There once was an ancient Greek aphorism: “Know thyself!” It was inscribed over the entrance, or forecourt, of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi–where the ancients used to go in search of supernatural wisdom or before battle, in hope of a cheerful word from the oracle. Socrates the philosopher invoked it, and therefore millions have read it down through the years:
What does Socrates and the Delphic maxims have to do with self-publishing? Quite a lot actually, if you ascribe to my theory, which is that to sell books you must know your readers and how to target them precisely, and if you want to know your readers you had best know yourself pretty thoroughly, too.
Perhaps I’ve been influenced by the resurgence of interest in mindfulness, which these days is often closely associated with meditation, spirituality, and environmental justice. Those are all great things, and while I think self-understanding is probably a crucial part of all three of these things, they’re not what I’m primarily interested in today. Today, I’m interested in examining the nexus between self-published authors and their readers, a nexus which we are bound and required to understand if we want to break even on our publishing expenses. In this context, being mindful of both your own self and your readers is critical.
(Boy, do I feel callous saying that. But it’s true.)
The fact of the matter is: selling books is dependent upon this peculiar relationship, and as many counselors and therapists are likely to tell you, while you can’t control the other person or persons in a relationship, you can control what you do.
So how do you get to know thyself?
- Make comparisons. Not, like, in terms of quality of your book! But identify a handful of books which are similar to your upcoming one in theme and content, and start jotting down characteristics which they seem to share. And … yes, you need to do this before your book comes out. Ideally, long before your book comes out. It will help you frame your promotional work as you start seeing what material these authors are putting out–blog posts, newsletters, YouTube video updates, etc–to reel in their readers. Experiment with these modes, and hone a few new skills. Nowhere does Socrates say that the self is monolithic and unchanging!
- Listen up. Yeah, this one seems totally obvious, but a lot of authors tend to find a system that they feel comfortable with and stick to it, even as it slowly becomes apparent that they’re not actually reaching their readers. So, listen. Listen, and be willing to alter your attack vector when it comes to marketing. Don’t keep doing a thing just because you like it or because you’re comfortable with it. Your feelings don’t sell books; your readers’ do. A part of self-knowledge is understanding what you’re feeling at any given moment, and simultaneously recognizing that others may or may not share these feelings.
- Go for the soft sell. Self-publishing is all about the relationship between you and your readers, and you’ll get nowhere by pushing your agenda (selling books) over developing real and authentic relationships with your readers. If you’re not willing to partner with your readers in this endeavor, then that’s something you ought to know about yourself, and adjust accordingly. As in, find yourself a marketing coach or perhaps even a social media manager to do some of this work for pay.
- Plug the gaps. Not like a boy with his thumb in a hole in a dike (man, where did my parents come up with some of their little anecdotes? It’s amazing what sticks!) but as a student of the self and and of relationships. Where are your weaknesses? A hint: usually they’re somewhere close by when you find yourself uncomfortable with some particular aspect of the publishing and marketing processes. Pay attention to feelings of discombobulation and discomfort, and either by yourself or with an expert sit down and start drawing up a list of skills to develop or strategies to adhere to in order to accommodate these weaknesses. For me, structuring my day-to-day routine is a nightmare, and this leads to spotty engagement online. That’s a weakness. But it’s a weakness that, like most other weaknesses, can be dealt with using a jot of foresight and good planning.
If you know yourself, you’re most of the way down the path to knowing how to reach your readers. And as Dean Koontz says:
You are not alone. ♣︎