My post on LinkedIn yesterday started with these words: “It’s all about branding.”
And that’s what I’m up to. Branding. Not branding cattle, not brands of cereal or automobiles, but instead branding myself as an author.
Why? Because this is what I am now. This is what I do. I write books and hope people enjoy them. I’m not too shy to state that my first two books were very much enjoyed by a wide variety of people. In other words, the reviews have mostly been raves for Bats, Balls, & Burnouts and it’s baby brother How Far? Yes, I’m quite proud of that. When you make the treacherous leap from working for a living to writing for something of a living (let’s be realistic) you shouldn’t expect NY Times best seller status, but you sure want people to say “That was great. I loved it.”
The only thing left hanging there, unrealized as of yet, is establishing a brand for the name Bob Wilber at the bottom of a book cover. I see it this way: Most of my readers to this point, for both books, have been friends, family, blog readers, or people I’ve known in racing, soccer, and baseball. I have yet to break through to the masses, or even a slight sliver of the masses.
As a former PR guy, I know how it works. My friend and former colleague Elon Werner did masterful work publicizing my first book and equally masterful work getting the word out on How Far?
I knew that partnership would likely be short-lived this time around, because Elon started his own PR firm, Werner Communications, and although he couldn’t be certain that it would take off and that clients would line up to retain his services, I was absolutely sure it would go that way. When it did, I knew I’d need to have a Plan B.
My publisher stepped up with a PR and marketing plan, and I was happy to have them do that. They worked at it for a month but basically the needle never moved. They may be a little more skilled at publishing than they are at promotions. Since then, to say sales have flattened out, especially compared to the first two months when I was stunned by our rankings on Amazon, would be an accurate assessment.
I knew why it happened. It was due to the fact that most of those who knew the book was coming were waiting for it. To coin a racing phrase, we “blew the doors off” right out of the gate. Then, by late in the summer, it was literally on me to spread the word through social media or in person. I never go anywhere without a wallet full of business cards.
That’s all great, and we have continued to sell books, but picking up those new sales one-by-one isn’t exactly a great way to improve your ranking on Amazon or gain too many new 5-star reviews. Don’t get me wrong, I’m thrilled with what we’ve sold and I’m humbled by the reviews, but I know there’s a whole reading world out there we’re not yet reaching.
Thanks to the networking one can do on LinkedIn, I received an unsolicited email about 10 days ago from a woman who owns a PR and Publicity agency that specializes in promoting authors and their books. The pitch was interesting enough for me to reply with a quick “OK, I’m game. Tell me more…”
Within 48 hours we’d traded numerous messages and she had supplied me with all the background on her company, her client list, the testimonials other authors had submitted, and the plans the firm offers to make it all work.
I am naturally skeptical of such things. For too many decades I’ve had too many people, agencies, or even potential race car sponsors tell me all the right things, and promise the world. But rarely does the world arrive on a platter. In terms of PR, some just aren’t as good at this sort of thing as they’d like you to think. I should know. I spent more than 20 years as a PR guy. Some are, sadly, just bilking you out of precious money to do basically nothing and report back with “We contacted everyone but got no response.” It’s frustrating.
To get a second set of eyes on the material, I called in my resident business expert. Barbara Doyle, my wife. With nearly 40 years of high-level corporate finance work, at IBM, Lawson Software, Itron, and HB Fuller, she’s seen all the tricks and charades. She knows a con when she sees one.
We sat at my desk and she went through all the emails and the company’s website. She knew what it would cost to sign on the dotted line. She turned to me and said, “They’re for real. This is really impressive. Their client list is incredible. This is the big leagues. You should do this.”
The goal is that brand I wrote of at the top. We need to get past the core group of people who know me, who know how I write, and who trust that I’m for real in a very difficult and competitive landscape.
Am I doing this for a huge return on investment? Not in the short term, and I’m good with that. My royalty structure for How Far? is less than half of what I got for every copy of Bats, Balls, & Burnouts that was sold. Why? Because I made the conscious decision to keep the new book under $30. We had to work hard to do that, but we made it happen. At $50, the first book probably priced itself out of some interested folks’ dollar range. I knew that. By bringing in How Far? at $29.95 my royalty per book took a big hit, because it’s a percentage of the sales price. After the publisher and Amazon take their slices, I get the crumbs that are left. This agency would have to do the near impossible to help me sell enough new copies to provide the royalty payments I’d need to break even. It’s about investing in myself and my future. It’s a long range plan, because I intend to keep writing for a long time.
It’s not even about breaking even. It’s about widening my market. Creating awareness. Getting new eyes on the products I worked so hard to create. That’s branding.
When I joined the St. Louis Storm indoor soccer team as an executive, just two months prior to the first game the team would ever play, I had so many responsibilities it was staggering. Ticket sales, sponsorships, advertising, game production, public relations, game programs, media guides, and even the design of the uniforms, all had to happen in 60 days. I had put a hard-working staff together, and they did a lot of the leg work, but all of it was on my shoulders. The owner expected me to succeed. The pressure was immense.
What did all that all add up to? Branding. We had to make the name St. Louis Storm known to as many people as possible in a very short amount of time, in a very crowded sports market dominated by a popular hockey team and a baseball organization that ranks as one of the all-time best. The two most popular things in St. Louis begin with the letter “B.” Baseball and beer.
If I could, I wanted to make sure everyone in metro St. Louis at least knew the Storm were in town, playing at the venerable and historic St. Louis Arena. We did that. We didn’t sleep much, we worked weekends, and I personally shook as many hands and pitched as many programs as I physically could. On Opening Night, for our first game, 14,500 St. Louisans paid to come see us play. That was branding. Our brand consisted of great indoor soccer talent, a fun atmosphere, wonderful players who embraced the community, and affordable prices. That’s a good brand.
I’m not a soccer team. I’m an author now. But the concept is the same. To spread the word, build the brand, and provide the confidence potential readers need in order to part with their money to buy a copy of whatever I’ve written.
The firm is Ascot Media Group. I spent an hour on the phone with Trish Stevens. It’s her company. We could’ve talked for five hours and I have no doubt she would have done that. I got the answers I wanted. I learned more about the firm. And I signed on the bottom line.
In mid-October, Ascot Media Group will begin promoting me and my work. It will be an official relaunch of How Far? dedicated to reaching new readers, and new potential buyers.
As I’ve said many times, I didn’t retire from my sports career to make big money selling books. I did it to satisfy the need I have to string written words together in some fashion that is enjoyable and engaging. I learned a ton from my editor Greg Halling, on both books. I think How Far? shows that. In terms of a coherent writing style, I had been making it up was I went along with Bats, Balls, & Burnouts and was remarkably stunned by how it was received. I worked twice as hard, and for twice as long, to bring How Far? to life. I’m extraordinarily proud of it. Those who have read it have generally loved it. I get emails and Facebook messages from far and wide, with some of them writing me regularly as they read the book. An author really can’t ask for any better support than that. It’s priceless.
Now it’s time to get to work widening our horizons. We’re going to reach new people. We’re going to tap into new resources and utilize the mass media to spread the word, on my work and on me.
You can’t be shy if you want to do something like this. I’ve learned not to be shy.
Let’s get to work!
And today, I will finish with some other words I’ve written. When I organized the reunion for the Sauget Wizards baseball team, I put together a booklet for every guy. It was a directory, with all our personal info included so that we can all stay in touch, and there was also a section devoted to each guy’s memories of being a Wizard. They were all priceless. Sentences like “the best time of my life” or “the best team I ever played on” were common. The most common theme was just how seriously we took the game, playing it the right way, for the love of the game. I printed the memories alphabetically, knowing that left me for last.
This is what I wrote:
“Like most of the Wizards, I sure played a lot of baseball in my life. Starting with pick-up games with neighborhood kids. No umpires, never enough players, no coaches, and rules we had to make up every time we played, based on the number of players we had. Then grade school ball, high school (St. Louis U. High) followed by the incredible good fortune of landing a scholarship to SIU-Edwardsville, where I got a great education while I was part of two teams that played in the NCAA Division II World Series, and which are now in the SIUE Athletic Hall of Fame.
“At SIUE, I met Bob Hughes, who was an assistant coach for the Cougars. He was a mentor even then, and a great guy we all looked up to. I then got to play professional minor league ball for the Tigers and A’s, in four different towns in three different leagues. Finally, I spent five seasons as a scouting supervisor for the Blue Jays. I loved the game. I still do, and I cherish every single memory and moment.
“But you know what? None of that matches the fun and the rewards I got from playing with the Wizards. Over the years, our always-evolving group may well have been the best fundamental baseball team I ever played for, and we took the games seriously with a huge amount of pride in what we were doing. It was a joy and an honor to be a Wizard, and that starts with Bob Hughes and Jim Greenwald. I consider them to be the purest example of what Wizards baseball really was. Focus, attention, love of the game, playing the game the right way, and enjoying the hell out of every second of it while leaving every ounce of energy and sweat out there on the field (especially during those weekly Sunday doubleheaders.)
“In terms of favorite baseball moments, I had some at every level but the of the best of the very best came as a Wizard. The big wins against great teams. The tension and seriousness of those games against Waterloo and Valmeyer. The big hits and the home runs. Winning championships and the Valmeyer Tournament. Beating the USA team in their home stadium. I even got to manage the Wizards for much of the 1992 season, and that was kind of a “life mission” for me, following in my dad’s footsteps. The best moments, though, were not just snapshots in time. They were the pure joy of the camaraderie, the effort, and the incredible skill my teammates all possessed. It was priceless.
“When people ask me about the most fun I have had playing baseball, the answer is simple: Just being a Sauget Wizard.
“Guys… We didn’t just play ball. We were actual Wizards. WE MADE MAGIC!”
So there you have it. Launching a branding campaign, hopefully reaching new readers and making them happy, and my sincere feelings about having shared the field with so many incredible characters on the Sauget Wizards. All in all, a pretty good blog to share on a rainy Friday.
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See you again soon… Here’s a visual representation of what I just wrote about.