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Customer Acquisition 101

As a novelist, if you’re successful enough, you’ll someday discover that you’re not just a lady who types manuscripts in a coffee shop or a loner who composes novels in his underwear in his basement—you’re something more.  You’re a major corporation.

You create stories that you export on a global basis and sell in various mediums. You’ll write a novel and it will go up for sale in your hometown, but it will also sell in the major territories around the world: the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Italy, Spain, Australia, Canada, Russia, Japan, China, and so on. I’ve sold my books in all of those countries and dozens more. And when I sell a book in English, it gets shipped off to some 85 countries around the world.

Recently I got an email from a gentleman in Nigeria who found one of my books in a hotel, loved it, and wanted to know where he could buy the rest of the series. I told him, “Dude, I have no idea where that one came from.” (I sell well in South Africa, so it probably came from there.)  A few weeks later I was hiking high in the jungles of Fiji with my guide, who asked what I did for a living. When I told him, he was floored. He and a dozen of his friends had read all of my books. A few years back, a movie producer met with the world’s richest man on a yacht, and the world’s richest man showed him his collection of my novels.

When you put out a book, you don’t know where it will end up, or in what format. People might listen to it on tape, read it in their own language, buy it in hardcover, read a pirated copy, watch a movie or television show based on your work, play a video game based on it, and so on.

There will be times when you’ll be amazed at how popular a book you’ve written becomes.

It helps to think in terms of being a major corporation. If you watch shows like “Shark Tank,” one question that the investors always ask an inventor is, “What is your customer acquisition cost?”

As a writer, you have to think about that. You can’t spend $2 acquiring a customer for a paperback novel that only earns you sixty cents.

When I began writing, my only plan was to “Write a good book and then let the publishers worry about selling it.”  And that’s what most traditional authors do. (Indie authors have to be more savvy than that.)

But publishers are notorious for not investing in print books. They don’t have a million dollars to invest in each of 200 books they publish each year. The costs of printing and shipping are so high, there really isn’t much profit margin in books.

So, publishers rely on the cheapest advertising model possible. In fact, in the beginning, they prefer free advertising, so they go with “word of mouth.”

They’ll put out fifty books, then see which ones engage the readers, which ones get talked about.  If an author starts building an audience, they can invest a few hundred dollars and send review copies to critics and major influencers on the author’s next novel.

If that works, the author will begin winning awards, which leads to wider recognition.

From there, the author typically may begin getting movie options and the bookstores will begin displaying the books more prominently. And make no mistake—that’s vital.

As my publisher Tom Doherty once put it: “The best advertising you can get is to have your book well displayed in the bookstores.” This means that when people walk in, if your book is face-out on the shelf near the front of the store, that’s great.

But a new release might be displayed in multiple locations in a bookstore: in the section for that genre, in the New Releases, in Employee Favorites, in the “Soon to be a motion picture” section, and so on. As the book gets more popular, the publisher will print up special displays to put on end sections, invest in displays for behind the cash register, and buy space in the front window of the store.

So your goal as an author is to get your book displayed face-out in half a dozen places in each bookstore.

Years ago, when I helped launch Harry Potter, I believed that it could be a bestseller, that it had potential for movies and videogames. I didn’t think much beyond that when selecting the book. But when the publisher asked me how to promote it, I had to think more deeply. I advised her to rent out the space in the front windows of the nation’s bookstores and buy the advertising space behind the checkout counter, as well as get a “dump” (a large display) on the main floor of the bookstore. I thought it would be big, but I didn’t expect to see all of the bookstores in the country hosting Harry Potter release parties, with millions of kids coming to the parties at midnight dressed as witches and warlocks.

A couple of years later, when one of my students asked how to write the bestselling young adult novel of all time, we talked about what she would write, what the emotional beats needed to be, what kind of agent and publisher she’d need, and so on. She did indeed sell millions of books. We didn’t talk at all about how she’d adapt the story to film or create huge release events. We focused just on writing. The other stuff, I knew, would naturally follow.

So, here are my rules for customer acquisition for new writers: When you’re writing a book, your goal is to write the best book possible. That’s all you can and should think about. You shouldn’t be worrying about Facebook ads, press releases, buying advertising space in the front windows of major bookstores, or dreaming about television commercials.

As the Customer Acquisition Department, you start out by creating the best novel you can.

And when you finish writing a great book, your next goal is to write an even better book than the last.

As an author, you need to constantly educate yourself about what makes a great story, and practice refining your skills—storytelling skills first, stylistic refinement later.

That’s where you start.


Thank you to everyone who purchased the new Super Bundle. My goal with it is to make the most essential and valuable tool for new writers in the business, and you will be receiving updates and announcements about that this week. If you still haven’t bought yours or you have a friend that you want to tell about it, we’ve decided to let the sale run through midnight tonight.

Because Black Friday is coming, I will be announcing two more bundles this week for those who are interested–both excellent bargains.

And of course, if you haven’t picked up the NaNoWriMo StoryBundle special yet, that will be ending in the next week or so.

Happy Writing!

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