In every sense, marketing and publicity are a game of strategy: intense competition, real rewards, and plenty of pitfalls for the innocent and unwary.
Still, there are simple, practical things you can do to facilitate your success. In our current age of binge media and readers buried under choices, the sloshing ocean of dreck which makes it hard to find something you’d want to read, let alone actual fans. The issue isn’t finishing or publishing the book, but discoverability. How can you get your work found by the right people?
Search Engine Optimization (SEO) allows business and creators to enhance their ranking in various online search engines to maximize their discoverability with the right customers. In literal terms, SEO helps guarantee that when your unique audience starts hunting for books they’ll dig, your titles appear close to the top of their searches… you literally groom and improve your online presence to help the right readers find you online. Manipulative? Complex? Ruthlessly pragmatic? All of the above. SEO has become a critical factor in reader acquisition and retention.
For old-school writers that may sound venal and calculating. Then again, Discoverability wasn’t an issue when the average year offered readers 250 new genre titles, maximum. In 2021 as I type this, over 250 books can hit the market in an hour… Feel that fact.
We know that genre fiction sells. Because of the wild, perennial popularity of powerful, emotional stories, we know millions and millions of folks want books that move them.
Herein lies one of the greatest challenges you face as a genre author is pinpointing the potential readers who will prefer your books to any other…either because of tone, topic, or the tenor of your voice. The question is, how can you target the readers who will adore your work in particular? The folks who will camp in front of the bookstore on the release day and write impassioned letters to local libraries championing your vision and oeuvre.
If you ask newbie writers who their readers are, most people default to the generic (and totally impractical) cop out: “I write for everyone.” Or maybe the slightly narrower “I write for anyone who loves a love story.” For those of y’all who don’t have several hundred million dollars lying around to launch worldwide marketing juggernauts on all media, I’m here to tell you that “writing for everyone” is sentimental codswallop.
You know who markets to “everyone? Microsoft. Apple. Starbucks. Amazon. McDonalds. Coca-Cola. You know what else? They didn’t start that way. They eventually achieved marketing budgets of a couple hundred million dollars per annum after several decades of targeted, razor-sharp customer profiling that helped them build their core audience across the entire planet. All businesses start focused and then build upon that initial clarity by cultivating a wider skew.
Here’s the deal: you aren’t Coca-Cola. Books aren’t cans of soda, ubiquitous and interchangeable. In no universe will you ever be able to throw enough money at the promo challenge to reach “every” person on the planet. Because your time and money is limited, you must target your actual, core readers more effectively and creatively, or else you are doomed to failure and penury.
The cool thing is that because you are part of a billion-dollar industry and are committed to improving your professional and artistic odds, you have a boost most folks in show business do not: the fans exist before you show up. Before you even thought of writing your books, someone out there was sitting wishing that your specific voice existed.
Your die-hard, auto-buy, up-all-night readers are already out there, desperate to find your book and seeking it constantly, hunting for the novels that will save their sanity and transform the way they live and love. As a jumping off point, that’s potent mojo.
Since you don’t have a zillion dollar budget and thousands of minions toiling in the promo mines for you, you have to get smart and that requires optimization. SEO can change your life.
Via savvy branding, you signal to your readers what your voice is and how it will shape your work. You extend your platform and public presence with authentic, appealing content that telegraphs your unique appeal. And then you cultivate a market that attracts not just “everyone” or “binge readers” but your specific audience.
That in itself is a vast challenge faced by everyone in show business. How do you get the right butts in the seats? And via SEO, you cultivate the right eyeballs from the right quarters, and your book will find its way to the right hands.
But wait, there’s more! In figurative terms, SEO casts a wider net because once you know what your readers are looking for, that knowledge should, in fact it must inform all your professional decisions. In essence, SEO is a deeper cut of the consistent branding work you’re responsible for. Your brand is your voice made visible. SEO just makes sure the right eyes catch sight of you. Yes, you want people to click on your book the moment it drops. SEO does something more…affecting the kinds of interviews you give, the events you attend, the snappy quotes you supply, the parties you host, the topics you discuss…because all of those things should reflect the optimization of your discoverability, boosting your distinct signal above all the noise online and in person.
In the crowded and chaotic marketplace, that is invaluable.
So that’s all perfectly abstract and useless. How can we take practical steps to improve our SEO?
The reason baby authors say they “write for everyone” is because they cannot begin to articulate what is unique about their voice, their work, or their readers. In the absence of real data or insight, they default to generalities. And generalities are the root of everything clichéd, lazy, and wrong. Don’t be sloppy, be specific. Specificity is the core anything great because it focuses attention and maps a clear path between you and the particular success you’re after. Ask yourself:
- What words/
sites/ subjects do fans search when they stumble across my book?
- What words are too overused or clichéd for me to move the needle?
- What recurrent topics appear across all my work?
- What specific subjects does this book cover?
- What unique emotional experience do I provide in every book I write? Anything I deliberately avoid?
- What topics, venues, activities, and resources would my readers seek out?
- What unique words do people use when they praise (or pan) my books?
Google analytics is incredibly powerful when it comes to crunching this data. Ditto Amazon, Bookbub, and Twitter ads. Leverage social media schedulers like Hootsuite and Buffer which track keyword activity across millions of accounts. Take advantage of the various online platforms designed to help companies track engagement and search activity in their market space. There are literally hundreds of apps, engines, and sites that will track keywords and clickthrough so that you can sort all that hard data intelligently. And lest all those numbers and charts feel overwhelming, remember they offer a direct peephole into people’s desires, the beating heart of every audience decision.
Having keywords doesn’t give you the right to weaponize them! Back in the early days of Web 2.0, canny marketers noticed that if they wedged certain keywords into webpages and articles repeatedly, the search engines treated them as more accurate and desirable. “Keyword stuffing” (as it came to be known) operates on more-bigger-harder-faster Michael Bay logic. The trouble is that when actual humans read those articles or visit those webpages, they sound every bit as fake and coercive as they are. Any time you try to manipulate visitors to your site or fluff your posts with hard-sell nonsense, you’re subtly signaling to them that they aren’t people, but wallets…just another notch in the proverbial bedpost. Instead, create content that will actually appeal to your ideal readers:
- Emotions that will enrich their experience of your books and others like them.
- Updates that will genuinely inform, excite, and encourage their best selves.
- Observations that will enlighten and inspire them.
- Solutions to the problems that involve or interest them.
- Opportunities to connect authentically with your work and the genre community you share.
Yes, you want to identify and use potent keywords effectively in your SEO, but that usage should be organic and authentic. Keyword stuffing smacks of the desperate, pitiful ploy it is. No one is fooled by articles that frontload buzzwords and hammer certain phrases with mechanical efficiency. Before slugging a bunch of buzzwords into something, read it aloud and ask yourself if it sounds like your authorial voice, or like a marketing hack turned loose with a thesaurus. Never betray their trust or abuse their patience. With a zillion books shoved at them every day, they’re happy to find a reason to skip your books for good.
I always say that an author’s presence online requires constant grooming, like a long-haired cat with a skin-condition. The moment you rest on your laurels they will turn into itchy, allergenic mulch under your butt. SEO is a process that will continue as long as you intend to sell books to actual humans. Even if the internet vanishes and we are trading bottlecaps for epic poetry written on latex wipes, you will have to figure out how to signal to your readers that you in particular are the exact writer they’ve been dreaming of and pining for. To keep yourself discoverable you’re going to have to evolve…and that’s going to involve some risks, some rewards, and a serious commitment to paying attention to the nitty gritty around your fans.
In a perfect world, you could hire an SEO genius who’d wrestle all this for you. Unfortunately, because of the power and profit that SEO represents, corporate competition for talented SEO development is intense. SEO most of the breakout SEO stars are making six-figures for multinational conglomerates. So as with all things in genre publishing, unless you have a giant staff and couple million under the bed, you’re gonna have to get scrappy and inventive. Do your homework and keep looking for ways to sharpen the figurative knife you’re using to cut through the dreck:
- Talk to readers at stores, libraries, and genre gatherings to see how their tastes change.
- Monitor the performance of keywords on your website to see what drives traffic where and when.
- When practical, run multiple versions of ads, swag, or blurbs to see what generates interest and actual sales.
- Test new keywords where it seems appropriate and dig into that data when you have it.
- Partner with trusted colleagues in your subgenre to see how overlapping keywords can boost or block traffic
- Read books, blurbs, and promo copy in your market space so you can track trends and tropes as they unfold.
Don’t be afraid to try and fail. By taking smart risks in SEO, you prevent stupid disasters. Assess efficacy and impact of keywords in real time and you’ll gradually learn how to read between the lines of your career and the industry at large.
More than anything, be willing to grow. Every artist finds new spaces inside themselves. Look for fresh, funky opportunities that will stretch you and delight your audience. Optimize your presence online and in-person. Readers want you to take them somewhere wonderful, and that won’t happen if you ride a sinking ship to the bottom of the sea. Grow…so that you can lift them higher. They will never stop thanking you for the view.
You’re a writer…Use your words! Talk to your readers and give them emotional experiences and extraordinary value. SEO is only a way to help you communicate more clearly to the right folks. Over time, they’ll learn to trust you and return the favor by spreading the word…and that is how one happy fan can muster an impassioned army of readers.