Wednesday, March 13, 2019

This Little Piggy Went to Market

            A couple folks have asked me questions related to marketing over the past few weeks, so I thought it’d be worth going over a couple things about this.
            There’s a wonderful Richard Matheson quote that Jonathan Maberry related to me a few years back.  If you’ve gone to either of the SoCal Writers Coffeehouses and listened to us speak (well, Jonathan speaks, I kinda babble on a lot until I run out of breath), you’ve probably heard it three or four times.  Writing is art, publishing is the business of selling as many copies of that art as possible.
            Marketing, big surprise, is part of publishing.  It’s a very necessary part of publishing, whether I’m doing it myself, with a small press, or I’m the favorite author at a Big Five imprint.  It’s how people discover I’ve got something to sell.
            Marketing can take a lot of forms.  It’s everything from me posting the new cover on Twitter to your book being plastered on the side of a bus.  It’s the copy on the back of the book and me summing it up in two lines for you at a convention.
            But the sole point of it, in all these examples, is to sell books.
            And sometimes... this can create some conflicts with the art side.
            As we move forward here, I’m sure some folks may try to read into this.  It isn’t a subtweet or an angry rant.  I’m not calling anyone out or absolving anyone of blame or any of that.  I’m just tossing out some facts.  Publishing is a business, and if I want to be successful in that business (and avoid a ton of stress), it helps to understand how it works.
            Also, I know there’s a fine line between marketing and publicity and I always mess it up, so please forgive me if I weave back and forth across that line once or thrice here.  I don’t think I’m ever going to end up in the other lane, but we may hear those bumpy lane divider once or thrice.
            Okay, so, if marketing is getting people to buy my book, how do I do that?  I can tell them the genre and see if it’s something they like.  Maybe the type of characters I use.  I can point out other books like it, or other storylines it may tie into.  I can even offer little summaries or excerpts to tease potential readers with.  Doesn’t this sound like a creepy/sexy/amazing/funny story?  You saw the dragon, right?  You know you like dragons.  And this one’s got a lightsaber.  Trust me, The Jedi of Krynn is the book you've been waiting your whole life for.
            But seriously...
            One of the big challenges here—the conflict between art and business—is how much do we tell?  How do we find that fine line between getting the sale and keeping the book enjoyable?  Tell too much and now all the book’s punch is already out there.  Don’t tell enough and... well, maybe nobody reads it at all.
            Do I mention every character in the book, even if some are supposed to be surprises?  Should I mention the big twist?  Should I hint at it?  Heck, sometimes even just naming the genre can be a bit of a spoiler.  And every spoiler saps a little bit of the story’s power... which lessens the chances for word-of-mouth sales.  Now my cool novel is just kind of a bland book with no real surprises in it.
            Sometimes what seem like simples questions can cause marketing headaches.  For example...
            (Some minor MCU spoilers coming at you)
            Does Ant Man & The Wasp tie into Avengers: Infinity War
            Simple question, right?  But how do you answer it?  If I say no, there's a bunch of people who might skip it. Plus, I’m lying, which people will then call me out for and complain about.  If I say yes, people complain because... well, 99.5% of the film doesn’t tie in at all.  And that last half a percent... well, if I’m saying yes, I’m kinda spoiling that super-powerful reveal, aren’t I?  There really isn’t a good way to answer it.
            Of course, even not answering it at all can cause problems, because then people will speculate around that sort of “negative space” left by the non-answer.  They’ll read into things, make assumptions, and develop expectations.  And these expectations will either be correct, in which case...  well, they’re acting like spoilers again.  Or they’re incorrect, and now people are upset because the expectations they went in with aren't being met, no matter what the actual story is (or how good it is).
            There’s another angle here, too.  One you’ve probably heard before.  People like series.  They like them a lot, if you look at sales records. To be honest, publishers like them, too.  Editors love to see a new book with series potential.  And spin off potential.  And tie-in potential.
            But here’s another catch.  People want to know how all this stuff fits together.  They want to know if something is canon or set on Earth-23 or Earth 15 but still canon or does this involve Wakko before or after his cybernetic upgrades?  Because let’s face it—there’s no point reading any of the stories before he became bionic, right?  Why even bother?
            So when things don’t fall into a neat A-B-C, 1-2-3 pattern, it’s not unusual for marketing to just... well, kind of wing it.  Like, okay, how would you number the Star Wars films (or all the novelizations and spin off books)?  By the order they came out?  That won’t make much sense.  By the order they fit in the story?  That means A New Hope: Episode IV is actually movie six.   And how does that work if they do a new prequel story?  Do we re-number everything?  Do we just number some things but not others?  I saw the novelization of Rogue One listed once as Star Wars: Book 18, and I have no clue what that’s supposed to mean.
            Sure, we could leave them unnumbered but... well, that could cost sales, too.  Some folks don’t like reading a series until it’s done, and if I don’t say it’s a trilogy or whatever, well... maybe they’ll never pick it up at all.  So I probably need some kind of designation if I want these to sell, right?
            Or do I?
            Plus... sometimes explaining where things fit in can be a spoiler.  We thought this story was in the future, but it’s actually in the past.  We thought it was here on Earth but it’s actually on the mirror-universe world of Urth.  And that puts us back at... well, what do we tell?  How do we keep the book enjoyable while also getting people to buy it?
            It’s a mess.  Seriously.  And everyone’s clawing their way through trying to find a balance that preserves the art but still serves the business.  Everyone knows you can’t pick one over the other, but every single book (or movie or television show) becomes a new attempt at finding that balance point.  The guidelines we use for my book won’t work for yours. 
            And it doesn’t help when some folks, deliberately or not, muddle things even more.  We’ll play up the mention of that character or the appearance of that plot thread. I’ve seen things described as romances because of one thin subplot, or spiritual because someone prays at some point (I won’t tell you what they were praying for...)  I’ve mentioned before how for a while any book or movie with a somehow-superhuman character was billed as a superhero story.  These are the things that make people grumble about marketing, and make marketing folks grumble about people who just follow buzzwords.
            Anyway...
            I just thought it was worth tossing this out.  Mostly because a few folks have complained long and hard about the marketing for Dead Moon.  I’ve tried to address some of these things for, oh, eight or nine months now but... well, as I’ve been saying, some complaints are inevitable, no matter what. 
            But also partly because, like I said in the beginning, this is stuff worth knowing and thinking about.
            And I’m sure there will be some more thoughts down in the comments.
            Next time—like, tomorrow—some thoughts on dialogue.
            Until then, go write.

No comments:

Post a Comment