12 Jun 2017
When I sat down to write a CIA post, I knew what I wanted to do. I had an outline for an article full of book marketing advice, specifically online advertising. Most of the research was done, I just needed to write a draft.
But I couldn’t stop thinking about the types of book marketers I’ve encountered and the value of what they offer. So I wrote about that instead.
This need to talk about self-help is inbred. I’ve been reading this stuff since childhood, when I came across a pamphlet summarizing “How to Win Friends and Influence People,” a best-selling book by Dale Carnegie.
Even as a child – and I was probably eight or nine years old at the time – I wondered about the boys and girls in my neighborhood. Why did they act the way they did? How did they work in groups? Why did the boys congregate in one part of the playground and girls in the other?
How do I get people to like me? I’ve been looking for answers ever since.I guess I never did find out the answer, but this way of looking at life led me into journalism, a lot of reading, and even a bit of writing. “Writers Gone Wild” kinda started that way, by looking at writers and how they lived, worked, struggled, and failed.
It’s the same attitude I take when I look at self-help books aimed at writers, and at the people who write them. Or who market video courses and write blog posts. What are they like? What do they sell? How can I tell the difference between the good ones, the sincere but not so good ones, and the self-promoters?
I decided that they could be divided into two groups.
Book Marketers: Ministers and Teachers
What do you want out of a book marketer? Advice? Reassurance? Someone to do the work for you?
There are different styles of book marketers, and their value depends on what you want out of them.
I see them at the ends of a continuum as Ministers and Teachers. These are not hard-edged categories. There are Ministers who deliver effective techniques, just as there are inspirational Teachers.
Personally, I prefer Teachers who deliver advice over Ministers who make me feel good but don’t help me get better.Plus, Ministers rely on Feelz to power their message. Emotions are a weak spot in humans. Time and again, we find ourselves taken in by Ministers who seem to have that magic ability to shut down our logic circuits and, in the end, take advantage of us.
In the book marketing world, the bad Ministers deliver emotional appeals that reaffirm your identity as a writer but their content doesn’t deliver at all. Bad Ministers promise more than they can deliver. If you follow them, they’ll tell you how to find the paradise of a #1 best-seller and live the life of a creative author. The stinger in their hook is the implication that if you buy their course / book / if you follow them, and if you don’t achieve their success, well, it’s your fault, isn’t it?
Ministers: Feels Over Facts
How can you tell the difference? Look at what they say:
Ministers spend much of their time talking about themselves, their company, their activities, their publications. They share scenes from their writing life and successes in a way that makes you feel like you’re helping them (by being a fan, buying their books and courses, leaving positive reviews and so on).
Ministers deliver some advice, but coached in generalities. They provide posts with titles such as “7 Ways to Improve Your Fiction” or “10 Ways to Market Your Book” that provide general advice that’s useful for beginners only, such as “get beta readers” or “hire an editor.” They don’t go into details.
Ministers spend more time marketing themselves and their services than writing fiction. Their best-sellers are in the self-help or book marketing category. They success as fiction writers stems more from their followers than the general public.
Ministers tend to be vague about their successes. They’ll avoid citing specific earnings backed by screenshots of their online account. They may claim to be a New York Times bestseller, for example, but not tell you it was by placing a novella in a 20-book series sold for 99 cents.
Ministers deliver value by providing a sense of community and reinforcing your self-identification as a writer. After listening to a podcast or visiting their website, you might feel as refreshed as if you came out of church, or if you read a book or saw a movie that made you feel excited about creating good art.
Teachers: Tough Talk
Who are Teachers?
Teachers teach. Period. They deliver lessons with detailed advice. For example, a Teacher discussing how to achieve depth in your writing by engaging the emotions will encourage you to drop words such as “heard,” “felt,” and “saw” in favor of concrete descriptions. If they’re discussing how to place Facebook ads, they’ll deliver concrete step-by-step details on how to do it.Teachers dive deep into a subject. The really good ones deliver insights beyond what is already out there. They’ll talk about plotting that goes beyond Robert McKee or Joseph Campbell. Their examples of good stories come from novels or short stories and not popular movies.
Teachers don’t guarantee results. They don’t overpromise. They can even be a little hard-edged about the reality of the business. They’re honest about their failures and bad days. They may even confess that some problems have no solution, but that you do the work anyway.
What Does This Mean For You?
Ministers and Teachers can play a positive role in your writing life. Ministers can remind you of what’s important. They can inspire you and give you the energy you may need to pursue your art.
(Side note: I see this ministering in many places, so much that I think humanity has an need for it that’s not readily apparent. Not just in a religious sense; when people adhere to an ideology, follow a fandom, even go to the beach or the mountains. Anything that gives them a sense of belonging seems to follow a path similar to worship.)Of course, Ministers and Teachers can also hurt you. They could lead you down the wrong path through bad information. They could waste your time that could be spent writing and publishing. They could drain your pocketbooks.
Worse, you may be seeking them out of a lack of confidence in your skills and abilities. Determining this should be easy to find out with one question: Are you writing?
If you are steadily producing words, then you’re probably all right. You’re not seeking mentors in place of writing, but as an adjunct. So long as you’re producing work, reviewing it, seeking feedback (either from editors or the marketplace) and learning from it, chances are you’re on the right track.