Monday, February 14, 2022

Author Thoughts: Marketing (or lack thereof)

As I'm between projects right now, I thought maybe I would take some time to discuss authorly topics that have been on my mind lately, in the hopes that what I have to say might help my fellow authors and aspiring authors. I'm sure my opinions won't be for everyone, but maybe they'll mean something to someone who really needs it. I've had some unusual experiences as a professional author, and maybe there are a few other folks like me out there who need to feel validated.

Today I want to talk about marketing, and why I don't do it. I used to try. Check the "opinions" tag for my series of blog posts about why it didn't work well for me. My miserable experiences with marketing also helped launch me on the path to discovering that not only was marketing not one of my strong suits, but I also just plain do not want to market my work. Some of what I have to say here may be repetitive of some of what I've said in those previous posts, but I feel that it's well worth reiterating.

(Please note that if you are an author who is finding fulfillment in marketing, this post is not meant to criticize how you run your career. This post is for those of us who do not have your skillset, find marketing a horrible experience, and wonder if there's any alternative for the modern independent author. So if you're sitting there reading this like "but marketing has done wonders for my books!" then probably this post isn't for you.)

(This post is also expressly not for people who concern themselves with making a living off of their books. I'm grateful to be in a position where I do not need to write for a living, so I don't have to pay attention to how much money my books are making. This post is for people who have the means to write for the sake of writing, but I'll talk a little bit more about that later.)

When I get down to it, I think maybe one of the core reasons why I balk at marketing is because in my previous life as an illustrator and webcomic artist, I didn't have to do any marketing. I put my art online and people flocked to it. It was that simple. So simple, in fact, that I assumed, when I wrote my first novel, that the same thing would happen: people looking for new sci-fi novels would see my book on Amazon and immediately snatch it up and I'd gain a fanbase.

Well, it took a few years before I learned the truth: the literary market, and especially speculative fiction, is highly competitive, and readers are also extremely selective. They won't buy a book unless it looks really compelling, and when you have a bunch of authors feverishly working to keep their titles on the cutting edge of compelling, anybody who doesn't try hard enough (and spend enough) gets left in the dust.

I'm not saying this to be discouraging. But that's just the way the market works. This marvelous age where anybody can circumvent a publishing house, and get their work available online in a matter of hours after submission, is also a double-edged sword that has produced a bloated market where readers have literally millions of titles at their fingertips and only so much time to read.

You can go one of two ways with this. Either become really, really savvy at marketing (and/or spend lots of money on it)... or just stop worrying about whether or not your novel is one of the top search hits on Amazon. After spending much effort and money on marketing with not much but a plethora of health problems to show for it, I decided to try the second route, and I've found myself much healthier and happier.

So my first bit of advice for those of you who are stressed about marketing is, stop sweating the money if it's giving you issues. Money can't buy happiness. There are some creators who have business acumen, but I am definitely not one of them, and if you're reading this, you're probably not either. It's not for everybody. If you have an agent or publicist who likes (or is paid) to do this kind of thing for you, that's what they're there for. If not, well, just accept the reality that you are most likely not going to be an overnight viral success anytime soon (more on that later). And then keep writing anyway because you enjoy it, and because you feel like your work is important regardless of how much money it makes.

That's right--money can be an afterthought in writing. In fact, I've found my writing works much better for me when money is an afterthought. For me, it was a mistake to try to make my books into commercial ventures when I never thought of them that way, because I wasn't being true to myself and I felt like I was misdirecting my artistic vision. To see my writing as a means to an end (i.e. money) was getting my priorities completely backward. For me, the means is the end, and what I thought was the end (or had to be the end), is actually just a nice occasional benefit. 

Bestselling home design writer and architect Sarah Susanka says in a recent blog post of hers that she wants to make a difference in people's lives with her work, not to achieve recognition and artistic fame. The latter two came precisely because she had something meaningful to say to her fellow human beings and she did so in a way that was authentically trying to help them, not because she was trying to figure out how to write the next hit home design book that would land her in a higher tax bracket. If your motivation as a writer is to make an impact with your work, I don't think there's much point in diverting your valuable time and energy to figure out how to squeeze the dollars out of it. You really cannot plan on success--but more on that later. (Including more on rethinking the definition of "success".)

Now, I think this is one area where authors who go the traditional publishing house route do have a certain advantage. Publishers and agents are the ones whose job it is to take your creativity and turn it into a commercial venture, so you don't have to stress about it. They know how to make money off of a good story. (I could write a whole other essay about how I disagree with the current trend of publishers trying to make their authors into social media celebrities in order to sell more books when a) this is waaaaay outside of some authors' comfort zones and b) isn't it the publishers' job to sell books?

When you choose the path of the indie author, whatever your reason, you are effectively saying you are going to manage the marketing yourself (unless you hire a marketer, of course). That means if you don't personally do any marketing, it doesn't get done. You have to decide whether or not that's a bad thing for you.

I recently saw an ad for Kindle Digital Publishing on YouTube. The ad talked about how a certain author makes thousands of dollars a month selling her books. In days gone by, I would have taken this very seriously and experienced much angst over why my books aren't making that much. But now? I find that I just don't care. Especially because I know that behind those thousands of dollars is probably a lot of time and money put into marketing campaigns.

Don't equate skillful marketing campaigns with amazing books. Good marketers know how to put just the right spin on anything to make it sound exciting. And if you're not a good marketer, well, you could have a potential Pulitzer prize winner on your hands with zero sales. Again, I think we as authors need to mentally disconnect books from their marketing and not dismiss our own work just because it isn't selling. Yes, you can write a good book and not have a fabulous, on-trend marketing campaign to go with it. Again, as an indie author, that's up to you. But the lack of marketing does not have any impact on the inherent quality of your book. It just means you choose not to market.

I firmly believe being an author isn't supposed to make your life miserable. You shouldn't have to do anything that makes your writing career more stressful than fun. If marketing is on that list of stressful things that are tipping the scales away from your well-being, it's got to go, no matter what the Internet says.

Now, I'm not saying you have to hide your writing in a closet and never tell anyone about it. (Unless you want to do that, but I'm assuming that by identifying as an author, you want to share your work.) But I think it's ultimately best to let people know about your writing in ways that are natural and stress-free for you. If you're an introvert like me, this means that your work will probably get less exposure, but I have learned from experience that increased exposure is not worth the health-breaking stress of going way too far outside your social comfort zone all the time.

Figure out what works for you, even if it seems small, and stick with it. And stay away from methods that you know don't work for you. If you're considering a new method, take a moment to ponder whether or not it will add more undue stress to your life, and if it will, maybe don't do it. 

For example, I'm not a member of any writing groups, online or real-life. I tried, multiple times, but the whole group thing is just not for me. (Told you I was an introvert.) So I don't attempt to make myself go down that venue anymore, because even though it technically means I can tell more people about my books, I hate the emotional exhaustion that always comes with it. On the other hand, if I strike up a conversation with someone in real life, I take the opportunity to them know about my latest book release. I have zero interest in stuff like Twitter, TikTok, and LinkedIn, but I'm perfectly okay with adding hashtags to my Facebook and Instagram posts. Calling attention to your work, even in seemingly minor ways, is versatile enough that there are workable methods out there for everybody.

Finally, I believe success will come when it's meant to come, sooner or later. I believe God's timing is perfect, and when things don't happen when we want them to (which is usually right now please), it's because He has a better plan and higher purposes for us. I think, unless we're feeling inspired otherwise, the best we can really do as authors (especially indie authors) is to do good work, put it out there, and let God take care of the rest. I think when that happens, success often comes sooner than we thought.

A great example of this is hip-hop violinist Lindsey Stirling. She was a finalist on America's Got Talent, but was voted off because the judges didn't think her performing talents were marketable. Stirling was devastated, but she decided to start posting music videos on YouTube simply to share her performing, not thinking much would come of it. It didn't take long for her videos to go viral, and now she's a superstar.

In addition, I've noticed that many artists - including writers - are often ahead of their time. They have brilliant ideas, so brilliant that it can take the rest of the world some years years to catch up to where these people are in their minds. The Lord of the Rings met with mixed reviews when it was first published in the UK in 1954-55. When it was published in the US in the 1960's in the middle of cultural and political turmoil, something about the messages in the book simply resonated with a large segment of the nation, and it took off like wildfire and sparked the imaginations of an entire generation of fantasy creators. I'm sure this came as a pleasant shock to Tolkien after the book's mediocre performance on the British market a decade earlier. It took his work a few decades to "make it big" since he started writing his saga in the 1930's, but when it finally happened, boy did it make it big and make a lasting cultural impact.

Many "overnight successes" are really just ("just") people who present the right message at the right time, and even then there are generally years of preparatory work leading up to that moment. The aforementioned Ms. Susanka is an architect by trade, and had been doing professional architectural work for some years when she felt the need in the late 1990s to write about what was wrong with American contemporary home design and how to fix it. As she explains in the foreword of the 10th anniversary edition of her original book, The Not So Big House, she didn't realize at the time that she was really addressing the concerns of 50 million Americans who felt dissatisfied with their homes. That is what catapulted her book to incredibly fast success--it wasn't a savvy marketing campaign or the author hobnobbing with the masses, it was just that she wrote a book America needed, at a time when people were going to be receptive to it.

I believe God has a plan for everybody, and sometimes that plan involves success sooner, sometimes later. But I also trust that He has His good reasons for withholding success from some people through no fault of their own, and when we look back years later with a greater perspective, we'll be able to understand the reasons why.

Julie Webster, a former spacecraft engineer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (one of my favorite places), had a sign hanging on her office wall there that said "Experience is what you get when you don't get what you want." I love that quote. I've seen that principle at work in my life and others' lives. I think that often, when God withholds something, it's because we need some experience more than we need the thing we want.

For my first few books, I had a terribly difficult time finding a content editor who would work for cheap (because cheap was all I could afford). When I finally found editors, they would take forever to get back to me--sometimes over a year. At the time this was intensely frustrating. (And honestly, if it still happened today I would still be intensely frustrated.) However, I think this was ultimately a good thing, because while waiting for them to get back to me, I would write lots of fanfiction and work on improving my writing skills. As a result, I think my writing improved much quicker than it would have otherwise. (Plus, now I have lots of fanfic to share!) So I'm actually weirdly grateful for those frustrating times.

So if you wrote something and you want to share it with the world, but you're just met with disappointment and frustration, please don't give up. The world may just not be ready for your genius--but until then, you can gain the valuable treasure of experience while you're waiting for your ship to come in.

And at any rate, how do you define success, anyway? Maybe a book's success shouldn't depend on how much money it makes or how many copies it sells, but how greatly it improves the lives of those who read it. That, to me, is the measure of a successful book.

It's funny, I started writing this post about a week and a half ago, but every time I went to work on it, my brain would just fizzle. It was annoying, but there wasn't much I could do except give my mind a break. Now, though, as I've found a sudden burst of creative energy allowing me to finish up here, I realize why--there were some things I needed to decide about my career that I couldn't really write about here until I had figured them out for myself.

So, having said that, I'm taking this opportunity to announce that I am drastically scaling back on promotional efforts moving forward. Public appearances will be fewer and farther between. I'm not sure when there will be another audiobook. I'm going to be more selective about events. Because I need to do what's right for me and take care of myself, and not be so concerned about what will get my books to "take off" if it's simply not the right time. I've learned from experience that when it is the right time for something, God moves extremely quickly and makes miracles happen. There's no point in trying to force what isn't meant to be right now. I'm much better off expending my time and energy doing things that make me happy.

I wish the same for all of you. Happy writing, happy living.

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