Why Authors Must Be Marketers Too

I may never win a Pulitzer Prize for any of my novels but I wrote three sentences in 2004 that have garnered me a lot of ink: “Writing is an art. Publishing is a business. And an oft broken business at that.” And like it or not, these days authors are finding it necessary to get involved in the business side—specifically the marketing of their books. by M.J. Rose
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I may never win a Pulitzer Prize for any of my novels but I wrote three sentences in 2004 that have garnered me a lot of ink: “Writing is an art. Publishing is a business. And an oft broken business at that.”

And like it or not, these days authors are finding it necessary to get involved in the business side—specifically the marketing of their books.

Marketing, in this case, is the action, business or process of promoting and advertising a book for the purposes of selling it. It doesn’t include market research or distribution.

“But I’m a writer. My job is to keep writing isn’t it?” a debut author asked me recently in an astonished and seriously angry voice.

Yes, your job is to keep writing. But 85 percent of all books published by traditional publishers get less than $2,000 in marketing. Never mind a splash—this isn’t even enough to make a ripple.

So if you want your book to have a better chance to succeed you need to figure out what you can do to push, shove and throw your book in font of readers.

TOUGH TIMES

Marketing a book is difficult in the era of what I call “Choice Fatigue.” There are approximately 500 books published every day in the U.S. and the competition among publishers for attention from the bookstore buyers, the reviewers and the readers is more than intense. It borders on the impossible.

Not too long ago, I polled 150,000 readers and asked about their bookstore experiences and buying habits. Sixty percent of those who responded said the sheer number of books they were exposed to overwhelmed them. Even when keeping up with book reviews and websites and blogs, they simply didn’t hear about most of the books they saw in the store. (What doesn’t help this situation is that review sources have shrunk by more than 50 percent in newspapers, magazines and television coverage. The Internet has picked up some of the slack and continues to pick up more but it hasn’t evened out yet.)

One reader wrote: “I read three or four books a week, however I’m finding it difficult figuring out which ones to buy these days—there’s such a huge choice so over and over I find I stick to the better known authors.” So what’s an author to do?

MANAGE YOUR EXPECTATIONS

As uber-agent Simon Lipskar of Writers House says: “Since the rise of the Internet and the opening of doors of communication that had been sealed—except to big money media players—authors have rightly realized that there are opportunities to market their work and develop relationships with their readers. It’s the No. 1 rule for today’s authors: Do it yourself or assume it won’t be done.”

But Lipskar also says, “The catch is that we’ve reached a stage of sound and fury in which a whole lot of effort may not signify very much. It’s depressing to admit this, but if anything, it should be freeing for authors to realize that the burden of turning their books into bestsellers remains where it has always been: on the publishers.”

And I agree. If your goal is to become a bestseller, you simply can’t do it alone. The making of a bestseller involves your entire publishing house getting behind the book—from editorial to sales. Then the booksellers have to get behind the book with big enough orders and the kind of in-store placement required for success. (Even though the publisher pays for placement, the bookstores have discretion on which books to take. They can and do turn placement down if they don’t believe in the book.)

Only when all these planets align will a book get the kind of attention and visibility it needs to even have a chance at big numbers so that hopefully the press will pay some attention and readers will prove interested.

Authors can’t make all this happen on their own, even if they’re willing to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars in marketing, because there’s no way for them to get involved in the distribution/placement/review discussions and decisions. The system isn’t set up for it.

I think the smarter goal for an author today, certainly the goal I’ve adopted, is to do everything you can to just stay alive. To keep getting contracts and writing better and better books, and supporting each one with both time and money so you grow into bigger sales or write that one book that the publisher recognizes as “the book” and decides to give the push.

TO PROMOTE OR NOT PROMOTE

Some authors are good at self-promotion and others shouldn’t bother. You have to figure out what you want to do, what you can do and what you can’t. You have to figure out if you want to promote your own book or if you want to hire someone else to do it for you. Or you can take your chances and do nothing.

Douglas Clegg more than tripled his sales coming up with ingenious online promotions that exposed his work to new readers.

With her debut novel, Lisa Tucker took a large chunk of her advance, hired a top publicist and took herself on tour. It was a total success and launched her career.

Succeed or fail, I don’t know any author who made the effort and was sorry afterward but I do know many who didn’t make any effort, believed their publisher would do it all, and when it was over felt they’d make a mistake staying uninvolved.

There aren’t many certainties in this business but this: No one thing sells a book. Not just big orders. Not just good placement. Not just terrific reviews. Not just a great cover. Hundreds of little things contribute to a success. And you can do many of those little things yourself and yes, you can help your book.

If you’re still reading, you’ll understand why a lot of people say I’m a never ending source of depressing information. But I also have a wealth of experience helping myself and other authors beat the odds and stay in the game. So check out the exercises for some proactive suggestions—the top five things you need to do to get started figuring out what kind of author you are and what you want to do for your book.

Related Links
5 Simple Marketing Exercises from M.J. Rose

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