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Monday, June 20, 2011

Book Marketing Lessons From Scrabble Players

Millions of people like to play Scrabble.  I love the game because it allows for the combination of two of my passions:  words and strategy.

Scrabble, on the surface, looks like a game only smart people with good vocabularies would be good at.  The fact is, sometimes the brainiacs are at a disadvantage because they place a different value on words than the official scoring calls for.  Sometimes a simple two-letter word, placed in the right spot on the board, can be worth more than some SAT-type word, simply because of how the points are tabulated.

Each of the 100 letter tiles have points assigned to them. When you place them on the board, depending on whether there are bonus spaces for double-word scores and the like, your score is calculated.  Should you use all seven of your letters on one turn you add 50 points to the score of the word you just made.

Many people play the game virtually, either against a computer, or online with players far away.  If that’s what keeps the game alive, that’s fine, but I don’t favor it.  Nothing beats feeling the tiles as you draw them out of a pouch and turn them over to see what you got (as if a kid looking at a Cracker Jack prize).   Plus, I enjoy seeing my opponent, face-to-face, watching them study and manipulate their letters, mentally and physically.  You can hear them moan over the letters they have or see them perk up with confidence, in anticipation of a big word score.

The game of Scrabble is much like the game of book marketing.  In both cases, composing big words doesn’t ensure a winner.  It all depends on how you keep score. In Scrabble, a word like jo or ax can net you 27 or more points depending on the circumstance, whereas a word like paragon may only net you 10 points.  With books, you can write 300 pages of great prose, but without proper distribution, aggressive PR, and savvy marketing, your book may sell far fewer copies than a book about bird droppings.

Scrabble also reminds me that the standard of victory exists based on who your opponent is.  You don’t have to score a set number of points, such as 400, to win.  You just need to finish one point better than those you play against. Book marketing is similar in that there is no predetermined book sale total to become a bestseller.  You just need to sell as many copies as you can and to outsell your competition.

There is some luck in Scrabble – the letters you and your opponent draw – but the game is driven largely on skill.  Book publishing also has room for luck – you never know who will discover your book or why they will embrace it – but the industry is driven largely on how skilled you are at promoting and marketing your book.

The game of Scrabble comes with a timer.  I never play with it but some people use it to ensure the game moves at a certain pace and to add a layer of challenge to the game. The book publishing industry also has a timer, though it is invisible. There is an urgency to push your book out there, especially during the first three to four months upon publication.  Whether you realize it or not, a book can age out of its relevance.

Perhaps the thing I like best about Scrabble is that the game keeps me sharp for the challenges of book marketing.  Every new hand of tiles that fate deals me forces me to go through mental gymnastics to systematically test word and letter combinations.  I scramble to figure out words that score the most points while taking into consideration how the placement of the word on the board could potentially help or hurting my opponent.

There’s something about the game that reinforces my creativity and my answer to the challenge posed before me. I love the idea of converting letters and words into points and wins.

Sometimes I wish book marketing could be as exact and finite and rewarding as a nice neat game of Scrabble.

*** To contact Brian Feinblum email brianfeinblum@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter @thePRexpert.

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