In an ideal world, when an author finishes a novel, it would attract a lot of attention. He’d take the manuscript out on his doorstep and hold it aloft, gathering admiring crowds. He’d speak the novel’s name, and teenage girls would swoon, the way that they did when the Beatles first sang on the Ed Sullivan show in 1964. Better yet, older women would throw off their clothes and then swoon, as they used to do at Edgar Allen Poe’s poetry readings. Cameras would flash and sizzle. People would chant and shout your name!
Of course, that doesn’t happen. Most new authors don’t make a splash. They can’t. Following are just some of the obstacles I see stacked against any new or rising author these days.
In many ways, the bestseller lists are manipulated. The easiest way to get high on the list is by getting your books noticed—getting them put at the front of the store in large retail chains. But that space is sold to publishers through various cooperative advertising programs. In short, you can’t get in that space. Someone else is paying for it. Even if you had the money to buy it, you couldn’t. The stores want to sell it to regular customers, not some newcomer.
There are other ways that lists get manipulated. With self-help books, for example, authors hire sales reps to sell books to large corporate accounts at a steep discount. If they can make a few thousand sales per week, it allows them to rack up numbers and keep the books high on the lists. Take a look at any bestselling book that has been on the list for a year, and you know what they’re doing.
I’ve talked recently about how publishers manipulate lists. They’ll back their own bestselling authors time after time, and will even sabotage the covers of their own lesser-known authors in order to maintain the status of their A-list authors. In other words, you can’t move up on the bestseller list with your big publisher because they’re pushing your competition.
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So the bestseller lists tend to be dominated year after year by the same old people. It’s business as usual.
The authors who do climb up the list generally have to claw their way up on their own strength.
So what does that have to do with releasing a novel today, when we’re going digital?
Well, in some ways the playing field seems leveler. Anyone can publish. You can get better covers than ever before, put your books out on your own schedule, and even try to get better quotes than you’ve had in the past. Yet even now, most of the bestselling digital novels are coming out from the major publishers.
There are good reasons for this. A novel that is getting a lot of promotion in hardcover just has more credibility with readers. Such novels usually have well-established audiences and a lot of hype behind them. The big publishers have access to big reviewers who won’t even look at your work. Potential readers for e-books often pick their books simply by looking at bestseller lists and buying there—thus maintaining the status quo.
And once a novel hits the bestseller list, the other novels floating around in cyberspace don’t seem to exist. The buyers don’t even see them. Many of the main reviewing organizations won’t read e-books and review them, or if they do, they charge extra fees to the new author. In other words, you can’t get much traction with advertising.
In cyberspace, no one can hear you scream!
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Now, I should point out that to me, [my latest novel] Nightingale is a special novel. It’s one that I believe has huge potential. Back in 2002, one of my writing students asked me what it would take to become the “bestselling YA fantasy writer of all time.” I made some suggestions, and realized then that I knew how to do it. She went ahead and wrote her first novel incorporating most of those suggestions, and actually made it! (Hint: she has a movie releasing this week. Something about How to Break Dawn, or something or other.)
With Nightingale, I followed my own best advice on how to write a big teen novel for a wide audience.
It tells the story of a young man named Bron Jones, who is abandoned at birth. Raised in foster care, he’s kicked from home to home. At age 16, he’s kind of the ultimate loner, until he’s sent to a new foster home and meets Olivia, a marvelous teacher. She recognizes that Bron is something special, something that her people call a “Nightingale,” a creature that is not quite human.
Suddenly epic forces combine to claim Bron, and he must fight to keep from getting ripped away from the only home, family, and girlfriend that he has ever known. He must risk his life, and the lives of everyone he cares about, to learn the answers to the mystery of his birth: “What am I? Where did I come from?”
As you can see, there are no vampires or werewolves in my story. There is wonder, horror, mystery, adventure and romance aplenty, though.
I want it to do well. So my first piece of advice is this: write the best novel that you know how. With Nightingale I got my big agent on the second draft, but I wrote eight more drafts before I felt that it was ready to show to the public.
Try to write a big novel. I’m seeing professional authors talk about how great it is to write “little novels” and release them. A little novel is one that doesn’t have a wide audience appeal. Sure, if you’ve got an established fan base it might work okay, but writing a little novel doesn’t make a lot of sense. Give your readers your best work.
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But making a good book requires more than just designing the products, you also have to market them.
That’s tricky. Here are some things that you have to do.
1) Put up a web site.
Big deal. Putting up a web site is a must, but it’s only a small part of the puzzle. No one will come, because they don’t know that it’s there. They don’t know where to look. So you have to figure out how to point people to your web site. You have to advertise.
2) Try social marketing.
You can advertise on Facebook or Google + or Twitter, or similar sites, and let your friends know about your book. You can go even further with paid ads, but that can be expensive. So for the moment, I’ve just put up info for my friends to peruse.
You can also advertise by writing articles. I’ve now got about 40 blogs that I’ve written posts for, and I think that that will be a continuous effort. We’ve got another 40 bloggers who will be posting notices to their readers. (If you’re willing to post a notice or an article, email me at email@example.com.)
4) Write for newspapers, magazines, and news sites.
I got a subscription to PRWeb. I will soon be sending out articles to various news agencies and blogs, hopefully expanding my reach.
5) Paying for advertising.
I’m trying out Kidsbuzz, a service that links authors to librarians, book groups, and readers around the country. I will most likely try some paid ads, on Facebook, too. Here’s the truth: no one will advertise your work for free. Even on the internet, places like Facebook and Google make money by advertising. So you need to advertise.
6) Entice readers with gifts.
I’m setting up a few giveaways. Authors usually try using books, but there are other things that you can do. I have a big short story writing contest that pays $1000. I’m hoping that that will lead people to my site. I also am going to have people do “video blurbs,” so that visitors to my site can see real readers give their responses. In order to jump-start that, I’m putting up $500 for the reader whose “blurb” most impresses the viewers. I’m hoping that teens will review the book, tell their friends that they’re up on my site, and that will bring more viewers.
7) Get your book reviewed.
Getting cover quotes from professional authors and reviewers can be helpful. I got a nice cover quote from James Dashner, New York Times Bestselling Author of The Maze Runner. He called Nightingale a “Thrilling ride, packed with twists, action, and amazing characters. . . . Highly recommended.” Other reviewers are giving it exceptional praise, too. Our first reviewer of the enhanced novel said that she couldn’t believe how engrossing it was and “words failed to describe how good it is.”
However, many of the bigger reviewers, like Publisher’s Weekly, won’t look at the hardcover until it’s in print. We didn’t have the six-months of lead time that I would have liked to get pre-publicity. Still, those will come.
8 ) Catch people’s eye.
Putting up book trailers is helpful. We’ve got one up on our website and on YouTube. I think we might be doing some tweaking on it, though, and then we’ll send a link to it on PRWeb. We’re hoping that that way, we’ll get a bit more attention.
9) The best advertisement, at the end of the day, is still word-of-mouth.
Eventually, every author faces the same problem. I don’t have an unlimited supply of money to spend promoting this book. Right now, I’ve already put over $10,000 into this. For an honest shot at the bestseller list, I’d need closer to half a million. Still, I know that it can be done on a shoestring. I don’t know what Amanda Hocking spent to get on the lists, but it wasn’t a lot.
Passive Guy is not a book blogger and almost never promotes specific books, but he’s going to make an exception for Dave Farland.
Dave is enormously generous with his time and advice. He’s a terrific teacher and many people learned how to write fiction for a living from him. As Dave mentioned in his post, Stephenie Meyer is a former student. So is Brandon Sanderson, whose Mistborn trilogy is one of the best fantasy series PG has read in a long time. However, there are many more who are not that famous yet, but who manage to support themselves writing because of the principles Dave taught them.