Friday, December 28, 2007

The Business of Writing

Some thoughts on the business end of writing. But first a disclaimer: If you are getting business advice from me, you are in trouble!

That said, here are a few things I learned and noticed. Note that, in college, I was one of those "helper types" (studying to be a teacher) who would have felt it beneath me to stoop to a mercenary course of study by taking any business classes. So, what I do know, I have learned by reinventing the wheel.

The first lesson I learned is that it isn't about "making a better mousetrap."

You can have the best mousetrap in the world. Head-and-shoulders above the competition. Your mousetrap can be a "revolutionary breakthrough" – a real one – and that won't do you any good.

Let me qualify that statement: It won't do you any good until you have made a name for yourself in that industry.

That's because people may rave about your product, but they won't spread the word. Not unless word is already spreading because you have already made a name for yourself. Go figure.

I learned this the hard way. I have a product like that, my first product: The Operation Doubles Tennis Strategy Guide. It isn't just better; it's much better. It is no hype when I say that its formational approach truly is innovative, that it is revolutionary and a breakthrough.

Unfortunately, those terms have become such a cliché that I can't use them in sales copy for fear of the boomerang effect they would have on potential customers, making them think this book is just more of the same ole same ole + the same ole hype.

I expected word-of-mouth publicity to kick in and gradually increase sales and traffic to my tennis site. But it didn't. Go figure.

Why?

I don't know, but I suspect that much buying is merely conspicuous consumption or buying something that may even be useless junk, just because the buyer thinks buying this junk is all the rage.

In fora where players discuss various products, you can't miss the almost fanatical loyalty to the famous name of the author or the well-known name brand, rather than the product itself. Which reminds me of the first designer to get the bright idea of putting his name on blue jeans. People nearly trampled each other in the stampede to become walking billboards to make his name famous. Almost like it's a popularity contest and everyone wants to be on the winning side.

Even in the case of a product like this tennis book – one that has a big impact on how many tennis matches you win. Go figure. Vanity and the herding instinct trump success on the scoreboard.

But I think there's more to it, because people really do want to win more tennis matches and therefore must be buying with that end in mind. Unfortunately, however, "experts" today have people thinking that we aren't qualified to make any judgments ourelves.

This is a selling handle, of course. Undermine people's confidence in their own common sense, good judgment, and even EXPERIENCE to make them buy yours.

These "experts" feel that they need to insult our intelligence by even pontificating on what to pack in our tote bags. Like we are that stupid. Like we'd never have thought of throwing in a few band-aids without that "expert" advising us to do so.

That's like paying an MD to show you how to take your temperature.

So, I suspect that, until you have been generally recognized as an authority figure in an industry, people don't trust their judgment about your product enough to spread the word about it. Even FACTS don't measure up to this mysterious aura of being an authority figure. Even if this book has drammatically raised players' ranking or their first-serving percentage. Oh, they will rave about that – to you and those who already know about it. But word-of-mouth publicity never gets going. Go figure.

It took me a long time to get my head around this fact. I kept trying to improve an already outstanding product. Fix – oh, how horrible! – a typo in it. Rewrite a sentence that could be misread or that the reader could miss the point of. Improve the aesthetics of the layout and design. Make purely technical improvements to improve the quality of print or to reduce the number of points in those drawings of tiny human figures in the court diagrams.

I felt like a hamster in a treadmill. None of it did any noticeable good. Sales didn't get off that flatline and take off until I became a recognized authority in the industry.

But that isn't all. I discovered other things that help, too, though we writerly types may fail to see the value in them. More on these other stepping-stones to success, later.

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