What are the keys to marketing fiction? You can see all of the elements in a great science fiction novel that I read last week called The Martian by Andy Weir. The book is already a huge New York Times bestseller, and it’s being turned into a major motion picture starring Matt Damon as the main character. It’s one of the best pieces of fiction I’ve read in a long time. I’ve already told several friends about the book, and now I’m telling my entire newsletter list.
When it comes to fiction, word of mouth is the primary driver of sales. So, what makes “The Martian” so good and what marketing secrets can novelists learn from this book? Besides having a killer cover, use these three tips:
1. Write fiction that feels like non-fiction
One reason why so many novels fail to sell is the author doesn’t present a realistic story. The premise doesn’t seem practical, there’s a lack of depth, or the ending is outlandish. You see these types of problems when authors lean on ridiculous devices, such as using time travel as a cop out, trite dialogue between lovers, or bringing someone back from the dead (only Jesus can claim that move). For instance, “The Lord of the Rings” by J.R.R Tolkien feels real due to the level of detail even though it’s pure fantasy.
The author of “The Martian” did a great job thoroughly researching his subject and making his story seem like it was real. The level of detail in the writing blurred the lines between fiction and reality. As a reader, I felt immersed in a world that was plausible and believable.
2. Constant tension creates a page-turner
Novelists who write great fiction create a story that you can’t put down. You want to keep turning the next page to find out what happens. The key to creating this dynamic is to build and maintain constant tension throughout the story. When you read The Martian, there’s no way to tell what’s going to happen, because the main character never stops facing challenges until the very end. The author keeps you riveted by maintaining a level of tension that keeps you in suspense. Uncertainty and anticipation are the hallmarks of great fiction.
3. Create a protagonist readers can cheer
Since humans are relational beings, we like to cheer for someone we can believe in – someone who feels like a hero, or someone willing to exhibit character in the face of conflict. Great novelists develop a protagonist that you want to see succeed. That’s because it creates an emotional bond between the reader and the story. Logic makes people think, but emotion makes us take action.
From the very first page of “The Martian,” you feel bad for the protagonist and you want to see him achieve his goal. I found myself rooting for him throughout the entire book – even though he didn’t actually exist. When novelists employ the power of emotion, readers are swept into the story and can’t stop reading.
Notice how these three elements have nothing to do with typical marketing tactics, such as building a website, creating a newsletter, or conducting media interviews. Those activities certainly help. But, marketing fiction is all about combining realism, suspense, and heroic characters that create a word-of-mouth wildfire.