Marketing Part One: It’s not rocket science, is it?

by Nicky Schmidt

Ask any author what they’d like to know more about, and one of the responses is inevitably “marketing”. This is far less about a desire for a career change, and far more about the need to make a living as a writer.

As the publishing world changes, so authors have increasing responsibility to raise their sales figures in the hope of not just improving their living, but also ensuring future publishing contracts.

Understanding the Basics

For most authors, however, writing and marketing are uneasy bedfellows. Many see marketing as distasteful - all self-promotion and being in the limelight - when really, they’d rather be lurking in their shed writing The Next Big Thing. The irony is if you wrote The Next Big Thing, you wouldn’t have to worry about marketing – but we’ll get to that.

Unfortunately, given publishers’ business strategies (most of which seem to be about rights’ management), most authors are going to have to get used to the concept of marketing themselves. To be successful, an author has to start seeing his/herself as a small FMCG (Fast Moving Consumer Goods) company – researching, manufacturing and marketing products - and leveraging opportunities. Considered this way, one soon realises that every author has to have a marketing plan.

Before you run screaming to the hills, let me assure you that marketing isn’t rocket science – it’s psychology, common sense, confidence – and knowing who you are. You don’t need a complex 100 page document. Richard Branson is famously known for writing a business plan on the back of a beer mat, and for saying, “If something can’t be explained off the back of an envelope, it’s rubbish.” Keep your marketing strategy simple and focused.

Marketing - it's psychology, common sense, confidence, - and knowing who you are.

Through this series you will hopefully come to understand some of the fundamentals of marketing. But there’s a proviso: you have chosen to work in a tough and competitive industry which is threatened by change and difficult economic conditions. The only thing that is certain is uncertainty, and there is no sure thing. While marketing isn’t rocket science, in today’s world rocket science may well be an easier alternative to a career as a writer!

As a novice marketer there are a few basics you need to understand. They are known as the 4 P's and underpin every marketing endeavour.

Product ~ Price ~ Place ~ Promotion

In other words:

Your novel ~ How much it costs ~ Where it's sold ~ What makes it sell

You might also add three more P's:

Purchaser ~ Positioning ~ Purpose

This means: Knowing and connecting with your target market ~ Your brand and how you put it into the world ~ Why you're doing what you're doing

 ...research what your target market is reading - and most importantly - enjoying.

Unless you are self-publishing*, price and place (distribution) will be out of your hands. Even your product may be shaped by what publishers and booksellers deem will sell. But whether you are self-publishing or being traditionally published, promotion is increasingly going to be left in your hands. Before you can start promoting yourself and your work, you have to have written the very best novel you can, and then you’ll need to create a brand and get that brand out there.

Looking at it in marketing terms, and without wishing to sound trite, the most critical thing you must do is produce the best, must-have product you can – i.e. write the best novel you can. And, if you don’t want to have to end up marketing it, make sure it’s a novel that speaks to universal themes that everyone will love - in other words the infamous Next Big Thing.

If you’re going to approach your writing as a business (which you should do if you want to make a living from your writing) you’ll have to leave the writing shed and get analytical. Do your market research and understand the themes and plots that create a bestseller. Then, and this is critical, research what your target market is reading - and most importantly - enjoying. Link these elements to what publishers are putting into the market place – accepting that publishers don’t really know what they want until they see it. Also think about how you can gain maximum leverage from your novel – can it become an app, go multimedia, be turned into a film or game, spawn merchandise? Remember, there is more than one way to tell a story. Think about all these things so that they inform how and what you write. And then finally, artistic integrity and literary inclinations notwithstanding sit down and write a novel with commercial appeal.

If you're going to approach your writing as a business... you'll have to leave the writing shed and get analytical.

Now here’s the curious thing – write the novel with commercial appeal, hopefully that Next Big Thing, and you’ll discover that the very best form of marketing is word of mouth. And what’s great is that it’s powerful and costs nothing. As US literary agent, Donald Maass** says, “Success does not come from agents, advances, editors or promotion… It comes from word of mouth.” This is further borne out by Amazon’s recent purchase of GoodReads. In the Washington Post’s “Wonkblog”, Jordan Weissman says, “Barnes and Noble’s in-store displays don’t rule the book business like they used to… Instead, the business model is moving further towards word of mouth.” Readers are increasingly responsible for book recommendations. Let’s face it, JK Rowling’s Harry Potter didn’t become a success because some Bloomsbury marketing manager dreamed up a cunning marketing strategy. The first Harry Potters were a hit because people were talking about and recommending them to their friends. It was only after sales took off that marketing people piled onto the bandwagon. Marketing people love easy-sells (and long lunches).

Write the novel with commercial appeal, hopefully that Next Big Thing, and you'll discover that the very best form of marketing is word of mouth.

If you’ve not written the Next Big Thing, the problem you have is how to be noticed in the crowd. And the truth is, in today’s overcrowded market place where you are in competition with other novels, movies, TV, games and apps, standing out - as any midlist author will tell you - is painfully difficult. It can be done but it takes time and hard work, and the way forward is two-fold. Firstly, never give up. Brute determination and a thick skin are your allies. Secondly, having written the best novel you can, start building a strong brand for yourself and getting your name into the public domain. The reason why some publishers bang on about author platforms is because if you’re out there on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr etc., you’re already marketing yourself, which makes their job a little easier. Once you have your brand and some kind of platform, start connecting with your target market (your purchasers) in a way that is human, accessible and interactive. Brand, positioning and customer loyalty are the key elements in leveraging your writing career, and if you can do it well, you can start to make a living as a writer – or you can join an FMCG as a marketing manager!

Next in the series: Brands

*this series of articles looks at marketing from the perspective of traditionally published authors, for self-published authors wanting marketing insights, there are a host of resources available on the internet, including interviews with self-published authors on my blog, Absolute Vanilla.
** Donald Maass is also author of “Writing the Breakout Novel – insider advice for taking your fiction to the next level”.

As well as being a regular feature writer for Words & Pictures, Nicky also runs the SCBWI_BI YA E-Critique group.  She blogs at Absolute Vanilla


  1. Thanks Nicky,
    My head tells me it makes good sense. My heart is not so sure.
    I think I'm going to start small and these basic principles are a good start.
    Thanks again

  2. Thanks Nicky - what works in marketing terms often seems to me to be unquantifiable - a dark art! But it's heartening to hear that word of mouth can be so powerful. Perhaps those human connections that feel so good but cost such a lot (in terms of time and effort) really do have a practical purpose too.

  3. All the marketing talk aside, you have to write the book you have to write. If you write true to yourself, and if you do a good enough job through your craft, then hopefully your novel will speak for itself. At the end of the day it's the quality of the product and it's appeal that creates the ultimate marketing.

  4. Really interesting and very helpful feature, Nicky. Thank you
    I too am heartened that it's all about word of mouth and an excellent product and without that, all the marketing and promotion is like an overblown balloon.

  5. I appreciate your efforts in preparing this post. I really like your blog articles marketing virtual assistant services

  6. Companies always need print media for their aid in promoting services and products but a single office printer will not be able to give huge output to the levels that businesses need. My blog


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