I just finished reading the incredibly awesome Hunger Games—it’s one of those books that makes you wonder why you even try to write novels–and stumbled across this excellent interview with Suzanne Collins at Newsweek (published Sept. 4, 2008). She has great insight into writing fast-paced novels based on her experience as a playwrite and screenwriter for children’s television, and I thought this passage was particularly relevant for novelists:
NEWSWEEK: Did you learn good storytelling from kids’ TV?
COLLINS: I started as a playwright. Any sort of scriptwriting you do helps you hone your story. You have the same demands of creating a plot, developing relatable characters and keeping your audience invested in your story. My books are basically structured like three-act plays. I’m very conscious of pacing because you get very little downtime in television. You have to be moving the story forward and developing the characters at the same time. Another television thing I use is I tend to end my chapters on some sort of cliffhanger, which can involve physical peril, or the moment a character has a revelation. That seems like the natural place to break because we do that in television so the viewers will come back after the commercials.
For more on writing screenplays, I recommend the book Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting by New York University film professor Robert McKee. For more on Suzanne Collines, check out her wikipedia biography.
For more on the Hunger Games, check out its wikipedia entry.
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Perhaps the biggest barrier I faced with the publication of A Warrior’s Soul was a lack of brand identity and a clear marketing platform. I couldn’t sell books if no one knew about me or the book. More problematically, A Warrior’s Soul is a niche novel, a bully drama with a martial arts theme (think Ninja!) targeted toward middle-grade readers (grades 4-8). How would I know if my plan would be successful? Of course, I couldn’t, but my experience provides some encouraging evidence of success and a lesson or two for new authors.
Leading up to the official release of A Warrior’s Soul, I put together a two-phase marketing plan. The first phase, ending when the novel would officially launch, was specifically targeted to raise awareness of the book and brand me as an author. The fundamental elements of Phase One included:
- A pre-publication sale to advance sales and raise awareness for the book (ending June 20th, one month before the official launch of A Warrior’s Soul);
- The creation of a personal website, www.srstaley.com;
- The creation of a facebook page (A Warrior’s Soul book page);
- Regular notifications and links from my personal Facebook page;
- The creation of youtube channel and videos on the themes of the book;
- Local media;
- A launch event at the Dayton Quest Center for Martial Arts (and also my local dojo) with live Internet streaming of a reading, Q&A with a live audience, and signing.
Importantly, none of these specific strategies were explicitly designed to sell books. The main purpose of any marketing campaign is to raise awareness of a product; actual sales are an indirect, tangible but secondary outcome. For example, the pre-publication sale campaign for A Warrior’s Soul was designed to sell books only as a secondary objective, not a primary one. The main purpose was to use the launch event to raise awareness for the book overall (which of course would hopefully result in sales down the road.)
I learned in my other “day” jobs that marketing doesn’t always work. In fact, one marketing professional told me in an offhand comment that “90 percent of all marketing campaigns don’t work.” I took this to mean the campaigns don’t generate revenue. While it’s too early to tell whether my marketing campaign has turned into signicant revenue (the official launch event was July 29th), I think I have a few interesting results that suggest, at a minimum, the goal of raising awareness worked. For example:
- The Dayton Daily News ran an article on the book and its main themes, generating local buzz;
- Selective web book reviews helped promote and validate the novel to a wider audience;
- Stephen K. Hayes, an internationally recognized martial arts master and member of the Black Belt Hall of Fame (and owner of the Quest Center), personally promoted the novel on his facebook page;
- The newly created facebook page had 35 “likes” before the book was released, and the page was visited by about 60 facebook users each week;
- Visits to my author website, www.srstaley.com, spiked around key events.
The third point is probably most interesting. With each facebook post that included a link to the book on my website, page requests increased. For example, here on the weeks and page requests at www.srstaley.com leading up to the launch event along with Phase One marketing milestones:
- Week of June 19th: 82 page request (end of pre-publication sale)
- Week of June 26th: 170
- Week of July 3rd: 144 (Dayton Daily News article appears)
- Week of July 10th: 241 (2 videos released; readerviewskids.com book review appears)
- Week of July 17th: 426 (Stephen K. Hayes Facebook mention)
- Week of July 24th: 741 (official launch on July 29th)
- Week of July 31st: 292
- Week of August 7th: 253
- Week of August 14th: 303
Three insights are worth noting. First, each major publicity event goosed web traffic. Second, web traffic has consistently been higher after the launch event compared to the weeks before the event. Finally, most of this traffic was created by my promotional efforts. Web traffic is overwhelming driven by direct links embedded in various promotions such as Facebook and Youtube. Almost none of the traffic has been driven by the major search engines such as Google or Bing.
Although it’s too early to tell if these efforts have driven sales, I think the evidence is pretty substantial that specific marketing strategies can, in fact, raise awareness about authors and books. This lesson is particularly important for new authors or authors working in a new genre without an established platform or brand identity.
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