Because you can never, ever have perfect knowledge of a market, and because as an author you have a limited amount of time to write, and because people with more market experience than you obviously exist, it can be tempting to look to others for help with your marketing decisions. Not surprisingly, those others have identified you as a potential market for their services, whether they have anything useful to sell or not.
The Publishing Establishment
Publishing talks a good game about cultural stewardship and the importance of literature, but what it cares about is profit. If you can make the publishing industry money as a cultural steward or literary star, that’s great. On the other hand, if you can make the publishing industry money as a cultural cancer or illiterate moron, that’s great too.
While speaking in generalizations is usually a bad idea, and there are plenty of wonderful agents, editors and publishers who would love you even if you weren’t the root source of their livelihoods, the following statement cannot be disputed. Agents, editors and publishers don’t eat if they can’t sell your book. On an individual basis they may recognize good writing when they see it, and there may be limits to what they’re personally willing to do to make a buck, but their jobs are premised on making that buck over and over and over.
As a writer you may share that objective in whole or in part. But you’re also the primary (if not sole) custodian of whatever artistic or craft standards you believe in. If you don’t protect the integrity of the book you’re writing it’s likely nobody will. That doesn’t mean you should be a diva or insist on getting your way every time, or that your instincts will always be correct, or even that artistry is antagonistic to sales. It simply means you’re going to have to assume and commit to the responsibility of mediating between everybody’s profit motives, including your own. And that’s true whether you’re an independent author or a professional writing in the belly of the beast.
The publishing industry’s default position is that it knows everything there is to know about marketing books, including how books should be written to best take advantage of any market. And it’s hard to argue against that premise. Unfortunately, all of that comprehensive data and institutional knowledge is of dubious predictive value in any particular instance, (That’s something you won’t be told.)
Even if every agent, editor and publisher who expresses an opinion about your work does so with both eyes on the market, and even if you yourself have one eye on the market, there’s still room to advocate for making the work the best it can be apart from any sales metric, and for realizing your personal authorial vision. But you have to be willing to fight for those things.
If you’re writing outside the publishing industry you probably feel intimidated and overwhelmed by all of the things you think you should know. Fortunately, a veritable army of individuals and companies stands ready to assist you with marketing your self-published works, provided you’re willing to spend what it takes to be a serious author. (Marketing consultants define serious authors as those who are willing to spend money on marketing consultants.)
The first thing to remember when thinking about hiring a marketing consultant is that they don’t have perfect knowledge. What they may have, if you’re lucky, is experience, which may or may not have anything to do with what you want to do as a writer, or where the publishing world is headed in the future. On the other hand, they may have no relevant experience at all, and may simply be preying on your fears and uncertainty as an excuse for sticking their hand in your pocket.
As self-publishing exploded over the past year or two, everybody and anybody providing services to authors has rolled out marketing services as well. In some cases the promise is that your book will be listed with so-and-so, but that’s not really marketing — any more than having your name listed in a phone book with fifty million other writers would be marketing.
The hot ticket these days is marketing via social networks, and there are plenty of people willing to take your money in exchange for explaining how to use Twitter or Facebook. But you don’t need to hire someone to help you learn what every dweeb and tweener in America seems to be able to master in five minutes.
Are there things you need to know about marketing and selling your book? Yes.
Do you need to pay someone to learn these things? No.
If marketing consultants really, really knew something that was reliably predictive about publishing, they — like stock brokers and palm readers and astrologists and anybody else who claims to have secret powers — would be using that knowledge to control their corner of the universe instead of selling it to you for a few bucks a crack. (People who really, truly believe they know how to turn marketing data into book sales are called publishers.)
The marketing consultants I’ve met who seem to have an honest interest in helping authors for a fee tend to express that interest by making basic industry knowledge available for free. They recognize that being part of the self-publishing and trad-publishing communities is as important to their long-term health as attempting to monetize whatever knowledge or skills they have.
(It’s like hiring a real estate agent. You want to hire an agent who is willing to answer questions without first demanding you input your contact info and a blood sample in their online web form. In any industry an agent or consultant who demands compliance before demonstrating usefulness is someone you don’t want to know.)
As a writer, and particularly as a would-be published author, you should be taking advantage of (and contributing to) the greater self-publishing community. If you’re stinking rich, or hit it big later to such an extent that you can’t keep up with your own marketing and sales needs, then sure, hire somebody to help you. But if you’re like most authors (poor), and the prospect of hitting it big with your work is minimal (it is), then nothing is more important than controlling your costs. (Here’s how to evaluate any potential expense.)
For the time being you should interpret any marketing uncertainty on your part as an opportunity and responsibility to learn, not to spend money. The people who are telling you they can help you will still be there tomorrow. The more you learn now the better you’ll be able to judge your need for their services, and the greater the gains you’ll make if you decide to go down that road.
The Marketing Weasel
If you’re the kind of person who has no scruples or morals you can increase sales by being a marketing weasel. A marketing weasel is a person who exploits markets through lies of omission or commission.
Currently the greatest concentration of marketing weasels can be found in the pharmaceutical industry, which took the lead from the tobacco industry after a number of court cases precluded cigarette manufacturers from openly lying about the negative health effects of their products. If you’ve ever seen a pharmaceutical commercial that warns about side effects like a “sudden drop in blood pressure” or “yellowing of the eyes and skin,” then you’ve witnessed the soulless work of a marketing weasel. (That sudden drop in blood pressure is anaphylactic shock, which can kill you. And that yellowing of the eyes and skin is liver failure, which might mean you need a transplant to survive.)
Obviously there’s no limit to the degree to which you can leverage sales by being a liar, and there are marketing weasels in every industry using that approach. As with artistic vision, the degree to which you are or are not willing to exploit people — and particularly people who may be uneducated or fearful or infirm — is really a personal choice. The thing you as an author need to keep in mind is that marketing weasels are just as willing to lie to you as they are willing to lie on your behalf. And the first lie they’re going to tell you is that you can’t be successful without their help.
— Mark Barrett