Content Marketing for Authors
If you don’t know what content marketing is, and if you’re not using it to sell books, give me a few minutes and I'll give you a whole new world of marketing options.
And if you’re a writer who hates marketing, read on.
What It Is
Basic, real-world definition, not some Webster’s bullshit:
Content Marketing means that instead of using traditional advertising, like maybe an Instagram post that shows a snippet of a positive Goodreads review, you’re using actual, useful, enjoyable content as the method of speaking to your audience and selling them your shit.
A classic example: Let’s say I run a resort in a ski town, and I’m trying to convince people to visit in the summer. I could throw up commercials, billboards, whatever, and I could just say, “Come here this summer.” Or I could start blogging things like, “The top 10 places every Coloradoan must visit this summer.” Nine of those places I might be unaffiliated with, and one of them is my resort. Readers find this article useful in planning things to do this summer, and because the article is legitimately researched, well-written, and easy to consume, it drives people to visit the listed places, which improves their summer, and it drives them to visit my place. Boom, everyone wins.
Another layer deeper: I run a grocery store, and I put out a list of recycle/reuse options for food packaging. People use these options, the world is better for it, and I not only get my name out there, I associate my store with positive change.
The difference between content marketing and traditional marketing is that I’ve sold my shit by embedding it in actual, useful, appropriate content. People get a little something out of just reading that list, even if they don’t visit my resort or my grocery store. They learn a little something, maybe get a laugh, and that’s a better use of their time and a more effective use of my skills as a writer.
A Few Quick Examples
The traditional end of the marketing spectrum is the Lowe’s ad you hear 10,000 times on Spotify. Just “Come on down to Lowe’s, we have wood and shit.” Content marketing is a workshop at Lowe’s where someone, free of charge, shows you and a group of people how to caulk bathroom tile, and you try not to giggle even though someone says the word “cock” about 80 times. You get that content, the lesson, and chances are pretty good that you’ll walk away with an armful of stuff.
Instead of making stickers for your bookstore and plastering them all over town, you make a map of the city, a functional, useful, map, and your business is prominently featured.
For a visual example:
This is traditional marketing. A billboard that tells you to consume a product.
This is content marketing. Street art that’s bought and paid for by a company, so that they can have it on the side of their building, devoid of an actual ad, beautifies the area, gives people something pleasant or meaningful to look at, and it provides your building with an identity and gives people a reason to visit. It sells your business, and it provides something desirable at the same time.
Isn’t That A Little Shady?
Sure, if your plan is to get kids smoking by creating a menu of great candy and cigarette pairings. Nothing like a menthol and a Junior Mint!
And yes, there’s a cynical view of capitalism that would say adding a street art mural to the side of a Starbucks is a disingenuous, therefore evil, thing to do.
But you’re not Big Tobacco, and you’re not Starbucks. You’re Lil’ Author.
As long as you believe the thing you’re selling will make people’s lives better, marketing is an okay thing to do, and content marketing is a better use of everyone’s time, energy, and attention. Even if consumers never use your product, well-executed content marketing can still add value to someone’s day.
If marketing is on a good and evil spectrum, well-done, genuine content marketing is way, way closer to good than bad.
Why It’s Big For Books
You’re watching Chopped, and the chefs open up the basket of mystery ingredients to find a really lean piece of meat inside. What’s the right move? Break out the pancetta. Why? Because those really lean meats “need help.”
Your book needs help.
I’m not saying your book sucks anymore than I’m saying a really lean piece of antelope sucks, I’m saying that to sell it, you’d be wise to throw a little something extra in the pan with it.
Books are hard to sell because they are long, intimate experiences that are hard to summarize without ruining. They’re hard to sell because there’s a shitload of them, and the nuances between similar books are difficult to highlight. They’re hard to sell because readers sort of want novelty, and they sort of want to read something familiar.
You don’t HAVE to use content marketing for your book, but damn, don’t turn down the metaphorical pancetta out of pride, because you think your book should sell itself on its inherent greatness. When it comes to selling books, that kind of pride is a mistake, and makers of pride-based mistakes get chopped.
When a reader comes across a book, especially an indie or self-pub book, they’ll always ask themselves why they should trust THIS author with their time and money.
Content marketing establishes your authority in the fields of books and writing. It gives people a reason to think your book isn’t a horrible piece of shit without you saying directly, “Read this, I promise it’s not a horrible piece of shit.”
This works in two major ways:
One way is by demonstrating you know what you’re talking about. If you start a podcast about writing technique, and if you share a lot of good, sound advice (even if it’s coming from your guests, not you), people will assume that you’ve applied this advice to your book, and they’ll be curious to read the product of that advice. If you’ve written a lot of insightful, smart book reviews, people will assume that you’ve applied this same criticism to your own work. If you seem to know what you’re talking about, people will listen, or at least be less resistant to giving you a shot.
The other way you earn authority through content marketing is by placing your book with items that are held in high regard, and if the other items or authors or books or whatever are legit, it lends your book some legitimacy, too. Top 10 lists are the first thing that comes to mind, but it doesn’t have to be that plain. Take bookshelf photos, show your taste, and have your book in there. Do blackout poetry with a bunch of books, and include a page from one of yours. Place your book adjacent to others, literally and figuratively, and let those other books lend some of their authority to yours.
What I don’t love about viral marketing is that it’s here, then it’s not, and instead of a sustained effort that keeps your name out there, you have to start from scratch with each book you want to market. A viral campaign or piece for Book A will be tired and dead by the time you’re ready for Book B. Viral shit is great if you want to make a career as a marketer, but it’s not the best road if you want a sustained career as a writer.
Plus, anyone who tells you they know how to make something go viral is totally full of shit. Going viral is like winning the lottery: you might be able to live off the winnings forever, but you probably won’t win, and you’re better off with a steady income.
Content marketing is consistent, steady work that you get to regulate. It’s less subject to the whims of Twitter’s algorithmic mood swings. And you actually get to make stuff.
To paraphrase Neil Gaiman: If you advertise for the sales, and if you don’t get those sales, you’re left with nothing. If you advertise for the joy of creating content, and if you don’t make any sales, you’ve still got the work.
Modern Name Recognition
Whatever Chuck Palahniuk writes, I’ll buy it and read it. He can just start numbering his books for all I care, screw titles.
Your problem, as Lil’ Author, is that you need to build that name recognition, that trust in you as a writer, and it’s really difficult to do that through writing great books alone. Because to build that recognition, people actually have to READ your books.
Content marketing can help you build that trust, that product/name recognition, and content marketing can provide that in small, digestible chunks. Those little pieces of content don’t require a reader to trust you for 240 pages and for $10 bucks. It's no money down, maybe a 5-minute time commitment, and boom, your relationship has begun.
A Quick Set of Ideas for Books
Use the blog on your author website to take on a project. Any project will do, but preferably something that’s at least peripherally related to the book(s) you’re selling. Critique celebrity bookshelves, review the reviews of books. Go out on a limb a little, just to get me interested.
The podcast market is saturated, but that’s okay, you’re doing content marketing, so what you derive from doing your podcast is meaningful. Interview authors. Ask them about the worst writing tips they ever heard. Ask them about the weirdest questions they were ever asked at a reading. Or, skip that, and review books, review fanfic, whatever.
Start a YouTube series about handbinding books, and handbind your own shit.
Start your own award that highlights something you think is admirable or stupid about books. Can you imagine how great it’d be if you were a writer of erotica who started the bad sex award?
Create a series in whatever format you’d like, with the goal of editing a book you hated into something that you find passable.
Show people how to set up their own home library, go through building shelves, lending, all that good shit.
If you have a job, which, what am I saying, OF COURSE you have a job other than writing, take the skills from your day job and relate it to writing. Show other people how to do something.
Copy and Compose: Do a series of copy and compose exercises, and use lines from your own work intermingled with others you like.
Newsletters: Newsletters straddle the line between traditional marketing and content marketing. I like to point people to Chip Zdarsky’s. Subscribe to it. Check it out. I always get a laugh out of it, and him sending me something funny to my inbox every week or so keeps me on the list.
Provide a guide for refurbishing a typewriter.
Basically, take something you already know about or know how to do, relate it back to books, writing, or the subject matter of your books, and boom, you’ve got the content.
Grady Hendrix put in the work with The Great Stephen King Reread, and he reaped the benefits. After writing long, in-depth, very funny reviews of all of King’s books, in order (minus the Dark Tower and Bachman books), Hendrix established himself as a name in the horror community. He showed that he understood how horror works. And because this project continues to live online, it will always bring people to Grady Hendrix.
He’s done a podcast about horror, and he did the Paperbacks from Hell book, which is awesome, and which would make anyone interested in reading a novel Hendrix wrote. He gets to show that he’s funny, smart, and that he can make reading about even the stupidest shit an enjoyable experience.
The Great Stephen King Reread is excellent content marketing because it points people to Hendrix, showcases his talent, and because it appears to be a project he took on out of pure love. People will identify with and reward a true labor of love that provides them joy. If it just so happens to move units, all the better.
Last Pitch: It Feels Better
Content marketing feels better than traditional marketing. Because you feel like you’re helping people out, not just begging, tricking, or bombarding everyone.
Lots of writers and artsy types get skeeved out by marketing because they picture guys shaking hands on a golf course and throwing money around to make you buy shit you don’t need.
Marketing, content marketing especially, is also responsible for making people more comfortable with COVID vaccines. It’s almost certainly responsible for introducing you to new authors. It’s given you a shitload of laughs.
Marketing is like anything: There’s nothing inherently bad about it. It all depends on how you go about it and why.
If you shudder every time you think about marketing, come up with a content marketing project, and give it a whirl. You might find that you like it, and hell, you might even sell a book or two.
Get Harold's Coming by Peter Derk (see, another example, write a column about content marketing, plug your book in at the end) at Amazon*
*Hm... I'll allow it. —Editor
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