I recently combined my careers in marketing intelligence analysis and commercial fiction writing. Through more than 25 books, I left marketing to the publishers, whose marketing has never been research-driven. Market research is expensive compared to flinging spaghetti at the wall and hoping some sticks -- putting out many titles with minimal support to see which ones sell.
Publishers don't fund research into stickier spaghetti because of the cost. Adequate studies for a large publisher would cost $50K to $250K annually; a new novel by an unknown writer costs $3K to $10K, a nonfiction book about $15K. They just throw more spaghetti, figuring that whatever $100,000 of research might reveal, 10 to 25 additional titles would reveal more, and if even one of them "sticks," costs are covered.
With no tradition of research, publisher marketing departments often have a "prom committee" culture -- they're highly proficient at doing the same, repetitive tasks for every event. Mentioning genuine marketing to publishing people only got me an impatient explanation of spaghetti-flinging and the size of their marketers' Rolodexes.
Then Sharyn November, at Penguin/Viking, became editor of my YA ("Young Adult," publisher-ese for "high school/college") novel, Tales of the Madman Underground.
Her natural marketing talent plus deep experience gave her a clear mental picture of who would like Madman, how they would find it, and how they would talk about it to other people.
Madman is a somewhat difficult novel to market to a YA audience. Librarians and teachers, the gatekeeper readers for YA, would resist its adult situations and language and might be offended by the narrator's contempt toward counselors and mental health professionals. Teen readers might be challenged by Madman's complex literary technique and length -- roughly double the typical length for YA novels (and twice the effort per book report!).
Sharyn forged those potential weaknesses into a Unique Selling Proposition (USP) for literary-minded YA-specialist librarians who need more male-friendly books. Her USP controlled the cover copy and art, oversaw distribution of advanced reading copies, and hand-sells to influential bloggers and reviewers. Madman's cover signaled the book is "Serious Literature that is quirky, masculine, daring, bawdy and funny."
Madman is a good book, but I've written good books before, and none ever had such sustained sales before.
My next novel, Directive 51, received unusually good support for a science fiction title -- wide distribution of review copies, some arranged signings, and a fully custom cover. But now I looked at the cover image and other collateral through a marketer's, not a writer's, eyes.
Directive 51 is a fusion of techno-thriller, political crisis thriller, and disaster novel with a "team protagonist" -- i.e., a group of more-or-less-equal heroes. The cover image strongly suggested post-apocalyptic (not the same thing as disaster) themes tightly focused on a solo heroine; cover and catalogue copy combined anti-terrorist and post-apocalyptic sell words.
Reviews and blogs sounded confused; maybe it was a confusing book, but there was definitely some confusing positioning. If you sell chili as gazpacho, chili lovers won't order it, and gazpacho fans will spit it out. (This doesn't happen only to me; just recently, a highly acclaimed and successful writer dumped a very favorable contract because she was tired of having her serious contemporary novels sold with covers that seemed to say the book should be read as "chick lit.")
For the sequel, Daybreak Zero, the cover was already set, so I concentrated on catalogue copy, with the enthusiastic help of Ace/Penguin's marketing department.
From online reviews by ordinary readers who were enthusiastically positive about top-selling books similar to Daybreak Zero, I abstracted favorable descriptions to create a frequency table of words and phrases, and used that vocabulary in those frequencies to send just two instructions for reading the book:
- Middle book of a trilogy: expect plenty of action but a hanging ending
- Origin story: read this to meet the heroes for the rest of the series.
So far, Daybreak Zero is selling better than Directive 51 at the same point in the sales cycle, and it's receiving enthusiastic reviews. Reader reviews of Daybreak Zero match the vocabulary/frequency tables, with many mentions of middle books and origin story. A few reader reviewers have begun attacking earlier reviewers' evaluations of Directive 51, using that same vocabulary.
Based on results so far, I don't know if I actually have to do research-based marketing for my books from now on, but I do know I'm now unwilling not to do it.
— John Barnes is a marketing intelligence analyst pioneering the commercial application of statistical semiotics. He is also the freelance author of 29 published novels and hundreds of articles and short stories.
The CMO Site is an executive social network that provides CMOs and other marketing executives from the world's leading organizations with a real-time, online venue where they can convene to discuss how they're delivering on the most critical marketing priorities. Join us!