Marketing a Book (or any Creative Work)

You as a Brand

If you are a writer or artist of any kind, you are a brand. I tell my students, every person is a brand: you become associated with a product or service. Your reputation for integrity and quality will proceed you. I could write a long essay on the value of being honest, hardworking, and so on.

Writers rely on building a following, usually based on consistently good works. But, even that’s not enough. You also have to get people interested enough that they will read or see your works. Marketing matters.

One of the mistakes authors and artists make is assuming that a publisher, producer, agent, or someone else will deal with marketing and promoting the work — and your career. You might tell yourself, “My success is their success.” Unfortunately, you’re likely one of many. Yes, you might be viewed as a commodity by the people you expect to market you.

Agents, publishers, publishers… they do love you while your career is hot. Become the next big thing, and everyone will be more than happy to work to promote you. This is not because everyone is greedy or selfish; it is more complex. Since these people represent dozens, hundreds, or thousands of artists, they have to invest their energy (and money) wisely.

An author recently told me that he didn’t want to be the one promoting his works. It felt like pride or conceit to be claiming people should buy his book. As an artist, you created your work for an audience, though we sometimes tell ourselves differently. You must reach out to that potential audience, somehow.

The Marketing Steps

Step 1: Ask Permission

Be honest with your agent or others involved in promoting your work. Ask if you can do some of the legwork to promote yourself and your work. Keep things positive, explaining that you understand your work is one of many and you simply want to help.

Step 2: Review Existing Plans

You should know what has been or will be done to promote your work. Compare any existing plan to the remainder of this quick and simple marketing guide. Only do those things that won’t undercut the efforts of marketing experts. Just as you should let an editor do what an editor does best, let the marketing pro do his or her job. But… you might need to help fill in some gaps.

Step 3: Web Presence!

If you don’t have an “official” website and/or Facebook page, create those. (If you need help, we are available to guide you.) If your works are available on Amazon, also create an Amazon “Author’s Page” and link that to your other Web presences.

Have your online sites complete and ready before moving to the next steps. You should include links to your website and Facebook page within your email signature, on business cards, and in any marketing materials.

Step 4: Create a Media List

Create a list of the local media. Starting local is much easier than trying to contact national media. Start with local newspapers and broadcast media. Once you identify those organizations, identify particular columnists, reporters, and show hosts with a history of covering authors and artists. Sending press releases, marketing materials, and review copies of a work to “Editor” or “Manager” is ineffective. You need specific names. You also need to know enough that you can connect your work to others the media personality has mentioned.

Step 5: Write a Template Letter

Personal letters work better than press releases. Compose a template letter that can be customized to each media personality you hope to reach. The template will be the “body” of the letter, and then you will write custom openings and closings for each recipient. Today, most people will send an email. Still, use the template approach instead of sending “off-the-cuff” letters to strangers.

Step 6: Customize the Template

Your customized letters should begin with a mention of some the media personality has done that enjoyed and that connects to the work you are promoting. For example:

Your interview with Beverly Smith, author of Knights of Nowhere, was a great introduction to a master of young adult fantasy. As a fantasy author, I appreciated your respect for the genre. My new work, Middling Squire No Longer, was recently mentioned by Smith on her website.

End the letter with a similar connection to the personality.

Step 7: Contact… and Follow-Up

After you are satisfied with your template letter and the customized versions, start sending them. Send only two or three at a time, instead of sending every letter at once. Keep a week or two interval between the mailings, until you have contacted every media outlet on your list.

Two weeks after each mailing (or emailing), send one follow-up note to each personality contacted. Do not contact anyone a third or fourth time, unless you are asked to do so.

Step 8: Local Organizations

As you contact local media outlets, also begin compiling a list of local organizations with a history of having guest speakers. As a writer or artist, libraries and museums are certain to be on this list. Search online for other organizations, too. Sadly, many people have forgotten local service organizations are still active: Lions Clubs, Rotary, Soroptimists, and others. (Maybe you should join some groups, too.)

Additional Suggestions

Never say “No” to an interview or public appearance, no matter how small the group or media outlet. Remember, you need an audience — readers, viewers, listeners, et cetera. They have plenty of choices. Be accessible and it will be rewarded over time.

Help other writers and artists with kind words — and online links. On your website, Facebook page, and elsewhere, be sure to support other writers and artists.

Participate in any “niche” organizations related to your works. If you write romance, join the Romance Writers of America. If you are a playwright, join the Dramatists Guild of America. Connecting to colleagues builds a network that will help your career. Do not merely join groups, either — be an active member.

Be patient. Marketing takes time.

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What is a Blog?

I am about to teach a course on “The Essay” and that leads me to ask what is a blog? I know that blogging platforms, like WordPress, can be used to share fiction, poetry, technical manuals, and more, but in its general form of personal reflections what is a blog?

It’s a journal or diary, I expect some to answer. Yet is a diary normally so public a document?

Could we consider blogs essays? I believe there’s a case to be made for categorizing most blogs as creative non-fiction, and as essays in particular. I’m going to be reflecting on this question over the weekend. I hope to offer a better answer in a few days.

Scholarly Overwriting

I am updating what might be described as an academic website. Reading for research reminds me that too many academic works are “overwritten.” I thought about compiling a list of complaints, but there are too many to catalog and rank. Instead, I’ll highlight some of the most annoying traits of “scholarly writing.”

Clutter. Academic writers love clutter. Maybe there’s an unwritten agreement to add 22 percent fat to all academic texts. Someone should take a red pen (or the delete key) to every useless piece of filler in the texts. Omit “It is often written that…”, its sibling “Throughout the history of our discipline…”, and other worthless nods to nothing. If something is often written, please don’t remind us. We already know it.

Back patting. If you are quoting or citing someone else, let us assume he or she is a “leading expert” or “noted scholar.” We don’t need the clichéd praise throughout journal articles or books. If you are citing people who are not experts, then we’d like to know. Otherwise, most readers assume citations are from credible sources. The worst offense I’ve read: “The noted scholar Dr. X, celebrated for her preeminent works in the field of Y, has published award-wining research on Y.” Really? Did she write something similar about you? It seems every scholar has to praise his or her peers, review their works in glowing terms, and then wait to be repaid in kind.

Academese. Please stop using jargon no one outside your discipline can decipher. Stop it. I’m willing to bet half the people in your discipline can’t agree on what these manufactured terms mean. Academic jargon is less of an issue in the sciences, which rely on words meaning specific things.

Condescension. Yes, you are a scholar, but that doesn’t mean you are smarter in general or somehow morally superior to others. Scholars are more ignorant than they realize. Complaining that “the public” (which apparently doesn’t include academics), “most Americans,” or “Westerners” are ill-informed and easily manipulated doesn’t persuade readers. Sure, those agreeing with you will feel wonderful upon discovering they are among the superior few, but it is a cheap rhetorical stunt.

I’m going to stop at four broad complaints for now.

I advised my students to write as they would speak to someone outside their discipline. I discovered the students speak in the same stilted academic style I encounter in scholarly texts, minus the footnotes but with verbal citations of experts. Reading too many overwritten texts, the university students mimicked the style because it was perceived to be “intellectual.”

Maybe other “academics” share my revulsion with academic texts? If so, can we start teaching students to write in styles enjoyable to read?

– Scott

Non-Fiction Stories

I read a fair amount of non-fiction. My interest in human nature, a good thing for any writer, leads me to read texts on history, religion, philosophy, and psychology. Unfortunately, most non-fiction depends on readers being interested enough in the information to ignore the structural deficiencies of the text. This separates the mildly successful non-fiction writers from the wildly successful.

When reading non-fiction, I find myself comparing a work to those of authors I consider gifted “reporter-writers.” As a journalism student at the University of Southern California in the late 1980s, Ed Cray told me reporters aren’t writers and writers couldn’t report so I had to be one or the other. I never quite agreed. (The assertion was more of a thought challenge than something Prof. Cray believed, since he is a reporter and author of more than a dozen books.)

Reporting is a skill distinct from writing; not all writers are obsessed with research and interviews. At the core of great reporting, my USC professors maintained, was a compulsive need to determine and ask “the question” that would lead to something bigger. Research helped find the question. And how did you know when you found the question? It was that piece that would make sense of the whole. The question was the question everyone else would realize was key once you asked it.

A good reporter is a researcher, an interviewer, and at least a good writer. A periodical cannot survive publishing horrendous prose, no matter how great the underlying research. At a minimum, “good enough” writing is essential to a daily newspaper. Magazines require longer pieces with narrative structures. The better writers among reporters can be found at magazines.

Then, there are non-fiction books. These should be composed by writers: reporter-writers, scientist-writers, or historian-writers, for example.

The non-fiction writers I enjoy reading are largely reporter-writers. These men and women might have academic backgrounds outside journalism, but they are definitely reporters.

The first non-fiction work to impress me so much that I read it through several times was And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic (0312374631), by Randy Shilts. I was a sophomore in college when I read the book, which changed my view of non-fiction. I found myself reading Truman Capote, Hunter S. Thompson, and one James Michener epic (Poland).

Facts are facts, but not every writer can assemble them into a great story. Shilts was a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle and a freelance journalist. But, it was his ability to tell a story that made And the Band Played On a book that influenced my writing. The book intertwines scenes and eventually reveals how events separated by time and place are related. Small events trigger major ones; changes in science and politics seem to be driven by avalanches that start with deceptively trivial choices.

The next non-fiction author to affect my approach to writing was David Quammen with The Song of the Dodo: Island Biogeography in an Age of Extinction (0684827123). Quammen’s work mixed science, history, biography, and much more, into a single text. Again, it is a reporter-writer captivating me, not a scientist. Quammen’s articles have appeared in Outside, National Geographic, Harper’s, and Rolling Stone. It is evident to me, as a reader, that Quammen’s literary background shapes his prose.

Finally, I point writers to Malcolm Gladwell. Again, we have a reporter-writer guiding readers through science, history, and politics. Gladwell began his journalism career at the Washington Post and now writes for The New Yorker. Gladwell is a great storyteller, while presenting facts. One gets the sense that Gladwell is learning along with the reader, taking us on a shared adventure.

What distinguishes the non-fiction writers I enjoy is that they are interested in people. These are writers in search of what shapes human nature — and how human nature, including our faults — shapes everything from art to politics. Even science is not immune from human nature. It’s not facts that compel a reader to turn the pages, but the stories of the people behind the discoveries and knowledge.

If you want to write great non-fiction, learn not only how to report the facts but also how to tell the stories of the men and women involved. Most readers want to read about people, especially the quirks, flaws, and foibles of historical figures. A reporter-writer knows that “the question” to ask is often one about human motivation. What is it that caused person X to make choice Y leading to event or discovery Z?

Reporting takes time and a lot of effort. You have to know how to research and verify information. Writing is no easier. Being a great reporter-writer requires mastery of two distinct skill sets.