Why a Writer Must also Be a Salesperson

Written by Rebecca Savastio | January 23, 2014

You’re a writer, just like I am. Perhaps you’ve always known you had a natural talent for grammar and an ear for tone and flow. When your English teacher was diagramming sentences, you just knew what was correct; not because you could name all the parts of speech, but because your intuition told you where the words should go. Being a naturally gifted writer can be compared to knowing how to harmonize: the talented singer might not be able to tell you what key or notes make the harmony correct, it just sounds right to them.

Having the gift of being able to string words together in a coherent way is something truly special, and if you’ve chosen the exciting yet sometimes intimidating path of trying to make a living as a writer, this talent will serve you well. However, and perhaps for some a little unfortunately, being able to write well is not the only skill you need to put food on the table. In fact, you could write the greatest novel in the history of the universe, but if it sits in a drawer, you could be eating ramen noodles for dinner every night unless you face one important truth about supporting yourself as a writer. It all comes down to one thing: sales.

Before you groan and say “but I can’t do sales!” consider this: all businesses rely on sales, and writing is a business. If sales don’t occur, money doesn’t arrive in the mailbox (or in today’s world, into your PayPal account). If no money arrives, no bills get paid. If no bills get paid, you may wake up one morning and find an auctioneer on your front lawn.

Of course, that’s a nightmare scenario. But while it can happen, it doesn’t have to if you embrace the basic truth of being a writer: you must be willing to sell your work yourself and market your material to the correct audience, or you won’t be able to make a living.

These days, agents fully expect you to come up with a comprehensive sales and marketing plan before they even consider representing you. The marketing package you outline has to be robust, impressive, and realistic; enough so that the agent feels secure in showing a publisher your proposal. Book proposals devoid of a sales and marketing section often get thrown in the trash.

But don’t just take my word for it. Let’s see what the agents themselves have to say. According to the well-established literary agency Keller Media, a marketing plan is: “the single most important factor in determining the size of your advance.  Together with the overview, this is where my attention will be focused.  I sell marketing plans, not content. Publishers buy authors – who can help sell many, many copies of their own books – regardless of content.  It’s a cruel, cruel world, but it works because while you are out there selling, your content reaches its audience.”

If that sounds like tough love, it’s because it is, but it’s important to understand the reality of publishing today, and it’s not as scary as it might sound at first. To understand why a writer must also be a salesperson, we have to examine what the concept of sales is, and what it isn’t.

When I and literary agents use the word “sales,” we’re not talking about a sleazy, pushy, used-car salesman approach. I’m not talking about “overcoming objections” with canned, scripted responses or trying to “trick” people into signing up for a three year contract by saying “it’s only for 36 months.” Those sales techniques are old school, and today’s consumers are too savvy to fall for them. Luckily, you don’t need to engage in any of these tactics to sell your writing.

There are three key components to sales and marketing that can make or break a great salesperson. As writers, we have to learn to apply those concepts to promote our work both before and after it’s completed. By mastering these key concepts, you’ll be well on your way to carving out a nice piece of the pie for yourself so you can have real pie on your table.

Concept One: Know Your Audience

As you can see from the quote provided by Keller Media, you must have an intimate knowledge of your audience and what it wants to consume. To illustrate this, I’ll use an example from my own job as a newspaper writer and editor; because whether you’re writing a 300 word blog post, a 2,000 word feature article for a magazine, or a novel, the concept of knowing your audience is the same.

One thing I hear over and over again on social media is the complaint “newspapers never report on anything important. All they report on is Justin Beiber. Why do they do that when we have so many important things going on in the world?” Sometimes, this type of comment is accompanied by a remark like “reporters make me sick!”

I hate to tell you this folks, but the reason why newspapers report on any story is because we know the people in our audience. In fact, we know them very well. We know who they are, how old they are, where they live, what they desire to consume (aka read), what time of day they consume it, and how many times each article is consumed. We know this every second, every minute, 24 hours a day, every day. We measure, monitor, analyze, compare, and extract audience market data to determine what we’ll report on. Therefore, we aren’t actually dictating what gets written; our audience is.

We know our audience so well because we use technology to gather and analyze all of this data. We have sophisticated back-end systems running constantly, showing us the information in real time and providing reports that help us tweak our approach.

That is just one way of knowing your audience, but there are many others. Research your market and find out who is reading the type of material you want to write. What is the demographic? What are their primary concerns? What do they want to read, and why? If you’re writing a book on golf, are you going to target the language in the book to 18-year-olds? Probably not. You’ll need to find out who plays golf: What kind of books have they purchased about golf within the last year? What are they reading?

In the newspaper business, besides using market data to know the people in our audience, we actively interact with them on social media and in the comments section under our articles. If we endeavor to write for a certain niche, we get out into that niche in real life and get to know people personally so we have our fingers on the pulse of what they want to read. This concept can be applied to any type of writing, and leads us right into our next key concept.

Concept Two: Build Relationships

Prior to becoming a full time writer, I worked for ten years as a Director of Sales and Marketing for a web design company. I was in charge of all the sales for the business. I would make calls, meet with clients, and sell them a website that suited their needs. I did very well in the job because I focused on building relationships. By the time I left a sales meeting with a client, we were friends. In fact, long after the client had their website up, they would call me, sometimes just to chat. I was always delighted and actually became true friends with some of my customers even after I left the company to pursue a career in writing, but I was even happier when they called me a year later because they needed a second website or had a friend who needed a website. Because I had built a relationship with them, it would be unthinkable that they would turn to anyone else for any website needs they ever had again. In fact, I still continue to refer people to my old company from time to time, even though I haven’t worked there in years.

The most important factor in building these types of relationships is to be sincere. Do not, under any circumstances, try to trick someone into thinking you’re friends if you don’t genuinely like them. If you’re in business, you’ve got to be a people person. Never be fake or phony, because it will shine through and get you nowhere. Be genuine, be funny, be yourself. Reach out to your contacts and connections to build bridges. Go to writer’s workshops and befriend everyone there. Talk to everyone you meet in your town, and tell them what you do. Organic and sincere networking is the best way to develop a bridge to success. The friend you meet at the workshop could introduce you to his or her agent. However, don’t go into it thinking about what you’ll get out. Just focus on relationship building and the rest will flow naturally.

Concept Three: Be Assertive

This can be a tough one for those who are intimidated by sales and marketing, but you’ve got to learn to be assertive. This concept is so important that if you’re not a naturally assertive person, I recommend seeking out an assertiveness training course and enrolling. Make sure to take classes in person, not online, because real person-to-person contact is extremely important in assertiveness training.

Being assertive means introducing yourself to people, both on social networks and in real life. It means telling everyone what you do, and sometimes it means asking them to help you. Make sure to always reciprocate by supporting them or giving to them in some way.

If you’ve written something that you need to promote, use all avenues to speak up and tell people you need their help. You may even have to make cold calls. For example, if you have secured an agent and the agent is successful in selling your book to a publisher, you’re going to be expected to put the marketing plan that looked so good on paper into action. You may have to call schools or universities to arrange speaking engagement. You’ll most likely have to call bookstores to coordinate book signings. Here’s where the relationship building comes in really handy. For example, if you’ve built the right relationships before your book is published, you’ll just about be BFFs with the local coffee shop owner, and she’ll be chomping at the bit to host a lovely book signing at her shop.

By being assertive, reaching out to people in an organic and sincere way, and spreading the word about your writing, you’re laying the groundwork for success.

In Conclusion

Adopting a salesperson’s attitude and learning the key concepts in sales now will greatly ease your path to becoming a highly successful writer in the future. You have to lay the foundation to build your mansion, even if doing so is hard work. The dividends you’ll realize from being a salesperson and marketer will place you way ahead of your competition, and ensure you can meet your financial goals as a writer; anyone who can do that has won the ultimate prize.