Take a look at any sales-based charts—whether the chart is a list of bestselling books, most downloaded music, most viewed television programs, or whatever. Choose one of the charts and review it item by item. My hunch is that you will either “like” it or “dislike” each item, and that the dislikes will significantly outweigh the likes. Not only that, but you will have a certain level of disdain for your dislikes. Indeed you may conclude that these items are simply rubbish.
And, they probably are rubbish.
However, someone out there is buying (or watching) these things otherwise they wouldn’t be in the chart. In the eyes of the beholders of those item, they have purchased (or watched) an item of beauty, and I’m sure they would see your beauty as rubbish.
Ultimately, it doesn’t matter whether what you do is any good, what matters is whether people like it and buy it. And as an author, it doesn’t matter whether you have any talent, provided what you create is what your readership base wants to buy.
Taking Responsibility for Reaching Out
I’ve sat down with several prospective authors and had a conversation which goes something like this...
Me: So... you’ve written this book, tell me about your marketing strategy.
Author: Well, I’ve been much more focused on writing the book. I haven’t really paid any attention to marketing.
Me: So are you intending this as a commercial project? Are you intending to make money from this, or will you just get a few copies printed to distribute among your family and friends?
Author: I don’t think you understand, Simon. This is a great book: it’s going to be really popular. Some of the people who have read extracts have said they are really moved by my writing and that they know loads of people who need to read this book.
Me: That’s great. So what’s your marketing strategy?
Author: Look, I don’t think you understand... I don’t really need a marketing strategy, I just need a publisher. They’ll know how to sell the book.
And to an extent, the author is right. Publishers generally do have a pretty good idea about how to sell a book.
However, when a publisher is deciding which books it is going to publish, the publisher will sign up books that it thinks will sell. This is a sensible commercial approach, and if you are an author talking to agents and/or publishers, if you can’t highlight (1) what the market is for your book, and (2) how your book can be presented (or if you prefer, marketed) to your potential readership, then you’re going to have a tough time finding that publisher with a big marketing department who will make your book a runaway success.
Oh yeah... that big marketing department. It’s usually one or two people and they usually have 30 other books that they are responsible for in that season’s release. That is unless you’re a superstar and have your own PR firm on speed dial (in which case, you’re probably not reading this article).
The truth of book marketing? For all but the big boys and girls (the household names), you do most of the marketing yourself. Sure your publisher will help and will do all of the obvious stuff (such as getting the back cover blurb sorted, getting the book listed on Amazon), and so on. But the reaching out and finding a readership? That’s down to you.
The Basic Principles of Being a Commercial Author
In case you weren’t paying attention, let me reiterate the basic principles about being a commercial author:
- You don’t need talent.
- It doesn’t matter whether your book is any good.
- All you need to be successful is a relationship with a group of readers.
- These readers must (1) like what you are doing and (2) be willing to buy your book (and the next one, and the next one, and so on).
In short, to be a commercial author, you need a source of income which flows from your work. Your readers are that source of income. If you want to increase your income, then there are two courses:
- sell more copies of a book—in other words, find new readers to sell the same book to, and
- produce more books—in other words, write a new book and sell it to your existing readers.
These approaches are not mutually exclusive—indeed, if you want to be successful, then you should aim to do both. However—assuming you are producing high quality material (in other words, the kind of stuff that your readers want to read)—from a commercial perspective, you will always find that selling to your existing readers is much easier than selling to people who are effectively strangers. Indeed, your existing readers are likely to want to buy your new books and will actively seek them out.
Beyond that, your existing readers will also want to talk to people about your books and so you will find that they will act as your ambassadors, selling your books (meaning you can also then sell more of your back catalog). Therefore, by writing more books, you will often find more readers.
The ability to grow and exploit your back catalog is discussed in greater depth in the article The Sawtooth Tail and Building Your Readership.
Starting a Relationship with Your Readership
The nature of any author/reader relationship will differ for each author (and each reader). Some authors will try to foster a closer relationship, while other will try to keep their distance. Both approaches are valid, however, it is important that there is a clear understanding of what the author is offering and what the author expects in return.
So what could it mean to have a relationship with the readership? Well first let’s consider the behaviors that it would be quite reasonable for a reader to expect from you, the author:
- A reader could expect to hear about your books (and other projects) directly from you, and they should hear from you before they hear from any other source. However, you do need to exercise some caution here, for instance, if you are writing a book in a different subject area or genre, then your existing readership may not want to hear about your new book, and may regard your approach as spamming.
- A reader should be able to find out about your entire catalog from you, without having to go hunting.
- A reader should know about your future public appearances, so if you have an event near to that reader, then the reader should be able to find out about this from you. Clearly, you can’t be expected to know where every reader lives and to then get in touch to alert each reader to the specific events that may interest him or her, but it would not be unreasonable for a reader to expect a calendar of your events (with location details) to be available on your website.
- A reader should understand what communication they can expect from you. For instance, if you have no intention of ever responding to an email, then that should be clear (and then it is probably best if you do not have an easy way to get in touch on your website). Equally, if you intend to respond to every email, then you should respond in a timely manner.
- Alternately, if your preferred method of communication is through a website, blog, Twitter, or Facebook then you should ensure that you make that clear. Also, your website/blog/Facebook page should then be kept up-to-date.
- A reader should have confidence that their personal data will be respected. As part of this the reader should be confident that you won’t indulge in any of the main forms of bad behavior such as sending out spam or selling their details (or even giving their details away, for instance, to your publisher).
I doubt there’s anything too controversial in this list—it is essentially a matter of good behavior on your part, and clearly establishing expectations and boundaries with your readership.
But beyond these simple principles, a reader should be getting some real benefit from their relationship with an author. The basis of the reader/writer pact is that you give them books and they give you money, but for a relationship, there must be more. Exactly what constitutes “more” is an interesting challenge, and could end up with you fostering your own legion of stalkers (even if only cyber-stalkers) if you are not cautious.
As an author, you have a balance to strike. You need to take the time to ensure that your readers feel sufficiently loved by you—and loved on whatever terms you set out—but you also need to ensure that you have time to dedicate to the creation of your writing (which is, after all, the root of your relationship with the reader).
How you maintain your relationship with your readership is up to you and requires you to get creative. As I have said, some authors have a published policy of ignoring all external communication and simply delete all incoming emails. That is an approach I can respect. It is hard to argue with such a straightforward self-aware and honest approach to the relationship.
However, that form of relationship may not work for everyone, and will probably hinder your marketing efforts in certain circumstances. Indeed, if you are pushing yourself into the spotlight as your own brand, then you probably need to be quite visible and very accessible.
How you foster and build the relationship will also depend on the nature of the relationship you are looking for and also how much time you want to dedicate. There are a range of options to help build a relationship—some in the real world and some in the virtual world. These include:
- blog posts (or other web-based communication)
- tweeting or similar
- online forums (whether running your own or participating in others) and I would also include the broader social media sites (such as Facebook) within this category
- meeting your readers directly, perhaps through formal sessions such as book signings, readings/talks, or maybe some other more relaxed forum.
The choice is up to you. Whatever you choose you need to ensure it feels inclusive and accessible—you’re unlikely to foster a sense of community if you create something that appears to be excluding (although, of course, there are circumstances where you may want to seem exclusive so that the included readers feel special).
The Fundamentals of Finding Your Readership
If you’re looking for a quick fix or a route to overnight success, then stop reading here—this is not the place for you.
If you’re looking for a marketing strategy to sell your book, then you’re likely to be disappointed by this article. Instead, I am advocating a long-term relationship strategy. This notion of a relationship has significant implications which I’ll get to in a moment, but first, I want to say a word or two about how to start to find your readership.
Conventional marketing strategies (when there’s a big budget) go along the lines of get in front of people and stay in front of people. So you will see adverts in the press, maybe on radio, on billboards, and so on. You’ll see the author being interviewed on the television and radio, and popping up as a media personality.
Sometimes this works, but there are also big failures with this approach and it is hugely expensive (and even if you don’t pay the marketing fees directly, it is one of the reasons why the author’s share of the income from a book is comparatively modest). But, there is an alternate strategy. This alternate does not conflict with conventional strategies, but it is a different approach, and should be more effective over the longer term.
The alternate strategy is simple:
- Find people who like what you do. Find people who are interested in what you have got to say.
- Develop a relationship with them.
- Give them what they want.
- Rely on these people to tell their friends.
The hard part in the strategy is finding people who like what you do. For this you need to think long and hard about who might buy your book and what would compel them to buy it. It’s not good enough just to think that a book “should” appeal to everyone—you need to start identifying people for whom there will be a benefit, and then you need to start looking for those people.
For instance, if you live in Mexico and have written a book about Ireland, then it might not be particularly productive to try to get yourself interviewed by a local television station. Instead, it might be better to start by seeking out special interest Irish groups or media outlets covering geographic locations with recognized Irish communities. Or maybe I’m wrong, and there’s a market for all thing Irish in Mexico...
I suggested earlier that conventional strategies fail. If they sell books, then clearly they have succeeded on one level. However, that’s a lot expense just to sell one book. The failure is a failure to build a relationship and open up a channel of communication so that you have the opportunity to have your readers:
- work as your ambassador advocating your books, and
- buy your next book (without being prompted by another expensive marketing campaign).
You could think of the issue in another way. If your communication with your readership—in other words, if the way you let your readers know about new books—is through the mainstream media (billboard adverts, television and radio interviews, and so on), then how will you promote your book if your publisher can’t afford to purchase that form of advertising when your next book is published? If you don’t have a direct way to communicate with your readers, then you cannot readily marshall that resource for your advantage.
Now clearly, the relationship approach does take a long time, but it gives you a far more solid base. Added to which, it reduces your marketing overhead which means that your income can increase. There is, of course, a downside to the approach. Well, there are several downsides, but let me start with the obvious one: if you don’t give your readership what they want, then you will fail. With a highly connected and communicative readership, news will travel far and quickly if your newest book is regarded as a stinker.
The Next Step
So let’s assume that you’ve started to build a readership.
To benefit from this following you need to keep feeding them. You can’t exploit the goodwill that you’ve built up if you’re a single shot author and never publish another book (unless you have found some other way to generate income from this group of people).
You also need to recognize that with each step forward you will lose people—for some your new book will be too similar to the last one, too different to the last one, irrelevant for their needs, and so on and so forth. So with each step, you will find new readers/ambassadors but hopefully you will lose fewer.
One obvious way to keep a readership happy is through a series. For a fiction writer, the notion is (comparatively) simple, but for a non-fiction writer, there may be more challenges. With a fiction writer, the readership will (usually) want to know what happens next and people usually want to read all the books in a series they like.
For non-fiction there are many different types of series. Where each book is effectively an update to an existing book (for instance, if the book deals with computer software and the new version is only published because the software has been updated), the sales will be highly dependent on the time between software updates and the perceived magnitude of the update. If the software updates (say) every year, then maybe the book will only be re-purchased every second or third edition. By contrast, if the software is updated every three years or so, then the new edition of the book may be a far more compelling proposition for the existing readership.
Alternatively, you might have some sort of series that lends itself to other similar books which will be relevant to the reader. In looking at a series you need to assess whether there will be a genuinely compelling reason for the reader to buy other books in the series or whether the books will be so different that you will not be able to interest your existing reader base. That’s not to say you shouldn’t write books in different areas, simply that you should not try to “sell” other books too hard if they don’t have an obvious benefit for your reader.
Any book will sell—you just need to connect with a readership who will buy it and acknowledge that some books will have a smaller potential readership and that readership will be hard to find.
If you take the approach that you first need to write your book and once the book is completed you will start marketing, then unless you are very lucky, you’re unlikely to have an easy ride.
By contrast, if you start building a community (or immersing yourself within an existing community) of people who are interested in your ideas and then you set out to give them something that they want, then your chances of success will be much higher.