Is book marketing bad?

At CONduit I spoke with an author friend who thought that marketing was indeed a bad thing, especially marketing for YA, because said author felt it didn’t build an audience based on the merits of the book. It built one based on hype and buzz.  Instead of buying a book because it delivered a wonderful experience, readers would be buying only because it was what everyone else was doing. Furthermore, publishers only have so much money, and by choosing to put the dollars behind some books, they choose to let other books, which might deliver a better experience, languish.

I understand wanting to build a readership that’s based on love, not hype. But what I think my friend is overlooking is that you can’t love something if you don’t try it. And you won’t try it if you don’t know it’s there. Marketing and PR help make sure people know the book is there.

Yes, some readers might try it the first time because it’s what everyone is doing. But if the book is really that good, i.e. it actually delivers a wonderful experience for the target audience, then those readers will come back for another serving. They might look initially because everyone else is, but they’ll stay for love.

One of my editors just forwarded a link to “Not Quite a PR Campaign” by Sherry Thomas. Lots of interesting details there about what she does for PR, but probably one of the most important ideas she shares is the fact that marketing & PR don’t build an audience. A great story experience does that. However, marketing & PR can get the book in the audience’s hands.

What we all want to happen is word-of-mouth. PR doesn’t really create word-of-mouth, love does. But readers won’t read a book until they know it exists. So then the point of a PR campaign, if a PR campaign has any point at all, is to create awareness and hope that awareness will translate into love, once a critical mass of readers have read and enjoyed your book.

Readers may miss many high quality (i.e. they deliver a great experience to the intended audience) books because the lion’s share of the publisher’s marketing budget is being spent on a small group of books, and the author who gets the leftovers just doesn’t have the cash or know-how to do it themselves. But that doesn’t mean marketing is bad. It means that getting a big marketing push is like any other lucky break or opportunity.

I just started reading Guide to Writing Fiction by Phillys A. Whitney (a huge seller in the 1970’s and 1980’s). It’s a wonderful, slim, down-to-earth volume. She opens the book with a chapter called “Opportunity is Like a Train.” She maintains that her success did not come from starting with loads of talent. In fact, she says her ability was “modest.” She certainly wasn’t as gifted as many other authors she’d worked with in the writing groups of her youth. Nor did it come from immediate initial success. It came from being ready when opportunity knocked. 

Of course, I have been lucky. I’ve had extraordinary breaks come my way–along with some pretty bad blows and disappointments. There’s been bad luck too, but that doesn’t always show. Good fortune and unexpected opportunities are always coming along. Perhaps opportunity is like a train on an endless track. Now and then it makes a stop at your station, often without fanfare, and without warning.

…What is important is not the lucky break, the stopping of the train–that’s only part of it. Life is full of trains that stop. What counts is what we are doing with our lives when there is no opportunity and not a train in sight.

James Dashner is someone who is getting a big promo budget from Random House this year for Maze Runner. A very big one. But if you read his story about how he got published (links to all nine parts of the story are in his sidebar) and what got him to this point, you’ll see this promo train was a long time coming. 

Meanwhile, if the big promo budget ever stops at my station, I’m going to hop on. Until then, I will keep writing the best stories I can and make my current marketing budget (part publisher, part mine) go as far as possible. I’ll do the one for the love, the other because I can’t share the love if nobody even knows it’s out there.

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2 Responses to Is book marketing bad?

  1. Hezekiah says:

    Yeah, I’m with you. Why wouldn’t you want to tell people about your book? *shrug*

  2. David-J-West says:

    Could not agree more John. My first book with a small local publisher is coming out about the same time is yours, so all I can learn from you is great.