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Thirsty for success? One book author serves up a thriller of a marketing plan.
By Jennifer Miller
Over the course of the three scorching afternoons that I stood on a Brooklyn sidewalk this summer, selling my debut novel, people often asked if I was self-published. It was a reasonable question. I had a stack of books, a plate of home-baked cookies, and a construction-paper-and-magic-marker sign that read “Novelade Stand.”
“I’m actually with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt,” I’d answer. At which point, the questioner would do a double take and say, “Then what are you doing out here?”
The Year of the Gadfly is a mystery set at a remote New England prep school. The Washington Post called it “darkly comic” and Glamour said it was “entirely addictive.” But these great reviews didn’t spur blockbuster sales. Nor did having a supportive, well-respected publisher, a star-studded book trailer (in which Brian Williams and Christiane Amanpour read from the novel), or a bordering-on-workaholic author (me) who’d spent months writing Gadfly-related articles to appear in magazines and blogs.
All of which proves that a new author has to put herself out there—apparently, right on the street—to get attention. Moreover, I realized that to give the novel (not to mention my career as an author) a fighting chance at success, I’d have to double as an entrepreneur. And crazy enough, it worked! After three weekends of running the novelade stand, I’d sold more than 60 books. In contrast, I once flew to New Hampshire, only to sell four.
But why did the novelade stand work so well, and how could I achieve similar success with my other marketing efforts? I needed an expert opinion, so I went to see Claudine Cheever, chief strategy officer for Saatchi & Saatchi New York. Cheever got her start in publishing and is now the strategy leader for popular brands like Cheerios, Smucker’s, and Tide. She also oversees a team of integrated advertising and social media planners.
Saatchi’s offices are airy and gleaming. The focal point of the lobby (aside from the sweeping views of downtown Manhattan) is a pink plastic chair shaped like a gigantic egg. That morning, Cheever’s pink shirt matched the egg. She wore her dark hair in an asymmetrical cut—boyishly short on the right, chin-length on the left. She exuded chic.
“Your book trailer is awesome!” she exclaimed when I came in. “But I think you need some eccentric tagging to catch people’s attention.” Cheever, it turned out, wasted no time. “How about a saucy headline like ‘Christiane Amanpour Rewrites My Book’?” Cheever was referring to a joke Amanpour makes on camera after fumbling her lines. “It’s like when a headline says, ‘Julia Roberts Naked!’” We know Roberts probably isn’t naked, but we still feel a desire to know more, so we click the link.
But I wanted to create desire in the right people—lovers of school-themed fiction. I told Cheever about Goodreads, a social networking site where millions of bookworms gather to share recommendations, which I’d been using to email potential readers. I’d contacted hundreds of people about The Year of the Gadfly, but in so doing, I had openly flouted the site’s rule book. Each day, after sending about a dozen emails, a message popped up, telling me I’d reached my limit. It might as well have said, For shame, spammer!
Cheever viewed things differently. “If you know that people will be interested in what you’re selling, then you’re not spamming. We call this ‘lean-forward’ advertising.”
Cheever explained that if, for example, she were searching for cheap flights to California, she wouldn’t find the sudden appearance of an airline ad annoying. The ad “leaned forward” because it was relevant to her search. (In contrast are TV commercials, because they add no value to your show.) Goodreads was all about recommendations, Cheever reminded me. “It’s an interest-driven community,” she said. “When we want to advertise Pillsbury, we go to recipe-sharing social communities. Those women are looking for easy tips to make a quick meal, so Pillsbury will be a welcome voice.”
If anything, Cheever said I needed to email more readers and work on segmenting them—advertising-speak for identifying specific communities and appealing to each in a unique way. I’d already been doing this with lovers of campus fiction. “But what about readers who enjoy strong female protagonists?” she asked. “What about prep school alumnae associations? What about readers who like Jewish authors? Or young debut novelists?”
I scribbled and scribbled, but I wanted to get back to the novelade stand. Truthfully, I didn’t know whether all my Goodreads emailing had sold many books. But there was proof that the novelade stand had—and that audience was segmented only by location. Most of the people who bought books from me didn’t have a particular penchant for prep school fiction. (I asked them.) They just thought buying a book from the stand was “cool.”
“You’re playing off of an irresistibly charming cultural trope that we all love—cookies and lemonade,” Cheever said, clearly delighted. “Who wouldn’t buy lemonade from a kid? Who wouldn’t buy a great book from a nice young woman? You’ve created desire in the consumer.”
It was the same principle behind giving my book trailer a compelling tag like “Christiane Amanpour Rewrites My Book.” People approached me on the street because I piqued their curiosity. They bought a book from me because I’d turned a routine purchase into something unique and fun.
People are looking for personal experiences to share, Cheever told me. “They like to say, ‘Hey, look how interesting I am!’” Buying a book wasn’t anything special, she said, but spontaneously finding an author on the street, and buying her book while enjoying the cookies she’d baked, was.
Now that I had created a successful platform, Cheever advised me to expand it. I’d been tweeting random photos from the stand, but now I needed to create a more consistent narrative around the experience. The story: “Debut author finds innovative way to reach readers, and she wants to reach YOU, face-to-face. She’s coming to your town, so come and meet her!” Cheever told me to take the novelade stand on the road, set it up in every city I visited on book tour, and contact local press in advance. I should also encourage people who stopped by the stand to post to Twitter and Facebook. This way, consumers themselves could be part of the larger story—which might then encourage their friends to join in. In a sense, I was targeting a totally new interest-driven community. Not one that necessarily loved prep school fiction, but one that was excited to participate in a unique, dare I say novel, literary experience.
I left Saatchi & Saatchi newly energized and carrying my new proverbial “Marketing Toolbox.” Better yet, each item was now perfectly labeled, so I’d no longer be an idiot who tried to fit a Phillips-head screwdriver into a flat-head screw!
Tool One: Practice lean-forward advertising. Or “give the people what they want.” As long as I targeted people who were already looking for book recommendations, I wouldn’t appear pushy by recommending my book.
Tool Two: Target interest-based communities. You can’t practice lean-forward advertising without finding where your particular audience lives. Mine is on Goodreads, a place where people actively seek out new books.
Tool Three: Segment your audience. Explore the many different audiences who make up the larger interest-based community of readers. Think about fresh ways to appeal to lovers of prep school fiction, mysteries, strong female protagonists, secret societies, as well as Jewish readers, teen readers, teachers, mothers … the possibilities are endless!
Tool Four: Create desire. Find the fun in entrepreneurship. Bring a new twist to a common trope; turn novels into novelade. And use social networks to spread the word. If I’m genuinely excited about selling my product, others will want to share in that excitement too.
Tools Five and Six: Create a platform, and use it to tell a story. I needed to make novelade synonymous with my brand as an author. But I also needed to create a story around that brand. I would continue to sell Gadfly in Brooklyn, but I would also take it on the road and track my experiences with pictures, video, and blog posts. In fact, as you’re reading this, I’m already writing the first chapter.
First stop is Nashville, Tennessee, where the hip clothing store Imogene and Willie has generously offered me a slice of their sidewalk. If you happen to be en route to Nashville right now, I’ll be there Saturday, November 17, from 11 a.m. until 2 p.m. So stop by, pick up The Year of the Gadfly, and enjoy a homemade cookie. Tweet a picture of us to your friends. Become a part of my story.
Jennifer Miller is a New York–based journalist and author whose work has appeared in Fast Company and The New York Times. Her debut novel, The Year of the Gadfly, is best read with a fresh-baked cookie.
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