Discoverability and Donald Rumsfeld
In the immortal and (blessedly) paraphrased words of Donald Rumsfeld: “There are known knowns. There are known unknowns. But there are also unknown unknowns.”
And unless their name is Snooki or ends with Hilton, authors begin their careers as unknown unknowns. Many aspire to become known knowns. How to get there from here is the question of discoverability, the second-hottest buzz-word in the book industry right now.*
I spent a lot of time as an unknown unknown. In fact, I like to think that I still am. I never set out to become anything different. But I get a lot of emails from people who think I know what I’m doing asking me for the secret for becoming known, and so here are my thoughts. First, some background, because I’ve watched this issue with interest long before I started writing.
Before I ever finished my first manuscript, I wrote book reviews for a crime fiction website and also for the New York Review of Science Fiction (okay, one review for the latter. Still fun to say). Once I began writing seriously, I took a job in an independent bookstore. Here, I read a ton of books and slathered our shelves with staff picks. I spent every spare minute of my life reading, writing, reviewing, editing, and publishing. Books were my life. Across these pursuits, I noticed a few things about how books are discovered (and more often: how they aren’t).
At any one time, only one or two books are going gangbusters. That’s it. You can chart the book industry around these releases. The Harry Potters, Twilights, Wimpy Kids, Stieg Larssons, Gone Girls, Hunger Games, 50 Shades, Dan Browns . . . they came one at a time through the bookstore, and we who work in the industry pule and moan during the weeks in between. “Where’s the next The Passage?” we ask ourselves. And our reps, who arrived with their stacks of catalogs, would promise that they have it right there. But they rarely did.
The entire publishing industry buzzes about which book might be next. Not BOOKS. Book. There’s a tier of bestsellerdom, and the very top, the ones we aspire to be like, are frighteningly rare. The chance of ever writing one of these books is about like winning a Superbowl, as the quarterback, and getting the MVP award. It was hard enough to get on my high school varsity football team (which is why I didn’t). So what’re the chances of being a Superbowl MVP? And yet, it is with this Potterdom/Elway dream that we sit down and begin work on our rough drafts.
The bestselling books in my bookstore were from people grabbing this rare “big thing.” Something to marvel over: Last year, 1 out of ever 20 books sold was written by E.L. James. That’s an extreme case, but I can tell you that when Harry Potter was out, my boss at the bookstore knew the ISBN by heart from keying it in so often. There is nothing more unrealistic than hoping to be discovered this hard. Sure, like the argument for playing the lottery, it happens to someone. But it doesn’t happen to a whole lot more someones. Nobody knows how to write or market these books on purpose. Not even the publishers with their massive advertising budgets or the reps with their stack of catalogs. They get just as frustrated about this as we do. Trust me, the mobs with their pitchforks and their torches pick houses seemingly at random. (The torches for reading under the covers. The pitchforks for anyone who interrupts their reading).
As someone who has been fortunate enough to see a small mob outside my door, is there any advice I can impart? That’s what these emails beg of me, and that’s why I’m writing this blog post. Because I’ll tell you, the great frustration from my success has been not knowing what the hell happened. I was just writing because I’ve always wanted to. Putting my stuff out there. Having a good time. Hell, I read better books than Wool all the time. That Ted Kosmatka and Max Berry don’t outsell me 100 to 1 is mind-boggling to me. As my mother used to tell me: “Life isn’t fair.” (What my mother lacks in Rumsfeld’s optimism, she makes up in honesty and terseness). The quest of the struggling writer, then, is to make life more fair. How to do that? How to become discovered? I can only tell you what I’ve observed in my journey from unknown unknown to “is-that-what’s-his-name?”. And I’m not certain there’s a lot to draw from it.
The first thing I’ve observed is that writing within a genre is a huge first step in becoming discovered. No one is looking for you or your particular book. You are both unknown unknowns. So you better write a book that’s near a specific book. You can either change your name to L.E. James or you can start writing billionaire erotica. Of the two, I’d go with the latter. Science fiction, romance, new adult, erotica, fantasy, crime, all sell better than literary fiction. Why? Because people are looking for genre work. Very few people set out to find a story about a man whose divorced parents both suffer from dementia and have moved back in with him, thereby fulfilling his childhood fantasy of seeing his parents reunited and no longer squabbling, but only because they have no memory of one another (copyrighted).
It might be a great story, and you may enjoy reading it, but how do you find it? You won’t. You can’t. But say you want a story that involves magic and dragons. Plenty of those to wade through, and you have a fair expectation of what you’ll get. Random fantasy books sell better than random randomness. You’ve written and published a known unknown. You’re halfway there.
I should point out here that if you want to write for the joy of it, as I did, write whatever you want. But this response is for people emailing me asking for advice in getting their book discovered. And so I say that you should write in a well-selling genre. I used to belong to a writing group in Boone, and most everyone there was writing a memoir. Nothing wrong with that. I was writing science fiction. We were both writing what we felt inspired to write. But when that group wonders why my books took off and theirs didn’t, it’s not the quality of the writing. It’s the dumb luck that I happened to enjoy writing what more readers are looking for. So let’s assume, since you want to be discovered, that you’ve written in a well-selling genre. Fine choice. Let’s also assume you’ve written a book that will please your audience (a well-written book, whatever that means, and the subject of a quite different blog post). Also a good plan. You’ve slapped the best cover art you can make or afford on there. Excellent. The blurb is engaging; it makes you really, really want to read the book . . .
Wait. Hold on. Your blurb doesn’t kick ass? It should. You’re a writer. Look, if you can’t write a Tweet a day that makes someone laugh or tear up or click on a link, you’re in trouble. What chance does your book have? And yes, this is coming from someone who sucks at writing blurbs and puts almost no time into it. Don’t do as I do. I’m telling you, you need to be able to put together a blog post, a Facebook update, an email, anything that keeps people reading. If you can’t, there’s a chance your book doesn’t either. (And yes, this is coming from someone who has already lost 75% of the people who started reading this silly blog post). Examine your talent for writing and engaging people in small doses. This is an indicator of what you can expect out of your books. If your “like” buttons on Facebook are developing a rash, that’s a good sign. If your forum posts are oft-quoted, excellent. If none of these things are true, keep trying! But perhaps lower your expectations for your book. (Incidentally, this is why I beg some of my more entertaining and hilarious Facebook friends to write a book. I would pay money to read more of their thoughts. It seems unfair that we derive so much entertainment from these people for free!)
Okay, assuming you’ve got a great book that is packaged well, how do you get it discovered? Now, I’m not bullshitting you here. I’m telling you the truth, as someone who was in this position and fully believed in what I did next. With my father telling me I should be promoting the hell out of that debut novel, I proceeded to . . . write my next book.
Stick with me. This is important. You’ve got that great book under your belt. Well guess what? You’ll look back one day and realize it wasn’t your best work. Not by far. And not only because it was your first but because of the small sample size. You need to get a few books out to find out which one is your best, and that means writing more.
I ignored all advice to push the hell out of my novel (advice to go to conferences, do signings every weekend, blitz bloggers and reviewers, etc.) and spent my time writing. Mostly because that’s what made me happy. I had 8 or 9 published works before one was discovered. I’m not suggesting that anyone who publishes a handful of works will have success, but I think you should start there. Let’s say 10. A dozen. A nice mix of novels, novellas, and short stories. Have a dozen of them published before you worry about being discovered. Because I’ll tell you, the backlist is where you’ll do well. I think this is the reason the top earning authors today are one of two people: Those authors who had a large backlist to move into e-books after reverting rights on previously published traditional books, and those authors who can crank out 5-10 works a year. Having a library matters more than any other thing. It increases your exposure. And any happy reader is likely to move on to your other works. A quick note here on happy readers:
It is nearly impossible to make a living selling books directly to readers. It’s too hard to sustain. All the marketing in the world won’t launch your career if the work doesn’t market itself. That doesn’t mean there’s some secret to writing a book that markets itself, it just means that if you are having to browbeat people into every single purchase, what happens when you let up? The sales stop. This is why writing more is the best investment you can make into your career. Not to mention that begging for sales is no fun and unseemly. Even when I did do signings with my physical books, I mostly just sat there and read or worked on my next project. Waving people over was no fun. And anyway, it tends to scare people away.
Okay, now you’ve got a dozen or so works written and published. All of them great, all are beautifully packaged. You’re sick of writing. You want to start selling books. Earning some money. At least, that’s what you’re emailing me and saying you want to do. Well, I’d say you’ve now set yourself up nicely. There’s no problem at all with those books having sat there not selling for the past three or four years. They are as fresh as the day they were born. No expiration on those suckers. No “sell-by” date. Now you can get started.
First, set up a blog, a FB page, a Twitter account, and a G+ account. You’ve most likely been using these already, since you have a heartbeat. First thing: Don’t ask people to buy your stuff. Don’t do it. Ask people to READ your stuff. Pick a few of your works — first titles in a couple of your series are a good idea — and give them away. Tweet your favorite lines (that really good stuff that makes you ctrl-s the moment you write it). Tweet in the voice of your characters. Just a half dozen of these a day. Do it while you’re at work. Your new life now is to show the world your best material and see if any of it sticks.
On your FB page, take a screenshot of your abysmal book rankings. Laugh at yourself. Or celebrate your progress. Or think of something else. Just because I did this doesn’t mean it fits with what you would do. But engage people by letting them know you’re a writer, not that you’re dying for them to buy something. If they pirate the work and read to the very end, that’s a good thing. You just made a reader happy. You have a fan.
Over on your blog page, write about writing. Write about life. Post that one chapter that kicks so much ass, you can’t believe you wrote it. Post an action scene, a love scene, snippets of dialog. It’s good shit, remember? You said so. We agreed it was. Get it out there. List every idea you’ve ever had for every great book you never wrote. Don’t worry about people ripping you off. Worry about people not reading you. (Someone is probably working on that literary fiction idea of parents moving back in with their son right now).
On Google+, go poke around and see if you can figure that shit out. Email me if you do.
Now’s a good time to interact with your readers. Both of them. Thank them for being awesome, for having written that review, for giving your work a chance. You might notice they are the ones who spread the word. Soon, you’ll have four readers. Are you still giving your stories away? Did you wake up one morning and realize you still feel like writing? Write that story and give it away as well.
When people complain that your work is too cheap or too free, tell them it’s because you love your readers. Now you’ve got eight of them. If you don’t fully appreciate having 8 strangers in your life who read your shit, you aren’t a desperate enough writer. Be more desperate. Not to sell your work, but to have it read and enjoyed. This is the goal, and keep it in mind: Write something enjoyable and see that it gets read. One line at a time. One chapter at a time. One short story at a time.
Make videos. Just be yourself. Videos are great, because words don’t convey intention very well. Let people see who you really are, even if you’re an asshole. Some assholes are cute. The bleached ones, I mean.
A few things you should have done by now that I should have mentioned earlier: Exhaust all formats. Make sure you have print editions through CreateSpace. Make audiobooks through ACX. Both cost you ZILCH! They are free. Why aren’t you doing this? Physical books make the e-books look like a great deal. On the Amazon page, it shows readers how much they’re saving. Audiobooks make you look like a media empire. You’ll have something to sign and something for people who say “I only listen to books these days.” Amazon’s algorithms will love you for having multiple formats. I think.
Boy, it took long enough to get to Amazon’s algorithms. When you pick your categories (you only get two), make sure they don’t overlap. And pick specific categories. If you take FICTION > SCIENCE FICTION > ADVENTURE, you’ll show up in all three of those categories (as well as BOOKS and the even larger Amazon category: SHIT AMAZON SELLS). Remember: you inherit the parent categories. If you just picked SCIENCE FICTION, you missed out on a crucial category! Another good one might be FICTION > THRILLER > ESPIONAGE (making that one up). Now your book is in more places.
Als0-boughts are critical. If you show up with another author, get in touch with that author! See if you can cross-promote together. Tell your 8 readers about their work. Have them tell their 8 readers about yours. Guest blog with each other. Bundle. Have a dance-off! Look through your also-boughts now and then and see who the next biggest person is who might accidentally return your emails. Be nice to these people.
I can’t believe it’s taken this long to mention being nice. Another area my mom gave me good advice. “Be nice to your sister,” she would tell me. “Be nice to your brother,” she would say. “Be nice to your mother.” I got this last one a lot. I eventually generalized this to: “Be fucking nice to people.” If you aren’t already doing this anyway, why not? If you’re doing this just for the hope of some reward, you’re doing it wrong. Just do it. It all comes back around. I’ve watched a lot of people be shits to their peers, and most of them aren’t doing so well. It’s because we generally root for nice people. Be one.
What else? Oh . . . be entertaining. Look, if you are Tweeting and blogging and Facebooking and your handful of followers aren’t smitten with every single thing you do, you need to up your game. Did you read an interesting article? Share it. And share your witty opinion of it. I mentioned this before, but it bears repeating: Write good stuff.
Also: Work hard. All of the above is a lot to do. You’ve gotta start with a dozen works that kick ass, that you edited 7 or 8 times yourself, then got someone else to look over, and another someone, and put nice cover art and blurbs on, and uploaded to five different digital retailers, and did print and audio. Damn! That’s a lot of work. Now you’ve got to CONSISTENTLY blog and Tweet and Facebook and make dance videos. If you take a few months off in a row, you’re not doing it right. You have to keep at it even when no one is watching or listening. You have to love it even when you aren’t selling. You have to appreciate every single sale, every review, every like, every re-Tweet, every mention, every Google Alert. Every single one.
Can you do all of that? If you can, and you give it some years, and you keep reading in the meantime to remember why you’re doing it, and you keep honing your craft, you will sell a few thousand books in your lifetime. And very likely, a lot more than that.
Something you shouldn’t do: Stop reading articles from self-professed self-publishing failures who have a single short story out and can’t figure why agents aren’t calling. Stop looking at the extreme outliers in any profession (self-published, traditional, NFL) and wondering when you’ll get there. It’s okay to dream, but don’t bank on this or need this. Your goal is to write a book. Sell a book. And then do it again.
Finally: Do it because you love it. The best way to be discovered at anything in life is because people are drawn to the sound of you laughing or the sight of you smiling or the joy of you dancing. If you are miserable, people are going to run away. And you won’t produce quality material. Hemmingway is proof of this (he was only truly happy when he was drunk and depressed, so don’t use him as a counter argument). Look, if you’re having a good time, you can’t lose. You are writing books, motherfucker! How crazy is that? Didn’t you dream of that your entire life? You are on the team! Keep playing hard, and good stuff can happen. Keep playing only because you won’t be happy until you win a Superbowl, as the quarterback, while throwing five TDs and no interceptions, and you’re going to be miserable with life.
Don’t be miserable. Be happy. And nice. And work hard. And get discovered. How, exactly? I have no fucking clue.
*The hottest buzzword is: metadata. No one knows what this one means. It’s a known unknown.