A writer faces many problems.
Firstly, there are the logistical problems involved in getting to spend enough time writing. Sitting in front of a computer or in a chair with a pad and pen doesn’t pay the bills of itself - the demands of life can pull a writer’s attention all over the place until the possibility of actually getting anything written often drowns in the noise.
Even when the external logistics are conquered, there are internal barriers: self-doubt, self-criticism, lack of focus, writer’s block and so forth.
And once those are defeated, the writing may not be any good.
But let’s assume that through a series of miracles and good fortune all of the above have been brought under control: you have a book which has been written and the writing is good. What remains is the single biggest issue facing writers in today’s golden age of independent publishing: how to get sales.
Of course, publishing houses used to take care of this. They were equipped with marketing departments, sales teams, contacts in the bookselling world, distribution lines and all the rest of the apparatus needed to sell books. They are still around, still doing business along the same kind of lines as they always have, and authors who have found their way into their innermost sanctums and had works published through them live or die by their methods. But just as the meteorite which crashed into the earth millions of years ago wiped out the dinosaurs, so the time of these traditional, monolithic entities is passing. Today’s meteorite is the internet. The world wide web gives individual writers the potential, in theory at least, to reach as many readers as they wish without having to go through any kind of selection process and without having to depend on any kind of external machinery. The internet removes the power of strangers to determine whether publication will occur or not; it gives access to publication tools formerly the province of larger organisations; it provides a way of accessing material quicker and more easily than ever before in human history. It means that anyone can be a best-seller and reap all their rewards without having to abnegate any power or profit to others.
Or that’s what it looks like at first glance, anyway.
In practice, surveys of writers usually throw up one serious concern, after all the other serious concerns listed above have been addressed: writers don’t know how to get their written and independently published books sold. Those who make it to the point of trying to sell their books have usually expended so much energy in getting there that they have none left to confront marketing and the business side of getting books into the hands of readers.
Writers usually view marketing in two ways, both highly damaging to their prospects of success:
1. Most see marketing as an activity in which their books are pumped out into the marketplace in the hope of attracting readers. To do this, they run ad campaigns, social media campaigns, have interviews, work on branding and basically try every way they can think of to get out there into the Void in the hope of contacting and persuading the largest possible number of people to buy their books.
2. They also tend to see ‘marketing’ as a distinct activity: the first part of being a successful writer, they think, is the writing, getting the ideas and images out of their heads and into some physical or electronic form; then there is ‘marketing’, which is usually seen as a separate function to do with reaching out and promoting the first part. ‘That’s not something we like doing,’ they say. ‘We’re writers, not sales people.’
Both views are dangerously misleading and can be counter-productive. The truth is actually quite liberating and opens the door to success for all writers.
The sequence for most writers is that they come up with a book. No one else is involved; really, no one else can be, unless you count a few friendly readers who are shown bits of the manuscript and are usually too polite to play much of a part in its evolution other than to give general encouragement. The trouble here is that the writing continues, often over many years, even when the likelihood of anyone showing up wanting to buy the final product is low and perhaps non-existent. And there seems to be no way of telling what will happen when the book is finally ready to be shown to the public at large. Will they like it? Will they hate it? How do you even get enough people to read it to find out?
This is a ‘writer-centric’ model. It starts with the writer’s idea, which turns into a story, which turns into a massive amount of work reaching out to try to find people who will buy it.
What is the alternative?
What would a ‘reader-centric’ model look like?
It’s very important to realise at this point, before we go any further, that a piece of fiction, whether a short story, a novel, a play, a film script or something else, must be of a certain quality in order to succeed. It sounds obvious to say that, perhaps, but prior to any attempt to market something that item has to be marketable. Millions of words can be written, but there’s no guarantee that anyone will want to read them unless they are in a form that communicates well to a reader. I’m assuming that we have at this point achieved a work which is readable and which will appeal to some degree to some kind of reading public.
Having made that clear, let’s look at the situation facing a written and published book from a slightly different point of view.
Your book, whatever it is about, provided that it has met a certain minimal quality standard, will have a marketplace jam-packed full of readers who want to read it at any given time. They may be desperate for it, or they may be only partially aware of their need, but at all times part of the world is swimming with the need for your story.
That may seem an odd thing to say and may even come as a kind of relief. It means that even a story which has an obscure setting, or a peculiar hero, or a strange plot, or a quite bland writing style, provided that it is of sufficient quality, will have a ready-made audience out there.
It’s not that your story ‘won’t sell’, in other words; it’s more like your story hasn’t managed to connect with the audience that needs it yet.
What is one doing when one ‘markets’ a story, then?
The true purpose of marketing is to turn need into motion towards acquisition.
It’s not a question of ‘pumping your story into the marketplace’ and hoping that someone will buy it; it’s more a question of how to attract your readers to your story. How do you turn their need into motion towards your book?
That’s the topic explored in my book Become a Professional Author.