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Author Myths

31 March 2014

From suspense writer Russell Blake:

I hear ‘em all the time in chat groups and forums, and they drive me nuts. Author myths.

. . . .

1) Books Sell Themselves. No, sweetie, they don’t, at all, and never did. That’s why trad pubs spend massively on promotions. Because they know that visibility sells books, not invisible cosmic forces or author brilliance. It’s a highly competitive market with millions of choices, and it’s a retail market, and in retail, visibility is key. Which means constant promotion. Which most authors hate. But it’s reality, so get used to the idea. A companion to this aphorism is the next one…

2) Just write the next one. Sure, if you want to have two undiscovered gems instead of one. Look, writing the next one’s important, but not if it’s used to justify not promoting the last one, which is often the case. You have to both market the last one AND write the next one. Sorry. You do.

. . . .

4) Do everything right and you’ll make it. Huh. If that were so, every book put out by big pubs would do well. The vast majority don’t. But that doesn’t mean you don’t have to do everything right, unless you want to worsen your already slim odds rather than improving them.

Link to the rest at Russell Blake and thanks to Eric for the tip.

The Business of Writing

52 Comments to “Author Myths”

  1. Well said, really. Publishing your own books, and selling them is no different, in principle, than starting your own retail business. Just because you open a store, even on a busy street doesn’t mean you’ll sell much. You have to hand out fliers with discounts, advertise in your local press, giveaways, anything for people to notice you.
    The other thing is that you also have to have many products. That means more books. It is most unlikely, like winning the Powerball lottery, that you or I going to make it with the first book, or second, or third. But you must do two things:
    Write good stuff
    Market wisely
    All this will take time. And if you write a big opus that takes a year, it will take many more years to succeed. If you write short stories just to beef up your list, it may not be cost advantageous to market them. Take a look on Kindle Amazon at writers with a dozen short books ranking in the 1 mil or higher. You have to strike a balance, of consistent good books and consistent marketing. And that is called a business plan.

    • I was the first one to respond to this blog this morning, and I read the rest of the responses. They all makes sense, from this perspective: if you try something or nothing and it works, or it doesn’t, that is what’s right to do or not. Selling of books is a business. A product sells for two reasons, (in a well supplied market) it is very good and/or is promoted. For the best mouse trap will take a long time until the world will beat a path to its door and it’ll sell millions. A fair mouse trap will sell more and sooner if you promote it wisely. So what does ‘wisely’ mean? Not to be a smart a**, who I am, whatever works. There are no two books alike, even in the same genre, unless they happen to be the same story. What will work for one book, one author will be totally different for another author.
      But just to discard the promotion (marketing) as not worth doing is foolish. Remember, giving free eBooks away is promotion. Gave no book away and your books are selling, congratulations! Either your blurb, your cover, your title or most important your book is so good that the readers are promoting it. And that’s the best kind of promotion. And it is all promotion. Finding what works is the trick. And if you find it would you share it with the rest of us?

    • I was the first one to respond to this blog this morning, and I read the rest of the responses. They all makes sense, from this perspective: if you try something or nothing and it works, or it doesn’t, that is what’s right to do or not. Selling of books is a business. A product sells for two reasons, (in a well supplied market) it is very good and/or is promoted. For the best mouse trap will take a long time until the world will beat a path to its door and it’ll sell millions. A fair mouse trap will sell more and sooner if you promote it wisely. So what does ‘wisely’ mean? Not to be a smart a**, which I am, whatever works. There are no two books alike, even in the same genre, unless they happen to be the same story. What will work for one book, one author will be totally different for another author.
      But just to discard the promotion (marketing) as not worth doing is foolish. Remember, giving free eBooks away is promotion. Gave no book away and your books are selling, congratulations! Either your blurb, your cover, your title, your author name or most important your book is so good that the readers are promoting it. And that’s the best kind of promotion. And it is all promotion. Finding what works is the trick. And if you find it would you share it with the rest of us? Hmm?

      • I don’t think anyone here is discarding promotion. Certainly not I. I am merely discarding the idea that there is anything you HAVE to do, beyond writing the best book you can and presenting it in the most professional manner you can, to be successful. Actually, you can probably achieve success even without those things, that’s just the way the market works. But I wouldn’t recommend trying.

      • I didn’t mean to post this twice.

  2. “Write good stuff
    “Market wisely”

    That, in a nutshell. Of course, what “wisely” means is what’s it all about.

    It helps to realize that there are a lot of ways to promote your books, but only a few that work effectively. A few years back, an author blogged about the dozen things he did — advertising, giveaways, contests, bookstore appearances — and remarkably few things gave any kind of effective return.

    What I find annoying is that a lot of articles such as Blake’s comes from thriller writers who are also book marketers. Their path seems to be: write a thriller, promote the heck out of it, write a “how to promote your thriller” book, offer online courses, offer videos, maybe write another thriller.

    And all of their promotional material seems more like “how to promote your book marketing advice to other writers” rather than how a fiction writer can reach readers.

    • A few years back, an author blogged about the dozen things he did — advertising, giveaways, contests, bookstore appearances — and remarkably few things gave any kind of effective return.

      Was that Konrath? I remember him posting in his trade publishing days about how very few things he’d tried had made any difference at all to his book sales.

    • Hmmm…I write thrillers. Maybe I should write a book on how to sell just enough ebooks to make it into mid-list territory. That is a great untapped market because everyone else is advertising on how to sell a million books, so right there, my book will be different. 😉

      • I’d read that … if it were a free download from your website. (Sorry, don’t have the money to buy your book until I make it into mid-list territory.)

    • “And all of their promotional material seems more like “how to promote your book marketing advice to other writers” rather than how a fiction writer can reach readers.”

      Yes.

  3. You insist that author MUST market their work. (“You have to both market the last one AND write the next one. Sorry. You do.”) Which completely ignores that plenty of authors DON’T actively market their work and yet still somehow manage to achieve success. Maybe not “As Featured in the Wall Street Journal” success, but not everyone cares about that sort of thing.

    These aren’t “destructive myths”. Mostly they seem to be you going out of your way to misunderstand common advice. It all comes across very “my way or the highway” and isn’t that what indies are trying to get away from?

    • Completely agreed. I’m so glad I didn’t follow this advice because it saved me a whole lot of anxiety and headache before I finally did write the one that took off. Of course, since my books aren’t selling at stratospheric levels, I’m sure Mr. Blake would dismiss me as yet another “unsuccessful” author, but my goal is to make a living and at that goal, I am succeeding.

      The only “myth” that I can see is that there’s only one true definition of success, and therefore only a handful of paths to achieve it. Mr. Blake is as deeply entrenched in that myth as anyone I’ve ever seen.

      • Same here. I did All The Things everyone advised my first 3-4 years out, and none of them really worked. Well, except I’d always get a bit of a sales boost when I released something new.

        I gave up on “active” marketing, concentrated on writing, and hello, a nearly 2 year old title started selling all of the sudden. Its buddy, book 2 of the series, started selling right off the bat, and my other, older titles also began seeing regular sales. I’m averaging about 1k copies sold per month right now.

    • Russell Blake is a smart guy and there’s no disputing he’s found a lot of fantastic success. I respect his point of view, but it simply doesn’t apply to everybody’s situation. I’ve tangled with him before in an epic way over disagreeing (very much) with what he presented as “the one and only way.”

      I think because his approach to the business has worked so well for him, he truly does believe it’s the only way to skin a cat. It’s not, of course.

      Much of what he says here is really good advice and it will apply to most authors. But I’m one of those authors who started making good money (quit your day job money, but not millionaire money) without doing much to promote, except just getting to know a few people on Goodreads and internet-palling-around with them (without pushing my books on them.) Of course, I made even better money when I started running BookBub ads, and I’ve always thought that promotion and marketing are very important aspects of any business — bookselling is no exception. However, the idea that you can’t or won’t get anywhere without doing exactly what this or that author (or agent, or Shatzkin, or whoever) recommends is just not true.

      The huge majority of self-publishers are taking this in steps. They have to. It’s very rare for any author to shoot up the charts early on, even when everything is done “right.” There is nothing wrong with planning to take things in smaller chunks and to build a business up with larger and larger investments as you make larger and larger gains. Success that comes a little slower is not any less a success than that which comes faster.

      And as Barbara points out, category and genre play a huge part in your strategy. How your audience tends to look for and find books is important to creating your strategy.

  4. Strategy is so dependent on category. What might work for a romance writer may not work in another genre. What might work for one romance writer may not for another. Write the best book you can.

  5. Blake does state his point about marketing very positively.

    But I didn’t take it as my way or the highway. His points #4, #6, and #7 specifically state the opposite–he believes there’s no guarantee.

    At the same time he suggests that his opinion is that there are things that DO seem to increase the PROBABILITY of success. Including effective promotion.

    So of course there will be some authors that get visibility without doing much promotion. However, I don’t know of any business that doesn’t benefit from effective promotion.

    And so far my sales numbers support his point on retail visibility. I’m only one data point, but it’s been pretty clear with me and a bunch of other indie authors I know that some methods of promotion do indeed drive visibility which affects sales. Without the promotion, sales lag.

    Given my choice, I’d rather boost my probability of success than not.

    The question is what activities actually provide a good bang for the buck. I spent $6k on my book release with Tor books, and I can tell you there are a lot of promotion efforts that DON’T do anything for visibility and sales.

    • I can agree with this. When I first started self-publishing, my marketing plan was basically “I’ll figure it out later.” That’s not a very good long-term strategy, but it was right for me at the time because it gave me the space I needed to climb all the learning curves and try out some things that were more experimental. Now, though, I’m at a point in my career where it makes sense to focus more effort on marketing and promotion. The question about whether to promote your books isn’t either/or, it’s when, how, and how much.

  6. A very irritating man! First, he’s traditionally published and speaks of the enormous sums publishers spend on promoting. I assume he benefits from this. They didn’t do that for me. Or for most of their other authors. But I expect his publisher wants him to say these things so that their other authors spend their own time and money to sell books, benefitting the publisher.

    A new book release gets you some publicity. People aren’t interested in old books. So sit down and write the next book!

    • “First, he’s traditionally published …”

      Umm. I don’t think that is true.

      • Neither do I. But it does bring up another point: most of the trade publisher marketing I see is for books that are already successful, or books by writers who are already successful. They rarely seem to promote anything that’s not already a success.

      • I stand corrected. A man with an enormous output of titles of popular fiction. But he talks the way traditional publishers talk. It’s the money talk.

        What works for the self-published author depends on what he writes and why.
        His system wouldn’t work for me.

    • Russell Blake is an indie writer, and as far as I know, the only traditionally published book he has is the one he co-wrote with Clive Cussler and that book hasn’t been released yet. In fact, I remember him commenting on JA Konrath’s site a few years back, when he was still making a pittance, that he planned to keep writing and putting out books even though he wasn’t making a lot of money off of them.

  7. I think the most important caveat is the one that Kris Rusch pointed out. My paraphrase:

    IF you are a new author, without a significant body of work and still learning your craft, your time and effort should stay on writing more books and honing your craft over promoting the one or two you have.

  8. Ok, so #1 and #2.

    My books magically started selling, starting in January. I’m at about 700 books sold for March. Want to know what I did? Jan 14, I uploaded the third book in a trilogy. That was it. I tried Kindle Count Down twice, sold maybe 10 books total that way. Tried free runs last year. Barely a blip.

    I “marketed” in the sense of putting the books on the market, with good covers and good keywords. (the blurbs are… not great) I did not promote, other than a mention on Twitter(150 or so followers) and FB (30ish likes, mostly friends), and a newsletter that went out to a whopping 4 people on my mailing list.

    Granted, I’m not making huge bestseller numbers, but I went from selling maaaaaybe 10 books a month last year to 700 in March. All because I wrote the next book and put it out there.

    • How did you let people know that the third book was out there? I had a lot of success with the third book in my series initially. (that was two years ago though) I just published the fifth in my series and sales have been…fair. While readers who have found it seemed to love it, I’ve had the usual problem of trying to get the word out about the new book. I did the mailing list thing (but it isn’t that big of a list–about 200) and the usual social media blasts, blog posts, etc. As far as sales of the rest of my books, putting out the fifth one has done nothing to perk up sales.

      • Ashe Elton Parker

        Is your series *complete* with the fifth book? If so, it my simply take people time to find out it is. If not, people may be waiting until the series is completed before buying any more (or even the first book, if they’ve been eyeing it – I do that nowadays).

        But I ask because Devin stated he published the *final*book* in a trilogy and his sales increased. Also, I’ve seen it mentioned (can’t recall where) that writers who have *completed* series sell better. I imagine most readers are looking for what I am: the fact the series won’t have an abrupt cutoff mid-story because something happens to prevent the author from finishing the rest of the series, particularly with an Indie author.

        • I didn’t specifically say it’s complete, but I wrapped everything up. While I left it open for a spin-off with a new character, there are no plot threads left hanging, or unfinished character arcs.

          Should I put something on the cover and in the blurb about it being the final book in the series? I didn’t think of that. The spin-off series, if I do it, would have a different name.

      • I announced my book to my very small following on Twitter and FB. I do that with every new release and up until recently the biggest sales spike was 20 copies in the first few days. So it’s not that I have a following. You say your mailing list is not big at 200, but that’s massively bigger than mine at 4 (5 now, got a new subscriber today!)

        That’s why I say the books magically started selling. It took 13 titles to get there, but I finally have some traction. My stand-alone titles aren’t selling. Just the trilogy. And it’s YA Fantasy, which supposedly doesn’t sell that well in ebook.

        I follow Dean Wesley Smith and Kris Rusch’s advice. It took a lot – A LOT- of patience not to freak out about my dismal sales the last two years. I kept writing and publishing, hoping people would find my stuff and like it. It looks like that might finally be happening.

        • I dunno. I’ve also subscribed to a lot of Dean and Kris’s advice over the last couple of years, but not all of it–especially not their advice on pricing. The only people who talk derisively of the “bargain bin” are authors, but you will find lots of readers who grumble about ebooks being overpriced. I recently dropped the prices of my novels to $3.99, and it’s resulted in increased sales AND increased revenue from those books. Dropping the price of my novellas from $2.99 to $.99 took a chunk out of revenue, but not as much as I was expecting, and now more people are reading through the entire series instead of dropping off after the first or second or third.

          I think Dean and Kris have some good advice in some areas, but horribly bad advice in others, and their peculiar blend of arrogance and dogmatism makes it very hard to tease the good out from the bad. They’ve got lots of experience, but today’s publishing industry has changed so much that that doesn’t count for much. Kris’s recent discoverability post in which she said you have to set up a legacy-style publishing company in order to “play with the Big Boys” really had me scratching my head. That, along with some private correspondences with some disillusioned former students of theirs, have made me take a few steps back from their advice.

          • The part about the legacy-style approaches seemed very plausible to me, but I work at a legacy paper that really does get submissions from legacy publishers. And they really are doing exactly what Kris says they’re doing: They send ARCs and PR letters saying when the book is coming out.

            And if you can get past the whining from the bookstore owners in the posts about bookstores, you’ll notice that these stores don’t want to change; they want to do things the way they’ve always done them. Which means, to some extent, you have to play in the sandbox by their rules. You can only ignore their rules if you’re not interested in dealing with them (and I’m not arguing about whether or not you should want to deal with them). To me, it’s the dead-tree side of the advising people who want jobs at a digital company to not use an AOL email address when applying. AOL = unsavvy about tech; no ARCs = unsavvy about print.

            • That’s the point KKR is trying to make, and it applies only if you want to work with bookstores. If you don’t — if you want to sell ebooks and market your books through Amazon — you don’t have to do that.

          • Well pricing, yes. I think that’s an area we each need to experiment a bit in, to see what the sweet spot is. It might vary by genre, or even by author, and a series will likely do better at different price points than stand-alones. I do think they’re right about not pricing too low because we think that’s what we have to do.

            Putting out novels at $.99 is a bad idea, unless there’s a good strategy behind it. I also think it’s silly to stick by a higher price point because you don’t want to “undervalue” your work, but yet the book isn’t selling. I plan to fiddle with my prices a bit to see what happens.

            • +1

            • That’s silly. $0.99 might work great for someone, and if you have 50 books, who cares?

              There’s no magic formula or secret sauce that you can mass-produce for everyone.

              I’ve got a book at $9.99 and I never lower it. Sales have dropped about 80% this month. Well, I may have undercut that with cheaper titles in the same niche.

              Still, tides come and go. I think jumping at the slightest change in the wind is a huge mistake most of the time.

  9. I didn’t agree with everything he said. I think he is an indie but he did get a collaboration with Clive Cussler which would be traditional I imagine. He said he was going to interview Bella Andre and HM Ward. Those ladies had LOTS of books out before they made it. Both of them say to write lots. That’s how you do it.

  10. Oh dear. Mr. Blake would find my experience very confounding. My books really *did* sell themselves. Sweetie. They sold without me doing ANYTHING. Now, after I recovered from my shock I did try things like Select, and letting a few influential bloggers know, but I got sales before that. For the first year I didn’t do any promotion at all, because I was too busy getting five books up for sale and didn’t take the time.

    Honestly. He seems to think readers are like baby birds that just sit passively with their mouths open waiting for BigPub to tell them about what they ought to read, instead of what I and other hard-core readers do — rampaging about like starving hyenas looking for something we WANT to read.

    • The “rampaging like starving hyenas” is the m.o. of historical fiction fans. They know what they want, and they will not settle for any time period or setting that they don’t love. They hunt it down.

    • I would be interested to see if he’ll discuss these topics with Bella Andre as she herself blogged with Joe Konrath about how her books published under Lucy Kevin sold like crazy – before she even had a author web page or any form of marketing whatsoever.

  11. It’s sort of interesting, but I don’t see much actionable advice in there.

  12. Go to the Amazon Voice of the Author forum right now and you’ll see a thread on page 2 (Great Advice We CANNOT Follow) started in September 2013 with Blake saying the exact same things.

    He says it all the time on Kboards too. And why not – it’s pretty good advice.

    I don’t really follow it myself, mainly because I just don’t have a lot of money for promotions. I try to do something at least once a month, and this month is a Book Basset ad and a Countdown deal.

    So what has that strategy gotten me? About 1,000 sales over 32 books in 16 months. Not stratospheric, but for the price of $350 in marketing I don’t think that’s too bad.

    What am I going to do – stop writing?

  13. I’m still at the stage of focusing on my writing rather than promotion, one year since I first uploaded a text to Kindle. As my nonfiction and fiction Kindle Ebooks are shortish, I keep the price down. I live in Europe and don’t have any friends who can provide credible reviews on the US and UK sites, especially as I keep my writing separate from my real life friendships. And I refuse to spend money on advertising.

    So no wonder if it’s slow going, also because I’ve split up into several pen names for various genres, and I’m just trying to think of yet another for my first full-length Regency Romance. However, even so, some people do find my books via Free Promotions. I just got a first (five-star) review for a story I published last week with a self-drawn cover and new pseudonym, after offering it free this weekend with zero promotion. The story got on UK and DE lists of “Police Procedurals – 100 free” right next to well-known authors’ work. Some stranger in the USA really liked it, and so far nobody has hated it. That is good enough for now.

    At least for me it’s not all about the money, but rather a playful exploration of a path I should have taken decades ago and didn’t, because the gatekeeping system put me off.

    In my second year of writing I plan to bring out several full-length books, raise my prices a bit and start a blog. But my hopes of riches are not high, partly because my feeling is that the overall trend is towards very low prices for all fiction ebooks, despite Amazon’s efforts to counter this trend. There are now so many good books entirely free, or really cheap, that it becomes hard to see why a voracious reader should be spending more than 3 to 5 dollars on any one book. No wonder the traditional publishers with their high overheads are worried.

    • Mary,
      I’m a German author, and I don’t have any reviews on the German Amazon – because my books are in English. I have a good handful of 5-star reviews on Amazon.com and one or two on Amazon.co.uk, because I asked my message board friends to leave reviews. And they did.

      So it comes back to growing a bit of a community any which way, through social media, email lists or in my case, old-fashioned message boards. And asking that community for help. I practically know everyone who put up a review. Only a few of my friends really understand how important those reviews are. So I needed to ask. And I’m glad I did. (I did not tell them what to write!)

      The next trick is to offer your email list a free version of your new release – if they write a review for one of the old ones! That’s still okay because you’re not telling them what to write. And they get their free ebook even if they leave a 1-star review! That’s what I plan for my next release (coming soon).

      • Hannah, thanks for your advice. You’re way ahead of me because I don’t even have an email list. Since my various identities are so very disparate, I’d need at least four or five different ones.

        For now, I just shove my works out there and let them sink or swim, with five consecutive free days every quarter. Thus when random strangers write positive reviews it is very motivating.(When they write bad reviews I tell myself they just aren’t on my wavelength.)

        The maximum I’ve got so far is seven five-star reviews for one NF ebook, all from perfect strangers, and most got the book for free. It takes time but the reviews do come. Not that that particular book is selling like hot cakes, even so, just a few copies per month. (The funny thing is that there seems to be an inverse relationship between my own time and effort, and the popularity of the resulting ebooks.)

        • What about publishing all of your disparate pen names under one publishing “company”? Then you could just send out one newsletter for the company, with a new release for any particular name? It’s no different from what bookstores do. Half the stuff in their newsletter I’m not interested in. Same with Poison Pen Press, whose newsletter I get. Most of them have one or two things I’m interested in reading, but every once in a while I find something that I wouldn’t have otherwise checked out. Of course most of those are in the same genre, but that doesn’t hold true for a bookstore newsletter…

          • Thanks for the idea … maybe I’ll do that. I already publish most of my ebooks under the same publisher name, mostly so I can quickly find them all with one search.

      • How do you make sure the reviewers have read the book they review? How many requested reviews are fluff pieces designed to keep you as a friend? This isn’t much better than asking family members to post reviews.

        • On Amazon it’s a little easier to tell: Amazon puts the words “Amazon Verified Purchase” next to the reviews if the reviewer has actually bought the book (which doesn’t say anything about having read it, of course). And I asked on a message board in general terms, after people posted about buying my book and enjoying it(just a handful). That is very different from trying to pressure people into writing reviews because “We’re friends, right? And friend help each other out, right?”

          That’s what I mean by ask. A friendly, open question with no pressure, nothing more, nothing less.

          People do respond to this kind of asking. That’s the kind of person I want on my mailing list (which I don’t have for my writing persona just yet). A friendly person who enjoys my stories and who writes a review if so inclined. It’s part of community building vs. hard marketing.

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