I spent far too many years in search of the one big marketing secret that would make a sudden difference in my fortunes. I was convinced that there was a secret cabal of successful authors who had found “the magic” button to push that made them millionaires. They were keeping the location of that button secret, and only divulged it to a select few acolytes. I just had to find it and life would be easy.
Does this sound like you? Always looking for the one thing that will work. Unfortunately, with more than twenty books under my belt — five traditional and the rest indie — and more than a decade of self-publishing and marketing, I know there is no one secret. There is no easy way to just do a few things and be certain that it will catapult you to success. Anyone who tells you differently is lying.
In fact, when you get a bunch of successful authors in one room (I define this as those authors making over $100K per year), they will share what’s working for them. Immediately other authors in the room will say: “That never worked for me.” Or “That doesn’t work anymore. What works is…” It is darn frustrating!
The truth is that it is a combination of techniques that need to be applied consistently; and that need to be changed based on the changing publishing landscape. That landscape includes competition, genre trends, new software developments, and the entry of new distributor models.
In other words, what worked in 2011 does not necessarily work in 2019. Even what worked last year in 2018 may not work today. There are a few things that have stood the test of time — like having a sizeable and active mailing list of true fans. Though in 2011 that meant a list of 5,000 was really good. Right now 25,000+ seems to be the “magic” number. But everything else? Sadly, not so much.
Even worse, some techniques that work for one genre (e.g., romance) may not work at all for another genre (e.g., science fiction). And what works for fiction has little relationship to what works for nonfiction.
Before you give up on this article, let me say that it IS doable, but it doesn’t happen overnight. Also, marketing works best when there is a backlist of books to help spread the costs and assure a better return on investment (ROI) of your time and money. So, if you are just getting out your first or second book, you will want to throttle back on your marketing efforts and concentrate on getting more books out first. Not that you should do no marketing, but don’t go all out and spend thousands of dollars on your first book launch (or your second) and lots of time engaging your readers to the point you are not writing the next book.
Sorry! No big EASY button to push.
When I write my books, I am an emotional person. I become best friends with my characters and I tell their stories. The wonderful thing about that approach is that I tend to write emotional books. The awful thing about that approach is that when it comes to marketing, I don’t want to let those characters down by not getting their story out there to thousands of readers. When I finish a book, I truly believe that every person who enjoys the genre I write in needs to read this book. Not because all those buyers will make me lots of money (not that I turn down sales), but because I learned something in the process. With every book I learn something about myself, about communication in life, about making tough choices. That makes me believe that a reader might find something beyond a good story that speaks to their life, too.
The problem is that marketing cannot be an emotional journey for the author. To be good at marketing, you have to be analytical. You have to be the person who can look at your book and honestly decide if your baby is ugly. If it is ugly — defined as not an easy sell because it doesn’t meet the general criteria or isn’t written down the middle of the genre — then you have to convince the world that your baby has a special value they can’t live without.
What is the Value of Your Book?
Far too many authors think that book marketing is simply about selling your book. It’s not. In fact, the more you try to sell your book, the more you turn off potential readers. Book marketing is about convincing your potential readers of the value of your book. Professional marketers call this the value proposition. That value is not the story, not the price, not the genre. That value is the experience of reading your book. You need to understand what experience your readers want to have and capitalize on that.
For example, romance readers expect a focus on the romantic relationship. Whether sexy or sweet, whether contemporary or paranormal, the reader wants the experience of falling in love, overcoming obstacles together, and true love winning in the end. To market a romance you need to sell the falling-in-love experience. If you try to sell the unique characters, the complex plot, and the cool countryside in your book but don’t talk about the falling-in-love experience. You’ll completely miss your audience.
In a science fiction novel readers want to experience something new, something that causes them to think of the world in a different way, and if there are some cool gadgets that make sense based on an extrapolation of today’s science all the better. Whether social science fiction or space opera, a part of what you are selling is that sense-of-wonder experience or the learning-something-cool experience. If you focus only on the adventure without the cool-science factor or the sense-of-wonder feeling, you’ll again miss your audience.
Every fiction genre has an experience attached to it. This experience is more than the genre tropes. It is a need to feel something: love, fear, hate, admiration, misery, rage, lust, surprise, terror, zeal and many others. If you can make a list of the experiences (emotions) your reader feels when reading your book(s) then you are most of the way to understanding what value you have to sell.
If you are doing a cross-genre book, like a science fiction romance, then you need to deliver on two experiences in the same book — both the cool-factor or sense-of-wonder and the feeling of falling-in-love. That can be tricky both in writing the book and in getting the combination just right in your value proposition. Should you lean more toward the science fiction side or more toward the romance? How you make that decision will also determine which experience to emphasize and how to find that audience that likes both science fiction and romance in the way you’ve written it.
Nonfiction also delivers an experience. Yes, nonfiction tends to be written to teach the reader something. However, great nonfiction also delivers an emotional journey as well. For example, the history of WWII has been tackled about in hundreds of books. The ones that provide an experience, are the ones that bring the war to the level of its impact on individual lives.
When talking about the blitz in Britain one can provide a lot of facts: how many bombs were dropped, how many people died, the years of the war, the politics. But what readers remember are the true examples of a single person or family experience. Sharing the true account of someone who was in a home during the bombing — the sounds, the smells, the fear, the grief — makes the war real and memorable. Or the account of a family who chose to send their children from the city to live with strangers in the country, not knowing how they would fare or if they would see each other again.
If you can sell the value of your book as an experience than you have set a good foundation for marketing. Once you have that value identified, you need to make sure that, when your readers try your book, that they do get the experience you promised. And the only way to know that is to engage with them. To have your readers tell you what they experienced and if it met their expectations.
How to Sell the Experience
Selling the experience is not easy. If you read my article on Branding, I also talked about selling the experience when building your brand and how that needs to be a part of all marketing. If you read my article on Social Media you learned that you can’t always be talking about buying your book or potential readers tune you out. So, if you can’t sell your actual book what are you selling?
You are building that experience expectation in your readers’ mind and having them connect that pleasurable experience with reading your book.
When I’m marketing my science fiction space opera books I use images and pose questions that focus on that cool-factor or sense-of-wonder experience. I talk about my research into the science of wormholes because, in my world, that is how people get around the galaxy with faster-than-light travel. I share current physics news innovations in medicine (nanotech) because I’m using that to account for longer lives and in some of the plot points around survival of viruses. I’ll share recent astronomy or cosmology research (there are more Class M planets than we thought — actually thousands of them in our galaxy) to make it viable to believe in some of the planets characters live on. I share artwork and images that I’ve found and used to describe what things look like in my world. I’ll ask questions about their favorite SF movies or books and why, then use those to talk about how I will deliver that same experience in my stories. And, because my SF books also contain a romance plot, I’ll talk about the difficulties of having a relationship when one person is plying the galaxy and the other is left at home. I’ll talk about what relationships are like in an environment where you can die by trying to breathe, or where people live longer than now or may age at different rates.
Sometimes, I’ll also talk about other books in my genre that I think are providing the same reader experience. I do this for two reasons: 1) I believe in supporting other good author’s in the genre; and 2) If my readers like that author’s book, it ties them to expect the same from my book. Of course, I darn well better deliver that same experience, too.
Be careful which author’s books you choose to promote. Don’t promote randomly or just because they are a friend. Be sure you really believe your readers in this genre will like the book you are promoting. Otherwise you tie yourself to books unrelated to what you write. If someone reads it and doesn’t like it — wrong genre or poorly executed — you’ve then made sure they won’t try yours when it comes out. The assumption is if you recommended this book and it didn’t meet their expectations, then your writing will be awful too.
When Do You Actually Say “Buy My Book?”
In all of the above examples, I haven’t once asked my readers to buy my book. I’m just sharing the wonder, the cool factor, and creating experience associations. Every ten days or so I will share something specific to the new book I’m writing or to one I want them to buy. It may be a cover reveal (cool cover with space ship and unusual planets in the background). It may be an excerpt in a post that shows the tension, the emotion, or the adventure. It isn’t until near my release (or pre-order if I’m doing pre-order) that I’ll actually put together three our four “buy my book” marketing package with cover, teaser, and price. I’ll use those packages in rotation over the next month or two after release.
If I’ve sold those experiences well, and built up an expectation that whatever book I deliver will give the reader those experiences, then when I finally ask them to “buy my book” they will be predisposed to actually get out their wallet and pay for the book. If I haven’t sold the experience in the lead up, the number of people who will buy it are slim. Only those who were in the mood for exactly that genre of book will pick it up — if they ever see it.
I never know how well I’ve done until release day and the two to three months after that. But I do know that selling experiences is more effective than just selling the book with the blurb. I also know that if I deliver on that experience those readers will likely by the next book and the next, and any others I write that also makes those same promises.