Marketing and distribution Part 1

Marketing and distribution Part 1

The writers guide chapter 6

By Christy Dena

The era of one-size-fits-all is ending, and in its place is something new, a market of multitudes
(Chris Anderson, 2006)

The ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to marketing and distribution doesn’t work anymore, if it ever did. Digital media, and in particular the Internet, has facilitated pivotal changes to the marketing and distribution of creative writing. A product now takes on a multitude of forms, needs to be distributed through a multitude of channels and promoted with a multitude of strategies. I think you get the idea. The next two chapters will explore these changes through the paradigm of what is known as the ‘marketing mix’: the four Ps. The four Ps are product, price, place and promotion. The techniques discussed here are primarily for writers to implement themselves, rather than strategies for publishers or production houses. Examples are from a range of formats – because so are the readers of this Guide, and because strategies can be imported from anywhere.

Product: intangibility, cross-platform and personality

In 1936, Walter Benjamin published his landmark essay ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’. In it, he discussed how industrialisation changed the production and experience of art. With mechanical reproduction, there was no longer a single work of art – Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa can hang on more walls than the Musée du Louvre. Now, with digital technologies, other shifts in the way art is produced and experienced have happened. In terms of a ‘product’, there are three key changes to note.

The first involves the intangible nature of digital technologies. Conventionally, a product is viewed as a tangible object that can be purchased, held and owned. This is no longer so. A book may be a digital file (a PDF for example or an e-book). An online interactive game may be completely available through the Internet, with no DVDs in sight. All of these are difficult to price (see discussion below), but due to their flexibility and reach, they often have the same if not more value than a tangible format. Further to this, there may be no downloadable digital file: the product may be a street game or online drama and therefore not a tangible object or digital file but an ‘experience’.

The second area of change is observed in the relationships between these various forms. A story can exist in many digital files, formats, websites and adaptations. The increase of repurposing of content and adaptations has, quite literarily, ripped content from its form. People do not necessarily marry a story or message to a single medium anymore; and at the same time they are acutely aware of the affordances and unique characteristics of each medium. A story is presumed to exist and be available in a number of media channels and art forms. Each media is a point of entry into that world. People perceive worlds, the fiction you’ve created, not books or DVDs they are delivered in.

The third and final change noted here is the value of the creator. The ease of producing websites, blogs and podcasts means writers can nurture their own community of fans. Increasingly, writers (and publishers) are leveraging these long-term efforts with marketing. The next chapter on promotion delves into techniques writers can use to nurture their own fans.

Place: new distribution channels and strategies

There are now many places your product can be distributed across the Internet and networked devices.
Digital distribution channels
One technology that is growing in popularity for the distribution of video, audio and gaming content, is portable media devices. The first season of Global Dilemma’s Forget the Rules series was delivered on three media channels: mobile (3), television (Channel V) and online. When distributing through more than one media channel, creators have to consider which distribution technology they are designing for. Which screen they have in mind is one such consideration. Close-ups are more appropriate for small screens than wide shots and pans, which makes intimate monologues or small-cast scripts ideal. See the Jim Shomos’ Forget the Rules case study for insights into how the writers dealt with such constraints.

Another exotic technology used for distribution is Bluetooth. Bluetooth is a short distance wireless technology that most people have on their mobile phone. What this means is a person can potentially download content anywhere. In 2006, the UK’s Channel 4 took advantage of this possibility and provided their short documentaries for downloading from posters in the London Underground [http://blogs.channel4.com/fourdocs/]. The technology has been utilised for many marketing campaigns in Australia, including the recent campaign for Channel 10’s Big Brother by the Marketforce agency, which sends messages to people at bus stops telling them they’re being watched (Liss 2008).

The most significant new technology is of course the Internet. And, as intimated in the section on product, a story can take on many forms. A book, for instance, can be distributed through online sales direct from a publisher, sites like Amazon, print-on-demand services or through a writer’s own site. There are many print-on-demand services available for books that take care of the printing, financial management and distribution. For those who want to control all aspects of their Internet presence, there are many free or paid programs and services to take care of every aspect of inventory and payments.

There is also an Australian company, GoodBarry [http://www.GoodBarry.com] that offers hosting, website management (including templates), email marketing, ecommerce, customer record management and analytics in a single integrated package. A single online website is not the only place people can find out about and purchase your product too.  You can create ‘widgets’ that people can embed on their own sites on your behalf and your book could also be distributed as an e-book, online interactive book, PDF, embeddable pdf and so on.

This view of the Internet as a monetised distribution channel is not the whole story. The Internet is global and so a website on the Internet can be viewed by people all over the world. To publish on the Internet, therefore, is to publish to the world. The Internet is, if you like, another (vast) territory. It is also a vast collection of communities. Online communities are formed by shared interests, not location. Any concerted online effort, therefore, needs to be mindful that people beyond their immediate geographical location may be quite keen to know about, engage with and purchase your writing.

So how can a writer communicate to global (and local) audiences and communities?

Record and upload

If your content is video or audio (whether it be the story or readings of it), make these available online – through free audio and video hosting services so you’re not paying for any downloads or streaming. These services also provide the facility to embed the audio or video player on your own website (so audiences can listen or watch it right there rather than download it). If you permit it, you can also allow other people to embed the player on their own website. The ‘place’ of your writing, then, becomes the book, DVD, your website and any number of your fans’ websites.

Live streaming

Live events can also be shared with global audiences in realtime. A live event can be the screening of a film, playing of a networked game, theatre performance, street game, reading of a book, interactive performance of an electronic fiction and so on. There are many free, live video streaming services for this, such as Ustream.tv and Mogulus.com. Live streaming can bring people together to share an event, such as the screening of M dot Strange’s feature film We are the Strange at the Ars Virtua gallery in the online world Second Life. In Second Life, each visitor is represented with an avatar; and so a movie is watched in a room with people from all over the globe chatting together. This is a social, remote viewing experience. Commentary on multiplayer games can also be streamed for spectators across the globe. Such shoutcasting sites include Gamestah [http://www.gamestah.com] and Games TV [http://www.gamestv.org]. The Met have also been experimenting with making opera accessible to people all over the globe. They started The Met: Live in HD program in which operas were simulcast to locations in the US and worldwide. They have also provided HD recordings for cinema screenings.

Guerilla Distribution

You can also empower people to distribute your products. The author JC Hutchins actively engages his fans to promote his podiobooks (audio books). One campaign was ‘Operation Burn Baby Burn’, in which he enlisted his fans to burn CDs of 7th Son, Book One: Descent and give them to people (Hutchins 2006). For films, guerrilla drive-ins or screenings have become increasingly popular. A person can arrange a screening at their home or a local hall, and promote the event using specially-created sites like Brave New Theatres [http://www.bravenewtheaters.com/].

With all of these examples, the story is released in more than one media platform (which it should be). The next consideration then is the media release strategy.

Media Release Strategies


The conventional approach is to release one media platform at a time. This approach is mainly governed by the notion of ‘windows’ and ‘territories’. The period of time and the place a product is available is constrained by arrangements made with various distributors. What is rarely considered though, are the experiential aspects of the media. What media platform would make an ideal entry point to the story or stories? Perhaps a fixed medium would be better before then moving to an interactive one, or vice versa?


A somewhat unconventional yet increasingly alluring approach is simultaneous release. It has been practiced by filmmakers such as the Wachowski Brothers and championed by Todd Wagner and Mark Cuban for a few years. Wagner and Cuban describe the approach as a ‘day-and-date’ model: where films are released in theatrical, television and home video platforms on the same day and date. This, they explain, gives consumers a choice of how, when and where they wish to see a film. A simultaneous release can work to produce a kind of echo effect, where each media and promotional strategy can compliment the other. Importantly, there is only one marketing spend. A version of this approach is the ‘three for a fee’ model introduced below.

Price: media pricing strategies

Many pricing strategies are used to promote a product or service. This section will highlight strategies that price according to the media and utilise the appeal of offering content for free. The Internet enables the distribution of digital assets and products, often in ways that have little to negligible further costs. For example, books can be offered in PDF form, and audio or video can be made available online either for download, on-demand watching online or live streaming. Some creators experiment with offering digital versions for free in conjunction with, or alternating with offering their content for a fee. The following is a simplistic but nevertheless representative overview of the pricing strategies that are used.

Free then fee

Making the digital content available for free before it is released for payment is used (among other reasons) to build awareness and gain new fans. If something is free for a limited period of time, the impetus is there for people to urgently share the opportunity with others. Oftentimes the writer will say they’re offering their product for free in the hope that if people like it they’ll purchase the tangible product (book or DVD for example). Either the full product or part of it (chapter or episode for example) can be offered for free. Three reasons why people buy the tangible product even though they have the digital version for free is they want the affordances of the tangible product (easy to read a book in bed), the feeling of ownership, and to support the creator.

In 2007, the music band Radiohead launched an unusual offer: before their album In Rainbows was available to purchase, fans could download it for any price they nominated. The ‘pay what you like’ offer was sincere, as people could elect to pay nothing. ComScore conducted a study of the online sales of the album and found that two out of five downloaders were willing pay on average of US$6 (comScore 2007). In total though, 62% downloaded the album for free. While it has been noted that successful bands like Radiohead have the room to experiment with such payment models, the campaign is an example of what is possible, and what audiences are getting used to.

Free and fee

Some writers make their digital and tangible formats for free and for a fee at the same time. Cory Doctorow, for instance, offers his books in many digital formats (e-book, PDF, virtual book, audio book and so on) at the same time as they are for sale in print form. This, Doctorow claims, has made him ‘a bunch of money’:

Most people who download the book don’t end up buying it, but they wouldn’t have bought it in any event, so I haven’t lost any sales, I’ve just won an audience. A tiny minority of downloaders treat the free e-book as a substitute for the printed book – those are the lost sales. But a much larger minority treat the e-book as an enticement to buy the printed book. They’re gained sales. As long as gained sales outnumber lost sales, I’m ahead of the game. After all, distributing nearly a million copies of my book has cost me nothing.
(Doctorow 2006)

Beyond independents, there have been experiments by publishers and production companies. HarperCollins, for example, provided Neil Gaiman’s novel American Gods online to browse for free. Gaiman quotes the HarperCollins report on the results:

The Browse Inside Full Access promotion of American Gods drove 85 thousand visitors to our site to view 3.8 Million pages of the book (an average of 46 pages per person). On average, visitors spent over 15 minutes reading the book.

The Indies […] are the only sales channel where we have confidence that incremental sales were driven by this promotion. In the Bookscan data reported for Independents we see a marked increase in weekly sales across all of Neil’s books, not just American Gods during the time of the contest and promotion. Following the promotion, sales returned to pre-promotion levels.
(Gaiman 2008)

Likewise, authors who have not had as accommodating publishers have taken matters into their own hands. Paulo Coelho has found that he sells more books when they are also available for free, and so actively offers his books for free through BitTorrent and other services:

What Coelho quickly discovered was that the more his book was available for free, the more sales of the actual book increased. As an example, he cites the Russian translation of his book, where it went from only 1,000 sales to well over 100,000 in a period of two years, and has only continued to grow since then. It's yet another good example of someone embracing how giving away content for free can help them earn more money.
(Masnick 2008)

 Another success story is the graphic novel North Wind. It was offered for free online viewing (as opposed to download) at the same time as being available for sale in retail outlets. The results surprised many:

Yesterday, CBR News reported on publisher BOOM! Studios’ bold move of offering each issue of the five issue series North Wind for purchase in comic shops and for free online via MySpace Comic Books. The marketing experiment angered some retailers, feeling that offering a product for free at the same time as its retail release would necessarily eat into potential sales. It appears their fears may have been for naught. This morning, CBR News has learned that North Wind has completely sold out at Diamond Comics Distributors, with a second printing being considered by BOOM! Studios, even with the first issue still available online for free. It seems the increased awareness brought about by offering the comic online for free has driven greater interest in the title, leading to the sell out at the publisher level.
(CBR News Team 2008)

One possible reason for the success of this approach is that online reading isn’t as satisfying as print reading. The offer of a free version attracts fans and newcomers, facilitates goodwill, and whets the appetite of the readers and audiences. These testimonials are not signs that this approach guarantees success, but they do show that successes can happen with experimentation and trust in the market.

Fee then free

Another option is to make digital content available for free after it is first released for a fee. This approach is less common, but could gather late comers who are aware of the product but perhaps need a bit more information to consider buying. It is also a step towards the ‘three for a fee’ approach.

Three for a fee

The concept of ‘three for a fee’ is cross-media bundling: digital, experiential and tangible formats are bundled together for a single fee. What bundling does is acknowledge that a person often likes to vary the format in which they access content. A person can read the book in bed for instance, but then continue reading on an e-book whilst on holiday, or listen to or read it on their iPod whilst on the train. A DVD could potentially be bundled with access to a digital stream or download and even a cinema screening. Obviously most of these products are already available, but people have to buy them separately: they are not conveniently bundled, or offered at a reduced cost as a reward for buying all of the formats. Whether the bundle is available as a complete package at the point of sale, or staggered over time (immediate download and postal delivery for instance) are other factors to consider. Chris Anderson, author of The Long Tail, describes this approach in his plans for his forthcoming book Free! Why $0.00 Is the Future of Business:

Every physical copy of the book is going to come with a little code which will allow you to download the audio book for free. I’m doing this in part because anytime someone tells me that they bought two copies of my book, one the hardcover and one the audio book, I feel terrible…because they’re my best customer and I just charged them twice. My best customers are the ones who should be getting my best deal, not the worst deal. […] If someone is wiling to buy my book, I want to give them every format I can to give the ultimate flexibility to the reader, to consume the book as he or she sees fit. […] If you want to buy the audio book by itself you can, but if you buy the book you get the audio book for free. I’m assuming I’m cannibalising almost nothing. It’s a tiny amount of people who will buy both, and instead by giving the audio book for free I can allow people who do buy the book to have a better experience.
(Anderson, 2007)

Cross-media bundling can involve offering all the distribution media for free, the low-cost media for free (such as audio books, PDFs, some e-books, virtual books), none for free (just conveniently bundled together at the point of sale), or at a reduced cost for the bundle. For non-fiction, audio books aren’t a great expense as it usually just entails the author reading, but for fiction, the author may want to go further and produce audio with sound effects and actors.

The next chapter delves into the final ‘P’: promotion.

> Marketing and distribution- Part 1 references


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The writer's guide to making a digital living: choose your own adventure by Fingleton, T. Dena, C. & Wilson, J. for the Australia Council for the Arts is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial-Share Alike 2.5 Australia License.
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