Why Writers Suck at Marketing

Writers and marketing. In this digital age, the two words are becoming synonymous, but to what end? Having been on both sides of the fence, this is a difficult post for me to write. This isn’t the sort of thing I care to admit or highlight to people, because writers are a unique breed. Immersed in words, we use them to the best of our advantage. We research. We’re intelligent. We should be able to learn anything we set our minds to.

But not all of us can.

Our Personality Matters

By nature, our work requires us to be introverts. We turn our focus to the voices inside our head to produce the words on the page. Marketing, on the other hand, forces us to be extroverts. The two fields don’t always jive with our personalities. No matter how hard we try to hide it, we all have our quirks and sensitivities. Is that wrong? No, not at all. Our personalities aren’t something to be picked apart and analyzed, but by their nature it’s difficult to pull off both at once.

Many authors read popular marketing books from the likes of Seth Godin, etc. or learn more from their organization. (Truthfully, I’ve learned more about marketing books from my romance writer’s group than I have in any other.) Can an author understand marketing from a pragmatic and theoretical level? Yes. Can an author turn around and apply that knowledge to reach new readers?

Well, that depends.

Books are Products, Unfortunately

Once the book is done, our vocabulary changes. Instead of authors, we’re small business owners. Instead of offering a book for our readers, we have a product to sell. That concept is uncomfortable for a lot of authors (and editors) because it cheapens our art, turning it into a money-making machine. While that concept doesn’t resonate with every author the same way, the idea of “going corporate” with a book is a direct attack on the romanticized view of an author.

For many, the idea of writing commercial fiction is painful. It’s no longer your story, it’s someone else’s. Indeed, there’s a stigma for authors who have bestsellers or write tie-in novelizations. They’re sell outs. They’re not real authors. They’re hacks. The question is: Why do those stigmas exist? Is it because the writing is any better or or worse than non-commercial fiction? No, most definitely not. Many authors have written both original works and tie-in novels including E.E. Knight, Tobias Buckell, Matt Forbeck, etc. So what gives?

Emotions Blind Us

Perhaps these impressions exist because it goes back to the same reason why authors suck at marketing. We are so emotionally attached to what we do, it’s challenging to deal with the reality of it. Once a book is published, we have to sell it. Not just when it first appears, but continually. Putting the discussion of sales aside, the reality is also that not everyone will like our book, including reviewers. Even if someone is interested in it, they may not want to recommend it or buy it, either. On the flip side, readers may love it and cherish it. But the negative side to that? Can we deal with scathing or uninformed reviews? Not so easy. We created the work. We’ve given birth to a story. In many ways, we view an attack on a book as a personal one on the author. Whether or not that’s the case, this is the reason why authors investing in a career have to have a thick skin.

Marketers are our Shields

Marketers act as a buffer between the creator of a product and potential customers, much like a public relations agent protects a celebrity or politician. A marketer deals with the good, the bad and the ugly from the PR side and determines how to leverage the positive points a book has in order to reach out to new readers. Marketers are cheerleaders, cops, therapists and investors. They may have a vested interest in selling your book, but they can see it from an outsider’s viewpoint because they didn’t write it. That perspective is invaluable to any author, because it often helps you express details about your book you can’t see.

The reality of selling any item, whether it be a book or a stuffed animal, is that you can’t make everyone happy. As authors, we really love what we do, so it’s hard not to take it personally when a reader doesn’t like the stories we’ve worked so hard to tell. Part of that, of course, is the fact that it takes a lot of time to do what we do. By the time the book is published, we’re already exhausted. We’ve nurtured the story for months, from first draft to final. No one else knows that, though.

Marketing isn’t Easy

The gut reaction when a book debuts is to take the path of least resistance. Writers flock to Facebook and Twitter or blog because it’s the easiest and most comfortable thing to do. We think by blogging once or twice or getting a couple of reviews that’s what marketing is all about. We’ve done our job, right? But it’s not. Marketing campaigns don’t last a single day, often they stretch out for months at a time. Bookstores, for example, specialize in merchandising books. Take a look around the next time you’re in one or visit their website; they don’t just carry new releases.

Yet, that’s what a lot of authors do. They focus on the “one” book and promote the living hell out of it. If that doesn’t work, they repeat ourselves over and over again. BUY MY BOOK BUY MY BOOK BUY MY BOOK. Granted, it’s infinitely harder to market one product as opposed to a line of them, which is why working with a publisher or like-minded authors whenever possible is so important. The nature of the web favors the biggest, not necessarily the best. The truth is: lone voices are just a drop in the bucket online, unless you put the work in to make your voice heard. That takes a long time to do if you don’t have any help.

Sure, people point out several examples of authors who do all right, but typically an author had something prior to their success, an asset they either leveraged or forgot they had. Maybe they wrote for a popular game line and developed a fan following. Maybe they were a contributor to a well-known blog. Maybe they had been previously published through a book chain.

Whatever the reason, remember that there was an identifiable and quantifiable justification for their success. It may look easy to us, but any successful person knows there’s something to be said for hard work.

What’s an Author to do?

The more websites pop up and the more books that are sold, the more challenging it will be for new authors to market their books online without professional help or the backing of a publisher. I have strong opinions about what that means and how much it’s worth; I feel that now instead of vanity press, we have vanity marketing. Some of the prices for such services are simply absurd. If you’re considering hiring someone to provide marketing for you, be sure to do your homework. Any professional marketer will have data and examples of what a typical campaign looks like. If a service cannot provide that to your satisfaction, do not hire them.

Whether it’s short stories or tie-in work, marketing for an author is most successful when you have a built-in audience of people willing to pay for your work. Mind you, that is not the same thing as a platform. The reason why popularity online is so attractive for people, is because it’s akin to brand awareness. The thinking is, the more people who know about you, the more likely they will convert into paying customers. Larger platform? Higher conversion. Though, even then that’s not a guarantee.

Does all of this include me? Who has a background in online marketing? Let’s just put it this way. For some of my new releases? Once the work is done, I hope to partner with my publishers, to figure out how I can best help bring awareness of my works in a way that’s comfortable for both of us.

Chocolate versus Vanilla Personas

A couple of days ago I had the chance to sit down with my friend Jason Blair. Jason is an interesting guy; he’s a very talented game designer and has even written for a few video games. One of the things we talked about was the broad variety of writer’s personas we’ve seen on the web and how people might perceive a writer not just from a reader’s standpoint — but from an employer’s standpoint.

What’s in a Plain, Vanilla Persona?

A vanilla persona is a safe persona. The content that supports this persona doesn’t include pictures of drunk people or swear words. Content doesn’t strive to be edgy or cool just to get readers; topics tend to be evergreen. If photos and post subjects are personal, they’re the type you’d share with an acquaintance rather than a lover. This type of persona also translates well offline because people’s expectations about the real person aren’t as controversial as someone who has a chocolate persona.

Examples of my vanilla topics include: commentary on relevant trends, what I’m working on now, reviews of software or tools, insight into writing or the freelancer’s life, recipes, etc. Right now, my goal is to build my brand as a writer. My ability to do that depends upon the content that I have available for people to read. My goal may sound familiar to you: project my successes and minimize my failures.

Many writers online are striving to achieve the appearance of success, regardless of whether or not that’s actually true. After all, would you buy a book if it’s poorly reviewed? What about hiring a writer that had to resort to asking donations via social media to pay their car payment? While that may be honest (e.g. writers tend not to make a lot of money) it sounds like that writer can’t make enough money to to survive. Without realizing it, that type of commentary then leads to: “Well, why aren’t you making money? You must be a bad writer.”

Several authors, like Lori Devoti, Matt Forbeck, James Lowder, etc. have a vanilla persona. They talk about their writing and they share some personal tidbits, but they don’t make it a point to be in-your-face or be a part of every internet kerfluffle that hits the web. An example of a writer’s vanilla persona who I really admire is Holly Lisle.

In my case, I’ve also got two aspects of my personality. “Monica the author” is a lot different from “Monica the business professional.” However, we are one and the same individual. A vanilla persona allows me to blend all those pieces together without requiring me to spend buckets of time maintaining an edgy or cool personality separate from my blog. I’ve been experimenting with that on Violetwar.com, but find that it’s too time-consuming to maintain one persona let alone two.

A Chocolate Persona?

A chocolate persona is full of flavor. It’s the type of online personality that swears and comments on everything under the sun to sound cool, hip and popular — whether it’s relevant to their writing or not. It’s the type of persona that whines when things don’t go well and tries to start internet fires to get traffic. People who have chocolate personas incur opinions about their personalities, which doesn’t always work when you meet them in person.

There’s a lot of writers who fabricate a persona that is either nothing like them in real life or seems to be more grandiose, akin to reality television. That’s their choice and to them — being popular online means something. Would a young adult publisher want to buy my novel if I had a foul mouth? Probably not, unless I had a pen name. Would a business put their content in my hands if I infused internet slang into everything I wrote? I can tell you that their answer would be “No,” because I’ve heard some people complain about that before.

Don’t get me wrong: having a popular persona online can provide a lot of benefits for a writer. In some cases, it absolutely makes sense for a writer to create a chocolate persona. However, there is another piece to consider. Why does it matter? What’s the point of having a persona if you’re not going to do anything with it? After all, I could be the most popular writer online but if I don’t make any more money than a writer who isn’t popular online? Then what good does it do me? At the end of the day, all writers have to make a living somehow. Being a writer means you write more than forty hours a week; sometimes you have a full-time job, sometimes you don’t. Our time is limited. If we have to market ourselves, wouldn’t you much rather spend the time that you have doing something that matters?

Now, I know what you’re thinking. Popular authors online have to sell more books. Right? *shakes head* Not necessarily. I cannot tell you how many conversations I’ve had and how many threads I’ve followed where writers say it’s had little to no impact on their sales. Not to mention, more than a few have complained that the time they took to create that popular persona could have been used to *gasp* write.

Online marketers know the reality behind internet popularity all too well. You can drive tons of traffic to a web page, but if people don’t convert (e.g. take an action) then that traffic is useless. Brand awareness may be a goal, but often that comes with its own price. What do you want to be known for? Your writing or your foul mouth? There are other ways to get your name out in front of potential readers without pissing people off.

Lastly, it is a lot harder to maintain a persona that is an advertorial or a well-marketed aspect of anyone’s personality for long periods of time. Trendy personas are not sustainable unless you constantly put the work into it. Not to mention, it can be very exhausting if you are known for “this one thing” and have to keep up those appearances.

The Proof Is In The Data

Although this is a pretty simplified view of personas, the last thing that I’d like to point out is that you can prove how well your persona is working with data. What kind of persona do you need? Well, first you need to have some goals. Goals have to be measurable, traceable and provable. Then you need to figure out how to track those goals with a few, different metrics that are related to what you’re trying to accomplish. The more you look at your data, the more realistic your expectations will become.

For example, just looking at “hits” is pretty meaningless for several reasons. A “hit” can be a spam bot, a search engine spider, a refresh on a page or a visit. I’ve seen retailers who got really excited about getting thousands of hits in one day, only to find out their sales had decreased and the traffic came from a hacker. Web analytics tracks a three-dimensional visit to your website. Use that data to support your existing content and test new ideas. I guarantee that you’ll be happier in the long run because that data will take the guesswork out of what you’re doing. After all, your data can help shape not only when you post, but how often and what you post as well.

By using data to your advantage, you can create a persona that you’re satisfied with. What’s more, you can make your persona more manageable and (here’s the best part) get back to writing what you want to rather than what you feel compelled to.

Social Media, Online Personas and Criss Angel’s BeLIEve

Last night, a friend and I went to see Criss Angel‘s BeLIEve, which was under the umbrella of Cirque du Soleil. (Side note: his site opens with pop-ups and auto-play. Erg. You’ve been warned.) Since I had received a press release through horror webzine FlamesRising.com, I thought I could review it for the site, but I can’t.

Until the show started, everything related to Criss Angel’s BeLIEve came across as dark, moody and Victorian. Steampunk rabbits adorned the stage. Strange smoke filled the air. The program book has costumes of crows, dolls and odd bunny rabbits. Criss, who normally has more of a casual persona, is dressed up more as a goth than a Californian in the press kits and on the website. So, I was expecting to attend a surreal performance that took my breath away. Instead, we were regaled with slapstick comedy and an extension of Criss’s online and television presence through video clips, audience interaction, personal stories and memorabilia. There was no mystery, other than the illusions, which forced me to focus on the beats of the show. I could “see” how the show was constructed and I felt as if I was staring backstage. Something that–as many of my fellow authors, musicians, artists and actors know–can be a death knell for any stage performance if not handled carefully.

Reviews online reflected the audience’s disappointment as well. (Note to self: always read reviews.) Words like “self-indulgent” were used and other various unpleasantries. I walked out of the theatre feeling bad for Criss, because on the surface it seemed as if his original show was too dark and too edgy. “Quite possibly,” I thought, “the stage audience might not understand something that unusual. With the economy being the way it is, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that the show had to be “dumbed down” for public consumption.”

Afterward, I found myself thinking about how this show is an excellent example of what happens when an artist is constrained by his persona. Criss is very active with all the right tools; YouTube!, Facebook, etc. He’s has MINDFREAK, which is his own (for lack of a better description) syndicated magic reality TV show. All of these things add up to create a contemporary (magic) success story–especially online where it’s easy to “ooo” and “aaah” at someone walking on water or transferring scorpions into someone else’s mouth.

Take those same elements and allow people to seem them offline, and they don’t translate the same way. Those same anecdotes and videos come across as arrogant or selfish, regardless of how many platitudes we’re given. Why? Because the dynamic is different. The television and the internet are such unique, individual experiences that it’s difficult to recreate that extremely personalized touch in a room filled with hundreds of people.

Anyone who has performed on stage for an audience, speaking/singing/playing or otherwise, understands that the dynamic in a theater is no longer about the “I.” It’s about the “we.” The crowd mentality. It’s about fostering the crowd’s emotions in a natural way than holding back performances unless we cheer. It’s about drawing the audience into an experience rather than sharing the experiences of the performer.

What I just said is counter-intuitive to what many of us are taught about our online personas and writing platforms. We share online to get viewers and readers. We get personal by offering anecdotes to be able to relate to people. This doesn’t always work offline, which is why I wanted to talk about this particular show. Criss is obviously very talented and popular online, but right now I’m not sure he’ll be around for the long haul. I felt that BeLIEve was a chance for Criss to prove his versatility and recreate that Victorian-era feel with the help of Cirque du Soleil. The online thing Criss couldn’t escape, was his online persona.

The next time you’re thinking about your online persona or your writer’s platform, I hope that you consider how your online presence translates to your offline (analog) persona as well. At the end of the day, it’s a lot like dating. Give everything away, and you’ll have nothing left to give.

Politics, Gaming, Feminism and Persona

When I first started my blogging presence, I knew I wanted to take a more professional tack on it because of my career goals. I had been using LiveJournal for years, but didn’t really start thinking about a persona until I landed a job at an SEO consulting firm. It seems like it was just yesterday that I was knee-deep in keyword research and learning how to use and implement Google Analytics.

My day job isn’t the only thing that affected my persona. If you’re following along, you also know that I have a background as a writer, musical performer, amateur artist and photographer and as a gamer. It’s no secret that my tastes run dark. I’d rather be fighting zombies in a game than worrying about running a fashion shop. (Although, I do love fashion. I blame the uniforms I was stuck in for eight years.) However, if I had to point to one thing that’s influenced how I portray myself online more than any other, it is looking at the business of writing and being a writer.

The reason why I’ve done that, is because I haven’t always had the best experiences in the professional world when I reveal my game designer and author side. Where I live, a lot of businesses are very, very conservative. As a female who loves genres and gaming, I have encountered some resistance in the professional world. Other women gamers have expressed their fear that I should “hide” those interests because of the rampant stereotypes associated with gamers. And yes, there have been a few instances where religious people have indicated I will be going to hell for my love of all things dark. Sadly, I am not the only one who has encountered that attitude, either.

Striking a balance between a job and my creative endeavors has been a challenge, because I’m the type of person who is very passionate about almost everything that I do. Fortunately, I am now finding myself in a place where I can relax about some of these things, because I’ve been able to develop enough relationships with other people that the stereotypes don’t even enter their minds.

In many ways, these are the reasons why I’ve “held back” talking about some of the things that define me. Now, I’m getting to the point where I can’t do that and expect growth. There are a lot of people who have told me, once they hear what I want to do with my work and the profits thereof, that I need to focus on my own promotion. In order to do that, though, I have to balance my other need – to help other creative professionals learn business. Fortunately, there is a way for me to do that. Several people have approached me to start teaching workshops, and that is something I will be experimenting with.

Growing pains are a good thing, but they are also uncomfortable for me. At some point, I know I will have to express things that are uncomfortable for me to talk about. I don’t “want” to go in-depth into politics or feminism, but I feel that I have to with some topics, just so you understand where I’m coming from. Mind you, many of these subjects come up on panels and whatnot, too. A five minute discussion in a public forum is not enough time for me to discuss my personal views, but it is just long enough to leave an impression in your mind. Sometimes, that’s going to be a good impression, and sometimes that’s not. Unfortunately, that means that the minute I start discussing what my views are some people are going to be turned off by that. I’ve come to that crushing realization that not only can’t I please everyone, but everyone is not a potential reader. I would love to be a generalist to reach more readers, but based on who I am and what my beliefs are, that may not be the case. But what do I know? Still have to go on the journey, no matter how much trepidation I might have.

Right now, those impressions don’t matter as much just because many of you are probably not familiar with my writing or game design. Public figures who already have a persona often get more leeway when they talk about politics or feminism because there’s enough people out there who will still buy their books, watch their movies or listen to their concerts. I’m nowhere near to that yet, which is both good and bad. I have a lot more freedom to make mistakes than a public figure might, but I also have to keep that professional appearance in check because of my career and the work that I do.

Regardless of what happens from here on out, I feel that this part of my life is something that I want to share with you because I know that many of you are in the same boat that I am. If anything, I hope that you keep in mind that I am always open to other people’s opinions provided that you don’t present them as an absolute. Just like there isn’t one path to becoming a published author, there definitely isn’t one way to be.

If there was, I sure as hell wouldn’t have anything to write about.


“Brand” Mistakes You Don’t Want to Make

One of the things that I find really interesting, is how many authors and publishers treat their public relations and marketing channels. (This can include reviews, interviews, appearances, etc.)

The “old think” was that PR was something you needed to pay for. You’d incorporate your PR with your marketing, and you’d work with other “paid” professionals like reviewers or reports to see what fit into their schedule. The “new think” is that you, as an author or publisher, can leverage a lot of free methods to generate buzz and PR for your career.

Regardless of what side of the fence you fall on, there are a number of mistakes I see people making when it comes to dealing with their “brand.” Whether you work for a company or not, brand management is a lofty phrase that deals with how others perceive you or your works. Here are some of my biggest frustrations:

    1. Being “Brand” Arrogant – Do you believe that everyone knows your name or product? Guess again. Just like not everyone on the planet has seen Star Wars, not everyone has read your books or even knows you exist. Sure, everyone wants to feel proud of where they are in their career, but I’ve seen how brand arrogance hurts not only an author and/or publisher but the reader. The minute you publicly tell someone that “they’re wrong” and forget to keep your customer service voice on, the greater you’re at risk for that customer talking shit about you. No, not every customer is “right,” but you have to remember that the conversations you have with a single reader online are read by countless readers that are not commenting on the review or your conversation. You shouldn’t have to “defend” your products or your brand in a hostile manner — I don’t care how crappy the comment was. A mistake is one thing (and there are ways to handle that) but trying to “sell” yourself or your brand to someone who doesn’t want to have anything to do with you is entirely another.
    2. Not Understanding “Who” is Talking about You – There are two types of reviewers: those who work for places like the Chicago Times or the New Yorker and those who don’t. The cold, hard truth is that the bulk majority of reviewers on the web are not getting paid to write your review. They are, simply, readers who love to read books or play games and watch movies. (The jury is still out on which reviews “sell” more books. After all, are you influenced more by your friends’ opinions or a professional reviewer?)
    In many reviewers’ minds, the unpaid reviewers are doing their fellow reader a favor by providing their honest review of what they’ve experienced. This is part of what’s called “grass roots” marketing. In many ways, these reviews are more like testimonials, because these opinions are coming from “a customer.” Yes, reviewers appreciate it when they get a review copy, but often publishers see this as an expectation to get a positive review done ASAP. With “grass roots” marketing, many reviewers don’t feel an obligation to write a review in a timely manner, especially if they didn’t like the book. With “grass roots” marketing, often reviewers will get to it when they can, not because they don’t want to.
    Unfortunately, I’ve seen one too many authors and publishers alike bashing reviewers. Here’s what that gets you — negative press. Publicly bashing a reviewer is a big “no-no” for many reasons, but partially because a reviewer is not expecting flak for providing an honest opinion about what they’ve experienced. Just like you, as a customer, don’t like every brand of coffee — reviewers are not going to enjoy every book, game, movie, etc. they come into contact with.
    3. Trying to Control the Message – Once people start talking about you or your brand, don’t even think about trying to “control” what people are saying. Most people do not engage with places like Facebook, Goodreads, MySpace and Twitter to be deluged by people shilling something. Why? Because social media is all about people interacting with other people. It is not there to “serve” you personally in the way that you expect, nor does it happen on your schedule. In fact, some of the most popular content are the things that don’t cost “money” (e.g. not including time as a resource here) to make. Yes, comment moderation is necessary and you can post your policies for that. That, however, is different from “controlling” what people say about you. Only posting positive, corporate-sque comments about your brand is a dead give-a-way and a big turn-off for people who follow you religiously. In my experiences, people respond better to humans, not robots. Ignoring or divulging everything that people are saying are two, other tactics, both of which can blow up rather poorly in your face.

Instead of trying to control the message, I try to be a natural part of the message regardless of what I’m doing. This comes pretty easy for me, because I believe in being genuine and passionate about whatever I’m writing.

I recommend not only defining what your brand is, but also what message you want to portray and how you want to engage with other people. Once you do, you’ll be able to remind yourself what you want to accomplish in your marketing efforts. (e.g. Maybe you’ll think twice before posting a nasty comment on a bad review.) For more about how to request a review for your book or product, read Matt Staggs’ latest post entitled: “Critics on Rookie Mistakes and How to Avoid Them when Submitting Your Book for Review.”

Agree? Disagree? Feel free to comment below.

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Looking for Monica’s books and games that are still in print? Visit Monica Valentinelli on Amazon’s Author Central or a bookstore near you.


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