A Polygamist In Your Inbox: How a Pair of Unknown Authors Sold a Bunch of Books
Not many authors enjoy being told they need to be marketers. Nay, they will tell you, theirs is a higher calling. They are artists, storytellers, expositors of human nature.
Fine, but an author unread is none of those things. Successful authoring requires successful marketing. Here are some marketing rules Joanne Hanks and I followed in creating and marketing what has become, we are grateful to report, a successful self-published book.
Rule 1: Write a book that people want to read
When Joanne approached me about co-writing the story of her years in a Mormon-based polygamist cult (which she left mainstream Mormonism to join), my Inner Marketer demurred. Despite the public's appetite for "Sister Wives" and "Big Love," the category is overrun. Amazon lists 1,958 titles, most of them languishing unsold. I had no interest in adding one more.
But then Joanne shared a few nutty tales. Thanks to time's healing power, she could laugh at them-and so did I. It dawned on us that no one had exposed polygamy by means of humor and sarcasm. We had found a niche. Ours would not be "just another plyg book" after all.
Rule 2: Timing matters
We wanted to capitalize on the fact that (perhaps you heard) the 2012 Republican presidential candidate was a Mormon. Rather than lose time shopping the manuscript, we published on-demand and e-editions.
There were pros and cons. On-demand and e-publishing yield higher royalties, and Amazon and Nook could make the book instantly available. But we wouldn't have a branded publisher backing the project, and we had no ad budget. We decided to move ahead. Printed copies and e-editions became available in August, 2012.
Rule 3: A solid book has a solid brand
Joanne is mission-driven. She wants to crush cults, help women who defer their decision-making learn to stand on their own feet, and promote critical thinking. She also has a sense of humor. These traits coalesced into a powerful brand consistent in tone, theme, attitude, and purpose.
A well-branded book needs a well-branded title. "It's Not About the Sex" My Ass came to us as we discussed the tendency of polygamists to piously deny that their lifestyle is about sex. Next, we needed a subtitle to crystallize its meaning. Confessions of an Ex-Mormon, Ex-Polygamist, Ex-Wife seemed to do the trick. We mocked up a cover and found that people instantly got it and, even better, laughed out loud.
The brand survived its first challenge when the on-demand service we'd selected insisted on changing Ass to A**. We felt the change would weaken the brand promise of blunt, in-your-face snark that the contents deliver. The service stood firm, so we switched to a competitor.
Step 4: Use social media and your personal contacts
We built an official website and then asked-begged, really-Facebook friends to like and share. I emailed business contacts across the country in hopes of enlisting help and, with luck, endorsements. The subject line was "A polygamist in your inbox." Buzz began overnight. "Best title ever," posted many on Facebook, LinkedIn and Pinterest and elsewhere. "You deserve an award for best subject line," wrote a nationally recognized direct marketing expert. Whew. Not giving in to asterisks was, it seemed, the right choice. Sales began coming in from all over the U.S., and from Canada, the UK, and Australia.
Step 5: Be damned lucky
Things started happening. A well-known Australian podcast and two popular American podcasts featured Joanne. The UK's highest-circulation women's magazine interviewed her. Utah's most popular morning radio show invited Joanne to the studio and featured her for an hour.
By accident, I learned that the editor of Free Inquiry had an interest in Mormon lore. I sent him a copy, not without trepidation. If he liked the book, thousands of readers might order it; if he didn't, thousands would go nowhere near it. "Simply delightful," his review read, to our relief. An Association for Mormon Letters review said, "Of the dozens of recent books authored by those who escaped from polygamous groups, this one is unique and worth a read."
With each event, sales shot up. On Amazon, that creates an upward spiral. By the time the national media featured Rebecca Musser's The Witness Wore Red, Amazon was listing "It's Not About the Sex" My Ass one or two titles below hers. Sales reached a record high. Barely a year out, our book has sold in the thousands and shows no signs of slowing.
It's easy to look back and claim that we were smart. But had we misjudged the public's appetite for polygamy overlaid with humor ... had Facebook friends not supported us ... had interviewers and reviewers not liked the book ... had the market suddenly tired of the topic ... our book would have languished. For that matter, had I not had the good fortune to meet Joanne, and had she not made me laugh, there would be no book in the first place. So it is that we gratefully acknowledge Step 5.
Nonetheless, serendipity needs something to work with. Overlook Steps 1 through 4, and Step 5 will not have so much as a fighting chance. Budding authors take heed.