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How Trustworthy is “Conventional Marketing Wisdom” for Today’s Authors?

They say that exceptions prove the rule. But when it comes to marketing your book, it seems there’s enough exceptions to question the rules.

book-genreI was thinking about that when I read Jim Rubart’s entry at Novel Rocket last week entitled You Can Only Write in One Genre. Period. End of Story. Yes, Rubart is a marketing guy. He’s started his own firm and obviously has practiced what he preaches. But the responses to Rubart’s assertions in that post were largely negative.

For the record, I’ve met Jim and read some of his stuff. He’s a stand-up guy and a terrific writer. Furthermore, I’ve benefited from “conventional marketing wisdom” and think that many writers would do well to heed that wisdom. At least, some of it. However, in perusing the comments there, I couldn’t help but feel the dissenters had a point.

Conventional marketing wisdom for writers says things like:

  • You must invest in marketing
  • You must have a platform
  • You must be active in social media
  • You must interact with your fan base

But perhaps one of the most prolific “rules” for writers is the one that Jim undertook to emphasize:

  • You must develop your brand

Sticking to one brand and doing it well is one of the most repeated pieces of conventional marketing wisdom for writers. Rubart writes:

Writers tell me frequently things like, “I really am a romance type, but I don’t want to shut the door on cozy mysteries so I’m going to do them too. Is that okay?” Or, “My passion is non-fiction, but I really want to publish novels as well so I’m working on both. Do you think editors and agents will mind?

Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. They’ll mind. Fiction or non-fiction. Not both. And if you choose fiction, you get to work in one genre. Only one. You must choose one direction or another.

There are countless professionals who give similar cautions and advice. Like 5 Ways to Brand Yourself as an Author, The Importance of Branding Yourself in a Niche Market, and The importance of branding yourself as an author: Stick to one genre or else. And many more.

Rubart’s premise is simple:

“…once you brand yourself into a reader’s mind, it is EXTREMELY difficult if not impossible to remove the first brand and put another on top of it. You think tattoo removal is impossible? Try re-branding yourself in another genre.”

There’s tons of truth to what he’s saying. I don’t want to necessarily give the impression that it’s smart from a business standpoint for a writer to be all over the map, or to flippantly dismiss the advice of those who research and traffic in the publishing industry. The questions I have when I read articles like this is…

Why are we so quick to trust conventional wisdom, especially in an industry experiencing such rapid changes?

So let me tell you where I’m coming from and you can tell me if I’m wrong.

When I started exploring publishing (almost 10 years ago now),

  • MySpace was the dominant interactive web platform
  • Twitter was uncreated (it was created in March 2006)
  • Facebook had only 30,00 members and was limited to “recognized schools, colleges, universities, organizations, and companies within the U.S, Canada, and other English-speaking nations”
  • Traditional publishing houses were the industry gatekeepers
  • Self-publishing was viewed as vanity, the domain of wannabe authors and poorly-written books
  • Amazon was not in the publishing business
  • ereaders were not that popular (the Kindle had not yet been launched in the U.S.)

As such, the “conventional marketing wisdom” I received was based on an old model.

Now there’s more independent publishers, more self-publishing outlets, the number of blogs has quintupled, traditional publishing houses have disbanded, merged, or restructured, there’s more access to more readers through social networking, and there’s more editorial services available for authors. And, more importantly to this discussion, there’s more marketing firms.

The rise of author marketing firms coincides with the changes in the market and the empowering of authors. In other words, the proliferation of how-to courses, seminars, books on writing and publishing, coincides with the democratization of the market. With more tools at the author’s disposal, and with a “new world of publishing” stretching wide before us, we need someone to help us navigate the virgin terrain.

Marketers are one of the groups that have stepped in.

And with them they’ve brought “conventional wisdom.” It makes sense. If you’re going to portray yourself as an “expert” in the field, you must develop a body of advice based on an accumulation of data. I get that. But as it regards publishing in 2013, I have two questions:

  • Who is really an “expert” in such radically changing times?
  • Could “conventional marketing wisdom” be based on a defunct model?

These are the questions I had after reading the aforementioned article and the ensuing comments. Can we really be SO emphatic about author branding and niche marketing in the midst of such crazy change? I mean, if the publishing industry consisted of so many “experts,” how come so few of them saw these changes coming?

So I would revise the premise to look something like this:

From a traditional publishing perspective, you can only successfully sell in one genre.

Even in making that statement I realize there are exceptions to the rule. But then again, who’s to say what “successful sales” look like, especially for the author who is cultivating multiple revenue streams? And how much should we allow “traditional publishing” to define and/or constrain what is or isn’t “conventional” now?

All that to say, I take “conventional marketing wisdom” with a grain of salt. Yes, there are principles or formulas that may be important. Sometimes. For certain authors. But in such a swiftly changing market, how much credence can we genuinely place in “conventional marketing wisdom”?

Your thoughts?

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{ 16 comments… add one }
  • Kessie February 25, 2013, 9:07 AM

    My mom visited a book reading with Nora Roberts (I believe it was her, anyway). Nora built her brand by writing romance novels. That was what she was known for. But suddenly the idea for an FBI thriller started going through her head. She asked her agent about it, who said, “Don’t you dare write that. I’ll expect another romance from you as usual.”

    So she wrote the FBI thriller instead. It was a huge bestseller. She’s gone on to write a whole string of thrillers.

    Brand schmand.

  • Paula February 25, 2013, 9:30 AM

    I expect when you’re Nora Roberts with a long-standing and loyal readership, you can probably do something different and be okay. For the rest of us still struggling to get fully established, that’s not the case. Could “conventional marketing wisdom” be based on a defunct model? Yes. I don’t think the conventional marketing wisdom today is very lasting because things change so quickly in this industry now. At one time we heard Twitter sparked lots of books sales, but these days many authors are saying they tweet regularly for months and sales are flat. Another nugget of past advice is that”giveaways” stimulate sales. Really? I’d like to find one recent statistic that says this is true. The market is flooded with freebies now. I do think giveaways expose your book is out there and may increase readership momentarily, but sales? I don’t think so. Maybe it’s time to blaze a new marketing path?

  • Jessica Thomas February 25, 2013, 9:49 AM

    I agree with your points.

    This line in Jim’s post is what got me: “Do you think editors and agents will mind? Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. They’ll mind.”

    The question that followed in my mind is, what if I don’t use an editor or an agent, so what if I don’t care what agents and editors think? Because under the new model, an editor or an agent is not required. Both might still be very nice to have, but even in terms of an editor, if I’m self-publishing, I get to choose my editor. If someone I’m paying to edit my story tells me they don’t like that I’m writing in different genres, I will find a different editor, because it’s *my* money on the line, not theirs.

    Like you, I’m not saying Mr. Rubart doesn’t have information of value to offer writers. I agree with him that brand is *very* important, and that presentation is very important. In fact, after I read his post and disagreed with it 🙂 I questioned myself and reconsidered the idea of a pen name.

    But the more I thought about a pen name, the more it seemed to add extra unnecessary work for a DIY writer/publisher. I realized I’m more aligned with Kristen Lamb in terms of brand. My name is my brand, and writing in multiple genres becomes part of that brand. No need for dual names and dual marketing. In fact, two names *dilutes* my brand.

    This new approach to author branding is representative of the new paradigm, and the new paradigm is made possible by emerging technologies, which, like you said, are *very* hard to predict. Oftentimes, the *best* technology doesn’t win out, so there is no reliable way to determine which technologies will take hold and rise to the top. (You were an expert yesterday? Great. That was yesterday.)

    The more time I spend in the IT field, the less inclined I am to call myself an expert in anything, sadly. In IT we face technical changes daily, monthly… A mindset develops (or should develop, in my opinion) of never allowing oneself to get comfortable and being open to learning everyday on the assumption that things can and will change. (In other words, be very pliable or else you will experience much pain.) Since technology is so pervasive, I think that mindset is becoming imperative no matter the profession, which would include writing/publishing. (…imperative if you hope to stay viable and relevant within your field)

    • Jessica Thomas February 25, 2013, 10:22 AM

      “so what if I don’t care what agents and editors think”

      I didn’t mean this to sound disrespectful, by the way. I’m not flipping all agents and editors the bird, I’m just saying, in some modes of publishing, such as self-publishing, they are either not relevant at all or much less relevant. And the trend I see is that self-publishing will increasingly become the stepping stone toward finding a good agent, perhaps even become a requirement for us “nobodies”. I’m no expert though. 😉 And this if off topic.

    • Mike Duran February 25, 2013, 10:57 AM

      “My name is my brand, and writing in multiple genres becomes part of that brand.”

      Interesting. I hadn’t really thought of it that way. This is definitely an issue for me because I read all over the map, I’ve written (maybe “experimented” is a better word) in different fiction genres, and am even working on a non-fiction book. So I’m breaking a lot of marketing rules. I don’t want to be a rebel for rebel’s sake. Maybe in the future I will settle down in one genre. But at the moment I feel like I’m still getting my sea legs. Which all contributes to me skepticism about about conventional wisdom.

      Thanks for commenting, Jessica!

  • Caprice Hokstad February 25, 2013, 10:59 AM

    Finally. About time someone questioned conventional marketing “wisdom”. Who’s to say what your “brand” is anyway? I wrote three fantasy novels. Conventional wisdom says I must never write anything else but fantasy. Well, what if my fantasy was not very popular and I am thoroughly discouraged with fantasy? Does that mean I should quit writing? Maybe I’ll find my niche in science fiction. What if I want to write a romance? How does anyone know if one of these “later tries” won’t end up being THE genre I’m remembered for? Should George Lucas have continued making more movies like American Graffiti and never made Star Wars?

    That said, I have no problem attaching pen names to other genres if that helps somehow. I should mention I have done this very thing and continue to receive quite a mixed reaction on whether it was “right” or not. People (including the supposed marketing gurus) need to calm down and let all writers write what they feel passionate about. THAT is what fuels real success.

  • Katherine Coble February 25, 2013, 11:58 AM

    I have begun to suspect over the last 10 months or so, as we’ve seen a huge upswing in people with Advice For Aspiring Authors that a lot of these people are just looking to exploit consultancy for employment purposes. It’s what happened in Social Media back when blogging, then twitter and FB, got big around 06/07. All of a sudden folks started coming out of the woodwork laden with Advice that they decided to make part of THEIR brand.

    I am instantly suspect of any of this, needless to say. Because even though it’s called “advice” it isn’t to help the advisee, but to boost the profile of the Advisor. It’s so that s/he can put on their business card “Author, Publishing Marketing Consultant” and other stuff to look like a big deal.

    I tend to take all of it with a salt lick.

  • Kat Heckenbach February 25, 2013, 1:24 PM

    I had a whole big comment written, but I deleted it because it started turning into an “I hate marketing” rant, which boils down to: Word of mouth is the most powerful marketing tool out there, but it requires A LOT of mouths. It’s reaching the mouths outside my immediate sphere of influence that’s my problem–a problem big presses don’t have because they give out hundreds of preview copies and pay for ad and shelf space. (Social media is not the answer either–that’s just the personal space people go in order to stay connected to authors they’re already fond of, imho.)

    And as far as brand–My novels are YA fantasy, and readers tell me my horror-writing comes through (the genre of most of my short stories). And I dabble in sci-fi, but it’s usually more character-driven. I also have a lot of non-fiction personal experience stories out there in everything from tiny, denomination church magazines to Chicken Soup for the Soul. What brand is that? Am I digging my own grave? 😛

    • Kat Heckenbach February 25, 2013, 1:28 PM

      That last question isn’t serious, btw. I’m not one who buys the whole “stick to a brand” thing, at least not for everyone. It’s like actors being typecast–it works for some actors, but destroys the careers of others.

  • Aaron Sharp February 25, 2013, 2:33 PM

    I am totally with you Mike.

    I understand the marketing necessity of branding, and part of that process is developing yourself in a particular genre, but if you can write well in multiple genres it will only serve to broaden the base of your readers. Starting out it is probably best to stick to one genre, but I do not see how or why that should continue forever. So far my traditionally published books have been nonfiction, and I have self-published Bible studies, but if I were to write a novel I do not see those things as being detriments. If anything already having readers who are familiar with me and have enjoyed my writing should give me a leg up.

  • Melissa Ortega February 25, 2013, 3:31 PM

    My reaction to this is that I’m not surprised if someone out there in the industry thinks this, but every single popstar author that’s hot in today’s bookstore breaks this rule. They write all over the map. And they didn’t write 25 books in one category before moving around to other genres. I suspect this rule isn’t as tight as it used to be. If someone said this to me, my first thought would be that they don’t think my writing is strong enough to draw people in without drawing some sort of grassroots audience. That might, in fact, be true. However, my *goal* is to be good enough an editor will recognize that I’m worth publishing, even if it’s a greeting card collection catered to physics majors and fruitarians.

  • R. L. Copple February 25, 2013, 9:05 PM

    You may have a point, Mike, but one thing I’m not seeing is the connection. Sure, on some conventional wisdom, I can see how the recent technological changes affect things. Like needing a publisher to get your book out to the readers.

    But it is my understanding that the type of branding you are speaking of,–one name, one genre–isn’t based upon technology, but the psychology of the reader. When they see a book by Stephen King, they know what they are going to get. If it turns out to be a mushy romance, it will put off a significant number of his readership and he’ll lose them, so he gets a different pen name for his romances…assuming he has them. Even truer for lesser known writers. At least, that’s the rationale behind it that I’ve heard, and would be the branding issue.

    Assuming that is a truth and not an “old editor’s tale,” what is it about the changes in technology that you’ve listed and changes in the market place in the last few years that have significantly changed the way readers think about an author and expectations of that author to justify tossing this out?

    IOW, what I’m hearing currently is, “This used to be true, but because everything is changing, we must dump every rule, whether we can identify a cause and effect link or not to recent changes, and reinvent the wheel.” If there is a link in your mind between changes and how readers think about their authors, I didn’t see you lay that out.

    I’m not a marketing expert, or branding expert by any stretch, but I think if it was true in general in the past, I have to be given more of a logical rationale to dumping that advice, just because the sky is falling.

    BTW, authors have often written in other genres, they generally used different pen names.

    • Mike Duran February 26, 2013, 5:56 AM

      Rick, I think the big difference between “how it was” and “how it is” is precisely the ability to connect with different readers. Before, the main platform for an author — a platform often forged by their publisher — was through physical books, on physical shelves, in physical stores. As such, an author’s audience was limited to the bookstore crowd. This isn’t the case anymore. Now, I can connect with myriads of potential readers in numerous genres. Sure, it helps to grow an audience by developing a brand in a specific genre. But what’s stopping me from growing a following in several genres? I’m no longer limited by the reach of my publisher and the bookstores they sell to. Of course, it takes work to sell multiple genres. That audience would need researched and the book would have to connect. But that’s where I see the disconnect between now and then — I can simply reach more readers in different genres than I could through traditional publishing.

      • R. L. Copple February 26, 2013, 1:52 PM

        I would agree, you can reach more now than through traditional publishing since you aren’t limited to those who frequent bookstores. I don’t see there is a difference, yet, between how a bookstore customer thinks of branding and how an Amazon customer would think of branding.

        IOW, in traditional publishing, the way most authors got around the branding issue was using different pen names. What specifically has changed in the reader’s mindset due to not being limited to a bookstore to buy their book, that has changed their view of author branding…of the expectation that when they pick up your book, they expect horror/thriller/etc., that they won’t be put off if instead they find it is a devotional? And why not still use pen names to avoid that if you’re going to write in different genres?

        Like, I’m starting to do some devotionals, and I’m using a different pen name. If i were to start doing something like romance, or westerns, I’m sure I would use a completely different pen name. On some, it could be cross pollinated, but it at least preserves the branding of the name.

        So I guess I still don’t see the rational/link logically to suggest that the recent changes have changed the expectations of readers, in general. Not saying it hasn’t happened, but I’m not seeing it yet.

  • Mark Carver February 25, 2013, 10:15 PM

    This article grabbed my attention as well and gave me a lot to think about. In fact, this article inspired me to develop a writing schedule of sorts, where I plan to write two books in my usual genre, and then one in a different genre (which I am doing at the moment), and then repeat the process. This allows the bulk of my work to be in one genre, but it also lets me branch out. The readers will also know what to expect and when. This way, I get to explore other genres, and the readers won’t get tripped up by something out of left field. I guess I’ll have two collections: Mark’s normal books, and Mark’s experiments.

    I think writing in random genres all over the map can frustrate readers, even if the books are good. People like to know what they’re getting.

  • Matt Mikalatos February 27, 2013, 7:46 PM

    Great post, Mike.

    You can write in different genres, but you have to realize that it’s going to mean building new audiences (depending on how diverse those genres are) and also realize that you probably will frustrate some of your fans.

    I’m planning to completely ignore the “no multiple genres” rule. My first two books were comedy-theology-novels, my third was a kid’s fantasy novel and it looks like number four will be a non-fiction theology book.

    I just keep thinking of the Greek word for “entertainment” which means, loosely, “To inform with delight.” I figure that will be my genre.

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