Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Monday, December 28, 2020

Reader-Centric Book Marketing

 I subscribe to a novel marketing newsletter from Nicholas Erik and the newsletter this morning was titled "Marketing is Reader Centric, Not Author Centric" and in it he makes the case:

Most authors start with what they want.

I want to write this.

I want to make X amount of money.

I want to work X number of hours a day.

I don't want to create ads, write this trope, etc.

Obviously, you have to know your preferences. But realistically, if we're trying to write books with the aim of other people reading them consistently, it isn't really about us.

It's about what the reader wants.

This mostly comes down to knowing the genre, expectations, and tropes.

It is not about delivering the most beautiful prose.

Or the most split-tested ads.

But about delivering them the experience they're looking for.

As I process my first experience marketing a book myself, this strikes me as true in some important ways, but also not covering the full picture, so I want to expand on it a bit.   

As an author, you want people to read your book.  In order to get people to read your book, you need to do two things: First, you need to write a book that people want to read.  Second, you need to find the people who want to read it.

It's this second where marketing comes in.  Marketing is how you try to make people aware that you've written and published a book that they want to read.  If you've written a book that no one wants to read, marketing won't really help you much.  So step one is to have a book people enjoy.  But even if you have achieved step one, step two is hard.  

Let's say your book is great.  People will love it.  But those people are scattered all over this country of hundreds of millions of people.  How do you find the people who want to read your book and let them know that your book exists?

Think of marketing being an exercise in approaching a lot of individual readers and telling them, "Hey!  Here's a little about my book!  Do you want to buy it?"  Some say yes.  Some say no.

That sounds pretty non-threatening, except that many of us writers hate the idea of having to go up to strangers and say anything (which it why it's nice that marketing is often done in a more impersonal fashion) but here's the trick: Each of those contacts comes with a cost.  

Imagine, for the sake of argument, that contacting each customer to say, "Hey!  Here's a little about my book!  Do you want to buy it?" costs you $0.10.  Let's further imagine that you make $2.00 for each copy of your book that you sell.

As Mister Micawber says in David Copperfield: "Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen nineteen and six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery."  

In the case of the book marketing example above: If at least one out of every twenty people you pitch your book go ahead and buy it, you are making money.  If less than one out of every twenty is buying, you are losing.  

Maybe your book is just so amazing that among any random sample of readers, at least one out of every twenty wants to read it.  But honestly, that's unlikely.  Picture those readers that you're going to show marketing to as being the people who walk into your local public library.  Pitching to just everyone would mean standing in the door of the library and showing your book ad to everyone who came in the door.  Some of those people might want your book.  Others might be there to check their email or pick up a DVD or to look for a book of a totally different type.  So how to do you make your odds better?  How do you find a group of potential readers where at least one out of every twenty you approach wants to buy your book? One clear solution might be that instead of accosting everyone who comes in through the front door, you go to the section of the library where your book would be shelved and only show your ad to people who enter that section.  Or you make a list of books similar to yours, and you only show the ad to people who look at one of those books.  By filtering down the readers you show your pitch to, you're selecting a group of readers who are more likely to be interested in your book.

Now here's the trick: A given reader may like lots of different things.  A reader may also like new things, but it's probably new things within a certain range of options.  I read classics and historical novels and modern day novels and spy novels and a bit of science fiction and fantasy.  If someone has written what they think is a great romance novel, I'm probably not the right person to pitch.  If someone has written a murder mystery set in 1930s Oxford, I might be a good prospect because I like Dorothy Sayers' Gaudy Night, but still overall I read very few murder mysteries so you would probably stand a better chance if they tried someone who read a dozen British-setting murder mysteries a year.  

Whether you can profitably market your novel depend on the probability that each person in your marketing target pool will buy your novel.  The higher percentage of the people in your target pool who actually buy your novel, the more profitable your marketing.  This means that the best marketing target pool is a pool of people who want something very much like a book that lots of people already like.

This reminds me of a conversation I had with some friends a few weeks back over this ad:

Thus far, I've only read the opening of the first Dresden Files novel, but even I can tell that this ad is fairly derivative.  Yes, the book is apparently set in the 1930s in stead of modern day, but aside from that, this is an ad very precisely calibrated to suggest, "If you like the Harry Dresden novels, you will like this."

Now, I have a number of good friends who are Dresden Files fans, and their comment was that they didn't want to read Dresden Files clones, they want to read new and original novels just like Dresden Files seemed new and original to them when they first picked it up. I believe them!  I think that a lot of readers really do like a book which is novel (pun intended) rather than being a re-tread of the tropes that they are used to.  I don't think that most genre readers necessarily want to reach a book which is almost exactly like some book or series they've already read.  

But here's the thing...  Imagine I'm a small publisher, and I'm going to try marketing my five new launches to a group of 1000 readers about the one fact I know is that they have bought all the Dresden Files novels.  My five books are:

1) A non-fantasy novel about a wise-cracking female detective in Los Angeles solving crimes in the surfer community she knows well from her experience as a competitive surfer.
2) A fantasy / cold war spy thriller crossover about a restrained British spy trying to stop the Russians from stealing the dragon secrets which will allow them to build a pure fire alchemical bomb.
3) A Jane Austen / Science Fiction crossover about a spunky heiress who escapes the stifling manners of the marriage market to join a group of galactic mercenaries.
4) A historical / fantasy mystery novel about a tough as nails ex centurion solving crimes on the mean streets of Pompeii and comes to suspect that the gods are under attack from a powerful volcano-wielding mage.
5) An urban fantasy novel about a wise-cracking female wizard who is part of the NYPD special investigations unit dealing with time traveling fairies on the New York Subways.

(Every time I pitch novel concepts as a semi-joke, people say "I would read that!  Take my money!" so feel free...)

The first four might each attract anywhere from 5% to 20% of Dresden Files fans, but if #5 got 50% of Dresden Files fans to buy, it would be by far the most successful even if it a lot of Dresden fans thought it was kind of derivative.  

All that is a long way of saying: in a marketing world where the easiest way to capture readers is with a quick, "I see you liked X, maybe you'll like Y" pitch, it is by far the easiest to market books which are very similar to some other, already popular book, series, or author.  If you're writing to fit in with one of these markets, you'd be wise to be careful about defying key tenets.  

If you want to market to Dresden Files fans, you probably want a wise cracking first person narrator.  If you want to market to chick lit fans, you better talk about fashion and all the handbags or shoes the character buys.  If you want to market to romance fans, the guy and girl better get together at the end.  

Maybe 20% of Harry Dresden fans would also like an urban fantasy book told in the third person about a stoic and restrained female main character who's struggling to get over a deep personal hurt from her upbringing -- but we already know that 100% of Harry Dresden fans like a main character like Harry Dresden. So even though basically no Dresden Files fans may be sitting around thinking, "Wow, I really wish people would write derivative knock offs of the Dresden Files," for a writer who wants to play it safe and not see their marketing fail, doing something which is very similar to an already successful formula and then marketing to the fans of that successful formula is the safest path to success.

This, I think, is the key thing to understand about marketing. It's not that actual readers are personally deeply attached to the tropes.  The tropes are a formula for appealing to a collection of readers who already like some particular book or books.  And for a writer/publisher who wants to successfully market a book, they don't need to appeal just to individual readers, they need to appeal to a large percentage of an identifiable block of readers.

"There are 20,000 readers scattered around the country who would love this book, but it's going to be hard to find them," is a formula for losing money on a book.  "There are 20,000 fans of the Dresden Files who would love this book," is a formula for profitable marketing.

1 comment:

Darren said...

I'm a Dresden fan. And I would totally try #5! (Of course, I'm also an Austen fan and a mil-SF fan, so #3 looks pretty awesome too :) )