In Part One of this series, I discussed what new writers can learn from small businesses as they begin their careers as authors. Basically, be professional and understand that when you are seeking to be paid for your work, you stop being an artist and become a business person. So, act like a business person in your dealings with others in the industry—agents, publishers and editors. In addition, no matter how talented you are you must first convince readers to invest time (and perhaps money) to read your work, so use blurbs and discounts to help them make that decision.
But let’s turn the focus around and look at small businesses and what they can learn from up-and-coming authors.

What Small Business Can Learn from Aspiring Authors

Small businesses face the challenge that they rarely offer something unique. Be it a plumber, website development firm or travel agency—you’re doing what others are already doing. So before you can even make that first contact and build a trusting relationship, you need to get noticed.
Authors understand this and can be innovative in their approaches.
Stand Out and Be Noticed
Authors are desperate to be noticed. Some do book readings and signings, or leave paraphernalia like bookmarks in bookstores or at conventions. But these activities don’t always result in immediate success. A well-known author might have 10 people at a reading in a downtown bookstore. And it’s impossible to track if those bookmarks left on the freebie table at a convention created any sales. Yet authors understand it takes multiple exposures before their name sinks in. I won’t remember an author’s name from a bookmark, but if I also see that name on a panel I’m attending, and that she’s doing a reading, and will be a guest blogger on a site I frequent, I might.
For small businesses, the lesson of repeat exposure is key:

  • Sponsor an event, be it an industry tradeshow or community picnic, so long as it’s someplace your potential customers will be. Get your name as big and in as many places as you can afford. Likely, you won’t realize any business directly from it and few will remember your name after seeing it that first time, but you’ll create the vital first exposure.
  • Hand out bumper stickers or some other material with your name on it. Something people will see. If a customer can do free advertising for you (like from the bumper of their car), all the better.
  • Try to get on a local television or radio show, or interviewed in a community paper. Some locals stations/papers are desperate for content and will jump at the chance to feature you. This is great exposure, plus a chance to build trust by showing you know what you’re talking about.

Really Stand Out and Be Noticed
Authors sometime employ more extreme tactics to get noticed, like dressing in costumes, making props of items from the story, or faking a conflict with another writer. This walks the fine line between making a favourable but forgettable first impression, or a less-flattering but memorable first impression. With the former, if you have a second contact with someone, you have to start all over again since that person might not remember you (making it a second first impression). With the latter, you’ll have to make up for what may have happened, but at least the person remembers you.
I’m going to refrain from specific suggestions in this case since it involved outside-the-box thinking and a level of risk-taking you yourself have to determine.
Connect with Customers and Clients
Some authors understand that what allows them to sell their books is not the books, but them. It’s not uncommon for someone to buy a book from an author they had not heard of an hour earlier simply because that person met the author, had a good chat, and bought the book to support someone they like. And when another book comes out a year later, that person might fondly remember the chat and order that next book.
This same lesson applies in the online world where writers have profiles on Twitter, Facebook, GoodReads and more as a way to not just update fans, but stay in contact with them. If an author can make a fan feel special and connected—that the writer likes them as much as they like the author—that author has a committed fan who will buy the next book even if it has terrible reviews.
For small businesses, being personable is key. When someone wants to buy something, it is not competency but trust that influences the decision. And liking someone helps build trust. So:

  • Always be willing to chat. You don’t need to memorize all the names of a customer’s kids, but make the customer feel special and valued. This is a lot easier than it sounds—just listen, nod, and make comments like “That’s great” while smiling. Be a person, not just a solution to a problem.
  • Communicate with customers how and where they want to communicate. I once had a massage therapist who booked appointments via email as well as the phone. Both options had their advantages and she understood that. Depending on your business, you might want to get on Twitter or Facebook or LinkedIn, but first do a search on these sites and see if others in your line of work are communicating effectively, and what lessons you can learn.

In Part Three…

I’ll wrap this up by talking about things that small businesses and new authors can do to attract new customers, be memorable, and retain those customers.