As a writer who has perhaps published a book and is engrossed in the mysteries of marketing, you may be able to discern seven distinct stages to the whole process - though you probably haven’t experienced all seven. I’ll try to summarise them for you here.
1. No marketing.
When you are in the throes of writing your masterpiece, you probably give little thought to its future marketing. And that’s perfectly understandable and acceptable. As you type out your next scene, you don’t want to be distracted by thoughts of how this will play out on a poster or in a blurb - you just want to get on with it and get to the end of the story. Nevertheless, as we will see, the writing of the story and the marketing of a story are interconnected in ways that you may not have thought of. But we’ll have to cover some of the other stages before that becomes clear.
2. Initial panic.
Having reached the finale of your story, and then having edited the whole thing and had it read over and tweaked into as perfect a state that you can imagine, you at last turn away from the manuscript and think ‘How am I going to get this to readers?’ It’s all very well completing what you think is a good tale: will readers think it’s any good? And, before it can even reach readers, what will a publisher make of it? And, even prior to a publisher, what about an agent? For the first time, emerging from the depths of creating the thing, you begin to think about its transmission into the outer world.
Many writers panic at this stage. As a result of their initial terror, many also introvert and at once begin to suspect that the work on which they have slaved for so long will be inadequate. Putting on the glasses of a reader, rather than a writer, for the first time, they begin to see (they think) just how unmarketable the whole thing is. This can happen even after someone has accepted the work for publication, or after the writer themselves has issued the book into the marketplace and not yet had a response from that marketplace: blind panic.
But there’s a long way to go yet.
3. Glimpse of hope.
Whether they have self-published a book or gone through traditional channels and had their work published by others, writers will usually manage to get to the point where, using conventional marketing techniques either themselves or through a publisher, they have achieved a few sales.
This stage looks like this: the author, whether working through a publisher or not, is now no longer an author (he or she feels) but is spending most of the time focusing on selling the book. This can be through social media advertising, appearing in blogs, being interviewed on radio, having articles appear about them in the newspapers, or any other traditional form of mass-market promotion. After some tremendous effort, a few sales trickle in. This gives the author a brief glimpse of success, and fires them up to do more.
It’s all very full of effort and is time-consuming, for what amounts to very little return. The surprising fact is this: this is how conventional marketing works. A huge amount of ‘shouting from the rooftops’ is done in order to get very little other than hollow echoes. Though the author has progressed from a stage of not considering marketing at all, through a phase of ‘blind panic’ and has reached a level at which some sales are occurring, the author generally feels that there must be an easier way.
Unfortunately, for the most part, and in the absence of knowledge of the other levels of marketing, this is often it: an endless cycle of social media posting and advertising, an ongoing round of striving to appear before as many people as possible, and a great deal of time and worry about whether it will ever lead anywhere. This applies not just to book promotion but to the world of marketing generally, whatever is being sold: it’s a shotgun approach, the theory being that, if enough people see the product, some people will buy. It’s a strategy trapped by its own success, because of course a few people do buy, which just encourages the huge marketing machine to rattle on.
Many authors never get any further than this, and wonder why they are not finding time to write anymore. But there are four further stages above this one, virtually undetected and unsuspected before now.
4. Responsibility and reality.
At this point, an author can either give up through exhaustion, or begin to suspect that there is some other pathway that leads to success.
Stage Four is all about starting off down that other path, and it begins with a rejection of conventional ‘shouting from the rooftops’ marketing. Instead of always pursuing more and more faceless identities with an ever-dwindling hope that they will buy, the author at Stage Four adopts a different approach: they seek out their friends.
Not the friends who live locally, or the ones with whom they have been brought up, or even necessarily their friends on social media - by ‘friends’ I mean those who share similar interests to their own internationally. Technology has made this possible on a large scale for the very first time in the last decade or so, which is why conventional marketers haven’t quite caught up with it. Using social media, an individual can now contact and gather together a sizeable group of people who share similar interests and needs. The trick is not to be too narrow with it - in other words, find that group of people who broadly share an interest in the same things that you write about, not necessarily the exact things. For example, seek out not just readers who like horror stories set in the 1950s, which might be your specialty, but readers who like horror stories generally; or, for another example, collect together readers who love historical dramas, not just those who like love stories set in a period of the past, which might be the kind of thing you write.
An author who does this - works consistently and gently on finding friends - is laying the groundwork for a much greater and far easier success in the future. What is happening here is that the author is accepting responsibility for past failure and doing something effective to move forward, rather than blaming others or being dependent upon them.
So Stage Four of marketing is finding a real market, in effect. That market isn’t ‘everyone’, as the conventional marketers might seem to be suggesting; nor is it only those people who would adore your work. It’s somewhere in-between: it’s the group of people who admire the same kinds of things as you do. It may contain those who will come to adore your work, but they don’t know that yet and neither do you at this stage.
And Stage Four isn’t just about finding them. To progress further, an author must engage with them. Crucially, he or she must not ‘sell’ to them - that will set them back in Stage Three, on the ‘hamster-wheel’ of traditional marketing. No, here the author simply spends the time that he or she would have wasted on ‘shouting from the rooftops’ style marketing just talking and listening, having conversations with real people, finding out more about them and, vitally, permitting them to find out more about the author. In fact, as astute authors will discover, Stage Four is as much about the ability to tell stories as anything: the same mechanisms apply here as apply to the writing of fiction.
Time spent on this is essential. It is not the same as the time spent on advertising your work to faceless people on the internet; rather it is time invested in developing relationships with real people who will gradually come to have real faces for you. Just as this group becomes more human and alive to you, you become human and alive to them, not as a bland link or a thumbnail picture of your book cover but as a living, breathing person.
Once this is happening on a fairly large scale, you will automatically move to Stage Five.
Spend enough time on Stage Four, and do so sincerely and with authenticity, and Stage Five will begin to manifest itself.
Stage Five of Marketing is when your real readers begin to emerge from the mass of people with whom you have made friends. It takes quite a bit to nurture the level of commitment required from others before an associate becomes a reader, before someone you have chatted with on the internet becomes someone willing to buy something from you. But it will happen, if you’re doing Stage Four correctly: individuals will come forward, and slowly but surely sales will occur.
Does this mean that you have to virtually individually walk each and every person through to a sale? No, though it might seem that way for a while. What happens parallel to this process, arising naturally from it, is the growth of a personal brand. Your conversations with people, plus their successes or pleasures from reading your books, will add up to a collective ‘ethos’ about you and your work. The practical effect of this is that the work you had to do as an individual at the beginning, engaging with people, conversing with them authentically, listening to as well as talking with them, gradually becomes work that is collectively accomplished by a ‘brand’, a kind of ‘larger You’, an entity which has your characteristics but doesn’t require your personal input. Think of Richard Branson and the Virgin brand: people engage with a huge range of products because of the persona of Branson, which seems to inhabit the shops and checkout desks and everything labelled ‘Virgin’. This happens on a smaller scale for you during Stage Five: you begin to become something larger.
This is tentative at first. Things may falter a little, and make you nervous. But if you keep on doing Stage Four things, engaging with people, being honest and basically just being yourself, you’ll find that Stage Five gradually becomes Stage Six.
At this stage, your books are selling and you have a reputation as an author. Provided that you continue to do everything that got you to this stage, you will be satisfied - and, what’s more, you will be able to be a writer again. This may well happen before this stage, but it will happen. That’s partly because you don’t have to spend so much time on pointless and fruitless ‘marketing’, but also because you will now have a following who actively demand more material from you.
You’re probably familiar with those well-known authors who have reached this stage somehow. They appear occasionally on the media but are generally getting on with writing, with fans clamouring for more. This is where many authors dream of being - not only making money from writing, but being generally accepted for who they are too.
There is another stage, however.
At Stage Seven, the author doesn’t have to do anything at all. Their reputation is assured, their sales stellar, their income steady. They may write to their heart’s content, without giving a thought to the marketplace.
The whole thing comes full circle, in a way, though it might be more accurate to describe it as a spiralling upward: here, the author gives as little thought to marketing as he or she did during Stage One. The difference is that the field of marketing has been conquered.
You can climb up these stages.
For more about how marketing actually works, get A Marketing Handbook for Writers, Part 1, here.