It’s the third rail of every commercial endeavor. Did you build a better mousetrap? Better learn how to sell it. Did your studio produce a blockbuster film with built-in audience appeal? You’re still going to spend north of one hundred million dollars to promote it. Anything worth selling is worth being sold, preferably by an attractive spokesman or spokeswoman, who makes solid but not overbearing eye contact, with a voice that could melt a frosted window.
It helps if the product you’re selling is the brainchild of a corporation. Corporate structures obscure the authorship of the goods you’re peddling. The one doing the marketing is seldom the inventor of the product, and even if they are, no one could possibly know.
But marketing a book on your own is not nearly so easy.
The Obvious Conflict of Interest
Precedent holds that the most visible part of a book–its cover–must declare the book’s authorship to one and all. For the most part, this is a good thing, as it allows the author to lay claim to his work, and if his name appears on multiple beloved books, then that name alone will become an excellent marketing tool.
You see this with every book cover in the business. On books written by small or new authors, the author’s name is the tiniest feature on the entire cover, perhaps even unreadable by the near-sighted. But when the author is a mega bestseller who has been at the top of the business for years, a curious reversal happens.
With each success, the name of the author grows, and the title of each successive book shrinks. The author himself has become the feature, more important than the identity of the particular book.
But there is a tradeoff here. The author’s name is valuable to marketing, but the author himself is automatically disqualified from marketing the work.
“Of course you are going to tell me the book is spectacular. You’re the one who wrote it.”
It’s a glaring handicap, though not necessarily obvious. Having waded through book-focused social media, I can tell you that the first marketing tool most authors reach for is themselves. It’s not as big a problem for authors whose publishers handle the marketing. In those cases, the author adding his one voice to the already-substantive marketing push does little damage.
The problem is much more noticeable for those authors who either self-publish or are too small to be given marketing help from their publishers. The Twittersphere is polluted with billions of self-promoting posts—authors spamming their meager selection of followers with hourly reminders that THEY HAVE A FREAKING BOOK FOR SALE!
The effect is often a net negative.
Regardless, marketing needs to happen. And the practice of selling books has been around long enough that people in the business have developed a number of workarounds.
Solution: Let Other People do the Talking
Like I said, this problem is more easily resolved in a corporate setting. Such a context provides a separation of powers: author and marketer each in their own spheres.
But in places where true corporatism is impossible (such as in a one-man self-publishing operation), we have to settle for solutions that are merely corporate-esque. And that means that the author has to outsource his marketing to others.
One popular way to do this has been the “cover quote”, wherein the author enlists the endorsement of another, more prestigious author. You’ve seen plenty of examples. They’re all something like:
This book was so good it made my balls explode!Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
And people who are fans of the endorsing author (and he had better have a lot) will be enticed into exploring your humble little tome.
A similar vein of marketing is the critic endorsement. Where an author’s endorsement can often appear on the first edition of a new book, a critic’s endorsement usually cannot appear until the second edition. Or, in a series, a critic’s endorsement of an earlier book will appear on the latest volume.
These endorsements typically come from newspapers and other periodicals. They look like this:
But though a cover is certainly the most important marketing tool for any book, the clever author will distance himself from the marketing even further, by convincing people with their own unrelated platforms to spread awareness of the goods being sold.
I am going to define advertising here as any practice of highlighting a book on a platform you do not control. So, for example:
- Written book reviews.
- Video book reviews.
- Mentions in other media.
- News stories about the book.
- And yes, traditional advertising space in both the real and virtual worlds.
I should probably include author interviews as well, though you technically control those partially. But an interview—even a short one—on a popular public platform can make all the difference in the world. Richard Paul Evans was a flailing author until one of his meager book signings was visited by a producer for a popular talk show (I believe it was The Today Show). That one event changed the entire trajectory of his career.
Now, the obvious drawback to all of the above-listed methods is that they require money. There are other ways to obtain them (the most obvious being reciprocal barter—you give a review to get a review). But the most successful self-published authors generally have to pay for the privilege of being marketed.
It solves the problem of how to act corporate-esque without having a hundred-man operation at your disposal. Forming loose commercial bonds with other people and corpos who work as your contractors, rather than your employees.
The Invisible Hand: Word of Mouth
There is another form of marketing that is probably more powerful than all the rest, but also the hardest to control. It has a hard time getting started, and usually requires at least one other form of marketing to cross the finish line first. But if it does happen, your marketing push will reach its full potential without spending any further money.
I am talking about what Adam Smith called “the invisible hand of the market”, which means many things in different contexts. But in the context of selling books it refers to word-of-mouth advertising.
Because the author is not trying to sell his book to a single massive buyer. The customer base is composed of millions of individuals, each with their own tastes and desires.
But a single memetic idea can move through that mass of buyers as if it were a monolithic force. Alice tells Bob about a book she loves. Bob reads it and then tells Charlotte, who tells Dan, who raves to Edward, who can’t wait to tell Felicia, who recommends it to Ginger. It’s viral marketing, and in a way more literal than figurative, for a virus is nothing but self-replicating information. If a marketing campaign can infect minds without a sustained push on the part of the marketer, then the game is won.
Yet it almost never happens on purpose. Word-of-mouth advertising is a kind of alchemy. A few elements are mixed together and maybe produce gold or maybe produce a horrible mess. And there’s hardly any way to know beforehand which you will get.
Still, the competent marketer must acknowledge the invisible hand and factor it into their projections.
The Point: Don’t do It all Yourself
Writing a book is a solitary business. Marketing a book is anything but.
For the author to do all his own marketing is merely a way of incriminating himself. The conflict of interest cannot be concealed. He must either employ the acumen of strangers, or see his book languish in obscurity.
The prospect may be intimidating for the introverted entrepreneur, and writers often get in trouble here, as they are often first attracted to writing by the solitude it promises. They are then unprepared for the aftermath, which requires a measure of genteel social graces.
If it feels like I’m applying pressure here, I am. But I would not suggest such uncomfortable measures if they were any less than necessary.
The writer needs to build bridges, even before his marketing plan is formalized, and the only good time to get started is right now.
You know how to use your pen. Now you must learn how to use your voice. And, more than that, the voices of everyone else.
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