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Thursday, 6 December 2012

Marketing the Marketers?

market 1
market 1 (Photo credit: tim caynes)

Writer? Serious reader? By ‘serious’ I don’t mean academic but interested, enthusiastic, passionate, even. As a writer, I read as much as I can, though time is clearly limited and I need as much of that elusive commodity as I can get to do the actual writing. And that’s the issue I’d like to discuss today.

We write so that readers can read our words. That’s the primary function of a writer. But, these days, we’re also encouraged to market our work.

Once, long ago, in a land of ideals and wonders unknown to mankind, publishers used to take on the task of marketing and selling books for their authors. They valued the creative nature of writers and understood that writing and selling are two very different activities: so different, in fact, that they can, and often do, act destructively on each other.

Creativity requires a degree of sensitivity far deeper than normal human perceptiveness and sympathy. It can, under certain circumstances, become debilitating, as the creator virtually lives through the experiences of characters he’s inventing, describing and challenging for the sake of the story.

Selling, on the other hand, requires a skin so thick that it rivals rhino hide. I know; I’ve worked in retail, been a travelling salesman, a telesales operator and a team leader at a call centre selling holidays and the inevitable insurance that goes with that product.

The two functions are so different, so opposite, that they inevitably conflict with each other. In the end, the person has to decide whether to create or to sell. I know there are individuals who seem able to do both. But an examination of the work of many successful sellers will reveal that much of their apparent creativity is a reworking of old material rather than the production of anything new.

It then becomes essential to the mental health of the individual to make a choice between these two activities. The alternative is to suffer the very real danger of becoming schizophrenic; a mental condition not to be envied.

In the process of learning this simple fact of a writer’s life, I’ve tried various strategies to get my name known, my work talked about, my books in front of readers. The activity is generically referred to as ‘marketing’. And I have nothing against the concept, or the legitimate practice of marketing. It is, unfortunately, a necessary aspect of modern trade in any commodity. But there are thousands of pseudo-marketers out there, ready to accept as much money as any gullible writer is willing to pay them. Now, I’ve no reason for personal animosity to this army of confidence tricksters: I’ve never paid more than a sample amount (£3 or $5, at most, and only rarely) for any marketing activity, usually as a way of ‘testing the water’. I’ve tried instead to do my own thing in getting the necessary publicity. But I’m aware of the many confidence tricksters out there who charge incredible amounts of money on the promise of bringing sales to gullible writers. I don’t, however, know of a single writer who has actually benefitted financially from a liaison with any of these organisations. Not one.

There is a veritable industry in marketing, operating under various different umbrellas, and often supporting one another by telling wannabees how much their services are worth and how they’re bound to utter failure and obscurity if they fail to engage one of their number. Some of these organisations hide the reality of their operations under the banner of publishing activity. Some offer services to ‘produce’ eBooks, usually for a huge fee. I have to tell you that the most technophobic individual can learn how to publish an eBook on their own, with little guidance other than that supplied by reliable organisations such as Amazon (their tax avoidance is a different matter, of course) and Smashwords. It requires a certain amount of patience and determination, but very little actual technical knowledge. I know; I’ve done it. And I’m far from being a techie wizard.

Then there are the vanity publishers, who advertise their skills and expertise to produce print books, usually at colossal fees, but who actually produce a mere handful of volumes for the £/$1000s they charge and then expect the writer to do the actual selling. These organisations frequently do none of the traditional work of publishers: editing, design, proof-reading and marketing etc. And they have few overheads, as they almost always produce books as print on demand (POD), a modern innovation that is wonderful when used properly.

But, and these are my special targets, there is a great army of marketers out there, all waiting to pounce on the unsuspecting with promises of great sales without delivering. They offer press releases, blurb writing, exposure on websites, tweets, and various other techniques supposedly designed to put the writer’s work in front of the reading public. I have to tell you that, by and large, they don’t do the job. The marketing market is primarily designed to support the marketers, not writers.

My cynicism has spared me from entanglement with these vultures. But I know of people who’ve been seriously stung, who’ve spent life-savings on a vain chase of fame and fortune. Often, those who fall for the trap are lacking in real talent and wouldn’t be published by normal means. But this isn’t always the case. Some rare and real talent has been destroyed by unscrupulous money-making confidence tricksters. So, beware my fellow writers. Never accept the word of any organisation that advertises its services. Always trawl your associates and colleagues in this difficult calling and ask for personal recommendations before you spend a single penny or cent on any publishing or marketing activity. There are more scoundrels and charlatans out there than there are genuine experts.

And me? What will I do, after my sortie into self-promotion? Well, it’s clear I’m no natural when it comes to selling. Far too honest for my own good, was how I was described by my boss when I was a travelling salesman. So I’ll keep up with Twitter, this blog, Pinterest, Facebook and Goodreads and I’ll probably design a website to replace my old one, when I find the time. But I’ll spend the vast bulk of my time in writing. I’ll hope that the quality of my output will be enough to persuade readers to read and review my work and spread the word. I’ll continue to self-publish eBooks via Smashwords and Amazon, and look into publishing paperbacks via POD with one or two organisations I know I can trust, and who charge sensible fees for their production and distribution services.

In a few months, I retire from my part-time day job and will be able to spend more time actually writing. I look forward to that opportunity and intend to use it to the full. Watch this space. There’ll be more stories for you to read, and they’ll be the best I can make them. Any writer who thinks it’s okay to create work that ‘will do’ isn’t worthy of the name. I respect my readers too much to take them for granted.

This turned out to be a longer piece than I envisaged when I sat at the keyboard this morning, but sometimes it can be helpful to examine realities in this fashion. I hope I’ve given writers and readers some food for thought. And, as always, I welcome your input in the form of comments here.

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By the way, look out for a competition here on Saturday. The prize will be some software I recently tried and will review on here. Anyone wanting an easy way to produce personal albums and mementoes should find this of interest. Of course, I’ll be marketing this product. And, no, the irony isn’t lost on me. But, having used the product and found it more useful than expected, I’ve no qualms in letting others know about it. As a result of any purchases made from my site, where buyers will be given a useful discount, I may even earn a little commission, which will help me continue with my writing. After all, even writers have to earn a living.

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