The Business Rusch: The Helpful Reader (Discoverability Part Two)
I publish this blog late on Wednesday night my time so that readers have the blog on Thursday. In the United States, this Thursday is our annual day set aside for giving thanks.
Before I start this blog, let me give thanks for all of you.
You’ve come to this blog on a regular basis for years now, and I greatly appreciate it. Thank you.
You buy my books. Thank you.
You encourage me to write more. Thank you.
I’m especially aware of your presence this week, not because of Thanksgiving, but also because of the post I put up on Tuesday.
In that post, I decided to tell the fans of the Retrieval Artist series that they won’t be getting a book in December as they have the past two years. The project that I mentioned—the one that’s blown my schedule all to hell?—that’s the next Retrieval Artist book. Or rather, books. The first one is done, and the next is underway. The thing of it is that the books need to appear fairly close together for a variety of reasons which I explain in that post.
As an avid reader of many series, I know what I like and what I don’t like. I love series that go on for a long time. I love it when the books in that series stand alone (more or less). I know how much richer those books can be when they’re read in order.
In September, I read (and recommended) a novel by one of my favorite writers, Elizabeth George. She ended that book on a cliffhanger (more or less) involving three of my very favorite characters in her series. I immediately preordered the next book, Just One Evil Act. Unlike many other books I preorder, I actually counted the days until that one arrived. When it arrived, I started it immediately.
Not because I feel I owe Elizabeth George anything. She’s bought two of my short stories for anthologies, and I’m greatly honored given how much I love her work, but I have never met her, and I feel no obligation to buy her next book.
Instead, I feel an obligation to Barbara Havers and her neighbor, young Hadiyyah. As far as I’m concerned, those two people (and Hadiyyah’s father, Taymullah Azhar) are living, breathing human beings not characters in a book series. I need to know what’s going to happen to them all. Right now. In fact, I needed to know in September. And had I read Believing the Lie when it came out in 2011, I would have needed to know two years ago.
Why do I believe in Havers, Hadiyyah, and Azhar? Because Elizabeth George is a fantastic writer, and if you love mysteries, I think you should read everything she’s written. I’m a fan, and I want you to be fans too. Not to support Elizabeth George, much as I like her work. But because I want you to meet Havers, Lynley, and the others who live and breathe in those books.
By the way, my monthly recommended reading list isn’t me as a writer trying to promote anything. It’s me as a reader sharing reads with other readers in the hopes you find something you’ll like.
I try to keep my fangirl side and my reader side in close proximity when I send my books to market. One of the greatest frustrations for me as a writer has been traditional publishing’s unwillingness to acknowledge the power of readers. Traditional publishers, as we have discussed many times, do not think of readers when they take books to market. They think about booksellers.
I adore booksellers, and for about a decade (from 1993 to 2003), they were the primary sellers of books in this country. When the regional and local distributors used to market books in places other than bookstores, like truck stops and grocery stores, coffee shops and museum gift shops, collapsed in the late 1990s, only the bookstores were left standing—and in many places, only the chains.
Publishers got rid of their local sales reps around that time and they also refused to give good deals to indie bookstores, destroying the widespread availability of books. The problem then, in traditional publishing, was that publishers started selling books to the chain bookstore buyers—about ten people total—and if those people weren’t interested, well, then, the lazy publishers thought, no one was.
(Except the readers! Us! You know! Us! Sorry. Couldn’t resist.)
When it became easier for writers to publish their own books, the thing that caught traditional publishing by surprise was that those books actually sold. They sold electronically because that was often the only way to finish a half-finished series that the ten buyers for the chain bookstores thought wasn’t important.
Books by unknowns sold as well, often because they were in genres that the ten buyers for the chain bookstores believed no one read (like Western and Science Fiction). What’s more, the books by unknowns—those writers not vetted by traditional publishers—weren’t one-shot wonders. Often, those books became series, and each book in the series sold more than the previous book n the series.
Because the unknown writers were great storytellers, and the fans wanted the next book. Fans are the best advocates for books, not for writers.
Some time ago, I wrote a blog about the importance of word of mouth. It is, ultimately, the best way for readers to find books. Please look at that post, because it goes into a lot more detail than I will in today’s post.
Here’s the short version:
You the writer cannot start word of mouth. It must come spontaneously from your readers. A good blog on a marketing website (yes, a marketing website) says this about word of mouth:
Talkers are your most valuable source for marketing, if they can speak from first-hand experience. You can buy fans. Buying fans does not create loyalty or truth telling. The best talkers are those that trust you will deliver your value… People talk about what they like, what they trust and what they value. All of these are earned markers of success in business. You earn them by doing a great job and exceeding expectations…
The problem with writers is that they try to “buy fans.” The writers do everything wrong, urging their readers at the end of books with things like, “If you liked this book, please leave a review on Amazon,” or “please tweet about it.” Or worse, the writers demand that their readers do such things, reminding their readers that the readers owe the writer.
Um, no. They don’t. Readers owe a writer nothing.
Readers who liked a book but aren’t tweeters or hate being cajoled will think you desperate. The thing is readers who like your book will do everything you want and more to promote your work without you ever asking.
The ironic thing is that most writers learned this bad behavior from traditional publishers. Traditional publishers try to force word of mouth while ignoring how it really works.
Because traditional publishers work on the produce method of publishing—they have titles on the shelf for only a few weeks before the titles “spoil” and new titles come out—the publishers have a limited time in which to sell the book.
So traditional publishers do a full-court press, and demand that their writers do the same. Tweet about your book all the time, the traditional publishers tell their writers. Make sure you do a “blog tour” the week of publication. Do a book tour on your own dime. Or maybe on our dime.
I’ll discuss this more later in the series, but let me say before you ask: Book tours aren’t about egoboo for a writer; they’re about getting the word out. Publishers don’t care how many people show up at a signing; they care that the bookstore has advertised a signing with an author, which then gets the word out.
For the really big authors, as I mentioned last week, publishers spend hundreds of thousands of dollars in advertising to get the word out. But they’ll never do that for midlist writers.
By the time word of mouth starts spreading about good traditionally published midlist books, those books are no longer on the shelves of brick-and-mortar bookstores. These days, bestsellers often don’t stay on the shelves very long either. So if you hear about a good book, say, two years after some traditional publisher released it, you might be stuck buying a used copy or an e-copy because your preferred copy isn’t available. And that sale? It won’t be counted toward the produce/velocity sales that are all-important to a traditional publisher.
As an indie publisher (or self-published writer), you don’t have to take books out of print. Your books don’t have to sell in the week of release, either. You have time.
(If you don’t understand what I mean, look at this post I wrote in June called “Hurry Up. Wait” about the differences between traditional publishing attitudes toward books, and the attitude indie publishers should take on their books.)
You can, and should, let word of mouth build on its own.
The only way to jumpstart word of mouth is to let readers know that you have a new book out. Or an older book that has a new cover. Or maybe is about an event in the news. I remind people every year about my holiday books and stories. But I don’t push. Mostly, I do what you see on this blog. I have the covers of the new projects and the seasonal ones on my widgets page.
I try to provide information on upcoming books, but I’m not as good at that as I should be. It’s a failing, because as a reader, mostly what I want to know is this: When’s the next book coming out?
The next book is a particular thing per reader. It might be the actual next book in Series A. It might be the next book in Series B. It might be a book that’s been out for fifteen years, but the reader is new to a writer’s work and hasn’t found that book yet. To that reader, that fifteen-year-old novel is the next book
I’m not the best website designer, and I do many, many things wrong. (Please don’t write and tell me what I’m doing wrong. I know. I’m also doing this on my own, and would rather be writing, so I do what I can and let the rest go.) But I do some.
The one thing I don’t do, the thing I keep planning to do, the thing that writers like Dana Stabenow and Lawrence Block do so very well, is a newsletter. Only the truest of true fans sign up for a newsletter. They’re the ones who want to know the day, the second, a new book releases. They will buy it very quickly and then, if they like it, start spreading word of mouth—without being asked.
That’s the key. Don’t ask. Don’t beg. Don’t expect. Inform, and then back off.
Building a fan base takes years. Keeping fans takes work, generally consistent work. By that, I mean that you publish more than one book every five years. Readers like to read a lot by their favorite writers. All of us can read a book faster than we can write one. And that’s true of all writers, which is why we can never write fast enough to overwhelm our readers.
Plus readers are choosy. Some of you come to my site for the non-fiction. Some come for the Monday free fiction. Some of you read my science fiction. Some read my mysteries. Some of you don’t read my fiction at all.
I don’t expect you to. I certainly don’t demand that you should. Nor do I want you to do something outside the norm. I ask you to share the business blog not to promote my work, but so that the information gets out to others who might have missed it. But I’ll never ever ever ask you to share my fiction.
That’s your choice.
The subtitle of this particular blog is Discoverability Part Two. The hardest part about this section on Discoverability is this: Once you have published your book, you have no control over what the readers do next. None. You have given this part of discoverability over to them. They might choose to help you. They might forget for months to tell anyone about the book. They might never share your book with anyone else.
And that’s okay.
The only two things you owe your readers are these:
1. A really good story (available in as many markets as possible)
2. Information on previous and upcoming works
That’s all. And if you don’t do the second, well, someone (probably a fan you’ve never had contact with) will do it for you on a variety of websites, most of which you will never see.
Here’s what you have to remember—what traditional publishing has never known or forgotten: Readers and writers have the exact same goal. We want to lose ourselves in story for a few hours. Readers like to share the story that allowed them to leave their life for a while. Writers do too.
If you do your job as a storyteller, then a reader you never met will tell another person you’ll never meet about your book. You won’t know it happened. You won’t even know if that sale you made last Thursday came from word-of-mouth by a reader.
You’ll never know. And you have to be okay with that if you’re going to publish your work.
However, try to be respectful of your readers. As I mentioned above, I try to tap my inner reader all the time. Most writers never think like readers, and I think that’s a problem.
Because if writers thought like readers, then writers would know when readers are feeling impatient or uninformed.
Most readers wait patiently for the next book or the next installment of whatever. Most are silent about it, but not all (hence Neil Gaiman’s very famous blog post defending George R.R. Martin).
But we writers who are also readers should understand the desire to read a book right now, this moment, right after we finished the last book.
Because that impulse, that desire, is what causes readers to spread word of mouth. Hey, everyone! I loved this series so much I can’t wait for the next book.
Since I posted on Tuesday about the difficulties I’m having writing the next book of the Retrieval Artist series, my readers—the ones who come to the site regularly (and there are thousands who do not)—have been very gracious. I’m glad they’re being understanding. I’m trying to treat them the way that I would like to be treated.
However, if they weren’t understanding, I’d still write the books my way.
I’m not changing the story to reader expectations. Nor am I hurrying up because I imagine some reader will get mad at me for writing books slowly.
I’m writing this large project as fast as I can to finish it in a cohesive fashion. Then, with WMG’s help, I’ll publish the books the way that I as a reader would want the books published. One right after the other, and relatively fast in publishing terms.
I’m doing this to please me, and to keep the project’s integrity. By having all of the books in this mini-saga available, readers can then choose how or if they want to read all of them.
Some readers will get them all and read them as they come out. Other readers will spread the books out over months or years. And some readers might think the saga too long and never get to it.
It’s all about choice.
It’s also about remembering the thing that traditional publishers have forgotten: The customers for our books aren’t ten buyers for chain bookstores. The customers for our books are readers worldwide. Individuals, who choose to spend their hard-earned money on our work.
Some of those readers move on to the next book they want to read.
Others become evangelists for the books they love.
You can’t beg customers to promote for you.
You can’t expect them to buy the next book. You can’t expect them to remember your name. You can’t even expect them to remember the book title.
Write the next book. Publish it well (with good covers and blurbs, in all markets). If you enjoy writing that book, someone out there will enjoy reading it.
Trust the process. It works. And your inner reader knows it.
“The Business Rusch: The Helpful Reader” copyright © 2013 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.
SPECIAL NOTICE: I’d like to put out a call to those of you who are traditionally published. I need to update my Deal Breakers book for 2014. I have quite a bit of material, but I would like to see what I’ve missed.
So if you received a traditional publishing contract from a major publishing house and/or an agency agreement from an agent, please black out all the personal information and send it to me. I’m particularly interested in the contract clauses you negotiated away and/or that you walked away from.
I also would like to see the clauses you’re proud of getting. The ones where you feel you triumphed in your negotiation.
I need the entire contract, because a contract is a living document, and what it says on page 13 has an impact on what it says on page 2. Please black out your name, the name of your agent, the advances, etc., and send me the file.
I promise, I will not use your name or any personal information, except that I might say something like “a first-time author” or “an author who has published novels for fifteen years” or “a bestselling author.” I won’t even use a personal pronoun to give your secret away. And I’ll be the only one who looks at this.
If you want to see how I do this, look at the Addendums post from earlier this year. (And yes, that will be in Deal Breakers 2014.)
Thank you! I appreciate all of the help.
Thanks for the shoutout, Kris. I was a reader long before I was ever a writer, and all I want from the author is that good read and to be told when the next one’s coming. I try very hard to keep my newsletter strictly to those guidelines. And when I don’t have anything to say? I don’t send one out.
In re GRRM and, uh, impatient, shall we say? fans, see this video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j7lp3RhzfgI
So, it boils down to:
a) Write it and they will read it (hopefully!). Or, more specifically, write and publish lots of books in the hope that the more you have out there, the more likely your stuff will be discovered and be rewarded with word of mouth resonance.
b) Conversely, waste little time and effort on promotion.
Like so many things in life, writing is a crapshoot.
This doesn’t always have to do with discoverability, but I must put this out there for new writers and more seasoned writers alike–if you want to spread the word about your books, DON’T EVER tell your readers not to buy from Amazon because Amazon’s steep discounts cut into your royalties. An author I had liked and admired had repeatedly done this on his blog. “Don’t buy from Amazon!,” he pleaded. “I won’t get as much money!” Telling your readers where they have to buy your books and how much money you want them to pay is downright wrong and it doesn’t earn you brownie points with your fans. Ever since this author started his Down with Amazon mantra, I’ve stopped reading his blog and though I still buy his books, I make sure that I buy them on Amazon (more frequently now through 3rd-party Marketplace sellers). Spiteful? Yes. But I sure as hell don’t like writers trying to guilt me into paying an arm and a leg for their hardcover books. As a writer, one of the most important things you must do is respect the reader. And one of the ways you respect the reader is to butt out of their business.
So he wouldn’t be self-publishing, then. He chose to go with a trad publisher, agreed to their contract where they give big discounts to big merchants so he gets paid less, and he’s probably paying 15% of all that to an agent who really works for the publisher. But we’re supposed to go out of our way to *not* buy from Amazon, because he doesn’t like the consequences of the business decisions he made of his own free will. Yep, I’m with you.
That, Teri, is it in a nutshell.
Kris, I agree with everything except about asking people to leave a review at the end of a book. You can definitely come across as desperate or (worse) demanding, but there’s a good reason to do it in a non-awkward way. Simply put, if you don’t ask people to respond in a specific way, they might not think to do it. Sure, they might tell everyone they know, which is fantastic. It would be even better if they’d leave a review AND tell everyone they know. You don’t need to encourage a big fan to talk about your books, but you might need to nudge them a bit to get a review out of them.
I don’t disagree that you can do wrong with this, but I think there are good reasons to do it tastefully.
I’m a dentist, and one of the things that every marketing guru (and even a lot of the non-gurus) tell us to do is ASK for referrals. You might think that it would be logical of a patient to share their good experience with their friends and family, but generally they don’t. They come up with excuses for why they didn’t, like they assume you’re already too busy and/or not taking new patients, stuff like that.
Asking for a review strikes me as being similar to asking a satisfied patient to refer friends and family. I didn’t, at the end of my short stories and my collection, but maybe I should have…
GRRM is actually the perfect example of word of mouth. Oh, I had a couple of his Wild Cards anthologies, but I had no idea who he was when I picked up Game of Thrones as a hardback remainder in probably 1998 or so. I didn’t (and mostly still don’t) read short fiction. By the time I got around to reading it the second book was out, and I immediately picked it up at full price, and the third book the day it shipped. Those books got loaned out to probably a dozen different people, and I recommended them to _everyone_. Fast forward ten years, and my tune had changed. I now recommended that anyone who hadn’t read them avoid them until he finishes the series, which at that point I believed he never would. You probably believe that isn’t fair – I know Neil Gaiman doesn’t, but that’s how I felt. Of course, now with the HBO series out I’ve swung back around to recommending them – if he doesn’t finish the series HBO will, and we’ll at least get some sort of resolution. But seriously, was Martin an A-list megastar at that point? I just looked, and my Game of Thrones I picked up for a few dollars as a remainder was actually a first edition, first printing. I don’t know how big the print run actually was, though.
Skip, I had a bookbuyer’s lucky moment too; and again, word-of-mouth played a part. In November 1984, at the office I heard two former submarine sailors raving about this book that had just come out. It was set aboard nuclear submarines, and my officemates said it was authentic, even though an insurance agent had written it. So based on both of them’s favorable comments, I went out and bought my own copy. This is how I came to own a first edition of THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER by Tom Clancy.
I got into Fantasy late 80s or so. Back then, in Spain [*], there was A big fantasy publisher and some smaller ones. That publisher came into the habit of publishing the first two books in a series and forgetting it [+]. So I got into the habit (deeply reinforced by Jordan’s Wheel of Time) of waiting until a whole series was out.
Fair? To whom? Frankly, Gaiman’s opinion on this is both biased and useless (and so, worthless). I’m a reader. His reader, sometimes. I can choose whatever legal limits I want to my reading. I could choose to read only epic fantasy in iambic pentameter published in weekly pulps. Not fair to those who don’t follow Classical forms? So what? By the same token, it’s “not fair” that I’ve hardly read anything by Gaiman since “Neverwhere”.
I could argue it’s “not fair” that Mr. Gaiman hasn’t published something I drooled over for a while. But that’s his choice. Mine is where and how I use my money. And, as it happens, it’s a buyer’s market. What’s the point of shunning publishers’ “gatekeeping” if I accept writers’?
Sorry for the rant. Take care.
[*] Yes, I was reading translated. No amazon, no internet, no… If I had to buy in local bookshops, I wouldn’t buy English these days either. You wouldn’t believe the markup. Compulsory markup.
[+] So did the others, but they weren’t as biased to series. To this day, multiple book series with epic fantasy forms are called, unflatteringly, “Dragonades”. Let’s just say that not everything they published was on Jordan’s level.
Skip, a LOT of people decided to wait until that series is finished. Which may be never. And a lot of people have just decided to watch the TV show, since the producers know what the ending is and very few people believe the books will ever be finished. Since GRRM has already said he’s not going to let anyone continue them after he’s dead (unlike Jordan, and all praise to Sanderson for actually ending the series!), TV’s going to be it.
Me, I’m just waiting for that “Retrieval Artist” series — and I KNOW when that one’s going to conclude! 🙂
I haven’t read the whole post yet, but I LOVE, LOVE with a passion Hadiyyah and B. Havers. I read the series for them, not Lynley (and I hate BBC/PBS for tinkering with the stories to put him out front).
I loved the book where they were in Balford-Le-Nez (Deception on His Mind).
I loved What Came Before He Shot Her – even though a lot of readers hated that one. Even my husband thinks its one of the best books he’s read in years – and that’s saying a lot for someone who thinks George R.R. Martin hang the moon.
Ok, fangirl moment over. I have to read the rest of the post now.
Sorry, couldn’t resist.
If GRR Martin himself hung the moon… let’s say our lives would be interesting.
I mean… ‘Sandkings’.
Once again, thank you for another essay. Here’s why it helped me just now:
Over literally half a century, my books have built up a fan base for me–but it’s a non-fiction fan base. When I began publishing fiction, I more or less assumed that my fans would give that fiction a head-start. I was wrong, or at least mostly wrong. A small percentage of those fans did sample the fiction, mostly out of curiosity. I know, because I’ve met many of those fans at technical conferences.
But it was only a small percentage, and then a small percentage of that small percentage became fiction fans, too. Very tiny. And, until I read this column, I didn’t fully understand why my fiction was “failing.”
Of course, it could be failing because the stories aren’t memorable, but I have some evidence that some readers do remember them and treasure them. Sure, that quality will grow with each succeeding book, but now I understand that for the moment, I’m in the early stages of building up my fiction fan base.
So thank you. Instead of disrespecting my own fiction writing, I’m just continuing to write, to practice, and hoping my fan base will build to a nice number while I’m still around to enjoy the idea that so many people are having a good time with my books.
Did you just “assume” that the non-fiction readers would follow you? 🙂 Maybe they genuinely weren’t interested, but _maybe_ they were. Did you give them a chance? Did you give them a reason to _try_ the fiction?
I’m unusual, in that I AM A READER. Many aren’t, but they should still be told that you have other books out there. Maybe they don’t read that genre, but maybe their friends do. If you’ve been successful with non-fiction that means you know how to tell a story. (Present information that doesn’t bore people to death.) You make actual, historical figures _come to life_. For me personally, if I see a familiar name, on a different genre, I’ll at least look closely.
The title, cover, and blurb still have to pique my interest enough to plunk down the money, but *I will consider it.*
You still have to “sell” me, on buying, but you have passed the first (and biggest) hurdle. Getting me (the potential buyer) to look at YOUR book, not someone else’s.
Thank you for this, Kris! I really needed to read your opinion right now. I went to RWA over the summer and was feeling pretty down because I wasn’t “doing” all the right things I was supposed to be doing in the promo department. I’d tried to implement many from the list of “have to dos”, but was having a hard time with them.
‘Building a fan base takes years.’
Thank you! I needed to be reminded of this. And I strongly agree with everything you say. It’s so refreshing to hear in the face of what some of the so-called pundits tell us about how to ‘convince’ our readers of what they need to do (making readers sign up for this or that or do something, anything.)
It’s very encouraging to hear about your decisions made on what you feel is right for your series. I’ve got the first one, and yes, I will read it and look forward to it very much. Thank you.
It is also encouraging to hear that sometimes the word of mouth has a built-in delay – for everyone. I am very thankful that you and Dean are doing the things that you do.
And thankful that I have the chance to reach readers, no matter how long it takes.
That’s the best an expat can do on Thanksgiving. 🙂
The other day I went to Amazon for some random household thing. When I opened the site there was a notice letting me know that Gene Wolfe’s new book was available because we had bought some Wolfe books on Amazon before. I immediately told my husband, who is the big Wolfe fan in our house. He immediately bought the book. Then he enthusiastically started talking up Gene Wolfe to his co workers. He had gotten one of them to try out Wolfe previously (and that guy became a die hard fan as well) but was still trying to convert some of the others. Word of mouth in action and Gene Wolfe didn’t have to do a thing.
…and it worked again, because I hadn’t known Gene Wolfe had a new release until you posted this. Off to Amazon… 🙂
I wanted to say “Thank you” for this post. Recently I was feeling bummed about having so few ebook sales over the last few months. I knew my sales were up at the few cons I’d been to, but I just kept brooding. I needed your reminder that not everything is in my control. I needed a reminder to stop worrying, and keep writing the best stories I can. Easy to forget that, in the moment.
Readers remember story. There are books I read years ago and I will never find them again because I can’t remember the title, I can’t remember the author. But I remember what happened in the book. Were they well written books? They must have been for a knuckle-head like me to remember them forty-plus years later.
It’s nice to be reminded of what are job is as a writer and that is to write the best story you can and put it out there. You’re right, readers will tell others readers about your stories.
I post stories on my blog every week and I don’t know where they come from but there is a small group of readers that come every week. I continue on for them. When I publish I will announce it on my blog and see what happens.
It’s an interesting business and I don’t think there is any recipe for discoverability other than writing a good story.
When I’m on signing sessions, I try to identifiate the persons who show enthusiasm about one or more books they have read. Then, I inform them if they want to show their support, and if they feel like doing it, a commentary, for example on Amazon, may be an efficient mean to do so.
I have a newsletter (with 7 subscribers, who doesn’t seem to be members of my family excepted they can always choose pseudonyms), but as I try not to spam my so rare subscribers, I’ve chosen to send only one newsletter for the collection of short stories I publish individually each month since september, to inform them retroactivally. I try to limit newsletters I send to two or three a year.
I agree readers owes us nothing. If my books doesn’t sell, I’ll try to do better with the next one.