Saturday, August 30, 2008

The Myth Of The Good Book

No, we're not debunking the bible here. We're talking about the pervasive idea that if you write a good book, it will sell. The writer doesn't have to have an Internet presence, or make any public appearances, or do any marketing, self-promotion, or publicity. All the writer needs to do it write a good book and it will magically find an audience.

It makes no difference the years of experience or the amount of success a writer has had, many still believe this.

It's baloney, of course.

As I've said many times on many forums, "good" is subjective. There's no universally accepted standard for "good" because everyone has an opinion. Editors and agents, who believe they know what "good" is, still represent and publish books that fail more often than not. We've all read crappy books that are big hits, and we've all read wonderful books that are now out of print.

"Good" is a really poor indicator of sales potential.

But the myth still persists: Write a good book, and it will sell.

Instead of poking holes in this concept (I'm privy to the "You can write the best book in the world but people won;t buy it if they don't know it exists" rebuttal), maybe we should look at why so many writers feel this way.

1. Naivete. If a writer is only responsible for writing a good book, they don't need to know anything about this mysterious business known as publishing. This offers the artist a nice, insulated cushion from real life, where they feels they only needs to worry about writing the best book they can and everything else will be taken care of for them.

2. Stubbornness. It's a publisher's job to sell books. Period. The writer writes, and nothing else. If the writer does their job, the publisher will promote the heck out of it, and the book will find a wide audience.

3. Fear. It's a scary business, and self-promotion is expensive, time-consuming, and difficult. It's much easier for an author to focus on writing than learn the skills needed to become a salesman. Writers get rejected often enough by agents and editors. They shouldn't have to risk getting rejected by readers as well.

4. Envy. We all know a few indefatigable writers who are constantly promoting their brands. We don't like to think that perhaps we should be promoting our books with equal vigor, instead clinging to the belief that the book should sell itself based on its own merits. It's much easier to attack someone else than blame ourselves.

5. Bad results. Perhaps the writer has tried to self-promote, had a bad experience, and now refuses to do anything else. This is a shame, because we all swallowed some water learning how to swim. Practice makes perfect.

Now let me make it clear that writers do need to write the best book they possibly can. That should go without saying. But in a world with so many forms of entertainment competing for our time and money, in a world where 200,000 new books are published every year but only 1 out of 5 makes a profit, in a world where selling a first book is difficult, but selling a second book is impossible if the first one didn't do well...

Obviously, it is in the writer's best interest to make an effort in selling their books.

Here are some things to remember about self-promotion.

1. People are looking for information and entertainment. They aren't looking for ads or commercials.

2. Sales isn't about selling a book to someone who doesn't want it. It's about finding people who are looking for your type of book and offering it to them.

3. Books sell one at a time, and every effort you make has intangible benefits.

4. Think about the last ten books you bought and why you bought them. These are the strategies you should use when selling your books.

5. Set attainable goals. Becoming a bestseller isn't a good goal, because it is largely out of your hands. Going to three writing conferences and introducing yourself to 100 new people is within your power.

6. This is a marathon, not a sprint. Self-promotion is about planting seeds, and these often take a long time to grow. The longer and harder you work at this, the better you'll do.

7. Believe in your book. You have to believe that you did, indeed, write a good book, and that others will enjoy it. If the words ont he page don't speak to you, they won't speak to others, and nothing you do to self-promote is going to change that...

32 comments:

Anonymous said...

When I saw the title of your essay on CrimeSpot, I thought it was a tongue-in-cheek title. But no, you're serious.

You start with false premises so your arguments don't work. Few suggest that writing a good book ensures success. Rather, most reasonable people believe that writing a great book makes success much more likely, and few great books are ignored forever. Joe, that's the accepted truth, and it's not baloney.

Your distorted version of that axiom just doesn't hold up. I've never heard anyone of stature in the industry make comment that a good (not great) book will sell itself, so why bother your readers with this false notion.

Whether intentionally or not, Joe, you distort common truths throughout your discussion so your advice falls flat. Another example: few would argue that an author should sit on his thumbs while the publisher sells his books, but ultimately it remains true that the publishers efforts account for > 95% (and usually > 99%) of sales. If an author is influencing his sales in a significant way, it's probably because that author's sales are mediocre and it doesn't take much to influence the total.

Joe, you do writers a disservice with the arguments in this essay. Quality is not subjective. DIfficult to quantify, difficult to measure--absolutely. But not simply subjective. If that were true, each of us could reasonably argue that we're as good a Shakespeare, or Dickens, or Twain.

And that, my friend, would be a silly argument!

JA Konrath said...

Thanks for disagreeing with me. Your points are intelligent and well presented.

My initial premise is: Some writers believe that if they write a good book, it will sell, and they're wrong.

Your initial premise is:

Rather, most reasonable people believe that writing a great book makes success much more likely, and few great books are ignored forever.

Even if we sidestep the issue that "great" is in the eye of the beholder, your premise fails on two counts. First, because there are many successful books that I wouldn't consider great, and second, because there are many great books that aren't successful.

I've never heard anyone of stature in the industry make comment that a good (not great) book will sell itself, so why bother your readers with this false notion.

I know writers who believe this, which is why I wrote this blog entry.

Ask any agent what the most important criteria is, and she'll say "write a good book."

So, yes, I think this is a valid thing to discuss.

If an author is influencing his sales in a significant way, it's probably because that author's sales are mediocre and it doesn't take much to influence the total.

That's a profound statement. The key word is "significant."

Authors can influence their sales. But "significant" like "great" is subjective.

I posit it's smarter to influence sales than do nothing.

I also posit that an author can influence sales intangibly, without a direct link of cause and effect, which may make her efforts more "significant."

Quality is not subjective. DIfficult to quantify, difficult to measure--absolutely. But not simply subjective. If that were true, each of us could reasonably argue that we're as good a Shakespeare, or Dickens, or Twain.

The only way to objectively judge success is through number of books sold. Quantifiable numbers indeed can graph popularity.

I'll concede that most art considered "great" meets some minimally accepted requirements by the general public, and that these requirements can be quantified to a degree.

But it eventually comes down to personal opinion.

Is Twain greater than Dickens? Is JK Rowling greater than Saul Bellow?

Sales aside, personal taste dictates "great" and "good" and even "bad."

I believe most writers set out to write the best book they can. But who judges if it is indeed good?

No one. An argument can even be made that books that sell well aren't good--there are enough bad reviews on Amazon bestsellers to make a case for this.

So, if ultimately the concept of "good" is subjective, as I believe, then what else must a writer do in order to succeed?

Books sell one at a time, and an author's efforts may impact sales more than sales can be tangibly attributed.

So the ultimate point of this blog entry is writing a "good" book is only the beginning of a writer's job.

Robert said...

Good stuff, Joe. Thanks for sharing.

Picks By Pat said...

Good post. I tend to agree that most writers need to push their books after they get published. When my publisher finally told me they were going to publish my first novel and set a publication date, I had no website, no promotion budget and no idea what I was doing. But, I was familiar with Joe's blog, so I stole (um, borrowed) some ideas. I signed up for some writer's conferences, put together a web site, put the first chapter of my novel on it and announced a book contest to give away some free copies.

I participated in as many mystery discussions online as I could, and started getting some attention on my website. I sent a message about my book to the guy who runs my High School blog, and got a very nice mention.

The Book Contest got me more hits, helping me to start building a fan base and I met some interesting people that way, including some librarians who have invited me to visit them.

Has this helped? I can't prove it, but I think it does. I've gotten fan mail from as far away as India, and I've had visitors to my website from almost every US state, and overseas from Canada, England, Denmark, Germany, Australia, & Korea.

My editor says the book is getting good feedback and wants me to write two more mystery novels for them.

Am I getting rich? Not yet.

Am I building my career? I think, Yes.

Dave Zeltserman said...

Joe, I agree that there are certain things authors should do--such as have a web-site, write short stories to find new readers, be available for interviews, book signings, contact local press, etc. but I tend to go along with Molly Friedrich's views expressed in the following interview that writers are better served spending their time writing. Which are you better off doing, make a marginal impact on current sales, or using the time to write a better (or great) next book? I'd say in a long run writing the better (or hopefully great) next book.

I have the unique perspective where there's not a hell of a lot I can do when my books are initially released since I have a UK publisher, so until US release, I have to just sit back (well, really spend the time writing) and let my publisher handle all of it.

http://pw.org/content/agents_amp_editors_qampa_agent_molly_friedrich

-Dave Zeltserman

JA Konrath said...

Which are you better off doing, make a marginal impact on current sales, or using the time to write a better (or great) next book?

Well, ideally you can do both.

There's a writing forum I visit where people have had 1000s of replies.

That time--which is esentially free time--could have been used to strengthen their Internet presence.

I believe luck plays a part in success. Self-promotion helps maximize opportunities for luck to occur.

Some of the networking I've done has resulted in free publicity. That free publicity resulted in some sales.

The same goes for appearances and Internet presence. These all help.

Can they help enbough to make a major impact in sales?

On the surface, no. But when major sales occur, for whatever reason they occur, I believe the framework created by the writer to encourage success can play a part in it.

At the very least, it accounts for some sales, and books sell one at a time.

Anonymous said...

Writing a good book, or even a great book (accepting that such things are to a large degree subjective) is not sufficient for success. However, it certainly helps.

To posit the contrary -- write a mediocre book then promote the hell out of it -- is generally folly for authors. Publishers can sometimes make this work if they throw enough money at the problem, but for authors it's going to be so difficult to even get published with mediocre work.

There are many things authors can do to help themselves once their book is published. And sensible self-promotion is certainly a part of that. But in the end, quality is always in the author's (and the publisher's) interest.

Speaking purely hypothetically, an author could spend 1 month writing a book and 11 months promoting it. Or s/he could spend 6 months writing a book and 6 months promoting it. I think that in the long run the latter scenario confers a greater chance of success. Good work, lasting work, requires time and attention and care and the more an author promotes, the less time s/he has to devote to the work. Reaching an optimal balance can be difficult, but shorting the work will never pay dividends in the long run.

When you look at the people in this genre who have had the long, successful, sustained careers -- people like David Morrell, Lawrence Block, Sue Grafton, Elmore Leonard, John leCarre and John Sandford -- very few of them did it by writing books that were just okay and promoting the shit out of them.

JA Konrath said...

I can't point to any authors who became successful because they promoted the shit out of their books. I know a few where I could say self-promotion played a large part in their career, but I don't personally know anyone who catapulted themself onto the bestseller lists because of their own efforts.

And when I'm on the bestseller lists, which is one of my goals, it won't be because of my efforts either. It will be because of a big publisher push.

I don't recall ever saying "write a mediocre book."

But are mediocre books successful?

James Patterson seems to turn out a book a month, and he seems to still be a big bestseller. Does he need to devote six months to each?

As for "lasting work", for a work to last it has to be read, for it to be read it has to be discovered, and an author can use self-promotion to help readers discover her book.

I've read plenty of "great" books that are out of print. If you're a mystery reader, look up the Edgar Awards. See how many books that have won an Edgar--books that the industry values as "great"--are still in print. Go back 20 years, count best novels and best first novels. Ditto the Anthony, Macavity, Shamus, and Agatha awards.

Great books, that had tremendous critical acclaim.

Yet, where are they now?

You mentioned Morrell, Leonard, Block, and LeCarre as examples of greatness. All are well known. All are bestsellers. All have won awards.

Yet they all have out of print titles.

Sorry, being "great" isn't enough.

Saying, "spend more time on your books" is fine advice if the books need it, but again I know the writing process of many authors, and very few take six months to write a book. Most do it in two or three. Block has published novels that took him a week to write. I hardly think it's a question of "write a great book OR self-promote."

It's possible to do both.

Anonymous said...

I didn't say that writing a great book is enough. You're mischaracterizing my remarks. To the contrary, I started out by explicitly stating that it is not sufficient for success.

I know a lot of writers, but I don't know a one who actually writes, from start to finish, a quality novel in 2 months. Not when you consider conception, outlining, revisions, etc.

That's beside the point, though. What I think you're tending to minimize is that an author's most important work is done before the novel is finished. An author needs to spend more energy writing the book than s/he needs to spend promoting it. You can push and push and push, but if the product is mediocre it won't succeed in the longterm.

I think some of your remarks could be construed as giving short-shrift to that aspect of the process.

By sending aspiring writers a message that they can promote themselves to success, and that they need not devote themselves to excellence, I don't believe you're giving them sound advice.

Self-promotion is important. For many people, it's essential. But if it's your #1 priority, and quality writing is #2 or less, I don't think you're going to have the type of successful, lasting career you hope for.

JA Konrath said...

We can't continue this debate if I agree with you, and your last post gives me nothing to disagree with. :)

Our stances are pretty similar, but let's make the ussie more black and white than it really is.

I would say that a mediocre book with a tremendous marketing push would be more successful than a great product with a small marketing push.

Let's define "success" as "copies sold."

Am I right or wrong?

At first glance, this argument is immediately flawed, because I don't know any authors who will admit to writing mediocrity. We all think we're pretty good, and if we've signed with an agent and a publishing house, we have validation in this belief.

But looking at Amazon, which I'll say is a fair representation of the reading public, we find bestselling books that are absolutely slammed by reviewers, and then we find five star books that only have a few dozen reviews.

Assuming the five star reviews aren't shills, why do some books sell a lot of copies but get almost universally bad reviews, yet others get a handful of terrific reviews but fail to sell in large numbers?

If quality was truly an indicator of success, wouldn't midlist books with 4-plus star averages somehow find a wider audience? And wouldn't certain authors who regularly appear on the bestseller list lose fans if their last few books have done poorly critically?

You might think so, but it doesn't work that way.

This is because some books that the reviewers and fans consider mediocre have large marketing campaigns behind them, involving coop and discounting and advertising. If a book is available everywhere, more people will buy it.

On the other hand, I don't know of a single book (great or mediocre) that became a bestseller without a publisher push...

Anonymous said...

"Every effort you make has intangible benefits" Right. Problem is that they are so intangible they rarely show up.

"Set attainable goals." My goal of actually making money on something I have written seems unattainable. Perhaps I should have a goal of making the largest bonfire in the neighborhood?

"Going to three writing conferences and..." Been there, done that 20 to 25 years ago. -nothing.

"This is a marathon, not a sprint." That is true. I have been running this same marathon for over forty years. I've written MANY books. Number sold? - Zero.
Some were published, yes, but I've never gotten a penny. One was outright stolen. Another book, I was told they didn't sell enough copies to pay me anything. (No advance, they just started printing, and after the first printing, another author's name appeared instead of mine. Someplace around I still have the first printing they sent me with my name on it -but it is too many years ago now, so I still would never get a penny.

"Believe in your book." Yep, I have believed in all of them, except maybe the one I wrote back in high school (45-50 years ago), which was more along the line of "learning to write".

Dave Zeltserman said...

>> On the other hand, I don't know of a single book (great or mediocre) that became a bestseller without a publisher push...

Maybe you should add to that -- or first being discovered by Hollywood.

From discussions I had with my first agent, who used to be big in publishing, there are plenty of books/authors that were thought of as midlist and took off without any help from the publisher. In some cases this was because of one or more people in the author's local media giving the author a big push, in some cases the book just hits right. Edgar Sawtelle is one of those books--it's success completely took its publisher by surprise. No Joe, some (maybe many) bestsellers are helped by their publishers, some are brands that need no help, some because a movie was made, and some just happen because the book hits just right.

Btw. How much push did JK Rowling's publisher give initially? Wasn't the Harry Potters a surprise hit that took the publisher by surprise?

JA Konrath said...

some just happen because the book hits just right.

There are always exceptions to everything. Trying to emulate an exception doesn't make sense.

For a book to make a bestseller list it needs to have a certain number of books in print, and has to be available in quantity at a certain number of stores.

That has to do with the publisher, and preorders, and discounting, and coop, and publicity.

Are there books that quietly sell out, then the publisher beings to push them? Sure. There are also books that quietly sell out then go out of print.

But again, this blog is about the myth of a good book. Do you really believe that good books ultimately sell big without a publisher push? If so, you need to point to many examples, because I look at the NYT bestseller list and see all of those books getting big coop dollars from their publishers...

stevemosby said...

Joe -

"Do you really believe that good books ultimately sell big without a publisher push? If so, you need to point to many examples, because I look at the NYT bestseller list and see all of those books getting big coop dollars from their publishers..."

But this is precisely the point, surely? To be a bestseller almost always requires a push from the publisher, whereas your blog was about promotion by the author. As a writer, you can do so much. And I agree that you should do as much as you can (to my mind, whatever you feel comfortable with). But the bestseller lists are evidence that publisher input is crucial.

I'd argue the best thing you can do is write the best book you can and hope the publishers are enthused about it enough to get behind it. Beyond that, sure, you can put the miles in yourself, but I'd imagine you can only sell so many - not enough to reach bestseller status, and probably more often like treading water in terms of the bottom line, but I guess it's something.

Maybe that in itself can be enough to get the publishers to take more of an interest - I'd offer up Alex Garland's The Beach as a sleeper hit, which gathered sales by word of mouth, and then exploded - but maybe luck also has a huge part to play? I know that's not helpful advice to give people, but I'd suggest it's probably the most realistic.

Robert said...

What Joe is basically saying here – or at least what’s I construe from this post – is that unless a publisher is going to pay you six-figures or more, you’re basically screwed when it comes to the publisher promoting the book when it’s released (and let’s remember that most advance are less than ten thousand dollars). So what falls on the author then to do, no matter how great the book, is to promote the book him- or herself.

We can go around and around about exceptions and anomalies, but that’s just what they are – exceptions and anomalies. Take THE KITE RUNNER for example. When it was first released, it didn’t do well at all. Then it was released in trade paperback, began selling by word-of-mouth, and now it’s STILL on the NYT bestseller list. And when Khaled’s second novel was published, you bet his publisher upped the print run and really pushed the book so that it debuted at number one (or at least in the top three).

What it comes down to – at least in my opinion – is chance and luck and being in the right place at the right time.

The perfect example of what Joe’s talking about is Scott Sigler. That man self-promoted himself to no end, gathering thousands of fans, and it was enough for him to land a book deal with an imprint of Random House that paid him a lot of money and released the book with a high print run. From what I understand, the book sold enough copies to make the extended list of the NYT but for some reason didn’t appear on it, but that’s a whole different discussion.

Back to the start – even if you have written the greatest novel ever, if a publisher doesn’t think it will sell for whatever reason, they aren’t going to publish it. When my first agent was shopping one of my novels around, a senior editor at a major publisher LOVED the book … but she didn’t think it was right for them and had to pass. Other publishers, unfortunately, didn’t agree with her and passed as well. Another book was received well too – some editors praising it very highly – but ultimately it didn’t sell. (Again, as Joe has said, an editor is just one of many hurdles a book needs to go through.) On another novel, a very well known author gave it a great blurb, praising it as “a novel that will become a classic,” but the book couldn’t even secure an agent.

So like Joe said, good is subjective, just as the business is. He’s not saying good books don’t sell. He’s just saying that no matter how great your book is, it might not matter in the long run – even if it gets published, the publisher might not push it and sales might be awful and this great book will go out of print without hesitation. And even if you self-promote the shit out of it, the same might happen. That’s just the way of the game.

Gayle Carline said...

I'm a complete publishing newbit, but I think perhaps moving a book from published to 'best selling' might be a combination of events, luck included.

Let's leave the judgement of a book's value alone for a moment - whether a book is good or great is subjective (and typically takes a few years to even categorize).

A typical publisher has many books to promote, and they want every one of their books to be a best seller. But they can't spend limitless time and money on each book, trying to make it one. By taking ownership of our work, however, doing extra marketing on our own, we show the publisher that we're on board to make our book as successful as it can be.

And who knows? A publisher watching us work bookstores, actively posting sales, might just throw a little more of their promotion $ in our direction.

Heather said...

Having a good book doesn't mean your book will sell, and having a bad book doesn't mean it won't. I mean, Christine Feehan is a NYT bestseller, but her writing is... *shudders*

Having a good book is good... that means you've got a leg up in the slush pile, maybe... but that's all it means.

Anonymous said...

Anon wrote:
"I know a lot of writers, but I don't know a one who actually writes, from start to finish, a quality novel in 2 months. Not when you consider conception, outlining, revisions, etc."

I do. I won't mention any names, but there was a fellow Sci-Fi writer, who belonged to the same writer's club as myself during the 70's and 80's

He wrote "Less than quality books" in about a month. In fact he was so bad, the other writers groaned when we had to listen to his latest chapter(s) [We critiqued each other's works-in-progress.]

The kicker is that he was getting that "crap" published, while others in the group had excellent stories and were not published at all. He was turning out quantity rather than quality. --AND getting paid for it.

The key? He had an agent who did rewrites for him, corrected his atrocious spelling, punctuation and grammar, and basically rewrote the whole story for him.

Admittedly, you can't get agents to give that kind of service today...

However, the point is that the quality of writing is not always key to getting sold.

Bernita said...

Patterson?
He writes his own books?
Not sure he's the best example.

Anonymous said...

Agents are like two-years-olds:

How do you write a good query letter? Here's my view.

You must think of agents as two-year-olds with a wider vocabulary.

In other words, remember that they don't understand much unless you describe it carefully AND briefly.

--and second, they have a very short attention span. Some people say about 8 seconds, but I would not be that gracious. I would say they only give your email a three second glance.

If they don't see something to grab their interest in three seconds, they may very well click delete, and go to the next query.

Chris said...

On Joe's message board, I asked a simple question: "How did you first start reading Joe?"

This wasn't intended as the fanboy question that it first seems. Oddly enough, there was a method to my madness (as there sometimes is). I wanted to see how many people found out about him through his writing, and how many through his relentless (and admirable) self-whoring.

The results weren't too surprising -- at least not to me. Out of the 10 "real" responses (the other 3 were from Joe himself), 6 had found Joe through normal "reading" methods (short stories, found book in a store, reading chat boards, etc), while the other 4 (myself included) found him through interviews, this blog, meeting him on his tour, etc.

Obviously, this isn't a scientific survey, but a large percentage of people that I've chatted with (that didn't respond to the specific post) found him through other means than just the book store.

The simple fact is: if you want to get published, write a good book. It doesn't have to be a great book, but a good one that the publisher thinks people will read will be enough. If you write a great book, even better.

However, if you want to be READ, you need to make sure you're well-known. Why would you go through all of the trouble of writing -- the hardships of this dream of ours -- just to count on someone else to make it a reality? Writers seem to be the only group of people who think that it's OK to leave their dream entirely in someone else's hands to make come true. It would be like a restaurant owner leaving his restaurant entirely in the hands of his employees the day after it opens -- it's ludicrous.

Is this the life any of us envisioned -- having to keep working after working so hard to begin with? No. I'd venture to guess that even Joe wishes this wasn't the case. But wishing something was a certain way and having it be a certain way are two entirely different things.

I worked with a small horror mag for a while. I was talking to one of the editors, and he was trying to gather prize donations for a contest from various writers. Anyway, most writers (including Jack Ketchum and others) were happy to give something.

But one author, who for the life of me I can't remember (which is fairly indicative of this tale), told my friend "I'm not going to waste my money so you can sell your magazine!"

Think about that. Someone decided to pass on what is essentially free advertising -- better yet, free advertising where you KNOW the readers are in your demographic -- just to save a few measly bucks.

Maybe that jackhole is the extreme side of the argument (actively dropping potential sales to save $3-$5), but, as you can see, EVERYTHING you do affects your sales, even if only a little.

I think Joe said he's hand-sold about 7000 books (or is responsible for the sales of that many books because of his efforts). Even if those people don't ever buy another book (most of them will -- it's the nature of readers), that's 7000 sales he wouldn't have had if he never did his work.

If you can ignore those types of results, well kudos to you... seriously, we should all be so successful. Most of us don't have that option, though. Even someone like Joe, with 5 books sitting in bookstores right now (and more coming soon).

Jim said...

The promotion of a book, good or otherwise, takes several important shapes:

1. Book reviews, especially by the biggies (PW, Kirkus, Library Journal, Booklist).
2. Physical presence of the book in libraries;
3. Physical presence of the book in bookstores (and here, there is a pecking order: front stage coop space; face-out space in the new books section; and spine out space in the stacks)
4. Advertisements; and
5. Author promotion (book signings, website, blog, etc.).

If the publisher does a good job on #1-4, then #5 will barely be needed. The less that #1-4 exists, the more #5 becomes important. Of course, #5 never hurts.

Chris said...

Totally agree, Jim, but nowadays, without #5 (or a book that the agents/editors think is the "next big thing"), you're likely never to have #1-4 -- at least not to any extent that matters.

Much of the promotion of an author's first book NEEDS to come from the author him(her)self.

In 5 years, when Joe is driving around in a solid-gold Lexus and using the heads of the Olsen twins as earrings, will he need to do #5? Likely not. But that doesn't mean that it wasn't a requirement early on.

Oopsy Daisy said...

Chris I thought Joe was ALREADY driving around in a solid-gold Lexus and using the heads of the Olsen twins as earrings. ;-)

Seriously, I just stepped out of stalking mode for a moment to comment on Joe’s rhetorical question: "But are mediocre books successful?" My answer is ---yes. It's a sad thing but yes. There is a certain genre that is so hot right now that publishers seem to be printing anything and everything they get their hands on that has the word Vampire in it. Yes, I am talking Paranormal Romance people. Gawd what I wouldn't give to read a GOOD paranormal romance these days. A Michelle Bardsley or a Victoria Laurie (Or is she classified as paranormal romance or Paranormal Mystery?). Love em. But while I wait for the next Michele Bardsley to come out (and yes, my own crappy Paranormal Romance which does NOT have a vampire in it thank you very much) I see some of the poorest written drivel out there. It's like the writer thought all they had to do was throw a few chick lit slang words out there (Gawd, OMG, Hunk, Chocolate) and add in a few "I melted as his strong, white, vampire teeth slid into my neck like budda. Like budda I tell ya! Take me I pleaded, turn me now I begged, offering my neck for another nibble" and they have a novel.

With that being said, I don’t want to get lynched at the next RT Con so allow me to make the point that there are many good paranormal romance writers out there and I am not talking about them.

Anonymous said...

If an author is clever enough, she or he can definitely make HUGE differences in their bottom line.

Example? The author of the Red Tent (which sold 2000,000 in trade pb and only 10,000 in hardcover) sent her remainder hardcovers to tons of female rabbis and, as a result, made her book into a bestseller. Here's the link.

http://www.copperfieldreview.com/interviews/diamant.html

stevemosby said...

I agree with Jim, as well. It's not that I think self-promotion makes no difference - clearly it can - just that the effect you can generally achieve is relatively small, and more-or-less unpredictable. And however good you are, you're unlikely to be able to compete, say, with the sales generated by being front of store. (Of course, there are exceptions).

But yes, you should do everything you can: everything you feel comfortable doing. My issue is more with the specific idea that if you're not out there hand-selling, the way Joe does, you're somehow betraying your book, or being naive, or being lazy. That's not the case. Speaking personally, I intensely dislike being sold to. It's bad enough in a computer shop, but browsing in a bookstore, I want to be left alone, not physically spammed. It's subjective, of course, but I tailor my approach to promotion by my response to it, and I would actively avoid buying a book by someone who approached me in that way. Harsh but true. So I would no more do that than purchase a list of email addresses and send out spam - which may also generate sales, but most people wouldn't feel lazy or naive for not doing it.

It's not an insult to Joe: if his approach works for him, that's good. And no, I'm not in a position to turn down 7000 sales. They're not arriving 'out of the blue' however, and the question is whether it's worth what you have to do to achieve that. Not just 'ethically' (or whatever), but financially and socially too. It's family time and personal money being spent, when there are no guarantees. I just think you should do the promotion that works for you, and take the risks that feel right, because it's all just a shot in the dark.

Diana Celesky said...

I enjoyed your post. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

We must write the best books we can. And we must promote them. No argument there. But here’s where I disagree with putting so much emphasis on self-promotion. I believe that the most important factor in the success (sales) of any book is something writers have no control over: the efforts of the publisher in marketing and promoting it. If the publisher does not get behind a book 100%, all the personal promotion in the world will do little to help. Here’s why I think this is true.

I have a number of books published. They have all received good reviews. For years, I’ve done everything suggest in this blog including signings, conferences, websites, online promotion, newsletters, ads, author workshops and panels, etc. The sales have been modest and my sell-through averages 86%. But my publisher is a small press with limited funds for marketing and promotion.

Now, I’ve also had the foreign rights to my books sold to many international publishers. My novels have been translated into over 23 languages. Almost half have been release as hardcover with some being reprinted in paperback. I’ve wound up on numerous international bestseller lists—nine weeks on one making it into the top 20 and another into the top 10. Some of my international advances have exceeded the total revenue from my domestic sales. And yet, this all happened without me ever setting foot in any of the countries where I’m published. I’ve never done book tours, promotions, signings, websites, and workshops—absolutely no self-promotion what-so-ever.

So aside from assuming that my books are well written, suspenseful novels, what’s the only other factor contributing to their success: the commitment of the publisher. Without that, you’re dead.

I believe that writers can self-promote their books until the cows come home and it will not make a significant difference without the full, unrestricted backing of the publisher.

JA Konrath said...

Lots of good points mad ein this thread. Thanks to everyone participating.

Anonymous said...

*sigh*

Thanks for reminding me of how hard dreams die. I used to hang on to the "write a good book and it will sell" notion like it was a vine, and I was dangling over a pit of alligators. It was the only thing that kept me writing book after book after book after book, when none of them went anywhere.

Now that I have an agent and still can't sell a book . . . well, I've come to realize the fallacy of this well-intentioned advice. Scads of professionals have told me (through my agent) that I've written good books, but they can't publish them because X or Y or whatnot.

Sign me,
The idiot working on Novel Number 10, with the fresh awareness that good writing ain't gonna cut it, and the puzzlement over what exactly will, if not that.

JA Konrath said...

Luck and persistence. Keep at it. Remember that the word for a writer who never gives up is "published."

jnantz said...

I think one of the biggest things I see some people missing is the idea that author involvement can't hurt you.

I know that's oversimplifying, and yes, there might be one or two ways, but for the most part it can only help. There may be tons of writers out there who can rely on the publisher and that's fine for them. For me, I plan to take every chance I get with my first published book (whenever that may be) and promote the ever-lovin' hell out of it. Because I have no intention of allowing someone else to entirely determine how my career goes. To do so would be stubborn and foolish, in my opinion.