The Writing Rookie #10: Marketing Thoughts

For the complete list of columns in this series, .

A couple of months ago, I was listening to an interview on NPR with someone who was talking about the death of mass marketing and mass media. I can’t really do justice to the man’s arguments — I didn’t hear the whole thing, and besides, I was paying more attention to the thoughts inside my head, some of which I may write up someday as a post about the future of book publishing.

The other part of my thinking had to do with marketing for my book, which — now that the book is wending its way toward actual publication, past the editing and desktop publishing process — has been taking up an increasing share of my mental attention, as to my dismay I realize all over again that publication notwithstanding, Books Don’t Sell Themselves.

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First, the relevant facts:

My book is being published. Yay! Hurrah for me. I need to cheer, you see, because aside from family and friends, it’s highly unlikely that simply publishing my book will really excite that many people — especially if they never know it exists.

My book is aimed at a Mormon market. I flatter myself that it’s acceptably written and might be accessible to some non-Mormon readers. Still, it seems pretty clear that most of those who’d ever want to read or care about the story will be Mormons. (I’ve had some people suggest trying to sell it to a national market — but no one, so far as I can recall, who’s actually read the story.)

My book will almost certainly never be carried by most LDS bookstores, due both to the Deseret Bookstore “inappropriateness” policy (my book is at least a PG-13) and the fact that DB and Seagull prefer to work with multi-product vendors and/or a developed marketing plan through established distributors. I’m giving it a try, but I don’t hold out much hope.

My book is on a topic (Gay! Teen! Mormon!) that is likely to push most of my target audience (adult, relatively orthodox Mormons) away. As my brother-in-law put it, after reading and enthusiastically enjoying my manuscript: “But you know, if I saw a book about this topic on a bookstore shelf, I’d put it back again without a second glance.”

What does all this tell me? Basically, that any attempt to sell to the Mormon market has to get past problems of access and initial perception.

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One thing I remember from that NPR show is the notion that social connections are coming to mean more to many people than traditional marketing. In this era of Internet communities, people increasingly choose what to buy based on what their friends tell them, not what book publishers and sellers tell them.

This, as I see it, is mostly good news as regards my book, since it confirms that shelling out mega-dollars (which neither Chris Bigelow — owner and operator of my publisher, Zarahemla Books — nor I possess) in some kind of ad campaign probably wouldn’t work anyway. Especially in light of the concerns mentioned above, word of mouth is pretty much the only way my book is ever likely to sell to most Mormon readers.

This, unfortunately, seems like a chicken-and-egg dilemma. How do people find out about the book in order to recommend it to other people? At best, it seems like a long, slow process.

A classic solution is book reviews, which are essentially word of mouth amplified. Zarahemla’s standard marketing effort, from what I can tell, consists largely of using press releases to generate interest, sending out review copies, and then publicizing the resulting reviews. Given the realities of Mormon small-press publishing, it’s hard to see how Chris could do much more than that — and even if he could, it probably wouldn’t do much good.

We have hopes that my book may catch reviewers’ attention since it’s on a hot-button topic that hasn’t been seen much in Mormon literature. It’s nice to think so, anyway.

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I’m also trying to expand on the notion of community connections and word-of-mouth in less traditional ways.

Due to a combination of factors, I wound up with a very large number people of manuscript reviewers — 34, by my count. The polite thing to do, I’ve decided, is send each of these a complimentary print copy of the book (assuming they want it). And if they wind up sharing their copies or talking about the book with friends, that’s all to the good.

As a member of the Mormon lit community I can probably count on a few sales there, at least if they don’t all wind up with complimentary copies. That’s an awfully tiny pool, though — especially when you consider that (a) we don’t tend to be terribly rich, and (b) all of us have dozens of other books we want to buy and read as well. I figure that based on sales from AML, AMV, etc., Chris and I could probably go out to McDonalds for lunch — if neither of us is very hungry.

I’ve also been attempting (somewhat clumsily) to approach various Mormon-related blogs about distributing online PDF review copies. In some ways, this is just an extension of the concept of book reviews into a new medium. But then I start to think about the implication of PDF distribution, which means I can give away as many review copies as I like without any actual cost to myself or my publisher. The issue of lost revenue, as I see it, doesn’t really apply to those of us on the bottom of the exposure scale. Anything that increases discussion about the book can only be a good thing. Heck, if there’s a group out there that wants to sponsor an online discussion of my book, I’ll gladly provide PDFs to everyone who wants to take part. The real problem is finding people who have an interest. After all, there are only so many Mormon bloggers — and how many of them will want to read my novel, anyway?

(I should also mention blog tours, which I’d never heard of until today’s email from Chris. Hey! I’m just living up to my billing here. Part of the amusement of this Writing Rookie series for the rest of you is watching me fumble around without any idea what I’m doing…)

Which brings me to the two-market problem: i.e., the large market I’d like to reach of Mormon adults with no special interest in the issue of homosexuality and Mormonism, versus the considerably smaller but more invested market of those who do have a stake in this issue: i.e., gay/same-sex attracted Mormons (SSAMs, for the purposes of this post).

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SSAMs, as I see it, aren’t the primary audience for my book. There is, I suspect, nothing my novel will have to say to them that they don’t already know. The most it could hope to do is capture, in a sharable way, some part of what they’ve found true in their own experience — something they might want to show bishops or friends or family members, perhaps.

I’m reluctant to rely too much on this audience. For one thing, there’s a huge range of human experience occupying the intersection of “same-sex attracted” and “Mormon.” What I’ve written isn’t a map to that experience, but one specific story — unlikely in the way that all specific stories are unlikely. SSAMs are likely to notice at least as many differences as similarities between this novel and their experiences.

On the other hand, that sense of built-in investment is likely to translate into a cadre of high-interest readers who could, if they like the book, feel highly motivated to share it with others. I’ve already had several positive responses along those lines: manuscript readers who’ve said that as soon as the book is available, they plan to buy and give away several copies.

This, if it can be made to work, represents a potential answer to the word-of-mouth problem. And so I’ve been contacting various SSAM-connected people and organizations. I’m now moving toward a position where I’m likely to provide a PDF copy to pretty much any SSAM who asks me for one — on the theory, again, that if their impression is a positive one, that’s likely to translate to both word-of-mouth and potential sales down the road.

There’s a politic to this, of course, as illustrated by the reactions of both Evergreen and Affirmation — two major organizations focusing on homosexuality and Mormonism — when I asked if they’d put out flyers for my book at their annual conferences on Sept. 19-21 (a juxtaposition that speaks volumes about the adversarial relationship between the two groups, but I digress). Both wanted a copy of the book to review before letting me know if it was something they’s be comfortable publicizing, even to the extent of putting out flyers. There are orthodoxies on both the right and the left — with a significant probability that my book won’t satisfy people on either side. But then, that’s the nature of community dynamics.

(As of Monday, Sept. 14, I haven’t heard from either group about whether they want my flyers. In at least one case, I know that’s because they haven’t had a chance to finish reading it yet. Ah, well.)

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I’d like to be able to draw some general conclusions from all this. But what do I know? I’m still figuring all this out. The one thing I can definitely say is this: marketing my first novel — like writing it — is turning out to be more of a learning experience than I ever imagined. It’s a whole new world out there, Dorothy…

25 thoughts on “The Writing Rookie #10: Marketing Thoughts”

  1. Jonathan, I’m interested in your book and widening your audience and market. It sounds interesting and important. Good luck.

    I’ve done this: traded pdfs of a novel for my tax book MAKING EXPRESSION LESS TAXING and then doing mutual reviews in various forums like on blogs and on good reads and at amazon. I’m small (almost no) potatoes though, and I only read so fast and have a few commitments outstanding. But I’d get to you as soon as I could.

    Another LDS market writer apparently with a rather fairly large following gave me a copy of her book in pdf to do a review on my blogs, on goodreads and amazon. I’m about 60% through it and will post my review on it this month or next.

    If interested, let me know by contacting me at wreddy848 at msn dot com.

    Best of luck.

  2. One small suggestion, if I may.

    If you want to send out electronic review copies, I would suggest you ask the recipient in what format s/he would like it. PDF is possibly the most inaccessible format for those who A) don’t want to read a book at a computer and B) have devices that read e-books.

    I’ve been asked to review a couple of books and at this point in my life, unless the publisher can provide an RTF, I’m simply not interested.

  3. This is both very exciting and very interesting, Jonathan. You and I discussed some of these issues early on in the project, and I’m glad to see that you are looking to take full advantage of your network of readers and friends.

    It’ll be interesting to see the results. On the one hand, your novel is a, in my opinion, a well-written, orthodox but understanding approach to a potentially explosive topic. I think you thread the middle very well. On the other hand, it’s possible that you are too much in the middle and you’ll simply be ignored. I hope that’s not what happens. What’s interesting is when the Mormon network wants to, it can really push things out there.

    Granted I’m somewhat connected, but I now have seen links to the NY Times feature on the sister missionary from China more than 15 times from a variety of sources, not all of whom overlap.

  4. Interesting points. I’ll query Chris and find out how easy/difficult it might be to get an RTF version of the final file.

  5. Smashwords (which every small press should take advantage of) has a partnership with Barnes & Noble to distribute ebooks using their conversion software, which requires a simplified RTF or Word file. You can find a description of the distribution deal here and the formatting guidelines here.

    In short, reduce the Word file to the same font and font size, remove forced page breaks, use two returns to separate chapters, auto-indent instead of tabs, and left-justify. Then “Save As” RTF. If you have Windows, open the RTF file in WordPad to check it.

    Here’s my Smashwords storefront. If you download one of these files in RTF format (my sister’s book is a good example), you can see almost exactly how I uploaded it.

  6. Update: Chris doesn’t have a problem with the RTF option, and we’re in process of getting an RTF ready for me to send out. No one so far had asked for RTF, so PDF is what I’ve sent out to date, but going forward I’ll plan to offer the option.

  7. I compose in RTF. There’s really no good reason to use MS Word’s proprietary formats unless you want to make things look pretty — and at that point it’s better to use a real layout program. And with an RTF source file, it’s easy to open work in Open Office or Word or other programs.

  8. Ooh! Nothing to get a good fight going like people plugging for their favorite software programs…

  9. Scribus* is free. So is Open Office.

    * I’m not an expert at Scribus or The Grimp or Inkscape or any of the free graphics programs. I have the good fortune of always having a job where I got a computer loaded with the standard design programs.

    Edit to add: I’m no Adobe shill either. I mainly turn to Illustrator, Photoshop and InDesign (which I frankly suck at since I never do print layout anymore — I was much better at Quark) out of inertia and laziness.

  10. I’ve tried both of those and quite frankly, they suck.

    I have Photoshop and Illustrator (both of which get daily workout). I even have PageMaker (yeah, from J school back in da day).

    But… No InDesign. No Quark. No CS4.

  11. The Gimp is good if you know what you are doing. Inkscape is passable and makes creating vector graphics easy — I also hear it works pretty well with Wacom tablets. Open Office is fine unless you are trying to do page layout with it (which word processors really aren’t meant for) or if you are a seriously power Excel user. And, yes, based on my experience so far Scribus isn’t very good.

  12. Don’t think that your primary market is just the Mormon community. To me, the answer is that there’s a broader market for this than you have defined in your post.

    You need to ask yourself who will be interested in this and why? Based on what your stated (gay, teen, Mormon) I see the larger Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual (GLB) media as being very interested in this. Other viable important target communities of people with their associated media pools include: the religious media, young adult, college, teen, romance, relationships, self-help, and even lifestyle/feature. there are probably more.

    But to be successful with these media requires that you identify what you can say that will really turn people on first. You need to develop your message so that it is publishable in all these media areas.

    What you offer media for their audience is what will determine your success. You need to tell real life stories that interest people. The key to your success will be whether you can galvanize, educate, entertain, get people to relate, feel emotion, and even shock them them if that is what you can do best.

    You need to offer DPAA+H. (Stories, information, insights, commentary, analysis and advice that has the key DPAA+H elements: dramatic, personal, achievement in the face of adversity, plus a little humor).

    If all you do is ask for a dry fact book review, then you will get nothing that will help people really learn who you are and what you have written and why they should read it. Book reviews will not really help you since so few people actually use them to make buying decisions anyway.

    Feature stories and interviews on the other hand, trigger interest and talk, as long as what you say is worthy of being shred at the water cooler.

    Pretend you are in front of a group of people who are dead center on your target market of buyers. Now give yourself three minutes. What will you say to get half the people there to walk up to you when you are done and hand you money saying, “I have to have it!”

    That by the way is a realistic goal. It also produces a reproducible 50 percent response.

    That what you need to place into your news releases and interview Q & A’s.

    That’s how you develop your Magic Words. You can do it.

    And once you do it, then you can use technology to repeat this message and duplicate the response. Only then will you stand a prayer of a chance of seeing any profitable use of all the amazing technologies that are available.

    Paul J. Krupin
    Direct Contact PR
    author of Trash Proof News Releases

  13. I know this doesn’t count for much, but I would be willing to read it, and if it’s good, pass it along to friends and family. Is it appropriate for a RS book club?

    Yeah, I know. Small beans. But I’m interested to see what you have written.

  14. Amanda,

    I think it would depend on the RS book club. My guesstimate puts it at about a PG-13, mostly for language plus some discussion of sexual situations. There’s no profanity referencing deity, and we wound up without any actual F-bombs (though we skirt them in a couple of places). The language is strategic rather than constant, and used only as much as needed to advance the story (including presenting teenagers at least semi-realistically). Frankly, I’d love your opinion on whether this is something that a RS book group might read… Email me at Jonathan AT motleyvision DOT com with your email address and I’ll send you a copy.

    And hey, part of my big realization is that “small beans” is where I need to start. I’ve decided to simply put it out there wherever I find interest, and let the sales figures take care of themselves.

  15. I’m not sure whether this is appropriate to note here, but I just finished reading Jonathan’s book, and I think it’s terrific. I’ll definitely be spreading the word.

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