Organic Marketing, Part Two: The Basics
What is Organic Marketing?
Part of the problem here is that organic marketing as I am going to describe it will seem counter-intuitive to many of you. That’s because it is largely counter-cultural. I have described in Part One how most of us have grown up in a consumerist society which has trained us to expect as close as possible to instant gratification, and we have come to expect marketing our books to work in the same way. We write, we publish, we collect the cash.
Organic marketing takes a different approach. I’ve already drawn the parallel between organic farming and commercial agriculture. ‘Organic’ in this sense means leaning towards natural patterns, seasonal rhythms, longer time spans. We can use technical terms like ‘user-experience design’, funnel optimization’ and ‘organic traffic’, but what it all boils down to is treating the whole subject of marketing much as you would want to treat the area of relationships with others. In other words, treat your prospective customer as you yourself would want to be treated.
Organic marketing is not sitting and waiting for your sales and your writing career to grow. It is planned; it has intentions; it is a lot of work. In many ways, it’s far easier to pay for advertising than to create and implement a good organic marketing strategy — but paid advertising, just like commercial farming, has big drawbacks. For one, it’s very expensive and inefficient unless you have vast resources already. Organic marketing is far more effective at long-term sustainable growth. It also has benefits in terms of integrity and reputation.
The First Step
The first and crucial step in developing an organic marketing strategy involves taking a good hard look at your career, your writing, any published and unpublished work, your competition and genre(s), and the market as a whole.
Take an intensive look at the following. You might not have considered these things at all before, which will mean that some of these questions will be tough. But, like a farmer looking over the land on the farm before judging how to proceed, this is the starting point to building something that works and produces sustainable goods.
i) Is your writing output healthy?
This means output in terms of both volume and acceptances. Are you writing a sufficient amount to build a viable career on? This can vary from person to person and market to market, but generally speaking you need to be churning out at least several short stories a month, or a novella, or two or three novels a year.
Yes, I know, those are arbitrary numbers. I’m just trying to give you some guidelines. A few thousand words a month isn’t going to get you recognised very quickly. You need to be pouring out content and submitting it to all the appropriate places like a machine. Steve Carr’s book Getting Your Short Stories Published: A Guidebook is the perfect little handbook for dealing with the practicalities of getting your work into print.
‘But I don’t write short stories,’ some may protest. All right then: how do you plan on building a writing career? If you have another way of a) building your writing confidence, b) practising your writing techniques, and c) getting your name out there amongst publishers and readers, please let me know. If you’re adamant about pursuing only longer works, then you need to lengthen your time frame accordingly, probably into decades. As it is, the framework for organic marketing begins somewhere around five years from beginning writing to gaining acceptance — ten years before viability is achieved. If these figures are exasperating or seem impossible to you, I would suggest that you re-assess the business of writing as a business for you. Rapid, overnight success in commercial terms is extremely rare: we’re talking here about constructing a long-term career which bypasses most of the traps that lay in wait for the unwary.
It can be done; it takes time.
ii) What are the strengths and weaknesses of your work?
I warned you the questions might be tough. How do you know whether your writing is strong or weak? You need some feedback from somewhere. You can employ the services of beta readers, editors, or friends and family if you wish — or you can adopt a more bullish strategy and get your work out there in volume, and find out directly from publishers what is strong or weak in your work.
Because writing fiction is such a personal thing — your ideas, images and language often come from deep in your heart — getting feedback from readers of whatever kind can be tough to the point of devastating. It can also be tremendously encouraging. There’s no other baptism than that of the reader-fire, in this case, though. If you want to be a writer, prepare to go over the top of the trench and face the public.
iii) What is your brand?
‘“Brand”? What does “brand” have to do with it?’ you might ask, bewildered. But we are talking about marketing and part of marketing is understanding and developing a brand.
What is it that your writing is known for? Are you funny? Is your work chillingly dark, or surreal, or intellectual, or tense and gripping? Maybe you have attempted all of those effects and more, but only readers will give you the feedback you need to answer this question. As you get reviews, or comments, or praise, or criticism, some common strands or themes will become clear. Over time, you can begin to see a shape emerging from all the chatter around your writing. Even rejection letters can provide fuel for this: ‘This piece was too dark for our anthology’; ‘We recommend you work on being more concise with your language’; ‘There is no call for humour in this genre’ and so on.
In writing terms, ‘brand’ is very close to ‘voice’. What are the common elements in your writing which give it its own identity? Style, vocabulary, point of view, theme — all these things contribute to your voice as a writer, and all help to establish your ‘brand’ in the mind of readers. People don’t buy John Grisham novels because they want a laugh; they don’t go out and grab the latest from J. K. Rowling because they are interested in rich, romantic language. You as an author have a voice, and that is part of who the reading public see when they are looking for something to read.
iv) Is your writing superior in its own way to other similar pieces of work?
Another tough question. You can only really tell by the number or amount of acceptances you’re getting in relation to others. ‘Acceptances’ can include both being accepted for publication and positive feedback as in reviews or answers from beta readers.
It’s a competitive world. If your writing is mediocre, doesn’t stand out, doesn’t have a strong voice of its own, it will be downgraded in readers' (and publishers') minds. That might mean that you still get published, but only if a publisher has nothing better to hand; or it might mean that you get published but readers think ‘Meh…’
How do you remedy this if you suspect this to be the case? Read widely, both in and out of your genre(s). Look at what others in your field are doing; learn from the master authors; take advice from trustworthy professionals who have a wider view. ‘Different’ doesn’t necessarily mean ‘better’.
(You could also worse than read my book, How Stories Really Work, which was designed to help writers with this.)
v) Take a look at the specific market for your work.
Do you write mainly Westerns? There’s a defined market for your kind of work, then. Don’t be sending your Western short stories off to publishers of romantic comedies, to give an over-obvious example.
Is your marketplace saturated? There’s an awful lot of science fiction and fantasy stuff out there at the moment, for instance. Some might say that there’s a lot of awful science fiction and fantasy out there. Either way, that particular market, assisted by internet publishing, is so saturated that it is basically underwater. If you write science fiction or fantasy, you’re going to need to be very astute about following i) to iv) above to have any chance of commercial success.
It might be interesting and valuable for you to ask who the market leaders are in your particular field. What are they doing? Why do you think their work is selling?
Note that this isn’t about then running off and copying them. Some writers do, and some have a modicum of success because they do — but this is like having a recording success because you sound like Frank Sinatra: it’s not You, you’re doing well because you sound like someone else. See point iii) above: developing your own voice is key.