This morning I did an interview on writing fiction and we discussed, among other things, whether writing faster books leads to inferior quality and whether writing to market creates inferior art. These are real conversations, and though I would answer “no” to both, I’m often challenged by thousands of passionate creators who very firmly believe “YES.”
The conversation prompted me to read a book I picked up a few weeks ago when Ryan Holiday was in Portland – I’m familiar with Ryan for his book Trust Me, I’m Lying. Based on a controversy I was involved in last week (when Kindle cancelled 2000 preorders on a boxset) and a guest post I’d intended to write for Anne Allen’s blog, the questions I was internalizing were not small:
Basically, I’ve built up a platform by publishing lots of content quickly. I’ve argued for things like ‘quantity leads to quality.’ As a book designer, I know how much branding, packaging and positioning are important, but I wasn’t trying to get it perfect… I was just trying to learn. I’m at the point, however, where I can now begin to focus on putting out higher quality work. Work that lasts. Work that takes more time. So I was excited to read Perennial Seller to see what it offered me.
This book has a simple 4 step plan:
1. create 2. position 3. marketing 4. platform
These are the same four steps I used in my Guerrilla Publishing program, so I was surprised but happy to see them. Previously I wrote a huge post about Steven Pressfield’s work and The War of Art. My main problem with those books is that they’re out of order. The crucial missing ingredient from most books on creativity is a clear definition of value. The War of Art defines value as passion based, and at first I was worried Ryan would go down this path.
He says “crappy products don’t survive”, “art can’t be hurried”, “great things are timeless and take time.”
If he had to choose between someone writing for money or writing for passion – Ryan says he’d bet on passion. “If making money is ALL you care about, and making it sooner is preferable to later, then a perennial seller is not the path for you.”
“Creating something that lives – that can change the world and continue doing so for decades – requires not just a reverence for the craft and a respect for the medium, but real patience for the process itself.”
Here I wanted to object: craftsmanship is admirable as long as people want the product. BUT unlike most other markets, there isn’t a luxury market for books – so extra time and investment to perfect a project won’t necessarily increase income. Out of the four steps above, most creative people love the idea of perfecting their craft and making High Quality Art… but they skip some fundamental aspects of creating work that matters.
More important than the quality or the form is the content: it has to have purpose and value to the readers.
Unfortunately we’ve inherited an ideology of creative production which teaches us NOT to consider the market, but I think quality should depend on value (and value=how many OTHER people you can satisfy). Ryan writes, if you want to make something that lasts, it has to resonate with people, and it’s easier to do that on purpose if you know your audience.
I pulled a bunch of quotes from this section, but my favorite is this one: “Let’s be clear: You can’t afford to wait until after it’s finished to figure out who what you’re making is for… You have to think about it now. Before you’ve made it. While you’re making it. The absence of an intended audience is not just a commercial problem. It’s an artistic one.” In other words, you can’t make great art without an intended audience. In other words, you need to define your audience before you do the creative work.
You can do this by testing your ideas, and “doing the work at least partly in front of an audience.” This is the idea of practicing in public or making minimal viable products. “A book should be an article before it’s a book, and a dinner conversation before it’s an article. See how things go before going all in.”
I tried that with fiction and some people lost their minds, because it’s not how great literature is supposed to be written (according to our Romantic inheritance). But for Ryan, art is inherently social:
“Creating is often a solitary experience. Yet work made entirely in isolation is usually doomed to remain lonely.”
There are two important reasons to think about audience.
#1, it makes it easier to finish the work, because you know what you’re trying to make.
#2, it makes it easier to make work people like, because you know what they’re looking for.
“If you don’t know who you’re writing for or who you’re making for, how will you know if you’re doing it right? How will you know if you’ve done it? You are unlikely to hit a target you haven’t aimed for. Hope is not helpful here; having something and someone to measure against is.”
Creative people think value is somehow divorced from reception, and that focusing on the money cheapens the art. But actually, focusing on the money = focusing on the value and experience and satisfaction. You can’t make a great book (that readers love) unless you know your audience.
There’s actually a third reason to engage with your audience that supports this theme, but I found it in a rare manuscript by William Alger: it’s the idea of “social motives” – the motivation to actually finish and publish the work, rather than just let it all sit in your head, is at least partially driven by a desire to share and get a response with other people.
“If power be born in seclusion, art is the fruit of association. If sentiment be nourished apart from men, ambition is kindled among them. If principles grow in the soil of solitude, actions ripen in the air of society. He who abides overmuch by himself must carefully keep an open communication between the inner meditations and plans that occupy his imagination and the social motives that would fertilize and apply his energy. Otherwise he is likely to become an idle dreamer. The currents of his enterprise are in danger of turning awry and losing the name of action. The ideas of deeds become the substitutes of deeds: the mental pictures of victories prevent, instead of preparing for actual victories.”
Not just “Who For?” Also, “What?”
“It’s not that hard to make something we want, or something we think is cool or impressive. It’s much harder to create something other people not only want, but need… A critical test of any product: Does it have a purpose? Does it add value to the world? How will it improve the lives of the people who buy it? … In short, what are these people going to be paying for?”
Ryan explains that focusing on the money doesn’t cheapen the art; it makes you shift your focus towards providing value. I could digress into Klimt and Vienna and “real art has no function” but, even though most authors still believe it, it doesn’t actually fit books or publishing anyway. Books must have a value – either to entertain or educate. The reading experience IS the value.
One of the most interesting points raised was that by mixing genres, you’re actually diluting your audience – instead of giving you twice the audience, it actually gives you half, because you’ll fail to satisfy both.
“If you haven’t thought about who you are trying to reach, then what have you thought about? Presumably you have some vision of people purchasing or using this thing you’ve spent all your time making. How could you not know who they are? It’s not going to happen by accident! … You must explicitly say who you are building your thing for. You must know what you are aiming for – you’ll miss otherwise. You need to know this so you can make the decisions that go into properly positioning the project for them. You need to know this so you can edit and refine the work until it’s so utterly awesome that your target group cannot resist buying it.”
This is something I strongly believe in, that I haven’t heard said often enough. (I actually said something similar a few years ago.)
In the discussion about Craft and Quality, you can write better books if you do your research and intentionally write something that satisfies a specific audience – who is this thing for must be “explicitly scoped and sighted. It doesn’t happen by accident.”
In other words, writing to market is not selling out, it’s stepping up.
It’s about writing books as a value proposition, as a service – writing them for other people, instead of for yourself.
This is heresy to the purists, who believe art can only be written in isolation: but it’s easy to study the market and notice that the vast majority of books being published were written only for the author, with no consideration of the audience (which is why self-publishing has become a punchline).
It’s uncommon to write books that sell on purpose, but it actually leads to better books, that have more value because readers enjoy them.
“You must create room for the audience to inhabit and relate to the work. You must avoid the trap of making this about you – because, remember, you won’t be the one buying it.”
These deliberate choices need to be built in early – both in the drafting and then in the positioning and editing phases. If you know what your readers expect, you can overdeliver.
“Are you really sure that you have features and scenes and material that are relevant to your core audience? And to your potential audiences? If you don’t have this, you need to fix it now, or may God help you. Because you’re going to need divine intervention. … The choices you make here cannot be compensated for by marketing. They are the marketing.”
You need to learn the rules before you can break them. Once you learn what readers expect, you can tweak or subvert them, even though it’s a risk:
“This is why creators must know which conventions of the genre they are observing and which ones they are taking a risk on by tweaking or subverting.”
In other words GREAT work and POPULAR work are not mutually exclusive – great work is work that people love and share. So it’s easier to make Real Art if you target your audience. Then, spend time crafting a high quality product and positioning it to appeal to that audience (steps one and two) – that’s the best marketing.
“When it comes to attracting an audience, the creators who take the time to get their positioning and packaging right – who don’t just go with their first instinct and hope – are the ones who will win.”
If you know WHAT this book does and WHO it is for (benefits+audience+why that audience should CARE) then you’ll get WOM (word of mouth, which is the best marketing). After that, most book marketing stuff doesn’t work, especially old school stuff like media releases, TV and radio, billboards, etc. Between giving your books away free or cheap to the right readers, and paying for advertising, Ryan argues for the former, and also stresses that nobody else can do your marketing for you, because only you can get them to care.
This was interesting for me to read: though I need it already, a lot of people think book marketing tactics like free or cheap books are terrible marketing stunts by desperate authors that devalue literature. I don’t know how many times I’ve talked with authors who can’t sell any books, don’t have the money for advertising, but refuse to give their books away for free.
Ryan says paying for an expensive publicist is a bad idea. Most authors just want to pay someone else to do the marketing for them, but nobody else can do it as well as you.
“Marketing is your job, it can’t be passed on to someone else. There is no magical firm who can take it totally of your hands. What comes next is applying the same amount of creativity and energy into marketing as you put into making. Before you despair, I hope you can see that that is empowering. Plenty of people can make great work. Not everyone has the dedication to make it and to make it work. Marketing is an opportunity for you to distinguish yourself, to beat out other talented folks whose entitlement or laziness holds them back.”
So how to actually do book marketing?
If you want to get press or media, make it interesting. Figure out how to tell an interesting story or tap into a current media event or news. DO something. But avoid expensive, “blast” marketing. Start small, test results, see what’s profitable, revise. (Basically, you can reach people with paid advertising, or with free content marketing. One takes time, the other takes money). EVEN IF you have a budget to outsource this stuff, you shouldn’t:
“The first wake-up call for every aspiring perennial seller must be that there is no publisher or angel investor or producer who can magically handle all the stuff you don’t want to handle…”
You have to find a way to make your intended audience care about what you’re doing.
“Audiences can’t magically know what is inside something they haven’t seen. They have no clue that it will change their lives. You can’t be the self-consious wallflower in the corner, hoping that people will see through the act and just know how great you are… We have to take this thing that means so much to us and make sure it is primed to mean something to other people too.”
So here’s the interesting part: it’s much easier to get people to care if they know, like and trust you – this is harder to do with ads or paid promotion, which is why Ryan’s two main strategies fall under the next section, Platform.
The best way to market your books is with a direct relationship with fans, in the form of an email list.
“If I could give a prospective creative only one piece of advice, it would be this: build a list… it’s the single most important and effective way to communicate with your potential audience and customers.”
I have near daily conversations with authors about listbuilding, and often they don’t want to do it, because they don’t really know who their readers are or what they like or how to talk to them. It’s like going on a blind date and figuring out your mutual interests. It’s uncomfortable. Plus, a lot of authors simply hate the idea of email newsletters, because most of them are spammy.
This is one of those examples of an incredibly important, incredibly powerful book marketing tool that’s being underutilized because nobody is getting it right.
The second strategy, or asset, is your network – the relationships you’ve cultivated with other influencers.
Your platform = direct access to your fans (list), and the combined reach of your friend’s audiences (network).
Those are the two things you need, and they can be cultivated slowly. The value of a list isn’t in the numbers, however, it’s in the relationship. The mistake most authors make is not caring enough about their fans to do the work. Ryan urges against paying someone else to do the work for you. The best way to build a list is to provide incredible amounts of value.
A lot of authors resist this step. They don’t want to make long term friendships and relationships, not with fans, not with other influencers. But authors who want long-term success “must participate – and do so authentically and honestly.”
The main takeaway points for Perennial Seller are these:
- know your audience and figure out what value you’re providing, to whom
- know the rules and conventions of your genre or subject
- design and position the book to resonate with your audience on an emotional level
- build your list and network by providing value
You might have noticed I skipped over the “book marketing” bit, because that stuff doesn’t really work and won’t keep the book selling longer term. Only YOU can do that, but only if you’re building your platform. I think my favorite thing about this book is how well it aligns with the advice given by experienced indie authors. In other words: people who believe this stuff and write books this way are more likely to succeed. The best “book marketing hack” is creating better products… but the only way to actually do that is test your ideas in public, get lots of feedback, do your research and know your audience.
Self-publishing is getting a bad name because most authors have zero platform and get desperate, so they use spammy, annoying tactics – or pay someone else to spam for them. Real marketing is not telling strangers about your book; it’s attracting the right readers, building relationships, and providing value. Otherwise, you’re always asking for handouts.
“To do the work without a platform is to be at the mercy of other people’s permission.”
“Someone else must fund us, someone else must give us the green light, someone else must choose to let us make our work. To a creative person, that is death… So don’t wait. Build your platform now. Build it before your first great perennial seller comes out, so that you have a better chance of actually turning it into one. Build it now so that you might create multiple works like that.”
“Don’t just make it. Make it happen.”