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What to Avoid When Marketing Your Writing

There really is such a thing as bad publicity. Here’s how to know just how far too far really is. by M.J. Rose

We all want exposure. But at any cost?

No. While there are exceptions to every rule, here’s what to generally avoid and what to remember when marketing your writing.

1. THE BIGGEST MISTAKE IS TO ASSUME THAT ANOTHER WRITER’S SUCCESSFUL STRATEGY WILL WORK FOR YOU, TOO. Publishers’ marketers—and even freelance publicists who cost mega bucks—tend to do the same basic things for all books. Advance review copies go out to the same list of contacts, press releases go out to the same media outlets and the reviews and articles fall where they may. But authors can make a greater effort to figure out the one special thing about their books that might grab readers on a visceral level—and then create a customized approach that emphasizes it.

2. RECOGNIZE THAT THE GREAT MAJORITY OF US AREN’T TRAINED ACTORS AND ENTERTAINERS. Usually, it’s not our faces, our bodies, our personas or our stage presence that sells our books. It’s our stories, our visions and our voices. There are many authors I could pick to make this point, but I’ll choose an easy one: the ubiquitous Dan Brown, certainly one of the most successful authors in the last 10 years. What do you know about him? What designers does he wear? What parties has he been seen at? How many times has he been married? We know that stuff about Paris Hilton, but not him.

You shouldn’t talk about yourself all the time—most of us aren’t for sale. Our books are. Talk about them. It’s not a question of whether or not you’re fascinating on a personal level—it’s that your trivia and trials might not have any connection to the tone, tenor and sense of your books. If I present a boring personal life to my readers, it’s going to be harder for them to think of my novels as thrilling.

3. KNOW THE ADAGE “THERE’S NO SUCH THING AS BAD PUBLICITY” ISN’T NECESSARILY TRUE. You can go too far. It’s really popular—especially online—to strive for controversy in the hopes that attention of any kind will guarantee sales. Sometimes it works. But sometimes we just ain’t that pretty when we’re up on stage naked with the house lights on. Sometimes you lose potential readers. I can think of three authors I vowed to never read again based on their nonfiction admissions and blog posts. Think every publicity “stunt” through before you act.

4. BE TRUE TO YOUR INNER VOICE. It’s popular to be snarky, but it also gets tiring. Don’t be snarky unless your book is snarky and you want to be known for that—like Jennifer Weiner. She can pull off her blog’s occasional snarkiness because it fits the way she writes her novels. And she’s honestly funny, not wannabe funny.

5. DON’T OVERDO IT. You can’t interest anyone in reading or helping to sell your books if you annoy them. And it’s easy to annoy people: by sending them too many e-mails all about you and your book, over and over, every time something happens; by posting online in all the same places about all the same things; by being a narcissistic blogger; by believing your own press. Rather than relying on repetition, choose your spots carefully—and then make them count.

A lot of booksellers have told me that many authors don’t. They just walk in and assume their books should be front and center—and when that’s not the case, they aren’t all that polite about it. Remember, even a tiny bookstore has 6,000 books in it. A big superstore has more than 200,000. So don’t complain that your book was supposed to be on display. Make an effort. How? Booksellers mention that few authors bother to actually buy a book when they come in, so buy a book. It’s a relatively easy way to endear yourself.

7. IN MARKETING, AS IN FICTION: SHOW, DON’T TELL. Telling won’t hook readers into your story, and it won’t get buzz, either. Telling people how good your books are or how well you’re doing isn’t usually the best strategy. This isn’t about you. It’s about the book. It’s about the characters. It’s about the story. Don’t even do this on lists or blogs. Tell all the news to your best friends or family who really care about you. How many books have you actually bought because the author told you how good it was, and how well it was doing? Show—let the story speak for itself.

Overall, be aware that the better our readers get to know us, the more they might love us and our work.

But the opposite is just as possible. Sometimes less is much, much more.

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