Marketing yourself or your book?

I went to BookExpo America this past weekend at the Los Angeles Convention Center.  It was huge.  Book publishers, magazine publishers, book sellers, self-publishing companies and more filled the few thousand booths in the convention hall.  Several hundred authors came out to sign copies of their books.  It was amazing!  There was one common goal:  SELL.

All trade shows and expos are about marketing and selling, so this didn't strike me as odd.  What did strike me was the great lengths some of the companies went to in an effort to push their product.  My daughter and I giggled many times at the antics.  We saw several people dressed in outrageous costumes; most should have stayed in the closet.  One man was dressed as a butler, white gloves and all, holding a shiny silver tray and handing out free books.  He even had a british accent!  Others gave away fresh cookies.

One company in particular had a magician giving away free money.  He showed us five $1 bills and then flipped them over and they became $100 bills!  He said he was going to give them all away.  So we waited.  And waited.  He performed magic, threw the $1 bills into the crowd, all the while tempting us with the hundreds.  We waited some more while he played poker with a man in the crowd (four of us).  I kept wondering what this had to do with the actual product he was pushing:  a children's book.

I have very little patience with being sold; I couldn't take it anymore so I told my daughter we had to go.  I'm not sure if he ever did give away the $500.  Once home, shoes off, and tired feet propped up, I read the free book the magician gave us during his show.  He had said that it was endorced by Matt Lauer of the Today Show on NBC so my curiosity was high.  And that's when I asked myself if they were selling a book or themselves as great marketers.

The story is about a bear and he overcomes three obstacles to accomplish his goal.  The moral of the story is clear:  never give up, keep trying, you can do it.  But that's about it.  It occurred to me that this self-publishing company was making the moral, the lesson to be learned, the main character of the book instead of the bear being the main character and showing through his actions the moral of the story.  Writing a book with a strong moral is commendable; however, I'm not so sure that children will be as drawn to it, especially for the long haul.

The way the story is written, the bear was not given any character traits.  He had nothing endearing or recognizable to associate with.  I could not see myself or my kids in him.  In the artwork, the bear(s) all wore pretty much the same expression throughout.  Even their arms and legs stayed the same.  There was nothing unique or different; no change had taken place once the goal was accomplished.  He was the same bear with the same expression.

Which brings me back to the marketing.  The magician at the expo exclaimed several times that if we had not heard of this bear yet, we would in the very near future, yet he said very little about the bear.  He had a stuffed animal sitting beside him and he picked it up as an afterthought.  His whole presentation dealt with giving away money.  They are marketing heavily.  But what are they selling?  Themselves as great marketers or the bear as their main character?  There was not one mention of what the company was trying to accomplish in teaching kids to have winning attitudes through their series of fourteen books.  Not one mention of the personality of the bear and what he was trying to accomplish in his bear life.

The web site is even more problematic.  It shows older age kids reading and liking the book.  Older kids are not their target market!  The reading level of this book is three to six years of age.  My eleven year old thought it was cheezy.

Eventually, the book will need to stand on its own legs without all the heavy marketing.  One aspect is clear:  if you have a great book, it will sell itself (practically).  Of course you need to get the word out, but once you do the book will take off like a rocket because it is so good.  Readers, especially moms with little ones, get excited and cannot contain themselves when a really great book hits the market.  But it is really disappointing when a company goes to such great lengths to sell a book and the book turns out to be less-than-stellar.

The lesson is clear:  pay attention to the rules of the genre, clearly define your audience (moms or kids?), and don't make the lesson or moral the main character of your book.  The best marketing strategies in the world will eventually fail if you have not employed proper writing technique.  The aim is longevity; your book should outlast you.  It won't if sales solely depend on your marketing efforts and giving away free money.