Online forums exist for every imaginable interest. From entertainment options, like fantasy, sci-fi, or romance, to self-help to personal finance, like stock or real estate investing. In the earliest days of the internet, these took the form of Usenet newsgroups and in modern times they take the form of subreddits, forums attached to a blog, and Facebook groups.
When an author is trying to figure out how to sell copies of the books they’ve written, one of the first ideas they have is to go to forums dedicated to the same topic as their book and tell the participants about it. On the surface, this makes perfect sense! They’re interested in the topic, so they should be delighted to hear about a new book devoted to it.
In reality, such authors are the last in a long string of people who have shown up in the forum, tried to hawk their wares, then disappeared in varying levels of obnoxiousness. Often the best response you can hope for is to be ignored, with outright hostility being quite common.
Bloggers were quite bad at doing this, back in the heyday of blogging, to the point that many forums have rules specifically against “blogspam” (bloggers posting links to their posts).
How To Market To Forums
The party line is that you’re supposed to integrate yourself into these communities. Talk to them about the shared interest and contribute as a participant. Over time, once you’ve become an established member, when it’s appropriate to the topic at hand, you can slide a reference to your book into a discussion and hope the community will support it. Alternatively, you can sometimes include a “signature” to your posts that describes your book and has a link to it.
Of course, given such an ambiguous norm, different members will judge how established a member you are and whether or not your actions are appropriate differently. The reality is that in a community of any decent size, you’re very likely to attract hostility and anger from participants no matter how appropriate your book is and how carefully you follow the rules.
I’ve found that getting told off by angry people is part of the cost of trying to engage in this way. I felt out different communities, read the rules carefully, and backed off when I get the feeling that there are a number of participants who aren’t happy that I’m there. My impression has been that other authors get a similar reception.
The only communities I’ve found that are useful to market to long term have been non-fiction (I have books on negotiation and real estate investing). I post in response to someone who has exactly the problem my book is about. Even then, at least half the time I’ve gotten a hostile reaction and left. Sadly, the person with the problem usually appreciates the response and buys my book, but other members of the community lash out.
Almost all forums have some sort of moderator. A person with special privileges and powers to keep the place running smoothly. These are unpaid positions and attract the worst people to put in charge – people who crave unearned authority. Like a tyrannical HOA president, they get off on having power over the other participants.
I’ve often felt that putting up with power-mad moderators is the biggest price, besides time, for chatting in online communities.
If you suck up to the moderators, often time you can win them over. One community I was in got annoyed at a YouTube creator who kept posting his content. He’d made friends with the moderator however, and the moderator posted a scathing screed about how the YouTuber had been treated badly, cursed out a large segment of the community, and banned some prominent members.
Sucking up to such people isn’t a price I’ve been willing to pay.
Online forums don’t bring out the best in people. Often innocuous discussions can set off unhinged people who will grossly overreact. If you consider a crazy, one-in-a-thousand person, a discussion forum with 13,729 participants will have at least 13 of them.
What this can mean, as an author, is that these people might try to retaliate or take revenge against you. If you use a pen name, they may go and leave you bad reviews. If you write under your own name they might do something insane like bad mouth you to your employer or make up complaints against you to your municipality (zoning infractions or such things).
The biggest benefit to this style of marketing is the price, of course. It’s free, except for your time. This makes it a big draw for authors trying to find their first readers.