Sunday, June 10, 2012

Marketing Yourself

I'll be totally honest up front - this post is mostly speculation on how to achieve success. I'll tell you in a few years if it needs to be revamped.

Most writers have starry-eyed dreams of what it would be like to make it big. We usually imagine throngs of adoring fans lined up for several city blocks just to catch a glimpse of us at a big signing or appearance(usually in New York). When that's not the daydream, we envision waking up when the sun is nice and warm, pouring ourselves a cup of our favorite beverage - be it coffee or a bloody mary - and typing up our next masterpiece.
However, despite our most fervent dreams, we have to do more than just write if we are to succeed in selling our books. Yes, Stephen King and Dan Brown can live off of residual sales of their works, but even they had to figure out how to market themselves when they first got going.

Marketing yourself is basically building your brand.  You have to not only get your name out there, but you have to get others to feel a certain way about your name and your work.  At the beginning, this can be very exciting.  Your brand is totally without form and can morph into almost anything.  Do you want to be seen as intellectual, a serious source people come to when looking for mental stimulation?  Or do you want to be known as the person who always makes others laugh?

Of course, the dangerous thing about being so new is that one gaffe at the proper, or improper moment, can scar your brand forever.

I have a degree in business, oddly enough with a concentration in marketing.  Despite currently being employed outside my field of study, I've still had to conduct a great deal of marketing for various enterprises throughout my career.  Along with following the careers of several writers, both traditionally published and indie published, I've begun to look at what building a brand would take and how to get the word out to the potential market.

First of all, you have to build a platform, a home base if you will.  That's what this blog is - yes, it allows me to tell my stories to the half dozen or so folks who like to read my ramblings, but it also gives people who want to learn more about you a point of entry.  When I tell people I'm a writer, those who are curious to learn more can come here and find out my thoughts and motivations.  It gives them a starting point from which to jump.  Think about it - when most of us find an author we like, we go to one of two places - Amazon(to look up reviews) or Google(to see if they have a website).  It's difficult to control the ratings on Amazon - even those who try to flood with friends and family often fail b/c it's obvious what has happened when the only reviews their five-star reviewers have done have been for this particular author.  However, you can control your website.  Indeed, you should run it like a tight fisted tyrant.
Post consistently.  Interact with your readers.  Link to other websites that have similar points of view or provide interesting content.  Provide an exciting layout.  These things may not be the main part of what draws readers to you, but it can be a big piece of keeping them.

To go along with the above point, interact with others on the Internet.  Social relationships used to be so difficult to establish, limited mainly by geography.  However, you can now establish relationships with people you've never met in person.  There are tons of websites out there that feature content similar to yours.  This isn't limited to writing - if your thing is lion taming, there are plenty of sites out there that share your interest, thus allowing you an opening to establish a relationship.  And by interacting on these sites, you can raise your profile, in addition to providing a potentially insightful voice to their community and learning a few things from those who run those sites.  Unless you're a troll and a dumbass - if that's the case, then please don't speak.

A writer whose books I've purchased from time to time made an intriguing suggestion that I might never have thought of on my own - college campuses are ripe for spreading your message, and if you can gain one devoted follower at a school, it's worth reaching another 100.  As a writer, hit college bookstores.  See if they'll give you a table.  When you're there, don't just sit there - interact.  Be willing to give away a few copies of your book...for free.  The influence you could gain will be well worth the $4 or so it cost you to produce that book.  You can't look at it like you've lost a profit margin - you have to look at it as a way to penetrate a new audience.

Also, in talking to proprietors of independent bookstores, offer a copy of your work for them to read if they'll consider stocking your work.  Notice I didn't say to make it a condition of getting a copy for them to definitely buy your book, only that they consider it.  If they like it, you might be able to find a distribution outlet, and a further inducement to that store owner would be for you to give them a large share of the margin(say 30% of the sales price, plus the ability to return, at no loss, any unsold books).  However, don't try to put your book on the shelf of a store that doesn't stock your book and walk away thinking you've been sneaky - the trick isn't new and is likely to get you blacklisted by the store.

Then there's the holy grail - getting a major publication to review your book for its customers.
Thing is, you have to be realistic.  As an unknown, you aren't going to end up in the Style section of the New York Times.  Try a local, free publication at first.  If you know someone at the local paper, try to yank on that string.  Ask a devoted reader to ask the publication for you.  The key here is that while shooting for the moon is nice, being realistic is more likely to build some credibility.  Slowly but surely get your name out there with these folks until you've gained enough recognition that you can try to move from Ma & Pa Kettle's Weekly Gossip Report to the Watauga Democrat(and hopefully beyond after that).

The most effective kind of marketing can be the most time consuming, but it can also be the one with the highest percentage of payoff - to the individual.  If you're just starting out and have the time, don't be afraid to talk to individuals.  Be polite - ie, at Uncle Joe's funeral is probably a bad idea - but try to bring your friends onboard.  If you're in a conversation with someone you don't know well but they indicate a reading preference, mention what you do.  I've met several contacts on airplanes as I wrote on my laptop and they got curious as to what I was doing, so I turned their nosiness to my advantage.  Several are now on the email list I'm building for Akeldama.

There are other ways to market, especially if you have the money or contacts to make it happen(radio, TV, buying print ads, etc.).  At the end of the day, you're the one who has to build your brand.  Newbie's are usually expected to do most of their initial marketing themselves, so while it would be nice for someone to show you the ropes, it's best if you have a plan before you find out there are limited lifejackets and a sea full of icebergs up ahead.

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