I was talking to an author a couple years ago who said she was going to hire a freelance publicist to help land her a bunch of radio interviews. Knowing she (1) hates talking in public, and (2) has what could charitably be termed a shrill voice, I simply asked her, “Uh… why?” She rolled her eyes. “Because that’s what everyone EXPECTS, Chip. I need to be on the radio, blathering about my book!”
I suggested that was a lousy idea. She’s uncomfortable with the whole thing, it wouldn’t put her in the best light, and I didn’t see how it was going to help her sell her book, which was a traditional romance novel. The author remained unconvinced, so if you were driving down the street and listening to an author blather uncomfortably in a voice that sounds like fingers on a chalkboard, you’ll know who it was….
Why do some people seem to think they must do some marketing activities just because some other author did those marketing activities? Look, once you know what your strengths are (both the strengths of your book as well as the strengths of your marketing abilities), you need to take an honest look at what your weaknesses are. Who does your book NOT appeal to? (You can skip those websites and e-zines.) Who will NOT find your topic fascinating? (No sense trying to get in front of them.) What are you not good at? (Maybe you could focus the bulk of your efforts on areas in which you shine.)
Strategic planning types used to do what they called their “SWOT” analysis — where they would make a list of your strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats. Doing this while creating a marketing plan can help you determine what to do, and remember what NOT to do. Where are you strong? Where are you weak? What will you enjoy? Where will you struggle? What strengths do you bring to market, and what threats are there to your overall plan? By looking at those questions, you get to balance your thinking with thoughts like, “What are the opportunities I have ahead of me that I’d like to exploit?”
Because every author has them. A few years ago, I represented a novelist who noticed the popularity of Amish stories, but really did NOT want to do the Amish thing. She has attitude. She isn’t a “quiet life” sort. And she had no love for people who want to wear black and ride around in horse-drawn buggies. But she had an idea… what if she did an “anti-Amish” novel? One where a character thinks the whole Amish thing is wacked, and goes undercover to figure out the whole appeal? The story worked, and Kimberly Stuart’s Operation Bonnet sold more than 30,000 copies. The author researched where her audience was, got in front of them, and used those opportunities to talk about the difference of her unique take on all things Amish.
Balancing opportunity and threat, strength and weakness — that’s where you’ll start your marketing plan. Focus on your strengths. As a matter of fact, focus 95% of your time and efforts on your strengths, on what you’re good at and enjoy, rather than worrying about your weaknesses. It’s a much better investment of your time. But take a clear-eyed look at what your writing has going for it, as well as what it doesn’t; who it will appeal to, and who it won’t; what you like to do, and what you don’t.
Oh, and one more thought on branding yourself as an author: A brand isn’t just a slogan. I once met a beginning writer who had business cards printed with the words, “The Queen of Suspense.” Unfortunately, she was unpublished, so from a writing standpoint she wasn’t really the queen of anything (except maybe “self-confidence”). Words that like are just a slogan, but a brand is a reflection of who you are. Experience among readers trumps slogans. We’ve all had experience with the novels of Stephen King, so our experience tells us he is the “King of Horror.” We’ve all been exposed to the novels of John Grisham, so our experience tells us he is the “King of Legal Thrillers.” Those series of perceptions have built up enough to let us grasp the brand each author has.
That’s why it’s often difficult for a beginning author to “brand” herself. She doesn’t know herself, doesn’t know her voice, doesn’t know what she’ll be known for. It’s hard to brand something that isn’t yet fully formed. (Though it’s not necessarily a bad thing… at least you’d be making an effort.) Again, if a brand offers a promise to readers, many beginning authors simply aren’t ready to make a promise yet. That’s okay… what DO you know about yourself and your work that you can sell? If it’s your first novel, and it happens to be an Amish romance, what’s good about the book? What’s unique about it? What do potential readers need to know? What will they like about it? If the core of marketing is to figure out where your audience is and stand in front of them, what do you want to SAY when you get there?
Your brand has to be honest, of course. It needs to reflect you — who you are and what you have to say. If you’re not yet sure, it may not be time to invest in a huge marketing push. (And it’s fine to try on different outfits. I like to remind newer authors that a beginning novelist is like a 13-year-old girl — able to be a rocker one day, a preppie the next day, a jock the next, and Goth the next. For an author, trying out different personalities until you find the right one is better than having no personality at all.) Eventually, you have to figure out who you are and what you have to say.
And, of course, you want to start making your brand consistent. So when somebody reads your book, or visits your website, or goes onto your Facebook page, or reads your blog, the messages on all of them work in concert with each other. The themes are the same. The images, even the colors, work together. You strengthen your brand by reinforcing it, so the secret is to be consistent.
The first two steps: figure out who you are, and figure out who you aren’t. That’s the thinking you put into marketing before you begin.