Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Stop thinking

When I'm writing, am I thinking about writing? No -- at least, not when it's going well. Ideally I'm in the story, experiencing it just before it appears on the page.

It's not until revisions that I'm thinking about the story. In fact, the magical and not-to-be-understood moment of story creation requires, for me, a sort of relaxed effort, the hanging pause in a cathedral just after the organ's last thunderous chord, a very very quiet space where I can hear the high thin singing of the story.

It is very quiet but it is there, way up there, way up there, up the narrow dank spiral staircases and out above the clerestory to where dust motes drift like milkweed and swallows wheel. Up there is where the story lives.

And then I climb back down to revise, bringing -- I hope -- that quiet singing down to earth where I can look at it and try to refine it, shape it, see it in the harsh light of judgement. Not-thinking and thinking.

Now, then, a question. With "more" people buying books online, is it less important where a book is shelved in the store? Believe me, I am heartily in favor of actual stores with actual people and actual chairs and even actual books, but it would be unwise to ignore the growth of online bookstores like Amazon.

Junk mail is junk mail. Ads are ads. Listen to me on this: I work in marketing for my day job, and I know of what I speak: most marketing budgets are wasted on things that look flashy -- ads are a great example -- and are great to point to as "marketing" but which fail to actually get people to buy the product.

So why do people buy the book? see the movie? attend the college?

Word of mouth. We hear about stuff from other people, people we trust, people we don't know, it almost doesn't matter as long as it's not the manufacturer itself. If I'm a high school senior, which is more convincing: a slick ad from a college, or somebody not affiliated with the college marketing office who just talks about what it's like being a student there?

We are a skeptical society. Rightly so, given the tripe masquerading as objective news and information [rant narrowly averted here]. What this means is that we don't trust salesmen as much as we trust "users." This means other people who have read the book.

A word of mouth "campaign" is hard to track and nearly impossible to assign a budget to, so the corporate world tends to get twitchy when it's mentioned. But if you can get people talking about a book, reviewing it, discussing it on blogs ... that is huge.

Disclaimer: I have no knowledge of the economics of book promotion, and certainly there are other important factors, such as bookstore reps, catalog sales, etc. All I'm saying is that the thing we -- ironically -- talk very little about is how important it is to talk about books. Better yet, to get other people talking about our books.

The Internet has revolutionized this, with blog tours, guest interviews, reviews, comments, links to other sites, on and on and on -- and all of it completely independent of the traditional publishing house marketing campaign. Let that continue, as it should: it is not without purpose. But let's also warm the smoldering energy of a conversation about good books. Because that's how you reach skeptical readers and buyers.

p.s. I am trying and failing not to be turned off by the word "marketing." Maybe it's because so much of my day job involves it, but more likely I'm not comfortable with the business and promotional aspect of book-making. Better get over that, huh?


dave said...

Regarding your dislike of the word marketing, I couldn't agree more. I own a business,, that is in essence a marketing company for higher ed. However, I am constantly NOT referring to it as such, because I truly believe that I am performing a quality service for both students and colleges. I prefer to say that I am in the business of matching students with colleges. Besides, it is the student that determines whether or not they want to be approached by their matching colleges.
The moral, if you believe in what you are "marketing" (that it benefits not only the business but most importantly the customers) then it makes the marketing pill a little easier to swallow.

S R Wood said...

Dave - I hear you. In my day job I've often tried to leave behind the sales aspects of marketing to focus on delivering messages to the people who can benefit from them ... rather than trying to trick people into buying stuff they don't need.

It's a fine distinction but it helps....