Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The Toughest Challenge of All

If an unknown writer is able to get his book published by any means possible, he is still left with the toughest job of all—selling his book. Not complaining, just conundrums I have noticed.
In virtually all the stories and books about marketing I have read, all the seminars I have attended, all the people I have asked, this same advice is repeated:

Write a good book. Who knew? Well, let me just throw out this terrible manuscript and             write a good one. Why didn’t you say so first? But doesn’t every author think his             manuscript is good? Otherwise, why would he write it?

Do a lot of social media. Know how many sites there are to promote books in cyberspace  in addition to FB, Twitter, Goodreads, etc? Neither do it, but there are many. How do we select or do we try to use all? Reminds me of the days when clients wanted me to pick stocks. Which industry or segment, big or small, foreign or domestic, etc?

The most important question about internet and social media marketing—does it work? Answer: A small fraction of the time. And I don’t accept a few lucky break-outs, flukes, momentary jumps in sales or sales by authors who are already well-known as evidence. I want empirical evidence. Yes, there are many authors who put in hundreds of hours and make it work, and a few that put in a fraction of that and go “viral”, but is that time a good investment when one considers the odds?

Before social media, 95% of the money in writing was made by 5% of the authors. After social media, it remains about the same. And working social media takes a tremendous amount of time—time I would rather use writing. And yes, I have colleagues who seem able to do both. I don’t seem to be able to.

Build a platform. I built a platform in the business world by being lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time at the birth of a new age in the financial services industry.That led to four books and many presentations and seminars. Luck happens when preparation meets opportunity. I try to apply those same principles to building my platform as a novelist. But how does one build a platform as a novelist? The answer seems to be—sell a lot of novels. The cart before the horse.  

Get a good agent. When I meet an agent, I ask how they signed their best-selling authors. Invariably, they tell about authors who broke all the standard advice for soliciting agents. So why do they keep giving advice they seldom follow? 

When I ask successful authors how they found their agents, in almost every case, they found them by a fluke or more often, through a recommendation from a better-known author.  

One prominent sage gave this advice to writers of fiction in a blog post:

“Find a way to make your novel relevant by writing about issues readers care about or current hot topics.” My questions for her:
What are the issues readers care about in fiction? Today, they seem to be vampires, zombies, and Mommy Porn.
It usually takes two years to complete a book and publish it. How do writers know what will be the hot topics in two years?
What is an example of relevant fiction? 

She didn’t answer.

Why write when faced with such conundrums? I write so that I can make the best use of the time I have left and possibly add value to my readers’ lives.

And I will never give up reading articles and books or listening to good speakers who try to reveal the answers. But I am pretty much resigned to the fact that nobody has come up with a good plan for selling fiction—yet . 

Some of you may be wondering if I’m stuck on stupid. Why not write “relevant” fiction that has blockbuster potential? Yes, I have asked myself that question. The answer is I only enjoy writing the type of book I like to read and I write for my small reader base.  I write because I enjoy it and I wouldn’t enjoy writing about vampires.

I used to say that I write about how ordinary people react to extraordinary events. But I have learned that’s not quite accurate. I mostly write more about how ordinary people react to ordinary problems and events. I may be naïve, but I think a lot of readers will be both entertained and informed by how my characters handle situations they may have experienced themselves. Because I write based on real events, solutions are real, too. 

I may hit on that fluke yet, the elusive spark that ignites a fire. But I’m not gonna rely on it. I’ll keep writing for the folks who read my stuff.  I am grateful for you. 

Wait. I think the solution just came to me. Find a celebrity, a movie star, a TV host, even a famous author who will put his name in big letters as the co-author of a book I have written. My name would be in tiny letters under his. People do that a lot. If only I knew such a person.  

Monday, August 11, 2014

The Six Most Difficult Things for a Novelist To Do

About six years ago, a small publisher offered me a contract to write a book on the perils and pitfalls of writing and publishing. He even offered a small advance. You writers out there know how rare that is. But I have not written the book yet because I still need a way to end it. When one reads a book about a problem, one expects a solution. 

After almost fifteen years of writing novels, I still have not figured things out. And I am still a little surprised at the bias against fiction, especially non-genre, character-driven fiction.
I think that these are the six most difficult things for a writer of such novels to do (with one being the most difficult):   

Sixth: Write a synopsis. Synopses used to be about 20 or 30 pages for a 350 page book. Now, they are usually one or two pages. We must tell what our book is about in about 500 words or less. Try doing that when you are not writing plot-driven fiction. Try fleshing out five or more characters in a page or two.

Fifth: Write a query letter. Make it engaging, yet professional, agents and publishers advise. List your background and qualifications, your book’s genre and word count, a synopsis of everything that happens in your manuscript from beginning to end, describe the target audience for your work (and no, all the readers in the world is not an acceptable answer),and by the way, keep it to one page, please. Also, if the margins are wrong, it will often be rejected out of hand. Then wait six months. In one case, I had a query answered four years after my book was published. 

Fourth: Write a logline. This is your elevator speech, just in case a very naïve agent catches you on an elevator and asks you what your novel is about. I expect sometime in ancient times that actually happened, but nobody can prove it. In most of the big conferences I have attended, agents run for their rooms and lock themselves in just as soon as their presentation is finished. 

Third: Write copy for the cover of your book. See numbers four and six.  One would think we could use those for cover copy, but they are never the exact number of words and four and six are written for agents and publishers. This one is for readers. 
Second: Get an agent or publisher to read any of the above. They look for blockbuster potential, and non-genre, character-driven novels seldom become blockbusters. 

First (the most difficult):  Market this type of book after it is published.  

Yes, I know all the stories about unknown authors who finally hit it big. J.K. Rowling and Harry Potter, Stephanie Meyer and the Twilight vampire series, E. L. James and the Shades of Grey erotica series (some call it mommy porn), John Grisham selling books out of his pickup in Wal-Mart parking lots.  

Many first-time best sellers came about because of a fluke, a happenstance, a key contact, or a tremendous amount of money spent on a fine publicist. I don’t mean to imply that the best-sellers are not good books, only that there are many superior books that never sell a tenth as well (if at all). 

So all I have to do is make myself the beneficiary of a fluke, create for myself fifteen minutes of fame that will cause my books to skyrocket to the best seller lists. Stieg Larsson and his The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest, etc… made it big by dying. Scratch that.

And yes, I do believe in flukes. I enjoyed one big fluke and a few smaller one when I wrote non-fiction. So for now, I will just continue to work on finding the solution so I can write the last chapter of that book. 

Next week—more about marketing—the toughest thing.