Hi. Barb here. At home in Somerville, MA, but venturing to Maine early next month.
My experience is that, if you write fiction, whether you are a new author, or a mid-career author adapting to the brave new world of publishing, there are people around who will give you incredibly terrible advice.
I don’t mean your mom. (“Why don’t you go on Oprah, dear?” “Gee, thanks. I never thought of that.”) I mean people who make their living publicizing books. Publicists you pay, “experts” in the field, even your assigned publicist at your publisher. And since these people have conversations with your editor who has conversations with your agent, there are many, many channels through which bad advice can reach you.
Of course, I don’t mean all publicists, experts, editors and agents give bad advice. Many will give you great advice. Others will give you honest advice–i.e. they will say, “I have no #$%^ing idea.”
Most of the people who give bad advice don’t mean you any harm. They believe what they are telling you. They give you poor information for the following reasons:
1) Nobody really knows the answer. There is not, nor has there ever been, a magic formula that turns books into bestsellers. If there were, every book would be a bestseller.
2) Nobody really understands the brave new world of publishing. It’s too new and changing too fast. To quote William Goldman, “The only thing anybody knows is that nobody knows anything.”
3) Marketing, in general, is an ill-understood activity. John Wanamaker (1838-1922) famously said, “I know that half of my advertising dollars are wasted … I just don’t know which half.” When you generalize from advertising to all of marketing, and when you look at both dollars and effort, I think you’re talking more in the range of 90% wasted. Huge corporations that have millions to spend on focus groups and other semi-scientific ways of judging their marketing still make horrible missteps. And waste a whole lot of effort. But remember, 10% of it works.
So given these challenges, there’s a huge tendency for people to over-generalize. To desperately take whatever worked last time and apply to something new, even if the situation is different. Or to try to reverse engineer success. “Well, this book was a huge success, and the author did A, B & C, so therefore, everybody do A, B & C!”
I don’t have an issue with this. What I have an issue with is the advice that is damagingly bad, and that goes around and around and around. So herewith is my assessment of publicity advice you should absolutely ignore.
1) Don’t waste your time marketing to other writers. You should be focused entirely on readers.
Of all the stupid things people say, this is the stupidest. It’s true that as you come up through the writer ranks, you’ll get to know a lot of fellow authors, both established and aspiring. Sometimes it will feel like all your Facebook friends and other social media followers, all your blog readers and all the people you hang out at conventions with are fellow authors. But authors are incredibly important to you from a marketing perspective.
Most authors are voracious readers first and foremost. They read books and they talk to their friends about books. They hang out in places where people read books and talk about books. Leaving aside the psychological benefits of having a supportive network of friends, having a buzz about your book among writers is priceless. They will recommend you for speaking gigs. They will blurb you. One of the most common questions writers get when they do presentations is, “So who do you like to read?” There’s a reason almost all the reviews in the New York Times Book Review are written by writers.
Whatever you do, please, do not go wandering the earth looking for a lost herd of “readers,” and ignore the very readers it is easiest for you to find, your fellow writers.
2) Readers aren’t interested in writerly stuff.
I actually believed this one, which is sort of a corollary to the above. So when I did “Reader” events I talked about things I thought would interest readers, things about the setting, characters and mystery elements in my books.
But whenever Q&A time rolled around, someone always put up his hand and asked, “So do you write in the morning, or in the evening, or what?”
I know. I don’t get it, either. But I’ve observed this now at lots of writer events, including really famous writer’s events. Some of the questioners are aspiring writers, sure, but others are not. It’s just something the kind of dedicated readers who read writers’ blogs and websites and magazine interviews and who come out to events want to know. They also want to know, do you have a special place where you write? Do you plan a whole book first? All that stuff.
3) Fiction writers need to develop a platform of thousands of Twitter followers and blog readers before they get published.
So let’s talk about the platform thing. A platform is where you stand so people can see you. It helps people find you, and therefore find your book.
Obviously for certain kinds of non-fiction writers, the platform is huge. If you’re a business guru going around the world doing guru seminars, and you’ve written a book to sell at the back of the room, your platform is everything.
For other non-fiction authors, the platform proves their bona fides. If you’ve written a book about the Civil War and you have a university appointment in a history department where you are the resident expert on the Civil War, that’s important. If you are an award-winning journalist, that’s important, too.
In the modern world, the height of your platform often gets measured in social media followers and blog readers, but those are the results of the platform, not the platform itself. You don’t stand on the audience’s heads. You stand on your platform so the audience can see you.
If you are a fiction writer, your platform is your books. Your books are what cause you have an audience, not the other way around. The single greatest reason people purchase fiction is that they have read the author before and liked (loved) their work. And mystery and thriller writers are the most brand loyal and least adventurous of all. As Julia Spencer-Fleming says, “Your book sells your next book.”
So if you are focused on building a Twitter following instead of spending every moment making your book the best book it can be, stop it right now.
I’m not saying the modern mid-list writer should ignore social media or eschew other promotional activities. Once you have an audience, even a small one, it is your most precious asset. You should find as many ways to reach your readers and cultivate them and keep them interested and get them talking about and recommending your books as you can. If you have a new book out, and someone who love-loves you hasn’t heard about it, it’s a shame for them and shame on you.
But growing an audience without a platform–i.e. without a book, is difficult and inefficient.
And if you happen across a publisher who wants to know how many Twitter followers and Facebook friends and blog readers you have before he will commit to publishing your first novel, don’t walk, run.
4) You should do a blog and build a big social media following about something in the world of your book, but not writing.
This is the obvious off-shoot of all three of the above. 1) You should be cultivating readers, not writers. 2) Readers are not interested in writerly stuff. 3) You need a huge platform. Therefore, 4) you should be blogging about something else.
The main reason this is terrible advice is because building a successful blog is an actual skill. If you have the kind of mad enthusiasm for a topic, distinctive and compelling voice, high energy work ethic and productivity required to build a large and faithful blog following, you should consider becoming a blogger instead of a novelist. Because, believe me, it is equally hard, and the last thing you need is another poorly compensated, all-consuming activity to suck up all your time. You already have one. You’re a novelist.
It’s like telling someone to become a virtuoso rock guitarist so they can play in a symphony orchestra. They’re related skills, but not the same skill.
It’s also crazy inefficient. Say you are writing a mystery set in the world of windsurfing. Brilliantly, you build the world’s most popular windsurfing blog.
The theory is these readers will buy your mystery. Like this.
But how it actually works will be more like this.
Not that I am casting aspersions on the general literacy of windsurfers. At all. And note that I’ve indicated you’ll get 90% of the overlap, except for the few dumb asses who will forget to buy your book, or the ones who steal it from their local surf shop. The reason the circle is so small is because of this:
This is not at all drawn to scale. Because if it was, it would look way, way worse than this. But you get the idea.
Willie Sutton said he robbed banks because, “that’s where the money is.” When you’re starting out, you need to focus your marketing efforts on the highly limited number of people who will buy a mystery from an unknown author. Because that’s where the money is. (Actually, there’s no money to speak of anywhere, but that’s an entirely different topic.)
So why so negative, Barb. Why spend this endless blog telling people what not to do? What should we do?
Stay tuned for Part II.