Most writers would love to have a bestseller. And the few who aren't interested in selling big-time still would like to sell a decent number of books simply because that means that a lot of readers would connect to their work.
As I write this, I just finished exhibiting my books at the Candy Dance Festival in Genoa, Nevada. The crowd was, as always, huge. Among them were many authors - some I know and some I had never met - who came by to chat and trade war stories about the world of writing. A few writers alluded to their struggles to find an audience. Several of those writers asked questions, looking for input from a fellow writer. Some writers just wanted to say hi.
One writer who stopped by was James Rollins, the mega-selling writer of adventure thrillers. He and I are doing an event together at the upcoming WordWave Festival in South Lake Tahoe, the weekend of October 21st - 23rd. James and Galadrielle Allman and I will be having a "Mysterious Conversation" at the Valhalla Grand Hall on Sunday morning Oct 23rd at 11 a.m. I will be conducting a "Writer's Studio" - type interview with Rollins and Allman.
Anyway, back to the subject of this post. James Rollins is a classic example of a writer who has put together his career with great skill, writing a bunch of hugely entertaining novels that have spent a lot of time at the #1 position on the biggest bestseller lists.
As I thought about James' career and considered what other writers could learn from him, many things become clear, some obvious, some not so obvious. James Rollins is a perfect role model of how to create a successful writing career.
From my observations, I've put together a simple guideline to follow to give your books the best chance of finding an audience.
First, pick a half dozen bestselling novels in your genre and spread them out on your desk. Paper books are much better for this experience than ebooks. (And if you are writing a thriller or adventure thriller, make sure one of your examples is a book by James, because he is a master.) Your goal as you study these books is to make certain that your books could fit right in with them.
(If you are self-publishing, this is relatively easy because you have complete control. If you are published by another publishing company, you will have to work with them to make some of these things happen. But it can still be done. Be the polite-but-squeaky wheel with your editor and publicist and graphic designer, and they will see that you are simply focused and dedicated and - most important of all - determined to make your books a success.)
As you look at the six best-selling novels on your desk, imagine that your book is also in the group. Now imagine that a group of readers who didn't know the famous authors' names looked over the books, (the six famous ones and yours). Would those readers be able to pick yours out of the stack as the oddball? Would your book be the only one out of the seven with a photograph for your cover? Plain type fonts? Would yours be the only one with a cover designed by an amateur designer? Would it be the only one missing front pages with some quotes or blurbs, a title page, standard copyright page with standard copyright verbiage, a book title and author name at the top of every pair of pages? Would your book be half as long or twice as long as the others? Would it be the only one in the group with unusual length chapters, long passages of exposition, typos or, even worse, have more serious editing mistakes? In short, would your book look amateurish among the professional offerings?
Note, that some people think that it is good to be different in order to stand out. This is true in some fields and in some ways. But nearly always, if you are different in these things I'm mentioning, you will find it very difficult to find acceptance.
It's good to be different and surprising with the story you tell. But for most of us, most of the time, and in most markets, it's good to present your story package in a way that fits right in with the bestselling packages. Let your story stand out because of the story, not the other stuff.
Yet I keep seeing some writers who put out books that look like awkward, ungainly, unprofessional products. This is so avoidable. Yes, it takes planning and some money to get your book done professionally. But it isn't difficult. You put thousands and thousands of hours into writing your book. Why wouldn't you put at least a few dozen into making it look professional?
In short, when comparing any of your books to the six best-selling novels you've picked out, ask yourself these questions:
*Does your opening paragraph grab in a similar fashion? Your first sentence?
*Does your novel use standard story-telling structure? (Standard POVs, linear or mostly-linear narrative, 1st person or 3rd person telling, and, usually, past tense narrative?)
*Is your novel so compelling that people (like the writers in your writer's critique group) tell you they had to stay up all night to finish it? If not, go back to the writer's group and get more input and rewrite appropriately until your book is that good. Does this seem like a tall order? Sure. But your competition is doing it. Why is anyone who reads James Rollins going to try your book unless the story is spectacular?
*Is your book printed in a similar trim size?
*Is your book formatted in a similar way, with similar page layout, front pages, title page, chapter headings, back pages?
*Please tell me that your novel doesn't have a Table Of Contents! (Some Kindle books, under misguided pressure from non-fiction editors at Amazon do - yikes!) Look at the six printed bestselling novels on your desk. I'll wager that none of them have a Table Of Contents.
*Is it printed in a similar font and in a similar size?
*Are your page gutters similarly generous?
*Is your back copy a similar length, and is it as "grabby?"
*Is your cover just as dramatic and compelling and professional?
*Do you avoid gimmicks such as front or back pages with contest entry forms and silly sales tricks?
*Is your book part of a series? Will that series be a trilogy at the minimum or open-ended? (While an ongoing series has always been valuable - just look at the number of authors who wrote dozens and dozens of novels featuring the same characters! - this is becoming more important. Readers are learning - being trained! - to look for series, and they judge books in a series as being likely to be better than standalone books, especially by authors who are new to them.)
*And do the books in your series, current books and future books, all have the same format? Same look? Same size? Same main characters?
These are some of the basic ways that authors can hugely increase their chances of discovery and acceptance in the market.
Study the most successful authors, writers like James Rollins. Learn from his example.
In sum, if you want your books to be accepted as professional, they must have the professional qualities of bestsellers in your genre. Only then will you sell enough books that anyone will notice that you have written a stellar story. And only after readers have been swayed by your professional presentation will your story take root in the marketplace and your career will begin to take off.