The 80/20 Rule

I think most of us are familiar with the eponymous rule, so often cited in business. My take on it is something along the lines of 80 percent of the effort makes 20 percent of the work get done… anyway, I saw it cited in a Goodreads article that drew me in with the title, and their take on it reminded me that it’s been a while since I talked straight-up marketing. “The rule of thumb for online marketing recommends spending 20% of your online time talking about yourself and 80% of it talking about other things”

Now, the article was purportedly about what readers want from Authors, which is why I clicked through to read it. What it was, though, was an article about how Goodreads would like authors to act on their site (i.e. A lot more interaction with that site) rather than what readers are really looking for from authors. That’s pretty simple: more books.

However, the 80/20 comment got me thinking about marketing and social media and blogs, and all the other things that we do rather than writing because even though the singular thing readers want from authors is more to read, authors need to get their name in front of more readers so those readers will start wanting more stories from them… it’s a bit of a vicious cycle, really. Promotion, to sell the work, but you have to make the time to work (write! Write like the wind!) in order to have something to promote. The market is whimsical, and having just one book out there means you should definitely not be spending 80% of your time on promotion. The more books, the more readers will find you, and so on.

The problem is that while an author is promoting their work in social media venues, they are also, in some senses, selling themselves. And if they spend 80% of their ‘face time’ with fans and potential readers talking about themselves or their books, they will repel a lot of folks who don’t care to be sold to. Instead, spending time building trust by not slapping people with a digital wet fish saying ‘buy my book!’ but taking the time to be interesting, talking about something that isn’t in your self-interest for that 80% of the time. I’ve seen it time and again in the groups I’m part of online. An author comes in, spams the group with ads for their book, and we’re all standing on the sidelines muttering ‘who is this jerk and why won’t he shut up?”

I know it’s never gotten me to buy a book. You know why I buy books by unknown authors? Because someone I know and trust recommended it. Or because I found out that the person I’d been chatting with and finding witty was an author (I’m looking at you, Paul Duffau and Wendie Nordgren!) so I went out and hunted down their book. Heck, I learned that my personal doc was an author and bought his book. It looks like it’s going to be Tom Clancy-esque so I am looking forward to reading that, too, because he’s a funny and perceptive guy when we’re in the exam room and I’m betting he’s like that on paper. He might not be. Some people don’t have a handle on writing naturally and comfortably. But I’m willing to take a risk when I like a person, that their writing reflects them.

Then there’s the dude – I’m debating naming him – who keeps posting a link to his book in a group I’m part of. It’s ok, the group owner has made that group open to promo by anyone, at any time, and it hasn’t turned into an open marketplace through sheer force of personality on his part. But this one dude doesn’t interact at all. He just posts a link, and every now and then he adds a comment to it to bump it to the top. You know what I’d like to see him doing? Instead of the bare minimum which he’s currently doing, he could spend a little more time commenting on other threads (not talking about his book, there) or even in his bump-to-the-top comments, being snarky and witty. Does he do that? No. His BTT comments are this: “.” I’m not making a typo, that’s a period. Not even the quotes. So here’s the thing. He’s posting a post-apoc novel in a group that enjoys that kinda thing. It’s like the image I chose to feature on this post: we all love cookie dough. But cookie dough soda? One look and I’m betting you’re blenching and pulling away from your screen a little. That’s the difference between marketing the right way – where you get someone to lean in and drool – and marketing the wrong way, where they are pulling back and avoiding making eye contact while they retreat. I’m not naming the dude. He doesn’t deserve even negative recognition.

When I don’t like a person? See, here’s the backlash to aggressive marketing in a soft market. Reading is about feeling and imagination. You carry that into the book. If you know nothing about the author, you can be objective about the book. If you like the author, it’s going to color your perceptions favorably. If you got a bad first impression of the author, you’re going to read critically even if you are trying not to. There are times and places for aggressive hard-sell marketing. I think. Personally, I haven’t found any yet, but my businesses have been about building relationships with clients, delivering a superior product, explicitly asking the customer to pass on the good word if they were happy, and waiting for them to come back again for more, bringing friends along with them.


  1. 80/20 rule needs to be followed by Sturgeons Law. ๐Ÿ™‚
    Yeah, I am trying to start getting a writing presence down. Just random talking about different stuff. Some writing, some life things. Fun stuff. Need to get a blog post done this weekend between other projects.

  2. Then there are those who do what I call “pseudo-engaging.” They join into discussions but manage to turn every topic into a way of discussing their own work.

    There is one in particular who has two or three books out who shows up constantly on some of my feeds and my eyes glaze over every time I see his name. The original topic can be, oh, using urban myths as a grounds for modern horror fiction, say, and he’ll suddenly jump in with, “This is just like my Best Selling Steampunk Novel….”

    No, it isn’t. It isn’t even remotely on topic. To be honest, this guy has so annoyed me over the past few months that I’d boycott his books even if I had ever been interested in reading them.

      1. Writing a book intended for public consumption is the ultimate ‘focus on the readers’ experience. It is unfortunately easy to tell from the sample when that is not the case – the reader is confused, not enticed, by the book’s beginning pages. I don’t want everything explained – that’s not intriguing, it’s an info dump – but I do want little pieces of some kind of immediate story to show me I’m in good hands.

    1. I need to figure out if I’m doing that to some degree, and if so, dial it back. Thanks.

  3. Everyone needs good marketing.

    I also don’t know where hard selling is supposed to be used. One reason I’m not a great marketer is that I have trouble understanding what sorts of things might attract another person’s decision. Hard selling seems to be about developing emotions and a sense of urgency. My thinking is going to want to recoil from such an experience.

    It takes a long time for me to trust someone, or to really have a feel for what they can do. So I can’t simply mirror in an interview what I would want to see, if I even knew. I need to address this better. Thanks for the clue by four.

  4. I heard it as 90/10. The last 10 percent of the airplane takes 90 percent of the time and effort (panel, interior, paint and finish).

    As a blog moderator, one thing I don’t like at all is when people make a comment that is half-way germane to the topic, but then include a big promo for their own writing without asking permission. I usually edit the comment to delete the links and include a note that they need to ask permission first.

    I’m the worlds second-worst marketer, since I really don’t like pestering people and I have no social media presence. OTOH I did wait until I had more than one book out before I started pestering people, so maybe I’m the third-worst marketer. ๐Ÿ™‚

    1. Software industry joke :
      The first 90% of the project consumes 90% of the schedule.
      The last 10% of the project consumes the remaining 90% of the schedule.

    2. The 90/10 split I’m familiar with, is with respect to volunteer functions.
      Where 10% of the participants do 90% of the work.

    3. I’m not pushy either when it comes to sales; it’s part of the reason why I don’t do well with commission based retail. There was a bank I worked customer service at that insisted that the CS people try to push other products as well every call – usually resulting in annoyed people who wanted to fix some banking issues or such, which resulted in negative feedback. Not making enough sales got lectures, lots of negative feedback also got you lectures – both risked your ongoing employment.

      1. I worked telesales once, on the receiving end (as in, taking calls of people calling in to order products.) We were supposed to add sales and upsell a lot, which didn’t work well until they put up a deal that I *could* really sell. (It was similar to a popular product, except a lot more of it for a slight upgrade in price, so if people said, “I want X” I could reply “We also have X + another X for only $10 more.”) And then I coded it properly, so I found out at the end of the season that I had some of the best levels of up-selling in my group. But I hated it until I found the thing people would really like.

  5. Having been promoting my book, which today Amazon listed the print version ofโ€“though out of stockโ€“I will posit that marketing is spiders; it just is. Dean and Kristine at WMG posit you can’t market one book, you need more than one because what you’re doing is selling the author.

    I honestly don’t know what to think.

    I post things because I’m excited about what I’m posting. Sometimes it’s about my book, sometimes it’s about my hobbies. Sometimes the distinction between the two becomes blurred.

  6. I’m more in favor of the 50/50 90 rule… One has a 50/50 chance of being 90% wrong. Sigh… Seriously, that is one of the reasons I blog everyday. It keeps a ‘presence’ out there, and I occasionally go on Facebook, but that is less that 10% of the time. Frankly, FB is a huge time sink, especially for an author. If you’re on there, you’re not writing, and bottom line, books are what make you money. Not FB.

    1. It’s also the reason I blog, to stay connected and offer interesting content that keeps people coming back. Facebook is more immediate and intimate. Also, as someone commented elsewhere, addictive, so you want to ration it out rather than letting it take over.

  7. As others have said, the 80/20 rule really says that you get 80% of the result from the first 20% of effort. If you can avoid it, you should ship before reaching 100%. (Not good for airplanes, but definitely true of software. Or cleaning the house.)

    Is it really true of books? Does the first draft take only 20% of the total time? (The Pareto principle doesn’t really specify 80% and 20%–it’s apt to differ for any given project.)

    I’m sure it applies to self promotion. Say there’s a maximum amount of attention you could reasonably get. The effort to get all of that is probably five times as great as the effort to get 80% of it. So you should save your time and not overdo it.

    As for the guy who only promotes his book and bumps his comments, I think he’s governed by a different principle entirely: The Law of Diminishing Returns. After a certain point, I suspect each additional post results in fewer readers, not more.

    1. Good marketing means not sending out a news release that is greeted with sighs and curses of, “Oh fark, not him again.”

      1. Yes, and that means paying attention instead of obliviously pushing your stuff at any and all that wander too close. Which you do not do. In fact, I’m more likely to miss new releases from you!

  8. It’s one of those things where I’m so wary of being aggressive that I still have people surprised to find out that I have a book… published a year ago. Well, at least it’s a POD, so there’s no cost to me to just have it up. I think the worst behavior I do (and try to minimize) is over-use of it as an example. “In my book, I did this…” The problem is that I’m an example giver, but I have a small sample size to work from…

      1. Oh yes. I’m trying to get my health on track first, though (minor things, but I’m currently fighting the fact that my doctor seems to be both incurious and misunderstanding what I’m asking about.) And the three-year-old REALLY isn’t helping.

        And oh yeah, I’m not actually a writer. I *have written*, but it’s one of those things I actually have to force rather than doing so the voices stop. Next project up for completion is actually an operatic adaptation, about 1/3 done w/o music scored.

    1. I’m an example giver, too. But I try to give examples from life experiences and from books that I’ve read, as well as giving examples (sometimes) from books I’ve written. Even when you’ve got 20 titles hanging out on your Amazon author page, you still don’t want to be mentioning your own works all the time. “Me, me, me” simply isn’t very interesting to most folks, even when the me has 20 different names. Just sayin’. ๐Ÿ˜‰

      1. True — especially since the more well-known the example you’re drawing upon, the more easily it can be understood and applied. Something almost everybody has read, whether because it’s studied in high school literature courses or because it’s massively popular, is going to be more meaningful as an example than a relatively obscure book, whether your own or someone else’s. The parts of history that almost everybody studies in school are apt to be more useful as examples than something that tends to be studied only by a small number of experts and fans.

        Which I sometimes have to remind myself, since I’ve done a fair amount of research on parts of history not everybody knows. Most people are reasonably familiar with the Stalin era, enough that I can use him as an example of the destruction unrestrained power can wreak, especially since the dictator to the west of him has been overused to the point that invoking his name becomes a buzz of noise. OTOH, examples drawn from the Gilded Age can be a little more tricky, unless it’s something everybody gets taught. Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, probably a recognizable example. Columbian Exposition, maybe, especially if it involves Nikola Tesla. The Presidency of Rutherford B. Hayes, very unlikely to get anything but blank looks.

        1. I love history examples, though I will admit that the internet is definitely my friend when it comes to something I’ve never heard of.

          (Which is how I found out about the Strid. Look that up. It’s fascinating and creepy all at once.)

          1. The political history there is one of my specialities, if I can be even said to have a historical specialty. (I probably can’t, it is only recently that I learned about the Mugwumps.)

          2. Nearly all history is practically terra incognita to most Americans.
            And that’s deliberate.

            I’m pretty sure less than one percent of the population could tell you what the Intolerable Acts were.
            Or name three battles from the Revolutionary War.
            Or tell you what the War of 1812 was about.
            And it’s even worse with respect to more modern times, as the mythmaking is often deliberately contrary to the truth.

  9. As a reader, I want to hear about your books. But, I do not want to be blitzed by the sell.Just tell me that XYZ is finally being published or released and move on. More self aggrandizement would be obnoxious. If you have other books it should be that way. If it is a first time book, a little information will help me decide

  10. For me at least, it’s part of a bigger issue of finding balance between the various activities in my life. Balancing promotional efforts on existing works with writing new ones (and with reading to research and to “refill the well”) has to fit into the even larger struggle of balancing the writing business with my AdSense website business (which has its own internal balancing act between building new webpages and promoting the websites I have), the retail business (which can take over my life when we’re on the road — I’ve discovered that I simply have to write and schedule blog posts beforehand for those days, or they may not happen), and general Life Stuff like cooking, cleaning, finances, etc.

    I try to avoid talking too much about my own writing on my blog, at least the public part (ever since closed down, I’ve done friends-locked posts for my daily writing progress, as a sort of writing diary and progress accountability). Generally I’ll mention a new publication once when it comes out, and then I’ll list one thing of my own on the weekly promo post, after at least one or two items by other people and maybe an anthology I have something in). I sometimes talk about writing process in more general terms, especially if I’ve hit a thorny patch. But I try to have a fair amount of general interest things: space history and technology, economics both macro- and micro-, news, etc.

    Currently I’m running a “bittercon,” a sort of virtual con online for the convention you’d like to be able to attend but can’t, for ConFusion. I’ve taken a bunch of their panel topics and am writing blog posts on them, and we’ll see if we can get some discussion going.

  11. Which, to be honest, got me to check out some of the writers here. I’d seen their work for free, just helping other would-be writers get started (my sincerest thanks, guys!), and, when they happened to mention that they had a new book out, I was curious about their books.

    For example, I would NEVER have picked up the fantasy, Pixie Noir – I never liked that genre before. However, the excerpt intrigued me, I sampled a chapter, and – dammit – was HOOKED.

    If it had been pushed at me, I would have resisted. But, that little sample, coupled with an amazing book, got me to bite.

    Can’t wait until the next one.

    1. Thanks! The next book set in that world will have different characters, since I wrapped up the Pixie for Hire trilogy, but there will be a familiar face or three in the cast.

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