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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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Does writing slash about white men make you racist and sexist?

Some speculation. Full disclosure: I am not deeply into any fandom. Even though I strongly support fanfiction and think it’s awesome, it’s possible I don’t truly understand some of the issues at hand.

So, I’ve been reading the metafandom community on livejournal, and issues that come up over and over center around these related questions:

“Why do we hate / what’s wrong with Mary Sues?”
“Are we really antifeminists and racists for writing about white men? We’re women; we should write about women. And, like, more black people. Should we feel bad about this?”

These issues are related. Mary Sues occur when a fanfiction writer creates a new character, or adapts an existing one, to be her avatar. She’s often too perfect and rather undeveloped, and a lot of people hate Mary Sues and bash other fanfiction writers for writing them.

Mary Sue.
It’s not hard to understand the impulse for Mary Sue — if I’d just read Twilight and I longed to be a part of that world, I’d go ahead and write myself in. That’s part of what fanfiction is about. There are Serious Writers in fanfiction, a lot of them, but there are also simply fans who love the original material so much they want to make it come alive for themselves again.

By writing a Mary Sue, they’re saying, “what if I was still the same, and Twilight was actually my reality?” Of course, writing yourself in makes you tremendously vulnerable, so they often try to throw people off the scent by killing themselves off, or making their Mary Sue annoying or over the top, etc. See? It’s not really them. But still, the meta-message is, “I’m special enough to enter this world that I love.”

Why people hate her.
It’s not real. It couldn’t ever happen. Of course, none of the fandoms are real, and no-one believes it is, but when an obvious self-insertion happens, the purists in the audience revolt. They are looking for the truth-in-story, and they believe they’ll get there closer by only using the existing characters, in character. These kinds of readers hate Mary Sue possibly because she represents real life intruding on the story world.

Writing about WASP men.
The lore goes, fandom is mostly made of educated females who are attracted to men. From my own experience in both a small liberal arts college and a big state diploma mill, I got the impression that most college-educated women were white. Yes, I did have friends that were not white, but if I looked around at my cafeteria, there was vastly more pasty ivory than brown.

People write stories that are natural reflections of their life experiences. If you grew up in a white family, and went to a mostly-white high school and college, it’s not a shock that you’d write about white people. It’s not a crime! You aren’t racist just because you aren’t black, or Mexican, or whatever.

There’s also the fact that most TV shows have mostly white people, still, accompanied by the token minority characters. Then again, I haven’t watched TV in many years; maybe I’m wrong about this.

Write what you know?
I’m of two minds about this.

  1. If a writer is not black / Asian / female / male, how can he-she-it possibly have the cultural authority to write about it?  Isn’t it appropriation / fetishization for a white writer to do a story about life on the streets as a Mexican gangster?
  2. Writers are imaginative and inherently have the ability to understand people, regardless of sex or species.  I’m pretty sure Bram Stoker never was a vampire or a woman, and yet he managed to do pretty well with those characters.

I can understand why most of fandom likes it over F/M and F/F — they’re women! They’re attracted to men! It’s hard to write any erotic story if you are not excited by it, yourself.

Write what turns you on!
Most women I know aren’t attracted by the idea of having sex with other women. Some of them have tried it, and the response is, “Eh, I came, but it didn’t do that much for me.” I don’t expect a female writer to write good F/F if the idea doesn’t do it for her — I expect that her best stories will come out of what she is emotionally passionate about, and what turns her on. In fandom, I expect that the male characters will turn her on more than the female characters, since she is probably attracted to men more than women.

Don’t write to prove a point or push an agenda — it won’t result in good art.

In my writer’s group, a lot of people are “trying to get into” something, whether it’s horror, science fiction, etc. It’s because they think those genres are cool, and they want to be cool by being in the scene, just like learning to play guitar so you can pick up chicks. It’s externally motivated by how they want people will think of them as writers, and the way they’d like to think of themselves.

But it usually results in poor storytelling because they aren’t really passionate about what they’re writing. They try to write dark, gritty stuff but don’t have a keen interest in the “thin ice of life,” as Steven King says. “Be yourself,” is always the advice given.

A word about women characters in popular entertainment…
This being said, I’d be blind not to notice that even “strong women” in entertainment, especially movies and TV, are still often defined by what men think of them. They’re like men, but in a sexy chick body. These heroines are admired because of traits usually seen as masculine, often despite their unfortunate female status, and this evaluation happens both within the story world and with real life.

The way I’ve seen it, women characters are depicted as women first, and people second. But this is not the fault of only the writers — women, in real life, also classify themselves as women first, people second. I see it all over author bios, especially of romance writers:

“I’m married to a wonderful man and am the mother of n fabulous children…” Or, slightly more modern:

“I’m a mom, writer, coffee drinker, and avid reader… not necessarily in that order.”

Anyway, I’m not surprised that female fans don’t resonate with most of the female characters found on TV and in the movies. Being a male protagonist is not remarkable, and it’s easier to see beyond the male-type machine into the unique character within (or make up the uniqueness!) than it is for female protagonists, especially if you’re sensitive about your own place in society as a person with a female-type machine.

Write what you like to write. I don’t think you’re being racist or sexist by writing about white men. I don’t think you’re antifeminist by not writing F/F, and I don’t think your uncool if you aren’t really into horror or science fiction, but want to write Mary Sue-ish romance instead. Only by being true to ourselves as unique beings will we make race/gender a non-issue.

Links: -> roundup of posts

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Struck by Orson Scott Card’s rancor about fanfiction…

I just found this during a completely unrelated search: It is Orson Scott Card’s vehement opinion about fanfiction.

I know nothing about OSC, other than that he’s written some excellent books, and I was just struck by his negative attitude toward fan fiction.

First of all, I cannot see any group large enough even wanting to write fan fiction with his characters. I haven’t read all his books, but the ones I have read don’t seem very natural to derive works from. There are, in fact, only 14 stories in Ender’s Game and 258 stories in Orson Scott Card, at least half of which are probably miscategorized Ender’s Game stories.

Compared to the near half-million Harry Potter works, or even the more modest 42,000+ in Lord of the Rings, the handful of OSC fan works on seems like a speck on the radar. Certainly not enough to set him off with such a strong response, though maybe he’s had problems with unauthorized commercial works in the past.

Another thing stuck out as being a bit funny. He says, “You will never do your best work in someone else’s universe, because you’re bound by their rules.” In his book, “How To Write Science Fiction And Fantasy,” he describes how he did the novelization for James Cameron’s movie, The Abyss, and how he created some of the best alien species he’s ever done (according to him.)

Was that not working in someone else’s universe? Yes, he extended it. Yes, he did create a whole civilization by working backwards, which is probably harder than making it up all yourself. (He also created the aliens using ideas generated in a group setting during one of his classes in a cool exercise — something that also sticks out to me.)

I’m not saying that he was unoriginal at all, and I am certainly not denying him the right to his opinion about fan fiction, especially when he is lawfully allowed to shut down copyright violators. As a fellow human being, I won’t even take him to task for being irrational — glass houses and all, you know?

The issue I have is how he puts forth his opinion as fact to “young, impressionable writers.” If you’re going to lay down the law, shouldn’t you first reconcile inconsistencies about work you did, yourself? Perhaps I don’t know the whole story behind the novelization of The Abyss, but that seems an awful lot like doing fantastic work in someone else’s universe.