The Business Rusch: The Helpful Reader (Discoverability Part Two)
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.