What Charles Dickens Can Teach Us About Book Marketing

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In 1841, fan obsession for the works of Charles Dickens was so great that it nearly caused a riot. As a ship carrying copies of the final installment of Dickens’ novel The Old Curiosity Shop arrived in New York, it was met at the dock by thousands of readers. These fans had stormed the harbor, desperate to be first to find out how the story ended.

Victorian readers were passionate to the extreme. Many writers of the 1800s enjoyed enormous fan followings, who waited with desperate anticipation for every new work their favorite authors produced. This is even more impressive when you consider the limited marketing technology available at the time.

The main power of the Victorian novel came from its episodic publishing format.

So? I hear you ask.

Well, we can learn a thing or two from this approach and use this tried and tested method to improve your next online book marketing campaign. Good episodic content will encourage fans to become truly excited about upcoming works – although hopefully not to the point of rioting.

What is episodic content?

Novels in the Victorian era generally weren’t published all in one go. Instead, stories would be published in segments, one or two chapters at a time, in weekly or monthly serial magazines. The serials were a little like watching new television episodes week by week instead of binging on a boxset of a show that’s already finished.

Although simple, this process was the secret to the success of many Victorian authors. Fans would read these serials regularly over the course of the story’s publication, and let it become part of their lives. They would discuss the developing plot points over dinner parties, re-read older chapters to keep the story fresh, and would wait with bated breath for the resolution of a cliffhanger.

Instead of reading a novel once and then discarding it, fans of serials would become more and more involved with the story as they waited and tried to guess what the next installment would bring.

Episodes online

The Victorian format of publishing stories chapter by chapter doesn’t suit every novel – in fact, it can hurt the strength of your narrative to think of it in terms of episodes rather than as a whole work. But episodic marketing fits perfectly with the way people use the internet.

Studies into social media marketing have found that short posts get more attention than long ones. While scrolling through a news feed, most people filter out anything that takes too much effort to read. When marketing your book, regular social media posts get you seen by more people and also help to keep your writing in the minds of your fans.

Regular posts are a great way to keep your fans interested – sharing details of an upcoming work will build hype as your followers become curious about your latest project.

Be a tease

Think about what makes your story unique. What element of your novel will resonate with readers, and what can you share with them to get them excited? One trailer for 2014’s The Lego Movie was devoted entirely to their version of Batman, so that long in advance of seeing the movie, audiences could begin to form a relationship with the character.

What is it in your story that will grab the readers, and how can you share that with them?

There are many ways you can tease your audience to drum up interest without giving away too much. You could create short character biographies, or blog about the world the story takes place in. You could share snippets and paragraphs from the story to catch people’s attention. Everything from your protagonist’s favorite sandwich filling to the history of the town he/she lives in can help readers develop a connection to your world, and get excited about the story long before they get a chance to read it.

Give them something to do

The best content will get your readership involved. JK Rowling recently posted an anagram riddle on Twitter that hinted at a potential future book project. As you may have guessed, her fans loved it and her clever marketing tactic rippled throughout the web.

Similarly, in 2013, when Dan Brown’s novel Inferno was announced, the title of the novel was kept a secret until social media users were able to unscramble a mosaic code. Interest in deciphering the mosaic was so great that the website hosting the secret message temporarily crashed. On the one hand, this puzzle gave readers something fun to do, and on the other hand, it made it easy for readers to remember the book, even if only on a subconscious level.

Be constant, Be concise

More than anything, the trick to episodic content is to be consistent. Give readers a little snippet as regularly as possible to keep them thinking about your story. Ask them questions or give them puzzles to solve, and promise answers in the coming days. The more you can keep them involved, the easier it will be to maintain readers from one book to the next, as well as inspiring them to share your stories with their friends.

The Victorian novel succeeded because it was constantly present in the minds of its readers. Fans would get to enjoy small sections every week for months, and these tiny snippets of a larger story helped keep their passion burning constantly. As you share parts of your novel with your readers, and as you engage with them and give them something to think about, their excitement for your next work will increase exponentially.

Have you shared snippets of content with your readers in-between books? I’d love to hear your stories in the comments.


3 thoughts on “What Charles Dickens Can Teach Us About Book Marketing”

  1. Matthew, great post. Is this your first? Love it.
    It makes me think of the transmedia games, ARG, etc.
    I have a similar project: episodes shared in a community on G+, and between episodes I share some hints about the world and the characters. People love it.

    1. Hi! This was my second text article (I wrote one back in December too) – I’m glad you enjoyed it!

      Sharing episodes straight to social media is a great idea! I share a lot of my work in episodes too, both through my own site and on Tumblr.

      I like the idea of sharing worldbuilding ideas in between episodes, I’ll have to try that!

  2. Or publish character sketches such as Save-the-Cat scene.

    Your character is walking down a street and sees someone trying to get a cat out of a tree. What happens?

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