Marketing Basics for Writers: Take Control of Book Marketing

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More than ever, writers nowadays need to take control of their book marketing. Tweet after tweet from writers, agents, and editors tell us that publishers have shrinking budgets and staff devoted to marketing books. And yet, distressingly, Doretta and I keep encountering writers who stubbornly refuse to do anything to help their books sell. A few half-hearted and sheepish tweets or Instagram posts don’t count.

We genuinely want to see writers do well, especially writers whose stories have historically been excluded and marginalized. But damn it, guys, you are not making it easy when you tell us that you’re going to leave everything up to the hands of your assigned publicist.

A publicist is not a miracle worker. They are often overworked and underpaid, and they are just trying to get through their workload. Unless you are a proven hit or a clear priority, you are only going to get a tiny fraction of their time. Or perhaps even none at all.

Why you can’t count on publicists

I hate harping on this but when I worked in the music industry, I worked for the regional office of a major label who owned several smaller labels all over the world. Each label had their own roster of artists, and I would guess that the total number of artists that the marketing department had to oversee was in the hundreds. And yet every quarter, I only focused on probably five at the most. Likely two or three priority artists (proven sellers) and a couple of new artists identified as having breakthrough potential. And that was back when the music industry still made tons of money, much more than the publishing industry ever did.

Every week, the marketing department would receive a giant box of singles and albums of new and upcoming releases. These came from the different labels who wanted us desperately to promote artists they’d just signed or whose albums needed a push. When I first started, I tried to listen to as many CDs as possible (usually by only listening to the first ten seconds and making a decision) but after a few months, work became too busy and, like everyone else, I just threw out or gave away the CDs.

Who makes it out of the box?

The only artists who ever made it out of that box were ones who had friends or supporters like best-selling artists and powerful media heads or managers who really pushed hard for them. Even still, it often took weeks and months of convincing my bosses and written guarantees of the artist working extremely hard to do promo. This is how a certain Canadian band became a surprise hit despite their music being loathed by almost everyone. I can’t say much about their music but I can tell you that we worked this band doing showcases, events, and interviews around the world until they were at the breaking point.

Can you imagine what it must be like nowadays for a marketing team or a publicist, when there’s even less time and money, and for an industry that is already under siege?

Respect writing as a career

I’m not writing this to make writers feel bad or frightened. Well, maybe a little of the latter, but only because I am hoping that writers understand that they need to put in book marketing work if they want their books to sell.

Although perhaps that’s the first question writers should ask themselves: do you want to make a living off writing? Or is this just an ego thing where you get to feel superior because you’ve published a book?

When writers say they want to write for a living but don’t actually do anything to make it possible, it really perplexes me. I don’t know if it’s snobbery or just naivete because I see indie musicians hustling their asses all the time to get their music out. They may not always be doing it correctly but they have the right attitude.

If you want to write for a living, you have to respect writing enough to make it your career. You have to treat it like a business–not in an exploitative capitalist way, but in a way that acknowledges the fact that it takes more than just writing a book to make a career out of writing.

Marketing is an important part of a writing career

Writing is a business, and it has always been a business. And selling books is crucial to this business. Writers historically were shielded from this part of publishing, for better or worse (I personally think worse), but now it’s no longer possible to depend on having someone else conduct the business while you focus on the “artistic” part.

If you are a writer, you need to take control of your book marketing. Yes, you can hire someone to help you with the strategies and the organizational side of it, but at the end of the day, you still need to be actively involved and present to do events and build relationships with your readers.

Let me emphasize here that this is not necessarily a bad thing. I would rather have control over my own work and how it’s presented to the public over someone who may not understand me or my work and is simply trying to get a job done. And it doesn’t mean doing things that you hate or dread; taking charge of your marketing makes it a lot easier to customize it to fit your personality, ability, time, and budget.

I’ll be posting a series of very basic marketing advice and information for writers in the coming weeks to help you understand what marketing exactly is and why it’s not this frightening and intimidating thing. If you haven’t read it yet, you can also get started with building your personal narrative with my series here.

If you have any questions you’d like me to address, please feel free to send them through our contact page.

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