Amazon is not a miracle cure for obscurity

Fellow self-publisher and Futurebook blogger Walter Ellis writes about the problems that authors face promoting their books to the reading public. He's right that it's hard to catch readers' attention but wrong to turn his back on social media. 

Whether an author is traditionally published or is ploughing their own furrow, it’s important that they engage with their book’s promotion. Putting a book up on Amazon, or any other retail platform, does not mean that anyone will notice. Every book is competing with thousands of others and Amazon does nothing to help new books gain traction. 

Unfortunately for Ellis, Amazon is not going to do anything about that in the foreseeable future. Given its reluctance to provide authors (or traditional publishers) with even basic things such as access to traffic data or the ability to integrate with mailing list services such as Mailchimp, it’s hard to imagine that they would spend any resources on new sections or books announcements. 

Let’s face facts: Amazon is not a miracle cure for obscurity. Any author (or publisher) who puts a book on Amazon and expects it to just take off by itself is not living in the real world. Books need to have sales and positive reviews in order to be picked up by Amazon’s various algorithms, which means that you have to do promotion outside of Amazon in order to get those first sales and reviews. 

For most self-published authors, who have negligible budget for marketing, this means turning to the methods that Ellis discards: social media, free giveaways and getting friends to start a buzz. As a social media consultant with a decade of experience — I started my blog in 2002 and began consulting in 2004 — I am afraid I am duty bound to disagree with Ellis that these methods are “claptrap”. 

But, just like Amazon won’t turn you into a star over night, neither will Twitter or Facebook. It takes time and effort to build up a following and, even when you have a few thousand followers, that doesn’t mean that all you’ve got to do is put a tweet out and suddenly your book is going stratospheric. Just as with advertising or direct mail, only a tiny percentage of people that you can reach will act on your call to action. 

Ellis is also wrong about authors needing to be well-connected, at least, ‘well-connected’ in the old-fashioned sense, that you know and can rely on influential people who can speak on your behalf. Connections are important, but not connections to influencers, connections to readers. 

The idea that influencers are key to success is attractive because it means that all one needs to do is identify those people and then somehow persuade them to use their influence for your benefit. Unfortunately, reality is a bit more complicated than that and I’ve first hand-hand experience of how tweets by highly-connected people have resulted in, well, nothing at all. 

It’s a much more reliable, if more boring, tactic to work at gathering your fans together on a mailing list than it is to hope that someone with influence takes a shine to your work. You have to speak directly to your readers, and social media allows you to do that. It also, co-incidentally, allows you to make connections with influencers too, in case you can’t let go of that particular fiction. 

If Ellis wants his book to sell he needs to understand the basics of marketing and then tuck into some hard graft. There’s plenty of advice online, including some good stuff from Joanna Penn. It may not be nice to think that you’ve got to wrap your head around marketing, but it’s that or nothing. I’m not a natural marketer — my social media specialism is collaboration, community and social functionality, not marketing — but there are plenty of tactics to choose from that will suit even the shyest author. 

I know just how hard it is to get attention. Back when I started my personal blog it was easy to find readers, because there were so few of bloggers. It felt like it was possible to know them all. Nowadays, a blog post is nothing without a follow up tweet and Facebook/G+/LinkedIn mention. No one ‘surfs’ the internet looking for interesting things to read anymore, instead we sift through a continuous deluge of information that we struggle to filter. In that environment, we have to work far, far harder than either we used to or than we would like to in order to reach enough people. 

“Self-promotion” is a bit of a dirty word these days, but it’s an unavoidable part of the self-publishing reality. We each need to learn how best to market ourselves, how we can play to our strengths, and how we can do so without annoying the very people we are trying to reach. 

And on that note, I’ll just say that I’m currently available to hire for all your social media needs. Let’s talk

Suw Charman-Anderson is a social technologist, journalist and writer


Are the two of you really

Are the two of you really arguing about marketing? This seems to be devolving into the old traditional vs independent publishing debate.

But in any case, it seems that "social media" is being used in much too narrow a sense here. There is a world beyond Twitter and Facebook. What do you write and where are your likely readers? Do you write business-related books? LinkedIn is your natural habitat. Scientific works? Try There are hundreds of small, specialized networks out there to discover, not just the few names that everone knows. Finding the one that contains your readers is the key activity. And only you will know your readers, not some consultant who will just send a generic message out to the multitudes.

In fact, commenting on a blog like this is itself participating in a social medium. :-)

trying to say goodbye

At no stage was I impolite, Nicholas. But I did feel I was being badgered just a little and told off for not being prepared to devote years of my life to online marketing. You have only added to this sensation.

I note that you, like Suw, are an online cheerleader. This from the Amazon description of your upcoming book:

"The Curve shows us not to be afraid of giving some things away for free. The internet helps you forge direct relationships with a vast global audience, and take them on a journey from freeloaders into superfans. Value lies in how you make people feel, by building communities, bespoke products and experiences. Small numbers of high spenders are enough to fuel a profitable business."

That doesn't sound like me. I am about to turn 65. I try to write and sell novels. You and Suw are young professionals whose ambitions are predicated on the power of social media. Good luck to you. I hope you manage to keep up with the latest trends 30 years from now. But you are not part of my world and I am not part of yours. Can we not just agree to disagree?


Now we can see the difference

Nicholas Lovell's picture

I think this thread shows the reasons why social media works for Suw. She is open, honest and communicative. She makes her point politely and eloquently and tries to help.

In contrast, Walter has made his mind up. He thinks social media is for time wasters. He wants to write books and let other people do the grubby business of marketing.

I'm sorry to say, Walter, that the era of someone else doing your marketing for you is over. Suw has offered a lots of alternatives to social media (Amazon work, giveaways, newsletters, your website and so on). If your view is that all marketing is claptrap, or simply that you have no desire to learn how to do what is now one of the core skills of being an author, that is your look-out. But bravo to Suw for such a polite dialogue.

(I am a self-published non-fiction author with one physical book and one ebook out. I have a book called The Curve coming out with Penguin in October 2013, and am close to finishing two further books/ebooks that I will self-publish. There is a time and a place for a publisher and a time and a place for self-publishing. I plan to use both).


I'm sorry, Suw, but we're going to have to agree to disagree. I am NOT going to devote years of my life to the dubious pleasures of social media when I could be doing things I enjoy, not least writing books. Even if I believed in the long-term efficacy of Twitter – which I don't – I wouldn't do it. I'm not that way inclined – or perhaps I'm not that desperate. But thanks for the interest. Now for an early night and the chance to start Lanark, by Alasdair Gray – not a big Twitter man, I think.

Getting to the nub of it

Suw's picture

Hi Walter. 

Right, we've got to the heart of the matter now, which is not that social media is claptrap but that you don't like it and don't want to do it. And that's absolutely fine. 

I do not believe in forcing people to do things that they don't want to do, particularly with social media. If you hate Twitter, but still make yourself use Twitter, you'll get nothing out of it and most people reading your tweets will come away with the uncomfortable feeing that you're not enjoying it. Social media is all about authenticity, honesty, openness, and if you dislike what you're doing then that will seep into your interactions, no matter how much energy you put into trying to seem happy about it. 

When I advise companies on who they should get to tweet and blog for them, I always tell them to look for people who are doing it already, who know the tools and the culture and are comfortable putting themselves out there. Not everyone is, and there's no value in forcing people to use social media if they don't want to. That's a bit like sending someone to a party they don't want to go to and then telling them to smile and have fun. 

That said, however, it's important to reiterate that although social media may not be for you, you can't write it off for everyone. It remains a valuable tool in the book marketing toolbox, and lots of people both enjoy using it and use it to great effect. 

But there are plenty of other tools available, such as giveaways, newsletters, talks and workshops that might appeal to you and better fit in with the way that you work. Marketing is a fact of reality these days. You can choose not to do any, but if you make that choice, you have to accept that you'll sell few books. 

Hi Walter. There's absolutely

Suw's picture

Hi Walter. There's absolutely no doubt that there are people out there who over-inflate social media and what it can achieve. There are sadly many social media 'gurus' who've used Twitter for six months and think they know it all, and they help no one but themselves. I'm sorry if that has been your experience. 

But there's also absolutely no doubt that social media is a valuable weapon in the book promotion arsenal. However, it is just one tool and it needs to be used alongside other tactics such as newsletters, reviews, good metadata (especially if you're on Amazon), give-aways, discounts (if you're selling direct), etc. etc..

The thing with social media is that it takes time, effort and perseverance. There are no short cuts. It also requires an understanding of each tool's individual culture and behavioural norms. One can't just fire up Twitter, throw out a bunch of "buy my book!" messages and expect anyone to pay any attention. One has to join in other people's conversation, and slowly build a following by giving something of value to your followers - whether that's help, information, a laugh, or just a kind word. 

And it really does take time to build a following on any tool. We're not talking months, we're talking years. One has to be committed to a long term strategy for social media to work. 

But the thing is, you don't need to be a "big time tweeter" to feel the benefit of Twitter. Social networks are not hub-and-spoke, with you in the middle and a single connection to each person in a circle around you. Instead, they are a network of networks, so you can punch way above your weight by tweeting something of interest that other people then pass around to their friends, who then pass it on to their friends.  

I totally agree that a lot of self-published authors take traditional deals when offered, but that doesn't mean that self-publishing isn't 'real'. It means that they've been made an attractive offer by a business who sees financial potential in their work. And yes, those are extremely rare, but that's neither a surprise nor news. 

As for the concept that success is a meritocracy, I again agree with you that it is not. It never has been, and it never will be. However, where once connections were hard to make, now they are much, much easier to come by, because of tools like Twitter. 

I think in your final paragraph, you express your core problem: You say that you can't market yourself. It's a problem I have a lot of sympathy with, because it can be intimidating and can even feel a bit icky to those of us who aren't keen on this whole marketing thing in the first place. But I love Joanna Penn's take on it

“Marketing is sharing what you love with people who want to hear about it. If you think about that, if you want to entertain people, or if you have a book that’s useful, what’s wrong with trying to get people’s attention?”

Finally, there's absolutely nothing wrong with seeking representation and a publisher for your work. I wouldn't be writing here on Futurebook if I was a self-publishing ideologue. (Actually, I'm just a boring pragmatist who wants to find out what works best for me and people like me.) But even if you find yourself a publisher, you'll still need to do promotion, and the bigger platform you have for that, the easier it will be. 

Very True

Warren's picture

Hello Suw,

You have highlighted a number of useful comments and insights into book marketing, which every self published author needs to be made aware of. Social Media is an integral part of marketing. I am a self published author on Amazon and Lulu. Creating a Book Launch, alongwith sites like Goodreads and Freado are really useful. I enjoy writing, blogging and publishing on the web. All the best




Suw's picture

Thank you, Warren! Glad you found it useful! 

see above

Thanks, Suw. But I'm afraid I don't agree with you about social media, which I am convinced is wildly overrated in terms of its efficacy as a promotional tool. Lots of would-be novelists try, and try hard, to use Facebook, Twitter and LInkedin, to increase interest in their books. I did so myself a year ago, with the help of a professional to whom I paid £1,000. The result? Nothing. And it is the same for nine hundred and ninety-nine out of a thousand self-published writers.

Who are the big-time Tweeters? Celebrities and megastars. And what has the success of the likes of Dan Brown got to do with social media?

I get tweets all the time from Kindlers pushing their wares. The ones who make it – and they are extremely rare – are either very lucky or else acquire backing along the way. It is no coincidence that nearly all self-published authors who are offered traditional contracts by mainstream publishers jump at the chance. They know what's real and what isn't.

If it were simply the case that only the best writers achieved success, via social media (or any other marketing means), then I would understand. But it isn't.

I don't need to be told to work hard and persevere. I have done that for 15 years and secured excellent revews for my novels that have not translated into sales. This is mainly because no one has marketed me and I can't market myself. Social media in this respect is a chimera. What writers need are agents and publishers willing to back them and put in the hours. But there are simply too many writers and too few slots at the top. If everyone was a bestseller, then no one would be a bestseller. Time, maybe, for me to explore anew the realites of representation.

Hi Walter! Thanks for your

Suw's picture

Hi Walter! Thanks for your comment. 

Yes, I was one named one of the 50 most influential Britons in tech - that was in 2009 and it was because I founded Ada Lovelace Day, an international celebration of women in science, technology, engineering and maths. It had little to do with my work in social technology which, as I mentioned, is a field where I specialise not in marketing but in collaboration, community building and social functionality design (ie if you want your product or web site to be "social", what does that mean and how do you do it?).

When I say I'm not a marketer, I'm not being disingenous, I'm being honest. If you look at my CV on LinkedIn, you'll see that I've done lots of things, including launching a major new news site,, in India, creating social technology strategies for Pfizer, carrying out original research for Chatham House and Carnegie UK Trust, and C-level briefings for Mckinsey. What you won't see is a long list of marketing clients. I can certainly do community-building work and public-facing social media strategy, but pure marketing isn't my thing. 

I am a self-published writer, having published a couple of novellas and a short story, with more in the pipeline. I'll fully confess that I've not yet self-published a novel, so if you want to be picky then no, I'm not a novelist. However, I've been covering the self-publishing and crowdfunding phenomena for for the last 18 months and was an early adopter of Kickstarter, which I used to get my first novella into print. 

You are correct that luck is a factor, but it's a factor in life, not just self-publishing. In actual fact, the bigger factors in self-publishing are perseverence and the willingness to connect with readers through social media and other tools such as mailing lists. I'm having an interesting time at the moment experimenting with selling direct, which is allowing me to test a number of hypotheses around which social tools are most important to my readers, whether reviews make a significant difference to conversion, and whether Americans are more likely to take a punt on an unknown author than people from other countries. It's fascinating and will allow me to focus my marketing efforts - because I'm really not a natural marketer - on those tactics that really work for me and my community. 

My advice to you on marketing your book is to engage with social media rather than dismiss it as 'claptrap'. There are so many opportunities to connect with readers and with people in the industry just on Twitter alone. Social media really does level the playing field and make it possible to engage in conversation with people in all sorts of roles across the industry, and those connections can turn out to be invaluable.

Anyway, I'm @suw on Twitter. Do feel free to say hello. 

see above

Suw is a professional e-lobbyist, named by the Daily Telegraph as one of the "50 most influential Britons in [social] technology". She is not a novelist. Thus, when she writes that she is not a natural marketer, she is being a tad disingenuous.

My comments about the value of connections relate primarily to mainstream publishing. In the self-publishing field, sheer luck (allied to talent) is the biggest factor.

But if Suw wants to talk to me about how she can perhaps help me market my books, she should contact me on Twitter @Waltroon. I'd be happy to hear from her.

Social media

Sam Missingham's picture

As a 'natural' marketer (whatever that is) I'd like to add to this discussion. 

Yes, social media isn't for everyone. Althought the many authors who have gained book deals and sold books using various platforms will disagree with you.

Also, most indie authors who take their profession seriously see the need to be more than just authors - they are happy to promote themselves, blog, appear on other blogs and quite frankly get involved in as much promotional activity as they can. Because, if they don't, who will? As they actually want people to read their books.

But this begs the question though, what do you plan to do, to promote your book? If there is some magic sauce, do let us all know.

Exactly.  In all honesty, I'd

Suw's picture


In all honesty, I'd love to be able to sit back and what the money roll in as I set the world alight with my newest novella, but that happens for precisely no one. I have and will continue to struggle with marketing because it's really not my forte and I worry too much about annoying people (especially on Twitter) with endless promotion. I know how much self-centred types on Twitter wind me up, and I don't want to be that person. 

But I am finding ways to market my work that I feel comfortable with, ways that I think could give some value back to my community. Everyone has a different level of comfort with different marketing methods, and it's important to figure out where your comfort zone begins and ends. 

Though if anyone does come up with a guaranteed way to become a bestseller overnight with no marketing work at all, please do let me know.  

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