Somewhere around midnight on either Thursday or Friday depending on the time zone, Beyoncé—in the words of Consequence of Sound’s editor-in-chief Michael Roffman —“simply uploaded her fifth, eponymous-titled album to iTunes, complete with 17 videos to accompany the album’s 14 tracks, and then, you know, walked away.”
She didn’t exactly walk away. She actually accompanied the upload with an announcement on Instagram that you have to see just to understand its impact. Click here, if you haven’t looked already.
Beyoncé said she wanted to go directly to the fans, and whoa, boy, did she. Within hours, the album, called Beyoncé, became the fastest-selling album on iTunes ever, and became #1 in 104 countries. If you want to see how that word-of-mouth traveled, Buzzfeed provided this really nifty map of Twitter in the 12 hours after the surprise announcement.
When I drop a stealth novel and announce it on social media, do I get that kind of buzz? Of course not. And while I’ll be talking about Beyoncé’s unorthodox marketing strategy a lot in the next two weeks or so, I won’t be doing so because I want you to emulate it.
I want you to understand it.
Those are two very different things.
Beyoncé, Nine Inch Nails, Kanye West, and Radiohead have all pulled off a version of this kind of direct-to-fans release. First social media starts to talk about it, then regular media, and then the idiot pundits, who have no real idea what they’re talking about. (It took me nearly an hour as I wrote this to find people who were writing actual articles, rather than folks who were opining about the way that Beyoncé had been born fully formed from the forehead of Zeus, and therefore could have done something like this as a babe in arms. [And yes, I can be even more snide, if I cared to].)
So why am I discussing Beyoncé’s great media coup in a post geared toward writers—in the middle of my discoverability series. Because Beyoncé understands that she has a career, and she also understands that her work is not produce—something that has to be hyped before it spoils—but something that she hopes (and her fans believe) will last a long time.
Her fans love her work so much that they went against modern music industry beliefs and downloaded a full album, rather than wait a week to get the individual singles (or the CD). When Target and Amazon decided not to carry the CD because the internet release came first (which was very pouty of them, and quite hypocritical of Amazon), Beyoncé didn’t whine or complain.
Instead, on December 20, the day of the CD’s release, she went to a Wal-Mart in Massachusetts (where she was set to go on stage a few hours later), commandeered the intercom, wished everyone in the store Merry Christmas, and then told all those lucky Wal-Mart shoppers that the first $50 of their shopping spree was on Beyoncé. That act of generosity cost her $37,000, got her another round of media attention, and served as a giant fuck-you to Target and Amazon.
Can’t find the CD on Amazon or in Target? No prob, fans. Wal-Mart has it.
Oh, my, that woman has style. And she trusts her fans. She has cultivated them for years.
Beyoncé came to national attention in 1997 when the group she was with, Destiny’s Child, released its first album. But she’d been learning her craft since she was a little girl. You may not like her music. But there’s no denying she’s one of the top entertainers in the world—and she’s worked her way into that position with almost twenty years of performance, craft, work behind her. And here’s the thing most articles about the surprise album release fail to mention—just how much work it was to produce the damn thing. (Not to mention how hard it was to keep the gigantic secret under wraps.)
On the day of release, the only mention of how hard she actually worked appeared in The Los Angeles Times (at least that I could find):
Beyoncé’s sneak attack is the result of more than a year and a half of work. Recording began when the singer and her camp of writers and producers lived together in the Hamptons last summer. And the videos were lensed in places such as Houston, New York City, Rio de Janeiro, Sydney and Paris as she toured.
And that’s what I want you writers to take from all of this coverage. Every bit of the hype, every bit of the shouting, started after the album was done. The album itself is one of at least twenty original albums she’s produced, not counting other projects she’s been involved in.
She’s only 32 years old. Do you think this release will be the headline of her obit? Maybe if (God forbid) she dies next week. But if she has a normal life span, this might or might not be the headline when she goes. I’m betting on not.
Yes, in some ways, the idiot pundits are right—only Beyoncé could have done this. But that’s because Beyoncé stands on seventeen years of work, and seventeen years building a fan base, seventeen years of a career that, with luck, will extend into the future.
And she built the album according to her vision.
Not, as so many of you keep asking me, on what she should have done or what someone else does. Her vision.
Because, in the arts, all we have is our individuality. The minute you try to do something the same way someone else did—from composing a story to choosing a genre to marketing your work—you’ve failed.
The first rule of being an artist is to be an artist.
What you’re creating is unique, because it’s yours. Your job as an artist is to always strive to tell your stories in your way. Who cares if fat fantasy novels are selling right now? Who cares if none of your friends read romance?
Write your books.
And always work to improve.
Improve your language? No, not unless you don’t know grammar well—and that is the case for so many of you. You never got grammar, punctuation, and spelling in school. Learn it, for god’s sake. Those are the tools of your trade.
Then learn how to make those tools dance to your tune. Not someone else’s. Yours.
You cannot think about being discovered if you don’t produce the work.
Every time we talk about discoverability, promotion, or sales, I always say that the best thing you can do to promote your writing is to write more.
How do people find your work? By having choices. Some people might like the cover on your very first novel, and buy it for that reason. Some people don’t find you until your fifteenth novel. Some people like your short stories or, as some of you have pointed out on a recent blog of mine, some of people find your fiction through your nonfiction.
Write. Write a lot. Then write more.
Don’t even bother to try to be “discovered” until you have a body of work. Not one novel. Not even two novels. Maybe not three or four or five. Worry about being discovered after you’ve published a good handful of novels or short stories or plays or nonfiction books. Enough to fill a computer screen when someone is scrolling, looking for something to read.
I am not telling you to wait to publish.
I think you should publish the very first thing you finish. If you want to be traditionally published, send that very first thing to editors who might buy it. If you want to be a hybrid writer or an indie writer, then publish that thing after it’s gone through a first reader and a copy editor. Get it out into the world.
You might not sell a single copy.
You might sell hundreds or thousands or tens of thousands.
The only way to know is to make the work available.
But first, you have to do the work.
That work is writing.
Write what you love. Tell the best story you can. Then, once you’ve finished that story, start a new story. Make it even better than the first.
None of the hype, none of the career stuff, none of the marketing works on just one book. Nor does it work well on only a few.
In fact, there’s growing evidence that hype—traditional marketing—doesn’t work at all.
Here’s the problem, hype only works if the product’s justified, and in today’s cynical culture, where everyone has a voice and the haters have even louder one, hype hardly matches up even when the product is justified.
Remember what we’ve been discussing these past few weeks. We’ve been discussing how to get the word out about your work. What used to work in the past applies to a completely different business model than the one that exists today. (If you don’t understand that statement, please read last week’s blog.)
As I was going through the articles about Beyoncé, looking for the information I knew I had read but couldn’t find quickly, I kept seeing one thing over and over again.
The only way to know if the album was worth the hype wasn’t the 800,000 downloads in the first 12 hours, but whether or not people would still be buying the album in the second week and beyond. Because by then, word of mouth wouldn’t just be that the album was out, but also about whether or not the album was good.
Well, the album was released in the middle of the chart-cycle (not on a Tuesday, like all good albums should release). In its second full week on the chart, the album still held the number one position. Billboard has called it “unstoppable,” and added this:
Thus, in its first 10 days of release, “Beyoncé” sold 991,000 and is (so far) the 12th biggest-selling album of 2013. There is one more tracking week left in the year — the week ending Dec. 29. It’s likely that “Beyoncé” will finish 2013 among the top 10 sellers (all of which have sold at least 1 million this year).
If the fans didn’t like the album, sales would have peaked in the first week and dropped precipitously. This happened to many albums in 2013, just like it’s been happening to books.
When an album or a book or a movie—let me start again. When a piece of entertainment enters the world, that piece of entertainment must then stand on its own. The hype can only carry it so far.
The best work gets carried by word of mouth. When you’ve cultivated millions of international fans, like Beyoncé, that word of mouth literally moves at the speed of the internet. When you’re me, that word of mouth takes months, sometimes years. When you’re brand new, that word of mouth will definitely take years.
Does that mean you should study the market before you write anything, jump into the bestselling genre, and hope for the best?
Write what you love. Constantly learn. Constantly improve.
Last week, I compared your writing to real estate. Your writing is an asset that will live for decades after you’re gone (if you do it right). So following this year’s trends is absolutely silly.
If you need to think about which neighborhood your rental houses are in, then here’s how you do it:
Every writer starts in a neighborhood where the storytelling is okay. We’ve all lived in places like that. The house provides a roof, maybe a little charm, and needs a lot of work. But many of us still lived in those houses—and we enjoyed parts of them.
Your goal as a writer is to establish your rental units in better neighborhoods—neighborhoods where the stories are mostly good (although there are still a few clunkers). Someday, after decades, your storytelling skills will enable you to offer rentals in a neighborhood where the stories are very good.
And maybe, just maybe, you might actually work your way into the truly rarefied neighborhoods, the ones with great stories, stories that will appeal to millions of people.
Then, long after you’re dead, your work might work its way into that neighborhood where Shakespeare dwells. The one where Jane Austen’s lovely little houses still charm and delight. You won’t live to see your work there, but your fans will.
The new fans, who have discovered you—
Because of your writing.
So…how do you get discovered? You write a lot. You constantly improve.
And you have patience.
Yes, I’ve said this before.
I’ll say it again.
Some of the marketing I’ll be discussing in the next few weeks will apply to people who have written enough to form a list of works. If you’ve only written one novel, you can stop reading the discoverability blogs right now.
You’re not ready for the rest of this.
You haven’t done enough work yet.
Write more. Bookmark the blogs. Read them after you’ve finished and published more work.
The rest of you, we’ll talk about the brave new world of publishing next week—a world where a superstar totally avoids the hype machine and outsells all of her contemporaries who did traditional marketing.
Believe me, that gamble wouldn’t have worked in 1985.
But we don’t live in 1985.
Thinking about marketing and hype and promotion is so last century.
We’ll start talking about the next century next week—as we move into the next year.
2013 was a good year for me. Not a great one, but a good one. In that year, I did somehow manage 52 blogs. I hope to do the same in 2014.
Thanks for coming on the journey with me. Thanks for sharing your thoughts in e-mail and comments. Thanks for sharing links and your knowledge. Thanks for the donations, which keep this blog alive. Thanks for reading and returning, week after week.