Wondering about what sells books or anything else for that matter? We all know it's "word of mouth", but how do you get the mouths babbling about your book?
The standard answer is that you, as a writer, should become a "brand": everyone will want to read your books once you've established yourself as a brand.
Easier said than done.
Even the marketing experts don't seem to be sure and they fall into two schools of thought, the "why" and the "Dove":
1. The "why" school, as brilliantly explained in this TED talk by Simon Sinek, a notable marketing guru and author of best-selling Start with Why:How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action. This is the seventh most viewed video on TED (over 1.6 million views), but since it lasts over an hour you might just have time for the central idea, what Sinek calls the "Golden Circle" explained in the following 5 minute clip from his TED talk:
This is a simple but powerful model for how leaders inspire action: "what you do" is on the periphery of the circle, "how you do it" comes next and "why you do it" is at the core. The argument is that inspired leaders do more than others: they not only know "what" to do and "how", they also know "why". And base their communication strategy on the "why" rather than on the "what" and "how" as most of us do.
His examples include Steve Jobs, Martin Luther King, and the Wright brothers -- and as a counterpoint Tivo, which (until a recent court victory that tripled its stock price) appeared to be struggling mainly because, as Sinek argues, their advertising was directed at what their product does instead of explaining to consumers why they would want to own one.
In contrast, Apple with Steve Jobs at its helm reversed that order and didn't sell people their computers (the "what") but what they believed in (the "why"), with their "think differently" pitch.
Why should this work? Since Apple tells you it thinks outside the box, it evokes enthusiasm for their innovative edge. What they are doing is appealing to emotions rather than reason and as everyone knows, emotions are what drives impulse buying...
So branding is a paradigm shift: you are not buying something ("what"), you are buying "why".
Does this apply to book selling?
Yes, if you are Steve Jobs or Martin Luther King. And no, I'm not being facetious! I'm just pointing out that the whole model proposed by Sinek is based on observing the behavior of people who are already recognized leaders. Are you a leader in your circles/area of expertise etc? If so, selling books, or whatever else you might be producing, will come easy. Indeed, non-fiction authors who are recognized authorities in their field have no trouble selling their books.
It's fiction authors who are in trouble. They are not (necessarily) leaders or celebrities or authorities in their field. So is there another way?
Which takes us to the second school of thought:
2. The "Dove" school, as stunningly demonstrated by DOVE in its Real Beauty Sketches series, a hug success on YouTube (over 13 million viewers!). Here it is:
The New York Times has an interesting write-up about this approach to advertising which, as it delicately put, "shines light on female insecurities", meaning that women tend to worry about how beautiful they really are...
So what's the basic idea? What the Dove Corporation hopes is that the next time you're walking down the aisles of your supermarket looking for a soap or a deodorant, you'll remember that amazing video which, as a woman, was (hopefully) profoundly meaningful to you. You'll associate the name Dove not with a soap that cleans you or a cream that softens your skin but with a bunch of people that worry about you as a human being, that seek to help and understand.
This is again an emotional appeal but of a different kind than the one proposed by Sinek. It doesn't draw attention to a particular person asking us to admire him/her. It draws attention to ourselves, it sheds light on our condition and does this in an unforgettable, striking way.
What are the lessons to be drawn from all this for a fiction writer? In my view, it should be possible to use both schools of thoughts to come up with a two-pronged strategy that could be used for effective book promotion and discoverability:
1. Realize our own limits: a fiction writer is rarely a celebrity or authority which means that telling the "why" one writes may be interesting but it cannot go too far. The risk is that potential readers will view this as narcissistic behavior and could be easily turned off.
2. Use empathy: fiction is a unique way of sharing reality. Indeed, what drives the best fiction is one's own experiences. A writer can shed light on the human condition through his/her novels exactly like the Dove videos "shines light on female insecurities"...
So, in my view, as a writer, you can tell your readers "why" you write but remember to complement it with your own reflections - your "voice" - about the broader human condition. Use empathy, make it clear that the pains the characters in your fiction are going through are deeply known to you because you have suffered them too!
Just my two cents. But I'd love to hear your views: what lessons do YOU draw from the "why" school and the "Dove" school of marketing?