HERE AT waynekspear.com, I lift the curtain from time to time to disclose my thoughts on the writing life as they apply to this website. As with any public undertaking, there’s much going on behind the scenes at this word factory of mine. Today I’m considering the marketing of a writer, and how poor I am at – and why I think I continue, as a matter of principle, to be poor at it.
Let’s begin with a few words about marketing. I define a market as the people who bring effective demand to a supplied service, product, or any object or piece of work in general. Effective demand refers not only to the folks who want something, but more specific to those people who will follow through on that demand. Think of it this way: someone who wants a five million dollar house in the mountains may be said to have a demand for that house, but unless they have five million dollars and the intention and ability to spend it, it’s not an effective demand. It’s more like a wishing-for. Likewise, if you post your writing on a website, demand for your work is only effective if your readers have a computer and are willing and able to use it. If you write a book and try to sell it on Amazon, effective demand for your book will require people who want to read your book, and who have credit cards, and who are okay with shopping for books on Amazon.
There are many barriers to effective demand that have little or nothing to do with your writing (product), but today we’re considering market branding only: the “it” that people are seeking (demanding) when they open your book or surf to your website or Google your name. Here are some examples of strong brands for writers:
– an academic expert on lute compositions of the late Spanish Renaissance
– a socially conservative traditional Catholic polemicist
– a mother with a humorous blog about raising two daughters
– a meteorologist who is skeptical about human-generated climate change
– a love of contemporary South Korean pop music
The above list is eclectic, but all entries share one common feature: they are tightly focused. At least two of the above examples are consistently at the top of the list of the most-read WordPress websites, day after day. And the reason, I think, is clear. A focused website will be sought out and discovered and the effective demand of a discrete market. Now of course not every market is equivalent. Some products and services will be less in demand than others. But a writer with a clear and well-defined brand will have a marketing advantage over a writer who is less well-defined. That’s because lovers of late Renaissance Spanish lute compositions will eagerly anticipate everything produced by a writer who focuses on this one topic, whereas a less focused writer will be less eagerly regarded. Brand matters.
But what if you are a writer with eclectic interests? What if you are interested in late Renaissance Spanish music and modern architecture and post-punk aesthetics and bawdy limericks and economics and geopolitics and baseball and etymology. And a hundred other, unconnected things? What if your politics, on those occasions when you write about politics, are not clearly partisan? What if you don’t appeal to a well-defined market? In that case, you must hope that at least some readers will put up with the work you do that falls outside their interests, and that a small market of eclecticism will coalesce as your oddball interests attract like-minded oddballs. The term for the latter is a “niche market.” As for the former, you risk ending up with at best a casual, lukewarm readership. And who can blame the lukewarm reader who has to sift through twenty of your books or essays or articles to find the one item of interest?
Marketing, in any case, is not about creating a product and waiting for people to find it. Real marketing is studying what people want, and then creating that product to satisfy the desires folks might not even know they have. I’ve been analyzing WordPress for about six months now, and I’ve noticed that blogs about parenting and Christianity do very well. If I were a 100% capitalist marketing guy, I’d turn my little website into a Christian parenting blog. I’d call it TheWordofGodPress. I’d make it humorous, but also poignant and wise. I’d show vulnerability and humility, and I’d study the market and figure out what kinds of inspirational messages resonate with people, and I’d tell them what they want to hear.
That’s marketing, and corporations and politicians do it every day. But none of that is me. I don’t fit into any box, and worse yet (from a marketing perspective), I don’t like telling people what I think they want to hear. I think a much better service, and a much better value for money, is to challenge my readers and to nudge them out of their comfortable mattress craters, metaphorically speaking. And yet I know that I have readers who come here for X, whereas most days I’ll be writing about A, B, C, D, Y or Z. Or something else. I must be a drag, but I have to be a drag – or else betray myself.
Here are the topics I write the most about:
– aboriginal/native issues
– writers and writing
– religion and science
I’ve been tempted for a long time now to pick one topic and just write about that, so that my readers will know that every day they’ll get a fresh piece of writing about “X.” Chelsea Vowel, for instance, writes about native issues (or used to: the site has been dormant for a while) on her excellent website Apihtawikosisan. She has a very clear brand and a large and loyal audience. But the brutal truth is that though I feel strongly about native issues, and I have a lifetime of experience and interest, I don’t want to be a “native issues” writer.
Sorry, but I don’t. I have dozens of interests that range all across the world and human history, and I want the freedom to pursue them all. I feel bad saying this, but I’m being 100% candid and honest when I admit I’d feel ghettoized and tribalized if I forced myself to write about Mohawk, or aboriginal, topics every day. I know if I did this I would connect more strongly with my readers, and pretty soon I’d be more “successful.” But it would be wrong, and it would be a betrayal.
I’d be interested to hear other writers’ thoughts on this topic. We’ve all taken notice of the writers who do well, and I suspect we’ve all been tempted to emulate their work. Often the temptation is to dumb it down, or to be more controversial and outrageous, to push buttons, to pander, to slip into the parade of media sensation and pop culture. Also, I’m well aware of the things I’ve written that have gone viral, and it would be easy to just repeat myself over and over, writing more of the same to hopefully get the same outcome.
Pretty soon though I’d kill the thing that keeps me going as a writer, which is intellectual curiosity. I don’t know what I’m going to write about tomorrow, but I don’t worry: every day there’s something new I’m interested in pursuing. I could exchange this unmapped and uncertain journey for something “better”: more readers and more demand – maybe even more money. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t tempted. And of course I want to give my readers value every day. But the only way I can see myself doing this is by being true to myself. That means kicking marketing to the dust bin.