Understanding the Marketing Department

How do you market Christian fiction?

It's a real challenge; make no mistake. To understand how Christian publishers go about marketing fiction let's look at how they market books in general.

What Is Marketing?

But first, what is marketing? Marketing is letting people know about your product so they will purchase it. Marketing for books consists mainly of advertising, be it in print ads, TV or radio, direct mail, or via e-mail/Internet. (Book tours, by the way, the epitome of success in some writers' minds, are exceedingly rare in Christian publishing.)

Marketing is to be distinguished from publicity, which is usually promotion you can get for free. Free is the operative word. Interviews, book reviews, and book signings are examples.

Marketing, on the other hand, must be paid for. If you see an ad in a magazine, hear a promotional spot on the radio, or see a book on a front table in a bookstore, know that that is purchased space. It wasn't featured in that sales catalogue because the retail chain just couldn't contain themselves. It was featured there because the publisher ponied up the dough to buy that placement.

For every book that gets approved for publication at a Christian publishing company, the marketing/publicity department receives a marketing budget. (More on that later.) They have to make as big a splash as possible on that money and no more.

Marketing Christian Books

The first principle in successful marketing is knowing who your market is. If your product is a heavy duty pickup truck, you're probably not going to spend much of your budget advertising in Ladies Home Journal.

So, who is the market for Christian books? By and large, it is white, American, Evangelical women of child-bearing, child-raising, or empty nest years. This is the demographic that walks into Christian bookstores and the Christianity section in secular bookstores.

This is especially true for Christian fiction. While men or teenagers or others outside the aforementioned demo-graphic might wander into a Family Christian Store looking for music or Every Man's Battle, when it comes to fiction, it's the white Evangelical women who buy it.

So, if you're the head of a marketing department at a Christian publishing company, where are you going to spend your advertising dollars? Golf Digest? K-98.6 FM, Where Portland Rocks Hardest? On TV during the NHL playoffs?

No. You're going to figure out where your target demo-graphic is and you're going to advertise there.

So, where are the white, American, Evangelical women of child-bearing, child-raising, or empty nest years? Where can you advertise so you will reach the largest number of these women in a single shot?

There is sometimes some special configuring that goes on within the marketing departments I've worked with. For instance, if a book is of interest only to young, stay-at-home mothers with young children, the advertising dollars might be spent on an ad in Momsense, the M.O.P.S. magazine, instead of in the usual places.

But by and large, marketing departments have tended to do the standard workup on every title. If the marketing budget for a book is high, they can hit several of the main Christian women's magazines with several months' worth of full-page ads. Plus a number of other marketing activities like direct mail pieces, flashy displays at conferences, e-mail blasts, or the like. Plus all the free things the publicity people will attempt to do. The more money in the budget for a book, the more deluxe the treatment.

If the marketing budget is smaller, a book typically gets a stripped-down version of that plan. Maybe one small ad in one less expensive magazine. Maybe a "group ad" in which three or more books are put together in a single ad. Maybe just radio interviews and review copies sent out for review. The less money in the budget, the less deluxe the treatment.

How Are Marketing Budgets Determined?

The trick, then, is to be sure there's lots of money in the marketing budget for your book, right? Well, yes. But it's not easy to do.

The marketing budget for a book is usually a percentage of that book's expected earnings. If a book is expected to be a blockbuster, there's lots of money in the budget to make that happen. If it's expected to be a dud, the marketing budget amounts to a few bucks and a pat on the back.

A book's marketing budget is also usually a reflection of how big an advance the publisher had to pay to get the book.

It's strange, but the more a publisher has had to pay to get a book, the more they tend to put into marketing. To earn back that money, I suppose. And to take what would be a good seller and hopefully make it into a bestseller.

It's one of the enduring head-scratchers of publishing that the books that need the least amount of marketing help get the most (books by bestselling authors, for instance), while the books that need the most help getting noticed by potential buyers get the least.

I'd love it if the books that simply have to be published and made available to sell like hotcakes (the next by Max Lucado, for instance) would give 90% of their budgets to the books that, if people knew about them, would sell very well and really do some good to the Body of Christ. So far, no takers.

Marketing Christian Speculative Fiction

So there you have it: you've got a limited budget and a set number of things you like to do to market books. If you do those things you will sell a decent number of books. All well and good.

Christian fiction is even more limited to that demographic than the typical Christian Living title. Here you're really focused on those women, because supposedly those are the only people reading Christian fiction. This is borne out when those few attempts to publish to other reader groups (men, for instance) fail miserably. So you hit the women's magazines and you call it even.

But what if you're a marketing department and you're given something that doesn't fall within standard parameters? What if you're given a book that doesn't appeal to the audience you know how to reach?

Christian science fiction, fantasy, time travel, and related speculative genres fall decidedly outside the box. Other genres do, too, like fiction targeted to men (military, sports, adventure, male-centered westerns, etc.) or to the savvy teenager or twentysomething. 

There exists a conflict between the editorial departments and the marketing departments at all the Christian publishing companies I've worked for and with. Most of the time they get along famously. But occasionally editorial will get something through the system (i.e., approved for publication) that the marketing people just shake their heads at. "How are we going to market that?" they ask.

I understand their dilemma. Editorial departments are notorious for wanting fine writing or lofty themes or great literature. Marketing, meanwhile, is tasked with making bestsellers out of everything the publishing company publishes. How can they do their jobs and meet their goals (and hold onto their jobs) if they're given impossible things to market? If the book doesn't sell well they might get blamed, when all the time the problem was with the product itself.

Marketing departments are typically given 50 books and told to get marketing plans for them all by the end of the month. You go into survival mode. You look for sequences and packages and tiers. You don't think about each book. You're doing triage. The tyranny of the urgent.

I wish marketing departments had more time and manpower (and, yes, budget) to use their immense creativity to custom design a marketing and publicity plan for each book they're given to promote.

For now, the few Christian speculative fiction titles that do get published usually end up not really getting a big marketing splash. These books are just too different and appeal to a market that is too far outside of what these marketing teams have time to figure out. They would if they could, I know.

Marketing Is Not God

It's true that most Christian novels, and especially most Christian speculative novels, will not get much marketing or publicity. How do you get a novelist on TV for an interview? What will they talk about? "Why did Jeremiah walk through the door just then?" It's much easier to secure interviews for nonfiction authors, who can talk about topics.

However, having said that the novels we love won't get promoted much, I need to quickly point out that marketing is not God.

"Duh," you say? Well, you'd be amazed at how many authors act as if marketing is God. Or at least a god. When a book comes out and doesn't get a marketing push, the author cries foul. The book is thought doomed. If only it had gotten a front-page ad in Publishers Weekly it would've been a best-seller.

Well...maybe. But probably not. God is still God. He's still in charge of how well (or how poorly) your book sells. Yes, you want good marketing support, and yes, you want to do all the promotion you can do, but in the end God (not the marketing department) makes sure it finds its audience.

So what's a writer to do? You've written a fabulous Christian speculative novel and, dream of dreams, you've gotten it published. What can you expect from the market-ing department. Unfortunately, probably not much. There are lots of folks out there with great ideas, so hopefully this situation will change soon. But for now, most of it will depend on word of mouth, reviews, your own promotional efforts, and, of course, God.

And He may be able to do more to build your faith by having you write a so-so seller than a bestseller. May you rest in Him and write exclusively for the (accepting) audience of One.

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