Marketing is not what you expect

Too often, when writers think of marketing, they cringe. They expect that it turns you into “someone who sells and promotes,” instead of a thoughtful writer. Remember the movie Groundhog Day, when Bill Murray keeps bumping into the pushy insurance salesman named Ned Ryerson? That is what a lot of people think marketing is:

He’s in your face. Obvious. He wants the sale at any cost. We’ll come back to Ned Ryerson in a moment…

Back in the first internet bubble, around the year 2000, I worked at a series of internet startups in New York City. One day, the Chief Financial officer didn’t show up for work, and he never came back. That wasn’t a good sign, the rumor was, the company ran out of money. Soon after, the head of sales told us all to go into the streets around Washington Square Park, and do anything we could to get people to give us their email address to sign up for our service. It was impromptu, at first we thought they were kidding.

On the sidewalk in front of the NYU student center, our programmers, designers, and other staff were stopping strangers in the street to tell them about our internet startup. It was absurd.

That was desperation. That isn’t marketing.

(And yes, the company folded soon after. )

Marketing is not what you expect. For most writers, it is not a brazen sales pitch. Instead, it is when you delight someone. When a meaningful connection is made. When a reader chooses to engage with an author because it brings joy into their life.

I remember when I worked with author Lauri Taylor in the months leading up to the launch of her book, The Accidental Truth. She would meet with someone, and always come back to me and say something like, “We had a great conversation. We cried. They would love get the word out about the book.”

Why were they crying? Because the book was a deeply personal story to Lauri, and it always triggered something meaningful from the life of the person she was meeting with. I was amazed at how Laurie could make such a powerful connection with those she met.

Is that marketing? I hesitate to define that moment with a single word. But I know that Lauri connected people to the book and found a way for them to rally around it. Plus, these people’s lives were richer for it, and Lauri created meaningful connections in the process.

When an author signs with a big publisher, they receive a a lengthy document called an Author Questionnaire from the marketing folks. This document asks you to list every connection you have had in your entire life to an organization, a company, or an individual who could in some way, create a marketing opportunity.

Did you belong to a sorority 38 years ago? They want to know. Did you speak at a conference 18 years ago? They want to know. Do you know someone who knows someone who works at a certain company? They want to know.

Then what happens is not what many authors expect.

The author hopes that the publisher’s primary marketing focus is to connect the book to strangers — people the author alone could never reach. And of course, this is something can publishers help you do. But they start with the author questionnaire. With holding up a mirror to your life, to identify the people you already know that who they can market the book to. Why? Because the publisher knows that people who are connected with you are more likely to buy the book, and say yes to helping to spread the word. These people want you to succeed. Likewise, this is one thing that can fuel word of mouth marketing.

Many authors approached this situation at first thinking that marketing was going to be some big campaign where the publisher magically finds strangers. But it turns out to be what they didn’t expect, a game of This is Your Life, and focusing instead on the relationships and connections they spent a lifetime building.

This is why some of the work I do with writers is so focused on establishing one-to-one connections with readers and those who support books. You can read more about my approach, which I call Human-Centered Marketing, here.

Marketing is the unexpected that delights us, just as the creative process itself. When I was searching for a photo of Ned Ryerson for this essay, I also found a 10 year old podcast where the actor Stephen Tobolowsky told stories of the making of the Groundhog Day.

It was not what you would expect for a film which has now become a classic. Here are four stories Stephen shared that illustrate how unexpected the creative process is:

  • They threw out a very expensive scene that took three days to shoot, because the tone felt slightly off. They replaced it instead with a scene that featured a pencil, a 10 cent item.
  • Midway through filming, they ditched the script and wrote the rest as they were shooting. Actors got new pages each day.
  • After Stephen was done filming and flew home, he was called back to the set for one additional scene as Ned. But no one had written the scene yet, and Bill Murray didn’t even want to shoot it. As Stephen sat in his trailer and time was running out, he wrote the scene himself. He describes it as, “I had all the dialogue and Bill had the joke.” He showed it to the director on the final day on that location, they shot it in one take, and the scene made it into the movie.
  • When they went to film a critical scene, Bill refused to shoot. He first wanted to know a key fact : what he would be wearing. This was a scene where he wakes up next to someone, and what he wore (or didn’t wear) would signal to the audience what could have happened the night before. The director asked Bill what he thought. Bill said, “I’m asking you.” The director then suggested they take a poll from the entire cast and crew to decide. Oddly, the vote was a tie, and it came down to a woman who as an assistant set director, and this was her first film shoot. She said, “He is dressed in the clothes he wore the night before, all of them, absolutely, and if you do it any other way, you will ruin the movie.” The director smiled and then said to Bill Murray, “He is dressed in the clothes he wore the night before, all of them, absolutely, and if you do it any other way, you will ruin the movie.” Bill said, “Okay,” then they shot the scene.

Why do I share these stories about this movie? Because this is not how one would expect the creative process to work when you are on a big budget project, with a famous director, famous star, and a crew of professionals.

In the same way, marketing is not what you expect. It is what you make of it. It is your choice to fill it with meaningful connection and joy. To make it something that is not a dreaded “requirement” of the publishing process, but an opportunity for you to fulfill the reason you started writing in the first place: to connect with a reader.