Business Musings: Expand Your Target Audience 3: Aggressive Growth (Branding/Discoverability)

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Here’s the surprising post. Many of you who read this blog regularly probably think that I’m opposed to major marketing campaigns. I’m not. I’m opposed to them when they’re done incorrectly.

What’s incorrectly?

Pretty much everything you see from traditional publishing to most indies. You have to look outside of publishing to see how to do a smart, aggressive growth campaign designed to grow an audience.

Why do I say traditional publishing and most writers do it wrong? Because…(wait for it)…an aggressive campaign to grow your target audience is part of a long-term strategy.

Publishing has turned aggressive growth campaigns into a short-term strategy, one that has no real upside.

Here’s what I mean.

Traditional publishing in modern times is based on the velocity model—selling a lot of books fast, then ignoring the product, and moving to another product.

Standard business growth is the exact opposite. You develop your company, develop your brand, cultivate your consumers, and then, once your business is large enough, consider making that business bigger.

When you decide the time is right to aggressively grow your audience, you should pull out every trick in the book and design a few of your own. You will work very hard on getting people to sample your wares. Most of the people who try your books will not continue reading them. Most people—because they didn’t like the book they sampled or they have only so much time or other favorite authors—will not return to your other work right away. And that’s okay, because your efforts here should have netted you 5-10% of the readers you targeted.

In other words, a properly done aggressive growth campaign, will get you more readers. Just not all the readers you expected. If you’re inexperienced with growing your readership, you’ll be disappointed. Not by the results on this book, but on the next one.

Writers never think of comparing the sales of the book before the growth-campaign to the sales of the book published after the campaign ends. But those are the important numbers.

Let me make up some numbers to show you what I mean.

Let’s say you’ve published a series of books. Each book in the series stands alone, like books in mystery or romance series do. You decide to do an aggressive growth campaign for book six. You’ve had steady readership growth with books one through five.

Book five’s sales were about 10,000 copies (over the first three months after release). Please note that I picked 10,000 copies because the math is easy, not because I know something about average series sales.

You do your variation of an aggressive growth campaign. Your goal is to get book six in front of hundreds of thousands of potential readers. You hope that 100,000 will actually buy the book, over and above your 10,000 loyal readers—and you’re successful.

In the first three months of release, you sell 110,000 copies of book six.

Fast forward to book seven, which comes out a year later. (Why a year? Because you spent so damn much time marketing. Ideal strategy would be six months later, but we’ll ignore that for the moment.)

In the first three months of its release, book seven sells 20,000 copies. Double what book five sold before your massive marketing push. Yet most writers would be horribly disappointed. Most traditional publishers would cancel the series right then and there, declaring it a failure.

But you’re an indie writer, not someone in traditional publishing. Books one through five are still in print.

Readers are not predictable folk. So, of the 100,000 new readers who bought the book, 50,000 actually read it in a timely fashion (meaning the first three months). 25,000 read it eventually, and 25,000 more might get to it one day.

Already your “readership” is down to 75,000, and one-third of them might not have read the book they own by the time the new book comes out. Generally speaking, the release of a new book reminds slow readers that they already own one of your books, and they should read it now.

Of the 50,000 who’ve read book six by the time book seven comes out, 10,000 were unimpressed and will not buy your next. Another 10,000 liked it, but not enough to run right out and get another book with your byline. The remaining 30,000 split in a variety of directions.

Some read the series from the beginning. Some go back to book five. Some buy book seven and forget all about books one through five.

You can measure some of this. After a huge marketing push on book six, you will see a lump of readers work their way through the entire series. Even if the series is compelling, the lump will spread out over time. Why? Because some readers don’t like binging. So they’ll read one of your books, then five books by other writers, then another of your books, then ten books by other writers—and so on.

You can’t predict how all readers will read. What you can do is make sure you have a lot of books available, so that the readers who discovered you in the big marketing push have a lot of product to choose from after they’ve finished the initial book.

And that’s where traditional publishing falls down. They don’t brand anything in a series, and stupidly, they take books out of print or make the books hard to find or keep the high ebook prices on backlist, so readers will find less expensive reads elsewhere.

If some of a traditionally published writer’s books are published by a different traditional publisher, the publisher who does the huge push tries hard not to mention the writer’s other works published by the competitor. Which is stupid, but it’s modern business.

It hurts not only the new publisher, but the writer as well.

So…indies…you want to run an aggressive marketing campaign. You want to spend a lot of time promoting your latest novel, and you want to grow your readership fast.

Here’s what you need first:

You need a lot of product.

An aggressive growth campaign is not something a new writer should do. I’d say you need at least five books in your on-going series. Or, if you’re doing trilogies, you need two completed trilogies before designing an aggressive growth campaign for the first book in your newest trilogy. If you’re writing standalone books, then you need at least ten (hopefully in the same genre), so that readers have a lot of choice to buy more books of yours once they’ve finished the book you’ve put all your marketing dollars behind.

You need a realistic goal.

Are you running an aggressive growth campaign because “everyone does it” or because someone told you that you needed to get a lot of readers fast or because you’re emulating traditional publishing? If so, abandon this idea now.

Your goal needs to be concrete for your business. I can think of two great reasons to run an aggressive growth campaign.

Reason One: You want readers to learn that you (or your series or your book) exist. This is an informational campaign, targeting at making potential readers notice you when they haven’t noticed you in the past. You’ll get new readers here, but generally speaking, you won’t get a one-to-one growth. By that I mean, you will not get one reader for each dollar spent. You may not see how the money you’ve spent translates into readers for months. This is how traditional publishing used to market books in the 1960s, when traditional publishing did marketing better than they do now. This is how books like Catch-22, which only sold 7500 copies in that all important first month, became long-term bestsellers.

Because the publishers back then invested in aggressive marketing techniques on the books they believed in for months after publication—if not years.

Your goal, when you do an informational campaign, is long-term. You want people to notice you, keep noticing you, and finally cave in and buy the book they’ve “been hearing so much about.”

Reason Two: You want to actively put the book in the hands of readers, get reviews, get word-of-mouth going, and essentially give the book away. This can be a double-edge sword, because the readers and the reviewers and anyone who gets the book might end up hating it.

However, you do not give the book away for free…except to targeted power readers (like the owners of bookstores [yes, there still are bookstores]). You reduce the price of the book and do major promotional campaigns like BookBubs and other short-term strategies.

The goal of this kind of campaign is to get a reader to sample one novel of yours from beginning to end. You have to trust your skills enough to believe that once the reader finishes the book, they will want another one of your books. And when they finish that book, they will want another and another.

The readership numbers I mentioned at the beginning of this post? That’s what usually happens with this kind of aggressive growth campaign.

Back to the things you need before you start executing the campaign.

You Need A Budget

Yes, budget first before you design your game plan. And the budget has to be a two-fold budget.

Budget 1: You need a financial budget for your campaign. Are you going to spend $5,000 growing your audience? $10,000? $20,000? $100,000?

You need to realistically set this budget, and you need to stick to it.

You will not be able to do everything you want to do—no one has an unlimited advertising budget, not even movie studios. You work within the budget you have, and make the best choices you can based on that budget.

Budget 2: You need a time budget for your campaign. If you’re running the campaign—and most indies will be doing this alone—then you need to set aside a certain number of hours per day or per week to work on this campaign. You will be spending a lot of time on marketing, and to do this right, you will probably be losing writing time.

Losing writing time will cost you money in the long run. You have to factor that financial loss into your business’s annual budget. (Not in the advertising budget.) You will not make up this financial loss even if you gain new readers—not that fast, anyway. Over time you might.

But better to be prepared than to be upset at the lost writing time.

You Need a Timeline

This aggressive growth campaign will last for a finite period of time. You can pick anything from one to six months. But do not go past six months. People will get heartily sick of you flogging this book if you’re doing it longer than six months.

In fact, I initially wanted to tell you to do no more than three months, but that’s not realistic. Some of the strategies for this kind of campaign take months of prep time. You want to place a banner ad on NPR? They only have so much space and a lot competition for that space. Plus they have rules about the specs for the ad and you might not hit that the first time. (Note that I am not talking about the Google ads you see on the websites you go to if you don’t have your ad blocker on, but the ads you see even with the ad blocker, the ones built into the site itself.)

There is a sweet spot between getting people’s attention and annoying the heck out of them. It depends on the product and what you’re going to do with the ad.

Here’s how I would develop a timeline on a major aggressive growth campaign:

Pre-Timeline: Research all the methods of promotion you’re interested in. Try a few in your slow-growth plan to see if those methods are all hype or if they actually work. If you are partnering with others—running ads or publishing bundled stories—figure out their deadlines and specifications.

Month One: Mail Advance Reading Copies, get your preorder(s) up if you plan to do that, prepare your ads, get your partners lined up (whoever they might be).

Month Two: Get readers to begin word of mouth, do some prepublication work (if you’re doing this before publication), maybe give some related fiction away free on your website, use older works to beef up your newsletter—maybe even start a new newsletter and do a special promotion to get those thousands of names that some people claim as essential. Learn Google, Facebook, and Amazon ads if you haven’t already done that, make sure your website is spiffy, your Facebook Page ready, and so on.

Month Three: Launch the book and the campaign, do all the special things you’ve planned, maybe cycle through BookBub and the various BookBub lights, buy TV ads, radio ads, or whatever big expenditures you’re going to do.

Month Four: Do the second half of your campaign here, whatever that might be. Make sure you’ve included something unique to you and your project, something memorable that no one else has done.

Month Five: Slow back down to your normal slow-growth advertising, gather your analytics.

Month Six: Review the campaign, write it up internally so that you have notes on how it went for future campaigns. List what worked and what didn’t. Plan to revisit the analytics three months from now to see if there are surprises.

Note in my timeline there’s only two intense months of visible promotion. In this example, I scheduled them around the publication of the book. But you can do this same kind of promotion around an existing book. You don’t have to do it on release. For example, if you published a Christmas book in 2015 in a series that you’re still continuing, you might want to center a major aggressive growth campaign around that Christmas book, and make sure the visible part of your marketing happens in November and early December.

Your only limit here is your imagination (and your time and your budget).

You Need To Be Traditional

Figure out what kind of book marketing works for you as a reader, then replicate it. Try the things you’ve heard about. Do what you always wanted a traditional publisher to do, but you couldn’t get them to do it. Do review copies for established review publications that handle your genre. If you’re writing literary fiction, send ARCs to the New York Times or work with the American Booksellers Association’s Red Box program to get the attention of bookstores. If you’re writing genre fiction, then get your review copies to the leading bloggers and review magazines, even if you think there’s no hope of a review.

You’re going for attention here, and you’re spending some money. Do the thing readers expect. Some regular readers will find you. I find books bimonthly from Mystery Scene Magazine—their print edition. I know others do too. Figure that out for yourself.

You Need To Be Creative

I’ve been saying throughout this series that traditional publishers have no idea how to market any more. I’ve said that for years, but the impetus of this series came from the Targoz Reading Pulse Survey. What inspired me the most in that survey was a category called “Media Reach by Genre.” The survey, remember, interviewed readers and non readers alike and found out what their interests were—outside of book publishing.

Why is this important? Because it helps you be creative.

For example, the survey found that romance readers watch more television than the average person, but their viewing habits are pretty specific. They do watch network television, but they don’t watch Fox. They don’t watch much cable TV—except for Lifetime. Almost half of romance readers watch Lifetime once a week.

Other notable things in this section about romance readers include the fact that they read the print version of People magazine. One in three romance readers read People every week—and actually read it. They don’t just buy it.

And then there’s this lovely statistic: 64% of romance readers read their local print newspaper every week and 47% read the online version.

In fact, this section notes that almost all readers read their local newspaper, either online or in print. (Depends on the readers’ preferred genre as to where or how much they read in their local paper.)

I read those statistics and did a literal head slap. I’ve worked in local media off and on my whole life. WMG’s publisher Allyson Longueira used to run the local newspaper. Local papers—particularly those in smaller communities—are always searching for good hooks for articles. What better than a local author who has a new book release—particularly if that local author is going to buy a print ad to go along with that story?

Cable stations like Lifetime have slots for local advertising. They also have places on their websites for local promotions. Target your audience, and develop an ad.

If you’re spending a lot of money, you might consider a month’s worth of ads in the print edition of People. (And when you do that, you often get online advertising as a bonus.)

Or, if you’re writing a cozy mystery filled with recipes, hold a party at a local hotel in which local chefs do a cook-off from your recipes. Give away copies of your book, and invite all of the local media to attend from the TV stations to the radio stations. Get friends to live-tweet the event, and run the event live in Google Events or on Facebook.

As I said above, you’re limited only by your imagination. (And your time and your budget.)

You Need To Be Unique

Go outside the norm and do something really unusual. The chef idea above is one of those, but there are a million ways to do this.

In the book, Avid Reader, publisher Robert Gottlieb—who was one of those megamarketers who invented most of modern book marketing—talked about the marketing campaign for Catch-22. In the early 1960s, the publisher put postage-paid comment cards inside the hardcover copy of the books, asking readers to fill out the card with their opinions of the book and send the cards back. Gottlieb then did an entire six-month marketing campaign filled with reader comments.

That’s so much easier today. Develop a hashtag for your book and at the end of the book, ask for reader comments along with that hashtag. Or do a group reading of the book (everyone read at the same time) and then live tweet as they go along. (This is not for the faint of heart; you will see stuff you don’t want to see).

Memorable campaigns will stick in the reader’s mind. I went back to the Gottlieb book for this post because he mentioned that one of the big supporters of Catch-22 was NBC News anchor John Chancellor. On his own dime, Chancellor created thousands of “Yossarian Lives” stickers, which college students then used to deface buildings and tables and books. I remember going to universities years later and finding “Yossarian Lives” stickers on library carrels or in bathroom stalls. That campaign went on forever—and created a life of its own.

Just this morning, I logged onto Twitter for my usual 140-character dose of culture (or not), and discovered a unique marketing campaign for Guardians of The Galaxy Vol. 2. Just in time for the streaming release (August 8) and the Blu-ray version (later this month), the team that brought you the movie did a three-minute cheesy music video.

The video is in keeping with the off-beat tone of the movies. Since the music in both movies is deliberately 1970s (for a plot reason), this video harks back to those 1970s dance shows that most of you are too young to remember.

This is pure marketing, designed to go viral, and to give the fans something fun and interesting. Now I will help the video go viral by sharing it here.

Why did I share it? Because this is what I mean by unique. Sure, sure, other movie promotions will do something similar as soon as this fall because this promotion worked. But they won’t be as fun or interesting, and probably won’t be as memorable either.

This is what I mean by “be unique.”

And  fun.

You Need To Brand Your Marketing Campaign

And this is where the happy music comes to a screeching halt.

“Wha…Wha…What?” you ask.

Haven’t you ever noticed that all major marketing campaigns have a theme? A look? A brand?

If you’re doing this to increase the readership of your series, then you can brand the campaign to reflect the series. But you can only do that once. You’ll need to come up with a whole new brand the next time you do a major marketing campaign.

All of the stuff we talked about with branding itself, way back at the beginning of this series—all of that applies to an aggressive growth campaign. All of it. From the look to the target audience to the taglines to marketing to the right places, your campaign has to be a thing just like your book is a thing.

And they should really be separate—in that, a good campaign should reflect your book or your style, but be a creative endeavor all its own.

You Need To End Your Campaign

It has to have a limited shelf life, never to be repeated. Not just because of your timeline, but because the moment marketing becomes repetitive, people tune it out.

Besides, you need to end your campaign because you have a life and you have books to write.

You Need To Use Data To Determine Your Campaign’s Success

Everything you did might meet the goals you set for the campaign. Or, just as likely, everything you did might fail.

That’s called a learning curve, folks.

And the reason I mention the learning curve is because…

You Need To Learn From This Effort

You might learn that aggressive growth campaigns aren’t for you. You might learn that you love aggressive growth campaigns more than you like writing. You might learn that aggressive growth campaigns work for you.

You might learn that you had a semi-successful campaign and you want to change a few things should you do it all over again.

If you are successful, realize not all of that success will be replicable. Some of it will work because you’re the first to do it (Guardians Inferno) and some of it will work because you’re using tried and true methods and some of it will work because people were bored in August of 2017 and your campaign was able to cut through the noise.

Make notes about the things that you think will work in the future, and chalk the rest of it up to learning.

You Need To Take A Long Break

If you’re going to incorporate aggressive growth campaigns into building your target audience and ultimately your brand, realize that this is a tool you should unleash rarely.

If you do a big aggressive growth campaign every time you release a book, people will expect it of you and at some point, you won’t be able to deliver.

Better to do an aggressive growth campaign every few years, once it has become clear that your previous campaign has plateaued. The data will not accurately reflect a plateau for at least a year, maybe more. So continue with your slow-growth campaign, write a lot of books, and come back to this when there are new tricks and techniques that other people have pioneered that you want to try.

Or when you have time to burn, or $10,000 to burn.

Or, maybe you’ll want to hire a staff to do a campaign for you. I tried this several years ago, and it was an unmitigated disaster. That was primarily my fault because I hired the wrong people to do the work (a distinct possibility whenever you hire someone). I’ve done smaller things since with a much newer, much better team, and that seems to be working out.

One Secret

You can do a half-assed aggressive growth campaign. You target a few things that you’ve always wanted to do, and throw some time and money at them.

WMG Publishing is doing a small aggressive growth campaign this fall for my latest Nelscott novel, A Gym of Her Own. The book is the beginning of a new series, but it’s related to the Smokey Dalton series, so fans should find it interesting.

But we need to inform a slightly different audience about the book, so our entire campaign is about getting out the word that the book exists. Oh, and that the book is unlike anything anyone has done before. And that it is related to the previous Kris Nelscott books in setting and with one familiar character.

I’ll report on the marketing of all of this about a year from now, once we see what’s happened. The book just went up for pre-order, I got a proof of the paper Advance Reading Copy today (the ebook ARC went out weeks ago), and we’re having a meeting next week to tweak our strategy.

This is not a major tens of thousands of dollars campaign because we don’t have the time, but it is a six-month awareness campaign that will take more time and more dollars than any campaign we did before.

It’s not quite what I’m talking about in this blog, but it’s close.


Aggressive growth campaigns are not for the faint of heart or the weak of wallet. These campaigns take time, money, and a lot of creativity to pull off well.

If you’re going to do one, make sure you have a lot of marketing under your belt. Also make sure you know what you want from the campaign. Be prepared to through thousands of dollars into the mix without seeing any results at all.

Also be prepared to have a lot of success. Because that can happen with aggressive growth campaigns. Make sure you can handle the growth.

With writers, handling growth is relatively easy—if you’ve done what I listed first. You need a lot of product, so that the readers who joined up in this campaign have other reading material of yours while they wait for the next book of yours.

Remember all those lists the staff wrote in brick-and-mortar stores in the early days of Harry Potter? If you liked Harry Potter, you’ll like this fantasy series by this other author? Those lists existed because by book 3, it became clear that the voracious Harry Potter readers needed something to tide them over to the next Harry Potter book a year away.

You want people to use your backlist to tide them over until the next book in your series. You can do that now, thanks to the fact that books can remain in print permanently these days.

Use that to your advantage.

So, essentially, if you want to do some major aggressive growth campaign, your timeline should start years ahead of the campaign. Make sure you’ve written the books. Then do the campaign.

Write many more books and do another campaign.

Rinse. Repeat.

And most importantly, save your firepower until you’re ready. If you’re going to spend money and time on a campaign like this, do it right. Don’t do it the way traditional publishers do it in 2017. Do it the way they did it in 1963.

Because, oh, did I tell you? By the six-month anniversary of the publication of Catch-22, when the publisher took out several full page ads in major newspapers all over the country to promote the book’s word-of-mouth success, the book itself had only sold 35,000 copies.

It would eventually sell millions and millions. It’s never gone out of print. But in 1963, the publisher was patient, using their creativity and their campaign to slowly build the book.

That’s what you’ll do with any kind of growth campaign—even an aggressive one. You’re building your brand slowly. One reader at a time—even when you go after a big bunch of readers at once.

You have to keep them.

And remember, keeping your readers isn’t about tweeting all the time or haranguing them to buy.

It’s about writing good books, telling great stories, and making the readers fall in love with your work.

It’s about the writing.

It always has been, and it always will be.



This marks the end of the branding series, which went on longer than I expected. I’ll probably write another post down the road as I put the book together. Yes, there will be a book, probably this year.

My long-term strategy is to continue to have a career writing what I want. I want to write these blogs, partly because I learn from them. Or in the case of posts like this one, I’m pointing out—to myself as well as to you—that standard business practices do apply to writing these days. And that’s completely cool.

I’m nearly done with this series. I’ve had so much support for it. Thank you! There will be a book at the end of this, and those of you who financially supported the branding series through Patreon will end up with a copy of the ebook gratis (if you supported at the $10 or more per month level).

There are also a couple of posts over there that haven’t made it to this website yet, posts you can see at the $5 level.

If you want to show your one-time appreciation for a post, use the PayPal link below and include your email address in the notes so I can say thank you.

I know many of you can’t afford to support this blog financially, but you’re supporting it when you share it on social media or send me links to articles I haven’t seen or write me great emails. I appreciate all of that.

This blog wouldn’t exist without the support I receive on all levels. Thank you so very much for being a part of it.

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“Business Musings: Expand Your Target Audience 3: Aggressive Growth,” copyright © 2017 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog © Can Stock Photo / andrewgenn.


6 thoughts on “Business Musings: Expand Your Target Audience 3: Aggressive Growth (Branding/Discoverability)

  1. Great series! I always learn so much from your blog posts.

    I’m curious about the Targoz Reading Pulse Survey that you reference. When I click the link it simply goes to their website, not the survey itself. Is there a way to actually see the survey?

    Thanks for all this hard work – it must be exhausting to author books, promote and maintain a blog with so much depth and information. My hat is off to you.

    1. I’m afraid you have to pay for the survey. It costs several thousand. Randy says he’s doing one for writers, but he hasn’t let me know it’s live yet. If you’re part of a writer’s organization, I would suggest getting the organization to purchase this, or a bunch of writers pooling their $$ to pay for it. Maybe email and ask for a writers’ discount.

      And thanks for the kind words!

      1. I had a feeling that maybe was the case – though thousands of dollars threw me a little. But of course that would be worth so much anyone needing the information. Good suggestions, I may see if I can do something about that.


  2. Wonderful series! Very eye-opening and this one made a lot of sense to me. I think as I have followed some of the indies out there that have success that the number one things they all have in common is they have a lot of product out. One gal writes and publishes very fast. I have not seen her do much promotion. Her following does that for her. That’s what I would like as long as you didn’t get burnt out from all that writing.

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