Tuesday, January 5, 2010

When Marketing Meets Magic

I'm sure some low-profile authors, by some inexplicable stroke of fortune, publish their books, get a phone call from Oprah within the first month, become instant media darlings, and watch their books quickly climb to best-seller status. It's like magic, but a magic that graces far less than one in a million authors.

The more typical magic comes as a complete surprise in the midst of an author doing the daily, mundane tasks to get her book noticed. Sadly, the great majority of authors will never experience the tap of the fairy's wand, not because their books suck, but because they failed to create the context frequented by fairies. Fairies quickly lose interest in authors who hope that their mother and brother will start an unstoppable word-of-mouth campaign. Soon, they flutter off to visit a more worthy author - the one passionately speaking at an obscure school to a bunch of half-interested students, wondering how in the world her life came to this. But then, quite unexpectedly, the fairy arrives with her wand. A teacher recommends the presentation on a popular teachers' forum, and you arrive home to find school after school begging you to speak at their schools and sell your books.

In broad strokes, that's how young author Christopher Paolini was touched by the magic. He tried doing the book signing thing in bookstores, but soon discovered that it didn't work very well for unknown, first-time authors. So he tried doing school presentations. He called school librarians in Houston and several of them allowed him to speak. Then the first fairy appeared, in the form of a librarian who posted an enthusiastic recommendation on a teachers' forum. That one recommendation allowed him to book a solid month of school talks in Houston.

He ended up doing over 135 presentations. In the summer of 2002, the second fairy appeared, in the form of novelist Carl Hiaasen, who was vacationing in a city where Paolini was speaking. Hiaasen's stepson showed the book to his stepdad, who recommended it to his publishing house. They signed Paolini and his book placed on the New York Times Best Seller list for 121 weeks.

You might wonder, "How lucky was it that one of those librarians frequented such a forum?" Or, "What are the odds that a novelist with connections just happened to find Paolini's book?"

Well, I'd argue that, although the odds of either of those specific events happening may be quite remote, the odds of something happening, given his 135 presentations, was almost certain.

At first, I didn't understand the magic. I thought that if one of my marketing efforts didn't produce immediate sales, it was just one more failure. But just getting out there and trying stirs things up. Fairies notice. Eventually, wands come out tapping and truly extraordinary stuff happens.

During my first few months of book marketing, I felt much like the pastor who went to watch the train go by every day. When someone inquired about his unusual habit, he said, "I just love to see something that moves without my having to push it." For the first few months, my book sold only when I was out there doing something. If I let up for a day, nothing happened. And 90% of what I tried seemed to have no impact at all.

But somehow, all that cumulative publicity made things start to happen. Some may call it word of mouth. Others may call it reaching a tipping point. Some may say I was touched by an angel. Whatever you call it, it certainly appears to be magic.
  • A book reviewer to school libraries wrote a positive review.
  • A respected distributor to school libraries started getting orders and requested a contract.
  • Twice as many sold on Amazon last month, without any promotion on my part.
  • Today, someone at the gym told me how he was successfully selling my book at his video store. Someone else found my website and said he's moving a branch of his organization to Atlanta and was interested in partnering. Yet another e-mailed to say he'd love to read my book, review it in his blog, and write an article for a popular youth-leaders publication.
Some may say I'm having lucky breaks, but I think luck tends to fall upon those who've been doing the daily, mundane stuff for nine months straight. Today, I felt the brush of the fairy's wand. It's pretty cool!

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