Readers familiar with my book How Stories Really Work may remember the ‘cup of tea’ analogy that is drawn in the first few pages. It was an analogy designed to describe how a work of fiction is put together, but it also applies to other things, including marketing a book (or any product). In order to explain how, and to refresh your memory, here is the analogy in full:
Making a cup of tea begins with the idea of making a cup of tea. You might be at work, or reading a magazine, or wandering about aimlessly - when you have the idea of making a cup of tea. You glimpse, with foresight, the satisfaction that it will bring.
Then there needs to be someone to make it. That might be you or another person. Some kind of organisation is needed, something has to be formed. It’s not just going to appear out of thin air unless there’s someone there. Either you have to do it yourself or attract someone else into doing it.
There needs to be a desire for a cup of tea to ensure that the idea actually begins to turn into reality. This is important. The idea of the cup of tea can and will stall right there unless the desire for it outweighs any kind of obstacle, unless your familiarity with having the cup of tea grows.
That desire results in a commitment. Certain materials are needed for the tea to be made: a kettle, a cup, the tea itself, milk and so forth - including Time. These have to be purchased. Your desire might be strong, but it has to be made strong enough for something to be foregone before any tea will be made.
Then the tea has to actually be made - in whatever sequence is right for you, milk in first or not. Boil the kettle, pour in the water and so forth, everything that is involved in furnishing an actual cup of tea. There are basics which can’t be violated if you want something that remotely resembles a cup of tea.
The first sip tests the quality of the cup of tea. If it’s not right, some adjustments will need to be made. How do you judge the quality? You match it against the earlier desire. If it is found wanting, the cup of tea has to be fine-tuned in some way to match that desire.
Then the cup of tea is finally consumed. You get the sense of fulfilment that you foresaw, perhaps, when you first had the idea.
It should be clear that if any one of these steps is not there, the whole product is not fully achieved.
Obviously, without the idea of making a cup of tea nothing even starts to happen.
If there’s no one to make it, the idea won’t get very far.
In the absence of any desire for a cup of tea, even if someone has the idea and there is someone to make it, there won’t be sufficient motivation for anything to occur.
Without a kettle, a cup, the tea itself, milk and so on, there would be no cup of tea. If there’s no real commitment or these can’t be afforded, the idea dies right there.
If the notion gets as far as this, and the sequence of making it goes wrong, there goes the cup of tea.
If the quality of the cup of tea isn’t good enough, it might as well not have been made.
And then, after all that, if the cup of tea sits untouched and unconsumed, the whole thing will have been a waste of time.
Each step, then, is essential. In How Stories Really Work, I then go on to explain how all of these steps relate to writing a book too: beginning with an idea, developing a lead character, working in various mechanisms to attract and hold attention, gaining commitment, structuring a plot, cultivating a writing style of sufficient quality, and finally delivering the book to the reader. For a full elaboration of how all these steps fit together, see my book.
But what has this to do with marketing?
Instead of a cup of tea or a work of fiction, let’s go through the same analogy again, with a marketing campaign in mind.
The first thing to realise is that a story that has been written and a marketing campaign about that story are not really two separate things. This is an important truth:
Any successful marketing campaign about a book must begin with the heart of the book.
What do I mean?
Just as a cup of tea begins with the idea of making a cup of tea, and a book begins with the idea of a book, so a marketing campaign begins with an idea. But to be successful, to have any real of lasting power, that idea must be the same as the idea at the core of the book. It is possible to invent a campaign, for example, which places at its heart something other than the central concept which is the ‘hub’ of the story - let’s say, for example, that a marketing campaign is built around a film by focusing on the fact that a particular star appears in it, or around a book by stressing the appearance of a ghost in the story, even though that ghost isn’t central to the meaning of the book. But a truly successful campaign will isolate what is right at the core of the product or book being marketed, and begin with that.
You’ll see movie trailers constructed around this all the time: what is the key conflict or drama of the film? How can that be captured using footage from the film, without necessarily giving anything away about the plot? The most successful trailers make you want to see the film - they are successful marketing tools, creating movement towards cinemas around the world every day. Your marketing campaign for your book needs to be like that: a ‘trailer’ which has so much impact that a prospective reader goes and gets your book as soon as they can.
What are the other elements of such a campaign?
Just as with a cup of tea or a work of fiction, there needs to be someone to make it. For a cup of tea, this is you or someone else; for a work of fiction, it is the lead character or protagonist (as well as the author, of course). Without that figure operating the controls, as it were, not much happens: a cup of tea stays unmade and a story drifts into becoming an essay or dispassionate history of events. What happens in marketing?
This is another key principle:
Any successful marketing campaign has to have a person, or small group of people, at its heart.
This can be an individual, who becomes the ‘character’ around which a brand begins to form, or a perceived set of people, who act as representatives of a target audience.
In the case of a writer trying to market a book, one of the most successful things that can be done is to create an image of that writer which is then revealed to a target public. This has been known as an ‘author platform’, though the theory behind why it works so well has not always been well understood.
The only issue with this is that writers are often introverts or shy people, not inclined to appear before any kind of audience. If it were not so, perhaps many books would not get written. But never fear: this step does not necessarily require the writer to step into the limelight and suddenly become a public speaker or TV star. A writer who wants to activate this step properly has only to develop an image, an authentic representation, a genuine depiction of themselves in some way, and then make it accessible. The key point about it is that it must appear authentic, and it must appear to have vulnerabilities.
Because what a writer is doing when developing this persona is the same thing that should have been done in developing a lead character for the story. One is crafting a figure who has vulnerabilities, losses, weaknesses. Readers of How Stories Really Work will recognise the principles involved: weaknesses, gaps, missing things, create voids or vacuums into which reader attention is drawn. Just as a protagonist must have such things in order to become a magnet for readers, so a marketing persona must be perceived to have needs, to be real, to be a living person.
Developing a functioning author platform, then, is a way of making sure that there is someone there, a real person at the heart of a campaign, and that the whole thing isn’t just an algorithm or a machine. Readers generally, like most human beings, don’t like to feel that they are being manipulated by machines - they love figures who resemble themselves in some way. They want to interact.
Then, just as there needs to be a desire for a cup of tea to ensure that the idea actually begins to turn into reality, a marketing campaign needs to focus on creating yearning. Just as the idea of the cup of tea, or the development of a story, can and will stall unless the desire for it outweighs any kind of obstacle, so a marketing campaign is just words and pictures unless it is creating want. Enough want results in a commitment, results in motion. An effective marketing campaign like a movie trailer has, as its product, the motion of prospects towards the product. In the case of a book, a campaign must move prospective readers towards becoming actual readers.
Proper marketing is built on a sequence of actions just like a plot: first, one attracts attention; then one glues the attention down; then one pulls the attention forward along a track, more and more strongly, until it reaches the product, which in the case of a book is not a purchase but the reader completing the book and feeling fulfilled by it.
All the way along, the campaign must be tested against the want it creates. How do you judge the quality of a piece of marketing? You match it against the earlier desire. If it is found wanting, the campaign has to be fine-tuned in some way to match that desire.
All of this culminates not in a prospective reader buying a book - that's just a step along the way - but in a reader finishing a story, which is another reason why the process of marketing and the process of story-telling are conjoined: the fact that a purchase has to take place somewhere along that line is almost an inconvenience.
Some might argue that marketing is an art form in its own right; I would say rather that marketing is an extension of effective storytelling. The same principles apply to both.