pen names

Selling Books Through Social Media Vs. Selling Books Through Ads

By Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

If you’ve just stumbled upon this post, this is actually the second in a series where I’m sharing my reasons for launching a secret pen name.

Here’s the roadmap:

Reason #1 – Part of a writer’s brand is their name.
Reason #2 – I wanted to run an experiment about how to best gain visibility and sell books.
Reason #3 – I wanted my crayons back.

Today I’ll be talking about Reason #2.


Let me start by saying that my purpose in this post is to share my personal experience and to help others carefully consider the choices they’re making. Your results may vary.

Don’t start to blog or stop blogging because I (or anyone else) tell you to. Don’t change your social media strategy because I (or anyone else) tell you to. Research your options, test things for yourself, and make the decision that works best for you. And be willing to adapt. The publishing world is in constant flux, so what works today might not work tomorrow.

An additional caveat is that I’m talking in this post about selling fiction. I’m not talking about selling non-fiction. They are different. If you’re writing non-fiction, I think a blog is essential.

With that out of the way…

One of my reasons for launching a pen name was that I wanted to run an experiment.

The single biggest obstacle faced by all authors is visibility. In order for people to buy our books, they need to know our books exist.

The most common answer to the visibility problem is “build a platform.” We’re supposed to blog and we’re supposed to be on social media to build relationships with potential future readers. We don’t need to be on all the sites, but we should pick one or two to focus on. I’ve said as much myself in the past.

But now, years into blogging and my social media platform, I’ve started to wonder if there are a few flaws with this idea.

(1) It doesn’t always work.

Yes, I realize there are no guarantees in anything and the quality of the book matters, but I’ve seen authors who’d built up their platforms launch novels and have few sales. I’ve also seen authors launch novels that had a quick spike in sales but then didn’t stick in the rankings. From my (non-scientific) observation, it seems that blogging is much more effective at selling non-fiction books than it is at selling novels.

I also have a theory that blogging attracts people who like you, but it doesn’t necessarily attract people who like to read in the genre you write. I read blogs by people whose books I’ll never buy. Or, if I buy one of their books, it’s simply because I want to support them.

But even if people buy our book simply to support us, that’s not necessarily beneficial to us in the long-term. Those loyalty sales confuse Amazon’s algorithms about what type of people will actually like our book.

(2) Blogging and social media eat away at the time needed to write books.

I understand that blogging hones our non-fiction writing skills and teaches us to meet deadlines. It doesn’t teach us to be better fiction writers, though, and most of us have a limited amount of time to devote to writing.

What I found personally was that sometimes blogging would eat up all the writing time I had. I know I can’t be the only one, and I started to question if this was the smartest way to spend my limited writing time. (Like, right now, I should technically be working on my fiction because I’m behind schedule and yet here I am.)

(3) It seems to have a high burn-out factor.

I blogged and was on social media for years before I ever had anything to sell. That was fine when it came to the writing-related posts because I was also a developmental fiction editor so I was still building my business and helping other writers.

It wasn’t working out the same way when it came to the other posts. One of the reasons I took a break from my scifi and fantasy posts last year was that I realized I was burning out. I was using up my ideas long before my fantasy novels were available for sale, and I felt like I was starting to repeat things I’d already said.

Honestly, I like a quiet life. Crazy-exciting things just don’t happen to me every day. My husband and I play board games and go for walks. We take care of my elderly grandparents. We live outside of the city limits and some days the most thrilling thing that happens is we splurge and drive into town to buy a cup of coffee. This past year, I could have written a lot about doctors and specialists and the best time to visit an emergency room, but that’s not the kind of material people on social media want to hear either. Until I have a book out, my potential topics are finite (at least if I want to be genuine and authentic to me and to what I enjoy writing about).

I’ve noticed that many people who start to blog, even when their blogs are great and they’re doing it exactly like the experts tell them to, burn out before they ever have a book to share. Some of them end up never having a book to share. I saw myself walking that path, and it frightened me.

(4) Readers who love our books would probably rather we were working on the next book instead of blogging or being on social media.

If social media is about discoverability, then perhaps there’s a threshold at which it stops being useful. Social media and blogging might be more useful when we’re unknown, and less useful once we have a fan base. Once we have readers, the single best way to continue growing our readership is to write more books, not to write another blog or spend time on social media.

I’m not one who likes to invest a lot of time into something only to abandon it. I really don’t like investing time in something that doesn’t serve the purpose it was intended to. So the possible temporary relevance of social media/blogging annoys me a bit. (Yup, I am going to be bluntly honest in these posts.)

And now, in hindsight, I can tell you that I’ve never received an email saying “will you please blog more?” but I have received emails asking when the next book will be out or encouraging me to write faster. Readers want books more than they want blog posts or Facebook status updates.

Please understand—I’m not anti-blogging or anti-social media. Obviously, I’m blogging right now.

Some people enjoy social media. Some people enjoy blogging. I have times when I love them and times when I hate them. If you’re someone who enjoys blogging and social media then all of the points above are moot. Do it because you love it…but understand why you’re doing it. If we don’t enjoy it, then I think we need to consider whether there are other more profitable or equally profitable ways we could be spending our time.

I also see the value in using social media options like Facebook groups as a networking and learning resource. I’ve been involved in fantastic group promos because of Facebook connections, and I’ve also gleaned amazing tips about writing and marketing from my fellow writers in those groups. But, again, that’s a different way of using social media. It’s not about connecting with potential future readers.

Bottom Line – I just wasn’t convinced anymore that blogging and social media were the only way (or the best way) to gain and keep visibility for our fiction writing and to connect with fiction readers. Since I have an established platform under my real name, I couldn’t test this theory at all as me.

Enter the pen name experiment.

I wasn’t going to start a second blogging and social media platform for my pen name. I don’t have the time for that. I barely have time for the platform I currently have. (My husband might argue that I don’t have the time for it, but we’re not going to ask him.)

In fact, the need to start a second platform is one of the main arguments levied against pen names, especially private ones. For other reasons, I’d fallen in love with the idea of pen names, but I knew they’d only be a viable option for me (and many others) if they didn’t require a second high-maintenance platform.

That meant that my pen name would need to find her way in the world sans platform. I wanted to know if this was possible. (And in the fall, when I–hopefully–release some novels under my real name, I plan to compare the results. It’s possible that my platform will shoot my fantasy up higher than my pen name books went and prove that social media and blogging are still the best means to build an author career. I’d be happy for that to happen too 🙂 )

I did set up a website for my pen name because I think it’s important for an author to have an online home where readers can find out more about them and email them. It has blogging capabilities, but I plan to use the blog mainly to share excerpts and announce new releases. I also created a Facebook page for her, but it’s only there as a way to connect with readers after they’ve read the books. I’m not using it to try to “meet” new people.

In other words, all the online presence I set up for her was intended for engaging readers further after they already knew about her, not about gaining name recognition or building a platform pre-release.

However, I’m also not a believer in the Field of Dreams version of building an author career. They won’t come simply because you build it. Even if they did, it’d take years. I wasn’t about to wait years. I’m self-employed. If I spend time on something, it’d better help pay my bills pronto.

So I decided that my pen name would experiment with ads. Ads tend to split writers down the middle. Some people say ads don’t sell books, and a lot of writers have lost a lot of money trying them. Other people swear by ads and credit them with making their career.

The big three when it comes to ads (as of early 2017 when I’m writing this) seem to be Facebook ads, Amazon ads, and email newsletter ads (the best-known being BookBub).

I tried all three.

I lost money on the Facebook ads. (And before anyone assumes that it’s just because I didn’t know what I was doing, I’ve taken Mark Dawson’s paid Facebook course.) This could have been due to the genre I’m writing in, or it could be that the Facebook ad market is now so glutted with authors that it’s going to become even more difficult than usual to get a positive ROI. I don’t know. All I know is that it didn’t work for me. It also didn’t work for my non-fiction books under my real name, so I’m leaning toward the platform being overly crowded as the reason.

The first month I broke even with the Amazon ads, but now they’re giving me a positive ROI. I wonder, though, if they’ll soon experience the same over-population as Facebook ads and lose their effectiveness, especially after Mark Dawson adds a module to his course about them.

I got a slot in two mid-sized email newsletters that accept new releases (not all do).

In the first week, my pen name’s Book 1 ended up in the top 100 of its category and peaked at the rank of #2,243 overall on Amazon. The first month after it was released, it outsold all my other books…combined. Since then, it’s stuck high enough that it’s still my bestseller by far.

Part of this might be due to the genre I’m writing in. It’s not romance, but it is a popular genre, so there are a lot of voracious readers there. This might not work as well in a less popular genre or with a book that doesn’t fit neatly into a genre category. I tried to be strategic when I designed the series my pen name would write, while still picking a genre I enjoyed and a story idea I loved. (Though I’ve learned so much now that I also wish I could go back and give myself a few tips.)

I’ve tried other promotional activities since then, but what I think my experiment shows is that it is possible to succeed as a fiction author without a platform—you just have to be willing and able to spend some money to do it. (I spent about $300 USD on my promotional campaign in Book 1’s release month.)

It comes down to the age-old divide that you can either invest time to get something done or invest money. For me, the monetary cost was worth it when launching my pen name. Time is a finite resource, and if the past year has taught me anything, it’s that I want to savor every moment I have.

That doesn’t mean my choice is the right one for everyone. You might choose to solve the visibility problem by building an online platform first. My whole point here is this: know that you have options and make a thoughtful, strategic choice about what will work best for your life and your career.

I’d love to hear your thoughts. Do you think blogging helps fiction authors sell books? Do you think blogging and social media shouldn’t be used as a way to sell books and instead should be done for a different reason? What has your experience been with ads and other promotional opportunities?

**Please remember the comment policy of this blog. I welcome opposing opinions with open arms as long as you’re respectful in the way you state them.**


Interested in more ways to improve your writing? Check out my Busy Writer’s Guides such as Description, Deep Point of View, or Showing and Telling in Fiction.

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Why I Launched a Secret Pen Name

By Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

So, umm…surprise. I have a pen name.

She published two novels and one novella in 2016 with the third in her series already complete and ready to go in a few weeks. In 2017, if all goes according to plan, she’ll put out books 4-6 in the same series as well.

Up until now, few people have known about her existence, and even fewer know her name. I’m not going to share her name in this post. I’m not sure yet if I’m ever going to openly “own it,” even though I’m proud of everything she’s written.

But I decided I wanted to explain my reasons for creating her and some of the lessons I learned from publishing her books in the hope that it can help others. Even if you’re 100% opposed to writing under a pen name (whether that be a pen name in addition to your real name or whether you write solely under a single pen name), I still think some of these items are things every writer should consider. Some of my reasons were business-related. Some of them had to do with fear and broken confidence.

As you might have guessed, this is going to be a multi-part series. As I add each part, I’ll link them here for newcomers. Here’s the roadmap:

Reason #1 – Part of a writer’s brand is their name.
Reason #2 – I wanted to run an experiment on how to gain visibility and sell books.
Reason #3 – I wanted my crayons back.

Today I’m going to look at Reason #1.

After this mini-series finishes, I’ll be diving in to some of the craft topics that you voted for in my recent survey. (If you haven’t voted yet, there’s still time. If you want to choose more than one option, you can select the “Other” option and write in your answer too.)


As Marcy Kennedy, I’m the author of non-fiction books for writers, and my long-term goal has always been to publish science fiction and fantasy.

That’s already a divided platform and public image because many of you won’t be interested in my fiction. You read my blog for writing advice and you buy my non-fiction books about the writing craft, but you’re not speculative fiction fans. When fiction readers come to my website after reading one of my future novels, they’re not likely to be interested in my writing craft posts.

So I’m already trying to find the tenuous balance between my two audiences. Half the time, I don’t know what to share on social media because I keep thinking about the part of my audience I’m either alienating or failing to build. I hate that.

The genre I wanted to write in with my pen name isn’t science fiction or fantasy. In fact, it’s so far from those two genres that the odds of many people crossing over were slim. So if I hadn’t used a pen name, I would have been creating yet another distinct segment to my audience.

Some writers choose to put all their genres together under the same name anyway with the idea that readers will simply ignore what they aren’t interested in. That might be true. I know some writers make it work.

But I had qualms about this for me.

(1) I’ve been studying other successful creatives—writers, artists, and musicians. What many of them have in common is a clearly defined brand.

They’re specialists. They don’t try to appeal to everyone. They don’t need to in order to make a good living from their work. What they need to do is connect with their people—the ones who “get” what they’re doing and love it.

This specialization makes them memorable and instantly recognizable. You know a piece of their art when you see it. You know what you’re getting when you download their new album. Their name is almost synonymous with their genre. Everything about them online and in person fits this brand.

It makes them a go-to for their audience and easy to recommend to people with similar interests.

Which leads in to my next point…

(2) I want to become an auto-buy for readers.

They see that I’ve put something out and they purchase it because they trust and enjoy my writing. I want them to know they’re safe investing their time and money in me. The promises I’ve made to them with my past work will be kept in the newest work. I don’t want them to have to pause and figure out whether this particular new release is in a genre they enjoy or will be a type of story they’ll enjoy. (I’ve written more about this at Janice Hardy’s blog if you’re interested.)

I also don’t want them to get into the habit of sometimes ignoring me. I want them to expect that everything I produce—whether it be a Facebook post, a blog, or a book—will interest them.

(3) I’d already made the mistake once of publishing something where the tone was different from my other work.

In a recent Creative Penn podcast, Kristine Kathryn Rusch mentioned that one important criteria for whether or not you need a pen name is tone, not genre. Readers will often read across genre if the tone is the same. They’ll be upset if they pick up one of your books and the tone is very different from what they’ve come to expect from you.

When I released my book of short stories (Frozen) a few years back, I made the mistake of not considering content and tone. Those short stories are suspense, and they’re darker and more disturbing than my fantasy or science fiction, and the feedback I got after releasing them was that people (some positively, some negatively) now expected that same feeling from my fantasy. And my fantasy isn’t like that.

It hurt my brand. There are people who won’t read my fantasy when it releases because they think it’ll be grim dark. If my short stories hadn’t given them a false impression, they would have been more likely to read my fantasy and would have seen that it’s much more noble bright, full of hope and people who want to be good and honorable making hard choices in difficult situations.

Likewise, the difference between what I have planned for release under my real name and what I was thinking of writing under my pen name goes deeper than genre. I instinctively knew there’d be differences in tone as well. My pen name writing has more humor in it. It’s quirky. It’s more light-hearted. It’s the girl-who-wears-funny-socks-and-dances-around-her-kitchen side. It reflects a side of me that didn’t fit with the fantasy stories I wanted to write.

If I released this pen name series under my real name, I knew I’d be making the same mistake as I had before, but on a much bigger scale. I’d be muddying up people’s expectations—losing potential future readers of my fantasy and, later, disappointing current readers when my fantasy wasn’t the same as my books in the other genre.

(4) Amazon’s Also-Boughts and Algorithms can help make you or they can bury you in obscurity.

Right under the description of a book on Amazon, you’ll see a section called “Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought.” It’s a selling tool. The theory behind it is that people’s buying habits are predictive. If a lot of people who buy a certain book also buy your book, then other people who like that first book should also like your book.

The best-case scenario is that your book will appear in the Also Boughts of other popular books in its genre and that your book’s Also Boughts will be filled with other books by you in the same series or genre.

But if you write in multiple genres, then the Also Boughts stop serving their purpose as a sales tool. I didn’t want that kind of Also Bought pollution happening to my fantasy books or to my other genre books.

When you write in multiple genres, Amazon’s algorithms also have a more difficult time figuring out who to show your books to. And if they show your books to people who don’t buy them, eventually they stop showing them to anyone at all.

So there you have it. I’d love to hear what you think. Are you in favor of pen names or against them? Do you find it frustrating when one of your favorite authors starts writing in a new genre (one you’re not interested in)? Have I missed anything that you think writers should consider when it comes to pen names?

Interested in more ways to improve your writing? Check out my Busy Writer’s Guides such as Description, Deep Point of View, or Showing and Telling in Fiction.

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