Promote Your Book: Lessons from Cinderella

I’ve written romance for over a decade. One of the most popular tropes is the Cinderella fantasy: a woman, mistreated, misunderstood and basically hidden from sight, is suddenly plucked from obscurity by a “fairy godmother” to great acclaim, living happily ever after after being recognized for her awesomeness.  It’s been done in a million guises, for both women (Pretty Woman) and men (Rocky.)

Literary critics often pan Cinderella stories, because they believe it promotes being a nice doormat while waiting around to be rescued by a random magical stranger.  I see their point: I’m a firm believer in being proactive.  However, I also believe the fantasy showcases most people’s desire to be discovered, while not being pushy — being humble, yet still being noticed.

I am seeing a lot of that when it comes to promotion.  Authors want to be recognized; they want their happily ever after.  That said, they want someone else to vault them there: to dress them up, put them in a shining carriage, and do everything but place a neon arrow over their heads that says “one to watch.”

The real lessons of the story, I believe, work a little differently.

Cinderella could have stayed home.

Yes, the godmother provided the opportunity: the dress, the flashy ride, and let’s not forget the glass slippers.  But in most versions the emphasis is not on anonymity, and the godmother offers no guarantees once Cinderella gets there.

There was a chance that Cinderella could show up, and someone would say “hey, what are you doing here?  Don’t you clean houses?”  They could have pointed fingers and laughed.  They could have coldly cut her off, because she was a stranger, because they were jealous.

Or her stepmother could have grabbed her, dragged her outside and beat the everloving crap out of her.

Cinderella took a risk to get there.  She deliberately left her comfort zone to pursue her dream.

The Prince wasn’t the point.

Cinderella took that risk simply to get to the ball.

Not to land the prince.  Not to get revenge on her family or prove something to the aristocracy.  Certainly not to escape her current (and admittedly horrible) circumstance. She just wanted to show up and see the beautiful party.

Just getting to the ball was enough.

She won the moment she walked through the door.

It was more than the dress.

One imagines that the dress was phenomenal.  She probably had magical make-up on, and was dazzling beyond belief.  And those slippers?  Bling, baby.

That said, Cinderella didn’t sneak in, gravitate to a wall, hide behind a pillar all night, and sneak out again.

She also didn’t head for the royal punch bowl, get liquored up and go Princesses Gone Wild on a table top.

She could have hidden — she didn’t.  She could have attracted attention for attention’s sake — she didn’t.

She wasn’t obnoxious, or even somehow supernaturally outgoing.  The magic didn’t mean that every word out of her mouth was suddenly riveting and she was inexplicably popular.

She was dressed up, yes.  But ultimately, she was herself.

The dress was the hook. The personality is what landed the prince.

The lessons.

1.  You’ve got to leave your comfort zone.

If you don’t play, you can’t win.  Cinderella took a chance.  She had a window of opportunity that shut down at midnight. She grabbed it and ran.

2.  You’ve got to dress up a little.

This is where marketing comes in.  Your dress is your blurb, your book cover, your website.

Note: Cinderella didn’t wear fishnets and hooker heels.  Attracting attention does not mean “big pimping in the promo world.”

3. Change your end goal.

If you won’t be happy unless you get the whole fairy tale — the NYT bestseller list and J.K. Rowling’s bank account, with Oprah on your speed dial — then there’s a good chance you won’t be happy.

4.  Be yourself.

Promotion is not prostitution.  Marketing doesn’t mean wearing a mask. You, and your work, are not only sufficient to attract an audience — your uniqueness is essential.  Cinderella didn’t pretend to be something she wasn’t.  She just turned up the volume on what was already there.

If you believe there’s truth in fairy tales — and you want to share a little of the magic — please re-tweet!

Photo by jj_judes on Flickr.

16 Replies to “Promote Your Book: Lessons from Cinderella”

  1. Great blog, Cathy! Like Cinderella, at times an author can have a “fairy godmother” (mentor) to assist along the way, but, utlimately, it is up to the author to write a great book, promote it and market it, using tools readily available. It’s a large learning curve, as is writing, but with patience, persistance and knowledge it’s a goal we can all accomplish.

    1. Well, I like to be a fairy godmother as a publicist… nothing quite as satisfying as helping an author shine & get noticed. 🙂 But yes, it’s up to the author, and absolutely yes — it’s a goal all authors can accomplish!

  2. The real beauty of this essay is not just its marketing and promo lessons, but the fact that it made the case that Cinderella was not a passive, lucky girl. She is a true heroine, after all, and I can now go back to enjoying my Disney fantasies, guilt-free. Thanks!
    –Caro Carson, The Midnight Line Editor

    1. LOL, Caro! I was a total Disney addict in high school and college, and I still love fairy tales. I don’t know that the Disney version does her justice, but I think Cinderella had a lot of guts… because it takes guts to have faith in magic! 😀

  3. A very apt metaphor indeed. I once had a mentor who told me half of any challenge in life was showing up. And my dad used to say, regarding getting into the end-zone, “Act like you’ve been there before.” I’ve heard various versions of both since, and I’ve often thought of how they’ve changed my life. Cinderella showed up. She behaved appropriately once there. Funny, but it took this wonderful post to remind me that these longtime favorite life-lessons will be applying to my writing career too. So thanks (again) to one of my new mentors!

  4. I love the metaphor here, and you’re absolutely right. I’ve read elsewhere that many writers are modest and reserved by nature, so this details yet another potential struggle for those just starting to get into the publishing world.

  5. Cinderella didn’t do an absurdly gushy blogtour, either. Yeah, I’m getting bristly…and that’s from my book buyer’s perspective. Appreciate this bit of sanity you’re putting out there. Breath of fresh air and all that.

    1. I can relate. It’s like that chapter in Bird by Bird, where Anne Lamott keeps listening to her friend’s continuous good news and keeps saying “Isn’t that GRIGHT?” through gritted teeth. 🙂 I think blog tours can be awesome if they contribute something, but just pushing out to your readers “hey! I’m somewhere else! Go check it out!” doesn’t really ask: “what’s in it for YOU to go there?” Promotion — and writing — needs to keep the reader in mind. In my opinion, anyway.

  6. Cathy,
    Discovered your blog through Writer Unboxed. This is a brilliant post. I love the way you developed the Cinderella analogy. I especially like #4 and #5. Well done. i will be coming back.

  7. “Promotion is not prostitution.” I. love. that! These days it seems like there is a whole crowd of authors who feel like they have to constantly bombard buyers with their never ending sales pitches. After awhile, surfers tune them out, unfriend them on Facebook, or unfollow them on Twitter because, quite frankly, who needs more spam in their life?
    Building a conversation online *over time* with your potential readers is so much more valuable to an author’s sales. As a general rule, no more than 1 in 10 or 12 messages should be sales pushes. The rest should be conversational or interesting to your target market in some way.
    Cinderella did a lot more that harang every breathing creature within 5 feet of her for an opportunity to go to the ball. She focused on her work, dealt with those around her, looked forward to her big event, enjoyed herself while she was there, and pulled it off with grace and style. It’s a good lesson in promotion for us all.
    Kudos for the post. I really enjoyed the analogy. 🙂

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