This blog post is inspired by a recent Kindle Publishing newsletter about Scott Nicholson, a writer who, like many of us in the brave new world of ebooks, was able to quit his day job and earn his living as a full-time novelist. At the end of the newsletter article, several writers posted complaint comments saying, in so many words, that the article's author had neglected to say HOW Nicholson achieved this success. The tone of the commentators made me think that they thought there was some marketing trick that Nicholson used to find writing success and, if only they knew that trick, they would also be able to find success.
Okay, Todd, write a thoughtful response, earnest and sincere.
So here goes, earnestly and sincerely.
There is no single (or even six or eight) marketing technique(s) that will help you find success as a novelist. There are only these basics:
1) Write a bunch of really good novels.
2) Write your books in a series.
3) Produce books that are professionally edited.
4) Produce books that have professional covers that all go together.
5) Get those really good, professionally-packaged books in front of thousands of people every year, year after year.
Is this complicated? No.
Is this hard work that takes years and years and years of effort? Yes.
Is the relevant information, about both writing and marketing, hard to find? No.
Does it take a lot of time to find it, read it, digest it, put it into action? Yes.
Let's go into more detail on these points.
Regarding point #1: Write a bunch of really good novels.
What makes a "really good" book? It is a book that your reading group, writer's critique group, and numerous beta readers say made them laugh and/or cry and/or lose sleep over, and they've already told their friends about you, and maybe even one of those beta-reader's friends contacted you and said she heard you wrote a really good book. A really good book is one that - when you send out ARCs (Advance Review Copies) - book review trade journals agree to review it and then give it a good review, and book bloggers give you good reviews, and bookstores (which are not the best places to sell books, but they know what readers want) ask if they can sell it as soon as it is published.
How many is "a bunch of books?" At least five in a series, but I'd plan on ten. Do they have to be full-on novels? Yes. Shoot for 300 pages minimum each. 350 pages is better. Some readers will buy books that are novella length, but they often don't like it. And when they discover that the book they just ordered is only 200 pages or less, they sometimes feel cheated. If so, they'll flame you in reviews. They believe, perhaps correctly, that you are trying to write two 200-page books instead of one 400-page book just so you can boast more titles, and they think less of you and your books as a result.
Regarding point #2: Write your books in a series.
What qualifies as a "series?" A series means the same main characters grappling with similar kinds of trouble in each story. In other words, characters that readers get to know and care about and come to think of as friends, friends that they want to revisit again and again. (But of course, despite similarities among books in series, each book still needs to surprise the readers.)
Regarding point #3: Produce books that are professionally edited.
Professional editing means using an editor who earns his or her living editing. Can anyone find mistakes in your books? Typos? Misspellings? Misuse of the subjunctive case? Mistakes of fact? Head-hopping POVs (Point Of Views) within one scene? If so, then you need better editing. Does it cost money? Yeah. Sometimes a lot. But this is a business you're trying to launch. If you opened a restaurant, would you ask a friend to volunteer to play chef by roasting hotdogs over a campfire? No, you would get a professional chef and have a professional kitchen.
Regarding point #4: Produce books that have professional covers that all go together.
Professional covers means using a professional graphic designer. Browse through Amazon and notice how many books have covers that do nothing except to hasten how fast you click away. Covers that are photographs that only the author likes, or solid blocks of colors on the top and bottom, unattractive, plain type fonts, a lack of design theme that screams "I used DIY online cover-creater software."
Packaging is enormously important. People only buy books that look professional, sound professional, radiate professional. Would you buy a new car that was built by your neighbor in his garage? No, you want a car that looks like it was professionally built. What if your neighbor was a clever mechanic and even knew how to work with fiberglass? No, you want a car made by professionals in the car-making business. What if your neighbor had a clever new idea for an innovative transmission? What if he discounted his new car to only $18,000? No, you would still want a professionally-built car.
Same for books. If your book series looks like your neighbor produced it in his garage, you won't sell books, and you'll never be able to quit your day job.
Now to the last thing.
Regarding Point #5: Get those really good, professionally-packaged books in front of thousands of people every year, year after year.
Your book series might be the best thing ever written, but it still won't find a big enough audience to allow you to quit your day job unless you get it in front of many thousands of people. Why thousands and thousands?
Because it takes a core audience of approximately 20,000 readers to give you enough income to live off writing books alone. If you are published by a publisher that takes 90% of the sales - common in the publishing world - then your core audience needs to be five or ten times greater. (This core audience can be smaller and still support you if you write two or more titles a year.) Another reason you need to get your books in front of many people is that only a small percentage of people actually read much. (Pew Research recently reported that about one third of people had read NO books in the previous year.)
Of active readers, many read only non-fiction. Some read only romances. Some read only comic books. Some read only medieval fantasy or erotica or mysteries with gay protagonists who are really into crossword puzzles. You get the idea. To find someone who likes the kind of books you write, you will have to get an enormous number of people to try your books, and from that, a small percentage may love what you write and become your devoted fans.
How do you find those readers? Partly, by getting in any and all media so that people get exposed to what you are writing. If you are good at social media, go for it. Although be aware that many authors have quit Facebook because it is such a time vacuum, and it is very hard to turn your social media postings into book sales. (For awhile, there was even a formal support group for authors quitting Facebook.) Writing a frequent blog is a good way to find people who might try your books. In the beginning, a blog will do nothing. But if you post interesting content every week for several years, you will build up a surprisingly large audience. If readers like your blog, they will likely like your books.
Another really effective way to build an audience is to physically get in front of readers. The reason is that readers remember authors they've met much, much better than authors they've merely heard about or read about. So you learn to do talks, at libraries and schools, book clubs and service clubs (Rotary, Lions, Kiwanis etc, all of whom are looking for monthly or weekly speakers). You go to book festivals and book conventions. You exhibit your books anywhere and everywhere. Remember that as an author, you have an enormous number of fellow authors crowding you out. And their books may even be as good as yours. (I know, it's shocking but possibly true!) So how to you stand above the crowd? Do what they don't. Actually go to where the crowds are and introduce yourself and your books!
When I started out and began exhibiting at book festivals (like the Tucson Festival of Books, and the L.A. Times Book Festival), I realized that there were hundreds of other authors all competing for the attention of the readers strolling the grounds at the UA Mall, and UCLA, and, later, when the L.A. Times festival moved, USC. But when I exhibited at non-book festivals (like Harvest Festivals and art & wine street festivals), I was often the only author. It was much easier to get readers to notice me.
So I did a little math. At a good festival, 20,000 people might walk by and notice your table. Exhibit at 10 of those a year and keep it up for 10 years, you'd make two million impressions. Of those, a very small percentage will buy one of your books. Let's say just a quarter of 1% buy one of your books. A quarter of 1% of two million people is 5,000. Which means 5,000 books sold. If just half of those people like your book enough to recommend your books to their friends, that begins to add up. Let's imagine that half of the people who tried one of your books like it enough to buy the rest of your titles. By the time you have ten titles, that's 2,500 people buying 10 books each, which means 25,000 books. You now have well over 30,000 books sitting on the bookshelves and in the Kindles of dedicated readers. Each year, you come out with another book or two. The entire process expands. Eventually, you may sell ten or twenty thousand of each new title you write. That's bestseller territory. And with your backlist expanding and still selling each year, you can kiss that day job goodbye. After a few years, you may well have an audience that is only exceeded by the best selling authors in the country. Is it a lot of work? Of course. But nearly everything valuable in life comes only with great effort.
In sum: Like success in most endeavors, with writing, it often gets down to, "How bad do you want it?"
Remember what Einstein said. Perseverance trumps genius.
P.S. For a look at my books, check out my website.
For a look at some of the events I've done over the years, check out the Events page of my website.
How many are there? I'm pretty sure there are over 300 events listed. And those are just the ones I remembered to put on the website. And those only go back to 2008 or so. I did events for many years before I even listed them.
For more related information, click the "On Writing" label to the right side of my blog: As of this writing, there are 83 articles that discuss all of these subjects in much depth.