Promoting Your Personality, A.K.A. Marketing For Authors In 2017
I stumbled across a Facebook status by an author friend who posted that he was about to start work on the ‘0.01% of being a writer’ that was building his personal brand (the other 99.99%, to his mind, being writing).
Now, I hate to disagree with good friends. However, based on my experience, I’d say at very least the writing/brand divide is at a 50/50 split in 2017. I could go as far as saying that it’s getting closer to 75/25, maybe 90/10 in some cases – in favour of branding. So as long as you are measuring success or failure on awareness and sales, that is.
It’s funny, the reading of fantasy novels, which used to be a fairly solitary thing, has become something community led for a lot of people. These days, the vast majority of readers join groups relating to the genres they enjoy. They subscribe to blogs relating to these genres, follow their favourite authors online and use reading management systems such as Goodreads to ensure their to-be-read list is up to date and all inclusive.
All of these things shape the direction that a modern reader’s reading heads to next. Some examples:
I first heard of Sam Sykes because I follow Peter V. Brett on Twitter. Peter and Sam were joking around, making fun of one another. A few days later Sam and Myke Cole, another author I admire, were also joking about something or other. “Who is this guy?” I thought. I clicked his profile, learnt he was an author and decided that as his tweets made me laugh, I’d pick up his book.
Anna Smith-Spark is a noteworthy presence on the Fantasy-Faction and grimdark Facebook Groups. She has been for about a year now. People talk about and to her with respect and fondness, because she is not only ‘one of them’ and generally writes intelligent and amusing posts, but a person with a publishing contract. They pre-order her book because she seems lovely, she maybe replied to their post/offered advice. She is down-to-earth and approachable, and they want to support her when she asks them to. It’s funny, because I’ve seen lots of people mention her on most anticipated lists, despite very few of them having read a line of her work.
Joe Abercrombie’s panel performances have to be seen to be believed. When Joe is in a room with readers, you can guarantee people will leave with stitches, having laughed so much and so hard. As a blogger, I’m always keen to get video of Joe’s words and upload them to Fantasy-Faction for people to snicker at. People may not know Joe, but if they follow the blog and click on the video, they are likely to at least Google him and find out what he writes about. Even my mum and Grandma left one of the Grim Gathering events with his books!
There is no denying that Pierce Brown’s books are very good. However, the fact that his demographic are typically young adult women is probably as much down to his promotion of his personality/self as down to his books. I mean, essentially he’s got Hunger Games, but then he’s also got Ender’s Game (when you hit book 2) and that’s not usually the kind of book that readers of Hunger Games would orient towards. However, Pierce is young and hot and charismatic and he uses that to his full advantage with online pictures and videos. A ten second Google search gives me:
“Introducing The Hottest Young Adult Author In The World”
“PIERCE BROWN HAS OFFICIALLY SEEN MY VIDEO! I REPEAT! HE’S OFFICIALLY WATCHED ME DROOL OVER HIM!”
“Your books are full of rape!” “[Jorg is a] angsty, megalomaniac prick!” “All the gore and blood and hatred put me in a very negative headspace.” Not typically the kind of things you’d like to hear about your writing, right? However, Mark Lawrence has used the initial controversy surrounding his books via social media and his blog to provide reasoning or argue back against people who have condemned him for such things and birthed a hugely supportive fan-base for his work. Over the years, some of Mark’s posts have subdued the people giving him 1* reviews, other times it has caused them to shout louder – either way, more attention is drawn to Mark’s work and people want to find out for themselves why there is this huge discrepancy in opinion. In addition, Mark has also provided a lot of useful and interesting statistics that are not usually available – writers’ earnings and Goodreads reviews to sales ratios, for example, which serve as fantastic click-bait.
Michael J. Sullivan was one of the first self-published success stories. You could argue that a large part of the support Michael got was due to his embracing of the self-published title and providing the support to the people who supported him. Michael offered an open book in terms of his publishing and writing processes so anyone sitting at home could follow in his footsteps. He held nothing back, even his profits and losses. People wanted to support Michael and see him succeed, often because he was doing what they were planning to, so would buy his book, and as his sales increased, he’d have even more legitimacy.
Jennifer Williams (now Jen Williams) is passionate and supportive about everything and everyone related to fantasy and science fiction. She is always posting selfies with fans and fellow SFF enthusiasts or excitable posts when something awesome in the SFF-sphere occurs. For myself and other people who can totally relate to “caught up with Westworld. Daaaaaamn, it’s gotten a bit good, hasn’t it?”, “Googling the best house to buy in Skyrim”, the odd ‘kitten boop’ picture – it makes her come across as down-to-earth and one of us.
These are just a few examples off the top of my head – but I’m sure you get the picture. Now, what I will say, is that if your book is absolutely terrible, there is only so far having a good community presence, article-writing ability, willingness to create controversy, or looks will get you.
To use an analogy, let’s say that every day you go to the supermarket to buy meat. You tend to stick to poultry because there’s so much of a selection already (duck, turkey, chicken, etc.) that it provides enough variety and it’s a safe option. One day though, you’re on the bus and you sit next to a salmon farmer. He tells you all about his salmon and the work he puts into it. He also seems a really nice guy. As you arrive at the supermarket, you see that his salmon is on the shelf. How much more likely are you to pick it up, just to try it?
Similarly, let’s say you’ve two friends who are arguing about the salmon. One says it is the best thing they’ve ever eaten; the other says it is awful. They argue about it consistently. They ask you what you think, but you have to say you’ve not tried it. More and more people around you are having a similar debate. Again, you go to the supermarket and see the salmon for sale. How more likely are you to buy it?
Lengthy examples, but the point is that you don’t have to know the salmon (book) is good to have a vested interest in its quality and an increased likeliness of picking it up. There’s also the chance that if you liked the farmer enough, you’d be more forgiving if the first you try (a book debut) isn’t perfect and maybe give it another go (book 2/series 2).
This is, essentially, what an author’s job is when using social media. They need to maximise their chances that you, the reader, will pick up their book. That is the absolute most they can do. Their book is already written at this point, they just need to maximise the probability that you will pick the book up. If they can do that, they massively increase the chances of finding an audience.
Now, I imagine there will be a few arguments here, so let me address them.
Argument 1: What if readers don’t like it?
There is a 100% chance that a percentage of people who pick up the book will hate it. However, by using social media you are aiming to increase the number of people who pick up the book. Let’s say 10,000 people pick up your book due to your online activities and only 7,000 enjoy it (note: few people dislike a book in 2017, publishers simply have too much choice to publish really bad books – well, mostly). You’ve still sold 7,000 books to fans that are likely to pick up your second book or at least support you via social media and contribute positively to your online presence.
Note: Nothing can save you if your book is truly terrible. This is why I always advocate self-published authors, especially, to be 100% sure that their book is ready to publish, because you don’t want to invest all this time into giving yourself a reputation for being a terrible writer.
Argument 2: Author X doesn’t use social media!
There are authors who gain popularity without social media, although I think it’s pretty unfair to compare an author pre-2013(ish) to an author of today. I certainly feel that authors such as Peter V. Brett, Brandon Sanderson and Patrick Rothfuss have benefited hugely as a result of online communities who shout about their work and even extend the reading experience by forming theories, creating fan art and so on. I’d reverse it and say there are a good number of authors who could be HUGE if they used social media and managed to find their following and I’ve also seen authors who have been massively successful when using social media and then shied away from it and seen a significant decline in readership (I won’t name them due to being friendly with them).
Note: Without social media, keys to success include paid marketing (which is changing considerably with the loss of book stores and the dominance of Amazon), national book clubs (such as Richard & Judie’s Book Club or World Book Night) or sparking a bidding war between publishing houses/movie studios. This takes a great deal of pressure off an author as a huge advance is provided and a media spotlight is shone on the title before it hits shelves – see Red Rising or An Ember in the Ashes as examples; both sold for seven figures.
In 2017, social media provides authors with a huge pool of readers. The vast majority of readers want to find the next best thing, they want to have a relationship with authors and they want to be involved with conversations and theories about hot books. Reading in 2017 has become this really wonderful communal thing and authors shouldn’t be afraid of injecting themselves into the community and trying to steer some of the passionate community towards their work if they believe in it.
A word of warning though, I’d not recommend any kind of ‘buy my book’ type advertising. Fantasy-Faction’s group is full of authors who comment on every thread with ‘I do this in my book, buy it here!’. If that is the extent of your involvement in a community, you’re not contributing to it. Instead you’re using it and threatening your sales through becoming known as that ‘really desperate guy who keeps posting links to his books’. Very quickly you get ignored, because it’s not professional and it’s not cool. Fans and other authors will do this for you as your reputation grows; see my posts about Brent Weeks or Peter V. Brett or Kareem Mahfouz’s posts about John Gwynnes or Andy Remic.
So, if you are an author recently signed by a publishing house or a self-published author looking to grow your fan-base, I’d recommend taking a look at what authors are being talked about on blogs/Twitter/Facebook Groups and then doing a bit of research on their methods of drawing attention. The best authors will be doing it subtly, with their ‘marketing’ being contributions to the genre and community. You should also consider that authors aren’t acting or being deceptive, they are just putting their skills and personality out there: Mark Lawrence being a great statistician with an interest in reading habits, Anna Smith-Spark being a very confident woman with a publishing deal for a grimdark novel, Pierce Brown being a good looking guy writing for a younger audience in a world where most young adult readers are women or older men.
Laura Lam, author of an array of wonderful fantasy and sci-fi novels, was happy to give her thoughts on marketing. She said:
“I think [your brand] is important, though I don’t think that hard about what my brand is, really. Mainly I’m just myself online like I am in person, and discuss things I’m passionate about, try to market my work in a way that’s not a constant ‘buy my book refrain!’ and try not to put my foot in it. Seems to be working so far?”
Researching authors and devising a strategy where you, as an author, can convey your personality in a way that stands out to potential readers is difficult, but it’s the key to success as an author in 2017, I feel.
Do leave your thoughts on who is doing social media right (or wrong) below!