Each week, I spend a lot of time talking to writers and engaging with them on social media. It’s not uncommon for me to hear a phrase such as, “I heard ______ doesn’t work to actually sell books or grow my audience.”
What is in that blank spot? Well, if you talk to enough writers, it is EVERYTHING.
- Social media doesn’t work.
- Advertising doesn’t work.
- Newsletters don’t work.
- Giveaways don’t work.
- Book club outreach doesn’t work.
- TV doesn’t work.
- Podcasts don’t work.
- Radio doesn’t work.
- Collaborations don’t work.
- Online events don’t work.
- In-person events don’t work.
- … and so on.
From one person to the next, you will hear conflicting advice. One will say: “One of the only things that moves books now are podcasts.” Then the next day someone will say “I have been chatting with quite a few authors who said they were on podcasts, and it didn’t do anything to sell books. It was a waste of time.”
My fear is that this narrative is so strong because deep down, people don’t want to look the fool. They are uncomfortable asking others for help. They are worried that they will thought of as self-serving and promotional if they take marketing seriously. They already feel overwhelmed by all the aspects of writing and publishing. They worry that if they are seen making an effort with marketing, that they will no longer be seen as an “author.”
So they simply don’t want to bother. Because what if they bother, and it doesn’t work. It is better to sit on the sidelines carefully analyzing the one thing that could work… rather than try things for themselves and figure it out.
Here is the thing about when people say those things listed above about what doesn’t work.
Those people are right.
We can spend all day researching every marketing and platform strategy in the world, and find copious examples of why they don’t work. We can find the data to back it up. We can create a case study of why nothing will guarantee success to share your writing successfully.
And if you are looking for that narrative, then that means you are off the hook. “Nothing works” means you rid yourself of the notion of having to try to connect with readers.
But here is the thing…
I’ll bet that you write because deep down, you have a story inside you that needs to come out. Or you have something to say that you know will help someone. You write because you love the craft, and feel a sense of purpose when you put words on the page. You write because you have decided that your voice will not be lost amidst life’s daily routines.
If any of that is true, then you will always come back to the idea of not just writing, but considering how you can share it effectively. Not because you are trying to “become a marketer,” but because you know that reading makes our lives better. Because you hope to create moments and experiences for readers that will give them a respite, an escape, a sense of joy, thoughtfulness, or solace.
In my book Be the Gateway, I have an entire chapter titled “Avoid Best Practices.” Here is an excerpt:
“We believe that best practices are what we should seek because we want a shortcut. We want to know exactly what worked for others, and then (and we hate to admit this part) we do it half-baked. We want to see the 20 steps that worked for someone else, and, then do the eight steps that we are most comfortable with and can do most easily. We end up with a pathetic copy of a copy of a copy. Then we are disappointed when this doesn’t lead to success. It’s as if I gave someone a recipe for a great cake, and they only used four out of the twelve needed ingredients.”
“Researching “best practices” is something we justify because we want to feel that we are preparing to do things smartly. The reality is that we are waiting until we feel less afraid, or the world makes it safer with established, accepted practices. We tell ourselves this research is to make “informed choices,” so we delay action. But if you wait for it to be “safe,” that means you are crossing the same street with thousands of others. You are merely one of the pack of people copying a copy of a strategy, and therefore receiving almost none of the original value.”
What do I recommend instead of best practices? Primary research. Oh, that is a fancy way of saying “talking with readers and those who connect with them.”
Doing primary research lays the foundation for capturing the attention of your ideal audience in a way that is sustainable and meaningful. It has many benefits, including:
- Telling you what your ideal audience cares about.
- Indicating where they hang out online and off.
- Hinting at what other creative work they love and why.
- Identifying who they admire and listen to.
- Being a process original to you.
- Allowing you to tap into and experience your creative vision in a fuller way.
- Helping you manage the complex emotions and psychological triggers around creating, sharing, and the business aspect of your work.
When you are done, you will have a sense of how to craft your messaging, where you need to be, and who can help connect you to these people you hope to engage. What’s more, the process will align to and support your creative work, not get in the way and eclipse it. Doing this allows audience outreach to feel meaningful to you, where every time you learn something new about your audience, it fuels a deep sense of momentum.
What else works? Creating and sharing frequently. This is partly why social media and online channels such as newsletters and YouTube and podcasts have really taken off. The frequency of sharing changes not only what we can create, but how we connect. This is not about technology, but rather, about what makes us human.
We want to connect with others. We build connections with those who show up in our lives regularly. We love creative work and want to find new ways to fill our lives with it.
If you want to grow your platform as a writer and develop a marketing strategy for your books, my advice to you is:
- Spend time talking with readers and those who connect with them.
- Create more.
- Share what you create and what inspires.
How can you do that? Oh, well that brings us back to the list above of things that “don’t work.” Because, they all “work” if you pursue it from a place of creativity and empathy. If you do it to connect with those who love the kind of writing that you do, and with the goal of creating meaningful moments and experiences.
Something happened today from another creative field that is a wonderful example of this. For the second time this year, Taylor Swift released a brand new album that she just recorded. This is in addition to one documentary produced this year, plus another that was released in January.
Here is someone who just keeps creating. Who keeps sharing. Who either works to connect directly with her audience, or keeps them in mind as a driving force for what she does.
Five years ago, I wrote about Taylor Swift in a blog post, sharing this video as a compelling example of truly embracing your ideal audience.
Yesterday, I saw this is how she shared the news of her newest album:
“Ever since I was 13, I’ve been excited about turning 31 because it’s my lucky number backwards, which is why I wanted to surprise you with this now. You’ve all been so caring, supportive and thoughtful on my birthdays and so this time I thought I would give you something! I also know this holiday season will be a lonely one for most of us and if there are any of you out there who turn to music to cope with missing loved ones the way I do, this is for you.”
Why share this example? Because at the core of it is who we are as people and what connects us as human beings: caring, connecting, creating, and sharing.
And if you want me to more directly connect it back to marketing your books, I am happy to do so. It was more than a decade ago that I heard this quote from Scott Johnson:
“Caring is a powerful business advantage.”
If you want to connect what you create to readers, start with that.