The Big Oversell – it’s a domino thing

I remember when I got my first job. It was a candy shop, and the manager told me that all their employees could eat all the candy they wanted. Oh, how perfect was this job for me? The manager asked me about when I was available for work. I could smell those chocolate butter creams wafting in the air, making my mouth water. “I’m available after school and on weekends.” Yay. I got the job and was in choccie heaven.

Then came the truth. I really wasn’t available all weekends because I was in pep squad and had to be at our many parades and football games on Friday and Saturday. This put a crimp in the manager’s scheduling because she was depending on me to handle the weekends. She was less than happy and her furrowed brow told me I had oversold myself. I learned a valuable lesson back then. I discovered that it’s all well and fine to promise the moon, but if you don’t deliver, your backside will be hitting a few craters.

And this is something I see quite a bit of in the publishing field. Authors realize they need to provide a promotion plan and are tempted to be like my sideview mirror – you know what I mean…images look further away than they are. But in this case, authors appear better than they really are. In the case of nonfiction, we factor in the author’s platform and promo plan when discussing a book, and we see a lot of fluffery and puffery.

I see fluff and puff in three distinct stages:

Author Platform
Promo Plan
Author’s Participation

Author Platform

I tried to convince the candy manager that I was the best thing since sliced candy apples. Since I was only 16 and my first job, I had zero platform…meaning a record of previous employers who could vouch for my fabulosity. I hang my head in shame that she took my word for it.

And since I tried this little ruse to my own chagrin during my wayward youth, my BullCrappy-O-Meter is on the highest setting. Sometimes it’s like shooting mosquitoes in a tepid barrel of warm beer – like the writer who tried to convince me she’d won a Nobel Peace Prize. I guess she didn’t realize how screamingly easy it is to find that information. Likewise, it’s fairly easy to ferret out the biggest offenders simply by googling them. If someone says they are in huge demand as international speakers and I can’t even find a website or single newspaper article on them, then I get a ping from my BullCrappy-O-Meter.

It has to be logical. Anyone who has the goods has an electronic trail of breadcrumbs that lead back to their name. It’s verifiable. Word to the wise – don’t try to oversell who you are, ‘cos we’re gonna find out at some point.

Promotion Plan

Sadly, overselling doesn’t stop at trying to convince people of your fabulous platform. It also goes to the promo plan – what the author plans on doing to promote their book. In this, editors have to be better detectives because it’s not as easy to determine whether someone has the ability or desire to do what they say they can/will do until the rubber meets the road – meaning publication.

An author  can easily tell me that he has journalists from the NY Times and Chicago Sun Times waiting to do an interview on him, and he has major specialty groups waiting to schedule appearances and signings – and who am I to refute this? I can only vet so much, and then I have to trust at some point – a nerve-wracking thing, to be sure.

We use the promotion plan as an integral part of our overall marketing strategy. If the author says he’s tight with the ESPN producers, and they’re waiting to schedule an appearance, then we pass that information on to our sales teams and blast it out in our media kits. Sales are based on those promo plans, so when an author oversells themselves, those sales can very easily come back as returns.

Author’s Participation

It’s at this point when editors consider the merits of mainlining harsh chemicals and braiding their eyelashes because there’s no warning to when an author oversells himself. The promised plans simply never come to fruition. This means the editor, marketing, and publicity people are stuck doing all the national stuff and getting books shipped out to market, and the book is having a hard time finding footing because the author is AWOL.

It all starts with the submission committee. They discuss the book at great length, its message, quality of story, unique elements that make it marketable. They also take lots of time with how to promote the book, and a vital key to that process is the author’s participation. If the author sits on her hands and fails to do any of the things she said she would/could do, the she has just issued herself an invitation to her own funeral because that book will die. It’s almost a certainty.

Here is a truth:  Genre buyers always want to know what the author is doing to promote their book. Their pre-sales often hinge on author participation.

The Dominoes Begin to Fall

At some point, the big oversell will be very apparent, so what happens? Well, for starters, the author will incur her publisher’s wrath – and that’s never good. Then the dominoes begin to fall. The publisher has to quickly switch gears because all the support they had literally banked on is now gone. The problem is that it takes months to get a marketing and promotion campaign going, so right away there is a big hole that’s very hard to fill.

Meanwhile, bookstores begin receiving the pre-orders they wrote up based on those original promo plans that now won’t happen. Because the author is no longer a factor in promotion, the book loses a healthy amount of publicity, so those books will sit on the shelves until they gather dust. Then they’re bundled up in boxes and returned to the publisher. This costs the bookstore money because they allotted part of their budget to that particular title for that season.

This, in turn, makes the genre buyer a little miffed at the publisher for giving them a dogmeat book. So the buyer has to consider whether to trust the publisher in the future. This makes it harder for the publisher to gain traction in the marketplace, so future books could suffer from buyer backlash.

Publishing is a business where one’s reputation is paramount. We have to deliver what we promise, or we eat it for the simple reason that there are a ton of other publishers all too happy to take our shelf space.

The author’s own domino will also fall. Of course, your current publisher will never publish another one of your books because you’re untrustworthy. If you go to another publisher with your second book, they’ll look at the sales history of your first book. They may go so far as to call the original publisher. I’ve received calls from others, and I’ve made calls as well.

The worst domino to fall is that your publisher will re-prioritize you and your book. Your direct line to them is severed because the trust is shattered. No one wants this. Truly. The publisher will still do everything in its power to sell the book, but any special requests or favors you may have will fall on deaf ears. There are no winners for the author who oversells himself.

Be Honest

As I said earlier, the desire to be well published is strong. Everyone gets that. But when an author promises the moon and sun without fully thinking through whether they actually have the ability or time to accomplish them, they put a lot of people’s necks in a noose. Above and beyond all else, be honest with yourself and your editor. Don’t try to make yourself look bigger and better than you are because you won’t be able to perpetuate the ruse, whether intentional or accidental.


The perfect promo plan is where the author analyzes their time and abilities, and plans accordingly. They look at those who can be helpful “big mouths” in promoting their book. For example, if you have a NY Times journalist friend, contact them and discuss the possibilities of having them do an interview. Stay in contact, too, because it’s not all that unusual for journalists to be reassigned or let go. If that happens, you can then alert your editor immediately, so she can make changes to the overall marketing plan.

I see a lot of promo plans that look like the author tossed a handful of darts and just wrote down whatever the dart hit. There’s little continuity or realistic expectation they can pull it off. It’s simply stuff that sounds really good on paper. Oversell.

Authors need to treat their writing careers as honorably and realistically as they do their day jobs because everything reflects back on them. If you tell your editor that you have journalists calling your house every week clamoring for interviews, then she’s going to expect to see those articles gracing the papers. If those articles never appear, then your editor is going to wonder whazzup. Do this too many times, and you’ll be the author who cried promo king/queen to deaf ears.

Conversely, there is nothing your editor won’t do for you if you follow through with your promo plan. Those authors always get attention because both sides are working toward the common goal of big sales.

3 Responses to The Big Oversell – it’s a domino thing

  1. danholloway says:

    This is very wise. Expectation management was something that attained the level of an artform under the Tony Blair government, when it was routine for negative reports and rumours to be leaked in the lead up to the release of important figures, so when the (really rather poor) figures came out, they were never as bad as people had imagined and instead of general shouting and hollerig people breathed a collective sigh of relief.

    I remember an experience with Air Egypt. There was a delay at Cairo airport. As soon as the delay was known about, we were told that there would be a 4 hour delay and everyone was given a sandwich and a drink. When we ended up leaving just 2 hours late, everyone was over the moon. Contrast that with the usual false promises and lack of information that makes you tear your hair out over half an hour.

    I guess the key is this. With other people, make it a rul to under promise and over deliver. But when you have those private little moments with yourself, go the other way and shoot for the stars in the hope that you get the moon!

  2. In publishing, it’s not a good idea to under promise, either. I’ve had those experiences, and it was frustrating because while authors did some amazing things, I wasn’t able to exploit them for marketing purposes because they hadn’t discussed them with me.

    I couldn’t get word to my sales and marketing guys in time for it to make any difference in getting buyers to issue larger purchase orders. So, of course, the events were wonderful, it was a lost opportunity on my part on a national level.

  3. danholloway says:

    It sounds like authors need to add a course in funambulism to their Writer’s Tackle Box 🙂

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