The Business Rusch: In The Beginning (Discoverability Part 5)
Alert American music fans monitoring social media in the wee hours of Friday, December 13th, became—for a few hours anyway—the most newsworthy fan base in the world.
Somewhere around midnight on either Thursday or Friday depending on the time zone, Beyoncé—in the words of Consequence of Sound’s editor-in-chief Michael Roffman —“simply uploaded her fifth, eponymous-titled album to iTunes, complete with 17 videos to accompany the album’s 14 tracks, and then, you know, walked away.”
She didn’t exactly walk away. She actually accompanied the upload with an announcement on Instagram that you have to see just to understand its impact. Click here, if you haven’t looked already.
Beyoncé said she wanted to go directly to the fans, and whoa, boy, did she. Within hours, the album, called Beyoncé, became the fastest-selling album on iTunes ever, and became #1 in 104 countries. If you want to see how that word-of-mouth traveled, Buzzfeed provided this really nifty map of Twitter in the 12 hours after the surprise announcement.
When I drop a stealth novel and announce it on social media, do I get that kind of buzz? Of course not. And while I’ll be talking about Beyoncé’s unorthodox marketing strategy a lot in the next two weeks or so, I won’t be doing so because I want you to emulate it.
I want you to understand it.
Those are two very different things.
Beyoncé, Nine Inch Nails, Kanye West, and Radiohead have all pulled off a version of this kind of direct-to-fans release. First social media starts to talk about it, then regular media, and then the idiot pundits, who have no real idea what they’re talking about. (It took me nearly an hour as I wrote this to find people who were writing actual articles, rather than folks who were opining about the way that Beyoncé had been born fully formed from the forehead of Zeus, and therefore could have done something like this as a babe in arms. [And yes, I can be even more snide, if I cared to].)
So why am I discussing Beyoncé’s great media coup in a post geared toward writers—in the middle of my discoverability series. Because Beyoncé understands that she has a career, and she also understands that her work is not produce—something that has to be hyped before it spoils—but something that she hopes (and her fans believe) will last a long time.
Her fans love her work so much that they went against modern music industry beliefs and downloaded a full album, rather than wait a week to get the individual singles (or the CD). When Target and Amazon decided not to carry the CD because the internet release came first (which was very pouty of them, and quite hypocritical of Amazon), Beyoncé didn’t whine or complain.
Instead, on December 20, the day of the CD’s release, she went to a Wal-Mart in Massachusetts (where she was set to go on stage a few hours later), commandeered the intercom, wished everyone in the store Merry Christmas, and then told all those lucky Wal-Mart shoppers that the first $50 of their shopping spree was on Beyoncé. That act of generosity cost her $37,000, got her another round of media attention, and served as a giant fuck-you to Target and Amazon.
Can’t find the CD on Amazon or in Target? No prob, fans. Wal-Mart has it.
Oh, my, that woman has style. And she trusts her fans. She has cultivated them for years.
Beyoncé came to national attention in 1997 when the group she was with, Destiny’s Child, released its first album. But she’d been learning her craft since she was a little girl. You may not like her music. But there’s no denying she’s one of the top entertainers in the world—and she’s worked her way into that position with almost twenty years of performance, craft, work behind her. And here’s the thing most articles about the surprise album release fail to mention—just how much work it was to produce the damn thing. (Not to mention how hard it was to keep the gigantic secret under wraps.)
On the day of release, the only mention of how hard she actually worked appeared in The Los Angeles Times (at least that I could find):
Beyoncé’s sneak attack is the result of more than a year and a half of work. Recording began when the singer and her camp of writers and producers lived together in the Hamptons last summer. And the videos were lensed in places such as Houston, New York City, Rio de Janeiro, Sydney and Paris as she toured.
And that’s what I want you writers to take from all of this coverage. Every bit of the hype, every bit of the shouting, started after the album was done. The album itself is one of at least twenty original albums she’s produced, not counting other projects she’s been involved in.
She’s only 32 years old. Do you think this release will be the headline of her obit? Maybe if (God forbid) she dies next week. But if she has a normal life span, this might or might not be the headline when she goes. I’m betting on not.
Yes, in some ways, the idiot pundits are right—only Beyoncé could have done this. But that’s because Beyoncé stands on seventeen years of work, and seventeen years building a fan base, seventeen years of a career that, with luck, will extend into the future.
And she built the album according to her vision.
Not, as so many of you keep asking me, on what she should have done or what someone else does. Her vision.
Because, in the arts, all we have is our individuality. The minute you try to do something the same way someone else did—from composing a story to choosing a genre to marketing your work—you’ve failed.
The first rule of being an artist is to be an artist.
What you’re creating is unique, because it’s yours. Your job as an artist is to always strive to tell your stories in your way. Who cares if fat fantasy novels are selling right now? Who cares if none of your friends read romance?
Write your books.
And always work to improve.
Improve your language? No, not unless you don’t know grammar well—and that is the case for so many of you. You never got grammar, punctuation, and spelling in school. Learn it, for god’s sake. Those are the tools of your trade.
Then learn how to make those tools dance to your tune. Not someone else’s. Yours.
You cannot think about being discovered if you don’t produce the work.
Every time we talk about discoverability, promotion, or sales, I always say that the best thing you can do to promote your writing is to write more.
How do people find your work? By having choices. Some people might like the cover on your very first novel, and buy it for that reason. Some people don’t find you until your fifteenth novel. Some people like your short stories or, as some of you have pointed out on a recent blog of mine, some of people find your fiction through your nonfiction.
Write. Write a lot. Then write more.
Don’t even bother to try to be “discovered” until you have a body of work. Not one novel. Not even two novels. Maybe not three or four or five. Worry about being discovered after you’ve published a good handful of novels or short stories or plays or nonfiction books. Enough to fill a computer screen when someone is scrolling, looking for something to read.
I am not telling you to wait to publish.
I think you should publish the very first thing you finish. If you want to be traditionally published, send that very first thing to editors who might buy it. If you want to be a hybrid writer or an indie writer, then publish that thing after it’s gone through a first reader and a copy editor. Get it out into the world.
You might not sell a single copy.
You might sell hundreds or thousands or tens of thousands.
The only way to know is to make the work available.
But first, you have to do the work.
That work is writing.
Write what you love. Tell the best story you can. Then, once you’ve finished that story, start a new story. Make it even better than the first.
None of the hype, none of the career stuff, none of the marketing works on just one book. Nor does it work well on only a few.
In fact, there’s growing evidence that hype—traditional marketing—doesn’t work at all.
Again from Consequence of Sound’s editor, Michael Roffman:
Here’s the problem, hype only works if the product’s justified, and in today’s cynical culture, where everyone has a voice and the haters have even louder one, hype hardly matches up even when the product is justified.
Remember what we’ve been discussing these past few weeks. We’ve been discussing how to get the word out about your work. What used to work in the past applies to a completely different business model than the one that exists today. (If you don’t understand that statement, please read last week’s blog.)
As I was going through the articles about Beyoncé, looking for the information I knew I had read but couldn’t find quickly, I kept seeing one thing over and over again.
The only way to know if the album was worth the hype wasn’t the 800,000 downloads in the first 12 hours, but whether or not people would still be buying the album in the second week and beyond. Because by then, word of mouth wouldn’t just be that the album was out, but also about whether or not the album was good.
Well, the album was released in the middle of the chart-cycle (not on a Tuesday, like all good albums should release). In its second full week on the chart, the album still held the number one position. Billboard has called it “unstoppable,” and added this:
Thus, in its first 10 days of release, “Beyoncé” sold 991,000 and is (so far) the 12th biggest-selling album of 2013. There is one more tracking week left in the year — the week ending Dec. 29. It’s likely that “Beyoncé” will finish 2013 among the top 10 sellers (all of which have sold at least 1 million this year).
If the fans didn’t like the album, sales would have peaked in the first week and dropped precipitously. This happened to many albums in 2013, just like it’s been happening to books.
When an album or a book or a movie—let me start again. When a piece of entertainment enters the world, that piece of entertainment must then stand on its own. The hype can only carry it so far.
The best work gets carried by word of mouth. When you’ve cultivated millions of international fans, like Beyoncé, that word of mouth literally moves at the speed of the internet. When you’re me, that word of mouth takes months, sometimes years. When you’re brand new, that word of mouth will definitely take years.
Does that mean you should study the market before you write anything, jump into the bestselling genre, and hope for the best?
Write what you love. Constantly learn. Constantly improve.
Last week, I compared your writing to real estate. Your writing is an asset that will live for decades after you’re gone (if you do it right). So following this year’s trends is absolutely silly.
If you need to think about which neighborhood your rental houses are in, then here’s how you do it:
Every writer starts in a neighborhood where the storytelling is okay. We’ve all lived in places like that. The house provides a roof, maybe a little charm, and needs a lot of work. But many of us still lived in those houses—and we enjoyed parts of them.
Your goal as a writer is to establish your rental units in better neighborhoods—neighborhoods where the stories are mostly good (although there are still a few clunkers). Someday, after decades, your storytelling skills will enable you to offer rentals in a neighborhood where the stories are very good.
And maybe, just maybe, you might actually work your way into the truly rarefied neighborhoods, the ones with great stories, stories that will appeal to millions of people.
Then, long after you’re dead, your work might work its way into that neighborhood where Shakespeare dwells. The one where Jane Austen’s lovely little houses still charm and delight. You won’t live to see your work there, but your fans will.
The new fans, who have discovered you—
Because of your writing.
So…how do you get discovered? You write a lot. You constantly improve.
And you have patience.
Yes, I’ve said this before.
I’ll say it again.
Some of the marketing I’ll be discussing in the next few weeks will apply to people who have written enough to form a list of works. If you’ve only written one novel, you can stop reading the discoverability blogs right now.
You’re not ready for the rest of this.
You haven’t done enough work yet.
Write more. Bookmark the blogs. Read them after you’ve finished and published more work.
The rest of you, we’ll talk about the brave new world of publishing next week—a world where a superstar totally avoids the hype machine and outsells all of her contemporaries who did traditional marketing.
Believe me, that gamble wouldn’t have worked in 1985.
But we don’t live in 1985.
Thinking about marketing and hype and promotion is so last century.
We’ll start talking about the next century next week—as we move into the next year.
2013 was a good year for me. Not a great one, but a good one. In that year, I did somehow manage 52 blogs. I hope to do the same in 2014.
Thanks for coming on the journey with me. Thanks for sharing your thoughts in e-mail and comments. Thanks for sharing links and your knowledge. Thanks for the donations, which keep this blog alive. Thanks for reading and returning, week after week.
You say that we should publish the very first thing we finish, but, as beginners, how do we know whether it’s good enough? Is a first reader, who is not a writer, a sufficient judge of quality?
Also, do you have a copy editor go through a short story? I’m asking because a short story presumably sells very few copies, so the cost of a copy editor may be hard to recover.
Publish it. You have no idea what the quality is, so you don’t know if it’s fantastic. If it’s bad, no one will read it. And yes, you need a copy editor. If you can’t afford one, buy a very anal friend who sees tiny mistakes some dinner for reading it. Ignore their comments on the character or the plot (unless they tell you the character’s name is spelled five different ways or you’re missing a gun in the front of the story that shows up at the end), and then publish it.
And stop worrying about it at that point. Write your next one. Repeat.
Found an item featured on Pinterest yesterday that made a great corollary to this post. It was a mug that said “You have the same amount of hours in a day as Beyoncé”. I snickered happily for a couple of hours after I saw that.
Gosh, I mean “suck mightily at marketing.” I’m not sure about my writing though. I do hope I don’t suck! LOL.
Your blog (and Dean’s post on productivity) came at the right time for me. I just released a short story as an ebook on Amazon and various outlets four days ago. I would not have done it if not for you and Dean’s advice to release your finished works, no matter how new you are at this.
I knew what you said about concentrate on the writing, but yet I was tempted to promote when I grew discouraged with the lack of sales or even peeks (!). It’s so powerful, that emotion! That’s why what one of the commentators said was spot on: Learning to Let go.
Too often, indeed, we writers are such an insecure lot. We want validation. We want our egos stroked and petted. I have to learn to let go of that powerful NEED of validation and let the desire to polish my writing take over. Instead of making money or any kind of validation as our goal, we should focus instead on the craft and on being better writers.
My plan is to release at least 10 works this year – I have lots of unfinished stories that just need to be finished! At the same time – I’m interested to know what you think of this – I am planning to write in public by maintaining web fiction. I find the arena an exciting one. I’m a social person by nature (but suck mightily at writing) and the thought of slowly gaining readers and posting a bit of my work every week really intrigues me.
However at the same time I’m wondering whether I’m selling myself short by putting some of my work free. (I plan to sell my ebooks at the side too and plan to compile the serial fiction when they reach a certain number of words.
Anyway, 2014 is THE YEAR OF “WRITING OFF MY TUSH”. To avoid discouragement, I’m not going to check my sales or my visitors’ stats for that stroke of validation. The only validation I should aim for is to finish my work.
I think many of your ideas are good, Antonna, but I’d discourage you from writing in public. You want to stick with your vision, not write by committee. I think it’s just fine to post finished work every week. Or, you can do what Dean’s doing, and blog about what you’ve finished each day, which is also a motivator, and very social. Then you can post the finished work, after you’re done with it–if you don’t change it when you get comments. Remember, you’re the artist, and you’re the one who decides how a story should be. Stick with that theory, and you’ll be just fine.
As for free, we’ll discuss that in a future blog post. Dealing with free is a changing target. I wrote a post on it in 2011 that really isn’t relevant any more.
And The Year Of Writing Your Tush Off–brilliant!
No, I don’t change my work after I get comments. I used to post my work online way before it was even popular. I had a few aggressive readers who insisted that I do this or that but I just thanked them and planted my own vision instead. My subconscious doesn’t really like writing to other people’s vision. I did that once and it was awful! (For me, and I’m sure for the poor readers…)
Again, thanks for your blog. Yours and Dean’s are the only ones I make sure to read.
PS: I think I echo everyone else here when I say that I’m really looking forward to your future posts!
Ugh. I’m spamming you. So sorry. Wish there was an edit button.
Just wanted to say that I just told Dean that I plan to write about what I write every day just like him – so that I could monitor and observe my writing habits; to see what works and what doesn’t. Don’t think I can match his dedication though! 😉
Also. I’m TRES EMBARRASSED by the copious grammatical mistakes in my posts. (This is that happens when I post at the end of a working day. My brain shuts off.)
Writing off my tush” is a great idea, though I don’t think I want to lose my butt through writing, lol. Ok, stopping the spam posts now.
Oh, don’t worry about the typos. I commit them all the time, especially when tired. It’s not a big deal. And spam? Naw. I cleared out three pieces of real spam before I got to you, stuff that managed to sneak through the filters. I love it when they tell me I wrote a great informative article, and it’s on a free fiction post that I took down two months ago. 🙂
Oh, good. Because taking advice mid-story really hurts an artist in the long run. And thanks for the kind words.
I’ve read your excellent series on discoverability and found it to be quite an education. And yet, when it comes to “figuring out” how the curious world of publishing works, I wonder if screenwriter William Goldman’s quip about Hollywood (“nobody knows anything”) might be worth considering.
I use that quite often in my blog, Bill. It’s so true! Thanks.
Thank you for this post. I have just finished a series which is due for release in April. I haven’t really done much marketing so far, because there were only two of four books and they both end on cliff hangers. I have tried to get the word out a bit, but with only two books and only one story arc (not finished) I decided it would be better to do the minimum selling, just to try and keep it from sinking right to the bottom of the Amazon slush pile, and concentrate on finishing it first.
Your post just leaves me feeling slightly more confident that I might have done the right thing.
There are a few things you can do, M.T. Make sure you have a website. Make sure you have a mailing list. That’s good promotion in the beginning, especially since you’re ending on cliff hangers. When this story arc is done, then go. Many of the things we’ll be discussing in future weeks will really work for your series.
Your blog post is relieving! I don’t feel so bad about my plans to not spend a lot of time marketing this year.
Except for giveaways, review copies, and posting some free stuff on my blog, my plan is to just write a lot this year. I’m going to focus on building my new pen name. I plan on writing short stories and submitting them to magazines. I also am working on a series of novellas/short novels. But where my works are destined, it all means the same thing: writing a lot!
Sounds like you have a great year ahead. Wonderful plan. Thanks for the comment.
Customer awareness is what I see as an important aspect of this discussion. Customers become aware of a body of work at different times and stages of the artist’s career. E.g., I don’t follow Ms Knowles and it barely registered that she was in Walmart at Christmas (I only knew this because the news program I was watching mentioned it – no idea why she was giving money away, didn’t care) and had no idea she released a new album (does she have others?) until you mentioned it. Beyonce is not on my radar.
Similarly, there are dozens, more like hundreds, of best selling writers that are not on my radar. I have to admit, I’d never heard of James Patterson until about two years ago…and have yet to read one of his (or his collaborator’s) novels. Discovered Michael Connelly last year. Only read one of his books. Sort of heard of Harlan Coben but couldn’t tell you any titles or who his protag is.
My point in all this? Customer awareness (or lack thereof). Genre/literary myopia. Though realities, they don’t limit the artist at all, do they? Beyonce doesn’t need people like me who know nothing about her. I freely admit my nearsightedness when it comes to her and the authors I mentioned – it makes not one lick of difference to Patterson, Connelly, or Coben if I don’t buy their books. They’re doing fine without me.
But this fact excites me too. These writers are selling millions…and yet millions have never heard of them! That’s great news! It means (for all of us) there is practically (more than just figuratively, but of course not literally) an unlimited number of potential buyer/customers/fans out there waiting to discover…us! They’re just not aware of us yet. We’re not on their radar. But we could be – as we write more and produce more and gain more buzz/attention/notice.
If we stick it out long enough (become a career writer, as Kris is talking about), we may one day write something that is both appreciated by millions of fans (a la Beyonce’s surprise release) and yet brand new to millions of others. Wouldn’t that be something else!
“But this fact excites me too. These writers are selling millions…and yet millions have never heard of them!”
The vast majority of people in the world — even just the English-speaking world — wouldn’t recognize the names Rowling or King. That includes the reading public. If 7 million people buy your book, that’s 0.1% of the world.
We’re ALL nobodies. Some of us are just better-known nobodies. There are lots of niches out there where a nobody can find an audience. And yes, that’s exciting!
I first stumbled on your blog when someone sent me an article stating that you say authors shouldn’t ever promote their work. I was like “that’s crazy talk!” Then I found your blog and read what you were actually saying. It’s quite a bit more nuanced than that. You aren’t saying “never ever promote, hide in a closet so nobody knows you’ve written anything.” What you are saying is do it strategically. What ultimately is a better investment of your time at this stage of your career–promotion or capital asset development? Should you be tweeting or creating saleable intellectual property? What you’re saying is invest first in the writing you can sell. Build inventory so when you do promote it’s more effective. And the work itself will eventually become your best promotion. I think many new authors who want to self-publish don’t take into account their role as publisher. As a publisher, I don’t want to spend a lot of money and time trying to make a single sale per new reader when I can spend the same time and money generating multiple sales from that same reader. If you plan to only write one book, then, yeah, you probably have to promote, But like you’ve said repeatedly, you’re aren’t writing this blog for one-book authors. I want write and publish as a career so I plan to write several books before I even think about marketing so when the time comes I can market more effectively. I’m going to put each one on the virtual shelf as soon as it’s ready, tell my friends, put it on my web site etc. but I’m not expecting anything to really happen until I have more books to sell. I think you’ve hit a nerve because under the traditional paradigm, if you didn’t sell well right away, the publisher would dump you. So the thought of putting something out there and letting it sit while you work on the next one is really scary to writers still living within that paradigm. They’ve been taught to believe that immediate success is necessary to validate them as artists instead of seeing it merely as a bottom line business calculation. Self-published authors need to think like publishers. Not every book put out there succeeds, which is why you don’t stake the company on a single title.
Thanks, Laura. Exactly. 🙂
“Believe me, that gamble wouldn’t have worked in 1985.
But we don’t live in 1985.”
That’s exactly what I think. I don’t think “that Beyoncé had been born fully formed from the forehead of Zeus”, she had a career.
What I find wonderful in her case is that she did not have to rely on big advertising money from a publisher to make a million sales at this price. If traditional advertisment loses its value, it means authors who doesn’t have the means, like Patterson did, to spend hundred of thousands of dollars on an ad could be discovered in the future. In fact, the case already exists, of course, but not to the level of Beyonce.
Yes, Beyonce has a career, and is still an “hybrid player”: her father’s Mathew Knowles label, Music World Entertainment, was behind her and Destiny’s Child at the start. Still, notice it’s a family business. And Mathew Knowles didn’t start in the music world: according to Wikipedia, he “began his business career in sales of office and medical equipment.”
So, she had the chance to be born on the right environment for her. But her story remains one of one artist who have successfully bypassed the gatekeepers.
I don’t know if we should hope for indie authors, who would not be hybrid authors but only indies, to have her level of success: it would mean the distribution of sales would be very unfair to many authors. Don’t make me wrong, it will always be like that in this system, but I’ve always thought many authors making 100,000 sales was better than a few with 100 millions sales.
“I’ve always thought many authors making 100,000 sales was better than a few with 100 millions sales. – See more at: https://kriswrites.com/2014/01/01/the-business-rusch-in-the-beginning-discoverability-part-5/#comments”
Fair only exists in kindergarteners’ imaginations. In the real world, fair is at best relative and at worse meaningless. But the quest for “fairness” by supposedly good-intentioned people has wrought no end of suffering and misery on others throughout history, all the while failing to achieve the “fairness” that was supposedly sought.
Never mind about fair. Focus instead on what is RIGHT. And what is, or can be (as in – actually has a chance of being in reality, not in fantasyland), real.
Good advice. “L’enfer est pavé de bonnes intentions”, as one says.
I personally try to balance things. I’m very social–I’d be bored to tears if I didn’t interact with people, so I have my blog and I like to post at the forums on Goodreads. That’s pretty much my promotion these days, as well as offering free copies to anyone who wants to read and do a review. (They approach me, not the other way around.)
I consider myself a writer right on the verge of things. I published my first book last year, have had short story sales which I now have published in eBook form as well, published a novella, and will be publishing my second book in a couple months. So I have about 8 things on my “shelf.” On top of that, Tor.com’s been holding onto one of my stories for about 5 months now, so I’m hoping to have a sale there.
My plan for 2014 is to write as much as I can, and just keep growing as a writer. I went from writing 250 words a day to 850, and would love to get to 1000 words or more.
Sounds like a great plan, Judy. I love that phrase “writer on the verge.” Perfect description.
I’ve already spent over half my life writing Tierra del Oro, known on YouTube as The Cordero Saga. Before that I wrote I Rode with Cullen Baker and Floyd and the Traveling Yard Sale, both of which were first published through Lulu and later reissued through Create Space (where the 9 saga novels are, along with the only contemporary short YA novel I ever intend to write). So marketing now is my main focus. Guess I’ll spend the last 1/4 of my time doing that.
Excellent post. The more I think about it, the more it seems like what you’re really saying to us beginning writers isn’t to put off marketing, but to learn how to let go and move on. In the days of slushpiles and gatekeepers, the path to publication was paved with rejection letters. The danger in that system was that we saw acceptance as validation, and therefore proof (or lack thereof) of a book’s quality. That led to all sorts of stupid writer myths, and discouraged a lot of us. The ones of us who made it were the ones who learned not to take rejection personally, working on their craft and keeping their manuscripts on submission until their books eventually found a home.
With indie publishing, the danger is that we see sales as validation. Therefore, we have to do all we can to boost our sales numbers in order to prove our quality. If our sales start to lag, we get an awful sinking sensation and our heads start to fill with all sorts of self-doubts. Short-term promotional tactics are like a drug, giving us the validation that we crave in spades. But then we crave more, so we start doing promotions without any sort of coherent strategy, or we turn to gimmicks that leave us with that oily feeling that Valieric mentioned earlier up the thread. And the more time and money and mental space we spend on these promotional tactics, the tighter we clutch onto our books, until it’s almost impossible for us to let go and move on to something else.
So what it seems like you’re saying to us beginning writers is that we need to learn to let go. Yes, there is a place for short-term promotions and marketing tactics–but you’ve got to approach it as a business person selling a product, not an artist hungering for validation. For the artist side, the writing itself has to be its own validation. If you’re going to self-publish, you’ve got to learn how to let go, just like under the old system. And for most of us, that doesn’t really come until we’ve written and published several books.
Sorry–copy and pasted from a discussion we’re having over on KBoards, which is why some of it doesn’t quite fit. But yeah, those are my thoughts–thought it would be interesting to post them here and get your reaction.
Wonderfully said, Joe. Yes. Exactly.
This is spot on. You’ve really captured the psychology of it. One does need to let go. I published my first book in May. Keeping tabs on my sales was obsessing me. I had one glorious week where a little marketing really (relatively speaking) paid off. That just made me crave more. In November, during National Novel Writing Month, I didn’t let myself check sales numbers until I hit my designated word count. It was a marvelous way to wean myself, and I’m now trying very hard to check only after I’ve “earned” a look. It really helps, and my second books is with my beta readers now.
So I’m reading along and I get to the real estate section, and it cracked me up. I don’t know how I missed it last week, but I ended up posting about something similar about the same time – “genre = neighborhood.” I’ve started bugging design clients to give me comps like you’d find on an appraisal, only for books. It seems to help them communicate, and it makes MY life easier 🙂
Here ’tis if you care to check it out.
Kris, you said, “The best work gets carried by word of mouth. When you’ve cultivated millions of international fans, like Beyoncé, that word of mouth literally moves at the speed of the internet. When you’re me, that word of mouth takes months, sometimes years. When you’re brand new, that word of mouth will definitely take years.”
I love that…it makes so much sense, and helps with the impatience I often feel as my existence as a writer seems to be no more than a tiny blip of statistical noise in a vast ocean. I must remember that with each passing day, my word-of-mouth quotient is percolating up from the depths of that ocean…
Great analogy, Michael. I love that percolating aspect.
…like a slow trickle of nutrients from ocean vents that will eventually support an ecosystem.
Thanks for this great post. As a newish writer, it confirms that my plan to mainly concentrate on building a backlist over the next 12 months while studying craft is the right one. Like you said. If it isn’t good the public won’t buy it. I love that we have this amazing opportunity to be independent writers, but that alone won’t create a successful career. And no matter what the publishing environment, you’ve got to put in those long hours when you’re learning something new if you really want to master a field.
Exactly. Learning the craft is important–for all of us. I’m constantly trying to improve. That’s one reason I do anthology short stories–so that I stretch. Sometimes I look at a topic, cringe, and think I can’t write that. Then I try. I grow a lot from those tries. So, yes, learning is probably the second most important thing we do–after our writing day is done. 🙂
I’m going to partially disagree. You should “promote every day,” in a manner of speaking. If you hide in a corner, until you have a “body of work,” you will never be found. DO NOT go out and spend a lot of time and money “promoting,” but DO NOT HIDE. I’ve known Michael “Mad Mike” Williamson, for over 20 years. He wrote for anyone that would pay him. When Jim Baen said, “send me an outline for a book,” he did (Freehold), and was “discovered.” He spends time not only making knives and swords, but blogging, writing, and doing a few conventions. He NEVER stops looking for ways to have people decide to try one of his books.
Yes, you MUST spend time writing, but also getting out and letting people know who you are. Unless you’re a complete doofus, you have knowledge and skills in one or more areas. Look for ways to help people, and become known. That way, when someone sees a book with YOUR name on it, they think. “That name is familiar, I wonder what the book is about?” They read the blurb, if they haven’t already heard about it, and hopefully buy it.
That paperback is *1 HOUR* at minimum wage, or _3_ hours for a hardback. The buyer is spending 1/2 to 1 1/2 hours of their “time” to buy the book. If they don’t recognize the name, the chances are they’ll pass it by.
With respect to “HYPE,” just look at movies. You can tell how good they really are, by how much advertising is there in the 2nd to 5th weeks in release. Unlike books and music, movies have a “shelf life.” If the word of mouth is bad, they die quickly (usually). Even DVD sales can’t save some of them (Ishtar, Water World, The Lone Ranger with Johnny Depp). As you say, “If hype worked,” they would have been blockbusters. The problem is that most (90%?) of advertisers/marketers have no idea of what actually works. Their “idea is. “Throw enough c–p at the wall, and maybe enough will stick.”
My point is that you should become known at conventions in your genre(s), on Facebook, LinkedIn, blogs, anywhere people can get to know you.
Walter, respectfully, I disagree. Some writers are very good at being social, not just in person, but online as well. Others suck at it. They need to play to their strengths. There are a lot of very well-known writers who never go online or to a convention or do anything but write. That’s a path.
I’m very comfortable with the path you outline, but I happen to like people and conversation, so being social is easy for me. (Although as an introvert, I also find it tiring.) But for some people, it’s not easy. And others are plain abrasive. So it’s best to commit words to the page and do nothing.
I do agree that if you feel you can be social, you should be minimally social. It’s very easy these days. I’ll deal with all that in a future blog on this topic.
I’ve been fortunate enough to watch a few writers in my circle succeed. They had various levels of success. What differed between them and me? They were prolific. They published a lot. No matter what they kept writing, they kept publishing. My output was paltry compared to theirs, and my sales show it. So now my pledge is to write as much as I can this year and publish. Shorts, Novellas, Novels, etc.. I’m going write and publish until my fingers bleed.
Great observations. Thanks for sharing them!
The minute you try to do something the same way someone else did—from composing a story to choosing a genre to marketing your work—you’ve failed.
Amen and amen.
The paradox is that readers gravitate to stuff they already know they like. But if they find something ELSE that they like, they will devour that. I love murder mysteries and read a few excellent writers. This month I discovered an excellent series I had not known about. Now I’m reading every book in the series. No real marketing was needed–the books just needed to be in the mystery section where I could find them. And I did.
This one quote rescued the whole post for me. All I see is ‘write more, publish more, market more.’
I CAN’T. Physically. It is very discouraging to someone who is working hard, constantly, to finish a challenging novel, and finish it well, that volume is the ONLY answer.
It is not. Some people produce quality work quickly – good for them. Others produce stuff quickly – again, good for them.
But some of us have Flannery O’Connor, Margaret Mitchell, and Harper Lee as role models – and we’re never going to be fast (unless someone figures out what ails us, and then fixes it, which hasn’t happened in 24 years so far).
So I read all the posts about discoverability (when I have time), keep working for as many hours daily as the brain will let me, and keep plugging away.
So, any posts on the other publishing model, the one for people who work a long time on a single novel, those are the ones I look for – and don’t see.
Not whining – we are what we are – just saying: my model is different, and I don’t have a choice in the matter.
Thanks, Kris, for recognizing you can’t follow other people – maybe what they say can’t apply to you.
You’re welcome, Alicia. Just think: If what wonderful books we would have missed if Harper, Flannery, or Margaret had done things the way everyone else did. The best thing about this new world of publishing is that we really, truly, can do things our own way and they will get published! That’s so wonderful.
Thanks for the comment. 🙂
At the risk of beating my own drum, I wrote a recent piece on my own blog for writers who have difficulty practicing Standard Writers Advice:
Slow Words: A Manifesto For The Unprofessional Writer
I just unsubscribed from your mailing list. I’ve been reading your discoverability series with great interest, but over the past four weeks, all you’ve told me is what not to do, and now in week five the core message seems to be “you’re not worthy to read this unless you’ve got a page of releases out.”
That type of discouragement and arbitrary gatekeeping is why the independent authorship movement is picking up steam – because ambitious, intelligent, creative writers finally have the tools to say to the gatekeepers, “Fine, you guard your gate. I’m going to go over here and make some really incredible art that I’m pretty sure people are going to like.”
Good luck to you.
I’m sorry I’ve offended you, Tricia. I’m getting to what you should do coming up. I’m trying to save writers time, so that they don’t do the ineffective things, and start doing effective things. The what-to-do items are in the next upcoming blogs. (This, for those of you in peer writing workshops, is why critiquing a book in progress never works. You have no idea what’s coming. And this is what’s dicey about publishing a work in progress, as I’m doing on the blog.)
Good luck to you as well.
Tricia, upon reflection, I realize I do have one question for you if you’re following the comments. Why do you consider “writing more” doing nothing? I am telling you what to do. I’m telling you to write a lot and publish before marketing. That is doing something quite important, actually.
I also fall in the category of writers who aren’t ready for the things Kris is going to post in the next few weeks – but I’m going to read them anyway (following more of her advice to make up my own mind). I’ll probably wait until I have enough published to make good use of the publicity to put any of that into practice, but I like to see what’s coming up.
Now – off to write some more so I can get to the page of offerings ASAP.
Oh dear, it’s rather harsh to unsubscribe just because you don’t agree with Kris’ methods. It’s not as if she just blogged she killed puppies for fun… I feel that we can still learn from people we disagree with.
I wouldn’t want to have to deal with the pre-screened comments for this one!
I don’t know why people get so defensive about publicity – but they seem to get more offended at the idea of not promoting all-out from book one than they would if you insulted their writing.
How dare you try to save people time and money?
I think people really want to believe that there’s a logical route to success. You publish, you advertise on X blog and & Y mailout, you follow the right steps – and voila! Instant sales. If you say it’s down to a combination of skill and luck, then that’s scary for people.
LOL, Zelah. Wait until Saturday. That’s when the folks who get angry at me really show up. 🙂 People want the secret handshake. Unfortunately, the secret handshake is really a massive exercise program that begins with writing and finishing a lot. In other words, work. Fun work, but work. And that makes them angry. So yeah, your observations are spot-on.
Thanks for sharing your insights anyway.
I expect pushback, J.P., because that’s how some people learn. And honestly, a good challenge makes me consider my position to see if I still believe what I’m saying or if I’m just parroting something from 5 years ago. So I don’t mind–except when it gets really personal, as it can. Then it’s just rude. I know that I make people angry. Telling people something different than their myths always makes them angry.
However, so many people then step past the anger and learn and grow, that it seems worthwhile to me to continue to make posts like this. And to let the non-rude (polite, sorta) comments through.
You forgot the bit where if a book doesn’t sell, even though you’ve done whatever promo mehtod is de rigeur at the moment (it seems to change every couple of months or so) it must be because your book is bad. Or the bit where you are not even allowed to speak up, unless you have done all the “required” promo stuff and sold X number of books, because you’re obviously just a hobbyist or – worse – an artist whose opinion isn’t valuable.
Anyway, great post as usual, Kris.
Indeed, yes! Just a couple of months ago I experienced a popular romance writer telling me (a writer of fantasy novellas) that if her books (bestsellers) ever sold like mine (modestly), she’d do some serious looking at the quality of the book. She urged me to do something different.
I believe she meant well.
Wow! I didn’t even know Beyonce had a new album out. She’s so music and money savvy.
I have a few book under my belt now, but they’re still not selling because I’m too afraid of online marketing. When I published my first novel years ago I had a bad experience online with haters. So I don’t know how to get my work noticed at all.
I’ll tell you in the next posts, Suz. And you can ignore me, keep writing and keep publishing. That’ll work too.
Suz, I’ll help with the marketing stuff in the next few weeks. Never fear. But writing and publishing are by far the most important things.
I absolutely cannot wait for your next blog post. Whenever I did do online promo for my books it would always take away time from fiction writing. Then I’d have nothing new for readers who could easily forget my name as an unknown author.
I don’t understand why you should wait to promote your books until you have a whole bunch of them. In the current environment, if that’s your belief, you might as well not even publish until you are ready to promote. No one’s going to read your books otherwise. Better to wait until you have a plan in place, and you can take advantage of the additional visibility and promotion offered to new releases in every single ebookstore.
For a new author, good promotion isn’t about hype. It’s about finding any readers at all. They’re not going to find you on their own.
I agree that no one is going to be able to support a career on one or two or probably even five or ten books. But promoting your first book makes it infinitely more likely there will be readers waiting and ready for the second.
Worst case, you try to promote and you fail. That leaves you the chance to assess why. Was the failure due to not actually getting in front of any readers? Then you can try to figure out better methods for next time. Did you get in front of readers, but fail to connect? Then you have the chance to assess whether it was due to your packaging (cover, blurb, title, etc.) or your product (the book itself). Whatever the case, that is priceless information for moving forward with your career.
I don’t know why you would wait to be discovered any more than you’d want to wait to publish.
Wow, Edward. Your ideas are so harmful to an artist. Maybe you’ll be discovered with your one book; maybe not. But believe in yourself enough to write without other people in your office. Chances are your first book won’t sell because it’s not very good. It’s okay to practice in public–musicians do it all the time–but you won’t know what’s not good until you’ve written a great deal more and learned more craft. But you might be a good storyteller (who knows?) and you’ll get readers anyway. Or you might make other mistakes you’re not even aware of. There’s no point in promoting one thing. Worst case is if people like it. Then you’ll have nothing else for them to buy. Give them stuff to buy first, then promote. With one product, you’re a store with nothing on its shelves. It doesn’t matter how many people come in and buy your one thing; there’s no reason for them to come back. So open your store, and maybe some people will wander in. Concentrate on filling your shelves. Then promote.
Did you wait to write ten novels before submitting one to editors? When that first novel was rejected, did you stop writing because the response wasn’t what you hoped for?
I’ll totally agree promotion is more effective when you have more books for readers to go back to. But it’s still highly effective on a single title–so long as you do something to hang on to those readers. A mailing list, a Facebook page, your blog, whatever. That way, when the next book is out, you have your readers right there.
Building a direct line of communication between you and your readers is an absolute must for a self-published author. The sooner you start building that channel, the better.
As I have said repeatedly in the past, a static website is fine early on, so your readers know who you are and what you’ve written. A mailing list sign up would be great to build fans. Beyond that, if you’ve only published one book, then all of your promotion is wasted. Do it after you have several. Spend the time you would use promoting to write more books.
Uh, your promotion of 1 book isn’t wasted if people buy the book lol. You havent given a good reason why someone shouldn’t promote their first book. I get that you sell more if you have a back catalog, but if you promote one book and build up a fanbase on that, then you can sell those fans on the rest of the series or your next book. Promotion is not the same as being discovered — you pay for the former, not the latter. I see plenty of romance novel writers, like Pepper Winters, promoting their first book and it’s working out well for them.
I’m always writing for people who want a career and who want to make a living at writing, Kim. That’s who this blog is geared toward. A lot of people only write one book. They need to get advice from people who have had success at that. This blog is geared toward the career writer. If you’re going for a career, then look at the analogy I made earlier about the store with only one item in it. The most effective thing you can do is fill the store, then advertise for customers. Sure, customers will find you before the store is full and if they like your work, they’ll come back. But you’ll have a much more successful store if you actually have a lot of choices than if you only sell one single item.
I’m completely aware of the point of your blog. I wasn’t referring to people who only write one book. A lot of the romance writers I follow (the one I mentioned in my post is an example of that) promoted their first book and now have more books out with plenty more in the pipeline. They’re career authors. They’re selling because people liked the first book in the series and want to read the second book, the third book, and eventually their similar novels. They already have people anticipating the next release, hyping it up, adding it to their lists and “Want to read” on goodreads, and doing the promo work FOR the author BECAUSE they found the first book via the promo the author did for the first book. It’s working for them and I don’t see how this is a bad strategy, because meanwhile I’m sitting here with 2 published books and not one single sale across the board — I wonder how different that would be if I actually promoted it?
I get that you and others have tested this method and it works for you — the problem is that it seems to be the only method you’ve tried. You can’t say that something doesn’t work if you haven’t tried it.
So I guess we’ll just have to agree to disagree here, but it’s a shame that new writers are being fed questionable advice.
Of course it’s not the only method I’ve tried, Kim. I have been in this business for 30 years, I write under many names–not just Rusch–and many genres from sf to mystery to romance to nonfiction. Promotion is different for all of those. I’ve done more promotion in more ways than you can ever imagine. I’ve owned businesses in entertainment for decades, and have a deep understanding of how these things work. Your friends have a good strategy, which I’ll be discussing later, except for promoting the first book–if they spent a lot of time promoting it, which I don’t know. I’m trying to prevent newer writers from spending a lot of time on promotion, instead of writing. Because if you don’t write, there is no point.
There are ways to do promotion that will not frustrate readers, and will keep more of them. I noticed that the people you mentioned are writing series books. That’s different from a lot of writers who write in many genres and stand-alone books. So, if you keep reading, and perhaps read back in the blogs, rather than judging this one, you might learn something.
Just another two cents:
I was in Kristien Lamb’s social media class on blogging to promote yourself as a writer. Everyone in our class jumped in and started blogging three times a week. From what it sounded like, they wrote very lengthy posts and revised them extensively.
About six months later, the writers started dropping off the blogging — the promotion was taking enormous amounts of time away from the writing! So what was happening was that they either had one book done and weren’t producing another, or they hadn’t finished an existing project.
The time to promote has to come from somewhere! It’s very easy to fall into the trap of letting it cut into the writing time, and not producing anything. It’s hard enough getting into the habit of writing regularly, and promotion breaks it right away.
Why publish before you’re ready to promote? Because if it’s out there, someone has a chance to notice it — maybe they typo the name of the book they were really looking for, maybe you mentioned it to a friend who read it and promoted it for you to their relatives… who knows! But it’s there, and it has a chance to net a few sales. And a few sales is more than zero.
(And, in my opinion, there’s promotion and promotion. Saying to your friends and family, “Hey! I published something!” isn’t the kind of promotion that takes much time (at least, if one doesn’t want to become a bore), but in a way, that’s your built-in “audience” that you’ve presumably been cultivating to at least take a look at the thing. And if they spend some time babbling about it, and their friends pick it up, hey, you might luck out. You probably won’t, but you can’t win the lottery if you don’t self-publish your ticket, so why not?)
The problem is that you don’t have enough information to do the evaluation you are trying to do.
you don’t know what can be improved in the book because you don’t have enough experience, so stopping and trying to figure out why the book didn’t ‘connect’ to enough readers (and by the way, how do you define ‘enough’??) is a waste of time
did you not connect because not enough people saw your name? get more books out and they will be more likely to see your name. Was the market flooded with similar books at the time and readers just haven’t gotten to your book yet?
was your writing not to their liking? write another book and do the best you can, as you write more you will improve. but trying to do an analysis on what you’ve just written without other things to compare it to isn’t productive.
get your book out there (traditionally published or otherwise) and people will stumble across it. but spend your time writing the next book for them to read instead of trying to do marketing for your first book.
As a reader, I love discovering an author with a dozen books out, it means that I’m going to be busy reading for a few weeks, and I’ll watch for more books from the same author.
However if there is only one book out from the author, and it takes a long time before anything else comes out, I’m probably going to forget about the author and the second book has all the same problems that the first book had in finding an audience.
you can’t hang on to readers with publicity, blog posts, mailing lists, etc until you are well established and get people interested in your works
Readers want to read books, a small fraction of them will become interested in the author as a person, but even then you need to be really exceptional for it to matter.
When this small fraction of readers start to show up and pester you, you should treat them like gold, they will be your most effective marketing team ever.
but they show up as the result of your writing, not as a result of your publicity work.
don’t get cause and effect mixed up and start thinking that your primary job is to create and nurture a community and then you will be successful. What Kris is saying is that it’s exactly the opposite, you write books, and get better at writing books, then the community of fans will start to show up.
Thank you, David. Exactly. Well put.
OMG, this is so true! I picked up a free book back in 2012, didn’t read it until early last year (huge TBR pile, lol). After I read it, I wondered why it had taken me so long to get to it. I connected with the characters right away, and I so emotionally hooked in with them, that tears were streaming down my face at the ending.
Amazing writer! I went to Amazon to see if he’d written any other books. No. Bummer. Googled him, found his blog. He commented along the lines of, “Taking the book out of Select finally,” which was nice, but didn’t say anything about another book coming out.
With regret, I stopped checking his blog and moved on.
Re: fan base community… I just realized that though I may read a book and love it, I don’t actually become a *fan* of the author until the second or third book. If there are lots of other books that I also love, I’ll get really invested in that author. If there isn’t, I’ll forget them. I’m looking for more books to read that I will love, and that author can’t help me.
I’m also way less likely to recommend that one-book-author to others, because the authors with lots of books, including ones I’m still looking forward to reading, will always be top of mind for me.
Kris, this post is completely in line with the biography of Walt Disney I read last week. He did his art. Some people said it was corny, he answered, “That’s all right, I’m corny.” He was nearly bankrupt at one point and could have pulled himself out by selling all rights to Mickey Mouse. Nope, didn’t do it. He knew he had his art and that it had value. Fantasia came out and didn’t do nearly as well as he hoped. That’s okay, ten years later people rediscovered it and thought it was amazing. It’s still a classic of animated art.
The point being, you’re exactly right: build a career with your own art. Write from your own experiences and interests and quirks. It’s hard to see low sales numbers for books you think have great value, but so what. Give people a chance to realize they are “your people.” And make sure they have lots of books to enjoy once they’ve discovered one of yours.
Thanks for this post. Another great one, and the perfect pep talk for the start of a new publishing year!
Thank you for this one, Kris. As always lots to think on and digest.
Heh. Lately, my stories keep coming out as ~25,000-word fantasy novellas. 😉
Currently, I have 12 titles out. (2 novels, 3 novellas, 6 short stories, and 1 omnibus formed of 1 of the novels and 1 of the novellas.) I hope to have 20 titles by the end of 2014. I’m loving this discoverability series and looking forward to the rest of it!
Thanks, J.M. I’m enjoying writing this one, and making notes constantly. So I hope the rest measures up.:-) Sounds like you have great plans for 2014.
I so needed to read that this morning, especially now, starting off the new year. 😉
Last year I published my first novel and, although I have been reading you and Dean and Hugh Howey and lots of others saying this for a couple of years, it’s been all too easy to fall under the spell of promotion. I’m not the most patient person in the world and reading about those who are selling thousands of books a month when I’m happy to sell one makes it hard not to try to do something to sell. But those efforts–a sales promotion, guest blogs, tweeting, etc.–have not led to many additional sales because, you know, there’s only the one book (plus a couple of short stories I posted on my blog).
So, even before I read this post, I had decided to make 2014 the year of writing. My goal this year is not to sell more books, but to write and publish more books and short stories and build that page-worth of material.
It’s going to be tough to ignore whether any of my writing is selling or not, but one of the things I want to keep foremost in my mind is whether or not I’m making a profit from my writing. If running a giveaway or an ad is going to mean negative numbers, I’m not going to do it. And I’m probably going to have to read this post at least once a week to remind myself that I’m doing the right thing.
I used to feel impatient about slow sales, then I took Dean Wesley Smith’s (and Kris’) advice. I asked myself whether my time was better spent writing or marketing. I’m good at writing. I suck at marketing. The decision was easy. 🙂 If I put a lot of time and effort into marketing, I’d have a couple of books out and poor sales (because I suck at marketing). If I write more books, I might have more sales, because I’m better at telling stories than marketing. 🙂
Elise, the profit idea is a great one. Eventually, you’ll have to count your time. In the beginning, though, consider that time you invest as your start-up money. But your attitude is spot-on! Thanks for sharing.
Elise – I’ve found this too. I’ve published only short fiction, but I have friends and family asking me (and actually being serious) about movie deals, signing tours, and personal advertising. It does not help that the one other person known in my circle for writing only ever wanted to publish one thing. Good luck swimming against the current.
Elise, it does take time, so hang in there. I started publishing in 2008 and I’m just now starting to see a profit.
Thank you for helping us make sense of this crazy world, Kris. Happy New Year!
Looking forward to next week’s post very much!
Great points. You must have quality products and access to a fan base to score big sales.
Humana Ins. is now moving into Wal-Marts, because this is where they will find their Obamacare government-subsidized enrollees.
In the back of my books I ask customers to contact me directly, so I can personally notify them of new releases. They do, from their Nooks, Kindles, iPads, and smartphones.
Building a list of customers who already like your work is the most important thing any business can do.
I had over 20,000 dl’s of my free YA book in December, made it to #6 in the Kindle free store, but by the end of the month, with only about a 100 downloads a day, I’m back in the 1,500s rank in the Ammy US store.
This shows how hard it’s going to be to maintain visibility to gain those new readers, so holding onto the ones you do have, will be extremely important for growing your readership base.
Work at writing and publishing, then growing your base.
Thanks, Lisa. Great points.
I just downloaded your free book for my Nook. So there’s another “sale”. Reading Kris’ blogs is good for writers, but so is commenting on them!