The Novelist as Content Strategist

By | 2021/03/04

When I retired from content strategy and technical communication to focus on becoming a novelist, I imagined I was leaving content strategy behind. I could not have been more wrong. A novelist today has to be a content strategist.

This was not clear to me in the first couple of years when I was mostly writing and sending out queries to agents. Where it really became clear was when I signed my first fiction book contract. Shortly after the contract was signed, I had my first marketing meeting with my editor and publisher where we talked about what I needed to do as an author to promote my novel.

There is a bit of a misconception around this, largely put about by people selling self publishing services, but traditional publishers do market books. Public advertising is only a very small part of this as it is not the way most books get sold. It has far more to do with access to distribution channels, reviewers, and the like. But what a publisher cannot do for a writer, even if they wanted to, is to foster the author’s social outreach, their connection with their readers. That connection with readers has always been part of the author’s responsibility. In the past it has taken the form of readers writing letters to authors, and the authors responding. Today it takes the form of social media. So there is nothing new in principle about this, but it has to be done, and managing your professional social media presence is, well, an element of your content strategy.

What they asked me to do, because they have found it to be the most effective strategy for fostering book sales, is to start a newsletter. This is new territory for me. My main promotional/social media experience has been in blogging — writing this blog. I did try to start a newsletter back in my content strategy days, but (irony alert) I had no coherent plan for it, and it fizzled. This blog served me pretty well in my content strategy / technical communication career. It helped me to write and to promote my two books, Every Page is Page One, and Structured Writing: Rhetoric and Process. It drove enough business to keep me as busy as I wanted to be. It has a decent sized following and still generates a fair amount of daily traffic despite my not having posted regularly in quite a while. It is a model I was comfortable with, and I had already started a new blog focusing on the fiction side of my writing interests: Stories All the Way Down.

Can’t I just go on blogging, I asked. No, they said. All the evidence is that newsletters work better. Blogs are good, but you need a newsletter as well.

So I have been spending a lot of time both on the technical side of the question — how to set up and manage a newsletter — and also on the fundamentally more important question of what, if anything, is different about the content of an author newsletter vs. that of a blog. I documented some part of that struggle in a recent blog post on Stories All the Way Down.

Of course, the first content strategy question one should ask is about the audience. Who is the audience for your blog or newsletter and what do they need? In the business world, the answers to that question are first and foremost technical. They need information to perform a task. That is never as simple as needing instructions. Whether it be in technical communication or in marketing, what one is really pushing is confidence to act. Knowing what to do mechanically is a necessary component of that, but being confident that pushing the button is the right thing to do is actually just as important, if not more so, than knowing which button to push. Brands are really all about confidence.

None of that applies to fiction. No one needs instruction on how to read a novel, and no one needs to have their confidence built up to open one. Your audience is people who like novels and know how they work. So what do they care about, other than the novel itself, that would cause them to read an authors blog or subscribe to their newsletter?

There is a further problem. When I was writing this blog, my audience was all on the provider side of the divide. It was a blog for people who make content, whether that be instruction manuals or marketing copy. It was not for consumers of content. I never supposed that the readers of technical manuals or corporate websites were going to come to Every Page is Page One for more information. But an author blog or newsletter has two audiences: creators and consumers; writers and readers.

This strikes me as a major content strategy challenge. Yes, this Every Page is Page One blog addressed people in many sub-specialties in content strategy and technical communication, from managers to writers to strategists to consultants, and they may not have all been interested in every post or every subject I posted on. But they would at least have recognized that the various subjects I touched on were all part of the overall content creation effort. They shared a similar goal, even if they had different roles. But with my author blog or newsletter, I have to ask myself what would interest both writers and readers of fiction?

Part of the problem here is the word goal itself. In the corporate side of content strategy, one always assumes that consumer goals are behind consumer behavior. But people don’t really read a novel with an external goal in mind. They read the novel for its own sake. Looking to goals, therefore, may not be the key to content strategy for a novelist.

Actually, that is not entirely true. For some people, reading fiction is goal driven, or, a least, the choice of what they read is goal driven. Lisa Cron writes in Wired for Story that our brains are wired to crave stories because stories help the brain figure out what is going to happen next, which is a massive survival skill. But that is not a conscious goal, like I want to fix my dishwasher or I want to uninstall bloatware from my phone. It is a much more fundamental part of our psychology. Another goal for some readers, particularly today, it seems, is confirmation of identity. They want to read books in which people like them (however they may define “like them”) do well or find a place in society. In some sense this relates to the content strategy goal of instilling confidence to act, but it is not a goal that can exactly be met with a set of instructions.

Indeed, this issue of needs that cannot be met with instructions is at the heart of why people read novels, why they consume stories at all. There are things that one learns from experience that can never be reduced to a set of instructions. There is a confidence gained from experience that can never be instilled by pep talks and flattery. And there is joy in experience that does not have to be justified by learning anything at all. We are experience-having beings. Cron cites evidence that the exact same parts of the brain light up when you read a story as when you experience something in real life. As far as the brain is concerned, a story IS an experience.

But here the apparently divergent worlds of corporate content strategy and novelist content strategy come back together, for what is it that corporate content strategists are trying to foster above all else? The customer experience.  Both worlds, then, are in the business of creating experiences, and creating experiences must therefore be at the heart of content strategy for both the novelist and the marketer.

And that may, perhaps, point the way out of my dilemma of serving both readers and writers with my blog and newsletter. Because, it turns out, readers, some of them at least, enjoy the experience of seeing how stories get made. In my first newsletter, I started by giving a progress report on my novel as it goes through the editing process. I described how I did four complete read throughs in the course of that edit and how I felt very differently about the book on each of those read throughs. Based on the feedback I have had so far, that turns out to be the most liked part of the newsletter.

That was a surprise to me, but now I think about it, perhaps it should not have been. After all, there is a huge amount of television and books devoted to going behind the scenes, to showing how the sausage is made. Why should that be any different for a novelist?

So that is my most concrete content strategy insight from this experience so far. People are interested in how the sausage is made. And that is a pleasure that both readers and other writers can share in. It is what unites my two audiences. Is there an insight in that for people who sell sausage? Should they, contrary to the recieved advice, show how the sausage is made? Should you? Think about it, because in doing so you may provide an enjoyable experience independent of specific user goals, and that may assist in meeting your broader content strategy goals.

While you ponder that, can I ask you to check out my new blog, Stories All the Way Down, and to subscribe to my newsletter. Though the focus of both is fiction, there might after all be some insight in there for those who are trying to foster the customer experience.


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