Marketing 101 for Writers
By Lai Zhao
Copyright © 2008 by Lai Zhao, All Rights Reserved
Over the years, I've read a lot of marketing articles written for
novelists. However, I have yet to encounter a primer for writers that
clearly distinguishes between what marketing actually is and its popular
This article is an introduction to marketing and takes you only to the
'marketing mix'. There is more to this subject, but there are many texts
which already cover the details very well.
The Persistent (Mis)Perception
A popular misperception about marketing is that it is only promotion,
and consists only of selling your work to the reading public to make
Often, authors are seen at signings, or at conventions selling their
books. They may go on tour promoting their work and encouraging readers
to buy their work. They are, also, occasionally seen pitching to
publishers at conventions.
Such actions belong to the sales side of marketing which is also
So, this misperception is not one hundred percent wrong, but it is not
the full story, either. In which, case...
What is Marketing? How does it Apply to the Writer?
There are many definitions. But one to pay particular attention to is by
Philip Kotler, a leading world authority on marketing. In Marketing
Management, he defines marketing as
"a social and managerial process by which individuals and groups obtain
what they need and want through creating, offering, and exchanging
products of value with others" (1).
The above definition sounds intimidating, but International Marketing
presents it as
"finding and satisfying customer needs better than the competition and
of coordinating marketing activities within the constraints of the
So, why all the jargon? Generally, this terminology is the most succinct
and definitive way of explaining marketing:
Translation in Terms of Writing
Social & managerial process
How to get your product to your readers using available
resources, and doing it better than other authors.
Individuals & groups
Authors (the suppliers of the product), publishing companies
(the distributors of the product), and target readers (the
Finding & satisfying
Writing the story readers want.
Exchanging products of value
Constraints of the environment
Selling your novel for money and within the limitations set by
the market you're playing in.
Other authors and other forms of entertainment.
What does Marketing Involve? How does the Writer use it?
With the jargon out of the way, marketing is a broad topic, with an even
broader set of elements.
In short, though, it involves the following:
Market research & analysis
Find out who your target readers are -- the audience of the
magazine or publisher you wish to submit to should tell you
this. (By the way, the target publication or publisher is
also the first reader(s) you must target.)
Satisfying your target market
In the case of writers, writing the story or novel usually comes
before the research stage, and it should. This area of marketing
also involves the 'marketing mix' (explained in "Promotion").
Beating the competition
Reading widely, in and outside your preferred genre, will give
you a feel for who you're up against. For example, in Sword and
Sorcery fantasy, you'd be competing with David Eddings, R.A.
Salvatore, Robert Jordan, and the classic J.R.R. Tolkien. This
type of knowledge will help you pitch your story in a way that
highlights its uniqueness.
These are the strategies and tactics (a.k.a. overall plans and
detailed actions) you use to get your work to your readers. It's
not just selling; it includes how you position your novel, how
you present yourself, what you want to say about your work,
where you fit into the market and the message you want to
convey. In other words, how you brand your novel.
Working within parameters
You have certain resources you can use, and the market you play
in, e.g., the fantasy genre, has a certain set of rules and
limitations. You have to adapt to them through editing your
novel before it goes to market, as well as through promoting
your work after it has been published.
All this sounds overwhelming. However, I suspect you already have most
of the information you need:
Examples of Information
Market research & analysis
Target publisher is Corgi, because they publish the type of book
you write, e.g., comical fantasy, like Terry Pratchett. Or maybe
it's Weird Tales magazine because they target readers of
"unique, fantastic and bizarre" (3) stories.
Satisfying your target market
Your novel and knowing what your target readers expect. For
example, romance readers generally expect the story to end
"happily ever after."
Beating the competition
If you read fantasy, you probably already know works by Eddings,
Salvatore, Jordan and Tolkien. But how about Mark Chadbourne,
Holly Lisle, Tee Morris, Val Griswold-Ford and others? Not all
authors write fantasy for adults; there are YA authors, too,
like Diana Wynne Jones and Susan Cooper, as well as Gillian
Cross and Chris Pike.
You know your novel inside out. So the question is, how do you
pitch it to an agent? And how do you tell your target readers
Is the theme of your novel man against machine? Is it man
against man? What is unique about your novel?
Also, you should be looking at the promotion side here, a.k.a.
the "marketing mix." In this instance, the mix is customer,
convenience, cost, and communication. (See "Promotion" for
Working within parameters
For example, length of the work, the odds of excellent sales,
book signing locations (and getting to them) and what people in
that location prefer to read, and so on.
What Is Promotion? And How Do I Apply It?
Because promotion is about letting readers know about your book,
promotion is simply,
"(2) the publicizing of a product or venture so as to increase sales or
public awareness; a publicity campaign" (4)
In terms of how it works for writers, a definition of the 'marketing
mix' needs to be provided first:
The Marketing Mix
Essentially, the Marketing Mix is a (short) list of fundamental
components that help the marketing professional create a publicity
campaign for their product.
There are two versions of the Marketing Mix, depending on what the
product is: a good or a service.
A good is defined as a tangible object; for example, ice cream. Ice
cream is made of milk, flavouring, and other ingredients, but its end
result is a solid edible object.
A service is defined as an intangible object with tangible evidence; for
example, a restaurant. You are seated and a waiter takes your order (the
service). The restaurant also provides you with a pleasant place (the
tangible evidence) in which to relax and enjoy your meal (the tangible
Writers produce a good: a novel or story.
Thus, the "Goods" Marketing Mix would be appropriate:
The writer's target is their reader(s), the person(s) they want
to buy their book.
Question is, who are these readers? What do they want? How do
they usually get it?
Your target is a busy mother. She wants something to relax to
that takes her out of her busy life and into something serene.
And she does most of her shopping in the supermarket.
The busy mother wants a book about a carefree life, so she looks
for a paperback amongst the mess that is the mass market books
offered in a supermarket.
Publicise your novel online or at supermarkets (assuming they
Convenience to the customer
Taking the busy mother example further:
In your advertising, you could emphasise the fact the busy
mother can pick up your novel on her way out of the supermarket.
No extra trips to the book store. No separate payment. Just on
the way out of the supermarket. Easily picked up. Easily paid
for, amongst the shopping. Out and into the car and home.
A note on location:
Where your book gets distributed is up to your publisher and its
distribution network. So, any promotion work you do will have to
fit the location.
The supermarket is an example only.
Cost to the customer
The cost is not in terms of your hours or how much the publisher
is paying you. It is the cost in terms of the reader, and how
much time and money they're willing to invest in your novel.
Your novel must be, in their eyes, worth the money, worth the
time. You have written a story that takes your readers on a
unique journey through a land they have never explored before.
And your story will leave them wanting more.
But, since each novel aims to do this, the essential point is to
find the unique angle to your story and highlight that in your
This covers how you will raise awareness of your novel.
You could take out advertisements in various publications, but
would need to weigh the pros and cons of such a route.
Other ways to raise awareness might include online communities
and email blasts (just watch out for the Spam legalities!), or
freebies at conventions, and so on.
One-line descriptions can help here. They provide a concise
summary of your story. And blurbs and book covers also offer
summaries you can use to attract readers.
Take a look at your favourite films and study their one-line
descriptions. Examine the different covers and blurbs of your
favourite novels. Note how they're used in the novel's overall
There are many ways to raise awareness of your work. You should
study the pros and cons of each.
Applying Marketing to Your Novel
So, how does all this information fall together? Below is an example of
this information's application. It is basically a very truncated
marketing plan. It incorporates the stages of research and analysis,
satisfying the market, and beating the competition using the marketing
mix and playing within the limitations of the market.
The (Truncated) Marketing Plan
Product & Its Unique Twist:
A 100k-word novel, titled "Blessings in Disguise."
It is about Allan, the crippled hero, who must escape the realm between
six worlds in order to save his birth world from annihilation. There's
only one problem: his birth world cast him into the hideous realm
between the worlds.
Fantasy novels for adults.
Sub-genre is urban futuristic fantasy.
Tough competition from established authors, both from other publishing
houses and from your target house.
Single-digit profit margins.
Could be considered a saturated market.
Readers of urban and futuristic fantasy who enjoy an epic quest for
justice and to save the world.
Authors like Mark Chadbourne, Christopher Moore, Jim Butcher, and Ian
These authors' works and others like theirs range from dark to
They are also well-established and have a steady following.
Book stores, supermarkets, comic book shops, and online venues.
Cover price for customers of all venues if no author signing takes
Discounts available for customers of venues with author signing events.
Discounts for pre-publication orders.
Online campaign, involving writing communities and social networking
communities like Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, and LiveJournal.
Tangible goodies for author signing events might include bookmarks,
buttons, book plates, and maybe limited edition writer's notepads.
At least 50% of the target audience is aware of the novel by the end of
the campaign's first week.
At least 30 copies pre-ordered online.
At least 10 copies of the book are sold within the first week of actual
The target audience is paying attention (sometimes, they don't).
The book hits its mark and pays off (it doesn't always, despite best
The publisher doesn't suddenly fold (it's been known to happen).
Conclusion / Contingency:
Work on the promotion side of the campaign, but already be in the
editing / polishing stage of the next novel in case this first one
doesn't work out.
The Good and the Bad Campaign
Marketing doesn't always work for everyone. It seems like a lot of hard
work for little gain. In fact, it's a lot of hard work for a huge gain,
when done correctly. When done badly, you get results like those
advertisements that make you cringe and wonder who had the audacity to
even suggest something so wrong.
For example, there is a soft drinks advertisement where I am that shows
the drink's can hitting people. Its message is supposedly along the
lines of "So good, you want to share it with everyone." Unfortunately,
the message I'm getting from the commercial is, "I don't like this
drink, so I'm using its can to hit people!"
But when marketing campaigns work, they leave you wishing you'd thought
of that. For instance, the performance for the Beijing Olympics 2008
Opening Ceremony. That left most everyone who saw it in stunned
amazement, particularly its ending, when the Olympic Flame was lit.
After All That, I Still Don't Like Marketing
Marketing isn't for everyone. It is hard work. But the challenges and
their pay-offs, when met, are immensely satisfying. However, it is a
case of defining which part of marketing you don't like. The subject is
broad and selling is part of it.
In my experience, many writers do not like the selling part of it. It
feels too pushy, too arrogant, or just not something that a writer
The truth is, though, marketing and selling are necessary parts of being
a published writer. And understanding their roles in a successful
writing career is essential.
Suggested Reading List
An overview and quirky introduction to marketing:
Pocket Guide to the Marketing Plan
Malcolm McDonald & Peter Morris
Butterworth Heinemann, 1997
ISBN 0 7506 2642 9
An A-Z guide to marketing (useful for looking up the jargon):
Pocket Marketing, Fourth Edition, The skills and practice of
marketing from A to Z
The Economist, 2001
ISBN 1 86197 361 6
And for anyone who wants to study marketing in-depth:
Marketing Management, Analysis, Planning, Implementation, and
Control, Ninth Edition
Prentice Hall International Ltd, 1997
Marketing Plans -- How to prepare them, How to use them, Fourth
Butterworth Heinemann, 1999
ISBN 0 7506 4116 9
(1) MARKETING MANAGEMENT -- Analysis, Planning, Implementation,
and Control, p.9
Prentice Hall International Ltd., 1997
(2) International Marketing, Seventh Edition, p.5
Vern Terpstra and Ravi Sarathy
(3) Weird Tales Magazine
(4) Concise Oxford Dictionary -- Tenth Edition
Lai Zhao lives in an
agoraphobic-claustrophobic multinational city in the Far East.
The place is perfect for daily immersion in marketing (and
inventive oddities), while offering opportunities to write user
guides and edit technical copy. It is also excellent source
material for writing articles about IT, marketing, language
newsletters, using Far East cultures in worldbuilding
(contribution to The Complete Guide to Writing Fantasy, Vol. 2:
The Opus Magus), and networking for writers (contribution to The
Complete Guide to Writing Fantasy, Vol. 3: The Author's Grimoire).