When a startup is figuring out their go-to-market strategy, one of the first things they look at is who’s in their space. Who are the competitors? What are their products? How do they market themselves and to whom? What do their websites look like? How do they speak about their value proposition?
Thinking of other writers as competitors is counterproductive—there’s plenty of reading time to go around—but looking around and paying attention to how your peers market themselves and their work can be very helpful. In grad school, our professors instructed us to read literary journals to see what was getting published and where. Doing this creates a kind of situational awareness for writers—it helps you understand the prevailing aesthetics, the ecosystem, the writers and editors who might share your tastes. Looking at how your peers present themselves is no different, it’s just for marketing instead of for the work itself.
So who are my peers?
Look at the writers who have something in common with you and who are a few steps ahead of you career-wise.
Writers in your city or area whom you admire
Workshop colleagues who are actively marketing themselves
Writers you met at readings, events, lectures, open mics who you thought were interesting
Writers who write in a style similar to yours, or about similar subjects
Make a list of at least ten. Write it down. It might be helpful to note why you put them on the list.
And who are not my peers?
Don’t waste time analyzing the marketing efforts of:
Famous people. Don’t compare your marketing efforts (or, good lord, your writing) with famous people, Pulitzer-prize winners, George Saunders, whoever. What works for them won’t work for you.
Internet-famous writers. If you want to publish books, feel free to ignore the person with the witty tweets and the tens of thousands of followers. Do you want to write literature or do you want to write 140-character punchlines? If you want to write comedy or be the next Melissa Broder, by all means, look at what these people are doing and learn from it.
Freelance writers. If you’re like me, you probably know some literary writers who also freelance or do some professional writing on the side. Take care to separate out the freelance writing marketing. Freelancers have a whole different way of marketing their stuff—different product, different audience.
Dabblers. Your friend who published in a journal that’s just a Blogspot site. Your MFA colleague who posts every four months and only to ask you to read her essay on some site you’ve never heard of. It’s not that they’re bad writers; it’s that they’re bad marketers. You don’t want to bother factoring these people into your analysis.
What should I be paying attention to?
Because so much writerly conversation happens on Twitter, start there. The goal is to identify what you like about these writers’ accounts.
How do they tweet?
Who do they retweet and what kind of material do they share?
Do they engage in conversation with people on Twitter?
If so, what does that look like?
Is this person an asshole? How are they an asshole?
We’ll cover websites in a later post. Writers seem to have a tortured relationship with them—most writers’ websites aren’t great. Look at your peers’ sites and see if they do anything you like. Make particular note of:
What the first screen you see looks like. Is there an image? A bio? Something else?
Whether or not they include blog posts.
How they list their publications.
Where they read
One of the most visible ways emerging writers get in front of audiences is by literally getting in front of audiences. Where have these writers read publically? Have they done any lectures, appeared on any panels, conducted any interviews?
Where they publish
Look at where their work has appeared and scope out those journals. Do they publish work you enjoy? Would you fit there?
What they blog about
It may or may not be necessary for you to have a blog (there will probably be a post about this later), but if one of your peers blogs, read it.
What do they blog about?
How prominently is this featured on their website or social profiles?
Do they share their blog posts on social media?
Do these writers have side projects? Do they have videos of them reading at an event? Do they host a podcast or appear on one?
What do I do with this information?
Write it down. Seriously. Make a detailed document that you can refer to—think of it as a marketing toolbox. This will probably feel really weird, but it helps you understand and you can consult it later.
You’ll see some things you like and want to emulate and some things that seem half-assed. Make note of what you see as mistakes or bad decisions. What would you do differently? When you start fine-tuning your marketing efforts, refer to this toolbox, and keep tabs on what your peers are up to.
Just know that measuring yourself against them is only useful to a degree. Yes, you can judge what kind of traction your personal brand is getting by looking at how many Twitter followers you have, but that doesn’t make your writing any better.
More on common marketing channels in the weeks to come.