Getting a Strategic Advantage Within the New Publishing Paradigm

Many writers I know are repulsed by the idea of marketing their own books. The mere thought of asking someone to buy their books seems to fill them with a combination of dread and loathing; and feels tantamount to panhandling or door to door sales. This is a viewpoint I am unable to fathom. 
Maybe it’s because of all the years I spent working as a copywriter, coming up with strategies and writing copy for the sole purpose of selling things. It only makes sense to take the skills I learned during my career, and apply them to selling  something I truly care about. There's an artistic side of my writing career - but without the marketing side, I'd might as well take what I create and hide it under a rock. 

What Are the Real Odds of Success?

The website, Statista, says there were 45,210 writers in the US in 2018. With Canada being around 10% of the size of the US, it’s reasonable to extrapolate that there are another 4.5 thousand here and when you add in all the people who write fan fiction and/or poems, short stories, novels, autobiographies or how-to articles; who dream of having writing careers but have yet to sell enough of anything to officially declare themselves “writers” on their income tax, I think an estimate of 100,000 writers in North America would be low. WIth all the people laid off and working at home because of COVID-19, that number may be growing exponentially. If you add in all the people writing in English from the UK and other parts of the world, there's probably twice that number (not to mention translations).
Even if you are the cream that manages to float to the top of what may be turning into one of the world's largest milk barrels (along with home-cooks who want to try out for the cooking shows), it could be years before anyone notices that you're writing, let alone reads or buys any of it. After all, there’s already enough cream there to keep the world’s popcorn buttered until the end of time. 

How do You Get a Strategic Advantage?

The notion of a paradigm shift suggests an old reality being displaced by a new one, whereas I think our current situation is much more fluid than that. The old paradigm is gone, but what has replaced it is a Heraclitian reality where no two books are ever published into the same marketplace. 

If you established your reputation and built a fan base while the old paradigm was still extant, you already have a potentially huge advantage over writers who are struggling to emerge right now. With fewer publishers taking on fewer and fewer new writers, the vast majority of us are faced with uncertain prospects to say the least. I read somewhere that the self-publishing field itself is starting to show signs of collapsing inward - probably a result of so many people struggling fruitlessly to sell more than a few dozen copies of their self-published work. The newer you are to the field, the slower the slog is likely to be. 

Any marketing tools and resources (BookBub, FreeBooksy, Amazon advertising etc) that seem to work draw flocks of adherents. Prices rise as availability and effectiveness of the resource decline. Unproven alternative resources come out of the woodwork, leaving the right self-promotional choices mysterious and potentially expensive.

The traditional path to publishing still exists, and every year big publishers select and champion a comparative handful of bright stars. Some of their books will succeed and some will falter. I think of it as something like a pro sports draft, with much much lower pay (different league altogether), but at least as a big publisher's top draft pick, you will generally be given more opportunity to succeed. 

As in sports, many players sneak into the gym by the side door.  Knowing the odds are against them, they work harder and smarter - approaching everything as a challenge rather than a given. They find unique and valuable ways to contribute. And they never call it quits. And as in sports, many writers give up our dreams early. And some of us give up everything else to focus on our dream and end up falling short. Still others, like me, just try to ignore the odds altogether and keep on plugging - trying to get keep getting better and hoping to make some good, timely choices along the way. I figure since we don't play for a team, we are much freer to chart offbeat and singular courses involving self-publishing and self-marketing - some of which may eventually take us over the finish line. 

For Those Without a Fanbase, I Salute You 

The only real substitute for promoting to an existing fan base is being championed by an influencer who has a large and dedicated fanbase. Few of that writer's fans will pick up your book, and only some of them will like what you write - which is very different from approaching fans who already like what you write.
In the current publishing economy, I think there’s a minimum fan base a writer needs to have in order to be self-sustaining. Kevin Kelly makes a strong case for having 1000 true fans - people who will buy whatever you create. If each of those people spends $100 dollars a year on your art, you'll make a good wage. If they each spend $50, you'll still be making more than I'm currently making at my full time day job. If they each spend $20 or 25 - you might be wise to cultivate a few more fans.  But as long as you keep producing, the nature of a base of devoted fans is that they will spread the word about you and your fan base will grow. 

In order to sustain and increase that income, you need to keep producing - at least $100 worth of new product has to come onto the market every year - and you need to keep your fans in the loop - so that they know it's available.
The trick is, most of us are on the margins of that - still building toward a 1000 person fan base. But even if we reach it we may discover that our fans are not as devoted as they need to be; nor as rich; or you won't be producing the necessary amount of new material each year. When you are on the margins, an unwillingness to market yourself could make you commercially unviable and severely limit your growth potential. 
You need a constant stream of new fans, because your existing fan base will grow smaller; people lose their jobs, get distracted by other passions, have families, get sick and die, and simply evolve and/or lose interest.  

It’s great to have any kind of fan base at all, but the fewer followers you have, the harder it is to reach a critical mass where word-of-mouth can push you over the top. If you have just 100  fans who each tell two people about your book, it might increase, but probably won't triple your audience. Maybe two out of ten people to actually follow through and read it. So, unless you’re putting out a steady stream of new work, you will have fans fall away as time goes on - unless you work hard to hold onto them. 
The problem isn’t necessarily the quality of your writing or whether you have your finger on any given pulse, the problem is getting enough people to read your book in the first place so you can create some real momentum. It takes much less effort to sustain momentum than to build it.
When you reach somewhere around 1000 true fans, you begin to turn from a trend into a genuine movement. You should be able to draw something of a crowd in most major cities. Your increased visibility and recognition start to make you visible to an audience far beyond your original fan base.  From here on, that “and they told two friends and they told two friends and so on” growth pattern starts to become feasible. 

Persistence - The Most Indispensible Tool in You Toolbox

This is 2020 – an era of immediate gratification.  In order to give myself a shot of success I might live long enough to enjoy, I need to get my book into reader’s hands. Giving one's work away for free can be a part of a solid plan - but if you mismanage it, if your much promoted book doesn't live up to the hype, or if you don't build in a strategy to ultimately make some sort of profit - you could well end up simply devaluing your work, so that the potential audience views it as worthless and never even bothers reading it.
Expectations when it comes to  free things are often why-should-I-bother, rock-bottom low. Even those who download it might need an extra push to actually start reading it. If you can come out of that phase with at least a few readers enthusiastic enough to be called fans, then continued progress is inevitable if you persist. Keep writing, keep marketing and chances are the fan base will keep growing. 
If you think imarketing your own books is worth investing your time and money in, but don’t have clue one where to start, then it might be worth consulting an expert like Tim Grahl He has lots of very useful free marketing resources online, several good books of marketing advice. And if you already have a lot of marketing savvy, Tim’s free materials can give you all sorts of insights and great ideas.


Popular posts from this blog

Learning to Write by Sculpting - Getting Down To Details

Social Media as a Book Marketing Tool

The Publishing Paradigm Shift is No Longer Coming - It's Here