It’s Time to Take Marketing Seriously

I had a very honest conversation with my BFF/support-network-of-one the other day about marketing, or more specifically about how little I find myself motivated to market my books.

You see, when I first started writing My Brother’s Keeper I was mostly writing it for me, and (by extension) people like me. I didn’t really think that hard about how to appeal to an audience, because that wasn’t the point of the book. The point was that I had been learning about things that I felt needed to be shared. The book was the only outlet that I had to share them. When i first started writing, I didn’t even know if it would ever get published. I was never sure that any of my words would be seen outside of my personal circle. But I wrote it anyway. It was, in that regard, very much a passion project.

So when the book was eventually published, I had no real expectations about who would want to buy it, and was at a complete loss as to how to market it. I understood that the topic was not one that held mass-appeal. In fact, quite the opposite – I imagined that given the option most people in my general genre wouldn’t willingly choose to open it up and begin reading. How do you market to the general public when the general public doesn’t really want what you’re offering?

The short answer was that I didn’t. I spread it around among some of the “people like me” whom I know personally, and I let it exist on line for those who would take the trouble to find it. But beyond that I created only the most fundamental of online platforms in support of this book’s existence. Not surprisingly, I had very moderate successes in the first year – which is to say that I would happen upon an occasional “person like me” who liked my book and wanted to use it for teaching purposes with their church/small group/Bible study. That person would order the book in bulk. But beyond that, sales were essentially nonexistent.

So when the BFF/SNOO (see above) started quizzing me on why and how I would “take the next step” in marketing My Brother’s Keeper, I eventually admitted to her what I’d never said out loud to anyone else. “I don’t want to market this thing.” It just felt like too big an effort for too small a reward.

But then she reminded me that all of the generic marketing plans out there (you know, the ones that assume your book has mass appeal and therefore a widespread audience) were just that – generic. They were not hard-fast rules, or one-size-fits-all programs. They were guidelines and tips, some of which would apply to my book, and many of which were completely useless to me. The truth was that there were ways that I could put the book in the hands of the right people – people who, if they read it, would understand, agree with, and maybe even appreciate and want to use what I had written. I even knew who some of those right people were. Some of them would even know who I was if I were to mail them a copy.

So what was holding me back? Only the fact that I’d been too nervous to consider sending it to them. Which is, of course, nonsense. I wrote the book because I had something to share, after all. How could I now turn around and claim to be too scared to share it?

So this is my resolution. It’s time to start an actual marketing campaign. I am sending this book out (physical copies) to the people who I want to read it. I’m doing it this week. No more excuses, no more delays. It’s time to put it out there. Stay tuned to see what happens next.

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It’s Not All About the Money

Just writing that title sent me into a bit of a spin … I can just imagine how much of a hornet’s nest I could potentially be shaking up with a statement like this. After all, most people who write and publish books do them with the intent to sell. And because of that, much of what is out there regarding success in publishing very often IS about the money. And that’s ok. There’s nothing wrong with publishing for money, and sales figures are a wonderful (and easy) marker of success.

But I think it’s important from time to time to remember that money isn’t the only reason a book (even a good book) can be published. It’s important to understand this, because if you aren’t publishing a piece specifically to make money off of it, that means sales figures are no longer the only (or even the most valid) measure of that book’s success, and that’s really the type of thing that you should really know ahead of time.

So here are just a few other reasons you might have for considering publishing:

Exposure: I’ve been reading a lot this week about passive marketing and something that stuck with me was the idea that one of the most effective ways to market your work is to produce more work. Having a backlist of books, even ones that are less commercially successful, can expose you to audiences that your “commercial” books might not otherwise reach.

A Gift: Imagine you have a ton of faithful readers, a growing blog following, or a sold core of super-fans. Sometimes the best way to say “thank you” to those supporters is to give them something special (in this case, an extra taste of your writing). Creating something special just for them may not be about commercial success at all. But that doesn’t mean it wouldn’t be worth your while.

A Message: Sometimes there are things that you just need to say, books that seem to beg to be written. Writing those books and publishing may not always be about sales figures. Sometimes they’re just about reaching as large an audience as you can manage. And while sales are always a part of that, they may not be the driving force behind it. You may, for instance, decide that you don’t want to sell this kind of book at all – finding that you reach larger numbers of people setting your ebook to “free” on a permanent basis.

Fun: Let’s be real here – writing can be fun, and so can seeing that writing in print. There is nothing wrong with deciding that you want to publish something just “because”. Now this isn’t permission to publish junk. If you put it in print (and especially if you charge money for it) your work should be of the highest possible quality. But there’s nothing wrong with taking advantage of the self-publishing market to create and publish something that may have no commercial audience whatsoever. It’s ok to publish just for fun.

Keep in mind that none of these reasons for publishing will disqualify you from making money. It’s always possible to find commercial success with a book, even if that wasn’t your original aim. The point of the post isn’t to say that money is bad. Rather, it’s to remind my fellow writers that it’s ok to give yourself permission to write and publish for reasons that aren’t financially driven.

Book Covers – Making Improvements

The beautiful thing about independent publishing is that nothing is ever really set in stone. In today’s digital age, with POD printing made as simple as uploading a PDF of your book onto an idiot-proof website, it’s incredibly easy to fix the little things that pop up as problems after you’ve hit that “publish” button the first time. It’s wonderful to know that you don’t have to live with that typo you just found on page 57 this week. Everyone who’s already bought your book  has to live with it, of course. But you can fix it going forward, and that’s an awesome thing.

The terrible thing about independent publishing, though, is that nothing is ever really set in stone. And if you’re like me, that means that you never really let go. Even after you’ve hit publish, even after your book has sold, you will (from time to time) look back and what you’ve done and think “I know I could make it better.”

That happened to me recently. Actually it’s been happening to me constantly, but just recently I decided that it was time to do something about it.

You see, when I first began this whole journey into independent publishing I realized that all of the research I’d been doing and all of the skills I’d been developing needed a test run. Before I published anything of significance (my first big project was a devotional book for my church, written by one of my pastors, that I absolutely did NOT want to be a disaster), I needed a test run (or two or four). And so I went to the most ready source of writing I had available to me – a blog I’d been keeping for a few years. I pulled together 30 posts that all connected to a central theme, put them together as a short devotional book of my own, and used that work as my lab-rat.

This book (along with two more I later developed in a similar manner) was the experimental creature upon which I tested all of my theories and ideas about bookmaking. It was never specifically meant to be a “seller”. I didn’t plan to make any money off of it. After all, ALL of the content was already available for free on line, if you were willing to dig for it. It was just a way for me to get my feet wet.

The results were … passable. Some things worked, some things didn’t. But the books served their purpose – I learned a lot in the process of making them.  And as time went on and I learned more and more, I went back and fixed or improved upon these three projects.

One of the biggest failings of these books were their covers:

Let’s face it – they’re awful. I’m NOT a designer, and these early attempts are proof positive of that fact. But I wasn’t about to spend money on covers for books that I wasn’t serious about selling. So I picked a theme (bricks, to go with the concept of the narrow way) and did what I could with them.

But now, more than a year later, those covers still bother me. They don’t fit in their genre. They aren’t pretty. They aren’t very readable, and the imagery is muddled at best. They were barely better than white lettering across a colored background. Simply stated, they sucked.

With every other aspect of these books I have gone back to make improvements, to fix, to tweak, and to otherwise make them more appealing. And for months I have looked at these ugly covers and thought “I need to do something. These can’t stay the same.” And finally I was simultaneously shamed and inspired, and so I finally came up with these new and significantly less-sucky covers:

I would call them “new and improved” but that suggests that they’re much much better. The truth is that I’m still not a designer. The type still isn’t as legible as I’d like. Anyone with any design know-how would probably look at them and cringe just a little bit. But they no longer glare at me from the computer screen. They no longer make me want to cry. They’re hardly stunning. But they’re not embarrassing any more. They don’t stick out like sore thumbs in their amazon categories. They’re significantly less awful.

And so this is me, making improvements. And that’s the good thing (and the bad thing) about publishing your own work. You won’t get it all right the first time around. But you don’t have to. Because you always have the opportunity to go back and make things better.