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Adding Empathy to Your Book Advertising

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PUBLISHED SEPTEMBER/OCTOBER 2020

by Justin Oldham, Co-owner, Shadow Fusion —


Justin Oldham

How the pandemic caused publishing company Shadow Fusion to re-examine the way they package and market their products.

In good times or bad, independent book publishers of every stripe have to decide how they will introduce their wares to prospective customers. They can hype, emphasize, or sensationalize the dramatic elements of their publications in order to grab a reader’s attention. Alternatively, they can choose to take a more empathetic approach that de-emphasizes any real or implied shock value. We have found that appealing to the better selves of our potential audience has allowed us to continue marketing our post-apocalyptic products during this pandemic without drawing fire for perceived callousness.

Our business is currently centered around a post-apocalyptic, role-playing game and supporting fiction. In general terms, our critics have tended to think of us as being insensitive to the current crisis. Who wants to read about or play in an end-of-the-world scenario when faced with a real-world disaster? The reality of modern existence is that there are people out there who want to be helpful—to protect, create, or build. They will seek out the tools to help them achieve the dreams their idealism makes them reach for. These are the people we make our merchandise for.

The pandemic caused us to re-examine the way we package and market our products. We needed to understand how the crisis was affecting our potential customers and how that might change the way they thought about our materials. Unfortunately, the nature of the self-isolation and quarantine requirements imposed on people caused many to think negatively about a genre they used to enjoy. Changing to more empathetic marketing is our way to provide hope for the future, helping them to overcome their uncertainties and encouraging them to feel it is still acceptable to have fun with such a serious subject.

We began by rethinking the cover images for our books, de-emphasizing the violence and focusing more on the adventure elements. In the past, many aspects of this popular genre included spectacular portrayals of horrific situations involving objectified female characters. Stepping away from that traditional depiction gave us the opportunity to emphasize a number of more attractive features, such as mystery solving, exploration, inclusive play, and teamwork.

Our next step was to accelerate our introduction of young adult fiction because it lent itself more readily to a gentler approach. By including characters with physical disabilities, we’ve tried to make the idea of our post-apocalyptic universe appeal to readers who are looking for someone more like themselves. We sometimes refer to this element of inclusivity, whether directly or by implication, in our social media postings.

Once we understood that some people used more empathetic words and phrases to locate products similar to ours on various platforms, we revised our keyword search choices to include new options that were less gritty and more positive. This makes it easier for people who are interested in a kinder, gentler apocalypse to find us. By acknowledging their preferences, we show that we can provide something they will enjoy.

Modern audiences’ sensitivity to current social events and environmental concerns caused Shadow Fusion to rethink the catchwords, buzz phrases, and descriptions it used on its websites.

Modern audiences seek games and stories that are more sensitive to current social and environmental concerns. This caused us to rethink the catchwords, buzz phrases, and descriptions we used on our websites. The front page of our game site invites the reader to “Make your future,” continuing by asking, “Do you have what it takes to survive in a ravaged post-apocalyptic world?” This encourages them to explore what an end-of-the-world scenario might look like while acknowledging that everyone has different comfort levels for violence, drama, and gore. We’ve consciously chosen to emphasize cooperative play, entertaining reading, and the positive aspects of inclusive role-playing and inspired world-building. As much as we may like the long-standing aspects of the genre, times have changed. The features of our products that we emphasize need to transform with them.

Shadow Fusion changed its social media messaging to be more proactive and empathetic.

We capped off our new approach with proactive, empathetic messaging on social media. We’ve spent some money on advertising on various outlets, recognizing that the results will be somewhat hit or miss. To supplement these ads, our posts often tie real-world elements to the stories, novels, and role-playing materials of our game universe. We also use humor to make the whole idea of the apocalypse more palatable. The combination of new book covers, relevant fiction subjects, and keyword choices provide us with topics to continue messaging that we hope will appeal to customers long after the pandemic has passed.

As unwanted as the COVID-19 crisis has been, it has provided our company with opportunities and incentive to connect with our customers in more meaningful ways. We understand there are many things that make this particular genre go into or out of favor at any point time. We’re focused on being here for the long haul. Adapting to the new normal has allowed us to modernize our point of view. We hope our readers will benefit from this. We’ve started seeing improvements in our sales, which suggests to us that they like the changes they see.


Justin Oldham is co-owner of Shadow Fusion LLC, located in Anchorage, Alaska. For more information about the company, visit shadowfusionbooks.com. More about the post-apocalyptic tabletop role-playing game A.C.: AFTER COLLAPSE® and its universe can be found at acaftercollapse.com.

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