which who were more than happy to share their own research, experiences, and techniques. I researched the hell out of companies and classes, I scoured old archives, articles, and message boards (those message boards are a treasure trove of “author beware” information on companies and individuals), and no matter how great a company looked, there was always some dark secret that surfaced when digging deep enough. Take my years of wisdom or don’t.**