Thursday, May 20, 2010

In Which I Pitch a Hissy Fit About Marketing

by Bill

Do you like doing all the marketing, social networking, etc.?

This one is easy. No.

I mean, Yes.

I mean. Oh, bother.

Here's the thing. I've long felt marketing was one of those unseemly things we do which, while arguably necessary at times, is never something to discuss in polite company. It's like describing one's bowel movement at a dinner party. Seriously, save it for the doctor's office.

"And yet," you say (imagine your own voice), "Bill, I see you nattering on Twitter all day long like a nattering natter-monkey. And sometimes you post links in a self-promotional and/or marketing-y way. Surely this is in conflict with whatever it is you typed above."

Yes, it is. That is because I am a man Twisted by Paradox. And/or wishy-washy.

It was way back in Ye Olde Olden Tymes—my college days—that my deep and abiding crabbiness toward Marketing was born. I attended Miami University in Oxford, Ohio (no, not in Florida), which had recently been declared a "public ivy" by U.S. News & World Report because it had a strong business school. So the campus was filled with all these smug business majors and ruled by Baron Finance Professor and Duchess Accounting Professor and, of course, Lord Tyrant Marketing.

Gah, I wanted to throat-punch the lot of them.

As if that wasn't bad enough, when it came time for me—creative writing major—to get a job, guess what I found myself doing? Yeah. Marketing.

Which I have been doing for the last … twenty … five … years.


Maybe I have a bias.

Personal feelings about marketing aside, I'm not naive. Obviously I would like to find readers. One doesn't work in marketing for twenty … five … years (sigh) without learning you don't reach an audience through dumb luck. Unless you are Justin Bieber. You have to make a targeted effort. You have to learn who the potential audience is, what kinds of messages it will respond to, where those messages need to be in order to be seen, etc.

Which actually brings up a problem with book marketing in particular. It's driven almost exclusively by two things: anecdote and just-do-everythingism.

Anecdotes typically fall into the "omigawd Random Bob did this and made a million dollars and if you don't do it too you will fail because you are insaaaaane" category. They are the functional equivalent of Homer Simpson telling Marge the reason he has to catch the giant catfish is because those weirdos down at the bait shop said so. But we take these anecdotes seriously because, you know, some weirdo on the internet said so.

But in a way, getting our marketing techniques via anecdote is relatively harmless. You read a blog post and you try the "surefire" technique, and it either works or it doesn't. But if it didn't take that long or involve much grief, c'est la vie.

The Just Do Everything approach to marketing is far more insidious, because it demands huge investments of time and money with little evidence any of it actually works. Of course, evidence is beside the point, the argument goes. If you "just do everything," something is bound to work. And if it doesn't, it's your fault because you didn't do it right.

I don't know if marketing is taught this way today, but back in my public ivy days, the smug marketing majors used to talk about this thing called metrics. The way it works is you build up a body of data on the effectiveness of various techniques and when the data doesn't support a particular approach, you don't use it. And when you don't have data for a new approach, you set up tests and build a dataset before you go all in.

This isn't easy, nor is it guaranteed. Marketing is by necessity a fuzzy endeavor, involving as it does statistics and the ever-changing vagaries of consumer whim. But even a fuzzy discipline has a little rigor here and there. And yet, near as I can tell, that rigor is pretty much ignored when it comes to book marketing. ("If you don't do what Random Bob did you're insaaaaaane!")

Those weirdos down at the bait shop are not a dataset. They are a data point, and not a particularly rigorous one. (What's the control?) A blog post is also not a dataset. Nor are a single author's success or failure self-publishing to Kindle, or blasting the Twitterverse twenty times a day with a link to his special offer, or blogging her hangnail surgery.

And a person who spends 90% of his time on all manner of blatant and noisy self-promo isn't an author, he's a marketing drone who may occasionally write something.

So what am I up to on Twitter and on my website and, well, here? That stuff's marketing, right?

Here's my answer, the result of a rigorous testing regime which featured controls and focus groups and exit interviews, and which produced a prodigious mountain of data I analyzed in great detail whilst finishing a beer a few minutes ago. (Okay, the focus group was me, and the test subject was me, and the control was my cat, who is looking at me right now like I'm a huge disappointment.)

I do what's fun, tempered by not doing the things which annoy me or which I can't afford.

That's it.

So. I natter on Twitter with my friends. When I have a piece of genuine book-related news, I share it, but calmly and without a lot of spamalicious repetition. I send out an occasional newsletter (maybe once or twice a year). I write my blog posts here. And I take care of my web site. Since my day job involves web development, that last is the one which feels the most like work, but it's also easy for me, so it's not onerous.

Here is what I do not do: I do not sacrifice writing for marketing.

Why do I use this approach? Because I have no idea what works and what doesn't when it comes to marketing books, but I know what works and what doesn't when it comes to marketing books to me. The people who put writing ahead of marketing (and put writing ahead of their own celebrity), and who engage with their readers as fellow human beings are the ones who get my attention, and often my dollars.

So that's what I try to do.

And, yeah, when I stick with that, it is fun. Effective? Who knows? But at least it doesn't make me insaaaaaaane.


Vicki Delany said...

I'm with you! You could kill yourself (and spend all your money) trying to do what works for someone else - or what they say works, two different things - meanwhile you forgot to write the book.

Jen Forbus said...

It works for me, too. I mean what YOU do is effective to me as the reader. I think you're GREAT at it, Bill! Keep up the good work.

Bill Cameron said...

Aye, Vicki. In the end, the best marketing we can do is write the best book we can.

Thanks, Jen. I figured out after Lost Dog came out that I could do a lot of stuff which felt like a burden and get crabby, or I could relax and do what I enjoy -- which is mostly just gabbing with friends. I know I like to support my friends, and if they feel the same, great. :) Let's make party of it!

Sophie Littlefield said...

smart, smart, smart.

i am frankly amazed at the number of people who seemed to have a personal investment in telling me what to do for marketing. I don't mean my agent or editor or publicist - them, i listen to, and interestingly they are generally pretty sanguine about the whole thing. It's *other authors* who get absolutely fanatical. I had one guy email me chastising me like a an angry school nun, everything but the ruler because i didn't do as he had suggested earlier.

i finally realized that these emotionally charged rants are due to people's insecurity about their own efforts. Now i do ONLY what makes sense to me. I make mistakes all the time and try to learn from them. I TRY to remember not to be that person and keep my opinions to myself unless asked.

Bill Cameron said...

Sophie, you make a great point. And we all know the one thing all writers are really good at is being insecure. I suppose it's no surprise so many of us get worked up about this marketing stuff.

Unknown said...

Great post! In screenwriting, it's well known that no one really knows what will hit and what will not (and a delightful literary agent just confirmed the same is true for fiction in a room full of witnesses). One can't catch zeitgeist in a bottle OR an internet tube.

Thank you for relieving my anxiety about the first year after my first book sells. And for the reminder to keep writing :)

P.S. I remember feeling *sorry* for the business & psych majors in school, because so many of them said they didn't know what major to pick, so they picked one of the two defaults. Little did I know...

Gabi said...

I had to read your blog today if for no other reason than to watch your electronic "hissy fit" although I would have read it even without the qualifying about marketing. Your vents are deeply schizophrenic and I enjoy the nut jobs.

The lawyer in me is compelled to say that evidence is never beside the point.

L.J. Sellers said...

I mostly do what is fun or seems right for me as well. I've also figured out what works in a few cases and found a way to make it fun. (Such as inviting the kids over for a newsletter folding party:)

Nattering seems to be working for you, so natter on!

Bill Cameron said...

Newsletter folding party? How Tom Sawyer of you! :)

Terry Stonecrop said...

Love this post! It makes me feel better about balking at all the things people tell me I need to do or else I'll never get anywhere.

Day One is great, btw. I finally got some time to finish my other book and start yours. I'm already halfway through it, which is fast for me. I really like Skin and it amazes me how seamlessly you jump back in forth in time and POV. Good show! I'll email when I finish to tell you more thoughts. Thanks again for the wonderful book.

Shane Gericke said...

I hope it was a premium beer, Bill. Then you'll get premium data burps ...

This is both hilarious and very, very informative. Mostly because you know what you're talking about, and partly cause it agrees with my own belief: nobody knows nuthin about nuthin, book-marketing-wise, so do what makes you happy.

Shane Gericke said...

Sophie, other authors tell you what you should be doing? Sheesh. If they're so smart, how come they aren't James Patterson?

Meredith Cole said...

What a great post, Bill! I'm so glad you've decided not to make yourself totally insane (but have chosen to hang out with us).

Kelli Stanley said...

You mean somebody's already blogged about hangnail surgery??

Damn--there goes my summer promotional scheme (linking my site to a cuticle removing cream). ;)

I love the post, and I love you, Bill-Bill--so please continue to tweet and natter and putter and most of all, to write your brilliant books, in which you will NOT kill Ruby Jane, or you will be mailed large, color posters of the new Olympic mascots. ;p

And Soph--I can't believe someone got mad at you!! Oy vey. Glad you didn't respond.

My marketing energy springs from rampant fear, anxiety and insecurity mixed with a strong strain of OCD ... but even I can't do something I don't intrinsically *like* ... I mean, what's the point??


Bill Cameron said...

Hi, Terry! I'm glad you're enjoying Day One. I can't wait to hear what you think when you finish!

Shane, of course it's a premium. Life is too short to drink bad beer.

Meredith, I think the insanity came well before the marketing. :)

Kelli, so what you're saying is I need to change the ending to County Line Road before you start sending posters. JUST kidding. Whatever else I may be, a monster I'm not. Ruby Jane will survive.

Kelli Stanley said...

YAY! ;)

Hmm ... those mascot posters could qualify as a new kind of "third degree" ....


Shane Gericke said...

The insanity is that you like hanging out with the likes of us :-)

Bill Cameron said...

Heh heh, Shane.

And, Mysti, sorry I missed you earlier. Well said about the zeitgeist. Ultimately, the one thing we can control is the story we put on the page. The marketing we can do is to write well.

And Gabi, you need to hang out with more marketing directors.

Gabi said...

I need to hang out with more PEOPLE, Bill. Remember, I'm with the bar association. Even beer doesn't make that better. Although you marketing types do look relatively human by comparison.

Christine Hardy said...

As a statistician who did not study marketing, I know about data points, data sets and controls but not metrics. So I'm curious what kind of metrics you *could* use for book marketing.

I'm equating a metric with an outcome = something measurable and observable which provides information about a desired effect.

(Yes, I had a double cappuchino after dinner. It's gonna be a long night).

Rebecca Cantrell said...

Great post, Bill!

I think I fall into the "do everything" camp, but I want to get out of THAT. Thanks for explaining my neurosis so clearly.

I think the person who could actually figure out and track publishing metrics would make a fortune (or at least a fortune in drinks from neurotic writers).

Bill Cameron said...

Christine, from what I always understood, your definition of metrics as used by marketing folk is spot on. My own involvement in marketing for the last twenty … five … years has been on the design end, so I was working to exploit the lessons of the metrics. Though I couldn't avoid picking up a little knowledge on how techniques are tested and the results analyzed, mostly I have to admit I don't know how to test book marketing techniques. I've no doubt it would be a challenge, and my own experience is metrics are never very precise. When a 5% response rate to a targeted direct mail is cause for celebration, it's clear there's a lot of guesswork involved.

Of course, I'm mostly responding to self-proclaimed experts, people who've done something which worked for them and therefore assume their results are axiomatic. As Sophie said, most editors and publicists are sanguine about the whole thing.

The problem with book marketing is the industry has relied for so long on literary culture to do all the heavy lifting — even with genre and so-called popular writing. What need for research when you can count on the press to make a fuss for you. Send the author out on a tour, put some quarter-page ads in the trades (or full-page color if your author is Teh Hawtness), and let the reviewers and the books section of the paper get the word out for you.

Of course now book sections are going the way of the dodo, publishers are cutting back on everything so tours are less common and often the responsibility of the author. There's not a solid history of marketing research to start from, so suddenly we're stuck with uncertainty.

In uncertainty one can find opportunity, but the biggest opportunities seem to always be for the snake oil salesmen. Hence the proliferation of self-publishing ventures "capable of reach millions of readers." And that's where a lot of the Random Bob anecdotes come from, but the other side of the story is always missing. Random Bob may have sold thousands of self-published books through Scammy Publishing Service, but how many thousands of people sold only a few copies — to themselves?

Not to pick on self-publishing, which isn't really a marketing technique but a model for creating a product, but a lot book promo advice is of this calibre. What worked for one person is touted to the heavens as if it's axiomatic, while ignoring mountains of contrary data.

What what works? Book tours don't, except when they do. Public appearances don't, except when they do. Press releases don't, except when they do. Direct mail doesn't, except when it does. Twitter doesn't, Facebook doesn't, blogs don't, except … yeah, you see where I'm going.

Getting data will certainly be difficult, and it will always be only a small part of the story. But marketing data can be developed if the people with the resources (ahem, big publishing) are willing to make the effort. Other industries do, and while the guesswork remains significant, the research CAN help. Right now all we have is a lot of noise.

Which is why I use the approach I use. I don't know that what I'm doing works well or not, but it is within my grasp and I enjoy it. I'm in no position to develop much in the way of actual data myself, but there are some things I can do, hopefully with some enjoyment.

Bill Cameron said...

Becky, for me it's all about the drinks.

Harley May said...

Your book, Day One, is the first crime/mystery novel I've ever read.

I'd like to reinforce everything you just said (and I plan on expanding more when I review your book). I would not have known about you were you not on twitter. I would not have followed you were your tweets not entertaining. I would not have entered your contest to win your book had you not tweeted about it.

My favorite people on twitter are not those who use their accounts like a bulletin board. I am drawn to people for the humor and intelligence and will read what they have to say because of that.

The fact that I know anything about you is a social networking and marketing win. I am thankful for it. It is a bother, but as a writer, trying to be published, the relationships I've made on twitter/blogging are incredible and I cannot put a value on them.

You complete me.


Terrific blog post!

I, too, followed the career progression from English major to marketing geek to laid off marketing geek with a book deal. I've only been blogging and tweeting for three months, and it's a constant struggle for me to find a balance between the marketing stuff (which I do often enjoy) and the writing stuff (which is what this is all supposed to be about, right?!)

You make an excellent point that there's really no "right" or "wrong" way to do this, unless you suddenly find yourself doing a bunch of crap you don't like instead of writing the damn books.

Thanks so much for this!

Sierra Godfrey said...

Couldn't agree with you more. I too am one of those writers who are also marketers. The challenge I find is actually making the marketing tenants I know of work for me. I peddle faster, I tread water, I do all the things on blogs and twitters you're supposed to do....with not so huge results. Time and time again, I come back to this: "I do what's fun, tempered by not doing the things which annoy me or which I can't."

In the end, you probably have to let your voice speak for you. when you write funny or very enjoyable blog posts or tweets, people love it. If you don't get a lot of response, um, then you're probably not so amusing as you find yourself. (I am talking about myself, not you!)