Marketing Your Book

 
Q. Okay, let’s assume the best: your book is going to be published. Now what? Does the fact that it’s going to be published guarantee success?

A. Unfortunately not. Think of all the books in your local bookstore. Are all of them successful? Most are not. These books are mostly on consignment, and many will be shipped back to the distributor’s warehouse if they don’t sell in a matter of a few weeks. Years ago, I was asked to write an essay on marketing for the e-book site, MakeYourEbookSell.com. The principles discussed are applicable to both digital and standard publishing. While this piece is not meant to be an exhaustive study of book marketing, it addresses the first things you need to consider during the production of the novel to get it positioned for success in the marketplace.

Sink or Swim: It’s all in the Marketing

by Alan Jacobson
Copyright © 2002 All Rights Reserved.

As all parents know, you don’t take your newborn and toss him in the pool. You teach him the concepts of treading water and floating, and finally how to swim. Novelists are parents; their books are their babies. They must nurture their novels much in the way a parent does, helping to shape their development to ensure they can survive in the world before setting them free.

Whether your novel is being published by an eBook publisher or a mainstream New York publisher, it needs marketing support. You can write the next great American novel—destined for bestseller status—but if no one knows about it, it will be the best kept secret in the publishing world. And secrets mean only one thing: commercial failure for you and your novel.

Although writers are often creative types and prefer to leave the business aspect to others, today’s authors must be both. While some novels do take on a life of their own, without any marketing input, most do not. I define “most” as ninety-something percent. Clearly, without a marketing plan, your novel will not be noticed. (Yes, there is that rare book that “catches fire” and snowballs into a blockbuster. But considering the number of published books each year, the number is exceedingly small.)

Of course, one would expect New York publishing houses to have huge marketing machines that do it all for the author; after all, they have the muscle and financial resources to knock down obstacles, get their feet in the doors, and create the market for the book, right? Most houses are owned by media conglomerates who have vast outlets to drive the mass media exposure that could virtually guarantee a success. However, for a variety of reasons, the houses do not exploit these resources. The most obvious reason is that they publish several hundred books each year, and they cannot give each release the media attention it deserves….all they would be doing is publicizing books, and the public would become numb to the constant onslaught. And then there’d be no time to talk about the real news: “hard” stories that mean higher ratings and paid commercial time…money that goes directly to the bottom line. Most books don’t generate that sensational media draw.

For this reason alone, novels are left to sink or swim on their own. Authors care about what happens to their babies. But caring and knowing how to nurture the learning process—how to teach them to be successful swimmers—are two different things. So where does this leave the author?

There are many routes authors of all strata have gone. Many hire their own private publicists to get the word out…to generate “buzz” about a particular book. Sometimes this works. Often it does not…but that does not deter most from trying. When it does work, it is the result of a slow, building process over time and over many books…of establishing contacts, gaining trust and then finally capitalizing on it.

Most authors do not have such time (or financial resources). Let’s look at the most important parts of marketing a book, and restrict our talk to those facets we have direct control over. While they aren’t many, they are nevertheless important. Change hats for a second. You’re now a consumer, walking into a store—or perusing a webpage. (For simplicity, I’ll keep it to the store model even though it can apply to both formats.)

You, the consumer, have not been given a recommendation for a specific book, but are walking into the store “cold.” You are bombarded by thousands of books. Assuming a particular book is one of the lucky ones to be displayed in a favorable part of the store, on a table (which is paid for by the publisher, by the way), the cover is going to be the front line in the sales war. The old adage “you can’t judge a book by its cover” is absolutely true…but nevertheless, it is the first thing that attracts us.

There isn’t space here to exhaustively comment on cover design. Suffice it to say it has to match the demographics of the market you’re trying to reach. It also has to convey a feeling related to the genre of your novel. I used to have a page on my website that displayed variations of covers produced for my first two novels. For The Hunted, my agent had to exert pressure on the publisher to choose a particular jacket design because we felt (as did numerous booksellers who’d seen the image drafts) that the other choices were inferior. Alternatively, for False Accusations, the foreign publishers have universally and independently chosen a particular theme to exploit, and have targeted a male demographic. Their cover theoretically worked for their foreign audience, which was different from the US book buyer.

In short, your cover must be attractively designed. In eBooks, you have more creative control. The overriding concept is this: the cover is vital. If the reader is not attracted to it, they’ll never buy the book.

Now…they’ve picked up your novel (or clicked on it). The jacket text, or synopsis of the book, is the next thing they’ll look at. Change hats again for a second. Is this story intriguing to you? Is it something you’d be interested in? As an author, realize that this synopsis is not really a synopsis at all, but one of the most important marketing tools you can utilize: it is the next step in selling your book. This is the point where the cover suddenly no longer matters: it’s done its job, the reader has chosen the book from among the others. Now the story’s high concept has to grab them. Grab is the key here. The jacket text must be exciting, interesting, enticing to the reader in some way. If it falls flat, or reads as a slow, plodding hunk of narrative, you’ve lost the reader.

Let’s assume they like what they’ve read: they’re intrigued. What’s their next step? Hats again. What do you do? You crack the spine (or “take a look inside,” as is offered on some digital releases). Most of the time, you’ll start with the first page and begin reading. What does this mean? You have to be hooked. The first paragraph has to draw you in. As the author, what does this mean? It means the opening paragraph has to be the best damn writing you can muster. Devote ten-fold the amount of time you spend on any other page of your book (except for the ending) on this opening paragraph.

In general, your beginnings must be captivating. You can’t start with your character getting out of bed in the morning. That’s boring! A well-accepted principle is starting “en media res,” or in the middle of things. Often, a beginning writer can cut his first few pages—even his first chapter—and improve his novel. Hooking the reader is the key. This is a topic that could take ten pages to cover, but you get the idea: start in the middle of something that’s happening; bring the reader into your world quickly.

What’s next? Ringing up the sale, of course. If you’ve got an intriguing cover, intriguing jacket text and an intriguing opening paragraph, you’re on your way. The key word, just to overemphasize, is “intrigue.” Without it, you might as well not bother to bring your baby to the pool. He probably won’t learn to swim on his own.