Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Marketing Books: Lessons from a Side Trip

Something I seldom bring up in literary circles: For eight years, I sold real estate. My friends and family know it, of course, and so do my former clients and colleagues, but I don’t mention it among fellow writers because frankly, I know some will think less of me for it.

“Scum of the earth.” That’s how my sister-in-law once described those who made their living as I did.

My grand vision for how my life would unfold was that I’d teach for twenty years, retire, and write books. I’d even made sure the house had a short-term mortgage so that payments would end shortly after I retired. Another plus: By my planned year of exit, my first two novels had come out with major publishers.

Still, like most grand visions, mine skidded sideways a bit. I hadn’t factored in ridiculous spikes in college tuition as my kids prepared to enter college, nor a (now ex-) spouse who determined we needed to build a new house right then, which of course meant a new mortgage.

So I did what we all do when our grand visions go a bit sideways. I recalibrated. At a conference, I’d been on a panel with an author who sold real estate on the side. It seemed like something that could provide income with enough flexibility that I could move ahead with my writing.

Income, yes. Flexibility, not so much.

As the market boomed and my business grew, the sixty-hour weeks were the short ones. I kept publishing, but I wasn’t learning and growing as a writer the way I would once I bowed out of real estate, after my kids were through college.

No matter what the side trip, it’s only wasted if we choose to think of it that way. Aside from bankrolling some needed income (if you want to get rich, sell houses, not books), I learned business strategies from real estate that I now use as an author.

Not that a house is a book, mind you. There are huge differences in what you’re marketing (service vs. product/art); what’s at stake for the buyer (a $24.99 investment vs. $249,900); discoverability (if only there were an MLS for books); pricing (it’s everything in real estate; not so with books); and supply (last I heard, 3500 new books published a day in the US).

Differences aside, my side trip taught me a lot about marketing books, whether traditionally or independently published:
  • You can stage a house all you want, but if it’s fundamentally shoddy, you’re going to have a hard time with the sale. Ditto for books. The best cover design, the cleverest query, the best elevator pitch—none of that will compensate for poor writing. As long as there’s some way for people to find it and it’s priced properly, quality always sells. 
  • If you want to be treated like a professional, act like one. Don’t go around shouting up your books and berating those who don’t share your high opinion of them. 
  • Capitalize on your strengths, but don’t try to be what you’re not. Whether is developmental editing or proofreading or cover design, hire out to others the work you know you can’t do well yourself. 
  • Don’t fall for every gimmick that comes along, or do something because everyone else does. Acquaint yourself with the options, review your budget, and invest your money and energy into the ones that are best for you and your book.
  • Know your audience. Target marketing is generally more effective than a general blitz. 
  • Don’t fall asleep at the wheel, but don’t let marketing consume you, either. Whether we’re talking real estate services or books, word of mouth is always the best advertising, and you get that by doing what you do well. Period. 
  • Avoid this big mistake made by lots of new real estate salespeople (and authors): getting so wrapped up in closing the current deal that you forget you’ll need another and another and another if you truly want to make this a career. 
  • Continual on-the-job education is a must. Once you’ve decided you know it all, you’re pretty well sunk.