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Think like a marketer.

Lately, I’ve talked with a lot of artists, mostly writers, who have no idea how to market their book. This isn’t news, of course! Artists, in general, hate to sell their stuff — it’s one of the reason that publishers exist. (No need to go into how bad a job most publishers are doing — you can read all about that here and here, if you like.)

Most of them have said things like this:

  • “I don’t know anything about SEO/Google ads/getting visitors to my blog.”
  • “I tweet three times a day and update my Facebook page, but I don’t know what else I can do.”
  • “I’ve spent a ton of money on publicity or book tours, and I’ve only sold a few.”
  • “The publisher went all out in their efforts, but I only sold through a fraction of my copies!”
  • “I have no idea how to sell, and I hate selling.”

Though these issues are all important, that’s not the most important thing to address.  The biggest deficit in marketing skill is not specific techniques or building a website, twitter, FB following, etc.  It’s not even building a list — though that skill alone is often what separates successes from failures.

The biggest problem is that writers aren’t thinking like marketers!

If you’re not thinking like a marketer, all your work may not pay off.  It’s like going to the grocery store when you have no specific meal in mind — you can spend $150, and not have a thing to make for dinner.

I really underestimated this aspect until I started interviewing writers in person.  The techniques themselves that I use are incredibly simple, like saying, “Hey, buy this,” in a banner ad.  Anyone can do this… if they’re thinking like a marketer.

So, how do you think like a marketer, then??

Three words: know your audience.  Know exactly what they want, why they want it, and how to sell it to them.  Start with asking, “Who, exactly, are my readers?  What do they like?  How many children do they have?  What authors similar do they like?  What magazines do they subscribe to?”  It’s like knowing your character — marketers go through the same process to “profile” their audience.  Assumptions can be very expensive.

Here’s an example from this morning.  Let’s say I have a client who writes m/m romances, and I’m trying to find her a new audience outside the realm of existing m/m readers.  Basically, I’m looking to expand the market, and test potential audiences that might like m/m, even if they haven’t read it before.

This morning, I open a copy of House Beautiful — one of the most popular mass-market magazines for a mature female, affluent (or wannabe affluent) audience!  They aren’t modern like Dwell, but more traditional… perfect for testing a romance novel offer.

What do I see?

An ad for Olay Regenerist, no shock there, right?  But also…

An ad for some home furnishing company featuring:

  • A hot shirtless guy
  • Books in the foreground clearly displaying “Tom Ford” and Michaelangelo

‘Kay.  This could mean that they’re catering to a gay audience — and HB has one.  But it could also mean that the magazine has a good percentage of older women who love gay men, and might be interested in reading traditional romances featuring two men.  I dunno, it could mean nothing.  It could be that the women subscribers wouldn’t be interested in m/m at all.  But it was a clue, and nothing happens by accident when you’re paying $10,000 per page.

Naturally, I wouldn’t suggest taking out a full page ad in House Beautiful to start — that would be expensive and foolish.  I’d have a lot more investigation to do before I decided to invest in a market test, such as finding out if they watch Queer As Folk.  My point is, the better you know your audience, the more opportunities you have to reach them.  Most writers wouldn’t even think of advertising in House Beautiful for their books, but these more indirect connections are sometimes where all the profit is!

This work must be done before you take out any ads. Before you do any work at all communicating with your audience, whether it’s on your website, Twitter, Facebook, etc.

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Missing: Character History

So, I just read an 80-page novella in which the VPC is human, but has to infiltrate a vampire’s club in order to get some blood.  He’s not happy about the idea, but for survival’s sake, he has to go on despite whatever trouble lies ahead.

The author started the story in the right spot: the hero got in the bar and immediately ran into trouble.  “Great,” I thought, “here’s someone who knows how to work character history into the story, not give it all at once in an info-dump.”  I trusted the writer to tell a good story and read on with confidence.

The problem is, the expected history never came!

I never learned the character’s background after his immediate survival need was fulfilled; the author never told us anything about his background until the end of the story.  As a result, the character didn’t read as a unique person with a unique history — he was just a guy in a life-or-death situation with a tendency to make jokes under pressure.

Since this was a romance, the story had him fall in love with the vampire leader and happen to be the vampire’s fated mate.  Fine, but since I knew nothing about the character, his history, or his attitudes about life, I couldn’t really bond with him and get into the story, through him.  When something significant happened, I had to wonder: What does this mean to him?  What was his life experience prior to the beginning of the story that would influence his decisions?  Without that stuff, the character felt like a construct that was “born on the first page,” as the saying goes.

A character’s life experience and direction shouldn’t be a mystery.

History makes a character real to the reader.  Personal history — our memory — is an essential part of being human and colors our every thought and action.  We are creatures of time, such that no adult can look at an object without thinking of its past, present, and future, even if it’s just a paperclip or crumpled-up Pepsi can.  History — life experience — gives our actions meaning.  In a story, a character’s motivation and attitude comes out of his history.

If a character has no attitude born of his fictional life experience, or his “reason why” remains a mystery, we will never be able to feel like we really “know” him.  We won’t be able to lock onto his rules and know what’s meaningful to him, what he’ll do in certain situations, what he’ll choose.  If we know how to root for the character because of his past experiences, we can bond more with the character, which gives us a more vivid story experience.

History doesn’t mean flashbacks or info-dumps.

In novellas, writers rightfully avoid any mass info-dumps or the dreaded backstory.  Most of the writers in my group are rigorous about trimming the backstory and info-dump fat because they’re mostly short story writers.  There just isn’t enough time when you only got 80 pages.  But you don’t have to devote whole blocks of text to explain a character’s timeline.

History is more than a story that happened in a character’s past — it touches a character’s current thoughts and actions.  For example, let’s say your character was arrested for theft when she were 12 and got sent to a youth correction facility, where she was psychologically tortured by the sadistic, warped social workers.  Even years later, she’d be jumping every time you saw anyone in uniform.  Unless she had amnesia or repressed memories, her time in the kiddie clink would contribute something to what she thinks about and does.  It contributes significantly to the way she views her world — becomes part of her information filtration system.

In the novella that spawned this post, there is a good reason why the character needs to drink blood, and there was no good reason for the author to hide it.  The way he didn’t think of the traumatic event (subject in an experiment) that significantly changed his life was unnatural — there was a hole where his life experience should be!

I thought it was a decent story that could have been solidly good.  The character history’s absence was conspicuous, and because the writer didn’t want to think about it, a lot of opportunities got lost for deepening the bond with the character and giving the reader a better story experience.