In what is set to be my final fellow-author brain-pick, I have an interview with SCBWI-BI renowned Benjamin Scott.
Benjamin Scott has written eight books for the book packager Working Partners. He is the lead author on the ghost-written Star Fighters series (having written 5 books as Max Chase) and is a contributing author to another successful series for 7 to 9 year olds. He is the co-author of a career guide for graduates and currently has a gritty YA fantasy, The Song of Freiya, out on submission with his agent. After graduating in History at UEA, Norwich, he worked in advertising as an account manager before making the unusual transition to becoming a copywriter. After going freelance, he has devoted more and more time to fiction writing as well as sharing his passion for the written word.
No doubt working on Star Fighters for Working Partners was a great learning experience in writing terms. But did you learn anything about marketing through the process?
One of the most important things I’ve learned is that marketing starts with the original concept of a book. As well as being passionate about stories, Working Partners are very commercially driven. From the very start of each project the idea of the market is always there – who is the target reader? Why does this series stand out from any other? And the answer is never simply ‘because it’s one of our books’, but always a reason integral to the whole story. As someone who used to work in a planning–led advertising agency, the idea of identifying niches and target areas is second nature to me. I’ve tried to bring the same approach to my newer projects, thinking about how an idea works in terms of being able to market it – a clear concept and an exciting hook make life so much easier (both in terms of writing, submitting and promotion). It’s a good reminder that marketing is creative and hard-nosed.
What about PR and promotion?
I’ve also been published before in the student/graduate market. It was a valuable lesson in the realities of publishing: you get what you get in terms of support. This isn’t to say publishers aren’t supportive, but there is a realistic limit to the time and money they can spend on any one project. PR and marketing teams are small with a finite budget. So, the biggest champion for any book should be its author, regardless of how it’s published. A PR manager will have a list of contacts, but that doesn’t guarantee success – and there’s a lot an author can do when looking at opportunities to promote their work. An author might also take more risks to see what will happen.
Have you been directly involved in promoting the Star Fighter books, or do you use promotion as a way to get exposure as a writer?
I was very lucky as when the Star Fighter books were launched I was invited by Working Partners and Bloomsbury to help promote the books as the series lead-author (in most other series the ghost-writers stay below the radar as much as possible). Because of the strange nature of the ghost-writing relationship I’m not directly involved with the publisher and their marketing efforts, although it’s great to see what they’ve done and how well they’ve worked.
My personal focus is going into schools to talk about the books – I have a highly developed Star Fighters assembly routine which is so much fun and brings the world of the books alive. It’s not a sales pitch, but selling the excitement of the Star Fighters’ universe. Personally I get very put off by very thinly veiled (if veiled at all) book promotions, however I get sucked in by an interesting premise or world. So I constantly look at how to bring the words on the page alive for my audience. With Star Fighters, because it’s such a cool premise, it’s pretty easy to bring alive.
Can you say, on average, how much time you spend on marketing/promotion?
This is where the lines get blurred for me because when does socialising become networking, or when does being on social media become promotion? Promotional work that has a specific target probably takes up an afternoon a week averaged out. Events are a form of marketing, I’m looking to create a positive experience of me and the books when I visit schools, and hope that it will create some form of Word-of-Mouth marketing off the back of it. Making one excited and engaged reader is worth much more than making a sale.
Things may change when my name is on the cover of a book, but my marketing strategy at the moment is focused on the school visit aspects of my work and my ‘brand’ as an author. I’m selling the concept of me as a Writer (and to some extent my editing services and creative writing teaching), rather than a specific product or book.
How would you expect this to change once The Song of Freiya is published?
I think there’s going to be lots of pressure to change, both internal and external. Two things will change if The Song of Freiya is lucky enough to find a home with a publisher. Firstly, my strategy is going to shift to focus more on secondary schools and fantasy-related events. Secondly, I’m going to want to make it all about the book – and this is an area I’m going to have to think hard about. Once people know even a bit about the story, most marketing messages are going to start becoming repetitious, so I’m going to have to work hard to find new angles to discuss book related topics.
In terms of sales, what do you think is the most effective marketing tool or initiative? What about in terms of getting school visits?
It’s hard to say without more sales data, which I don’t have access to, but the best day for sales I ever had was when I headlines a reading tent at a school fete: lots of parents around expecting to spend money and I got the kids buzzing the day before with an assembly.
With regard to school visits, my results have surprised me so far. About half of them have come through friends or Word-of-Mouth, I’ve been very fortunate that a couple friends of mine have been keen to have me visit schools they’ve had relationships with. I’ve also had a couple schools who have heard about my visits through other schools in their cluster. The other half have come almost entirely through Contact-an-Author which is a terrific resource and tool. It takes a while to build one’s confidence, so I’m only just beginning to push doing the visits more proactively – I have a plan, but we’ll see what results it yields!
In terms of exposure, what has been your most effective marketing tool or initiative?
Most of my exposure in the children’s book world came through my volunteering for SCBWI. I didn’t realise it when I started but it was probably one of the smartest moves I’ve made in my life. Despite the long hours, I received lots of positive exposure and through the supportive network of SCBWI I’ve gained some opportunities that I’m not sure I would’ve otherwise. So my advice is, don’t limit your idea of exposure to be directly related to the book you’re promoting, giving something back (although it might sound cynical) also works to increase exposure.
I used to have lots of arguments with co-workers about what is a brand. Ultimately, I think it is about what we expect from a company and how they behave – their reputation. I try as much as possible to be the person I want to be and live by the values that are important to me (these are often reflected in my own writing – so it does make sense from a marketing viewpoint too). This might seem somehow a different topic than ‘marketing’ but as an author, I am my own brand. I need to be my own brand ambassador. Everything I do might be considered marketing as the world is interlinked in complex ways – here’s an example, I was chatting to the people who I normally hire cars from about my school visits, just being friendly, and they took a business card to give to their wife who works as a teacher in a local school.
I should also mention Contact-an-Author has definitely been the best marketing website I’ve used so far in terms of actual contacts and enquiries for school visits.
What advice on marketing and promotion would you give to someone starting out?
Five Key Tips
1) Learn how to draft a decent Press Release and what makes marketing copy work. There are lots of excellent books on marketing and promotion (i.e. Teach Yourself Copywriting or Teach Yourself Imaginative Marketing), make use of them.
2) Remember that you have limited time and a limited budget. Be selective in what you choose to do in terms of promotion, but also take occasional risks. It’s okay not to do everything at once and to break down tasks into stages – I often create personal timing plans so I can keep on track with my tasks.
3) Watch what other people are doing, but evaluate it for yourself. There seems to be a lot of people marketing ‘marketing’. Always think about whether what someone is trying to see it fits in with your strategy, your target market and your products. It’s easy to be seduced by the big new thing or marketing glitz. I sometimes feel nervous when I see other authors using certain sites and a voice at the back of my head starts asking whether I should be on it too (then I remember tip 2!).
4) Keep a list of what you’ve done and results you’ve achieved – keep evidence of your successes for rainy-days and moments of doubt. I find I forget what I have done and what I did achieve, so having a reminder works really well to raise my spirits.
5) Get a decent selection of photos of yourself. Find a friend who is keen on photography and try to get a range of places and expressions. It’s always helpful to have them on file for when you need a new profile picture.
Is there anything you have learned that would make you do things differently when it comes to promoting The Song of Freiya?
Being a ghost-writer complicates a lot of things because the relationship with the publisher is far more removed and as passionate I am about the books, they belong to someone else. So for The Song of Freiya (or whatever it might be called!) I want to have a closer relationship with the publishers’ marketing and PR team so I can add to their effort with what I’m doing. For example, if the publishers are going to do a print of bookmarks, I’d probably ask if I could add to the budget to take advantage of better economies of scales. I’ve calculated that for an extra £100 you can turn a 1000 bookmark print run into a 4000 bookmark print run – saving £300 if you reprinted that original print run three times.
I am also going to be more proactive in contacting schools and bookshops as soon as I have a publication date, especially now that I have a better sense of what I’m doing through trial and error. I’ll probably end up re-focusing my online efforts to be in the places where readers want to engage with me. At the moment, I tend to target sites where fellow authors and teachers hang out. With Freiya being for Young Adults, there’s an opportunity to engage directly with the target audience online which is an exciting prospect!
Thank you Ben! Those really are incredibly helpful answers. Lots to digest there.
In fact, next time’s blog I’m going to review the interviews in terms of my own marketing strategy – see if pulling together different ideas provides a new focus.
Thanks for reading!