Friday, December 6, 2013

Successful Authors are Successful Marketers

While I hope much of this new blog to be about fun topics, mind-bending Speculative Fiction discussions, and random Bitstrip comedic insights into the life of an author and the world of Fantasy and Sci-Fi, I also want this blog to be a resource for new authors and those on their way to becoming authors.

I don't want in any way to come off like a fountain of wisdom or anything.  Much of this journey I am still trying to figure out myself.  But I am also a compulsive researcher and I will share not only what nuggets of wisdom I discover from others, but also the lessons I have learned along the way.

Some of these lessons will be drawn from my broader background, but will be applicable to authors looking to break into the industry as well.  At times I look back on my life and feel a bit like Forrest Gump, having traipsed and trod through a myriad of roles, experiences, and opportunities.  Today I want to share some lessons from both my research in the book industry, as well as life lessons from my previous careers (yes, there have been more than one).

For those who don't know my background, I made my way in the world by quickly scrambling up the ranks of the IT industry, with my highest position being VP of Information Systems at a startup company.   I also served as the engineering implementation manager for the outsourcing provider on the largest IT outsourcing contract in the history of the US Navy/Marines.  I have managed huge projects and multi-million dollar budgets.  I also ran my own Real Estate Investment Company (two of them, actually) where I made all the decisions regarding marketing and raising market awareness of our company.

In all of that, and in all my research on the book industry, the conclusion is the same.  Successful entrepreneurs and business leaders understand marketing is the key to success.  Make no mistake, my fellow scrivener, you are an entrepreneur.  If you believe your life is about writing books, I regret to inform you that you are in a mindset headed for failure.  As someone dreaming of being a full-time author, you life is NOT about writing books, your life is about MARKETING books.

The days of a brilliant author pecking away at his or her trusty typewriter in a reclusive hideaway while the publisher is pounding the pavement marketing this brilliance are gone, if indeed they ever existed at all outside the pages of fiction.  The truth is, the most successful authors are the most successful marketers.  Until and unless you get that, be prepared for frustration and disappointment.

Whether it is an IT Company, a Real Estate Company, or a line of books, the principle is the same.  No marketing equals no exposure.  No exposure equals no customers.  No customers equals no sales.  You have to treat your life as an author as a business.  You have various product lines (each book you write) and each product line is it's own separate income stream.  Just like a clothing line, not every style will suit every customer, but you will have customers that will come to recognize and like your brand and will buy every new product that comes out.  Others may like one or two things, but may be hit and miss.  The key to successful products is quality.  If you produce a quality product, and people know about it, you WILL sell them.  I will touch on this point again at the conclusion.

So what should you be looking at doing to get the word out there about your product?

1) Establish a platform - This is the number one differentiator between best-selling, widely known authors who have arrived, and the new authors who are just getting started.  Someone who already has a platform, be it a church pastor, TV star, movie star, radio personality, successful businessman, etc already has a built-in niche audience in which to begin marketing books. People know this person, are interested in them, and will flock to buy books written by (or ghostwritten for) them.  Many new authors, however, are normal people with normal jobs, and have a limited circle of influence.  If that is the case, look at how you can begin to build a platform of built-in potential readers for your books.  Some ideas of where to start are:  1) join a civic organization (Lion's Club, Elk's Lodge, Knights of Columbus, Ladies Auxilliary, etc), 2) be active as a teacher/leader in your neighborhood or church (i.e. Sunday School teacher, community organizer, block captain, join the PTA, etc), 3) start an internet blog.  This needs to be something interesting, engaging and enjoyable that will draw people to want to follow what you have to say rather than just a place to post ads for your books.  Nobody wants to watch a show that is all commercials.  Have something to say that is of interest.  Some ideas might be a movie review site, book reviews, community service announcements, news stories/commentaries, etc.  Give them a reason to go there.  Also, DON'T WAIT until your books are out to start this.  Building a blog following takes time, so start that well in advance of when you plan to put your books out.

2) Widen your name recognition - This can be done online through various groups you interact on, by writing guest blogs for established blog sites, submitting short stories to magazines for publication prior to releasing a novel, look for chances to call in or be guests on radio shows in your area, reach out to schools, libraries, or other venues where you can volunteer to teach, guest speak, or volunteer.  Basically this can be ANYTHING that expands the circle of people who know you and may become interested in who you are, which can translate down the road into wanting to read what you write.

3) Be prepared to invest in marketing - This is the number one area of struggle for many writers.  Most new authors don't have loads of disposable income to put out there for marketing, but if you aren't prepared to invest in promoting your work, why should anyone else be?  Being an author isn't a golden ticket to the easy life, it is rather a lot like vagrancy only sometimes less lucrative (especially at the beginning).  Flyers, ad-space in newspapers, giveaway bookmarks with your books on them, personalized invitations to book signing events, posters, T-Shirts; the sky and your imagination are the limits.  People LIKE free stuff, so if you don't want to give your books away (which is somewhat counter-productive to being profitable), than have OTHER stuff you can give away which will attract people to the books, and provide you with increased exposure.  There is one exception (see point 4) about the book giveaways which I will cover in a moment, but for the most part you are trying to sell your books, not give them away.

4) Reviews and word-of-mouth advertising - While I talked in point 3 about not giving away your books, there are exceptions to this.  Many Independently published authors (i.e. self-published or small press) do "free days" on Amazon or the like to increase the number of people who know about the book.  This approach has a number of advantages and a few disadvantages.  Advantages are: 1) it really doesn't cost anything up front to do this, merely opportunity costs, 2) if online sales are your primary venue, the more people reading your books increases the possibility of them buying other works by you, 3) ideally this will result in more reviews of the book which will increase both the credibility of the author and the exposure in the marketplace.  Disadvantages are: 1) everyone who gets a free copy is one less person to buy a copy.  As someone who writes in a genre that is a small part of the overall book market, this can be a big factor, 2) when you give something away for free, there is a perception that is has no value.  People may not like or agree with that statement, but it is ABSOLUTELY undeniable.  In fact, in several areas of the businesses I have run, we found when we gave away things, they often attracted people who had no real desire to follow-up with anything further, but when we charged, even a small amount, for something, then the people responding valued it and only those interested in following through would come for them.  This is why I personally favor the idea of price reductions above "free days".  If your book is normally say 4.99 or 5.99 (as an Indie author), then having a $0.99 day or weekend can still drive bargain hunters to your books while continuing at least some income stream for them.

Continuing on point 4, the one time where it is normal, and generally acceptable, to give away books is as a market exposure strategy.  For blogs, review sites, newspaper literary critics, and others, from the big boys like NY Times down to the friendly internet blogger with a  few hundred followers who like the genre you write in, giving copies to those with a voice, who can read, review, and increase exposure on the books is a viable and valuable strategy for marketing.

5) Finally, be consistent and persistent - Posting a blurb about your books once or twice on a facebook group, or endlessly spamming the SAME blurb over and over and over, shows laziness, inconsistency, and no real drive to market the books.  You have to be persistent without being redundant.  If you want to post once a month or so in a group to keep your latest work in the minds of potential readers, then at least take the time and care to alter what you post.  Reposting the same blurb again and again just gets people to tune it out and form a negative opinion.  That is the opposite of what you want.  Mix it up.  Do things funny, cute, memorable.  Bitstrips comics I think are a great way to do something memorable, eye-catching and not annoying to draw attention.  Otherwise posting excerpts or links to positive reviews is another way to be persistent without being redundant.  Building a presence in the market is a marathon, not a sprint.  It won't happen overnight, and even once you have a platform and a market presence, KEEP MARKETING!  I mean who doesn't know who McDonald's is, right?  Yet they still spend millions and millions every year to market themselves and refresh their market presence.  Marketing is a lifelong task, not a one-and-done type deal.  The day you stop marketing needs to be the day you stop writing.

Last of all I want to go back to what I said above about quality.  If you don't take care to produce a quality product, all the marketing in the world won't make up for it.  Every author, writer, director, producer, actor, etc turns out the occasional stinker, but your first few works need to be as solid as you can make them, and you can't afford too many stinkers before you will have dug yourself a hole you can't climb out of.  There is no excuse for producing shoddy writing.  If you can't write, why are you wanting to be an author?  If you can write, but need some help to make it crisp and clean, then be prepared to spend the money on a GREAT editor.  If you are a masterful graphic artist, by all means fire away at your covers, but if you are sticking photo-shoppy, hand-drawn, cartoony-looking, amateurish covers on your books, then don't be surprised that random buyers aren't flocking to pick them up regardless of the reviews.  Your cover is your only chance at a first impression, and when potential buyers are online skimming books to buy, if your cover doesn't grab them, they likely will never see the reviews and will pass on by.  I would say almost as important, if not slightly more important, than a GREAT editor is an AWESOME cover designer.  Packaging sells, so don't produce a diamond of a book and then wrap it in old newspaper.  Presentation is critical, so don't skimp on this.

While I don't expect this is the end-all, be-all of marketing advice, hopefully it gives some insights into what I found as key for running my own businesses, and practices I currently am working to employ in the world of being an author.  I hope you find these insightful, encouraging, and helpful in your own journey to literary fame and fortune.  Good luck, authors!


David G. Johnson

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