Your primary marketing tool is your work.
Your work — whether that is one book, a series of books, or a set of short stories scattered in various places — is the honeypot, the field of flowers that will attract the bees. Write a very good book and the readers will eventually find it; write a poor book, and even if it is widely promoted, it will fail to attract attention.
‘A-ha!’ some will say. ‘I can think some pretty poorly written books which have made millions for their authors.’ That’s true — there are cases in which rubbish attracts flies too. But I’m assuming that you would like a readership which admires your work because it is admirable. There’s a saying in Yorkshire: ‘Where there’s muck, there’s brass.’ It means that where there is dirt, grime and filth, you can also make money. You can write reams and reams of pornography, or volume after volume of turgid family saga, or a whole series of sentimental melodramas and it’s possible you will make money. The pattern tends to be, though, that in order to keep making money the sheer amount that has to be written becomes larger and larger as time goes on. Part of the reason why most television soap operas continue attracting audiences and last for decades is those audiences keep revisiting the shows again and again to get their ever-weaker ‘fix’. Poor literature is like drugs: you have to take an increasing dose to get even a tiny emotional surge.
Better to be an author who writes quality literature, which resonates with readers in quite a different way. Great classics can be read again and again and seem more powerful every time. Arguably this is because, rather than providing a ‘fix’, they are capable of releasing us from all fixes. But that’s a tale for another day.
Right now, having established that your primary marketing tool is your own work, let’s see if we can establish your secondary marketing tool. This would be something which contributes greatly to the success of your work. This thing, whatever it is, is capable of drawing more and more people and attention towards your books to almost the same extent as the books themselves.
What is this secondary marketing tool?
Good books create fascinated readers. And fascinated readers create more readers.
J. K. Rowling’s book became the worldwide smash that it was because it grew from a grass-roots level. Its vocabulary was unchallenging, its school-based setting appealing, its light-hearted look at magic intriguing. The fact that Rowling developed all this and became a master at creating page-turning mystery is her primary marketing tool; the readers did the rest, passing the book around at school, discussing it during breaks, role-playing the lead characters when they could. I was a teacher at the time that Harry Potter came out and saw this all first-hand: the way that the avid readers in the class introduced whole groups to the books and even the ones less interested in reading (or not interested in it at all) gradually became involved largely due to peer pressure. Before long, everyone in the school was reading Potter, even the teachers (so that they could try and keep up). The Harry Potter craze did wonders for literacy.
J. R. R. Tolkien’s fantasy masterpiece The Lord of the Rings had a modest start as an unusual trilogy published by Allen & Unwin in the 1950s. It wasn’t until pirated copies went viral in the sunlight of California’s love revolution a decade later that the book really took off. Being able to appeal to all parts of the social spectrum, from conservative country lovers to radical hippies, helped the book become a craze and then a global phenomenon.
Book first; reader second. If you want your book to take off and hit the big time
a) make sure it’s packed full of the best storytelling elements you can think of and
b) get a grass-roots movement going amongst readers.
How do you do b)? It begins by knowing who your readers are likely to be. In Rowling’s case, this was fairly obvious: bored schoolchildren, looking for an unchallenging (in terms of vocabulary) book which had exciting and funny ideas to which they could relate. In Tolkien’s case, things are a little more complex: the book became popular amongst pot-smoking students on American campuses who pointed to the hobbits’ pipeweed as a kind of vindication, but was also widely read amongst staid English folk who shared its authors love of simple country things which at the time were more and more under threat. The Lord of the Rings also spoke to the generations who had survived the hardships of the Second World War, as well as to those who were looking for escape from reality through the fantasy genre which it largely helped to create.
How many types of reader could your work appeal to?