The Dark Side of Marketing

I spend a fair amount of time thinking and talking about marketing. (In fact, if you’re going to be at the RWA conference in NJ in October, you can come hear me talk about author branding.) But I like to think everything I do amounts to “truth in advertising.” Your brand shouldn’t be something you “put on,” it’s an expression of who you are. My brand is not just what I write in my fiction, it’s also the types of things I discuss here on the blog, the dog photos I post on Twitter, all the parts of the “social me.”

Your marketing should always be honest. Your cover shouldn’t make promises your book doesn’t keep. If the cover looks like romantic suspense, there should be thrills and chills inside. It if looks like a light, happy beach read, there shouldn’t be dead bodies piling up. If the cover copy (and please note, cover copy is the descriptive text about the plot; “blurbs” are those things where people say “this book is the best thing I’ve read in five years!”) says that the book is a romance, there damned well better be a happy ending.

Back in the days when authors didn’t have a whole lot of personal contact with readers, marketing was a different game. You (which, in those days, meant your publisher) gave clues, tempted and teased, and hoped that when readers picked up a book in the store and paged through it that they’d buy it.

But things have changed. In today’s world, authors meet their readers on Twitter and Facebook and blogs. They actively ask their readers to review their work on various sites. The lines between readers and authors are getting blurred more every day, which is both good and bad. It’s good because I feel—as a reader—that I can more easily tell my favorite authors how much I appreciate their work. And, as an author—certainly as a new author who is hoping to constantly improve her writing—it’s great to be able to hear directly from readers.

But there’s a down side, too, in that, well, not  everyone likes my work. And I do have the desire to explain things to them (“but did you miss that she…?”). So that’s hard. And negotiating the author-reviewer relationship is difficult since I was brought up to say “thank you” to everyone and I’ve been told that a number of reviewers/bloggers don’t want to hear that from authors. So it’s problematic. My own solution is to say “thank you” to those I know from social media, and leave others alone.

This new author-reader-reviewer relationship, however, has also created an opening for a far darker and more manipulative form of marketing than used to be possible. Now, a select few authors—and I am by no means tarring everyone with this brush, but there are enough of them out there to make it a “thing”—are posting to blogs, forums, social media about how they are being “bullied,” and therefore they will be forced to stop writing. This leads to a jump in their sales, and a huge outpouring of sympathy, and of course they don’t stop writing.

There are other manifestations of this same kind of marketing, which I think of as “guilt marketing.” Authors post that someone has ripped them off. They post that they need money because of some personal problem or illness and that the best way to help them is to buy their books. (Instead of just giving them money, which doesn’t create a sales jump and thus a ranking jump on Amazon.) They post that haters are writing negative reviews for some specious reason and beg their followers to go post positive reviews to Amazon to drown out the negative voices.

Mind you, I am not saying that these things don’t happen—people do have family emergencies. They do get ripped off. They do have unfair reviews written on occasion. But up until now, that’s never been a problem they expected readers to solve for them.

The real issue is that this is now happening so frequently that it’s pretty clear not all of it is true. Which leaves readers feeling cynical and abused.

Recently, an author claimed that because of poor reviews, etc, she was suicidal and she was going to quit writing, take down her book, take down her page, yada yada yada. She did none of those things. In fact, she recently sent a review site a request to do a “cover reveal” for her new book. Yes, another book after she supposedly had to quit because of the psychological trauma caused to her by the readers of the first book.

Now, if you’ve followed this blog for a while, you probably know that I am a depressive. In fact, a high percentage of creative people deal with depression. I suffer from both epilepsy and depression and I deal with them, just like other epileptics and depressives. They’re part of my life the way, I don’t know, migraines, are a part of someone else’s life. I don’t expect other people to solve my problems for me and I don’t go “I’m going to kill myself because you are all being mean to me” when stuff goes wrong.

In fact, I’ve known a lot of people who have those feelings, and I’ve known those who actually committed suicide, and none of them have thrown that kind of tantrum. People who have depression take the words “I am going to kill myself” very, very seriously. Often, they won’t say them even when they mean them. If they do say them, it’s frequently to only a few very close friends, people they trust to help them stay alive.

Mood disorders affect different people in different ways. Yes, some people may prefer to announce to the world their current state of mind. But most don’t. Not when their current state is as dire as this woman said hers was. And she is not alone in faking this kind of melodrama. I’ve seen this same behavior several times in the past year. And none of these people have actually stopped writing, have actually taken down their sites and disappeared from the Net.

This kind of manipulation infuriates me, not the least because it drowns out the real cries for help that occur on the web. And it’s becoming more and more common. I don’t think there’s anything to be done about it, unfortunately, except for readers to become aware that they may be being manipulated and to proceed with caution.

But still, it pisses me off.

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