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Don’t confuse ‘marketing’ with ‘selling’

I asked ten writers ten questions about their relationship with marketing

Robin Houghton’s work has appeared in several publications including Agenda, Bare Fiction, Envoi, Magma, The North, Poetry News and The Rialto. Her pamphlet The Great Vowel Shift was published by Telltale Press. In 2017 she self-published a handmade limited edition mini-pamphlet Foot Wear. After winning the Cinnamon Press Poetry Pamphlet competition, Robin’s third pamphlet, All the Relevant Gods came out with Cinnamon in February 2018. She blogs at robinhoughtonpoetry.co.uk

I first met Robin at a poetry reading in Brighton because my wife was involved in the poets’ collective Robin co-founded in 2014, called The Telltale Press, and she then very kindly came and spoke to my students during a ‘Business of Writing’ seminar I taught a couple of years ago. When I first read The Great Vowel Shift, it was ‘the need for outlines’ – from a poem called ‘Geography Lesson’ – and the shout that could have been ‘puffin’ – in ‘East from Seahouses’ – that stayed with me. On re-reading I discovered each poem is like a meditation, on ‘lasts’, on pebbles, on place, on the impossibility of communication. ‘River Ouse, Rodmell, 1941’ and ‘When my sister is old’ are particularly poignant, and I’ve been trying to hear old style pronunciations of ‘same’ and ‘feet’ in my head, ever since I read about the ‘vowel shift’. The numerous reviews of Robin’s work – scroll down on this page – tell it better than I can.

The Great Vowel Shift

I asked Robin my ten questions about book marketing.

Can you tell us a bit about you and your work? What are you working on at the moment?

At any one time I generally have several parallel writing projects on the go. As well as poetry, I write non-fiction books and articles, and the occasional guest blog. I have a couple of my own blogs which I try to keep on top of, although I’m not as concerned as I used to be about frequency of posting, numbers of visitors etc.

On the poetry side of things I’m starting to think about a full collection. I’m doing a lot of revising of old/existing work. I’ve also got some new pieces on the go. I went on a residential at Garsdale with Ian Duhig in June and that fired me up about the process of thinking in ‘collection-sized’ bites rather than individual poems, trying to expand my ideas about form, reading more of poets less familiar to me. What themes are coming through, what ideas can I develop further, that sort of thing. In the wake of the pamphlet I feel the pressure’s off to a certain extent. I’m still sending out individual poems, as I want to keep up a presence in the UK magazines, but it doesn’t consume me as it used to.

On the commercial writing side I have recently pitched features ideas to three magazines, one of which has commissioned a piece which I need to start researching and writing soon, although it’s a long deadline. I’m also actively thinking about more features ideas and places to pitch them.

How do you approach marketing your work, on a practical level? For instance, do you schedule it for a particular day of the week, or use a different desk, or make time for it every afternoon?

I don’t have routines of that sort – I do have lists and I try to prioritise, but I like to manage my time flexibly.

Some creative people treat marketing as if it’s creation’s evil twin. Is there a way of making friends with it?

I do sympathise with this, although I think people often confuse ‘marketing’ with ‘selling’. Although marketing was my profession for more than 25 years I’m not good at selling, and hate having to ‘sell’ my own work. The point is, the better you are at marketing the less selling you have to do.

I suppose it ultimately depends on how much importance you place on getting a readership for your work, how big a readership you want, and the size of your ambitions. It’s amazing how much marketing you can do – bringing about the circumstances by which people will become aware of your work, and want to read it – without having to actually get the megaphone out and shout about how great you are. For me, long-term, ‘slow drip’ marketing is more palatable than (and can be at least as effective as) short-term, full-on promotional tactics.

Do you think about marketing before, during, or after writing, or is it ongoing?

With poetry, I don’t think about marketing when I’m writing it, because I don’t really see the point – if and when I have a marketable product, such as a collection, then the work of marketing planning and research begins – starting with what publisher(s) would it appeal to and how I might pitch it to them. Although my self-published ‘mini pamphlet’ Foot Wear goes slightly against the grain – I had a bunch of themed poems that didn’t fit anywhere else, but I thought they merited an audience. So I broadened the theme, wrote a couple of new pieces to fit and combined them into a short set of vignettes with accompanying images. I had an eye on the ‘marketability’ of this pamphlet from the start.

As regards features writing, I’m thinking about the potential audience all the time, because before you write it you need to get it commissioned, which means an editor has agreed it’s something that will appeal to their readership (and thereby any advertisers or stakeholders). Inasmuch as marketing requires a focus on the market for your product, it’s integral to any commercial writing.

How do you tend to market your work? (For instance, do you use social media? Do you blog?)

Even large publishing houses these days expect the author to do a certain amount to help promote their book and it may even be in the contract that you have certain obligations, such as being available for appearances, writing blog posts, appearing in a podcast or fielding Q & As on Goodreads.

For my first book Blogging for Creatives, I started a dedicated blog and arranged a blog tour around a dozen or so blogs, mostly American, and some with very large audiences (much more than my own blog). It was a lot of work, which in retrospect was probably nuts, because I’d been paid a flat fee for the book so sales figures to me were neither here nor there. But the publisher did commission two more books, both with royalties deals, so you could say that going the extra mile on the first book put me in a favourable position.

When it comes to poetry, sales figures, even for the big names, are extremely low. You only have to look in your local Waterstones for evidence of the invisibility of contemporary poetry. Even though you can buy just about anything online, you have to know what to look for, and if no-one’s heard of you then they won’t be buying your book. At Telltale Press most of our sales happened at readings and through the individual poet members. We also sold quite a few copies online on our website.

Two things are very clear in my mind:

  • you have to get your name out there (not the name or your book, or collection – what about the next one?), and
  • you have to think of marketing as a series of one-to-ones

This goes against the ‘megaphone’ school of marketing, which is very twentieth-century anyway. One-to-one encounters means (for example) engaging with people at readings (not just your own), workshops or other literary events, asking influential friends (not strangers) if they would like a no-strings comp copy of your book (if you don’t have any influential friends you need to find some – it’s a key long-term marketing activity!), developing relationships with people via social media – essential to note this doesn’t mean marketing to them – or via a blog, reaching out to your peers and suggesting co-ventures, such as guest blogging for each other, an interview, a blog tour and so forth.

It also helps to be unfailingly generous (for example in commenting on, sharing or retweeting other people’s work or events – doing something useful for them in other words, not just paying them compliments or ‘liking’).

Would you spend a substantial amount of time on a piece even if you knew you wouldn’t or couldn’t publish and sell it?

Commercial writing, absolutely not. But poetry, yes – I have written a few things for competitions completely lacking in literary merit but with a chance of winning me some money! Or for readings – I have one or two poems that work well as spoken word but again, unlikely to appeal to the kinds of magazines I like to be seen in!

Do you use any of these for marketing purposes: school visits, workshops, readings, video book trailers, seeking press coverage?

Readings – absolutely – see above.

I once heard someone dismiss a career in book marketing by saying ‘he might as well go and sell fridges’ – is selling books really the same as selling fridges?

As I mentioned before, many people confuse marketing with selling. Even some people who claim to be in marketing, when they mean selling. (Estate agents, for example). There’s also a misconception that sales is not only something a bit dirty, but anyone can do it. It’s actually very skilled, but when the marketing is done well, it does make the sales job easier. The world’s best sales people can actually sell ANYTHING, but given the choice they would rather work for Smeg than for Indesit.

There’s a lot of marketing jargon around, such as ‘find your niche’, ‘create a sales funnel’, ‘engage with your audience’, ‘create a platform’ – do beginning writers need to engage with it from the start? Has that changed since you started writing?

I think it can help, but there’s a lot of choice of what to read so best to find blogs/websites/books or whatever that are focused on book marketing or marketing your writing, and read widely. There are many differing opinions and you need to follow advice that sits well with you. Not all the sales jargon applies and in fact (as I’ve already suggested) I don’t buy a lot of the old-school marketing advice as it just doesn’t take account of today’s culture of social sharing and always-on interconnectivity.

Blogging for Writers cover

My own advice to writers is more flexible and nuanced than it was even five years ago. Things have changed and are changing constantly – it’s important to remember we’re only experiencing the very early days of the internet, social media, big data and so on. I think we need to stay alert to how we feel about all this and not follow hard and fast rules.

Any examples of book marketing you think worked really well?

Be The Gateway CoverThis doesn’t exactly answer your question but one person who I have followed for many years and is very insightful about the business of marketing for writers is Dan Blank of We Grow Media. Dan walks the talk and is a rare thing – a thinking person’s marketing expert. He speaks from wisdom and experience and shares many stories of authors and publishers he has worked with. Very non-pushy and personable. I recommend writers subscribe to his blog and/or weekly newsletter.

In Blogging for Writers there are quite a few examples of authors using blogging and social media in interesting ways.

Read the rest of the interviews here

 

 

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