A Writer Muses On Marketing And Sales, Part I

What exactly is the difference between marketing and sales?

That’s a question I asked myself recently, and after studying the subject a bit I think I have a useful answer. This post and the posts that follow represent everything I think I now know about marketing and sales, but I claim no mastery in the matter. I simply have a better understanding of how each relates to my aims as an author, and I offer these posts in that spirit.

If the average person has a general conception of marketing and sales it’s that they are aspects of business that drive customer purchases — at times by any means necessary. While true, I think this consumer-driven perspective misplaces the emphasis for authors who would like to profit from marketing and sales. Why? Because it’s hard to imagine an author who would like to have fewer readers, which in turn implies that all marketing and sales efforts are inherently useful for every author. They’re not.

In the great majority of cases, marketing and sales are not a means by which otherwise disinterested consumers can be compelled to spend. All the marketing and sales efforts in the world are generally not going to encourage someone to buy a new stove if their stove is working just fine. Treating marketing and sales as weapons of war may be what amped-up marketing weasels do in caffeinated team-spirit huddles, but I don’t think that’s a useful point of view for authors to adopt. And not just because the opportunity to sell books in a predatory fashion is minimal at best.  

A better approach for authors is to understand marketing and sales as tools, to understand what those tools can and cannot do, and to understand when they should and should not be employed in the service of an author’s objectives. Unfortunately there is as much conflicting advice about marketing and sales as there are people professing to clarify confusion about the two terms.

Given that they do not naturally differentiate themselves, it’s understandable that definitions of marketing and sales tend to emphasize how the concepts are distinct. But I think it’s a mistake to start with the premise that marketing and sales are different things. From everything I’ve read (and for artistic reasons I’ll get into later) I believe it’s more useful to see marketing and sales as two ends of the same continuum. And that continuum is defined not by the properties of a product, but by the intent of the product’s creator.

If you make something for yourself, or for a specific person, you don’t need to think about selling or marketing that work. Whatever sales is, whatever marketing is, and however the two might or might not relate to each other, none of that matters in instances where a product is going to be conveyed to a specific person. And that’s true without regard to compensation. If you know who you’re delivering a product to it doesn’t matter whether the product is a gift or the fulfillment of a contract: there is nothing you need to know about marketing or sales in order to see your intention through. (Understanding marketing and sales may help leverage a present opportunity for future gain, but that’s not the issue here.)

While these observations may seem absurdly obvious, the implications are important. First, marketing and sales are not inextricably bound to the act of creation or production. Second, marketing and sales are not inextricably bound to financial transactions between two parties. And both conclusions hold whether the product we’re talking about is a simple item, a complex gadget or a creative work.

Reality Check
Marketing and sales matter in instances where either or both of the following is true:

  • The people who are interested in your product are not all known or aware of the product’s availability.
  • The price people will pay for your product has not been agreed to by both parties.

The problem, again, is that these criteria seemingly apply to every product. Worse, if you’re like most writers, the rationality of your entrepreneurial thought process is probably something like this. “I personally know two people who will read my work if I ask them, but I also know there are more than six billion people on the planet. Plus, there are a lot of planets we don’t know about yet, so there are probably at least a trillion potential readers out there I could market to. I also know that most books sell for X dollars, but because my book is special it will easily sell for X + Y dollars, and that’s before the movie comes out. So, conservatively, I’m probably looking at a potential profit of $74 million in the first year, give or take current exchange rates and how interested I am in doing a book tour.”

No matter who you are and no matter what you write, it’s a given that there will always be people who don’t know about your work, and people who aren’t willing to spend what you’re asking even if they think you’re the best writer in the business. That’s as true for you as it is for Stephen King or any other writer. Marketing and sales will never negate those truths no matter how much time, effort and money you throw at them.

Decision Time
What marketing and sales can do — as tools — is increase the likelihood that you will be able to reach more readers. That may or may not also translate into an increase in profits, depending on whether you charge for your work and how much money you spend on marketing and sales.

The effectiveness of your marketing and sales efforts also correlates with the clarity you have about your specific authorial aims. For that reason, nothing is more important than having an honest discussion with yourself about your personal goals as a writer, including whether you see writing as a business. What else could it be?

Well, any of the following:

  • A hobby.
  • A dream.
  • An escape.
  • An emotional release.
  • An obsession.
  • A secret obsession.
  • A double-secret obsession.

Being a professional writer is a tough gig to get and a hard one to keep. Then again, so is running a successful restaurant. If you are famous among a small group of friends and family for a few tasty dishes, you may be tempted or encouraged to open your own catering business — or even your own eatery. But you would probably think twice about doing so given the increased risk, responsibilities and complexities of the undertaking. Because writing is a solitary craft it’s a little harder to draw direct parallels, but that only means you should think about the question that much more. (Note: I’m not talking about the definition of a business that the IRS uses, although that’s something else you should probably familiarize yourself with.)

If you aspire to write professionally, or even to turn a profit with your writing, it’s never too early to commit to writing as a business. It costs you nothing to do so, at least up front, and will definitely save you time, money and stress down the road. On the other hand, if you have no plan to turn your writing into a career, then that’s something you should acknowledge as early as possible. It’s going to make your writing life a whole lot easier, if not also more enjoyable.

Admitting that you’re not trying to write professionally does not mean you have to give up fantasies about success finding you, or that you’re freed from the eternal obligation to produce the best work you possibly can for your intended readers. Nobody can predict what will happen once a work is written, and that’s part of the fun of writing. But by the same token you’d have to be loony to bet on a lightning strike. And most if not all of the marketing and sales playbook involves placing bets.

Anything you do to market or sell your writing is going to take time, money or emotional capital. And if you’re like most writers I know you probably have a limited supply of each. So take a few deep breaths, then consider the following question:

Are you in business?

From the point of view of marketing and sales there are only two possible answers: yes or no. To truly understand the difference between marketing and sales, and how those tools relate to your objectives, you need to pick one of those answers. You can change your answer at any time, but you should always know what your answer is.


This is a reprint from Mark Barrett’s Ditchwalk.