• Chris OBrien

What Scrubs taught me about marketing a book

Eighteen years ago, I recorded an episode of Scrubs on a VHS tape. It was the Christmas episode from Season 1 and I thought it was the funniest show I'd ever seen. Every character was funny. JD. Dr. Cox. The Janitor. I wanted to spread the word about this new show.

So I took the VHS tape to middle school, handed it over to my friend Nolan. "Dude, you have to watch this."

Next day we were quoting all of the signature lines. "Newbie." "Banana hammock!" "Dear God, Judy, how much product do you use?"

The process of recording a show on a VHS tape seems archaic now, but this was December of 2001. There weren't any other options. No Netflix. No Hulu. No YouTube. The only thing over the internet would have been AOL Instant Messenger. I could've told people about Scrubs that way, but they would have still needed to go home, try to find out when NBC was playing a re-run. I'm guessing they would turned to a physical TV Guide?

It's weird to think of 2001 as this distant past, but we are talking about one score and 10 iPhones ago. So much has changed, technology-wise, since back when I was in sixth grade.

Had I seen the episode in 2019, I could share a link on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn. If the show wasn't on Netflix or Hulu, I could probably find it for free on 100 somewhat shady websites. Or, not too far from now, we'll be able to say, "Hey, throw on your VR headset, let's watch this episode together" like you can already with NBA games.

But when it comes to finding and creating a connection with that first fan of the show, none of these modern approaches would perform any better--with the exception of maybe the VR option--than my VHS tape from 18 years ago. Sure, we have more choices than ever before, more ways to get the word out about a show, a book, a movie, but that doesn't mean these choices will work better than old school word of mouth.

Let's look at how this idea relates to a book that you have already or are getting ready to publish.

When you send an email out about your book, it's an email mixed in with pizza specials, relentless weekly (daily) newsletters, and a sea of to-do list items in the recipient's inbox. An ad about your book on Facebook and Instagram is surrounded by photos of weddings, babies, political rants.

Twitter. LinkedIn. Creating a Pinterest page. Do this. Do that. The options keep on coming (there will be 10 more in the next 10 years) and what they all have in common is they are trying to catch someone's attention who didn't originally sign up. These are the modern day TV commercials.

And, just like TV commercials, they do work... if you have a significant marketing budget to spend. If you have $5,000+ per month, and the ads are engaging, your targeted market is correct, you will see a lot of progress.

But the world of publishing a book is not at the same financial scale as say selling $50,000 B2B software. Especially if you're self-publishing the books. You may only feel comfortable spending $100 - $250. For the books that I've written, $250 was pretty much my absolute ceiling for marketing dollars. It was hard for me to justify going much higher when I knew the book would sell around 100 copies.

And that's when you see things on Facebook's ad campaign manager like, "You could still reach this many people, get this many clicks, this many visits to your website, and it's only $3 a day!"

But I can order an author copy of my book for about $5. So, for $100, I could give my book away to 20 of my closest friends and family. I could go to my 10 closest friends and say, "Here are two copies. One for you, one for a friend." Goes back to the idea of handing over a Scrubs VHS tape. "Dude, you have to watch this."

Would $100 of Facebook/Instagram ads really be more effective than that approach?

Want to reach beyond friends and family? Talk to the local bookstore, see if they will carry your book. Almost all independent bookstores will have some type of local author sections. If that approach doesn't work out, take a few copies over to one of the 88,000 Little Free Library locations around the world.

Here's what we did with a novel we published called Strawberry Moon. We ordered 10 publisher copies (each one around $4-5), wrote up a little article about the author, about the story, about how it all came together. I started with locations in Chicago since that's where I live and then went to five more locations in Traverse City, Michigan when I was visiting my parents.

This one was my favorite, it actually looked like the person's house behind it

On the shelf between Henry Kissinger and James Patterson... not too shabby

And bring your dog along for the trip

Notice: We ended up sharing everything on Instagram. As you can see, I'm not advocating for avoiding social media altogether. But the photos of me Johnny Appleseeding this book around Chicago and Traverse City are a much more engaging and (hopefully) interesting story than a picture of the book cover with the text, "Here's the Amazon link. Here's the price. Make sure to leave me a review."

And, most importantly, it was more fun to do it this way.

Now, to be fair, this approach is slow. At Long Overdue, we help our authors connect with a small audience. Building your first 100 true fans. And the data behind these book drops is pretty terrible. I have no idea who picked up the books. Don't know their age. Don't know their gender. What college they went to. I can't stalk them around the internet with more advertisements.

But I included my email address in the letter (it'd be handwritten if my penmanship wasn't so bad). Whoever the reader is who finds one of these book can reach out to me directly. How much better would it be to receive feedback/notes/reviews directly from a person than seeing a borderline anonymous review on Amazon. Or how about having the publisher serve as a filter in between the reader and author to prevent any trolls sneaking through who aren't offering valuable critiques just mean-spirited comments.

However, they do need a VHS player

Handing Nolan a copy of Scrubs on VHS tape worked because all of us had VHS players in 2001. If I did the same here in 2019, it would be near impossible to try and play it.

Same goes with DVDs. CDs. I'm actually working on a playlist for my 3-year-old nephew's birthday and I realized I have no idea what's the best way to deliver it. Spotify? YouTube? iTunes?

So the format does need to be playable; which I think is another argument for the physical book. Hand over a book and there's no barriers. Open it up, get started. Simple as that. Doesn't matter if the wifi goes down. The only hindrance is you do need some type of light.

When I released a Kindle version of one of my shorter books, I found out that not a lot of people in my network have Kindles. And the process of downloading the Kindle app to an iPhone or tablet, that's just another step in the way. If I send something out as a PDF, the person opening it on a phone has to do a major zoom in. So now I need a PDF, a Kindle version, a Mobi version, an ePub file for Android, an iBooks version for iPhone.

It's funny, the best way to keep up with all of the new technology options is to go back and use the old school physical book. It will always be accessible. And will always feel more personal.

The best part: A book will never randomly vibrate with an incoming text, Tweet, Facebook/Instagram notification.

That's a pretty awesome way to share your story.

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