By Steven Pressfield | Published: June 3, 2015
[We and Penguin Books will be giving away 200 free copies of The Lion’s Gate paperback, ahead of a Google Hangout with me and August Cole, co-author of Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War and director of the Atlantic Council’s Art of Future Warfare project. On June 25 at 3pm ET we will discuss how creativity is literally a lifesaver when resources and time are short and the odds are stacked against you. Which, for writers, is most of the time. Enter your address using this sign-up link and we’ll send a copy your way. More details about the Google Hangout to come.]
I was talking to a tech-savvy friend. He was telling me about “search engine optimization” and all the incredible ways that Google and Facebook and Amazon and other marketing superpowers can mine their proprietary data or data in the public domain and get us a roster of our exact potential readers. It’s mind-boggling what these algorithms can do. They can generate for us a list of 52-year-old men who’ve had lower back problems and have either a) ordered a book on this subject, b) visited a website to browse on this subject, or c) noted on their Facebook page (or even on their wife’s page) that their back hurts.
But how does that help you and me as writers?
It does potentially, I’m sure. And I certainly wish I knew how to exploit all these hi-tech resources. (I don’t.) But one thing I can tell you for sure:
Nobody knows who’s gonna read your book. Random House doesn’t know and Amazon doesn’t know. Facebook doesn’t know. Google doesn’t know. Not even Oprah knows. You and I? For sure we don’t know.
My book Gates of Fire came out in 1998. A year later I learned it was huge in the Brazilian gay community. (How do I know? Because I get letters.)
To this day I have no idea who reads my books—and that’s after the fact. Before they’re published? I’m flying blind and so is everybody else.
Lemme tell you a tale of two covers. (We touched on this in last week’s post). When I say “covers,” what I really mean is marketing. Because a book’s cover is the product of the marketing concept behind it. And that marketing concept is a product of the publisher’s (or the writer herself if she’s self-publishing) guess at what groups will respond positively to the book.
When I first had the idea for The Lion’s Gate (a non-fiction account of the Six Day War between Israel and Egypt/Syria/Jordan in 1967), I had an audience in mind. In other words, a marketing target.
I was completely wrong.
Shawn acted as my agent on The Lion’s Gate. A bidding war ensued. Five publishers made offers. All of them (I don’t know for sure, but I’m almost dead certain) had the same marketing concept as I did. They were completely wrong too.
Here’s what we all thought:
American Jewish readers will respond to a rip-snorting true tale of Israeli heroism—a desperate underdog nation in 1967, achieving a spectacular victory against overwhelming odds. The story had everything that the American Jewish audience should love: Jewish fighter pilots, Jewish paratroopers, love stories, history, religion, the liberation of Judaism’s holiest site, the Wailing Wall, after 1900 years, etc.
Wrong, wrong, and wrong.
We all got it wrong.
What went awry? I’m guessing now. (Again, nobody can answer these questions). I think we got the U.S. Jewish mind-set wrong. American Jews, who are politically liberal in the main, don’t want to read about wars. They’re anti-war. And specifically they don’t want to read about Jewish wars, even resounding victories. Why? Again I’m guessing. Because they want peace? Because they’ve read too many news stories about Israeli soldiers abusing Palestinians? Because they themselves are anti-Israel?
Eight or nine months after The Lion’s Gate came out, Shawn and I published a book by an Israeli fighter pilot ace named Giora Romm. The book is called Solitary and it’s terrific, a true story, military classic about Romm getting shot down over Egypt and his long, hellish, unbelievably courageous recovery.
Giora came to Los Angeles, where I live, to promote the book. He’s a bona fide national hero in Israel. The L.A. Jewish community rolled out the red carpet. I served as Giora’s driver for the week he was in town. I was there at every reception, book signing, speaking engagement. Giora is hugely charismatic, funny, charming, a paragon of the Israeli war hero. People loved him.
But the book didn’t catch fire.
I can only guess, but I think it’s for the same reasons that The Lion’s Gate didn’t take off. American Jews don’t want to read about war. It’s a turn-off to them.
But back to our tale of two covers.
The first cover for The Lion’s Gate said visually, “Serious book, Jewish war victory, historically real, visceral and immediate.”
I’m not privy to the discussions at Sentinel/Penguin, the publisher. What issues did they debate in the marketing meetings leading up to the second bite of the apple, the publication of the paperback?
Plan A wasn’t working. That was clear for sure.
They came up with Plan B, and Plan B required a different marketing statement, i.e. a different cover.
The new cover is aimed at a different audience. We’ve given up on attracting American Jews. The new target audience is the military reader, the action reader. To this end, an entirely new marketing campaign has been developed, aimed at an entirely different audience.
Personally I love the new cover. I love the new marketing campaign. But will they work? Will the Plan B audience respond?
Why do you and I write books? Why do we pick the topics we pick? There may be some among us who start with a specific audience in mind and then write, targeting that audience. But I’d be amazed if there were many readers of this blog who think that way.
My guess (again that’s all I can do) is that most of us write for ourselves. We pick topics we love, subjects we’re interested in. We’re betting that our taste aligns with the taste of at least some readers.
But once we’ve finished our historical saga about Queen Boudica of Early Britain or the 100% true memoir of our battle with sex/drug/videogame addiction, what do we do? Who will our readers be? If we knew, we could design the optimal book cover, plan the perfect publicity outreach, book the ideal signing tour.
Who can tell us? Does Facebook have the algorithm? Is there an app for that?