Thursday, March 22, 2012

Secret Soldiers of Marketing -- Centers of Influence

Did you know that influence primarily flows downhill? How can writers take advantage of this?

I remember the moment when President Ronald Reagan publicly described Tom Clancy’s book, The Hunt for Red October, as “the perfect yarn.” He even held the book up for reporters when exiting Air Force One. After Reagan’s unexpected endorsement, Cancy's book sales exploded. The rest is history.

Internet savvy writers understand that “viral” describes the phenomenon where internet word-of-mouth drives a wave of public interest in a video or post. Imagine if writers could capture that magic for their books. Well, we can.

I spent the past thirty-five years in sales. When I started, my early sales training was—well, to be honest--it was bullshit. My first trainer made me practice “power phrases” used to overcome objections to buying life insurance. That crap could get a salesperson killed! How would you react to a stranger telling you this? “If you really love that sweet little girl (the man’s five-year-old daughter), you’ll buy this life insurance.” Personally, I’d throw that SOB out of my house so fast he’d leave a face print in the door as it blasted open.

My general agent threatened to fire me for refusing to practice that nonsense. I ignored him and did things my way. Within a month or two, I led his agency in sales, so he decided to leave me alone. My “unorthodox” ways made money for him.

Fortunately, there was one marketing concept in training that DID make sense to me. It did not violate my self-righteous notions about manipulative selling tricks. Over the next three and a half decades, millions of dollars in commissions resulted from that simple prospecting rule. Here it is.

Centers of influence. Ever hear that phrase? These special people have influence. Their opinions matter. Here is one of my centers of influence...

Meet Gary Dobyns. This guy is the most successful bass fisherman on the west coast, having won over $1.4 million in tournaments. He owns Dobyns Rods company and has a huge cast of pro staffers all across the country. AND...Gary loves to read. When he tells people about this great book he's reading, people listen. Thank you, Gary. By the way, if you want a quality fishing pole, they don't get any better than Gary's rods!

Didn't take long before I quit my job in the insurance agency. Scared the hell out of my poor wife. I walked away from a salary and benefits with two little kids at home to start my own brokerage company. The first thing I did was identify clients and friends in positions of community leadership; doctors, professors in the local university, business owners, PTA presidents, coaches, accountants . . . anybody whose opinion influenced lots of others. I asked to demonstrate my knowledge and the quality of my products. Only after gaining their trust and respect, did I ask for referrals. Before long, I had more appointments than I could manage. My company grew and the rest is history. I have not paid for advertisement in over twenty years, because I get so many unsolicited referrals that my schedule is usually packed.

How does this center of influence concept apply to books sales?

First—the author’s product must be excellent. People who excel in life expect excellence to be associated with them. You get ONE first impression when earning their respect. Don’t blow it.

Second—trust must be earned. When you ask an important person to endorse your book, that center of influence needs to be confident that the referral will reflect positively on him or her. Professionalism, appearance and behavior reflect back on the center of influence.

Third—successful books result from strong word-of-mouth sales. Centers of influence prime the well of contagious interest in your book. If your minister tells a dozen parishioners about your great book, many will buy it. If one of those parishioners happens to be a local business owner with dozens of employees, you can expect his or her influence to flow downhill. If another parishioner happens to be a local mothers-group leader, again, you can expect her influence to radiate to others.

That, my friends, is the simple secret to viral sales. It’s all about influence. Sure, you can slog along selling one book at a time. Or, you can cultivate centers of influence and trigger a viral surge that propels your story into big time sales. Centers of influence are the secret soldiers of marketing.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Death of a Wallflower

Pretty dramatic title, huh? That’s one of the tricks my editor taught me in magazine writing. He said, “Eighty percent of a reader’s decision about which article to read will come down to the title and first picture they see. You have about five seconds to capture their initial interest.”

What if I labeled this article, “The Business Side of a Novelist”?  You might pass it up for an extra ten minutes on FaceBook, or worse yet, watch a re-run of The Bachelor. If we, as authors, hope to succeed in selling books, in building a fan base, and quitting our day jobs, then we MUST understand the business of authorship. It’s not about writing—it’s about marketing. That means leaving the sanctuary of our writing caves.

Old writer's cave (with writing coaches).

When I was young, I was a wallflower. Still am, actually. Despite being painfully shy, I attended high school dances where I looked for the darkest corner from which I could watch the other kids have fun. Why attend? In some weird way, I felt part of the event even though my role was little more than shadow-filler. My habit of people-watching, spawned in those early years, heavily contributes to my writing.  Airports, train stations, on the bus, grocery stores . . . it did not matter where I saw them. I studied the habits, characteristics, and social rituals of strangers. Sometimes, I saw things they would not want me to see. Things like the mournful smile of a lonely girl as she glanced longingly at a young man kissing his girlfriend. I saw her. She did not see me.

Such is the life of a wallflower, destined to observe life while others live life. Similarly, many novel writers enjoy seclusion that comes with solitary hours in contemplation and creativity. I do. The problem arises after the writer’s work finds a willing publisher. All of a sudden, a book company prints thousands of copies for national release and expects the author to become animated and outgoing. Happy solitude ends, replaced by business demands of publication. Book signings, radio interviews, reading clubs, fan questions, press releases--scary demands for someone who prefers emotional safety in a writer’s cave. Such public settings draw the writer into an unfamiliar and often uncomfortable world. The wallflower dies, releasing an author’s carefully constructed public persona, a necessary metamorphosis in publishing. Platform defines the author's marketing potential and is important to publishers for that reason. Can this author promote? Does he or she have the ability to leave the comfort of writing and step into the spotlight? Can he or she command respect and generate sales?

Inflexible wallflowers rarely succeed in publishing. Publishers know it. Like most of my writer friends, I enjoy the bright lights of public acclaim, but my positive demeanor and friendly handshaking is not my happy place. Inside, I yearn to return to my late-night solitary tryst with a computer, immersing in some new fictional world. Fortunately, when my public persona completes its mission, the wallflower comes back to life. Then, I disappear into my fantasy world where I am both master and slave.

New writer's cave.

Are all authors, wallflowers? Nah, but lots of them are. The point of this blog is simply to inform introverts about the business side of writing. Sales don’t happen by themselves. Even word-of-mouth bestsellers begin with author promotions. And, if you want to get a publishing contract, you’d better convince your literary agent and publisher of your ability and willingness to take care of “business.”

Friday, March 9, 2012

Eating Spiders – The Art of Description

All writers know description is the essence of writing. Happiness, tension, confusion, fear–virtually all emotions readers feel while immersed in stories grow out of good description. Look at this picture and the child's real-life question:

“Grandpa, are you going to eat that spider?”

Spider? I never would have thought to describe a lobster as a spider like Charlotte did. Yet, this mere speck of a child provided a fantastic impression of that lobster. Her simple question paints a vivid image in my mind, one suggesting anxiety over what may be about to happen . . . a bit of trepidation mixed with awe and a little revulsion. That is fantastic writing!

We all know tension provides the rails on which a story’s conflict rides. It rises and drops, hopefully rising to a crescendo at the climax. It can even rise and fall thereafter during denouement as plot issues unwind, or perhaps, some under-explained subplot is intentionally left hanging as the setup for a sequel.

The art of description means we, writers, should avoid telling readers what to feel. Instead of saying a widow is grieving the loss of her husband, why not back the hearse up to the readers’ mental door and let them smell the flowers? Don’t tell the reader that the widow “could not speak” the final prayer as the coffin lid closed for the last time. Try describing that painful knot building deep in her chest and throat, denying her breath, as she mouths the words of the closing prayer, unable to utter a meaningful sound. Let the reader feel the widow's grief.

Same thing goes for horror, thriller, romance--all writing involves setting a scene and building tension through narration or dialog. Fear, titillation, compassion, disgust, outrage or any other emotion evoked by words should be experienced by the reader . . . not told to the reader. If there is any secret to great writing, it is this ability to craft words in such a way as to draw the reader into the situation and make them feel the tension on a personal level.

The next time I think about ordering lobster in a restaurant I will undoubtedly recall the spider analogy and its vivid imagery. Who knows? I might switch to the broiled halibut instead. Now, THAT’S an impact!