Back when I was a wet-behind-the-ears writer, I assumed authors just wrote the words. They’d get up at the crack of noon, make a pot of coffee, then spend the day caffeinating themselves and jotting down snappy dialogue, all without ever putting on pants. Maybe someone, somewhere does that, but it sure isn’t me. Nor, from what I gather talking with a lot of my peers, is it the majority of folks.
A writer is certainly responsible for generating the actual story, but that’s just the first in a long line of items they must consider as they walk the long road of publishing. We’ve already talked about editing and revisions, as well as developing patience, but something that many, like myself, discover the hard way is self-marketing. Come hell or high water, the author carries as much responsibility to sell themselves to readers as anyone else.
This can be a pretty tall order, especially for folks new to the business.
Starting out, my network pool consisted of my wife and a large pile of crumpled up paper full of bad plot ideas. Marketing myself and my author brand was pretty low on the totem pole. But once Carina Press offered me a contract, all that changed. Suddenly, I had to worry not only about the story itself, but doing my part to get the word out about the book. Self-marketing, I learned, was the key to sales which was the key to making this a career instead of something I did when I was bored.
With that in mind, here’s what I’ve learned about self-marketing (and keep in mind, this is one person’s perspective):
- Network, or: “Hi. My Name is Josh” – You might have the next great novel in your hands, but if your mom and your cats are the only ones who know you write, chances are slim you’ll make much of a splash when it’s released. One way to build that pool of resources is to network. Perhaps that means attending a local writer’s group or searching for one online.
If you’re looking for the latter, I highly recommend the Absolute Write Water Cooler. It’s a huge site with tens of thousands of writers, agents, and publishers. It’s a wealth of information and you can not only meet new folks, but learn a lot of lessons from people who have gone down this road before you. And, once you’ve built those bridges, you may find your fellow authors willing to help you spread the word about your shiny new novel. Few things beat networking, so get out and meet your writing peers.
- Social Media, or: “ZOMG! U C My Tweet?!” – Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, you name it, folks are surfing it. Social Media has become a fertile land for planting information because it has the possibility of reaching much farther than stapling posters to telephone poles. That can be both a blessing and a curse. Tweeting a line from your upcoming book or announcing which convention you’re attending has the potential to spread to the far corners of the globe.
But like Uncle Ben said, “With great power comes great responsibility”*. It’s one thing to keep folks in the loop about what you’re doing and to “friend” yourself far and wide, but too much of anything is a bad thing. If you’re spamming every hour about your book, chances are some of your followers/readers will tune out. So determining the line between keeping your career going media-wise and becoming a spammer is crucial.
- Branding, or: “Which To Write First: the Chicken or the Egg?” – When I first started, someone told me I needed to build my reader/follower base before I put a book out. Someone else told me that in order to build followers/readers, you needed a book. So which is right? Short answer: it depends. Personally, I had a grand total of 3 readers (all family) before Undead Chaos hit the streets. After it came out, I was up to 5. Maybe 6.
All kidding aside, it really does depend on you. I jumped in with both feet by pitching a novel, but others prefer to create layers. They write short stories, post on blogs, submit to contests, etc in order to build their base. There’s no wrong way to do it, so whatever works is likely the right answer.
- Back-listing, or: “Damn Your Book’s Good, Won’t You Back That List Up?” – Chances are your first book isn’t going to sell 15,000 copies in 48 hours. Hopefully it does, but many more authors follow the slow-burn of publishing. The Backlist is where you build title after title to grow your pool of readers. Assume you have two books out and someone discovers you. Chances are they’ll buy the second one. But what if you had 5 books? Or 25? Instead of reaching one person, you’ve effectively reached many more. Admittedly, the math there is a bit fuzzy, but there’s no denying the exponential factor of a backlist. More books by you mean more books for readers to pick up.
- Be Yourself, or: “What’s in a Name?” – Whether you’ve chosen a nom de plume or you’re sticking with the one on your birth certificate, being who you are is clutch. Unless you’re a terrible person, in which case, be someone else.
Seriously, though, there’s something to be said for honesty. My dad always says, “People can smell a BS-er from a mile away”. There’s a lot of truth to that. Granted, much of writing is fiction, but who you are as an author shouldn’t be. Faking it takes work and time, both of which many of us simply don’t have. If you can pull it off, more power to you, but readers and writing peers like to connect with someone genuine. And they’re more likely to recommend a book from an author they like and respect than they are someone that is a shell of a personality.
- Sometimes it’s Luck, or: “But…But It Doesn’t Stink!” – Just like getting published, self-marketing is sometimes affected by luck. Some books simply get discovered over others. I’ve read plenty of stories that were worthy of being NYT Best Sellers, but simply weren’t. I’ve also read mega-hits that were lackluster. Sometimes it’s just the nature of the beast that one book gets hot while another doesn’t. But even if yours isn’t burning up the Top Seller charts doesn’t mean it’s not good. Nor does it mean you should take up bowling instead. Quality writing, no matter what, will always strike a chord with readers.
In the end, there’s no set formula to marketing yourself well. Some folks are better at getting the word out about themselves. Others, like me, have to really work at it. Ultimately, however, putting a little effort into yourself and your book will help readers find you. And maybe with a little luck, that number will grow exponentially over time.
*meanwhile, the OTHER Uncle Ben said, “It’s the San Francisco treat”.