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The World of Marketing: Quality and Viability


I should state for the record that I believe there to be immutable laws of marketing in the same way that there are immutable laws of storytelling. I know that W. Somerset Maugham said ‘There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are’ — but there happen to be certain underlying principles in fiction with which any story can be analysed and improved. These are outlined in my book How Stories Really Work.

And the same thing applies in marketing.

Essentially, cutting through all the waffle, the basic question confronted by any serious writer when it comes to marketing is the same question that confronts anyone who is producing a reasonable product and wants to sell it, and that question is this:

‘How can one get quality to add up to viability?’

You write a good story — or make a good pizza, or put together a good package of insurance, or build a good house — and you want to be able to make a living from what you do. So how can you turn your quality product into a viable amount of cash over a period of time?

One of the first and most crucial things to realise is that there is something missing from this question. Add that missing something in and you get a formula:

‘Quality plus quantity adds up to viability.’

Generating one high quality book only rarely leads to a sufficient amount of cash. Harper Lee is the exception that always comes to mind; there are one or two others. But generally speaking, an author needs several books out there if he or she wishes to make a viable amount of money from writing. I suggest ten books, largely because ten seems a reasonable number of books to carve out a niche market with, but also based on experience: after I had ten books in the marketplace, sales began to occur randomly and spontaneously, without any ‘marketing’ activity on my part.

But quantity of a high quality product alone doesn’t guarantee viability. One also needs to locate one’s particular audience. No point wasting time and energy trying to sell pizzas to people who don’t like Italian food, or private insurance to people already comfortably covered by the NHS, or a house to someone happily living in a mansion. Wrong audience — though you’d be amazed at the amount of time and energy poured out by writers trying to sell their books to the wrong people. You get a glimpse of this from the ‘spam’ that arrives in your inbox or on your newsfeed.

No — you need to be able to locate those people already ‘warm’ to what you have to offer.

This is where the concept of ‘positioning’ comes into play. Positioning refers to the place that a brand (a name, term, design, symbol or any other feature that identifies one seller's good or service as distinct from those of other sellers) occupies in the minds of the customers and how it is distinguished from the products of competitors. To gain a position in the marketplace as a writer, one needs to emphasise the distinguishing features of one’s work (what it is, what it does and how, etc.) It’s one of the most powerful marketing concepts. The book Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind by Al Ries and Jack Trout is the ‘Bible’ of this subject. Positioning in relation to a work of fiction is about the place an author’s work occupies in the mind of its target audience. The idea began after World War I, but really took off in the 1950s and 60s.

What is it exactly and how does it work?

Well, let’s start with your own experience as a consumer or reader. If you’re looking for, say, a good detective thriller, you might go browsing on the internet. What do you find? A HUGE amount of advertising — such that, often, seekers for any kind of product are overwhelmed. Jack Trout has stated that positioning is a mental device used by consumers to simplify information inputs and store new information in a logical place. Human beings have a natural tendency to discard all information that does not immediately find a convenient slot in their minds. In Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind, the authors expanded the definition as ‘an organized system for finding a window in the mind. It is based on the concept that communication can only take place at the right time and under the right circumstances.’

In other words, when you go looking for a good detective thriller, that part of your mind to do with looking for detective thrillers is already occupied by what you consider to be a ‘good detective thriller’. Perhaps you’re an Agatha Christie fan — so, in looking for a detective thriller, at least partly you are influenced by that fact. You are looking for a book similar to a Christie book, even if partly on an unconscious level.

If you’re looking for a High Fantasy, that position is already occupied in the marketplace by Tolkien and a few others: horror by King and friends; science fiction by a few well-known science fiction writers, and so on.

Your book is like a little minnow swimming in a sea already full of other fish — fish which are already keeping people quite happy.

How do you get into this game in such a way that you become a ‘wanted fish’?

Stay tuned.


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