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Malcolm R. Campbell's World

Selling books: Is it “about you” or is it “about your reader”

“It is not enough that you do good work. For reporters to be interested in your story, you have to make it interesting for their readers, listeners, viewers, surfers. It’s not about your organization. It’s about the audience.”

– Public relations director Paul D. O’Rourke, in You Have A Story To Tell: Take a fresh look at your press releases, by Malcolm R. Campbell, Nonprofit Word Magazine, Jan/Feb 2007. (Free PDF download)

As writers, we often jokingly claim that we are nonprofit. But that’s not the only reason I see a comparison between the advice given to nonprofit public relations departments and the advice given to writers.

In my article “You Have a Story to Tell,” I cite a typical, rough-hewn Horace Greeley suggestion to a friend starting a newspaper: “Begin with the clear conception that the subject of deepest interest to the average human being is himself.” Rather cynical, right?

Said in a more friendly way: When we open a newspaper, magazine, blog or online news site, we read what interests us. We follow certain kinds of news stories. We read certain kinds of how-to articles. We read one fiction genre or another. Of course, big, exciting stories about something we usually don’t follow also catch our attention.

My advice to nonprofits, as reflected by the experts I cited, was simply that press releases, brochures, and handouts can’t simply proclaim that the organization is wonderful. Promotion and advertising have to find reasons why prospective readers and visitors might care about the wonders that are offered. What’s it for them?

Authors as Celebrities

When an author promotes a new book, s/he often says a little about the wonders of the story and follows this up with a lot of “about me” interview answers and blogging posts. Generic blog interviews are partly at fault here when they ask such questions as “when did you first decide you wanted to be a writer?”

If you’re a new author, the reader doesn’t care when you made that decision. Why not: (a) you’re not a celebrity about which everyone wants to know everything from the lame to the sublime; (b) since you’re not fulfilling the prospective reader’s hobby of keeping up with celebrities, there’s nothing in your answer that will resonate with those whom you hope will buy your books.

Point of fact, new writers and other unknown writers cannot promote their work by doing what major bestselling authors do: we can’t spend our promotional time talking about ourselves or by assuming that once the reader sees our name on our book, s/he will buy it.

We dance a delicate dance. We want our blogs and other promotions to have the same professional look that we find in major authors’ blogs and press releases. Among other things, that means never doing the kinds of things that scream “amateur.” On the flip side of that coin, we have to sell ourselves more than major writers do because they’ve already been accepted as “must-read producers of great stories” and we haven’t.

Make no mistake about it. The fact that people want to read everything they can find about their favorite author doesn’t mean they want the same information about you. In short, that’s just TMI.

About Me

So, we have to include some “about me” stuff to convince prospective readers we’re capable of telling a good story. If we’re writing nonfiction, we need to display our credentials–that is, do we have the proper background for writing a book about our chosen subject? If we’re writing fiction, perhaps we find ways to show similarities between our backgrounds/places lived/careers/hobbies and the plots and characters in our books. Of course, it helps if we have some writing credentials, too, and can say we already have published stories and books out there, or at least that we’ve worked in another writing field such as journalism or public relations.

This is not the time or place to describe the great personal angst you felt about your story’s characters and that you went through 20 years of blood, sweat and tears to finally produce the book you’re “giving away” for 99 cents. Nobody cares about this and the fact that you’re saying it makes it sound like you’re an amateur with a story that isn’t strong enough to catch a reader’s attention by itself. There’s nothing in your personal angst for the reader.

About You

Think about the process you through (sometimes instantly) when you see a new book in a store or at an online site before you buy it. Do I know this author? If yes, then you may buy the book immediately because you already know what’s in it for you. That is, you like the author’s prose style, plots, settings and characters.

If you don’t know the author, you may be influenced by the publisher’s description on line or the blurb on the back cover of the book in a store. Does it tempt you? Is this the kind of story you like? Book covers influence a lot of people because, when they’re done well, they show the book’s ambiance, characters or themes. Perhaps you’re also influenced by editorial reviews (including blurbs by famous authors on the book itself) as well as reader reviews.

Forgetting the influence of price, the longer you take to make a decision about buying the book, the less likely it is you will buy it. Why? Because if there was obviously something in it for you, you wouldn’t still be thinking about it. If you look at web site traffic reports, you’ll see that a lot of those who view your site come and leave in a matter of seconds. Why: nothing in it for them.

Now What?

Like most authors, I have answered a lot of interview questions about how and why I became a writer. I’ve talked about whether I am a plotter or pantser, where I get my ideas, the reasons I like my chosen genre, and the importance I place on the locations where my books are set. Some of my posts have focused on why I think fantasy is important, the hero’s journey and on the specifics of my location settings. Many of these posts have gotten a lot of readers; most of them didn’t translate into book sales.

Why not? You know the answer to this already. Quite simply put, nothing in it for the reader. Or, if there was, they’re interested in the post itself and not about any novels I’ve written that relate to that post.

When I decide to buy a book, I make that decision within a few seconds more often than not. Long excerpts from the book make my eyes glaze over, the movie stars the author thinks ought to play the roles of the main characters strike me as absurd, and five hundred words about how the author spent 25 years as a shoe salesman and suddenly decided to write a novel fall into my “I could care less” category of stuff I’m willing to read.

If most readers are wont to decide quickly on the BUY/DON’T BUY question, we have to answer it quickly before they wander off. What does the book have that they want?

Sex, ghosts, detectives, fantasy worlds, international or corporate intrigues, spies, heroic tales about everyday people, sports, or murder most foul. You wrote your book, so you know which of these things are in it. You’re job is to quickly tell the kinds of readers who like your kind of book what’s in it for them.

That’s it.

–Malcolm

Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of “Conjure Woman’s Cat,” a story about a lady who is older than dirt who fights the KKK with folk magic in the 1950s Jim Crow world of the Florida Panhandle. As the book’s title suggest, her cat also helps out.

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10 thoughts on “Selling books: Is it “about you” or is it “about your reader”

  1. So many of the interviews authors do for me are about the minutiae of a writer’s life, guaranteeing that only their mother will want to read it. Sometimes readers enjoy seeing a bit of the behind-the-scenes action, but mostly, as you say, they want to know what’s in it for them.

    I hadn’t realized it until you pointed it out, but the amateur/professional conundrum is another of the many strange conundrums we face as we try to get our names/books before the reading public.

    • I think I first noticed that amateur vs. pro question when I saw how a lot of experts suggested that indie authors sell books. I kept seeing things that no mainstream author would ever do because those things didn’t come from a professional writer but rather a hobby writer.

      • Can you see James Patterson doing the things that you and I do? He’s way too arrogant for that, and rightly so. His name alone sells millions of books. My name alone sells . . . not much of anything.

  2. I guess it’s a fine line. As they urge in the TV show “Shark Tank,” you have to ‘put a face with the brand.’ But how much is too much face, especially if it’s your first novel and you don’t even know what the response to it will be? I do agree that so many of the interview questions we’re asked to complete are primarily about the author, not the work.

    • To some extent, we need to do what we’re comfortable with–what seems natural.

      • Exactly. My kids have always said that their all-time favorite teachers were the ones who shared their lives with the class. As a teacher, this approach works for me. I think kids are actually drawn to people who are real and down-to-earth. They can sniff out authenticity as fast as a pack of bloodhounds can track a chain gang escapee in the swamps of Louisiana. For me, I’d rather hear about the author’s life than the techniques they use to develop plot. Snore.

  3. Pingback: Daily Musing – Selling Books: Is it about YOU? | JM Hauser's Blog

  4. Reading about techniques in interviews and other posts is usually kind of boring unless there’s something highly unusual about the way the book is structured. You experiences as a teacher probably help you present yourself to prospective readers.

  5. I’ve spent time searching for good interview questions for hosting author interviews and what you say is absolutely right. The interview questions and interviews I found seem to focus almost exclusively on the author for other authors. It’s nearly impossible to find good interview questions that focus the interview on the reader and what the reader wants.

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