Many writers enter the marketplace trembling. They feel that they are leaving their comfortable world of storytelling - when it is comfortable - and crossing the threshold into a new zone where the same laws don’t apply. Many fall for the high-powered hype that comes with being part of the internet society, and start spending money on AdWords and Facebook Ads and all the rest, working on the belief that if they can get their book seen by as many people as possible they’ll be OK. They believe that they need to battle against overwhelming opposition in arenas like Amazon in order to carve out a place for themselves, like ancient gladiators. They knuckle down, strengthen their faith in their book, and fight on; instead of spilling blood, they spend time and money.
I know. I’ve been there.
That was before I realised that the real marketplace just doesn’t work like that at all. Human beings don’t work like that.
Understand marketing and you don’t have to even appear in the vast arena with all the other millions of struggling marketers. You certainly don’t have to struggle quite so hard, or make so many sacrifices of hard-earned cash or precious time.
When it comes to marketing, as Al Ries and Jack Trout say in their book The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing, ‘There is no objective reality. There are no facts. There are no best products. All that exists in the world of marketing are perceptions in the minds of the customer or prospect. The perception is the reality. Everything else is an illusion.’ If you’re a writer, you should immediately recognise something about that: it’s the same as storytelling.
And you already have some kind of a grip on that.
In this world of illusions, instead of trying to be ‘better’ than all the other books out there, all you have to do is be first in the readers’ perceptions. How do you get to be first? Surely everyone has already beaten you to that place too?
You have to ask yourself a different set of questions. Instead of struggling with the question of ‘How is my book better than all the other books?’ (and then trying to convince complete strangers that it is) you need to ask ‘What category is my book first in?’ To answer that properly, you need to ask ‘What is it about my book that is completely different to any other book?’
Everyone else is trying to persuade you that their book is better than all the other books. They are explicitly saying it in blurbs and reviews and so on; they are implicitly saying it by spamming you with ads and other kinds of promotion, plastering your screens with dazzling covers in an effort to ‘out-dazzle’ the rest.
Probably the best example of this kind of approach in the wider marketplace is Apple. They adopted this approach early on. They didn’t claim to be better than their competition, they just invented a whole new category of personal computing and claimed to be the first. Think of the iPhone; and if that doesn’t convince you, think of the iPad. Those of you who are old enough will remember the release of the first iPad - if you were anything like me, you would have been thinking ‘You mean Steve Jobs is going to release a device which is bigger than a phone but smaller than a laptop…? Why? There’s no such category of thing!’ And look what happened. The iPad spawned a whole industry of computer tablets which simply didn’t exist before. You don’t need me to tell you that Apple is the world’s wealthiest corporation.
If you want an example that’s closer to the world of literature, think of Tolkien. The genre of ‘High Fantasy’ virtually didn’t exist in the 1950s, or had gone so far into abeyance that no one was reading anything like it. Along came Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings - a three volume set of books telling a story like nothing else that was around. A few years later, it was a bestseller; a few years more and an entire industry had spring up around High Fantasy three volume epics.
Both the iPad and The Lord of the Rings had created categories in which they could be first. As Al Ries and Jack Trout say, ‘Regardless of reality, people perceive the first product in the mind as superior: Marketing is a battle of perceptions, not products.’
Readers are uncannily interested in what’s new. If you can’t be better than the other books in your category of writing, invent a new category and promote that. You can see that has worked more recently with such books as Harry Potter, the Twilight series (and the whole ‘teenage vampire love story’ sub-genre that followed) and even Fifty Shades of Gray. All of these were the first books in new categories of books.
Readers are people. People tend to be fixed in their ideas. They often like to sort things out hierarchically, and settle everything down in some kind of order. Best personal tablet? The iPad is the answer you'll probably get, despite many advances since then. Best book in fantasy in the last 100 years? The Lord of the Rings is the most likely answer from fantasy readers, despite thousands of similar books now out there. If you’re trying to write a better fantasy than Tolkien, or even trying to stand out in the field of High Fantasy, you’ll battle with the pre-existing conceptions that are already out there. Do you think you’ll win?
So don’t go into battle and lose precious time and money trying to make an impression in a flooded marketplace. Invent a whole new category and be first in that.