By Debbie Burke
In May, Steve Hooley and I surveyed TKZ contributors about marketing and how they promote their work. Links below:
For most of us, marketing holds the same appeal as a kale and rutabaga smoothie.
A few weeks ago, I had a discussion with Mark Leichliter, author, writing instructor, and editor. I mentioned what writers really need is advice about how to overcome our aversion to marketing.
Mark took up the challenge. He probed into why we hate it so much and offered some solutions.
I thought his ideas would make a good companion post to our recent marketing discussion.
Today please welcome Mark to the Zone.
If a tree falls in the forest…okay, we all know how this old philosophical question goes. How about this one? If an author publishes a book and no one knows about it… Easy to answer, right? A book without readers is still a book in the metaphysical definition, but its existence is pretty pointless. With one exception, the person who wrote it—you. But what if you are the sort of person who would rather hang around in the forest awaiting the sudden tree toppling than face marketing your book?
Count me as a forest dweller. The thought of promotion sends me scurrying into the deep timber. But unless you’re one of the eleven and a half writers around the world that a Big 5 publisher runs full page Times ads for, the work is going to fall to you. Big press, small press, no press, if we want to expand our audience beyond our own front door, we’ve got to face down marketing, even if we hate it.
I’ve got a few counts against me when it comes to book promotion. Perhaps you do as well. First, I’m shy. Students in classes or participants in workshops I’ve taught might not guess this to be true, but it is. Give me a business dinner where it’s all small talk, and I’m a disaster. It takes me ten minutes of chanting mantras to make a phone call. Second, my parents raised me—and I thank them—to be humble. And I grew up in the Inter-mountain West, a culture where people respect my right to be an individual but they’d rather not hear about my individuality. Third, I openly despise consumer culture. It’s apparently the marriage partner to an open capitalist market, but why must we constantly be sold everything? Ads stalking us on our phone, our clothing, in our music and movies and emails. Why would I want to participate in something so intrusive?
Here’s the thing. We’ve got to think about that silent forest again. Unless you are content with your audience of one, you’ve already entered the marketplace. So how do we take our reluctance to promote our books and change our approach to marketing? And how do we rise out of the din? Here are some tips I’ve learned for those of us who become physically ill at the thought of book promotion.
- Distinguish between the book you’ve created and your role as its creator. Yes, in the vernacular of the marketplace, you’ve got a product to distribute now. But it’s also a book, something that can defy demographic typecasting and time. Books are unique products, so treat them that way. It starts by letting the thing exist separately from you. Sure, you poured yourself into it but now it exists (more metaphysics!). So do it a favor. Here’s a simple analogy; you might be reluctant to share some tiny triumph at work or some personal accomplishment, but if one of your children scored a goal or won a ribbon at the science fair, you’re going to shout it from the rooftops, right? Doesn’t your book-child deserve the same?
- This is key; change the game. Don’t see your actions as marketing. More to the point, don’t reduce the book to only being a product you’re trying to sell. You’re used to flipping psychological switches in your brain on slow writing days in order to remain productive, so flip a different switch in how you see interacting with readers. It’s really a matter of respect for them. People seldom want to buy “products” anyway. They want to participate in a lifestyle they value. They want to follow passions. They want to be associated with things in which they place importance. You didn’t spend the years and the drafts writing your book while lukewarm about its themes, characters, and ideas. See promotion as an opportunity to engage others with those fronts. Don’t sell a product to consumers, enter a conversation with readers. Even if you are shy like me, when speaking about the topics I’m passionate about, I come out of my shell without thought. I can’t stomach that trivial cocktail party chitchat, but find the person at the party who shares interest in something we both find meaningful, and we’ll be there all night. Instead of “marketing” your book, look for venues where you can have conversations about mutual passions. There are thousands of bloggers and podcast hosts who run author interviews. Readers like to know the person behind the page. They like to engage with a writer because they love books. Find venues that take reader questions. Reach out to book clubs. Provide readers something of value and neither they, or you, will see your outreach as a sales job.
- Control what you can control and work from your strengths. If the idea of appearing on a podcast makes you cringe, then focus on print interviews instead. You’re a writer aren’t you, then the prospect of providing written answers to questions for a blog actually offers you the chance to be creative, probe topics you care about, and do so from the comfort of your writing desk. Get more creative still. Propose a “day in the life” first person post from the viewpoint of one of your characters. Interview one of your characters. Or present the city your write about from the lens of your book. Or get yourself off the hook entirely and use an actual human source you turned to as a consultant for your book and interview them. There are plenty of fun, creative ways that feed your imagination and give readers something original in the process.
- “See your friends.” My favorite soccer coaching colleague was a wonderful Thai guy who was a genius at simplifying the game. His go-to expression to players during scrimmage was, “See your friends.” Shy? Uncomfortable? Humble? Rather than go it alone, reach out to other writer friends or other authors from your publishing house. There’s tremendous comradery among writers, probably because we’re the only ones who truly understand how difficult writing and marketing a book really is. Propose dual blogger posts or offer a book site a conversation between you and another author. Suggest a multi-author panel for a podcast, a remote event, or a live appearance. There’s strength in numbers, for you, and for your audience. I guarantee that you will enjoy the conversation that emerges, and it won’t feel like marketing because it really isn’t. Sales and exposure are the offshoot. Moreover, you can share the workload.
- Champion others rather than yourself. Remember that comradery comment. It’s real. And I know you’ve found other writers you want to see succeed. I’ve spent a great deal of time trying to help find an agent for a writer friend simply because I believe in him and his book. Put some energy into broadcasting reviews, recommendations, and announcements about books by writers you admire or have learned from. Stand up for books you love. You’ll be doing a valuable service for readers. Do it because you care. Maybe the author will reciprocate. Don’t worry if they don’t. That shouldn’t be your motivation. You’re a participant in a bigger writing community, so be a good neighbor. We live in times where we need more kindness, so do someone else a solid. Put awful things like social media to some good use instead. Or take that five minutes to write a review on a seller’s site or a book community site. If people value what you have to say about books you love, many are going to want to know about your work as well.
You don’t have to become a PR cliché to produce effective promotion for your book. Look, you really do believe your book has value, right? Whether that’s simply entertainment value for a reader or a book that will challenge how they perceive the world, surely you are producing work that you are proud to have written—a book that deserves an audience. The thing is, you’re going to have to go out and find that audience. There’s a first step that has to happen before we can have the contemplative conversation about whether an unopened book on a bookshelf has value; first we’ve got to get it on the shelf, or better yet, in a reader’s hands.
Thanks for your insights, Mark!
TKZers: Do you have mind tricks that help overcome your aversion to marketing? Please share.
How do you start an investigation when you have no evidence a crime has been committed?