To Write or to Market First: Is That Really the Question?
Guest Post by Irene Watson
Authors too often focus on writing their books without giving any thought to marketing the book until after it is completed. However, marketing is integral for the book’s success, and writing the book is itself a part of marketing since the book’s content assumes a certain purpose and audience. Thinking about the marketing of the book before and as it is written will put authors ahead of the game once the book is completed.
The other day when I was talking to an author who is in the middle of writing her book, I asked her, “Who is the book’s audience?” The book was a memoir about her childhood and the abuse she had experienced growing up. Since my own memoir, “The Sitting Swing,” is along those lines, I thought I could be helpful to her.
She replied that the book would be read by other survivors of verbal, physical, sexual, and emotional abuse, as well as people in those situations now who needed the courage to get out of them, and anyone who liked a human interest story about overcoming your problems. I agreed with her that those people were her primary audience. Then I asked her, “How are you going to reach them?” Her response was, “Well, that has to do with marketing and I can’t think about that right now. I’m putting all my focus on writing the book.”
I can’t say I was surprised by this response. I’ve heard it before, and I certainly understand authors not wanting to put the cart before the horse, so to speak, since writing a book is in itself a tremendous undertaking, but I also know that when it comes to writing a book, you can’t define the writing as the horse and the marketing as the cart. If anything, it’s probably the other way around—the marketing is what pulls the book, what brings it out into the public eye. But an even better analogy is an automobile. An automobile is not split into two parts (cart and horse) but is one object where all its smaller pieces work together to get it where it’s meant to go. Writing and marketing are really the same thing—they are inseparable.
The author I spoke to only had a few chapters of her book written, and she was struggling to move forward with it. She didn’t want to talk to me about “marketing” so as I continued to try to help her, I avoided using “marketing” or any other words like “promotion,” “audience,” or “readers” that she equated with it. Instead, we talked about “focus,” “purpose,” and “organization.” In short, we talked about marketing without her realizing it.
You can’t separate writing and marketing. Well, you can, but if you do, you probably will end up with a poorly written book that is unmarketable. A good author knows the value of good writing, and what qualifies as good writing has to do with understanding who you are writing for—who your audience is, how your readers want to receive your message, why they want to hear your message, and how your message is going to help them (even if helping them only means entertaining them or allowing them to escape from their troubles for a few hours by entering the fictional world you have created).
Non-fiction authors who work with traditional publishers, both for book-length manuscripts and even magazine articles, already know that marketing starts from the beginning. Most traditionally published non-fiction authors will come up with an idea for a book, and maybe write a chapter or two just as a writing sample, and then submit a proposal for the book to the publisher to find out whether the publisher is interested and will fund the writing. In other words, what’s the point of doing the work if you won’t be paid for it? And even if the publisher is interested in the topic, he might have some suggestions to make it marketable and interesting to readers—better to know those things up front than have to do an overhaul and rewrite later to fit the publisher’s requirements.
Even if you plan to self-publish, you need to think about how you will reach your audience, and how you reach that audience, even whom that audience is, should significantly influence your actual writing. As you write the book, you will have your readers in mind so you will know what questions they will have, what problems they want solved, or what kinds of characters and settings in a novel will appeal to them. All of that is marketing and all of it is also writing.
Another comment I’ve heard from authors is, “It doesn’t really matter how good or bad the book is because if it’s marketed well, it will sell.” Sadly, there is some truth in that statement. Numerous books have become bestsellers because they were marketed well, but anyone who reads a lot can probably come up with a half-dozen books he or she has read that were bestsellers but were truly awful books. Those readers were dazzled by the marketing—it might have been the spectacular book cover, it might have been the placement of the book in the store, it might have been the string of testimonials by other authors (most of whom I guarantee never read the book), or it might have been the back cover description, or it might have been ads in magazines or on TV that made readers buy the book. That doesn’t mean all those people liked the book or even read it—just that the marketing campaign was successful enough to convince people to buy the book.
But good writing can triumph over good marketing, which is why good writing is a form of marketing in itself. That badly written book that becomes a bestseller might sell well, but if readers don’t like the book, the author’s next book may not do well because the readers who were supposed to become his fans instead felt disappointed and even cheated out of their money by a book that was subpar. They might even bad mouth the book, which will definitely hurt sales.
At the same time, plenty of success stories exist of books that received little marketing buzz, were even self-published, yet they skyrocketed to becoming bestsellers, not because a big publisher invested thousands of dollars into promoting the book but because of positive word-of-mouth. One or two people took a chance on the book and enjoyed it and they told their friends, who also read the book and told their friends, and a lot of those people even bought multiple copies of the book to give as gifts.
I’ve experienced this kind of “word-of-mouth buzz” myself recently with the bestselling book “The Help.” The publisher may have spent a lot of money to market it, but honestly, I don’t recall having seen a single advertisement for it. I heard about it from a friend who loved it so much that I was intrigued enough to buy a copy. This friend had been told about it by a friend who had been told about it by a cousin who had been told about it by a sister. Soon the friend found that nearly everyone she knew was reading, had read, or wanted to read the book. That’s the power of word-of-mouth. And we all know “The Help” has gone on to be a successful motion picture. The book has become a success because the quality of the writing itself marketed the book, and that writing was good because the author worked very hard to create engaging characters and situations for her book. She also had help from agents and writing coaches to develop the book so it would be well-written and connect with readers. If you haven’t read “The Help,” I encourage you to do so (word-of-mouth promotion). Part of why I recommend it to authors is because one of the main characters is herself writing a book and she continually gets advice from an editor in a major publishing house about how to make the book marketable and successful—yet another example that the marketing starts with the writing.
Marketing and writing cannot be separated. Good writing is the best form of marketing to create word-of-mouth sales. Marketing the book after it is written is important and can also lead to the book’s success, but the real marketing begins the minute pen is set to paper, or the first word is typed on the keyboard.
Irene Watson is the Managing Editor of Reader Views, where avid readers can find reviews of recently published books as well as read interviews with authors. Her team also provides author publicity and a variety of other services specific to writing and publishing books.