Almost every day I am contacted by writers seeking advice about marketing their books. I’ve written about this topic extensively, and I often share with them links to sources that I believe are valuable.
One especially helpful source is bestselling author Kristine Kathryn Rusch, a veteran of the publishing industry who now publishes independently. She maintains an invaluable blog where she discusses all aspects of the business. Lately, she’s been writing a series on “discoverability”: on how to make your books stand out from the millions of competing titles. It’s well worth following. (Click these links for Part I; Part II; Part III; and Part IV.)
The latest, Part IV, highlights an issue I have long emphasized: the problem of what I might call “marketing mimicry.” It means trying to copy the specific marketing tactics that you see everyone else employing, or that have always been employed — and expecting them to generate exceptional sales.
For example, let’s assume that you are a really good writer of romances — perhaps even better than many successful authors in that genre. You see that every romance book cover has bare-chested males, so you copy that concept and put a bare-chested male on your own cover. You see that every other indie author is pricing her ebooks at $2.99 this month, so you copy that pricing, too. You see that a lot of other authors have produced book markers to advertise their titles, so you shell out the money to do that. You see that everyone else this past few months has been advertising on Bookbub.com, so you do that, too. Etc., etc.
And then you wonder why your sales remain disappointing.
What you don’t grasp is that mimicry is fatal to discoverability. In a competitive, overcrowded marketplace, if you do the same things that everyone else is doing, then you will become lost in the crowd, and thus invisible to your target customers. (That same principle applies to all business, entrepreneurial, and job-related competition, incidentally.)
To become “discoverable,” you must do something that makes you distinctive and unique, so that you stand out in the crowd to your target audience.
In her latest post, Kristine cites the example of a successful advertising executive-turned-author named James Patterson, and how he employed an unprecedented marketing tactic in 1993 — while he was still an unknown — in order to put himself on everyone’s radar. Patterson, who was already wealthy, shelled out big bucks to advertise on TV. Well, it seems to have worked out fairly well for him, wouldn’t you say?
Now, you and I don’t have the money to do TV ads. Nor would that tactic necessarily work well today, because the marketplace has changed. But the point is that Patterson did something unique at that time, something that made him stand out and grab the attention of his target readers. He did it because his traditional publisher wasn’t thinking creatively: They were executing for Patterson the same tired old marketing tactics that they always had used for every other author. It wasn’t working for him, so he decided to try something different.
Rusch goes on to point out that traditional publishers — and the authors under their imprimaturs — remain stuck employing copycat marketing tactics and strategies by inertia, simply because things were always done that way in the past. Their entire companies are built around these hoary old plans. Citing Patterson’s example, she says, “I’m telling you to start thinking outside the box.”
So am I. One thing I’ll tell every author who writes me for suggestions: Don’t expect the most popular marketing tactic du jour to give you exceptional results. When every author uses the same marketing tactic, adopting it won’t make you or your book stand out and become discoverable. To the contrary: It will only make you and the book fade into the background.
Instead, I counsel this:
Don’t focus too much on short-term tactics. Focus on long-term strategic differentiation. By that I mean: Find something that is essential or intrinsic to your own identity and/or to that of your work — something that is inherently different. Identify a distinction that nobody else could easily copy, or — better yet — even want to copy.
Then build your entire marketing strategy around that distinction.
It might be something unusual about you or your background, as an author in your particular genre (e.g., Dick Francis was a champion jockey who set all his mysteries in the world of horse racing). It might be something unique and memorable about your main character (think Tarzan, Sherlock, Stephanie Plum, or Jack Reacher) — or the world you’ve created (think of Tolkien’s Middle Earth, Robert B. Parker’s Boston, Hugh Howey’s “silo world” in Wool, Vince Flynn’s CIA, etc.) — or even your personal writing style (remember e.e. cummings?).
Whatever it is, if you are thoughtful about selecting that key differentiating factor — and if you focus all your marketing efforts around it — then you will begin to stand out from the pack and become “discoverable”; you will start to seize the attention of your target readership; and you will set the foundation for a viable long-term marketing strategy.
No, that one principle certainly does not constitute the entirety of effective marketing. But I think it is central to effective marketing. It’s all about branding and “positioning” yourself in the competitive marketplace. Done well, it allows even a lone author without the backing of a Big Publisher, and without a lot of money or name recognition, to compete successfully with millions of other authors for the attention of readers.
So, if you already are a skilled author, one who writes good books that would appeal to a specific readership, then your challenge is to make yourself “discoverable” to that readership by creative, strategic differentiation. If you do that, then I believe you will see much improved sales.
Meanwhile, I urge you to read successful authors like Kristine Kathryn Rusch for invaluable insights into the business end of publishing.