Marketing and Writing: How NOT to Promote

Yay! You wrote a book! Now what?

There is a steady cacophony of voices that are constantly spamming everyone to read their book. It doesn’t matter if it’s one of the ‘Big Boy’ publishers or if it’s someone who is self published. There are just too many people demanding to be read and no cohesive thought put into why someone should read your book.

Think of it this way: you’re the new kid at school. You walk into the classroom, nobody knows anything about you or what you will bring to the class. The first words that leave your mouth will set the tone for your trajectory in the dynamics of this world of strangers. Is that first sentence a demand? Would you ever walk into a room of people you don’t know and without invitation order them to do something that is time consuming and will likely cost them money?

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Seriously, why should anyone do anything for you? They’ve already got what you want or are trying to get the same thing. You’ve got to work hard to be the one who turns heads. Is it what you’re really looking for? 

Now put yourself into the position of someone walking down the street. Without warning someone comes running up to you, flailing, holding a book and gibbering incoherently about how they’ve got the next bestseller and you totally have to read it right now. My response? RUN AWAY!!! And if I see that book… RUN AWAY!!! It might look harmless but my experience has taught me that it was written my an aggressive lunatic.

Because lets be realistic, chances are you haven’t written the newest best seller. If you have, there is a likelihood that it will take years of steadfast dedication on your part of calm and steady promotional work to make it a best seller. It took George R.R. Martin twenty years of going to conventions, going unnoticed, being ignored, having few sales before anyone started to take him seriously as a writer.

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Do you know who is rated as the fifth richest dead celebrity? J.R.R. Tolkien. The man who changed the way the world would view fantasy novels. If you’re writing for the money you might have to realize that it could take years or even past your lifetime for you to become noticed, if you become noticed at all.

I’m sorry to sound like a downer on all this, but it is time for a reality check and after that I’ll give you the good news about promotion and writing, if you can handle it.

I’ve heard too many new writers (or even established writers) say that they were done with writing. It just wasn’t worth the time they put into it and it was too depressing. This usually is preceded by a storm of advertising and then silence and then… the pronouncement.

For brand new writers first quarter sales are nearly always disheartening. A few friends or family pick up the book and you’re lucky if you make fifty sales. Most people bottom out around twenty, especially for independent publishing. This is even more depressing because the first quarter is when, if you have a publisher, you will get the most publicity (unless something remarkable happens with your book).

For most people however, this is the pattern:

  1. Yay!!!! SO excited, finished my first book.
  2. I made my first sale!!
  3. Why aren’t more people buying my book?
  4. Buy my book dammit!
  5. Seriously, buy my book. Let me show you the cover art and an excerpt from it again.
  6. I did a book signing. No one showed up. I took a picture with some people I know to make it look less depressing.
  7. Buy my book! Why aren’t you listening to me? Spam, spam, spam…

8. I give up. Writing is stupid. People are stupid. I hate you all.

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Don’t feel this way. If you do feel this way, don’t say it online or even to yourself. Expect to have more failures than successes. At the same time, never give up on the idea that your next attempt might be the one that succeeds. 

I’ve been watching and this is what I see repeated over and over and over again. There is also anger is some cases, people lashing out at other authors that they may perceive as being more successful than them. None of this is going to help you promote your writing.

Lets get some more misconceptions out of the way:

My publisher does my promoting for me.

WRONG. In fact, it’s fairly standard for most publishers to include a hefty amount of work in publicizing as part of your contract. This has dissuaded a lot of writers from going with large publishers who take most of the money earned and leave the author with often only pennies per a sale.

Publishers aren’t all bad. Even though they have expectations of you doing more than just handing them a manuscript and then letting you sit back while the money rolls in, they also have something that you, as a new writer may lack: Presence.

Lets go back to the school metaphor. You walk into a classroom but this time you aren’t alone. Someone that most of the people in the class respect walks in with you. This person is your publisher. They say, ‘Hello everyone, this is John Doe. I know you’re all meeting him for the first time, but he’s actually a really cool guy and here’s why…”

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Public Relations lead to Branding. Advertising and marketing CAN work but they can also irritate people and make them decide to vacate the area. This is why it’s good in any business to have someone who can speak for you. It’s reassuring to know that it’s more than your own opinion of yourself or your product that makes it special. 

That is essentially what your publisher does for you. They introduce you to venues, bookstores, conventions and other places so that you become familiar to everyone in ‘the class’. They try to make you look good, they provide editing, cover art, formatting and I’ll tell you one thing about this: they’re the ones who make the choices about those things, not you. If you sign on with a publisher your baby is theirs to do with as they see fit. You are relying on their experience with the markets and what sells and what doesn’t to make the decisions in editing and appearance. This can be an upsetting and painful experience if you aren’t ready for it.  The rest is up to you. The publisher has opened the door for you but what you do once you’re through that door is up to you.

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Ready for your makeover? If you want to make it big, you’re going to have to make changes in every department. This is part of the ‘branding’ process’. Suck it up, buttercup. 

If you aren’t willing to go the extra mile and to get out with your fellow ‘classmates’ why do you expect people to buy/promote/read/review your work? What makes you above all the rest that you are exempt from the hard work of getting to know your audience and your fellow writers and doing things for them as well as for yourself?

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If you think you’re above all this then go back to the classroom metaphor again. You want to be an author that people read, right? Well, that’s the same thing as wanting to be the popular kid at school. You want to be someone everyone wants to get to know better, everyone wants to be around you and have you come to their parties: guess what, popular kids have to work hard for their popularity and you have to work for your popularity.

If you have what it takes in the charisma department to walk into the room and make your own introductions and have people respond favorably to you then the self-publishing market could work for you. There has been an increase in authors who have already been on the best seller list multiple times and won awards to become their own agent. They know that they already do their own work in the publicity department and they know the right people. They have the popularity to do their own thing and pull it off. If you wear your clothes in a new way do people mock you or imitate you? It takes a lot of leadership and charisma to make you a trendsetter.

Before you answer, think carefully: Is this what I REALLY think of myself or just what I wish I thought of myself?

But there’s more to this and I hope that you give this a good think before you get upset the next time something doesn’t sell as well you you hoped: Is this what you really want?

Now that you understand how being a best-selling author is the same as being popular or famous, is that where you want to go? First of all, there are a lot of sacrifices that will be demanded of you. Your time, your energy and your personal life will all suffer. Even how much time you have to write will suffer!

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Being popular means that people like you for what you do for them. They aren’t really your friends, they’re your fans. They want to bask in your success and get a bit of its smear on them in the hopes that they can be popular too. Being popular is a far different thing from being moral or honest. Ask yourself what’s in it for you? Is it worth the sacrifices? Is it worth the pain? WHY are you writing? WHY do you care about sales?

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I’ve asked a lot of people these last two questions in particular. The answer to the second one is usually: So I can quit my day job. Bad news. Your popularity becomes your new day job. The six months writing, six months publicizing rules comes into effect (which will be discussed in more detail in the next article) and you have constant interruptions. Don’t want to go to a party? Tough luck, it’ll look bad if you don’t go. Don’t want to go to a book signing? Too bad, it’s in your contract. Don’t think that your responsibility as a writer ends with your book, it only does that if you’re writing for the sheer joy of it and even then, there is still a certain responsibility to others who read your book that is polite to maintain.

The answer to the first question: Why do you write is usually answered by varying degrees of honesty. I know that I write out of a compulsion. I have to write. I write whether I send my work to a publisher or whether I leave it in a drawer to rot. I write because it’s a huge part of how I express myself. I’ve learned that even though I am verbally loquacious I am even more expressive in my writing. I’ve had so many people who are close to me react with surprise at the things that I write because, often to my surprise, I haven’t actually physically told them those things. My heart is wide open on the page whether it’s a love letter or a novel. It’s also an exploration of different ways of being, different types of people, an exercise in empathy.

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Since I write it all anyway, I might as well do something with it. People tend to enjoy my writing and I enjoy writing it. I don’t need to win a popularity prize to know my self worth, I know enough about myself to know that I’m rocking it and having a good time. That’s more important to me than ‘popularity’.

Another daunting issue is classroom size. A hundred years ago, two hundred years ago… there were fewer writers. Now EVERYONE wants to be a writer. I’ve met very few people who hear I’m a writer and DON’T respond with, ‘I’ve always wanted to write a novel…’. The competition has become fierce and if you are perceived as being competitive it’s likely that you’ll make people want to remove themselves from you. It’s something of an irony with fewer people reading that there are more people writing.

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I’m not sure I believe those statistics, I think that there are more people in the world and that there are more people in countries where attending school is mandatory. There are more people with an education so by extension there are more readers and writers. Be both. Don’t expect to dictate your worlds without taking in the worlds of other people. Be generous in your reading. Even if you don’t do it for popularity, do it because you will learn more about writing through reading a huge range of works than you ever will from sitting down in solitary meditation.

I’m done shaking my finger at you and reminding you that being popular might not be all you dream. Chances are you are looking for success at any cost and nothing I’ve said about that cost has changed your perspective. That’s okay, popularity is a valid life choice. The next question is: How do you get popular in a competitive environment where everyone is shooting for the same goal as you?

Read Writing and Promoting: Doing it the RIGHT Way for my thoughts and observations on what successful writers do to overcome these hurdles.

-VCS

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