Marketing: Is It All Just a Popularity Contest?

If you’re an author, when you first learn about book sales and marketing, there are some ways that it could look like it’s just a popularity contest:

  • The books that show up at the top of search results tend to be books that have been clicked on and bought several times – i.e. popular books seem to have much better visibility.
  • Customers are more likely to buy a book online when its sales rank is a lower number than when it is a higher number. It is as if to say, “If that book isn’t good enough for everyone else, it isn’t good enough for me, either.”
  • Authors with thousands of friends on Facebook, followers on Twitter, or followers on their blogs appear to have a big advantage. Celebrities, especially, can use their popularity to sell their stories.
  • Once authors become well-known, their new releases tend to be immediately very popular. Many customers are more reluctant to go with new authors, and tend to inspect their books more fully before making a purchase.
  • Better-selling books generate more exposure through customer-also bought lists, referrals from readers who have already bought them, special placement in bookstores, etc.
  • Establishing good connections helps to improve popularity. These can be connections with book reviewers, members of the media, and so on.
  • Agents and publishers are looking for books that are likely to be popular. Authors who have established popularity have an advantage here.
  • Marketing, branding, and advertising: Ultimately, authors and their books are asking readers to notice them in their efforts to gain popularity among readers.
  • In the blogging and social media world, authors are busy interacting with readers and other authors, making connections, and supporting one another. Many followers are themselves other authors. Do you ever wonder if it’s all just one big popularity pyramid?
  • Does an author with great looks have an advantage in marketing? Do their photos make their covers, author pages, or websites more attractive? Do they make a quicker impression when interacting with their target audience?
  • How about an author with a great personality for social occasions? Does an author who is popular for good conversation have an advantage in interpersonal marketing?
  • People who have a knack for marketing have an inherent advantage in selling books. Does this trump the gifted writer who stinks when it comes to marketing?

Does it remind you of being in high school? Some classmates are in with the popular kids; others are not. The class president is the candidate who was most popular with the student body.

The newbie wonders: If only all of the books would be judged and bought on merit alone… Won’t the best books naturally rise to the top? Why do I need to market my book?

There are tens of million books out there. Who is going to read them all, judge them all, and tell readers which are best? Well, you could have editors and agents read through proposals… or you can look for published book reviews… The screening and judging process has many issues of its own.

Let’s look at the practical side of things:

  • tens of millions of books to choose from
  • hundreds of thousands of gifted writers (plus millions of others who love to write)
  • millions of people with great book ideas (plus millions of others with not-as-great book ideas)

The problem is this: How will the reader discover your book?

Effective marketing revolves around two things:

  • Writing a book that will please a real audience.
  • Helping your audience discover your book and showing your audience that your book is just what they want.

Selling a book isn’t like selling ice-cream. When you go to buy ice-cream, there are only a few brands to choose from. When you go to buy a book, there are millions of competitors. Advertising is cost-effective for ice-cream, but not for books (unless you already have a huge advantage in popularity to begin with, in which case your book may still sell very well without advertising).

You’re also not going to drive through the neighborhood in a book truck, with pictures of books painted on it, and playing music… with the result of everyone running out of their houses with ten-dollar bills in their hands, lining up to buy your books. (But hey, maybe it’s worth a shot: It might just be cute enough for the six o’clock news to cover it.)

The first issue the complete and utter newbie comes across is whether or not people judge a book by its cover. Why, how dare they!

But look at it this way: If the publisher believes in the book, wouldn’t the publisher put an appealing, professional-looking cover on it that attracts the target audience? Doing otherwise is like saying, “Don’t buy me. I’m not worth reading. My publisher didn’t even expect me to sell. Maybe as little thought and effort were put into the book as is reflected in the cover.”

From a practical perspective, shoppers don’t have time to thoroughly check out every book in the genre. They do have time to sort through an array of thumbnails to see which ones look like the kinds of books they read. The most important screening process is the customer’s screening process.

Despite the title of this post, I don’t view it as a mere popularity contest.

For one, you’re not just trying to become popular. It’s your book that you’d like to be popular. Readers may pay money to read your book. It’s ultimately about whether or not they will enjoy your book, not whether they would like to be your friend or take you out on a date.

For another, the writing definitely matters. If you’re the most popular person on the planet, but stink as a writer, that will severely limit your sales. (But in that case, all you really have to do is show wisdom in hiring a ghost writer.)

Look at it this way. You’re not just a writer. Especially, if you self-publish, you may be a writer, editor, cover designer, marketing consultant, publicist, and public relations expert all wrapped into one, just for the sale of one book. Even traditionally published authors have to fill more than one role.

But I think of the author as being a combination of just two parts: one part writer, and one part brander.

As a writer, you create a book that people will enjoy. As a brander, you help people find your book. In the process of branding, you have the opportunity to show people that you believe in your book. If you don’t believe in your own book enough to brand it, why should anyone else want to read it? You must first convince yourself that your own book is worthy before anyone else can buy it. (You can see that I experienced a taste of this myself in my previous post, “More clichés?”)

What, exactly, is a brander? I’m using this word first to mean that you brand your book and image as author, but also more loosely to mean that you’re helping your target audience discover your book. This entails:

  • Packaging your book in a way that will attract your target audience. This includes a cover representative of your specific sub-genre that says loud and clear, “I’m your type of book.” It also includes a blurb and Look Inside that efficiently grab the attention of and hook your target audience. There are thousands of books in your genre, so shoppers won’t invest much time checking out your blurb and Look Inside – and they won’t even find your book if not for a relevant cover.
  • Making your cover and interior look professional and appealing. The first impression must show customers that you have put much time, effort, and thought into the book before they will look beyond the superficial qualities. Plus, you want the reader thinking positively, looking forward to the story, not critically, distracted with what else may be wrong with your book.
  • Finding and interacting with the target audience to help the book get discovered. Shouting repeatedly (online, too) for people to please buy your book is more likely to annoy people, while providing value to your target audience and having them discover your book may be more successful. Personal interactions tend to be effective, so interact with your audience in person and online. Blogs, reviews, media, workshops, readings, conferences – find ways to meet your target audience to help them discover your book. Make a good impression. Charm them.
  • Creating a brand for your book and your image as the author. The more people in your target audience hear your name, see your photo, hear your book’s title, and see your cover, the more likely this is to influence sales. Branding doesn’t occur overnight; you must be patient. Months down the road, someone in your target audience may see your cover in search results. You want this person to think, “I remember seeing this before, and at the time it seemed interesting,” or, “I met this author and really enjoyed the interaction.” Do you buy dish detergent because you’ve heard the brand name before? Many people do.
  • Generating buzz for your book. Premarketing is especially important in fiction. Marketing isn’t an afterthought (click on the link before if you’d like a list of several pre-marketing ideas). If you succeed in building interest in your book before it’s released and several sales right out of the gate, this can help you start out with several sales and improves your prospects for early reviews. Advance review copies can help, too. You can even arrange preorders for early sales.
  • Showing your passion for your book. When others see an artist’s passion, this helps to create interest in the art itself. The more you interact with others and let them discover your passion (don’t force it by being explicit, just let it show), the more you can benefit from this. You want to show your genuine passion, without coming across as a salesperson or self-promoter.

Your goal isn’t to be Mr. or Mrs. Popularity. Your goals are simple: First write a book that will please an audience, then help your target audience discover your book. (The second goal includes formatting, packaging, etc. – not just social media, reviewers, and so on.)

Bookstores want to carry books that (1) please a significant audience and (2) where the target audience is likely to walk into the store to find that specific book.

Marketing is geared toward the second point. You’re not just trying to become popular. You’re specifically striving to develop and grow a following and fan base among your specific target audience. You’re not just trying to become popular with reviewers. You’re trying to find reviewers in your target audience to help readers discover a book that’s a great fit for them.

You’re trying to get your book discovered because – back to the first point – you believe that once people find it, they will enjoy it and recommend it to others.

Ultimately, excellent writing and ideas matter much more than popularity. But you have to get your book discovered before the writing and ideas will matter at all.

Chris McMullen, author of A Detailed Guide to Self-Publishing with Amazon and Other Online Booksellers, Vol. 1 (formatting/publishing) and Vol. 2 (packaging/marketing)

14 comments on “Marketing: Is It All Just a Popularity Contest?

  1. “Popularity” is a loaded word. It invokes thoughts of High School and of being picked last for volleyball. In business, however, we need to be able to look at the reality of market share realistically and unemotionally.

    Some products have a larger market than others. That’s just a fact. Supermarkets don’t sell as much anchovy paste as they do peanut butter, for example. Manufacturers of anchovy paste can spend a lot of money trying to reach peanut butter customers, but no amount of promotion is going to sell a product to someone who doesn’t want it.

    Success in marketing isn’t about reaching everyone–it’s about reaching the people who want what you have to sell. For niche producers this means finding the niche market.

  2. EXCELLENT post, Chris.

    When a writer is starting out, no one tells them they have to market their work, too. It comes as a bit of a shock to some. I must admit, I spent most of my forty years in this field devoted solely to matters related to the story itself – a good meaty plot, the research that gives a backing of realism, writing, pace, characterization, etc., etc.

    Only after getting it published, though, did I look to marketing. Fortunately for me, I very quickly found the perfect cover designer, so that’s one side looked after – but I went through a real learning curve gaining insight to publishing and promotion, blogging and interacting.

    Blogging seemed hard at first (Oh no! What can I talk about? There are only so many ways to say “I’ve written a book”), but I love it now. I’ve found some brilliant blogs and met some wonderful people, and that interaction makes coming in to blog everyday very much like hanging out with my friends.

    I’ve a lot yet to learn (don’t we all), but I’m having fun doing it. Thank you for helping me on my journey.

    Cheers to you!

    • Definitely, great interactions can make blogging a magnetic experience. Thank you for sharing a little of your experience. Marketing is much easier if, as you said, you can learn to have fun doing it. 🙂

      • I agree. Having fun with is the only way. Hating it would just so backfire. Real feelings do come through.

        Interestingly, I got past my own early nerves by pretending that I was just writing to my friends and not to the wide world. Now, of course, I’m writing to my friends. 🙂 Thinking in those terms, I believe, proved best for me as it turned blogging into a comfortable environment – which has then expanded into an even more comfortable environment! I didn’t know I was doing that when I made that decision to “write to my friends”, but that’s what enabled me to just be me.

        I do enjoy your insights and your down to earth approach. A good dose of sense particularly helps newbies understand what’s going on and how to put things together.

        Have a great day/evening. 🙂

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