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How To Promote Your Self-published Book – Unorthodox Advice! Part Three.

After ten months promoting my book “The Prince and the Singularity – A Circular Tale” I’ve reached the conclusion that most of the promotion suggestions you can find on the internet are pretty irrelevant and little more than formulaic. Even worse, the things that do matter are either never mentioned or not mentioned in detail and, as I have laboriously found out, the devil really is in the detail. So I’ve decided to write a series of articles on how to promote self-published books. Here is the third instalment:

III – “Extreme Makeover” (not the TV series!)

This article is about book descriptions. As you probably already know, there are at least hundreds of articles on the internet about book blurbs and most of them provide advice that makes sense. The problem is that you could quite easily have reached those same conclusions by yourself after pondering the subject for a while. Also they all say basically the same things.

As usual I’ll try to give you a different angle. I will use my own book as an example, not only because of what you’re thinking right now (that I’m shamelessly plugging it) but mainly because my book is the perfect example for what I want to discuss.

If you read my book’s description you’ll probably reach the conclusion that it is a bit (to say the least) ineffective and off-putting:

***** || *****

“This is the story of the Prince aka the Master aka Francis, who is more or less immortal and goes through the millennia fighting Desire and Rejection, the roots of all unhappiness and evil. He always fails until the moment he loses interest and decides to die, which he doesn’t. Instead he gets promoted.

The Prince and the Singularity – A Circular Tale is a take on the Creation myth, drawing from different religious and philosophical sources and mixing them in an original, challenging and often very funny way. It is written in a multi-layered format, allowing it to be read both as a simple and entertaining fable and as a deeply philosophical work, full of hidden references and satire.”

***** || *****

Let’s be brutal, this is a shitty blurb. It is overtly intellectual and quite bland. Why on Earth would I be using it?

If you now take the trouble to go check my book on Amazon USA you’ll see that it has 46 reviews, with a 4.6 average rating (at least it did, at the time of writing this article). You’ll probably think:

‘Gee, everybody seems to like this guy’s book’

And you’ll be wrong. Very wrong! Actually most people dislike my book (a little voice is telling me I should never have written this article).

If I were to randomly distribute 100 free copies of my book, my experience tells me that:

– 60% would find it quite confusing and put it down before chapter 3
– 20% would find it offensive on religious grounds and rate it one star
– 20% would love it and rate it with four or five stars.

So how come I have 46 reviews with a 4.6 star rating? Pretty obvious, isn’t it? I’m being read almost exclusively by people from the third group, the 20% who like the book.

How did I achieve that? I put “filters” on the blurb and on the Prologue and those “filters” are filtering out the people who belong to groups 1 & 2.

So here we have a new concept: You can write a blurb to keep readers AWAY from your book.

At least certain readers, obviously. Not all of them.

Let’s look at this idea in detail.

When I was testing my book’s draft on the Authonomy website (follow the link if you don’t know what that is) I discovered, to my utter amazement, that some people were actually offended by my book because they thought it was a spoof on the Bible.

It is no such thing. Actually most of the book is a twist on Buddhist ideas, intertwined with concepts from several other religions and philosophies. But obviously if the reader has no knowledge whatsoever of religions/philosophies other than his own, he will misinterpret the whole thing.

After receiving hate mail and the like and pondering a lot on the subject, I had the idea of creating a Prologue which clearly states that the book is an “oriental” kind of thing and found, to my utter relief, that the sort of readers who were previously sending me hate mail would not read past the Prologue and stopped paying any attention to my book.

I had just discovered the concept of filtering out undesirable readers.

On the Authonomy site I also discovered that many people considered the book to be confusing, mainly because:

a) it has almost no descriptions of characters and very few descriptions of places (the Prince, for instance, is never described at all)

b) it starts with a far out scene where a group of gods are betting their own Divinity in a game of cards. Apparently this is a very confusing concept to understand for some readers.

I did change some things in the story to make it easier to understand but reached the conclusion that I could not simplify it enough without destroying its essence and opted instead to have a book blurb that looks intellectual and makes the book unappealing to the type of readers who consider the book to be confusing.

These two filters have together achieved the miracle of getting my book rated at 4.6 on Amazon when it is actually disliked by most people.

Now I’m pretty sure any marketing pro will tell you that my filters are utter nonsense. You don’t put filters on books to keep readers away from them, you try to attract readers with the book description and the cover.

Their advice is definitely valid for the environment they work in. They have marketing budgets. They have access to influential reviewers on websites and magazines that sell millions. They live in a parallel universe to that of self-publishers.

If a self-published author debuts his book with three one star ratings on Amazon his one in a million chance of success has immediately been reduced to absolute zero. He won’t even be allowed to at least try. His book is a stillborn. And paradoxically even Kindle promotion sites (like eReader News Today, Bookbub, etc) will turn down his money for a book promotion campaign because they refuse to promote books with a rating lower than 4.0.

In the harsh environment of self-published books, filters make sense. At least in my humble opinion they do.

That said, I do not think that you should keep filters on forever, unless all you aim for is to slowly accumulate nice reviews along the years and use your book as a hook line to pick up women at bars (not such a bad idea, now that I think of it).

So now lets do an “extreme makeover” and suddenly turn my book into the opposite of what it presently is. Lets have a “new” book without rewriting not even one line of the manuscript. Just by messing with the book description, the cover and the genre information.

First lets change the genre info on Amazon from Literary Fiction and Spirituality to Humour and Spirituality.

Lets follow that up by changing the cover from its present version

Wordpress Cover

to this one (this is the cover of a 1979 album by the British band “Camel”)


And finally lets pull out all the stops and change the book description to:

***** || *****

The Prince and the Singularity – A Circular Tale is as controversial a book as they come. An heretical spoof on the Life of Christ or a sweet and sensitive depiction of the ascension of a Bodhisattva, the choice is yours.

Whatever the reader brings with him will determine what he will get out of this story.

Things will sound very odd at times:

‘Why are there Two Commandments and not ten?’

‘Why is Mary Magdalene so different from the real one?’

But in the end it will all make sense and will do so in the most unexpected ways.

Love it or hate it, this is not a book to attract indifference.

You have been warned!

The Prince and the Singularity – A Circular Tale is the story of the Prince aka the Master aka Francis, who is more or less immortal and goes through the millennia fighting Desire and Rejection, the roots of all unhappiness and evil. He always fails until the moment he loses interest and decides to die, which he doesn’t. Instead he gets promoted.

***** || *****

Now imagine that you had never seen the previous genre/cover/blurb combination and this new set was your first contact with my book. It now sounds like Monty Python’s “Life Of Brian” on steroids, doesn’t it? (Which, to be honest, it most definitely is not).

It is now a different product altogether. It is taking big risks but is also opening new doors to possible rewards that were previously beyond reach.

Whether this new description is accurate or not is quite irrelevant. History is full of examples of products which became a success by courting artificial controversies that were huge exaggerations of the actual content of the product itself.

I am no marketing pro and I have no definitive answers on the complex matter of book covers and/or descriptions. All I hope for with the present article is to make you ponder these subjects in a broader way than that which you are usually presented with.

I hope to have achieved my aims but you’ll be the judge for that.

© 2013 Pedro Barrento

I would love to know your opinion about this post so don’t be shy and do leave a comment. Also please feel free to check out my book “The Prince and the Singularity – A Circular Tale”. It is a book with one big advantage, you only need to read the first 50 lines to know whether you’re going to like the story or not. If you’re not hooked after 50 lines then my book is not for you.

If you enjoyed this post don’t forget to press the “follow” button to be automatically notified of future postings.

Disclaimer: Please note that English is not my mother language and that this series of articles has not been revised by a native speaker. The quality of these articles therefore in no way reflects the quality of my book “The Prince and the Singularity – A Circular Tale” which went through an exhaustive process of revisions, editing and proofreading by a professional literary consultant (whose services I strongly recommend, by the way).


39 responses »

  1. Hi, Where do I get a password?

  2. Lots of good points here, and you definitely take into account some factors that I hadn’t really thought about or read about before. So is your conclusion to have these filters, build up a good number of positive reviews, and then update the blurb and maybe the cover to appeal to a wider audience and see what they think? I know a lot of authors recommend experimenting with covers and blurbs and periodically tweaking them to see what works. But are you thinking of doing that with your book?

    • I am testing the waters, cautiously and indirectly. Checking reactions to this, checking reactions to that… In late January it’s my book’s first anniversary. I believe people with no marketing power should steer away from Christmas, when all the big sharks’ marketing campaings smother even more forcefully the small fry. By late January the marketing channels will be a bit less obstructed and by then either I have given up on my book or I must try something new. I have other options for my book but blog artrticles must be kept bite sized and this one was already too long, so I used only the most extreme scenario as an example, to make more of an impact.

    • Almost a year has passed and I can now answer your question. I have patiently accumulated a comfortable “cushion” of 50 reviews with 4.6 rating by using my “filtering” method. Now it’s time for the risk taking. I have changed the cover and blurb (although not to the extreme versions mentioned in this article) and the book will be on free download days on September 21 – 23 with wide publicity. I hope to get several thousand downloads (my second book got 22.257 downloads just a week ago). I will then be at the mercy of reviews from an “unfiltered” readership. I can only hope that the stars are properly aligned and that the Gods are merciful.

  3. Another good, thought-provoking article. I have noticed a phenomenon at work over the past year or so where a book comes out, is reviewed by the followers of the article and immediately jumps up to 20, 30 or 40 reviews with an a near-perfect 5 star rating. Over time, of course, the book is exposed to the public at large as opposed to the acolytes. Even a good book doesn’t please everyone, so over the next hundred or so reviews (if you’re lucky enough to receive them) the star rating slips, but it looks a lot more legitimate with that large number of opinions. I found this with my first book, which had a perfect 5.0 after 50 reviews. It now has a 4.6 average over 407 reviews. My second book is still in the honeymoon phase, with 69 reviews and a 4.9 star average. As it spreads its wings and flies farther afield, though, I anticipate those sterling numbers will drop. All of which is a long way of saying I think you’re on to something with the idea of using your blurb to keep people away as well as attracting readers. I can promote my own book as a Romance, a Coming of Age or a Memoir. I sell a lot more when I promote it as a romance, but get worse reviews. I get great reviews as a Memoir, but don’t sell nearly as many copies. It’s a delicate balance…

    • It’s nice to know that my ideas are confirmed by other people’s own experiences. I cook up these things from my own experience but, to be honest, I can’t really know if they have real substance or are just figments of my imagination.

    • Congratulations shawninmon! Securing more than 400 reviews is quite an accomplishment. To have a perfect 5.0 rating after 50 reviews is remarkable!

      One quick request for clarification. You say that you have noticed that when a book comes out, it “…is reviewed by the followers of the article and immediately jumps up to 20, 30 or 40 reviews…”

      May I ask which “article” you are referring to? I would very much like to emulate techniques that you have used to earn such glowing praise. If there is some way that I may assist you in return, I will gladly do so.

      Mark D Swartz

      • Hello Mark;

        Mostly, that’s what happens when my fingers outrace my brain when I am typing a reply. Instead of “article,” I meant to say “book.” Here’s what I am talking about: Let me use my newest book, “Both Sides Now” as an example. This book is a “companion piece” to my first book. I.E., although it stands alone, it deals with the same characters and situations as the first book.

        When I first released it, I did a “soft launch.” That means that I listed it for sale at Amazon but didn’t announce it immediately to the world at large. Instead, I sent an email out to my mailing list of 250 or so subscribers. That resulted in about 90 sales in the first 24 hours the book was for sale on Amazon. Since these were people who had previously signed up to hear from me, they were obviously more likely than a random group of people to like my writing. I call that “swimming where the water is warm.” These are not friends or relatives, but simply a list of people who have shown an interest in my books in the past.

        The next step was to announce it to my Facebook followers, which at this time is around 1500 people. That announcement led to another 100 or so sales, which coming in a close time period with the first group was good enough to get it on the Hot New Releases promos for my category.

        That resulted in almost 50 five star reviews of that book in the first 30 days it was available which is a healthy enough number that the average consumer will, I think, consider it to be a bonafide, legitimate seller.

        Now, I am expanding the reach of this book, doing a Bookbub ad this week and putting it out to the world more widely. This will result in more reviews, of course, but they will be from people who are unfamiliar with my work and it will start to receive more variety in its star ratings.

        This is the same pattern I followed with my first book, “Feels Like the First Time,” and that’s how it has ended up with 407 reviews.

        I hope that is more clear!


  4. You’ve precisely articulated the thoughts I had when I self-published my book this past summer on Amazon. It’s unique in that it blends romance, erotica and political philosophy (yes, read that again) and is pitched as the first plain vanilla romance book for straight men — but also crosses over to snare the women. Think “Atlas Shrugged” meets “Fifty Shades” (but without the kink).

    My blurb thus deliberately filters out all but that relatively thin niche because I’d rather sell to that specific demographic layer and fetch the high ratings — even if it costs me sales. Too, I don’t want folks who don’t like my subject matter and philosophy to waste their time and money.

    Obviously, mine is a long-game strategy (only 1 review thus far, but it’s 5 stars!), so one must be patient. But I’d rather have my book spread slowly, rather than steroidally, and my “filter” foments that.

    Put another way, I want only those who “get it” to spread it.

    It seems you want that for your book, too, and I think both your blurbs work well.

  5. I have been following brjnica’s posts on unorthodox advice for self-published authors. Currently I am working on my debut novel. brjnica’s third installment focuses, essentially, on how to target your potential readers. True to form it educates, inspires…and infuriates. 🙂

    First the educational part. I had not yet thought of using a prologue to “filter” out (or entice in) potential readers. My plan has been to use my book’s title and descriptor as the initial signals as to who might enjoy the book. Given that my novel is in the literary fiction category, I may, for example, use an erudite title, and include the words “Literary Fiction” on the cover.
    Then the book blurb would itself be written in a similar style.

    Now the inspirational part of brjnica’s post. I am stirred to see that by properly targeting my book, and by doing selective pre-marketing, I may be able to garner 50 or so five-star reviews. This assumes, of course, that I write a novel worth reading. As for having more than 400 people post reviews, a la shawninmon above, now that is something to strive for!

    Finally, the infuriating part of Installment 3. In my personal view, this post ultimately suggests a possibly self-destructive tactic. It certainly begins with sound advice on targeting your potential reading audience. The tips that are offered make a good deal of sense.

    However as someone with a background in marketing, I find it difficult to endorse the notion of completely repositioning your book simply to manipulate sales. Please note that I could see making such drastic changes as a brand new book cover, blurb and category switch, IF your original selections were not working for you.

    But to so do just for the sake of broadening your audience, well, it seems a bit disingenuous to me. It’s as if you are promising to one group that your novel is of a certain kind, then pretending it never was as you re-brand it to a different group altogether. Wouldn’t this affect your credibility as an author?

    Like brjnica, I am simply presenting my views for consideration and discussion. I wish you all the best in your writing endeavors.

    Mark D Swartz

  6. In a similar vein, my horror novel BLACK MAGIC got a great review at Publisher’s Weekly which started with “Lake Wobegon meets The Omen in this curiously charming horror novel.” My Goodreads reviews that followed? Worst of any of my books. I can only assume that the reference to Garrison Keillor’s work attracted an audience that really wasn’t into killer rabbits and psycho sorcerers. So this proves your theory by demonstrating the opposite; filtering in people who won’t like the genre.

  7. And you said it had nothing to do with religion! I knew it. Naughty!

    • I don’t see my book as being about religion, I see it as being about the big philosphical questions like “why are we here”. For most people those questions are answered through religion and so they’ll interpret my book as being, in a sense, “religious”. But it really isn’t, it’s philosophical.

  8. I think the filter idea is a dandy one, especially for a book that would likely ignite a lot of hatred from readers who weren’t up for its style or message. Not a bad way at all to get the kind of readers you want and attract nice reviews.

    But a blurb that’s outright misleading seems like a really, really bad idea. I like the playfulness of your second blurb. I like its tone of warning and teasing readers with the idea that a lot is open to their interpretation. But I’d stop short of giving readers any false impressions.

    • I’m just using an extreme scenario to make people think about blurbs.

      • I’m cool with that, then. I just hate when teasers are misleading. I’ve been burned that way. “If Robert Heinlein had grown up reading William Gibson, Lightpaths is the book he would have written.” Oh, for a well-placed, well-timed slap to someone’s head.

        Authors don’t really put enough thought into their blurbs, so good on you for encouraging more of it. I recently wrote up something on blurbs myself, about a couple of really bad clichés that authors just can’t seem to shake.

        My blurbs got so much stronger after I figured those out. I hope to put your filtering advice to good use in the future.

  9. I agree. I suggest people add trigger warnings for the same reason. It would keep people who don’t want to read books with rape, abuse, graphic sex, graphic violence, lots of profanity from downloading the book. At the same time people who are not bothered or enjoy that kind of thing would find the trigger warnings helpful.

    A book blurb/description should draw in the right audience not the broadest audience possible. Just by reading the book description and/or category and reviews I can tell why it’s receiving so many bad reviews it’s either misrepresented or it’s poorly edited. Those are the 2 biggest reasons for large numbers of negative ratings.

  10. Really liked this take on publicity. Not so much that you use the male pronoun all the time.

    • “you use the male pronoun all the time”: English is not my mother language. I’m not even sure what you mean exactly. Could you give me an example of a sentence I wrote and how you would rewrite it?

  11. Great post! Thanks for sharing 🙂

  12. Interesting post. However there’s an arrogance involved in trying to filter out people through your blurb. Writing a blurb that only certain people will ‘get’. I’m not sure I’d be comfortable doing that, although I can see why it might work for some types of books. Of course no one book will appeal to all people, but I’d prefer to allow people to make up their own minds based on an honest blurb, rather than try to ensure the blurb sends your book over the heads of the great unwashed.

    • It seems to me that many readers who posted comments are missing the gist of my article. Although the article’s ideas can be used generically, my filters were created mainly to protect my book against people who are in bad faith. And unfortunately there are lots of them.
      Many people search for books of a specific type just to rate them one star. For ideological, religious or for other reasons. I’m pretty sure they don’t even read them (not that it would make any difference). Let me give you an example. Follow this link to a Goodreads’ profile:
      This woman has 297 ratings with a 1.57 rating average. If she doesn’t like books, why does she rate them? Why not go and play video games instead?
      And she has “IndieVigilante” in her name. That says it all, doesn’t it? She has also blocked her messages and friend requests, so that no one can contact her. It’s pretty obvious her mission in life is to stalk Goodreads looking for books to rate with one star.
      This sort of people are in bad faith and the only thing you can do is to try to subtly divert their attention while hoping that most of humanity is not like her. The way I see it that is the main use of filters.
      This also answers the questions of people who ask me: ‘Why don’t you just write a good and clear description of your book? That should be enough’.
      A clear description of a book that is hated by a specific sector of the population (unduly in my opinion) will only attract exactly the people from that sector to rate the book with one star, just for ideological reasons.

      • I think putting down reviewers is not the way to be looking at this. Yes there are angry, miserable reviewers out there. But there are also a lot of badly written blurbs on books. There are also angry authors out there.

        I think it’s best to focus on the positive reasons for filtering. To find the right readers, the ideal readers, and not to just go after “readers”. By going after the ideal readers and steering away readers who are less likely to enjoy the book you are doing potential readers a service.

        By putting down readers and reviewers on your blog you may be alienating potential readers. If you want to be convening people of a better way to do things keep the focus on the positives not attacking readers and reviewers.

    • No, I think this author is spot-on. I believe that his “blurb-filtering” method is smart and produces a win-win benefit for both the reader and the author.

      In fact, the more a book’s promotional veneer can guide the truly interested to it, the better off we all are. I write in the solar power and romance/erotica sectors, and don’t want to waste anyone’s time by even unwittingly beckoning them to read what is, at bottom, something that would never interest them in the first place.

      I like well-written books on history, for example, but would not want to mistakenly buy a book on, for example, “The History of Needlepoint.” The blurb should succinctly inform potential customers what they’re buying. That’s beneficial “filtering” for me.

      My book’s blurb goes out of its way to filter out all but those who dig my writing. Ditto for my solar power blogs. What’s wrong with that?

      • In my opinion a blurb should be well written to attract the right audience. So filtering out those who won’t be interested makes sense as long as you are also appealing to those who will like your writing. Which I believe is the authors point. Writing a book blurb is hard. Writing one to do double duty is a bit harder but in my opinion well worth the effort. It is a win-win for both readers and the author.

        The number of books I’ve picked up that were not labeled as erotica but were labeled as paranormal romance or historical romance is frustrating. I personally am not interested in reading erotica and looking at the number of negative reviews on those book I was not the only one. There is nothing wrong with erotica in general it’s just not my thing.

        I’ve seen the opposite problem with historical/regency romances that are fairly sex free but the description was not clear – I love them but they get a number of negative reviews because the blurb doesn’t mention “no sex scenes” or “sex is left to the imagination of the reader” or “sex in the style of Jane Austen or Georgette Heyer”. So people complain they weren’t hot/spicy enough.

        The more you target your ideal reader with your blurb and filter out those who won’t like something about the book the better the reviews and the better word-of-mouth within those reader communities.

      • Thanks. I teach this to my clients so I hope I sound competent. 😀

    • I think the blurb is honest. If a book is written in a certain style write the blurb in that style. It’s not a matter of keeping the unwashed masses out. It’s a matter of writing your blurb to appeal to your ideal readers. If the book has a wider appeal word-of-mouth will get around.

      Too many authors think their books have a much wider audience than they really do. A little target market/whose your ideal reader research can go a long way. A book written for middle-graders is going to have a blurb written differently from YA. Urban fantasy blurbs are different from romance from police procedurals from cozy mysteries from memoirs from technical manuals because the audience for each is different. Gender, age group, education level, cultural background, all make a difference in who you write your blurb to speak to. The language you use, the imagery you create, the warnings you might put on the book, the things that are important to mention.

  13. Pingback: 4 tajné tipy, jak propagovat knihu vydanou samonákladem

  14. Pingback: How To Promote Your Self-published Book – Unorthodox Advice! Part Three. | Letting Go

  15. This makes sense. Whenever I read book reviews, and the reviewer states something like, “I received a free advanced copy. It’s not normally a book I’d read,” about 98 percent of the time, they’ll rate that book very low.

    This is like filtering out people you don’t want to date. Simply be who you truly are on the inside, and the people who like you that way will stay.

    I’m writing my book blurb now. Your advice helps. Thanks!


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