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The Magic of Marketing: A Cautionary Tale

Josh-1Once upon a time there was a man named Aaron Pogue. He worked every day as a writer, and yet he dreamed every day of working as a writer. You see, he worked as a technical writer translating Engineer into English. But he wanted to be a fiction writer so he could translate words into dreams.

Then, one day, a mighty wizard named Bezos created the Amazon Kindle, and Aaron published his magical story about dragons and a boy who would be…a kingish thing. He sold millions of copies, quit his evil day job, and became a professional dreamweaver.

You’ve heard about and from Aaron before. He’s the progenitor of this site and the original font of writerly wisdom here. I wanted to bring his success up here to illustrate a very important point. In order to do that, I have to ask a few questions. You don’t have to answer them out loud, but do fix them in your mind.

  1. How much time did Aaron spend writing Taming Fire, the first novel in the fantasy trilogy that made his dreams come true?
  2. How much time did Aaron spend finding a great, professional editor for Taming Fire?
  3. How much time did Aaron spend managing the cover art for Taming Fire?
  4. How much money did Aaron spend on professional marketing for Taming Fire?
  5. How much time did Aaron spend on self-marketing for Taming Fire?

Now let me tell you a story about a few other writers, all of whom also longed to make fiction writing their day jobs. You’re also familiar with these names. Courtney Cantrell, Jessie Sanders, and me (Joshua Unruh). All of us have several short stories published and somewhere between one and five full length novels. Allow me to ask similar questions.

  1. How much time did Courtney/Jessie/Joshua spend writing their novels?
  2. How much time did Courtney/Jessie/Joshua spend finding a great, professional editor for their novels?
  3. How much time did Courtney/Jessie/Joshua spend managing the cover art for their novels?
  4. How much money did Courtney/Jessie/Joshua spend on professional marketing for their novels?
  5. How much time did Courtney/Jessie/Joshua spend on self-marketing for their novels?

So fascinatingly, the answer to both number ones and twos are the same in principle if not in actual time. We all spent as much time as it took to create a publishable novel. I love that word, by the way. We didn’t want perfect novels or our  pièce de résistance or our opuses. We wanted novels of high quality and exciting readability. Aaron wrote Taming Fire in his teens, so it had been rewritten a few times. I wrote my first novel during NaNoWriMo and then we managed to publish it two months later. The unerring Jessie Sanders edited them flawlessly. (Well, she got a friend to do her own, but if I’d been any of Jessie’s friends, there is no way I’d edit her novel. Might as well make a watch for Mr. Rolex.) The time isn’t the point, the quality is.

But the answers on the other questions are wildly different. Aaron released Taming Fire into the world with no fanfare, no marketing, a mostly finished cover, and barely marketed it himself via social media. By contrast, the rest of us agonized over our covers, did blog tours or interviews, endlessly plugged them on social media, and looked for ways to leverage them into book clubs, signings, and a host of other marketing ideas.

Exactly none of them have taken off like Taming Fire.

So what’s the point? The meat of this sandwich is that, no matter how much effort or know-how or money you sink into marketing your books, they might never find an audience. Or they might find one ten years from now. Or, if you are very lucky, they might find one instantly and make you a hundredaire…or maybe even a thousandaire!

Why am I telling you all this doom and gloom? Because this is an advice site and, while I don’t think we’d ever fall into the trap of making success in publishing sound easy, we might make it sound like a foregone conclusion. And I, as your resident marketing friend and guru, want to make sure you know it just ain’t necessarily so.

No here’s a little silver lining. This is not significantly different than the traditional publishing world. We can all name books that are terrible but became household names anyway. My novels are better than TwilightThe DaVinci Code, and Fifty Shades of Gray put together. That’s not ego or hubris, it’s just a fact. I put more work into my craft than those novels received.

But even better, we can all name books that maybe weren’t wonderful, but they got the nod anyway, which gave the author time to hone their craft while making a living, and now we have cultural treasures we wouldn’t otherwise. This may be controversial, but I’ll put it out there. The first two books in the Harry Potter series aren’t very good. They aren’t terrible, but there is also no reason that they should have rocked the world’s collective socks.

But they let Ms. Rowling get paid, which let her keep writing, and led to amazing novels of high adventure and friendship that the culture gets to treasure for decades to come.

Marketing can’t make crap writing into gold or vice versa. It can’t force somebody to read crap and claim it’s gold, or vice versa. All marketing can do is position (that’s a key word, people) your work to succeed. It will never be the only deciding factor in success.

So how do I handle this potentially crushing news? Well, first, I keep writing. Second, I make sure everything I publish is something I can be proud of. I never know which one might be the one that takes off, and I don’t want to be embarrassed about it when it does. I control the things I can control (positioning), and let the rest sort itself out. That’s my advice to each of you, and Unstressed Syllables is dedicated to helping you do exactly that.

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