I’ve been working a lot on studying marketing lately. Not just indie book marketing, but the principles behind selling stuff.
When I started out as a writer, I thought writing was mostly about putting one’s thoughts and feelings down on the page, and then some magic would happen, and people would like what I wrote and want to pay for it.
Like many things in life, if you want the magic to happen, you have to make it yourself. And when you do, the magic turns out to be completely mundane. I eventually figured out that the magic, in this case, was selling things. The connection between making something and have people want to buy it is…selling things.
A lot of people seem to grasp this instinctively; I didn’t. Here’s what I’ve been reading to study up:
- The Copywriter’s Handbook, by Robert Bly. If you read one book on the subject, do this one.
- Kickass Copywriting in 10 Easy Steps, by Susan Gunelius. Pretty good, another approach on much of the same material. For people who need more structure.
- The Well-Fed Writer, by Peter Bowerman. This is more of a “why” than a “what” book for freelancers. Very good.
- Six Figure Author, by Chris Fox (and related titles). Translates Bly into action steps specific to indie writers.
And some other books that I abandoned after they made my eyes roll.
Two things stuck out to me:
- I had no idea what I was selling.
- I had no idea why anybody would buy it.
I had come a long way from the standard indie writer approach to marketing and promotion, which is basically, “I have a new book out, if you are so inclined, please buy it,” which I tend to refer to as the buy my crap approach.
Telling people to buy your book without telling them why they want it is poor salesmanship, and can’t possibly do your book justice.
But I (and it seems most writers) didn’t actually know why anyone would want my books, or books in general. What do books do for people? And how do you demonstrate that your book does that in general, and specifically that one thing that the reader wants from your book and no other?
(This is called a “unique selling proposition,” by the way; you have to identify it before you can do anything else.)
I had to back up.
Why do people read books?
- To be entertained in the way that they specifically find entertaining.
- To escape from their lives.
- To process the problems in their lives in a safe way.
- To empathize with other people, to become them for a little while.
- To totally geek out over something.
Why do people read my books?
- To escape from the normal world, but not necessarily too far.
- To feel like they’re part of an intelligent, insightful conversation.
- To see something they’ve already seen, but with a fresh perspective (often ironic).
- To see something they haven’t already seen or cannot see, as if it were real.
- Alice in Wonderland geeks (yay!).
There’s something that gets discussed in the process of selling stuff, features versus benefits. The features are the things about your book that make it what it is.
The Queen of Stilled Hearts is a book about Alice in Wonderland; it has zombies.
The benefits of the book are what the reader gets out of it.
The Queen of Stilled Hearts is a dryly ironic book that sets you right in the middle of a Victorian Oxford class war and provides insight into Lewis Carroll, Alice Liddell, her family, and even Queen Victoria. The story is a darkly true coming of age story, where Alice doesn’t so much come into her own as get bullied into taking her place as an upper-class daughter. Sometimes there is no happy ending, because people are jerks, and it’s nice to have that dragged out into the open rather than, once again, prettied up for the family photo album.
The difference between features and benefits is emotion. Features are about stuff that exists; benefits are about how the audience feels about it. The magic is in the feels.
I’m still struggling with how this works, and until I’m a millionaire I probably won’t feel like an expert on the subject, but I have reached the point where I can see other writers screwing this up.
Nobody wants to know the plot of your story, per se, before they read it.
People want to know how you’re going to make them feel.
When someone writes a story, they are writing an experience for the reader. Everything else builds toward making the reader feel something in particular. When I write, I am selling experiences. What people want to buy, when they buy a book, is a particular experience.
Selling uses the features of the book to focus the reader’s attention on the experience they’ll have. “You’ll have a great time reading this book!” is not a convincing argument. Why? What if I’m not the right reader for the book? How will I know? So you do have to use the features somewhat. They just aren’t the focus.
“If you like Alice in Wonderland and zombies, you’ll like The Queen of Stilled Hearts!”
Pretty much true.
“If you like dark historical fiction with a horror bent, you’ll like The Queen of Stilled Hearts!”
Also true. Genre is a way of identifying clusters of experiences in books.
I’m still not to the point where I can pull an effective book description out of my butt, but I’m getting closer. I’m also finding that it affects my writing; I’m thinking more about what readers will experience as they read. This is a real pain in the ass at the moment. I’m thinking waaaay too hard about it as I write (and it’s me saying that). But I feel like I’m getting closer to what readers actually want.
What do readers want? They want a good time, the time you get from visiting old cemeteries and wondering whether that statue covered in moss and stains is an angel or some kind of fallen demonic entity.
Or something like that 🙂
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