When I first started trying to write professionally, I spent a lot of time throwing things at the wall to see what stuck. I was like a baby that picks up everything it can get its chubby little sausage-fingered hands on and jams it in its mouth. After about the 500th realization that “hey, yuk, this isn’t food”, the light bulb comes on and the realization that there’s got to be a better way sets in. You need information, and you use that information to make choices, and when you start stacking up those choices in neat little rows what you end up with is a plan.
As an author-publisher (and thanks to Chuck Wendig for that ego-soothing term), anything I write has to have a marketing plan. Even as a freelancer, anything I write has to have a marketing plan. This is the difference between being a working writer and being a guy who blogs about writing about writing. This is the difference between creating art that soothes my soul and allows me to explore me true inner self, and creating entertainment that keeps a minimally-leaky roof over my head and tasty, tasty food on my table. If I choose to write this thing, who is going to pay me actual cash money for it?
A lot of people are afraid of marketing plans, because they think they’re fancy, formal things that you need to have an MBA from Harvard Business School to write. Other people blow of writing a marketing plan because they’re really just common sense, so incredibly simple that anyone with half a brain shouldn’t have to write this stuff down. The truth, as I’ve experienced it, lies somewhere in between. No, they are not hard to write, and yes, they address a lot of unspoken things that you probably instinctively know about the work. As with a lot of things, though, writing it down makes it real. When you’re stressed out and dealing with a ton of other things, it’s also more than just a nice idea to have something written down, a sort of map to remind you “what the hell am I doing?”
A bare-bones marketing plan doesn’t have a lot of moving parts. You need a paragraph of so describing what it is; you can cut this down to a single line for a short story or expand it out to two or three paragraphs for a longer, more complex manuscript, but don’t go overboard. Keep it tight. You need to know who the intended audience is, not only to know where and how you can sell it but so you remember who it is you’re writing for. You need to be able to articulate why your piece of writing is going to be better than someone else’s extremely similar piece of writing, whether that’s the credentials and viewpoint that you bring to the table as the author, or the clever twist and unusual approach you bring to the piece itself. Finally you need to know who your partners in crime are going to be, from potential publishers to buy it to self-publishing sites to dot it yourself to forums and social media and other venues to publicize the things so people know that it’s out there for them to buy.
That’s really about it. You can add in fiddly bits and data and a lot of business-y, book trade-y jargon, but that’s honestly about all there is to it.
These days I tend to start the marketing plan for a book, a short story, or a screenplay at about the same time I start writing the work itself. Problems only occur when I become beholden to it. If I get new ideas, discover a new direction or a new character or a clever subplot that doesn’t conform to the marketing plan, I have a tendency to dismiss it out of hand. That’s wrong. It needs to be a dance. Yes, you need to think about how your creative choices affect your ability to sell the thing. You may very well end up chucking out ideas because they don’t stick to the plan. But the plan has some wiggle room in it, and it is no sin to tweak it to fit the work, as long as you’re clear about what you’re doing and that the revised marketing plan will be as good a thing as the tweaks in your story.
Working with a marketing plan does keep me focused, though. Knowing the audience affects the writing. If it’s for grandmas or elementary school children, the swears and bloody violence should probably be kept to a minimum. If you’re writing a roleplaying game supplement targeted at folks with a gamist mindset, you might want to skip over the narrativist diatribes. Knowing who you’re talking to helps to craft the message.
There is only one thing I want you to take away from this concept of a marketing plan: You are not Kevin Costner and this is not Field of Dreams. If you build it, that does not guarantee that they will come. You cannot bang out daily word count and expect readers to stumble upon you, publishers to magically trip over your work laying in the road, and the universe to shower you with riches. You need to know how you’re going to get your work out there and how you intend to get paid. Writers write; professional writers make money.