Stories need to stand out in some way to be marketed. Even if you accept that there are only seven types of plot, you can still write unique characters who do unusual things.
A modern way of describing this is having a Unique Selling Point (USP) which can also be an elevator pitch, a term used to describe selling an idea for a movie to a film producer you’ve trapped for a few seconds in an elevator. An extreme example of this is Snakes On A Plane whose title alone summed up the plot.
I write in the crime genre because I like it, and, as it’s the second-highest selling genre I stand more chance of success; also, crime stories allow me to tackle anything in society. I deliberately chose to conform to the conventions of a crime series—a set location, reoccurring characters and compelling antagonists who commit dreadful crimes. Cornwall and its landscape become a character. I explore the lives of my main character and his detectives to encourage the reader to bond with them.
Where my books differ from the mainstream, is that the Cornish Detective Chief Inspector Neil Kettle is the opposite of typical sleuths who drink, womanise, gamble, smoke and bend regulations. He’s a Green/Liberal lover of nature and the arts, who rides a 10’ long black chopper and is clean-living and faithful to his woman; I didn’t give him a love life until the fifth book. In these ways, he’s a weirdo.
Will this make him stand out enough to be successful? I’ve yet to find out. Do readers want to find a main character who’s unique, as marketers suggest?
How different is your protagonist? What idiosyncrasies do they have?
Are your stories predictable or surprising in their twists and turns? They should always be plausible.
He wrote for music magazines and published seven biographies. His acerbic wit could be cutting and to the point:
I’m inclined to agree with that statement. One of the toughest things for a naïve writer to realise is that they’ve entered a cutthroat business where the marketability of your story, and you as an author, are more important than the quality of your prose. Consider the success of books ‘written’ by celebrities…do you feel sick yet?
Book award season is on us again, in which the usual suspects will dominate: those with an existing high profile who are great for marketing. It doesn’t hurt if they’re photogenic and being young is a bonus too.
I previously criticised predictable awards. They’re more a racket, a deceitful way of making money than they are a deserving reward for a well-written book.
American novelist Alexander Theroux reckoned: “Book-publishing is all about politics. Agents, editors, which books will be puffed, which ignored, etc.”
There’s no bigger racket than politics!
What do you think of the business side of writing?
Anyone who’s tried self-publishing knows that artifice is necessary to promote oneself and one’s books, so much so that you start to doubt your sincerity, as you play the game of sounding as tempting as possible. You’re part of the racket.
It caught my eye, as in 2019 I’ve forsaken writing the sixth story in my Cornish Detective series in favour of marketing the first five titles—there’s not much point in baking another cake when the rest are going stale on the shelves!
I like Konrath’s grumpy, unfiltered and confrontational style of commenting on the publishing industry, and recognised much of what he says in his assessment of what worked to sell his own books. He sums up by saying:
My career has been all over the place, and I’ve tried so many new and different things. I’ve learned from my many failures, and if I had to do it all over, I’d tell my younger self: “One brand, one genre, stop experimenting, stop being a perfectionist, and just write five good books a year in the same series. Make sure they are professionally edited and formatted, have great covers and descriptions, keep length under 75k words, and make sure they have updated, clickable bibliographies in the back matter, pre-order pages for the next release, and newsletter sign-up forms.”
That’s it. That’s the sum total of my years of knowledge and experience.
[read the comments below the article]
Broadly, he agrees with the oft-quoted William Goldman:
Like Konrath and crime writer James Oswald my self-marketing is relying on blogging and having a website devoted to my crime series, with a view to building a mailing list of potential readers to send a newsletter to; my social media presence will be minimal. I intend to follow Oswald’s tactic of making the first book free, self-publishing the sequel at the same time at an attractive price—hoping to get the ball rolling.
Who knows if it will work?
As Konrath says:
It still comes down to luck.
Stop worrying. This is all out of your control.
Stop trying to find the answer. There is no answer. No answer, no logic, no reason, not even any scientific cause and effect.
It’s all luck.
I’ve long had a stoical approach to life, which has come in useful over the last six years since I returned to creative writing. Editing and querying require infinite levels of perseverance.
As for luck, I don’t know, for it’s an elusive sprite that lands on some people while avoiding my own arm!
I’ll keep on keeping on, even though I miss writing, for I reckon that building an author platform online will be more of a help than a hindrance. As champion golfer, Gary Player is reputed to have said:The harder I practice, the luckier I get.
How much do you think that luck counts in your writing career?
You might well think, that the less you ask for your ebook, the more copies you’ll sell, but that isn’t necessarily so. Shoppers for all types of goods, from books to wine to cars, have pre-determined limits on what they want to spend. They equate the price with the quality of the product—they want to spend £7.99 on a paperback, which is a big saving on the £15.99 asking price of the hardback—and they’re not going to demean themselves by looking in the charity shop, where the best-selling title they’re after is available for £1.00.
Wine lovers are price-driven, however much of an expert they claim to be. I’ve known many car and motorcycle dealers who were amazed at how few buyers haggle over the price of the vehicle. They’ve saved £10,000 and that’s what they want to spend, or that’s what they’ve calculated they can afford in repayments if they’re buying on a finance plan.
I’ve attended two business start-up courses, set ten years apart, where the tutors both told the story of a baker who made a disastrous price change to his sausage rolls. His were an inch longer than his only competitor in townbut priced at 25p more, so he dropped the asking price to one penny less that his rival, thinking to boost sales, in a more for less way. Sales plummeted, as customers liked paying that bit more for what they saw as a luxury product…they were treating themselves. I don’t know if this baker ever really existed, but he lives on in business studies.
I’m intending to launch my Cornish Detective series of crime novels this summer, so have been pondering pricing, while scurrying around trying to understand blogging and social media posting to create my author platform. I’ve praised James Oswald several times on this blog for his success story with crime writing. Oswald went from not selling many copies of his fantasy fiction, to writing detective stories set in Edinburgh, which he sold online, shifting 150,000 downloads in nine months. This led to Penguin offering him a six-figure advance. He’s been a best-selling author ever since.
When he started publishing online, James Oswald copied a trick from an Australian science fiction author called Simon Haynes who made the first book in the series free. James Oswald said:
The idea was that they could try it, and if they liked it they could pay me money for the rest of them.
A lot of people have asked me for information about how I did this, as they want to do it themselves. I always ask them how many books they’ve written, and it’s almost invariably just the one.
There is no point giving away your first book in a series if the next one isn’t immediately available (and ideally a few more as well).
If people like your work, they will want more, and they will want it now. By the time you’ve written and published the next book in the series, they’ll have forgotten you and moved on to the next thing.
I’m going to copy James Oswald copying of Simon Haynes, by offering my first novel Who Kills A Nudist? for free—accompanied by promotion of the rest of the series (four more books already written and ready to go) + links to my online presence on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn, Pinterest and my blog.
Quite how attractive crime fans will find this offer, I’ve no way of predicting. I feel like a one-man band at the moment, making up tunes as I go along, about to fall off my unicycle!
Pricing books makes me think of how drug dealers and casinos get their customers hooked—give them a freebie, then jack the price up! Will anyone get addicted to my books?
How do you decide on what to charge for your books?
Have you found a sweet spot where the asking price generates more sales?
As a writer soon learns, it’s not the quality of one’s writing that counts, more how you’re going to sell it.
These days, that means selling yourself too, as your image is as vital as the plot of your book. Any aura you can generate, along with the concept created by your stories can live on, long after you’re dead. Cynics have long said that ‘dying is a great career move’. It’s especially true of musicians: just look at Michael Jackson’s sales, and Jimi Hendrix has had more albums released bearing his name since he died than he made in his lifetime.
I first became aware of this marketing phenomenon in publishing back in 1995, when I saw a sequel to Philip K Dick’sDo Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, on which the Bladerunner film was based. Dick, himself, refused to write a novelization of the movie, though a writer-for-hire later did so. Since he died, there have been three sequels. I tried one, and it was as horrid as I anticipated.
There have been many continuations of long-established fictional protagonists’ adventures, written by contemporary writers. James Bond has been given new life by Kingsley Amis, Sebastian Faulks, Jeffery Deaver, William Boyd and Anthony Horowitz.
Scores of writershave written Sherlock Holmes stories. Contemporary authors have had their protagonists kidnapped after they die, as with Robert B Parker‘s private detective Spenser and several other of his creations, who’ve thrived in at least fifteen novels. Sold by the owners of his estate, his relatives are coining it in! Such authors were undoubtedly glad that their family would have financial security, but I bet they’d deplore how their fictional characters have been altered.
As a purist, I object to this, as it comes across as misrepresentation to me, a pastiche put together to capitalise on the gullibility of readers. That some people are so hooked on a character, that they don’t care who writes about them, is another matter. It leads to things like fan fiction—from which writers of the quality of E.L. James pulled themselves out of the swamp—proving my point that nothing good can come of it.
And yet, well-respected authors write their versions of literary heroes. The financial inducement must be attractive, and their hubris helps propel them through people asking, “Why the hell are you writing that, can’t you think up your own characters anymore?”
What do you think of this form of literary grave robbing?
How would you feel if your lovingly created characters lived on after you died?
I’ve heard all sorts of sad stories about writers paying publicity agents, or taking out boxed advertisements themselves, in an attempt to catch the attention of fickle readers.
The worst tale of woe was a writer who’d gone down the vanity publishing rabbit hole, then laid out an additional $9,000 for banner ads, paid reviews and even a couple of billboards! This resulted in additional sales of 50 books, so I dread to think what her overall loss was.
It seems to me that the biggest hurdle to overcome is simply that of finding a way to get your name into readers’ heads, along with the type of story you write. This was partly why I chose the eccentric pen name of Augustus Devilheart when I started self-publishing six years ago. I reverted to my own name, for various reasons including honesty.
Lesia Daria chose to pay a marketing service for her first novel, and her experience is told in this article:
After the publication of Harper Lee’s Go Set A Watchman, which became an instant sales success, there’s now a backlash with some readers demanding their money back, on the basis that the novel was misrepresented as being something that it isn’t:
Personally, I always though that there was too much marketing smoke being blown around, with barely a fire for literary warmth, when it came to Harper Lee’s first effort at a novel. It made me think of the old warning adage –‘If a thing sounds too good to be true, it probably is.’ And as Charles Bukowski observed
Whatever the literary worth of ‘Go Set A Watchman’,at least it exists.I found a story this morning, via my Quora.comfeed, about a best-selling book that didn’t exist at all – until it did!
I previously posted about writers selling out, but this article in the Guardian, about the bizarre accoutrements available courtesy of J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter empire, brought a wry smile to my face.
No doubt, many people buy this tat as collectable objects, a good investment likely to go up in value. Who knows? Perhaps a plastic Hagrid bauble will be deemed to be worth a small fortune on the Antiques Roadshow 2119. Early editions of the books go for impressive prices—a first edition of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone sold for £60,000 at auction in 2017.
The first time I became aware of merchandising as a source of revenue, was back in the late 1990s when it was widely publicised that the Rolling Stones made more money from T-shirt sales than they did selling tickets to their concerts. It was an exaggeration, but as this article shows $135.9 million in merchandising sales isn’t to be sniffed at.
Just think of the collectability of Star Wars‘ toys and figures. This sort of marketing and money making is easiest in the Fantasy and Science Fiction genres. I recall a terrible failed attempt to hype a damp squib of a 1990 film calledDick Tracy.
Based on a 1930s comic strip, and starring Warren Beatty, Al Pacino and Madonna, much money was thrown at marketing the film through merchandise, novelisations and theme park rides by backers Disney. My local department store’s clothing department had a separate display area featuring yellow trench coats and fedora hats like Dick Tracy wore. They sat there unbought for a month, before being withdrawn.
In my chosen writing genre of Crime, it’s hard to think of merchandising opportunities, apart from the eternal Sherlock Holmes’ tweed suit, deerstalker hat, Ulster overcoat and travelling cloak. Not to forget his violin and magnifying glass, though we’ll draw a veil over his cocaine-injecting hypodermic syringe.
There’s a 221b museum in Baker Street, at Holmes’ supposed address, and sometimes other books engender a tourist trail. I’m well-placed in Cornwall, to take advantage of this, for Winston Graham’s Poldark stories have twice been adapted into television series, and Daphne du Maurier’s Cornish novels are regularly filmed. Visiting the Daphne du Maurier museum/shop at Jamaica Inn is a sobering experience showing how an author’s work can go on earning a fortune for decades after their death. I lived a mile away from this hostelry for about six months, bewildered by how hypnotised the holidaymakers were who spilt off fifty coaches a day. The shop brought in more money than the bar did selling beer.
Should my Cornish Detective novels ever sell as books, getting optioned for a television series, it could be that local traders, pubs and hotels will make money off my creations. I deliberately chose locations ideal for filming with this in mind. Apart from the books themselves, I can’t think of any merchandising potential.
How about your books?
Have you thought of additional ways to sell them, using clothing, music, figurines and games?
This article draws attention to a peculiarity of publishing, that could justifiably be labelled ‘sexist’—though, no one’s doing exactly that yet.
(click the BBC link for more of Jojo Moyes’ opinions on chick lit writing)
Many cover designs are formulaic and lazy. If you’ve ever thought that silhouettes were left behind in the 18th- and 19th-centuries, then you’ve never looked at a display of contemporary fiction in a bookshop.
Jojo Moyes makes some strong points about how books written by women are marketed. I’ve always found the pink and glittery approach to be patronising, but I feel the same way about action novels aimed at a mainly male readership—depicting guns, battleships and jet fighters—this is sometimes referred to as dad lit. How butch can you get?
For my own Cornish Detective novels, should they ever be published, I’d prefer something that wasn’t pigeonholing them as being for male or female readers, and I’d also like to avoid overt suggestions that they’re crime writing. I’m fairly skilled artistically and have designed the covers for all of the titles I published online.
I also created a cover for the second story in my crime series The Perfect Murderer, which shows an anonymous figure cycling at night; the serial killer used a bicycle to stalk victims.
I somehow doubt that my designs would be acceptable to a book publisher. The only author I can think of, who’s got his own way with book design is Alasdair Gray—who uses his own typography and illustrations within the text and for the book cover.
What do you think about the clichéd use of colour, glitter and weaponry on book covers?
Is it an acceptable form of targetting an audience, who know what they’re after and don’t care about the packaging?
Are you put off by such book covers, maybe missing a good story? After all, many readers are already deterred by a book being of a genre they think they don’t like.
Hold the front page!
Forget pink and glittery book covers, what we really need are pulp makeovers of classic titles, as this amusing article shows.
I particularly like the ImmortalMadame Bovary A BRILLIANT AND CYNICAL STORY OF THE WOMAN WHO FLOUTED THE MORAL LAWS OF HER DAY COMPLETE AND UNABRIDGEDwhich has the price of 3 shillings and 6 pence printed on the title character’s bum!
On a serious note, I wonder how many fans of pulp fiction were introduced to serious literature by this marketing tactic?
I recently read a volume of poetry by Ursula K. Le Guin, calledLate In The Day, which included a couple of essays as an afterword. One was on verse form, the other, an extract from the acceptance speech she gave to the National Book Foundation for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters.
The whole speech is here, with a video. She has wise words to say about the current state of publishing; this resonated with me:
I think hard times are coming when we will be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now and can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine some real grounds for hope. We will need writers who can remember freedom. Poets, visionaries, the realists of a larger reality.
Right now, I think we need writers who know the difference between the production of a market commodity and the practice of an art. Developing written material to suit sales strategies in order to maximize corporate profit and advertising revenue is not quite the same thing as responsible book publishing or authorship….
Yet I see sales departments given control over editorial. I see my own publishers in a silly panic of ignorance and greed, charging public libraries for an ebook six or seven times more than they charge customers. We just saw a profiteer try to punish a publisher for disobedience and writers threatened by corporate fatwa, and I see a lot of us—the producers who write the books, and make the books—accepting this. Letting commodity profiteers sell us like deodorant, and tell us what to publish and what to write.…
Books, you know, they’re not just commodities. The profit motive often is in conflict with the aims of art. We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art—the art of words.
I’ve had my own experience of my self-published books being treated like ‘deodorant’, for I uploaded 44 titles to Amazon three years ago. I priced them attractively, but all the same, after about 18 months Amazon contacted me to suggest that I allow them to bundle various of my short stories and poetry collections with nine other writers’ work—as if my creativity could be shrinkwrapped like a multi-pack of lightbulbs, toothpaste or deodorant.
This would have given me a profit of 10 cents for each sale, instead of the original $1.99 I’d priced a 6,000-word short story at. No skin off Amazon’s nose, as they make their profit whatever happens, and it’s certainly a tempting purchase for a customer, but it put me in the bargain basement, priced at less than what a charity/thrift store asks for a second-hand book.
The commercial imperative tramples a writer’s message underfoot. It even affects the book cover design, for I’ve read several crime thrillers this year where the illustration on the jacket misrepresented what happened in the story. Sure, it looked alluring or sinisterly malevolent, with a rugged hero, but it was plain that the artist hadn’t read the book, or if they had they were instructed by marketing to sex things up! In this way, books are becoming like the packaging on processed microwave meals.
It’s one of the toughest lessons to comprehend as a writer, that essentially we’re creating a product that needs to be sold to the public. The art and craft of what we do becomes irrelevant if our book doesn’t sell.
How much of a head for business do you have? In India, they’re selling books by the pound—don’t think that it can’t happen where you live….