Marketing Authors for the Long Haul

Long-term marketing -- and turning authors into recognisable brands -- beats two-week, hit-or-miss promo blasts by publishers hands down, argues crime author Jimmy Lee Shreeve (www.jimmyleeshreeve.com).

There's currently a heated debate going on about the marketing of books. Advertising experts say book publishers are poor at promotion and should look at turning their authors into brands like any other product in the marketplace. Currently, publishers tend to do a big publicity and promotional blast on publication, which might last all of two weeks. And then leave it at that; the book will either sell or it won't.

People in the advertising world throw up their arms in despair at this strategy (or lack of strategy). To them, such a hit or miss approach amounts to the loss of potential revenue. It's like turning down money when it's offered to you on a plate.

As a crime author I've had experience of two major publishers and one smaller one. My 2006 book Blood Rites, for example, was published by Random House. Their approach was typical of the major league publishing industry: a big publicity blast on publication, then nothing.

This isn't a big deal to me as I'm experienced at self-publicity, so I can keep the whole thing rolling by my own efforts. But any author who doesn't have these skills might well find their book sinking into obscurity, or worse, the remainder rack.

My upcoming title Cannibals is published by John Blake in April 2008. Blake have a very different approach to the major league publishers. John himself, for example, will sometimes write the taglines for books. Because his early career was in tabloid newspapers, these are usually spot on as attention-grabbers.

One great example is the tagline to the autobiography, Careful What You Wish For, by notorious Norfolk lottery-winner Mikey Carroll. It reads:

"I won 9.7 million on the Lottery - but did it make me happy? Yes it F*@#ing well did!"

It says it all, and it's funny. Even if you can't stand Mikey Carroll you might be tempted to buy the book, out of curiosity, if nothing else.

Blake are well aware that such taglines can lead to lots of newspaper and glossy magazine coverage.

The big league publishers, on the other hand, tend to leave the publicity and promotion to their PR departments. Unfortunately, this usually results in dry, corporate-sounding press releases, which only serve to turn off the media.

Blake are also highly reader-focused. They know what audiences want and give it to them. Their commissioning remit reflects this; they tend to take on authors who can tell a story simply and compellingly.

Many of the big publishers don't seem to be reader-focused at all, either pushing out books for the metropolitan elite (although trendy, it's not a big market) or celebrity titles to make a fast buck (ironically the advances given to celebrities often wipe out profits).

I agree with the advertisers' view that authors need to be developed as brands. But I don't think this is solely the publisher's responsibility. It is also down to authors themselves.

I recognise that many authors might be horrified by the very idea of being turned into a brand. But the bottom line is: unless you have family money or a spouse with a highly-paid job, you write for money, not love. Writing for a living is most definitely not about literature. It's about supplying a given reading market with what it wants. In other words, you find out what people want to read (using a web survey, for example), then you give it to them -- preferably adding some artistry and personality, rather than being too formulaic.

In other words, you treat your writing career as a business. I personally don't consider myself to be any different from a small business owner or a market trader. Writers - and anyone else in the public eye - are most assuredly nothing special.

In fact you can learn a lot from small business people. Whenever I go round the block to my local hardware store I usually spend about an hour chatting with the owner, then I move on to the butchers and do the same, and that's forgetting all about the many stall-holders I talk to on Norwich market (it's a wonder I get any writing done)!

The fact is, what we authors actually sell might be different to the market trader, but we are still business people and have a great deal in common.

For me, it is crucial to get over any notion that you are somehow special as an author. What you write is a product -- and, to some extent, you're a product yourself, certainly when it comes to public appearances. This means you are a small business.

And like any other small business, you likely won't have a big marketing budget (in fact, a budget might be non-existent). But that is no reason not to market yourself -- you'll just have to do it on a shoestring. With the internet this is possible. You might write a regular blog or contribute to relevant forums that revolve around the subjects you write about -- or even create a wiki which readers can contribute to themselves.

It's also well-worth writing to local radio stations letting them know you are available to talk on your specialist subject. Another possibility is to do talks in libraries, or anywhere else potential readers are likely to be.

One word of warning, though: I'd strongly caution about getting too carried away with technology. These days, everyone and his pit-bull terrier will tell you that a MySpace or FaceBook site is a must... Well, it ain't... The interenet and other new technologies are just another medium of communication. Nothing more.

The only valid rule of thumb is that you need to market yourself in places where your readers congregate. Don't get carried away by fads and fashions. If your readers and potential readers are there, use it. If they're not, don't.

I personally run a blog (on my site and on Amazon.com) and do a lot with the internet. But that's because I know it picks up readers, both here and in the States. And what with Amazon being only a click away, you have the advantage of impulse buying -- the amazing "click here to buy now" phenomenon of the internet.

But if I was writing historical romances I might not focus so strongly on the web. Saying that, I know of a few historical romance readers who are never off the internet. But it pays to do a lot of research to find out where your readers hang out; once you know, you can send targeted messages to them, preferably giving them free tasters, like stories or articles, while linking to your books on Amazon.

This is the way to turn yourself into a brand. It's not fancy; but it works. Clearly, if the larger publishers spent a lot longer helping out with promotion -- rather than the two-week publicity blast they usually do -- the job of turning yourself into a recognisable brand would be a lot easier and more effective. What's more, such a strategy would not only increase long-term profits for publishers, but arguably cut down on the amount of writers who end up in the elephants' graveyard for authors -- the remainder bin.

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Jimmy Lee Shreeve

Jimmy Lee Shreeve is a bestselling cult author and journalist. His books include "How To Be Famous" (Orion), the cult classic "Doktor Snake’s Voodoo Spellbook" (St Martin’s Press), "Cannibals" (John Blake), "Blood Rites" (Random House), and "Human Sacrifice" (Barricade).Jimmy’s ...More about Jimmy Lee Shreeve