The Problem with Short-Term Thinking in Book Marketing

I’m getting serious about regular yoga practice lately. My lovely stepdaughter and son-in-law gave me a gift certificate for Christmas to 6pm.com, where I was able to get all kinds of great yoga clothes for not much money! This is the pic I took for them to show my loot. I’m excited because I’ve found a yoga studio I really like with a wide variety of classes at times that work for me. I went twice right after Christmas, then got this obnoxious flu. I’m finally feeling back up to full strength so I’m revved to attend regularly and build a steady practice. I’ve been doing variants of yoga along with other martial training for more than twenty years, but never really devoted myself to yoga. Now’s the time!

Yoga is one of those practices that require long-term commitment. The results come gradually, with diligence and consistency. I’m looking at it as something to do to maintain my body as it ages. Thinking long term like this requires a different perspective. I’m not trying to lose fifteen pounds in the next six months so much (though I am), as wanting to regain flexibility and retain elasticity and strength as an aging body moves away from those things. It’s much the same as I’ve approached my writing career, which I’ve always viewed as a long game.

That includes marketing.

Marketing has been on my mind lately. I did a post about this at the SFF Seven a bit ago. And last week I was on a panel about productivity as a writer for LERA, my local RWA chapter, and one question people asked was where in my schedule I fit in marketing. It’s not that I don’t accept marketing as a reality of being a career author. I worry that it gets too much attention from authors, especially in the short term.

When I started out with my first books, I received the advice that the best, most effective method for marketing my book was to write the next book. A lot of people get this advice. It’s really good advice. I’d only amend to say, “concentrate on writing the next book and try to make it even better than the previous one.”

See, the problem I have with a lot of today’s focus on marketing is that authors seems to get very focused on promoting THAT book or THAT series. They work hard to get a better Amazon ranking, to get more reviews, to get a bestseller status that they can put under their email signature or website banner. All of these things make nicely tangible milestones. It’s easy to know if you did it or not, so they’re seductive for that reason. It’s much more difficult to quantify the longer-term goals of gaining a devoted readership or improving your reputation in the genre. 

Still, those longer-term goals are the ones that matter. For example, having a book hit the USA Today (USAT) Bestseller list should be an indication that enough readers anticipated and loved the book that they bought the book during a certain amount of time. It’s a terrific measure of a dedicated fan base. But a lot of short-term marketing efforts these days go into getting on that list – joining in box sets with other authors and pouring on promotional money in order to get that badge of honor. The argument is that an author being able to call themselves a USAT Bestselling Author will sell more books. 

But will it?

Maybe?

Still, it’s no longer a measure of that long-term goal of having a dedicated reader base. It’s a reflection of a short-term promotional effort. The reality is, unless an author is writing books that readers love, it doesn’t matter what’s on their website banner or under their email signature. Word of mouth and reader recommendation is still the primary way people find new books. It’s how I find new books. 

This is why writing the next book – and trying to improve on the previous book – is the key to the long game. I get that it can feel critical to launch a debut book well, or to get that series off the ground, but winning readers who will put you on their autobuy list for the next twenty years is what will allow you to be a career author, to make a consistent income from both your back- and front-list. Making money or a USAT Bestseller badge off of one book – or even one series – won’t. 

Just like my losing 15 pounds by summer won’t ensure my long-term health. A lot of planning and gradual improvement will go into how my body will perform thirty years from now – and the same is true of my writing career. 

Both are about the long game. 

Choosing Your Billing

How people bill themselves and their products fascinates me.

You know what I mean, right? The “best,” “tallest,” “newest,” “most.” Advertisers have been after this method for years, trying to convince consumers that this particular thing is special, unique, superlative and Must Be Purchased. Of course, there are laws that require Truth in Advertising.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is the main federal agency that enforces advertising laws and regulations. Under the Federal Trade Commission Act:

  • Advertising must be truthful and non-deceptive

  • Advertisers must have evidence to back up their claims

  • Advertisements cannot be unfair

However, it’s fairly easy to get around this sort of thing. “Truthful” is a relative thing. My “healthy” granola bars might be low-fat and through the roof on sugar and sodium. Depends on the definition.

Writers, of course, are faced with selling themselves to the world. Yes, yes – I know we’re really selling our stories, but the almighty BRAND is the author herself. Do you want to read a book by Crappy Author or Bestselling Author? Knowing nothing else, you’ll probably pick Bestselling, because at least that means a bunch of other readers liked the author’s work enough to buy it.

Theoretically.

See, it’s really great for an author to have a book make it to the New York Times Bestseller list. Or the USA Today Bestseller list. And now the Amazon Bestseller list. The best part is, a writer gets one book on one of those lists – even in the very bottom spot – and ever after you get to pimp yourself as Bestselling Author. Fair enough, really. However, now that there are so many digital presses and online bookstores, there are ever so many more lists to be on. And I see authors glomming onto the “Bestseller” title if they’ve made it on any list anywhere.

For example, when Sapphire came out, it was number one on the Carina bestsellers list for about a week. Now, I’m not saying I didn’t love this. I may have clicked on the link and looked at it approximately every ten minutes. I might have even made little gleeful noises while I looked. Okay, I have screenshots saved. And someone said to me “Now you can call yourself a #1 Bestseller.”

Erm.

Obviously, I haven’t done that. It just feels wrong. I know a bunch of you will snicker at this, but I’m a fairly modest person. Not that I don’t have a very healthy ego and strong self-confidence. But I really don’t like talking myself up. I run into this at the day job, too. Those people in the company who make sure everyone knows how wonderful they are? I’m not one of them. I’m wary. Wary of jealous gods and obese egos. 

So today I noticed a writer described as “World Renowned Author” and I tripped over it. What the hell does that mean? I recognized the author’s name, even read one of his books, but I would never have described him as world-famous. And then I thought, well, hell – Carien who often comments here, lives in The Netherlands and she likes my books. And @arzai lives in Malaysia and she likes my books. I figure, this makes ME world-renowned, right?

I’m low-fat, all-natural and healthy, too.

Being Practical about Writing in Multiple Genres

Don’t worry – the snow is all gone now and we’re back to spring sunshine. I just thought it looked really neat, the way the snowy tree made a cave with treasures beneath.

So, Rachelle Gardner, literary agent, posted on her blog today a whole bunch of really good reasons for debut authors, in particular, to stick one genre. Yeah, we’ve all heard this advice multiple times. Stick to one genre. Build an audience. Develop your brand so readers know what they’ll get when they pick up your books.

It’s undoubtedly good advice. Angela James, who you all know I think is a smart cookie, gives the same counsel. I appreciate that agents and editors take the time to explain these things. It’s helpful for writers to get the business perspective.

But that’s exactly what it is: the business view of things.

Of course that’s how editors and agents see the world of writing. That’s their job. Books are more clear from their side of the desk. They like the genre to be clearly defined, from manuscript to where it will sit on the bookstore shelf. They know about building readership and how that best works. Thus it’s easy and simple for her to give advice such as:

If you’re writing in several genres and you’re not published yet, be aware that the first book you sell and publish will determine the genre you’ll be working in for quite a while. Choose carefully!

To me, this is akin to the advice to pick your top three dream agents and direct all your efforts to winning their representation. Again, I’m sure this seems very clear from the other side of the desk, but for a writer who’s trying to wedge her stories into a difficult market, this is far from an easily defined effort.

For example, let’s talk about me. (My favorite topic!) I started out writing nonfiction – personal essays, creative nonfiction, narrative nonfiction. I did fine. But not well enough to make a living at it. Then I got the Burn to write this fantasy, full of sex and romance and science. All you writers know what I mean by the Burn, right? It’s when that story idea is smoldering away, like money burning a hole in your pocket, dying to be spent. The Burn is what makes the story come to life for me. And when it’s not there, it seems the story just stays this wooden construct, a corpse on the slab.

Unfortunately, my wonderful fantasy was not a clear genre. I couldn’t sell it. (Though I have now – that’s Rogue’s Pawn which comes out July 16!) So I wrote the next book. And in between there, I did what Rachelle says not to do. Rather than focusing on one genre, I wrote a BDSM erotica, Petals and Thorns. I sold that nearly immediately.

See, the thing is, agents and editors make these things sound like they’re under our control. From their perspective, I’m sure it seems that way. Choose carefully! But very often what sells first is dictated by the market, not by what we decide.

Rachelle says: I don’t hear Stephen King bemoaning that no one wants to read an Amish romance from him.

This is actually a really bad example because, as many writers know, Stephen King really wanted to write more literary, contemporary fiction. He has written some of it. And I’ve read interviews where he talks about how, by selling Carrie first, that set his path. He didn’t choose it. He was poor, eking out writing time and trying lots of different stories. That’s the one the market fastened on.

Rachelle says we need to focus on our main goal: to sell books. Now, while all authors love to sell books, I feel it necessary that it’s really the agent’s main goal to sell books. As it should be. Selling books is a wonderful thing because it means people read what we write and it brings in the monies, which enables us to write more books. Because, really and truly, for most writers, our main goal is to write. If my main goal was to sell books, I’d be an agent or a publisher or a bookseller.

I’m not those things because I’m a writer. Writing stories is the most important thing to me.

So, while I think it’s good for us to consider the marketing perspective, in some ways I think this kind of advice is fundamentally unhelpful. It’s how the agents and editors would like us to think and we can try to harmonize with that. But I also think that writers are dancing to a different melody. We’re following the Burn.

There’s rarely anything practical about that.