Sell books (without being an asshat.)

Sell books (without being an asshat.)I read two interesting blogs recently.  First, “Are Writers Badgering Readers?” over at Huff Post Books.  That post was a response to Book Riot’s “Readers Don’t Owe Authors Sh*t.”

The two seemed to encapsulate the writer’s dilemma.  Nobody wants to badger readers — but “if we want to sell books, what else can we do?”  Right?

Not necessarily.

Let’s talk about coffee for a minute.

Let’s say you’re at a coffee shop. You enjoy it there: you like the atmosphere, the coffee’s pleasant, the pastries are really good.  You go in to buy a cup and knock out a chapter.

But the owner clears his throat. “We’ve got a new flavor of latte coming out next week.  I need you to post about it on Facebook and Twitter, and tell all your friends.  It’s important.”

You nod absently.

“Did I mention I’m trying to put my kid through school?” he adds, holding your pastry hostage.  “And that business has been really bad?”

You squirm, look away.

“And I hear you buy Starbucks at the grocery store,” he continues.  “When independent coffee roasters are struggling?  When I sell  pounds of coffee beans right here at the counter?  Do you want to put me out of business?”

You mutter something unintelligible, get your latte and scone, and shuffle towards “your” table.  Only to have him add:  “By the way… you spend hours here, buying only one cup of coffee and a single pastry.  I lose money when you do that.  You know that, right?”

When you hastily drink your coffee, eager to get the hell out of there, you wonder if it was always this bitter…  or if it’s just you.

Meanwhile, in another part of town…

Let’s go to a different coffee shop.

The woman who owns this place has a decent number of table tops in a good location, and she’s been open for a while.

She doesn’t necessarily know your name, but she knows your drink, because you’re a regular.  In fact, you show up enough that she suggests you sign up for the frequent buyer program: just provide your email, and you get a punch card, plus a free latte after every seven.

After you sign up, she sends monthly emails announcing new coffees and tea blends (“Almond Hazelnut Toffee Mocha!”) and discounts on pastries.

When you show up to write for hours at a time, she notices.  Only instead of railing at you about it, she talks to you about what you’re working on, and even suggests you hold a writer’s group there.

Badgering, begging, and marketing.

Removing the validity of any of the guy’s statements, how likely is it that you’re going to go back to that first coffee shop?

Personally, I don’t care if it’s the smoothest coffee in the world, served in 24 carat gold cups, and Johnny frickin’ Depp is pouring. I’m not drinking there.

Guilt trips aren’t a marketing technique.  They’re emotional blackmail.  And they have no place in a business.

Marketing is more than a coupon.

Now, look at the second cafe.

That owner has enough tabletops that even if several are occupied for hours, she’ll have enough room for turnover.  She needs to sell x number of cups of coffee to make overhead… and she didn’t open a cafe until she knew she’d have enough money to get a location that would actually make that possible.

She pays attention to her customers, so she knows that you loiter for an hour or two while you’re working out scenes.  She also knows you’re good for a tall latte with a shot of espresso, and that you can be coaxed into getting a cookie if it’s raining.  She gets a healthy balance of people like you, plus stressed out executives from the office park across the street, mommies taking a breather after the Gymboree class next door, and teens too young to hit bars every evening.

She knows her business.

Further, she’s not thinking “I need to get my daughter through private school, so you’d better add a morning bun to that order, pal.”

She’s thinking of the customer.  That is, what’s important to the customer — what the customer wants and needs.

She also knows that if you only wander in to grab a (free) sample of muffin before making excuses and reading the (free) paper, you’re not a customer, you’re a distraction.

If a distraction complains about the fact that she’s “always trying to sell something”  she’s going to ignore him.  Why?  Because he’s not really “business” that she’s going to lose.

She knows that people like special deals, and they’re willing to trade access to their inbox for the occasional free vanilla latte and a price break on a cinnamon roll.  If they aren’t, they don’t need to sign up, or they’re free to unsubscribe.  But she’s betting on the fraction that are, and that bet tends to pay off.

Instead of carping about you loitering like a wannabe Hemingway, she’s looking at ways to broaden her market.  Consequently, her reward is twelve new potential regulars, on top of selling about twenty-four cups of coffee and eight pastries plus a pound of French Roast when your writer’s group meets there.

That, my friends, is marketing.

How can we apply this as writers?

Most authors put off promotion until a new release, then they get into this frenzy of activity… until the launch month has passed, at which point they can gratefully return to their writing caves until forced back to repeat the cycle with the next title.

Others are the “badgers” that the article mentioned.

They’re All! Sales! All! The! Time!!!! 

You can’t throw a dart without hitting some blurb about their books, recent reviews, or special sales.

Technically, that’s just saying “buy my book!”  and it’s only one element of a marketing strategy.

Working an actual marketing plan takes people from:

  • cold (“I don’t know who the hell you are”)
  • to warm( “okay, I know you, but I don’t know if I’ll like your work”)
  • to hot (“I will pick up your next novel and sign up for your newsletter list”)
  • to molten (“I will buy you in hardcover and name my first child after your main character”  )

That involves lead generation.  List warming.  Up-selling.   And especially writing more books.

If you’re a writer, you’re in business, right?

It might sound hard, and some of these terms might sound alien at best and skin-crawling corporate at worst.

But for the most part, they’re simple, if not easy.

The bad news is, there’s a learning curve.  The good news: if you can plot a novel, you can make a marketing plan.

And if you’ve worried about how to promote without turning into a douchebag narcissist, then trust me: this is the way to go.

Click below for related posts on promotion:

Promote Your Book:  Lessons from Cinderella

Right Reader, Revisited

The Slow Writing Movement

42 Replies to “Sell books (without being an asshat.)”

  1. “…and she didn’t open a café until she knew she’d have enough money to get a location that would actually make that possible.”

    As impatient as I get, I know I have to do my ‘literary due diligence.’

    This post is so smart–such a common sense, can-do approach. You’re right on the money, Cathy (uh, sorry 😉 ).

    1. LOL. I see what you did there. 😀

      I’m still getting the system down, but I’ve been studying like crazy, to come up with an easy, replicable, comfortable process for fiction promotion. The bottom line is thinking like a reader again, I believe. Very “ask not what your reader can do for you, but what you can do for your reader.”

      Because I am all about aphorisms. Especially stolen ones. 🙂 (God, I need coffee!)

  2. A great reminder that readers are customers. When we think about how we want to be treated as a customer, our marketing becomes thoughtful – and, if we write our best books, our customers will be loyal.

    1. Exactly! And if we qualify our readers — if we look for people who are most likely to be interested in what we write — that means we’re not shoving books down their throats and trying to guilt them or harass them into purchasing. They are looking for books to love. We are simply offering books we think they’d enjoy, and showing them why we think they’d enjoy it… then trusting them to make a good decision for themselves, without pressuring.

      It’s the difference between a gorgeous display case and a street hawker. We can definitely do better than that. Our books deserve better than that, and so do our future readers.

    1. Thanks! It’s taken a while to strike the balance, but in a changing publishing environment, I think it’s more important than ever. I appreciate the shares!

  3. Learning curves and trial and error seem to go hand in hand with the upheaval in the publishing business and with trying to reach readers without alienating them. Kudos for writing this blog.

    1. Trial and error should be something we embrace, whether it’s in promotion or in the writing itself at this point, don’t you think? Being scared of screwing up seems to have been a pitfall for traditional publishing. (But that’s a whole different topic! )

      Thanks for commenting!

  4. It is a long slow process. Two years ago I released my first book, but I didn’t know what I was doing. It sold a couple of hundred copies and I was thrilled.

    One mistake I made was I didn’t ask for people to join my subscriber list. Actually, I didn’t even really have one back then. Once I did make it possible for people to subscribe a funny thing happened, some did.

    There are many tiny details that are important outside of writing a good book. I do the best I can, write every day, and never look at the clock or calendar. But, I’m always aware that I could do better, so that keeps me looking for my own weakest link.

    Great post.

    1. There is definitely a learning curve, and it can be pretty slow. I think that we have a deluge of tactics, and this anxiety-driven “must do all the things!” mentality that creates desperation. Then, we don’t know how the tactics (like a newsletter) fit into the strategy of selling books!

      I think if you’re focusing on the writing, that’s the best use of your energy until you get the strategy down. Thanks for commenting!

  5. Very well stated. I unfollow anyone on Twitter (and all social media forums) who posts only about their books. Even if I’ve read the book, the last thing I want is to hear about it all the time.

    Thanks for the invaluable post!

  6. Terrific post Cathy.

    During the past two weeks or so I have been looking through a few ‘writers groups’. I was appalled to find > 90% of it to be blatant self promotion filled with catch phrases such as ‘Tribe building’.

    There is a well used business adage that states, ‘If you go into business to make money you are bound to fail’. It is something I have seen many times. When business owners strongly focus on money, they lose sight of their customers.

    Your post describes eloquently how some indie authors have adapted that destructive focus to self publishing.

    1. Thanks, Al. I’ve seen that, too… as if “tribe building” somehow takes the curse off. My internal response is usually a muttered “See? This is why we can’t have nice things, writers!”

      The minute we get so engrossed in the “I am a writer, you must buy my book” attitude, rather than thinking, “you are a reader, what are you looking for?” we are hosed.

  7. Cathy, I’m spreading this around to all the writers I know. This is great advice. This is the same sort of wisdom the the starup world has adapted with the lean startup process. It’s an area writers could learn a lot from.

  8. Cathy, this is great. I’ve been mulling over the excess of spam in every aspect of my life. I now have authors on automatic delete when their name shows up in my inbox since most of the time it’s about THEIR book. And I’ve occasionally had to go to my Trash file because their message was about something else.

  9. You are preaching to the choir with me. I was just on twitter, looking for things to retweet, and could only find “buy, buy, buy” from my general list. Before I went back to college, I worked in the corporate offices of a western clothing retail chain, and I didn’t hear anyone berating customers to buy more. Customer service isn’t just for corporate businesses. Readers are our customers and we need to remember that! I have to say, though, if Johnny Depp was pouring at the nasty coffee place, I think I’d go back. 🙂

  10. Great advice, Cathy!

    I’ve been on social media for a couple of years now, even while I was still writing my book. My friends and followers know what I’ve been working on but I also talk about things going on in my life that others may relate to. Sometimes it has to do with writing, sometimes not. I’m making connections and building relationships over time, which is easy because I currently have nothing to “sell” to readers. When the day comes that I do have to slip in a reasonable amount of self-promotion, hopefully those connections will be strong enough that I’ll never have to worry about coming across as a “douchebag narcissist” If I ever do, I sincerely hope one of them calls me on it.

  11. Hilarious article. It’s such a hard balance. As a writer, one of the *worst* things is thinking you’ve done enough, and someone who is a friend and a reader says, “Wow, you’ve got a new book out? I had no idea.” What?! Too little, too much.

    Some good tips.

  12. Thanks, Cathy. I don’t do twitter so many that’s more troublesome than fb. Honestly, it would take a lot for me to get annoyed by an author’s efforts to get the word out. I understand their challenges – really, writers need to write, marketers need to market. Publishers are to blame for all this flotsam. But I am very willing to help a fellow writer. just as an aside, writers hire folks to do a lot of social media promoting for them and I sort of think that’s the problem – they’re eager to work for their authors and while they are being creative, or trying something new to promote a book, they might annoy others. Yeah, I know. but still, publishers really need to do more of what they used to do. including proofreading. IMHO

  13. A successful marketing program is so hard to execute that most non-professionals get the focus all wrong (Barista #1).
    You just turned a difficult concept into a cake-walking coffee fest. Very, very well done.

  14. I LOVE this! So perfect — although I have to say that Johnny Depp might be enough to get me back into Coffee Shop #1… 😉

    I’ve spent most of my adult life managing businesses of one kind or another, and acted as a retail consultant for a couple of other businesses, and it’s amazing how often business owners of all varieties don’t understand the concept of understanding their business and providing for their customers.

    Sometimes I wonder what’s so hard to understand about the phrase, “How do you like to be treated when YOU are the customer?”

  15. This is so true in so many ways. I sent a link to my sales team at my day job because it is applicable to everything sales/business. Love the sales funnel description at the end.

    Think like a consumer before you assume that someone else will buy your stuff. If you wouldn’t buy into the marketing why would a stranger?

  16. Excellent article. I’ve been an artisan jeweler for almost 20 years. I never oversell my work and let the jewelry sell itself. I often see new vendors doing hard sales techniques nearby and while they might do more sales that one show, within a year they go out of business because people don’t come back. While I’m new to selling books, I am sure that the sales model is similar. People need to get to know you as the artist/author first, then the sales will follow.

  17. Well now I want to open a coffee shop. Too bad I don’t have the capital. 😛

    I work in sales and I’m a very “soft sell” sort of person. My customers appreciate it. I have some that have been with me for years and will only buy from me even though there are many, many other people out there who sell the exact same product line as I do. Once every couple of weeks (max) I’ll promote something on FB from my sales business or have a special. I’m still wet behind the ears with Twitter.

    With my writing, there is a part of me that is so impatient to finish my novel and get it out there, but that is just giving in to peer pressure, mostly imagined. As a member of RWA, I feel like I am the only one in my local group who has not finished my MS (I’m the Queen of the Unfinished Manuscript :P). However, I must learn patience. I must learn to have not just one novel, but many “table tops” and a variety of drinks and pastries to offer my customers.

    Had I started my sales business with only one foundation type and color to sell (I sell beauty products), I would not sell very many, no matter how much I promoted/offered specials/etc. I would have limited my customer pool from the get-go. Same with the novel(s). If I write only one and then it takes me another two years to get the next one written, let alone published (even if self-pubbed), I’m going to lose my “grand opening” impetus.

    So I will be patient. I will write the best novel that I can. I will write the sequels that are brewing in my head, at least to rough draft stage, and maybe pop out a couple of the short stories that are nagging at me. I will increase my # of tables and my variety of hot beverages and snacks and learn more about recipes and marketing. Thank you so much for writing this sensible analogy.

  18. I’m not even in the game yet, and this article is such a RELIEF! I was in retail (clothing) sales for a while, and I could never quite bring myself to jump in front of customers, “Hi! I’m Julia, be sure to ask for me so I can get a commission!” (OK, no one really said that). I enjoyed helping people, especially when they weren’t sure what they wanted – and I always did well enough, sales-wise. I guess this is a long-winded way of me realizing, through your article, that I can write and (hopefully) sell books and still be myself. Not an ass-hat. Thank you for sharing this wisdom.

  19. Yep, a very thought provoking blog. Not being a coffee drinker – don’t touch the stuff – I don’t understand why anybody would want to write in a cafe. The distraction would kill me, but that’s just me.
    I agree, a marketing plan is essential.

  20. Cathy, I love this. You’re so right about finding that balance between honoring your work or product, promotion, and respect for the reader. I’m still working on all of it, but this article made excellent sense. : )

  21. What a fantastic post. I am with you 100%. I tend to just be who I am online and go from there. I post things I like personally and will mention if something cool happened with my book or my career and I find people are open to that. This way I already have a dialogue going way before I have something new to sell 🙂 Thanks for taking the time to post. I feel like you might have just organized the ideas I was thinking and clearly posted them in a way I needed to see 🙂

  22. This is an excellent post, and you are right what you said. I will be soon promoting my first book, and this article gave me a glimpse how to go about promoting my book when that does happen. Thanks.

  23. That’s brilliant advice, Cathy, and brilliantly written. So many of my own writing students have joined me only after a ‘courtship’ of many months, or even years. We used to call it ‘relationship marketing’. Unless they’re grabbing a Coke, an impulse purchase, people don’t buy just a product. They buy a promise. And a promise is built upon a relationship, albeit one assumed. If we’re selling books, we’re selling a relationship. Why do we think we can build that promise in one day?

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