Content is king (a rant)

What is marketing? Some folks want to believe that marketing is magic pixie dust you just sprinkle on a product and it automagically makes it into a bestseller. It’s not!

Marketing is finding the audience that didn’t yet know they needed your product, and making them aware that it exists.

How’s this work? Let’s work an example with a product that pretty much everyone who reads this agrees they need: toilet paper.

By the time a human in the first world is housebroken, they tend to agree on the need for the product, and all that remains is convincing them that your product is better than the others.

What is better? Now, that’s where people prove to be a wild variety, and so many different markets exist to cater to each perception of better.

For some people, cheap is better, and low price outweighs everything else. For others, comfort (soft! fluffy! has lotion!) is better. Still others want a higher level of functionality (won’t tear when used! / Safe with septic systems!) Some people want to be amused or entertained (crossword puzzles, poetry, or insert politician’s face here printed on the paper.) Others want to feel virtuous (carbon-neutral / recycled pulp!)

All of these markets, though, want a basic level of functionality. You cannot sell them a non-functional product and hit any market at all.

Okay, you say, but stories aren’t functional. So what’s my point?

Well, actually, stories are functional. They function as entertainment. (Unless you’re writing non-fiction, in which case you need to inform in a reasonably entertaining / engaging manner.) Genre fiction functions as an emotional catharsis, same as movies do: allowing their consumers to build up tension and emotions, then release them with a satisfying ending.

And if your story isn’t functional, then no amount of marketing magic is going to be able to make the customer happy with what they got. In fact, no matter how beautiful your cover art, how awesome your cover design, how tight your blurb, or in the case of audiobooks, how wonderful your narrator’s voice, pacing, and delivery…

The heart of it all is the story.

For an example of good production values and good narrator on a story that wasn’t ready to release into the wild, check out this video below. Warning: Class III beverage alert! Do not consume or hold drinkables or breakables while watching!

You see that? Don’t do that. First, make sure you have a story, not a pile of vaguely related events (unless you’re writing literary, and intend to do so.) Then, make sure you have editing, even if it’s from beta readers or another author you swap services with. Then, and only then, should you start working on the marketing.

Two more notes:

1.) Sometimes, the size of the potential audience is huge, like urban fantasy. Sometimes it’s small, like weird west. Sometimes it’s hard to find and reach, like westerns or golden age pulp scifi aficionados. Practically speaking, the reach of your book is limited by the size of your audience. If there are only 4,000 people out there who will like your story, hey, put it out there to find them! But don’t expect to sell 400,000 copies in the first week. Sometimes a story will appeal to a lot more readers than expected, and go viral… but there’s no guarantee!

2.) Speaking of guarantees, the only sure things in this life are death and taxes. Anyone who holds themselves out as a marketer or promoter and promises you will get a certain level of return is lying to you. Back away immediately! I don’t care how confident they sound or you feel – remember that confidence is the “con” in “con man!”

And for happy non-ranty news: Lois McMaster Bujold has a new novella out in the world of the five gods!
Penric and the Shaman in which Penric has grown a bit, and Desdemona…well, hasn’t. But between them, they do just fine at unsettling everybody on their way to the solution!


Filed under FYNBOSSPRESS, MARKETING, Uncategorized

51 responses to “Content is king (a rant)

  1. I’d guess the horrible fanfic is by someone with a Slavic first language, German as their very occasional second language, and English as a distant third (aided by machine translation). Either that, or a very good imitation. Still funny as hell. 🙂

    • fynbospress

      I’m not sure about the machine translation, because of the sheer number of spelling errors – unless they’re hitting google translate for specific words, and not running whole sentences through.

      You and I have the same guess about the languages, though I’m not sure English is merely the third – and I suspect it’s an actual fanfic, because that level of… of what it is, is hard to keep up consistently when doing a satire.

  2. Laura M

    Dwight Swain’s Techniques of the Selling Writer helped me tremendously on the content side. He really examines and shares the bones of good storytelling, and it’s the most useful book on writing I’ve read yet. (Also, it’s been at least a couple of months since it’s been mentioned. 🙂 )

    • fynbospress

      Yes, that and Self-Editing for Fiction Writers: How to Edit Yourself Into Print by Renni Browne and Dave King are two books I highly recommend to all authors, whether they want to be indie, hybrid, or trad.

  3. The issue of potential audience is also a factor in your upfront production costs. Bad production can limit your audience, but spending more on book design won’t result in more sales than the target audience will support.

    You never hear anyone say, “I don’t like paranormal westerns, but the kerning on the title page was so good that I just had to buy the book!” after all.

    If the target audience of a book is small then you have three options–limit your budget on production, take a loss on it, or don’t publish. Spending ten thousand dollars to produce and market a book that is likely to sell only four thousand copies isn’t a business plan, it’s an expensive hobby.

    • Margaret Ball

      Well, they used to say you could sell thirty thousand copies of anything if you put a dragon on the cover. I don’t think paranormal westerns had been invented, though. Might not work for those.

      • My point is that this insistence that self-publishers pay thousands of dollars to prep manuscripts for sale is, in effect, saying that no one should write for a niche market.

        • Who is insisting that? Well, the “self-publishing industry,” I suppose, by which I mean the vanity publishing machine that is trying to trick the unwary into spending their life savings into things that will do little or nothing to help them produce and sell books.

          I think that a professionally-looking product can be done for well under a thousand dollars, or even under a hundred bucks (not counting the author’s time, of course), depending on the writer’s skills in the other elements of production, or friends/connections that may provide services on a barter basis. The covers for my last two books cost me less than $80 each (I bought premade covers). My biggest expense remains editing/proofreading, and I’m still having trouble getting my money’s worth.

          • I gave up on professional editing/proof reading. My beta readers /h/a/v/e/ /a/ /g/l/e/e/f/u/l/ /t/i/m/e/ do a very nice job.

            The formatting is a bit tedious, but I don’t do anything complicated enough to require anything but not falling asleep while checking that every chapter head is the same as the rest.

            The covers . . . eh, I’ve finally given up and handed it over, but I still don’t spend thousands on them. Barely hundreds.

            The writers who hand over thousands . . . are either selling well enough that they still make a large profit, or they’re being taken by vanity press types jumping on the new Indy bandwagon and and applying their old tricks of sucking money out of writers’ pockets.

            • I need to redo all my covers except for one, even if they are for short stories. The blind hog found an acorn on the first and the rest bite the big one. Problem is that telegraphing the story thing, and making sure they meet the illustration equivalent of typography. I’ve stared at best seller covers looking for clues, and it just doesn’t take.

            • I’m probably going to do the same, rely on beta readers. So far three proofreaders have let me down.

              Cover wise, the most I’ve spent so far has been $200. I’ve been pretty happy with the results, even if the stock art does occasionally show up in other novels.

              • Laura M

                I spend my money on covers. I love my betas for logic, flow, typos, etc., and now I’ve gotten an alpha. I haven’t spent any advertising dollars yet, but this is the year for it. I will also be editing my first two covers. My artist and I have been learning together.

      • BobtheRegisterredFool

        I suspect they used to have a lot more customers buying in general. Insert Sad Puppies arguments about how what people deliver changes what their customers come to expect.

        I’m interested in Dragon Westerns. What they are ranching that needs dragons for the work? What is the commercial market for whatever kind of creature it is? How does one transpose the factors that drove the range wars into the worldbuilding? How does one satisfy the customers that want majestic, powerful dragons, and the customers that want things decided by human qualities? Finding the answers is fun.

        • You will find those answers in Samuel Delany’s “Einstein Intersection”, actually.

        • They’re ranching the mini-dragons that power steam engines. Very high demand back east, and the train engines alone need dozens, each. They only produce hot enough flame for a few years, then they’re retired to kitchens.

          • Randy Wilde

            And here I was thinking of expansion into a new territory, which wakes up a formerly dormant dragon which starts rustling cattle, calling for a Magnificent Seven style response.

        • OK gang, you kicked my muse into gear while my back was turned. *waves clenched paw* Dragon westerns? Arrrrgh, make it go away, please!

          And the Muse tells me that the dragons are going to side with the ranchers. Oh crap.

          • BobtheRegisterredFool

            The new territory allows for large scale ranching of Daikaiju. Most varieties of Daikaiju were first domesticated by dragon riding populations, so dragon based ranching is less rough on the stock than tanks, artillery and other alternatives. Daikaiju products are used in Greater Constructs, the most effective counter to the rising Horrors that now threaten humanity.

            The Covenanteers and the Renegotiators have recently finished a civil war over the future of the Contractual Polity, leaving many veterans with no occupation.

            The smaller wars cannot compare to the big one that is now over, but they are large enough for those in them.

    • Well, I’d never recommend spending thousands of dollars on producing a book for any audience, because a) it can be done much cheaper while still producing a competitive product, and b) like the article said, there are no guarantees, and ten grand is a pretty hefty bet regardless of the size of the pot. Given the odds of actually generating a decent income (or yearly profits equivalent to the take-home pay of a Walmart bagger for that matter), spending too much is a constant danger.

      It’s a balancing act. If you are already starting out with a small audience, a book that isn’t competitive in terms of packaging and marketing is only going to appeal to an even smaller subset of the audience. Depending on the genre, though, the readership may not be as picky as more “mainstream” audiences. I think the best thing to do is see what the top people in the sub-genre in question are doing, and try to at least match them.

    • fynbospress

      Gracious, I wouldn’t even spend over $4K to produce and market a book, much less tens of thousands. And that’s assuming I’m paying for a good line edit, a good copy edit, ebook and print formatting, custom art and cover designer, and planning to hit a bookbub and other staggered promotions with an earlier book in the series.

      Okay, if I had the opportunity to commission a Michael Whelan, Luis Royo, or Don Dos Santos cover, and I had a series that was selling enough to justify such a custom painting for the new release, I’d do it. But that’s just because I adore their artwork, not because it makes financial sense as an indie. Thankfully, they don’t paint in Peter’s genres, so the bank account is safe…

      One point where the economics of this come up regularly is in short stories: if you’re earning 35 cents a sale, and, what, 15 cents a borrow? then there’s no way to justify spending $80 on a premade cover. (Well, unless the short story exists as the permafree lead-in to a book series that you already have 4 or 5 out, and this’ll drive sell-through across the series. Even then, you’d have to run the numbers really thoughtfully, and it’d still be a gamble. But it’d then be a marketing expense, not something you expected to earn back from the story.) Thus, most short story covers are terrible, because the author’s running a business and wants a decent ROI.

      Novellas also hit this problem. I mean, if you’re Lois McMaster Bujold, then yes, you’re going to make back the cover costs on a novella. But that’s also with a heck of a fanbase. For a brand new indie who doesn’t have much name recognition, the amount you can reasonably spend is… more limited.

  4. All too true. We are all trying to sell a product, after all, and a shoddy product just isn’t going to satisfy the customers’ needs/wants.

    Shoddy is in the eye of the beholder, though. I’ve noticed that in some genres, readers are extremely forgiving of things that would drive a regular editor/audience insane. I see a lot of novels with crappy character development, dialog, plot and even grammar making it to the top 100 (and 10) lists of their sub-genres. But they succeed where better-written books fail because they deliver whatever the audience wants. They are usually written by people who are very passionate about the subject matter, and that passion transcends their limitations as storytellers, at least as far as their audience is concerned. Not that I’m suggesting anybody puts out a substandard product, of course: just that a key element to success is having a good sense of what your audience wants to read, something that isn’t quite as easy as it sounds.

    The plus size of a small audience is that it’s easier for indie writers to shine. It takes fewer initial copies sold to make it to high spots in the charts, increasing visibility. But, as you say, there is going to be a cap to how far you can go.

  5. One minute and three seconds… Then I had to bookmark the video for viewing after covering the electronics, padding the desk, and checking the insurance policy for riders concerning YouTube-induced injuries…

    Oh, dear me. Bless their little heart.

    Considering the profits I expect to make from the first one I put up today – it’s a good thing I put nothing but time into the marketing. Hourly wage is probably somewhere around two cents an hour, though.

  6. Christopher M. Chupik

    That video . . . oh MY . . . 😀

    English is not their first language. As in the case of Tommy Wiseau, English may not even be their fourth or fifth language.

  7. Uncle Lar

    Late in life, probably because I’m just a clueless male, I had this epiphany about toilet paper. You see, as a general rule men recognize a need for TP, but most women, bless them, are obsessed with it. Tell a man they’re down to their last roll and they will try to remember to pick some up sometime. Same news in a female household and it’s Katie bar the door!
    I could go into details on why this is true, but my strong advice is that men just accept it as gospel. It will make your life much easier if you do.

  8. 1) Story first, story in the middle, story at the end – and you had better tie it all up properly. This part goes without saying. The brain knows story.

    2) I’m getting very tired of this meme: “make sure you have a story, not a pile of vaguely related events (unless you’re writing literary, and intend to do so)” – not blaming you in particular, but ‘literary’ does NOT mean navel gazing, and I stand firmly on the principle that those who let language or imagery get in the way of story, on the pretext that it is ‘literary fiction’ just means they are not writing prose. I don’t know what they are really doing – exercises, poetry (the non-rhyming kind – poetry really has no rules), or many many names for garbage – but they are doing literary fiction a vast disservice and should be ashamed of themselves for ruining stories.

    That’s my rant for today. YMMV

    • fynbospress

      Hey! A rant for a rant! Awesome! 🙂

      In all seriousness, I fear literary has taken the same degradation that science fiction and fantasy has suffered at the hands of publishers not paying any attention to the market. While it’s oft-derided as a genre bought by people who want to put it unread on the coffee table to keep up with the neighbors, the massive penetration of Amazon Publishing into the market shows that there’s a fair number of people who actually enjoy the genre, and don’t find their needs being fulfilled by the current publishing offerings.

      • All I want it to be read – and to keep writing – at my snail’s pace.

        I know the readers are there; but I’m afraid the ones who like their prose on the literary end of the scale are the most reluctant to try indie.

        I keep saying I write mainstream – but that has disappeared! ‘Literary’ is now the label for what used to be called ‘a novel.’ As opposed to Dune being labeled as SF (I love the care Herbert put into the language).

        Amazon has a Little A imprint – but authors can’t submit directly. Agents can. And I don’t want to get saddled with an agent at ANY point, not for the books part.

        I read somewhere (the internet MUST be right) that books like The Goldfinch are in the category you’re talking about – coffee-table books, almost. I love its cover. Not as enchanted with the story and I’ve heard many people did not finish. But I want that audience!

        Maybe I need to bite the bullet and produce the hardcover edition – as advertising!

        Ideas welcome.

        • Yeah; unfortunately “literary” readers seem to crave that extra bit of legitimacy that coming from a “real” imprint provides.

          There is Amazon’s Kindle Scout program. It’s only for new books, but if the Z picks it up it’ll put its promotional muscle behind it, which is worth a lot more than the relatively paltry $1500 advance they offer.

          • Given how long it takes me to write, and the effort you have to do to get people to vote for your Kindle Scout offering, I won’t be ready for that for a while.

            OTOH, I think I read somewhere that somebody at Amazon actually looks at the entries, which would work for getting past the agent requirement. Rumors.

            The advance is not appropriate for longer works, but the Amazon push would be. I’ve been watching the ‘Amazon Imprints’ segment grow exponentially on the Author Earnings reports.

  9. TRX

    I think a lot of the concentration on “ticking off all the boxes” comes from people who are trying to write a book like a paint-by-number project. So many characters of this and that type, so many approved backstories, so many pages before a Major Event, so many scene changes per chapter, margins and fonts to use in submissions, tick, tick, tick…

    Some of it is aggravated by the essential randomness of agenting, acceptance, and sales, which often seem largely independent of the story itself. So this whole cargo cult has sprung up about writing.

    There’s also what I call the “casino effect.” Most of the people who write probably don’t better their local minimum wage for the time they put into a book. But they keep looking at the handful of writers whos first book made them multimillionaires.

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