Many aspiring authors I work with either don’t like or don’t get marketing. If you’re a writer who likes it, consider yourself lucky.
Whether you like it or not, however, the important thing to understand is just how early marketing starts. One of the primary focuses of my coaching is helping authors with their platforms, which I like to describe as pre-marketing. After all, all building a platform really entails is marketing the brand of you.
Last week I attended PubU, the Independent Book Publishing Association’s weekend-long publishing conference. I sat in on a panel called “Book Publicity in the Digital Age,” in which one of the panelists drove home the point over and over: “You are the brand; the book is your product.” And it’s important to note that one book is only one product. Any writer who wants to have a publishing career these days needs to be thinking bigger than one product.
The hardest thing for most writers about marketing is that it requires so much outer-oriented work, since a lot of writers write for the inner-oriented work of creation, self-exploration, and sometimes healing. This is especially true, I’ve found, for novelists and memoirists. Because I work with this population, I’ve not only witnessed the dread and resistance around marketing, I’ve learned to help authors work through it, with it, and around it. Here are some of the typical lines you’ll hear yourself saying if you don’t like or get marketing:
- “Do I really have to do that?”
- “It’s so expensive—I don’t think it’s really worth it.”
- “It’s time-consuming. I’d rather be focusing on my writing.”
- “I know of many best-selling authors who don’t have big platforms; if they can do it, so can I.”
- “I’ll figure it out once my book comes out.”
Each of these statements, or beliefs, will ultimately hurt you if your goal is to sell books. If you are just writing a legacy book, or a bucket-list book, then you will be fine. These writers don’t expect sales beyond their family and friends, and just want a good book they’re proud of. But if you’re anyone else—someone who wants a wider readership—marketing is as important, if not more so, than writing your book.
I know this statement is hard to digest for writers who love to write. Especially if they dislike (or think they dislike) marketing. But you can change your relationship to marketing. I know because I’ve done it.
I spent 14 years in traditional publishing not paying attention to marketing. There was a marketing department, after all, and I was in editorial. All I knew was that I had to “sell” the marketing team on books I wanted to acquire, which is why I learned to be focused (and still am) on author platform. But if it was post-publication, I didn’t really care about how or why it worked. I paid attention to publicity hits, but not the inner workings of how or why books got publicity.
That all changed in 2012 when I became an author and a publisher. All of a sudden, my book was out there in the world, and I was paying a lot closer attention to what was working and not working with the authors at She Writes Press. There’s no head of marketing at She Writes Press as there was at Seal Press, so I found myself tuning into what the publicists were doing, and reviewing publicity and marketing campaigns, and seeing the inner workings, and how fundamentally important it was and is for our authors to get started with their book’s marketing plan a full six months prior to publication. I didn’t totally realize that not having a marketing plan for a book means, pretty much, that your book is dead on arrival.
When I published my own book, I opted for the publicity strategy that I referred to as the “ripple effect.” I would just let my book come out and people would buy it and recommend it, and maybe I’d get some media attention. What I got was exactly the amount of energy I put into it. I hired a publicist who was on board with my modest expectations and she got me a few radio interviews and reviews. Luckily, I had a decent platform on Facebook and Twitter, and a strong database, so I sold through a few hundred copies right after my book came out to my loyal audience. I even got a TV spot. It was my first book, so this was all exciting, but in retrospect I can see how small it really was. And the result has been that my book, almost two years later, has sold about 750 copies. Not horrible, but far from a stellar performance. Which is why for my next book, which I’m hoping to put out in 2015, I’m going to go a lot bigger. I’m abandoning the “ripple effect” in exchange for doing it right: in advance, with plenty of lead time, and hiring a publicist to do a full-blown campaign.
Understanding the publishing landscape is key. It’s a complicated world, full of people who operate under an established way in which things have always been done. This means that reviewers and magazine editors and radio and TV hosts want your ARCs (advance reading copies, also known as galleys) four to six months in advance.
The good news is that there’s a lot you can do on your own, and you can go as small or as big as you want to go. But if you’re a self-published author who’s published a book and sold less than 500 copies, I can guarantee you that this sell-through can be traced back to your marketing. And you can change it next time, but it starts with your mindset, and starting to value marketing for what it’s worth.
This June I’m partnering with Howard VanEs (a marketing expert) to put on our second annual Self-Publishing Summit. This year’s focus is marketing. What I bring to this weekend and to this conversation is the perspective of someone who turned a bit of a blind eye to marketing out of overwhelm and a lack of understanding. But I have very much changed my relationship with marketing, and I want to help anyone who wants to change their own relationship and understanding of marketing to do the same.
It’s a lot like money, actually. It’s very easy to be overwhelmed by expenses and budgeting, and so as long as you have money coming in and you’re covering your expenses, you just plug along, figuring that if you don’t pay attention under the hood then it’s all okay. But getting a firm handle on what’s going on is in fact quite empowering (yes, I have firsthand experience of this as well). Having a plan isn’t restricting; it’s freeing. But it’s human nature to shut out that which scares us, overwhelms us, and makes us uncomfortable. So we have to push ourselves a bit to try to make a change.
The dream of writing a book and becoming a bestseller based on the sheer beauty and quality of your book is basically a pipedream. I’m not sure it ever existed, because most readers aren’t privy to the vast efforts that go into marketing a given book. And yes, occasionally an author will have a lucky break—by being chosen by Oprah as her next book club pick, for instance. Even E.L. James, who most people think caught a big break and has become a best-selling author by luck, had a major fan fiction following before she wrote Fifty Shades of Gray. That book did not break into the American marketplace by accident. She had an author platform, and she was treating herself as a brand, and her books like products. The writing is awful, but the author (while maybe not expecting to become an international sensation) was marketing savvy.
So let this percolate, and think about what it would feel like to start to think of your book as a product. This isn’t about depersonalizing your book, or devaluing it, but rather starting to shift how you think about your writing and your writing career. If you were a store, how many things would you want to sell? And how many products do you think you’d have to have in order to keep costumers coming back for more?
I’d love to hear from you about what has worked for you, and what hasn’t worked. Did you start early? Did reviews drive sales? Did you work with a publicist, or do it on your own? Do you have any publicist recommendations? I want to hear it all. And if you’re ready to change your relationship to marketing, join me and Howard in Corte Madera, California, this June 7 & 8. Entering into this conversation will forever change the way you approach your writing career.