Thursday, June 24, 2010

Thoughts on Obscurity -- c.anne.gardner

The internet is made of people. People matter. This includes you. Stop trying to sell everything about yourself to everyone. Don’t just hammer away and repeat and talk at people—talk TO people. It’s organic. Make stuff for the internet that... matters to you, even if it seems stupid. Do it because it’s good and feels important. Put up more cat pictures. Make more songs. Show your doodles. Give things away and take things that are free. Look at what other people are doing, not to compete, imitate, or compare . . . but because you enjoy looking at the things other people make. Don’t shove yourself into that tiny, airless box called a brand—tiny, airless boxes are for trinkets and dead people. -- Maureen Johnson

I'll tell you, it was really refreshing to read Ms. Johnson's manifesto. I felt relieved that I no longer have to put on that fakey-fake smile and discuss author branding when all the while I really want to stick scorching-hot metal instruments into my eyes.

I am not a brand! Damn it. I am a writer. Some days I might think I am an artist if I am particularly delusional and pleased with the words I have managed to cobble together at that moment, but most often, I am a flawed human being who appreciates the written word and who desperately tries to construct something coherent and meaningful out of the scribbling diatribe I put to paper. My imprint could be a brand. If I were to write to distinctive conventions that were entirely unique to me, well, that might be considered a product line, therefore a brand. But as a writer and an artist, "I" am not a brand:

1.Brand (n.)

a. A trademark or distinctive name identifying a product or a manufacturer.
b. A product line so identified: a popular brand of soap.
c. A distinctive category; a particular kind: a brand of comedy that I do not care for.

So when I hear people say, “You are your brand.” I adamantly have to scream: NO, you are not. If you want a brand, your product is your brand, your imprint is your brand, and just be warned, when you market yourself as a brand, people come to expect a certain thing. And those expectations must be rigidly adhered to. You, the writer, are no longer viewed as a person. If you really want to understand what a brand is, what its limitations are, and the potential pitfalls of being bound and gagged by your brand, see here.

As for the term platform, which means: a body of principles on which a person or group takes a stand in appealing to the public. You could have a marketing plan which will outline when, how, and where you are going to interact with the reading public in order to promote your product, but again, take care here with the hard sales pitch: especially if the idea is to PROMOTE, PROMOTE, PROMOTE YOUR BRAND. Who in the hell wants to get bombarded with advertising like that: no one. The starving artist and the door to door vacuum cleaner sales pitches don't work, and a marketing plan is not a platform. Some people use Indie Advocacy as their platform, some people, like me, use art as theirs, but whatever it is, it has to mean something to you. Marketing is not a platform.

Readers are people. Readers are also art lovers. They want to connect on a different level. They don't want to hear "Buy my Book." They want to hear: "Come and experience my story with me." They don't want to like your fan page or your product page. Who wants to interact with inanimate objects? Reading is very personal experience on a deeply emotional level. It's not buying socks. They don't want your sales pitch, they don't care about your brand, and they don't give two shits about your marketing plan. They want to connect with YOU. So just get out there and be yourself, well, unless yourself is an internet troll or immature asshole, then you might want to have a professionally designed marketing plan that will limit your exposure to others -- for their sake.

So, to get your work out there and be read, do you really need a marketing plan or a brand? No. You do not. Not really. You need some sort of distribution plan, obviously, so the readers can find your work, but beyond that all you need to do is be willing to share the writing experience and give the reader a little insight into your world. They want your idiosyncratic view of the world. They want to know why you write what you write, where your passion comes from, and how you relate to your art and the world. They want to friend YOU, they want to follow YOU. They want YOUR voice, not some trademark or some arbitrary set of principles.

That is what being Indie is all about. It's about being independent of Big Corporation, including all their marketing clichés. Being an Indie is about organic growth. It's grass roots. It's about really connecting. You can have the most fascinating logo, product line, and marketing plan, but if no one knows YOU, no one is going to stop by your website or blog to see it let alone find you on Amazon, B&N, iBooks, or wherever. Most Indie authors do not have the budget to hype a cold-brand.

Don't muddle your vision with boardroom-speak. Sure, if you want to write for a living, you are going to need to determine what success means to you. Doesn't matter whether or not you want a traditional publishing contract or you want to run your own small press. If success to you means that you want to “be” a business, then you will need to have some sort of long term business plan, as in, how am I, as a businessperson, going to earn back my initial investment, how will I best keep sales trending upwards, how will I sustain that growth over time, and how can I continue to provide my customers with the best quality products on a regular basis while maintaining or lowering my costs. Marketing plans get you sales trends; sound business plans get you the rest. They can include a brand, but brands don't work really well for most writers. Engaging voices and interesting platforms do.

The best advice I can give -- artist or Indie publisher, doesn't matter; this advice is relevant to both -- is to be yourself; give your customers choices, i.e. formats and purchasing options; set a fair price; and connect, connect, connect with the readers, not as a businessperson or a marketing professional, but as a person. Find something you are passionate about and make that your platform. Take Ms. Johnson's words to heart. Make things, contribute to the community. It’s all about give and take. If you expect the Indie world to support you then you need to take equal action to support it. When was the last time you bought an Indie book let alone reviewed one? For me, I buy a lot of books, and my decision making process is about the same for both Indie books and mainstream books: I read reviews, of course, but mostly I base my buying decisions on word of mouth: reviews written by other bloggers I know and thumbs up from the network of readers/writers I have friended along the way. The only path for an Indie author is the path out of obscurity: a post-card, a Facebook ad, spam email, or the die hard sales pitch aren't going to help. You've got to "get known." And the best way to do that is to connect and be part of the literary community. You can always be a business later with a marketing plan and a brand if you want those things, but it’s best to start out with a quality product, a simple distribution plan, a unique voice, and a platform. Get yourself known first.

Cheryl Anne Gardner


rjkeller said...

All I can say to this is, "Amen!"

Although authors do have to engage in the business of marketing, books are not widgets. They're living things with souls, or at least they should be.

Cheryl Anne Gardner said...

Their authors are living things with souls, at least we hope so, but when marketing starts to feel too much like marketing, the readers start to wonder about the soul part.

Shannon said...

Amen! Amen! Amen!

As an author, reader, and reviewer, I get so tired of talking (and doing) shop sometimes. That's the price we pay as self-publishers I guess when we have to wear so many hats. We forget about the soul hat, the reason why we put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard in the first place.

I'd much rather have a good ole chat or some coffee talk with a fellow author or reader about how my book made them feel, or vice versa. Did they connect with a certain character? What did they think of that scene on page such and such?

Who cares how many copies have sold on Amazon? Who cares about Kindle uploads and formatting and Smashwords and Facebook Pages and Tweets and E-Blasts and such?? Sure the numbers in the end are nice to see, but it is definitely the feeling, the soul, that matters more.

Brent Robison said...

Seems this topic is on your mind as well as mine -- I linked to Maureen Johnson's Manifesto on my blog earlier this month. And my latest entry continues on somewhat the same subject... what I'm finding is that my interest in doing all the social networking things, even in a friendly, non-hype way, is waning drastically... because doing my real creative work requires most of the available time and now gets higher priority. I like going in that direction.

Cheryl Anne Gardner said...

I am not even on Twitter. I just can face it. Everytime I go there and stare at the screen while contemplating opening an account, I always manage to see the dark side and talk myself out of it.

I wanted to do it just for tweeting our articles and reviews here at the podpeeps, but I am afraid it will get away from me. I just don't have the time. I'd rather be writing.

Cheryl Anne Gardner said...

I meant: I just "can't" face it. So I understand Brent. I have put off some things and got sidetracked on some other things because I got over focused on the need for "marketing." I am just finishing up the edits for Logos and it shouldn't have taken me six months.

Shannon said...

Twitter to me is like missing the whole season of your favorite TV show until the very last show. I feel like I've missed out on tons of crap if I don't sign in everyday (and I never sign in EVERY day). But when I do finally sign in, I'm all caught up in about 2 minutes.

LLBR has a Twitter account and our articles automatically post to Twitter so I don't have to keep up with it. Definitely drives traffic.

Cheryl Anne Gardner said...

Yes Shannon, that's what we need for the Pod Peeps. Emily was looking into it. I am glad you can set it up to post the article automatically, then we wouldn't have to "monitor" it. said...

I'd rather be writing, too, rather than marketing my stuff in some form, but there really isn't any other way to get people to know it exists.

People by and large, even the more discriminating readers, do not consciously seek out indie authors. They have to have it cross their path somehow, and the vast majority of the time the only way to bridge that gap is for the writer to go and do some legwork.

I think more than anything else this is a reaction to the way the words "branding" and "marketing" have been turned into such gruesome catchphrases by uncreative people. Under the rubble of what they've turned those words into, there are some very solid and useful pieces of advice. It's not evil to do the honest work involved to bring attention to what you've done.

The key word is "honest", of course. I'm just as disgusted as anyone else with the idea that you have to become a marketing machine to achieve anything like success. The real answer is neither that nor toiling in obscurity for the sake of "artistic integrity". It's somewhere in between.