Thursday, March 15, 2007

My Favorite Piece of Marketing Advice

Somewhere on my writing journey I heard a piece of marketing advice that I cling to in desperate times (like right after I’ve flubbed a public speaking opportunity.) I’ve actually heard it from more than one person, usually editors or agents, and it goes something like this:

“The best marketing advice I can give you is write the next book, and make it even better.”

I cannot even begin to tell you how much I adore that advice. It’s something I can control; learning and perfecting my craft. It’s something I’m comfortable with; the solitary immersion in my story and wrestling plot and character into submission. Or conversely, depending on the book, gently coaxing them into existence.

That marketing advice SO works for me, and makes a ton of sense besides. Especially when you consider what really sells books.

As millions of wasted dollars spent on failed marketing campaigns will attest to, the single best marketing for your book is buzz and word of mouth. Period. Better than ads in the NYT book section, better than ads in PW. Better, even than good reviews. Reader buzz is pure gold in terms of marketing dollars. (Not to mention hugely satisfying.) Yes, those other tools can be used to get your book in front of potential readers, but unless those readers fall in love with your book and are thrilled they read it and can’t wait to tell their friends, the dollars are pretty much wasted.

And the good news is, many, many books have generated buzz, starting at the ground level with no publisher support, and that buzz has carried them to the top of the sales charts.

Because they were really great books. And cream rises. Most of the time, anyway.** And yes, there are many examples of books that many don’t think are great, but that do spectacularly well in the marketplace. These books, I think, while maybe not stunningly written, tell a rousing good story that somehow touches the reading public’s nerve. Which is actually good news because this illustrates there is more than one way to define a great book: beautifully written is one, a rousing good story is another.

**[Yes, there are wonderful books that end up being ignored or never finding their audience. That is true. And it breaks my heart as well as yours. However, we can’t really learn anything by studying those examples or ranting about the unfairness of it all, which is why I’m choosing to not focus on that aspect.]

Writing a great book is also one of the things that will convince a publisher to put money into all those marketing bells and whistles I listed above. Now, not always, obviously. But it increases your chances. And it can happen two ways.

1. Right from the get go, during the submission process, your book generates buzz and has a number of editors vying for the opportunity to publish your manuscript. (And isn’t this one of every writer’s favorite dreams??) The mss goes to auction, and you settle for a six figure deal with a publishing house you chose. Cool, huh?

But there are downsides to this approach. Conventional wisdom says that because they paid this money for your book, they will fully promote it to capture their investment. But it doesn’t always pan out that way. Editors leave, marketing directors change, other books hit the market before not the publisher actually follows through with their original marketing plans. So while it’s a great start, it’s not a sure thing. And it’s only one way…

2. The editor who buys your mss (and not necessarily for an announcement-worthy sum) falls head over heels in love with your mss. It’s one of her favorite books evah. She’s given permission to buy it, and as it works its way through the publishing company, her enthusiasm is catching, and other members of the publishing team fall in love with the book so that the time it’s ready for publication, they all want to tell the world about this book they’ve fallen in love with. I think John Green’s Looking for Alaska is a good example of this approach.

But both of those approaches are just a way of trying to accelerate the chances of generating reader buzz. Which can also happen all on it's own, without any marketing fanfare or publishing dollars. Harry Potter was one such book, enthusiastically hand sold by independent booksellers for months before it made it's big splash. And that big splash occurred because those who'd read the book loved it and told their friends they simply had to read this book.

The other wonderful thing about the advice to focus on writing your next book is, it’s never too late. Just because your prior books didn’t generate this kind of attention or buzz, doesn’t mean your subsequent books can’t. Publishing is littered with stories of authors who wrote many books before their “breakout” book, the one that put them on the map.

But before either of these things can happen, you have to write a great book. It has to tell an amazing story, or be bone achingly authentic, or beautifully told or cleverly constructed.

And for me, studying my craft, pushing myself to write better, stronger, fresher is a much more comfortable place for me to spend my energies than hawking my wares.


Mary Hershey said...

Robin, thanks for the great post! I think we were at the Donald Maas workshop down south when we heard this powerful marketing advice-- 'Write the greatest book you can. THAT is the single most important thing you can do in the whole process.Buzz is everything, and buzz comes from people that have read your book and tell someone about it.'

I clearly remember we shrieked in relief and leapt up onto our chairs, -- oh, wait, no, being introverts, we actually just
scribbled an extremely enthsiastic note to each other.


Sara said...

This is some of the sanest marketing advice that I've heard in a long time. I'm trying to write my second book while promoting my first one, and I find myself buffeted by emotional instability and doubt. Thank you for the wise words.