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My parents own an import business, and we often talked about their work around the dinner table. I remember a conversation about “Brian,” one of the sales reps. When Brian first moved into sales from accounting, he had a hard time because he felt like he was forever pushing merchandise onto people. But eventually he began to see his role differently, as a service provider who guided people toward products that matched their needs.
At the time, being my cynical high-school self, my reaction was "Uh huh, whatever makes you feel better, greedy capitalist." But I've been thinking about that conversation recently, after reading Nathan Bransford's recent article on self promotion. The gist of his post is that self-promotion is uncomfortable and somewhat unpleasant, but as a modern author, you have to do it anyways.
Now Nathan has more social media and marketing ninja skills in his left pinky than I could ever hope to obtain, and I can definitely see where he's coming from. It’s hard to step out of your comfort zone and tell people about your book. But whereas many authors see self-promotion as a necessary evil, I actually enjoy it. Perhaps because I'm the daughter of entrepreneurs, perhaps because I'm an only child and attention-monger, or perhaps because my stunted MIT social skills prevent me from realizing when people are annoyed at me.
Whatever the reason, I'd like to present a more sanguine view of self promotion.
Catchphrases like marketing, target audience and branding, have a negative connotation among artists. There's the stereotype of the money grabbing capitalist, out to get money while true artists just focus on their art and let people (the deserving ones at least) come to them. But the thing is, in a good business transaction, everybody ends up happy. The seller feels adequately compensated. The customer feels like she has obtained something of value. And that's the first point that shy authors tend to forget. You’re not asking for donations. You're offering something of value for a fair price.
So if selling is not inherently evil, then you're home free right? Forget your qualms, grit your teeth, and start tweeting.
Well, not quite. Instead if you're feeling guilty about self-promotion, try stepping back and ask yourself these three questions.
1. Are you offering a quality product?
If you’re truly convinced that people will gain value from your book, you’ll be less shy to tell people about it. Are you up to industry standards for copyediting, layout, and cover design? Have you had test readers? (See my beta reader series here) You don't have to have a book that everybody loves, but you should have a book that resonates with a certain segment of the population, which leads to the next point…
2. Are you marketing to the right people?
Go door-to-door selling pinup magazines at a frat house, and you'll likely get high-fives and an invitation to beer pong. Do the same thing at a convent, and you'll end up with restraining order. These are extreme examples, but they show how the same methods of self-promotion can be welcomed by one group and loathed by another.
And again we have idea of target audience, which we recently discussed. You want to reach people who, upon hearing about your book, will think “Hey, that’s right up my alley.” We often discuss target audience with a focus on the sale, but more important is what customers do after they read your book. If you have a strong platform to a non-target audience or have loyal friends with money to spare, those folks might buy your book just to support you. But if you only concentrate on those people, you lose out on one of the most important aspects of book growth: word-of-mouth. It's not enough just to sell that first book. You want to sell it to someone who will read it, love it, and pass it on.
One last thought about target audience: It doesn't have to be a yes or no thing. It can be a gradient, and you can adapt your marketing efforts accordingly. When From Words to Brain first came out in December, I blogged about it but didn’t tell my friends and family. Most of them aren't into neuroscience or writing, and I didn't want to pressure them into buying an essay that wasn't really their thing.
But when my essay went on sale for $.99 last February, I did do the e-mail blast to friends and family. Most of them liked me enough, and were curious enough about my “writing thing”, to want to spend a dollar and check it out. And in the following weeks I got lots of grinning friends coming up to me and saying “Hey Livia, I read your book!” Some of them read the whole thing, enjoyed it, and told other people about it (Thanks, K, C, G!). Some read a few pages and moved on, but for a dollar it was a worthwhile risk for them.
3. Is your method of self-promotion adding value?
It's been said 1 million times, but only because it's so true. The most important question in marketing is "What's in it for me?" You can get on a mountaintop and shout “Plz check out my new book available now on Amazon” all day, but you’ll be roundly ignored unless there is something in it for the person on the other end. It's no coincidence that the marketing campaigns that go viral are the ones that offer something -- either entertainment, inspiration, or advice. See Old Spice Guy, The Noticer Project, John Locke’s blog entries, for examples.
There are also more conventional ways, like building a platform with an entertaining or useful blog (see The Internet is a Playground, Unclutterer, The Simple Dollar). And there are plenty of blogs in the writing blogosphere that do this as well. J A Konrath, Joanna Penn, Kristine Rusch, Bob Mayer and many others write valuable blog posts teaching people about the process of publishing while also getting the their own books out there. Moses Siregar cohosts a podcast on science fiction, and also recently launched his novel. (Note: Though, again, think target audience here. Both Joanna and Joe have mentioned that they don’t think their writing platforms overlap heavily with their fiction audience.)
And don't forget free samples! Many authors find their audience through podcasts, online comics, etc. Zoe Winters offers her first book for free download for joining her mailing list. I recently bought Girl of Fire and Thorns after reading 85 pages on the HarperCollins website. Come to think of it, there are few products as conducive to free sampling as novels. I mean, if someone reads half the book and still doesn't want to continue, then they're probably not a good fit.
So in conclusion, yes, self promotion can be uncomfortable. But you can do more than just grit your teeth and forge ahead. Just as there are concrete steps you can take to fix a sagging plot or flat characters, there are concrete changes in approach that you can take to make the process less awkward.
What do you think? Is it possible to self promote without selling your soul?
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