Thursday, October 14, 2010

You Can't Make Lightning Strike

Recently on an authors' e-mail loop a discussion ran about marketing our novels--what the publishers should do and what an author should do. Brad Whittington, author of the Fred book series, wrote an interesting response to the question, "Why don't publishers market?" I absolutely loved Brad's coming-of-age series set in Fred, Texas. And I've always found Brad to be a witty and insightful guy. He didn't let me down with his answer to this particular question (which I agree with, by the way).

When the Fred books came out, I was puzzled by the lack of marketing. I pestered my publisher and made a nuisance of myself for a few years. I'm surprised they still talk to me. They're good folks.

As a product marketing manager in the hardware manufacturing sector, I couldn't figure out why they would spend money to produce a product and then do only marginal marketing.

But by the time the last Fred book came out, I finally figured it out. And I'll pass this info on to you for free! ;-)

Like investing, publishing is about risk tolerance. A risk-averse investor wants a diversified portfolio. You put the bulk of your money behind the solid performers, blue chip stocks and such. But you also put some money in with a handful of more volatile stocks. If one of those minor investments suddenly takes off, you back it. But you don't try to make it take off. In fact, you can't make it take off. You can't make lightning strike, you just take advantage of it when it does.

Same with book marketing budgets. Publishers are risk averse because they have dozens or hundreds of employees who depend on them to pay their mortgages. They can't afford to funnel money into an under performing or moderately performing book in a gamble that they can get it to the tipping point. Because most of the time, money alone isn't enough to do the trick. So they back the solid performers that have a much higher probability of delivering a return on the investment.

I've talked to a few publicists through the years and observed the industry and I've come to the conclusion that there are well-known guidelines for marketing non-fiction, but nobody knows how to market fiction.

If there is the chance of some kind of target market tie in, you can try. For example, a detective book with a motorcycle-riding protagonist can be marketed to bikers. And maybe enough bikers read novels for that to work. Or maybe not. A novel about abuse can be marketed to support groups. But I don't think there's a way to target-market a coming of age novel with no particular demographic (dog lovers, bow hunters, whatever), or a literary novel like The Help.

What are your thoughts?


Timothy Fish said...

I think that is a very good analogy. Publishers have to take risks if they want to see the reward of having the next Harry Potter or whatever, but they've also got to keep the lights while they're waiting for the risk to pay off.

Non-fiction is easy to sell, but fiction not so much. I do think there is something to be said for the theory that fiction should be marketed on the basis of the non-fiction aspects of the book. When I wrote Searching For Mom I had a reader write to tell me how much the book meant to her because she had lost a parent at an early age, so Sara's relationship with her father reminded her of that. But the problem is that it's hard to find large pockets of people who have a similar situation. In non-fiction they are easy to find because they are looking for the information we provide.

Nicole said...

Marketing is tough. How do you reach your audience? Especially if your audience is carefully constructed within a genre? What if you have to somehow avoid a particular segment of a particular genre? How many times have people given 1-star reviews on Amazon because they shouldn't have been the audience for a novel?

Fiction marketing is an art no one has mastered. The "stars" of publishing have an established audience who support them--which makes marketing a breeze for their new releases.

If you try to do this on your own . . . apart from God, I can do nothing.

Ace Collins said...

I have seen this happen as well. Just a complete lack of understanding of promotion and this pretty much spells out why.

As the writer of many great selling nonfiction books, I know how that business works, but as the author of two wonderfully reviewed novels that didn't find a market, I am lost. Hoping the next release hits magic in April.

B. J. Robinson said...

Thanks for sharing the knowledge. Knowledge is power. Now, we know we need market tie-ins. My novel would appeal to dog lovers for one, among others :) Thanks for the tips.

Dineen A. Miller said...

I agree. When I've done a marketing plan for a fiction proposal, it's such a challenge to be creative without knowing what will work. There are no guarantees, of course. However, doing a marketing plan for a nonfiction I have coming out next year was fairly easy and clear as to what the goal is and reaching the market. It's been a great learning experience, that's for sure.