The Thing About Self-Promotion is That Self-Promotion Sucks (But You Have to Do It Anyway)

From Nathan Bransford:

Here’s the thing about self-promotion: It sucks. It really sucks.

If self-promotion were an insect, I would squash it with the world’s biggest fly swatter. If self-promotion were a field I would burn it and salt the earth so it could never live again.

It doesn’t feel right to stand in front of a crowd and shout, “Me!” and no matter how much you try and cloak the self-promotion in elaborate disguises, it can still feel kind of icky. And if you don’t enjoy the spotlight, self-promotion in all its forms can be downright terrifying.

This is one of the hugest drawbacks about an era of publishing where publishers expect authors to shoulder the lion’s share of the promotional activities. No one I know enjoys self-promotion, and no one out there particularly likes being promoted to either. People usually want to hear about new things from enthusiastic and neutral third parties, not the hugely biased person who created the thing.

And when it comes to social media, the Internet dislikes it when something they are accustomed to getting for free suddenly comes with strings attached, even if those strings are only of the heartstring nature. It’s such a fine line between reminding people about your book and hoping they buy it while not alienating your audience and turning into a shill.

So basically: Self-promotion = not fun!

And yet I know what I would tell someone else who has a new book out: You have to do it. No matter how much you might dislike it, no matter how much negative feedback you get about it, no matter how much it makes you cringe, you gotta do it. You have to give your book a boost, you have to make your network aware of it, you have to do everything you can to help it sell. The era of being just an author, if it ever existed, is over.

Do it as non-annoyingly as possible, but do it.

Sure, it would be fantastic if you had an army of rabid fans or a fabulously wealthy and dedicated publisher to do all the promotion for you. But unless you win the publishing lottery, that first boost has to come from you. You have to build your own army and hope they start evangelizing and creating new converts. You have to get that first bit of momentum going. Otherwise your book will quietly disappear into the great unknown.

Link to the rest at Nathan Bransford

PG notes that Nathan’s post is from 2011, but, although many other things have changed, this one hasn’t.

Author = self-promoting author

Traditionally-published Author = self-promoting author

Indie Author = self-promoting author

You don’t have to be a jerk. You don’t have to be obnoxious. But you do need to get the word about your book out to people you know and people you don’t know.

As a general proposition, most people don’t know any authors. So even if you were working the counter at a fast-food place yesterday, once your book is up on Amazon, you’re an author. You can order an author’s copy and bring it into the fast food place and show it to your boss and co-workers.

Send several author’s copies to your mom so she can give them away to her friends.

When you see your friends, you’ll mention that your book is on sale on Amazon. They can pull it up on their smartphones and see the cover.

If you’re a student, take a few of your author’s copies to school with you and carry it so everybody sees the cover with your name on it.

Go to Zazzle or someplace like it and get a t-shirt with your book cover on the front to wear on all occasions along with some postcards of with a picture of your cover to mail out or hand out. If you do anything that’s printed, include a free QR code like this to make sure people can find your book page on Amazon or anywhere else you want to send them to follow up:

If you’re rich, you may decide to drop a bundle on advertising, but you will almost certainly spend more money than you make, but, of course, that’s your privilege if you’re rich. And buying ads doesn’t necessarily guarantee sales if you haven’t done a lot of other things right.

Six reasons you’re confusing the reader

From Nathan Bransford:

If you hand off your novel to a loved one and you can’t help but notice their attention wandering, it might be more than their unfinished game of Wordle that’s getting in the way. You might have written a novel that’s more confusing than you think.

I’m going to round up a list of reasons you might be confusing your reader.

You might have thought of before some of the first ones on the list, but they’re still worth a gut check, sort of a “did you try turning it off and turning it back on” level of writing advice.

But stick with me here, because I’m going to get to some you might not have thought of before.

You’ve lost sight of what’s actually on the page
This one is basic and fundamental. As writers, it’s nearly impossible to avoid projecting things onto the page that just aren’t there. Really ask yourself: Can I see what is and isn’t on the page?

You know what settings look like, why characters are doing what they’re doing, and why there’s a gargoyle playing pickleball atop every gate in your novel. Unless those details are actually on the page, the reader is going to be confused.

Every single writer struggles with this to some degree, which is why editing is so important, but some writers struggle more than others to put themselves in the shoes of someone who’s coming to their work fresh. Unless you can build that empathy muscle for your future readers, chances are you’re going to end up with a book that readers find a bit mystifying.

The perspective is broken
A novel’s perspective is absolutely fundamental to the reading experience. It helps determine where the reader situates their consciousness within the scene they’re constructing in their head.

If the perspective is omniscient, we’re anchored to an all-seeing “guide” who steers us around a scene. If it’s limited or first person, we’re tied very closely to a particular character.

We contextualize what happens in the scene with that vantage point in mind. For instance, if a first person narrative voice refers to a “he” within a scene, we know the narrator is referring to the man he’s talking to. If the perspective is unclear, we may be confused which character the “he” pronoun refers to.

When the perspective is a mishmash, we will quickly struggle to make sense of things and will feel extremely disoriented. Make sure you know your perspective, and keep it utterly consistent.

Your writing is imprecise or needlessly convoluted
The more energy the reader has to spend parsing sentences, the less they’re able to simply focus on the story.

Now, let me be clear that I’m not saying every single sentence needs to be as taut and spare as Hemingway. It’s okay to be flowery and interesting if you want to. But unless you’re explicitly aiming to create something challenging or experimental, err on the side of precise, elegant, and digestible.

Sharpen your physical description and make sure readers can visualize their surroundings, don’t bog things down with needless details about everyday objects, clear out the clutter around your verbs, and read your prose out loud to catch convoluted phrasing.

Precision is everything.

You’re trying too hard to be mysterious
Sure. We all love a good mystery. And sometimes authors are so worried they’re being boring they try to make every single micro-moment in their novel mysterious.

When they do this, they can easily cross a line where it stops being mysterious, and instead it’s just annoyingly vague. It’s exhausting to try to follow a story where a character is running around doing confusing things for confusing reasons. You’ll wear the reader out if they’re left to only grasp at what is happening entirely from scant clues.

Make sure the reader is well-situated in the story, choose your mysteries very judiciously, and try to build mysteries around whether characters will succeed or fail. It’s hard to feel anticipation for an impending encounter if we have no idea why the dragon they want to slay is important in the first place.

Link to the rest at Nathan Bransford

PG notes there are lots of links at the OP to additional information on the items Mr. Bransford discusses.

46% of Americans didn’t read a book in 2023

From Nathan Bransford:

First up, some stats that are as bracing as the January weather outside (not really, I live in Southern California) to kick off our roundup. A full 46% of Americans did not finish a book last year and 5% more read just one, so if you read two books you’re in the top half of American readers. If you read more than fifty, congrats you’re a book one per-center! Meanwhile, 42% read on paper, 22% digital, and 19% audiobooks, with e-books attracting the heaviest readers.

Lincoln Michel dives a level below the stats and notes that while it’s a tad obscured how they categorize the genres, a quite robust 12% of readers read literary fiction–the same as the number that read science fiction and more than the 11% who read romance–puncturing some of the “we write books people actually read” sneers among certain genre enthusiasts.

Back in December, Maris Kreizman took stock of the pervasive issues at Goodreads and wrote, quite accurately, “You might wonder if Goodreads isn’t just an enabler of scandal but the problem itself” and declares “Goodreads is broken.” I would add: Goodreads has been broken. This has been going on for years and years. Maris is right. We all deserve better, Goodreads and Amazon.

Link to the rest at Nathan Bransford

Traditional publishing vs. self-publishing. Which should you choose?

From Nathan Bransford:

Whether tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of agents and publishers or to take arms against a sea of books on Amazon, and by being among them, rise above? To die, to sleep (oh wait you won’t), to sleep perchance to dream of fame and riches… aye there’s the rub.

Ahem. Sorry.

So. You have yourself a book. Should you just go ahead and self-publish and see how it does? Should you try your luck with agents and publishers? Should you try agents and publishers first and then self-publish if that doesn’t work?

. . . .

But once you have a general sense of the differences between traditional and self-publishing, you’ll have decisions to make. Having traditionally published my Jacob Wonderbar series and self-published How to Write a Novel and How to Publish a Book, I’ve seen both sides.

. . . .

Dispelling myths

Before we get to some of the pros and cons of traditional and self-publishing, I feel the need to dispel some myths.

For some reason, rival camps of traditional and self-publishing devotees continuously spring up online and besmirch the other side, even as the number of authors who have dabbled in both traditional publishing and self-publishing (like me) continues to rise.

Some self-publishers (often adopting the “indie” moniker) profess that traditional publishing is the stuff of retrograde dinosaurs and haughty agents looking only for authors who aren’t like them and that no one should even waste their time sending out queries.

Some traditional publishing types paint self-publishing with a broad brush as little more than vanity publishing for books that weren’t good enough to make it through the traditional publishing process.

These caricatures don’t have any truth to them. Both self-publishing and traditional publishing are viable paths.

Traditional publishing has its merits. Self-publishing has its merits. Traditional books can catch on. Self-publishing books can catch on.

What’s important is that you choose the process that’s right for your project based on what’s important to you and what your strengths are.

Get in tune with your goals

So before you go down this path, get in tune with your goals.

I’ll get to more detailed questions later in this post to help you weigh that right approach for your project, but really sit with your thoughts for a bit and gauge the elements of writing and publishing that are most important to you.

Why did you write the book? How important is it to you to make it revenue positive? Do you want it out there in a big way or are you content just having copies you can give to friends and family?

Starting this process with some self-reflection and getting in tune with your writing goals will prime you to make the best decision.

7 questions to ask yourself

Okay. You’re now open-minded about choosing the path that’s right for you and you’ve gotten in tune with your goals.

Here are questions to ask yourself to help narrow down which path you should choose. And if you’d like to talk it through with me, feel free to book a consultation.

Is your book a niche/passion project or does it have broad, national appeal?

In order to attract a traditional publisher, especially one of the major ones, you’re going to need to have a book that fits into an established genre, is of appropriate length, and has mass commercial appeal. As in, it’s something for a broad audience, not a narrow niche. And if you’re writing prescriptive nonfiction, you need to be one of the top people in the entire world to write that book if you want to pursue traditional publishing.

Nearly everyone who has ever written a book views it as a potential mega-bestseller, but this really requires some honest self-assessment.

Does your book have broad, national appeal or is it niche? Is it a potential bestseller or something you just wrote to, say, have your family history recorded for posterity or to get a bee out of your bonnet?

I like to use the airport bookstore test here. Is your book something you could potentially see on sale in an airport bookstore?

The major publishers (and the literary agents who work with them) are going for broad, mainstream audiences. If your potential readership is more narrow, you might want to go directly to a small press or self-publish. If you are writing nonfiction and lack a significant platform, you may want to just go ahead and self-publish.

But if you can genuinely see it reaching a wide audience, you can give traditional publishing a shot.

How much control do you want over the publishing process?

One of the things I like most about the traditional publishing process is its collaborative nature. You’re working with experienced professionals who bring a wealth of expertise to bear at every stage of the process.

But this does mean giving up some control. Your agent may want you to revise your work before they send it to publishers. You will almost assuredly be edited by an editor at a publishing house. You won’t have approval over your book’s cover and you’ll probably only have mutual consent on your book title. You’ll have limited control over how and where your book is marketed and things like discounts and promotions.

This all requires a collaborative mindset and ceding some of the decision-making. Your publisher may well make some decisions you don’t agree with, and some that might even drive you a bit insane.

Meanwhile, with self-publishing, everything is up to you. The edits, cover, title, fonts, marketing, price points… it’s all your choice.

So if you have an extremely precise vision of what you want your cover to look like or are dead-set on including your own illustrations, self-publishing may be the way to go. If you’re willing to be flexible, traditional publishing is an option.

How much does the validation of traditional publishing matter to you?

There’s still something gratifying about making it all the way through the traditional publishing process, having your work validated by professionals, and getting paid for your efforts.

The names Penguin Random House, HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster… they still matter to people.

But maybe you don’t care one whit about the name of the publisher on the spine of your book. And that’s fine too!

Gut check how much a publisher’s validation matters to you or whether you’re fine going straight to readers.

How important is it for your book to be in bookstores and libraries?

Traditional publishers still have a significant competitive edge in the print era because of their distribution and sales infrastructure. If you want your book widely available in bookstores and libraries, you are going to need a traditional publisher.

Sure, you might be able to strike up some individual relationships with local bookstores, but traditional publishing is the surest path to having your book widely available in stores and libraries across the country.

Now, in a world where close to the majority of books are purchased online, maybe this no longer matters to you. If you self-publish, you can have your book available on Amazon alongside all the other big names.

But if you care about being in bookstores, traditional publishing may be worth a shot.

Link to the rest at Nathan Bransford

PG stifled himself (a rare occurrence). Feel free to comment.

Let characters’ emotions spill in unpredictable ways

From Nathan Bransford:

One of the strangest things about writing fiction is that it often needs to make more sense than real life.

In real life, people fall into grief-stricken states of paralysis, wander around aimlessly without knowing what they’re looking for, and endlessly endure unpleasantness without trying to change anything about their circumstances. It’s extremely difficult to make those things interesting in a novel.

When we’re reading novels, it’s confusing and even frustrating when a character doesn’t act in accordance with their desires. To put it more simply: characters who care about something need to act like they care about it. They need to prioritize coherently (if not always rationally).

If they’re terrified, they need to act terrified. They shouldn’t be in the mood to stop in a place of danger and engage in endless breezy banter.

If they’re stuck, it’s helpful to see them at least try to escape so we can grasp the contours of their obstacles.

But there’s still plenty of room for humans to be human. One way you can give your character more latitude to act irrationally and convey to the reader that they really do care is to let their emotions spill out unpredictably.

A character under stress should act like it

Particularly when a writer has fallen a bit too in love with their dialogue, they can unintentionally create incongruities where it feels like a character can’t possibly care about what’s happening in the narrative if they are so unruffled that they have all the time in the world to engage in witty banter.

Now, this can be made to work. The James Bond-ish unflappable hero is an archetype for a reason. But the way to pull this off isn’t to show nothing at all getting to the protagonist. It’s to show stress building and then leaking out in unpredictable ways.

For example, a young protagonist who suffers an indignity from a teacher at school may not be able to immediately channel their frustration. If they were to lash out at the teacher, they’d get in still-more trouble, so they may well bite their tongue in the moment. But instead of simply moving on, the injustice should build and fester, and the protagonist might lash out at a safer target, like a friend or parent, or engage in some risky or uncharacteristic behavior. That acting out may well compound the stress even further.

In other words, the conflict isn’t just allowed to dissipate. It’s more like a ticking time bomb.

The most important principle here: Don’t let a good conflict go to waste!

Don’t let your character’s emotions just disappear. Pour them into an increasingly unmanageable bucket that might spill over at any time.

Link to the rest at Nathan Bransford

Training scenes work in movies. They (usually) suck in novels

From Nathan Bransford:

Some of the most beloved scenes in movie history involve training for combat.

Obi-Wan Kenobi making Luke put the blast shield down so he can train blind with his lightsaber in Star Wars: A New Hope. Morpheus and Neo fighting an epic, beautiful, mesmerizing joust after Neo learns kung fu in The Matrix. Take your pick from hundreds of “ragtag fighting force humorously gets their s*** together” montages.

Now, I challenge you this: Name a great training scene in a novel.

I’ll wait.

Okay, sure. Of course they exist! I list some below, and I’m sure some good ones will pop up in the comments section. But if you put the scene where Morpheus tests Neo’s kung fu into a novel, it would be a snoozer. When I’m editing novels, I often see interminable training scenes that were clearly written for the future movie adaptation rather than the actual novel at hand.

Screenplay-ize your novel at your peril. If you have movie training in scenes in mind when you’re writing a novel, you risk crafting a stinker of a scene unless you can tailor it for what works in books.

The reasons for this discrepancy reveal a whole lot about the narrative differences between good cinematic storytelling and good novelistic storytelling.

The interiority of novels

At the risk of oversimplifying, cinema is a storytelling device that favors the exterior, whereas novels favor the interior.

Cinema is visual. It’s nearly impossible to get intimately inside characters’ heads the way we can in novels. We judge cinematic characters almost entirely by their actions (hence the classic “save the cat“), rather than being attuned to their hidden motivations and desires. The occasional clunky movie voice-overs that tell us a characters’ secret thoughts are the exceptions that prove the rule.

With novels, we’re far, far more attuned to why characters are doing what they’re doing. We often know their precise hopes and dreams. We can see the way they’re thinking through their options and choices. It puts a much greater premium on how a character is prioritizing their time and energy and scenes flowing from characters actively going after the things they want in a relatively coherent way.

I am willing to stake this claim: Novels need to make more sense than movies.

That’s because when we read, we’re busy co-creating the world in our own heads. When it’s unclear why exactly a character is doing what they’re doing, it rings a much louder alarm than it does when we’re sitting back in a comfy chair in the theater and just watching things unfold on the screen.

Link to the rest at Nathan Bransford

Manifesto fiction

From Nathan Bransford:

Over the past few years I’ve noticed a substantial uptick in novels crossing my desk that have an extremely overt political message. Their pitches will often cite that the world needs their new book. The authors will treat the message, and the world’s supposed need for it, as the thing that’s going to sell the book.

I call this manifesto fiction. And authors can go very, very far astray if they focus too much on the politics and not enough on the storytelling.

Now, don’t get me wrong. A lot of times I agree with the substance of the political message that’s being espoused! And, at the end of the day, everyone has to write the book they want to write.

But particularly if you’re pursuing traditional publication and if you have writing goals beyond just finishing the novel, here’s the thing you must remember: people will only buy your book if it’s a compelling story.

Focus on the storytelling and make it messy

There is a long and proud history of novels that shift culture and politics through sheer force of story, whether that’s Uncle Tom’s CabinThe JungleThe Handmaid’s Tale, or, more recently, The Hate U Give. There’s also a darker history here, including influential novels that advance racist narratives that I don’t really want to give a further platform by naming.

Knowing this, authors set about writing the Uncle Tom’s Cabin of, say climate change, sometimes with the zeal of converts.

What they forget is that the classic novels that have shifted the culture aren’t didactic diatribes about their chosen topic. The Handmaid’s Tale is not a treatise on reproductive justice, it’s an immersive alternate future that gains power through its plausibility. The Jungle is perhaps the most manifesto-y of these novels, but it’s still a gripping read focused on specific characters who Sinclair goes to great lengths to help the reader sympathize with.

The great danger of manifesto fiction is that the author will put the thumb on the scale as they craft their protagonists and villains, resulting in caricatures and stultifying plot lines. The protagonists are unduly heroic, and the villains unduly villainous. It’s blindingly obvious how things will turn out. The author’s politics are like a decoder ring that spoils what’s to come.

Authors writing didactic fiction will often fail to empathize with their villains and see the appealing traits that give them power. They fail to make it a fair fight.

If you’re going to write manifesto fiction, it’s got to be compellingly messy. We shouldn’t know who’s going to win, and both the protagonists and the villains need to represent a full spectrum of humanity.

Pitch the story, not the message

Publishing employees as a whole tend to be a disproportionately idealistic bunch, but they can only acquire what they think they can sell. And “please read this political diatribe thinly disguised as fiction” is not really a selling point.

Link to the rest at Nathan Bransford