Chip MacGregor

February 29, 2016

What’s the first step in marketing your book?


We’ve been asked a bunch of times about marketing your own book, and while Amanda does this amazingly well every Thursday, I thought I’d jump in with a few thoughts of my own. If you were to take a class in marketing, the first thing they’d tell you is that you have to KNOW YOUR PRODUCT. Since you’re writing books, that means you have to know yourself and your manuscripts. What are your strengths? What are your weaknesses? What do you do a good job with? What comes to mind when people see your book?

Look at it this way… If I say to you, “Mercedes,” what comes to mind? (Quality? Luxury? Expense?) Now if I say to you, “Toyota,” what comes to mind? (Dependability? Value? Middle-of-the-road-working cars?) And if I say to you, “Yugo,” what comes to mind? (Junk? Breakdowns? El-cheapo?)

You see, each of those auto manufacturers have a brand, and that brand sticks in your head. In fact, you might have solid impressions of those three car brands, even if you’ve never owned any of them. Why? Because the auto manufacturers have spent a lot of time thinking about the brand, how they want to shape it and express it. And you’ve had a number of exposures to those brands through TV commercials, reviews, articles, online discussion groups, and word of mouth from people you trust. With all those inputs, you have some sense of what the “brand” of each car is.

Your books also have a brand. One marketing guru has said that every brand offers a promise – so Mercedes promises luxury, Toyota promises dependability, and Yugo promised the cheapest car on the market. Now put that to work with your writing career… What promise do you offer your readers? What can they expect every time they come into contact with your words? I mean, for years if you saw a John Grisham book, you had an expectation of his brand (exciting, clean legal thriller). When you see a James Patterson novel, or a Debbie Macomber novel, or a Nicholas Sparks novel, you have a clear sense of what the brand is. The author and publisher have made readers a promise — and each book delivers on the promise. (You could argue that John Grisham got away from his brand when he wrote A Painted House… and that has been his lowest-selling title.)

So what’s your brand? What are you known for? What’s your identify as a writer? If you were going to describe your writing and your books, how would you do so? What is your voice? What are the common themes or features or settings or characters or messages that are always in your books? Can you write down some descriptions of your brand? Again, if you don’t know yourself, then you can’t be very clear in creating a marketing plan. Step one: Know your product.

My brother has worked in the auto industry for years. He’s a parts & service manager for a dealership, but he used to be a car salesman. One day he explained to me the importance of auto salesmen driving around in the cars they sell… “Imagine the sales guy hasn’t ever driven the car. One day, a couple approaches him on the lot. ‘Is this a good model?’  He assures them it is — it’s got great safety features, gets good gas mileage, is known to be dependable. ‘Have you driven it around?’ Um… no… uh… How do you sell a car you’ve never driven?

By the same token, how do you market and sell your book if you don’t know the strengths? Your brand as an author reveals who you are and why you’re unique. It offers an image to potential readers so that they get to know you. More than that, a strong brand creates trust with buyers because they’ve had good experiences with it in the past. (I trust Starbucks coffee no matter where it’s on sale, because I’ve had good experiences with it in the past. When I travel, I know I’ll get a good cup of coffee if I get a cup of Starbucks.)

In many ways, that trust begins to feel like a relationship to a reader. If you trust a Stephen King novel (or Jodi Picoult, or Michael Connelly, or whoever), you get to feel as though you KNOW the author. Sitting down with one of their books is like sitting down with an old friend. You may not actually know the author, but you’re familiar enough with the brand that it feels like you do. And in that feeling of relationship, you develop an attachment to the author… which means you’re going to choose their book over some other author’s book. You’re also willing to pay more for your favorite author’s book. (Go back to my Starbucks example for a minute: I feel attached to Starbucks. I know their flavor, their packaging, and the feel of their stores. Given a choice, I’ll pick it over a Dutch Brother’s or Dunkin Donuts any time. And I’m willing to pay more for something I know and love.)

A strong brand simply makes selling easier. If readers don’t know you, the bookseller has to work harder to get your books sold. But a strong brand transcends competition and price. Readers are willing to pay more, and to buy more often — and retailers know that, so they’re more apt to stock your books and help promote them. Retailers and e-tailers see a strong author brand as the key to profitability, and therefore sustainability.

Again, that means you’ve got to know yourself and your brand. You’ve got to tell people who you are, what you write, and what’s unique about you. You’ve got to make a promise to readers, and convey that promise every time they come into contact with your work. So you start creating a marketing plan by identifying and defining your strengths and uniqueness, your voice and tone, maybe even your stories, characters, themes, and settings. What’s your brand? That’s where a marketing plan starts for an author.

More on this tomorrow…

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  • Peggotty says:

    My dilemma is that, just as a person’s voice sounds different within their own head than outwardly, my writing may come across differently than I’d intended. Possibly, readers jump to conclusions about me. For instance, I’ve written a moderately intelligent 1940s story set in England, so people may associate me with frilly tea things and voluminous hats. (I’m not at all sure they do. I’ll need to publish to find out.) My thought is, ‘please don’t let me be misunderstood.’ Should I just write and take what comes?
    Also, my closest association seems to be with that of writers/styles from bygone days. I’m not suggesting endless pages of description here, just voice. Does that spell literary doom for a modern writer, or is nostalgia on the uptick?
    Thank you, Chip!

    • chipmacgregor says:

      I don’t think that spells doom at all, Peggotty. My sense is that you’ll become known for your stories and voice over time — and that’s much more important than having a cool slogan.

    • Peggotty says:

      Thanks, Chip. I like the sound of that. Are you speaking prophetically?

  • Important article, thank you Chip. This is a particularly critical matter for me, because I’ve been acutely aware of the importance of an author brand since I published my first book, and yet to some degree I vehemently disagree that an author should be like any other product or a brand. It puts us authors into a marketing box that seems to say, pick the genre/theme/storyline you’re going to be known for and just do that. Don’t experiment. Don’t write different types of stories.

    Yet, it is possible to define your brand over and above the genres or story types you write. If you asked me who am I as an author, I wouldn’t tell you “literary fiction” or “mystery/suspense” or “historical fiction for young readers” (all of which I’ve written). I’d tell you I write books that open people’s minds. That make you think. That probe the inconvenient truths of the human psyche. And I do that in a number of genres, story types, even target audiences.

    What do you think, is that overstepping what an author brand should be? Do authors really need to pigeonhole themselves and their work to achieve top sales?

    • chipmacgregor says:

      You’re very welcome, Brigitte. And I agree that an author needs to experiment and try new things. In fact, branding isn’t for everyone. I tend to think an author’s brand (or “what she is really known for”) becomes evident over time.

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