Writers always believe that they can become a bestseller if they only goose their sales properly. I actually had a brand-new writer scream at me once about this very thing. Back in the early days of Amazon’s Kindle, she had “sold” 50,000 copies of her only novel by giving it away for free.
“I’ll take my 50,000 sales over your sales any day,” she shouted at me.
I said, calmly, “Talk to me in five years,” and walked away.
Four years later, she’s nowhere to be seen. She managed to write one more book under that name, tried the same technique with a brand new name, wrote one or two more books, and when she realized she hadn’t made more than pocket change on all of it, quit writing altogether. I have no idea what she’s doing now.
Years ago, when I encountered writers like her, I’d feel bad when they quit. They were usually good writers who claimed they dreamed of writing since childhood. Yet when they realized that writing and selling books isn’t as easy as reading and buying books, these writers quit.
I have learned that it’s better to let these writers go and try other things. Writing was one stop on their journey, not the journey itself.
Why am I telling you this? Because so many of the gurus that have come along since the advent of the Kindle have also vanished. Or, like one of the early writer marketing gurus that I heard recently on a podcast, they’ve revamped their business to focus on production, not on marketing.
In nonbusiness terms, that means writing the next book. And the next. And the next.
However, writers do need to do some minimal marketing these days. I cover that in my book Discoverability, and I cover some of it earlier in this branding series.
I also discussed it a bit last week, in the first post on how to expand your audience. Please go read that post now, because that post, this post, and next week’s post are all one long blog post, divided into three (so that I don’t post a 12,000 word blog).
Before I started this post, I Googled the topic, just to see if I could find some current research. Instead, I found dozens of articles that offer generic business advice, and they all start with the same thing I mentioned last week: make sure you’re ready to expand your reach.
That woman who screamed at me? She wasn’t ready to give her book away to anyone, let alone 50,000 potential readers. Because she didn’t have a follow-up book. Even if those readers had read her novel, they couldn’t buy her next, because she didn’t have a next.
I tell writers to have at least 10 books before they start into the free route. If the writers are writing in a series, then they need to have at least four books before giving the first away free. And never do perma-free on any of your books at a e-book retailing site (like Amazon or Kobo). That limits the promotions that you can do with the book. If you want readers to get your book for free, make them come to your website and download the book there. A link to BookFunnel will make the download easy and will also enable you to capture the email addresses of the people who downloaded, so you can send a specific newsletter to them when the next book comes out.
Make it clear on your website that downloading the book means these people are volunteering their names and email addresses for a newsletter. If you don’t, the newsletter services will mark you as spam.
There. I’ve just given you one tip on how to expand your audience. But rather than dispense tips, I’m going to show you a game plan on how to design your own marketing for slow growth.
First, let’s talk terminology. When I’m discussing marketing in this post and next week’s, I mean actual marketing. Promotion, advertising, newsletters, videos, that sort of thing. I do not mean blurbs on the back of your book or designing a cover. I assume you’ll do those things as a matter of course.
Marketing, for the purposes of these next two blog posts, is unusual, active behavior, behavior that other businesses would hire, say, an advertising agency to do or a marketing person in a publishing house.
Also, for the sake of these two blog posts, I’m going to assume a few things. I’m going to assume that you have written and published more than one book. I’m going to assume you did the work I assigned you in the second target audience post and actually figured out who your current audience is. I’m going to assume that you want to keep the newcomers and that you want them to become loyal to your brand.
I’m also going to assume that you’ve evaluated your business and determined that you’re ready to grow the audience.
As marketer Tracey Wallace wrote several years ago when she was still blogging for Mashable, “…you need to be secure in your own market before expanding to a new one. The trick to expanding is to never take too much focus off what drew customers to you in the first place. Otherwise, you risk losing them (and thereafter, your business).”
The Mashable article—in fact, all of the articles I found tonight about expanding an audience assume that the business needs to develop new products or move into a new neighborhood to expand the business’s reach. That’s true of most retail business, but not necessarily true of writers.
Books are—and have been—so poorly marketed that most existing books never reach an audience that would enjoy them. Because book marketing was always based on velocity—selling a book to a lot of people fast, and then assuming the book was “over” a few months after release—most books (including most bestsellers) never reached full market penetration.
Ah, hell, let’s be honest here. Most books were never targeted at a market at all. Books received a genre label (and remember, genre is a sales tool, not a definition), a genre cover, a few marketing dollars, and a general push to the genre’s readers and that was it. Traditional publishers still do that.
Indies do it too, only they use key words and copy each other’s covers and branding ideas. Indies believe that if they want to expand their reach, they need to write in a whole new genre. (Well, I’ve heard some writers say, urban fantasy didn’t work for me. All the shifter types have been taken. So I’m going to write billionaire erotica! Sigh.)
Your game plan shouldn’t be trying an entirely new type of product (unless writing in a new genre interests you). Your marketing game plan should be to slowly expand your audience with your existing books.
How do you do it?
Here’s where I could do what the marketing gurus do and tell you fifteen tricks that are guaranteed to work right now.
The problem is that there’s really no guarantee except this one: the tricks probably won’t work six months from now. They’ll be useless to you, because there will be a newer, bigger, hotter marketing trick by them.
I’ll touch on hot marketing tricks this week, and I’ll teach you how to use those tricks as they are designed next week.
The Game Plan
- Figure Out How Much Time You’re Going to Invest in Your Marketing.
This is weekly or monthly time. Are you going to have a marketing hour every day? A marketing day every week? A marketing weekend every month? A marketing week every quarter? Figure it out, and hold to that. Don’t do any marketing at any other point. You’re heading for slow-growth, not rapid growth. You need to plan things that will fit into your timeline and still give you hours and hours to write and publish.
Your schedule is under your control. Pick the least disruptive option for the way that you do business.
- Decide What You Want From Your Marketing.
Yes, yes, I know. You want to grow your audience. But what segment of your audience do you want to grow? I mentioned a few weeks ago that my traditional publisher didn’t market my African-American detective novels to African-Americans, so when I got my rights back, I focused strongly on marketing to that demographic, particularly readers.
You probably know where there are gaps in your market. Maybe you want older readers for your acclaimed YA series. Or maybe you want to widen your readership in Australia.
Once you have figured out who you’re targeting, then you set up a plan. That plan will be unique to whatever group you want to expand. It’s not going to be a one-size-fits-all plan.
In my case, I targeted African-American book clubs, so that readers could discuss the series, the writer, and the choices. CushCity provided a great book club list for just that purpose. I also bought BookBubs (and BookBub lights) for the first book in the series and placed the book not in the mystery category, but in the African American category.
I did other promotions as well, but these were the ones I started with.
You’re now the Director of Marketing for your publishing company. So direct your marketing.
- Pick One Book or One Series To Focus On At A Time
If you’re like me, you’ll have a dozen different projects going at any given moment. I rotate my own marketing to fit whatever book/project is coming out this month or this year. I have a marketing game plan for that project, and I do my best to hit that plan.
I don’t worry about the other projects during that time.
It’s a little disingenuous to say I only focus on one. I don’t. I have many projects premiering in a year, so some of my marketing plans overlap.
Sometimes, that’s serendipity. Right now, I’m doing some minor marketing on my Diving series. In September, a new book, The Runabout, will appear. That book went up for preorder just recently, and I let the Diving newsletter know about it. I also posted a blog about the preorder on Tuesday.
I’ve posted about The Runabout before, because early this year it became the first full novel ever published in its entirety in Asimov’s. That publication was great—I got reviews, some new fans, and…many many many pages of advertising in that magazine. The best kind of advertising, the kind where people actually read my work and decide if they like it.
So I’ve done small marketing on The Runabout already. I’ll do a fuller press in September. WMG is sending out (has sent out?) review copies. Audible is promoting the audiobook because it was produced by Audible Studios. So there’s a lot of marketing already going on.
And…something else came up. About a year ago, I noted that writers were doing starter kit bundles for their book series. You want to get into a long series? Buy the first 3 books as a bundle.
I suggested to WMG that we do that with all of our series. Allyson Longueira, WMG’s publisher, decided that she could allot only so much staff time to the project, so the bundles have appeared slowly—one, two, or three a month.
That, plus a “bundle” of the Uncollected Anthology that I’m a part of, and seeing some gorgeous short story bundles that friends were putting together made me think of curating a bundle of bundles for Storybundle. That went live last week. I had a lot of choices for which one of my own starter kits to include, but I decided on Diving because…you know…The Runabout premiers in September, so, I figured, let’s get some new readers on board before that.
I’m in a lot of Storybundles this year because of WMG. Dean or Allyson or someone (I can’t remember) came up with the idea of organizing Storybundles around Fiction River volumes (Dean and I are the series editors and masterminds behind Fiction River).
We’ve done a number of those, then Kevin J. Anderson decided to add a Fiction River to his Storybundle, and so we have even more. Overlapping promotional opportunities came about, and I’m using them as best I can.
Limited time bundles, like Storybundle, enable writers to band together to promote each other’s work. We end up sharing readers. The readers decide if they want to continue with the new-to-them authors’ work.
The sharing doesn’t happen quickly. Readers take their own sweet time to sample works by writers unfamiliar to them. About a third of bundle purchasers get to everything within the month. The rest take a year or more—or never get to the purchase.
How do I know this? Not just because readers write to me and tell me when (if) they plan to buy the bundle. (Just this morning, someone wrote to say she had to read the previous bundles before buying a new one.)
That’s anecdotal stuff. I have actual data. This spring, WMG included an online lecture through Teachable in one of the bundles I curated. That lecture had a specific download code, good for a long time. The bundle ended, we know how many bundles were sold, and how many of those people have used the code.
I’ve seen similar things with first books in a series that appeared in a bundle, but spread across multiple platforms. The bundles, like anything that involves reading or actually consuming the product, take a lot more time than free downloads do, but they produce better results.
Remember, our goal in growing our audience isn’t just to get names on a list. Our goal is to make readers who will return whenever you produce another book. [link] That’s why I prefer things that encourage newcomers to read my books and stories, as opposed to things that simply get me lists of names.
You’ll note, though, that I cited data above. I’ve alluded to other data as well. Data is very important when you’re doing actual marketing and here’s why.
- Test, Evaluate, Decide
Once you figure out what you want to do, you’ll try all kinds of marketing strategies. Because your time is limited, you’ll only do one or two at a time.
Consider your first foray into a certain marketing strategy a test. Figure out how you can evaluate that test, using data that our internet world so freely makes available.
Once the test is completed, decide if the marketing method is something you want to repeat, modify, or discard. Again, that’s something only you can decide.
In March of this year, Ron Vitale wrote a marvelous blog about precisely this process. He had decided to use Instafreebie six months earlier after hearing great things about it, and how well it worked. He had set goals for the Instafreebie experiment, goals that the experiment hit only partially.
Then he had to evaluate whether he would be better off spending that time and money on Instafreebie or on some other marketing strategy. I’ll keep you in suspense about his decision because I want you to read his blog. I want you to see how this kind of marketing experiment works, and what kind of thinking you should put into it.
- Keep Your Ear To The Ground
Marketing is often about trying something different, not about following the crowd. That said, the crowd sometimes has great ideas.
In this blog, I complain a lot about the “current gurus” but partly because I’m constantly listening to them. Most of these people have only written a handful of books (if that). Their success comes from extreme marketing. If I only had one or two books, I could really focus down on marketing as well. (And I’d be the most miserable person on Planet Earth. I love writing. I like marketing—sometimes. At every full moon on every fifth month. Maybe.)
Sometimes, though, those extreme marketing gambits contain the nugget of a good idea. After listening to the Amazon ad gurus, I urged WMG to try Amazon ads. We’re doing ads slowly (a few per month) and leaving them up. We’re finding a sweet spot, but we’ve only put up 21 of our books so far (out of six hundred) because life’s too short.
I also put together something as I listened to the folks who kept saying the ads worked. They were nonfiction writers who had one or two novels. So, I wondered, was it their nonfiction that sold through the ads?
We put up some nonfiction books after that little realization, and voila! the sales off the ads for those books were much higher than the fiction sales. But we’re using Amazon ads for something other than direct sales. We’re using them as advertising, and advertising (as those of you who’ve read Discoverability know) is all about eyeballs and impressions and being out there, not about one-to-one direct sales.
Because of the internet, you can find out about the latest hottest trend the week it becomes the latest, hottest. You can try old things as well. You can find all kinds of ways to promote. BookBub’s blog often lists some of the current hot things [link], and many are worth experimenting over. For example, BookBub’s blog included fascinating ideas after Book Expo, some of which I want to try. They do this sort of blog often, and it’s worth investigating.
- Keep An Eye On The Culture
Every fall, a new TV show takes over the culture. That show might dovetail with a book you wrote. I tried to get my old traditional publisher to market my fairytale books to the Once Upon A Time crowd when that series started, but noooo. Specificity would have been too hard for my traditional publisher.
By the time I got the rights, Once Upon A Time wasn’t as hot, and there were other things to focus on.
Zombies were hot for a while. If you had a zombie book, then promoting it to The Walking Dead fans was a good idea. Or runners who used the Zombies, Run! app. (And if you want to learn more about marketing and business read this Lifehacker piece about the app.). Advertising your book on an app or partnering with the app (in the case of Zombies, Run!) by offering the book as a contest reward, would be a great marketing strategy.
TV, movies, games, apps—popular culture is always obsessing about something, and if your work ties into that something, then promote it in the moment.
Be creative. Be fearless. Have fun.
- Be The First Writer To Try This
I read Adweek a lot, always scouring the ways that other businesses in the entertainment industry are doing their marketing. Adweek has many free newsletters, and I swear I get an idea a week from one of them. Some of those ideas cost too much money to execute (right now) and some would cost too much time. But some spark low-cost ideas for me or have a nugget based in the middle that I hadn’t considered before.
I also learn things that are broader than how to market my books, like the importance of branding throughout a company. As I mentioned earlier in this branding series, SyFy changed its branding and its programming—and I discovered this through Adweek.
A lot of writers have made a name for themselves as marketers because they were the first—the first to do bookmarks (Debbie Macomber), the first to do TV ads (James Patterson). You know you’ve hit something when you get a good result. Then it’s up to you whether or not to share it.
- Realize That Good Results Might Not Be Replicable.
Sometimes surprise is the most important thing. Or, sometimes promotions work for one book and won’t work for another. You can do great things with the first book in a series that you can’t do with later books. That’s why I tell you not to make that first book permafree. There are a million marketing opportunities—advertising opportunities—that go by the wayside when you have that book forever free. Bundles are one. A BOGO sale is another. There are many, many more.
Some promotions work well in one genre and don’t work at all for another one. And some worked great in 2012 and don’t work at all now, like Kindle’s free bestseller list. Five years ago, readers read the free books and then moved to the author’s other works. Not so much any more.
Some promotions really are a function of the time and place. (See #6 above)
- Realize You Can’t Do Everything
After you start exercising your promotion muscle, you’ll start getting more ideas than you can possibly execute. Do the ones that fit into your schedule and your budget. Then use the data to figure out if you’re investing your time wisely.
- Some (Most) Promotions Will Fail
Especially if you haven’t defined your goal for that promotion. If your goal is to grow your audience, then keep that as your focus always. If the promotion doesn’t actually grow your readership, which you can measure by increased book sales, then dump the promotion, no matter how many names it adds to your newsletter or how many free downloads people have taken.
- Measure Your Overall Success in Months and Years, not in Days or Weeks
Your goal is to increase your readership over time. So, if you do successful promotions, your sales should be greater (on those projects) than they were at the same time the year before (barring unforeseens in the culture like nasty elections ). Greater than might be a hundred sales greater than or several thousand greater than.
Your growth pattern will not be a straight line. It’ll be a series of waves, with plateaus and downturns. But you should, overall, end up with more readers than you started with.
Slow growth means exactly that. You’re growing your business—your customer base, your loyal reader base—a little bit at a time.
The business world has another term for slow growth. You’ll often hear the word “sustainable” in connection with expanding a business. Rapid growth isn’t sustainable, and can often hurt an unprepared business. Even slow growth can be hard to maintain at times.
But slow growth is sustainable. It’s not predictable, but it is something that you can maintain over months and even years.
The coolest thing about slow growth is that moment when you realize that you have way more readers than you ever thought you did. You weren’t tracking them day to day or obsessing about them. You just noticed on the way to doing something else.
Keep your focus on growing your audience, manage your time wisely, and write the next book. If you do those things over the space of years, you’ll still be writing and publishing five years from now. If you don’t control your time and you forget to write, you’ll be doing something else—like that woman who screamed at me.
She failed. Not as a promoter, but as a writer. And she didn’t fail because she made mistakes marketing.
She failed because she quit writing. She quit trying.
That’s the only way to fail in this business.
So experiment with marketing. Have fun with it.
Just like you have fun with your writing.
People keep telling me how I should market this blog. I should promote on this website or that Facebook page. I should take out ads and do podcasts and do live video. I should read my own audiobooks and visit other podcasting sites. I should market, market, market.
And I probably should.
But I won’t. Because I also have novels to market and short stories to write and worlds to build and…and…and…cats to pet. Yep. I have a life too. Which is part of the focus as well.
I do want the blog to continue, however, and you folks make that possible. This target audience part of the series came about because you all asked questions (Thank you!)
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“Business Musings: Expand Your Target Audience 2: Slow Growth,” copyright © 2017 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog © Can Stock Photo / andrewgenn.