Thursday, November 17, 2005

Eggs in Baskets and Hatched Chickens

(This post isn't directed at anyone in particular, and you know who you are.)

I've met a lot of authors. Some pre-published. Some seasoned pros. Some somewhere in between.

Most writers have some sort of publicity plan. They're going to set up local signings, or take out some ads, or start a blog, or have a contest, or get some big blurbs, or attend a lot of conferences, or send out postcards, or visit a lot of libraries, or print up 10,000 bookmarks, or pay to promote their website, or teach classes, or try to manipulate their Amazon numbers, or give away lots of free copies or their book, or have a large internet presence, or make vidlits, or all of the above (which is what I did, in one way or another.)

And most writers soon find out that their best laid plans, when executed, don't meet their expectations.

It's hard to sell books. Which is why 4 out of 5 published don't earn out their advance.

A lot of writers I know, when they find out their plans didn't pan out, become discouraged, bitter, depressed, and resentful.

This brings up an important point---one that many authors, both new and seasoned, fail to grasp: If you build it, they won't always come.

Having marketing ideas or strategies is good--enthusiasm and a willingness to experiment with publicity and marketing will help you in the long run. But too many authors think that an ad, or a contest, or a vidlit, or a blog, will automatically sell books. It won't.

There's no single path to success. Some authors do the bare minimum, and sell like crazy. Some try like crazy and still have poor sell-through.

I'm confidant in saying I self-promote a lot. I'm a minorly successful author. I believe I have very good name recognition in comparison to my sales (meaning I'm known by more people than simply those who buy me.) I believe this name recognition is based on all that I have done to promote myself, and that many sales have resulted from my efforts--sales that wouldn't have happened otherwise. My site and blog get a lot of hits. I get a lot of fan mail. My readership is growing. These are all good signs.

But still, as much as I'd like to take credit for the way my career is going, the fact is that luck plays a huge part.

Much bigger authors than me have done much less on the self-promotion front, but sell in much greater numbers. I can say, "Do this, do that, keep trying" but the fact is, none of my efforts have led me to the bestseller lists. James Patterson can say, "Do nothing but write a good book" and his path did lead him to the bestseller list.

For all of our efforts, there's still an X Factor that determines success. Some unknown, unteachable, unreachable thing determines who makes 7 million a book, and who loses their publishing deal due to poor sell-through.

You can increase your odds that Factor X happens by working hard, trying new things, and never giving up, but there are no guarantees.

So why even bother? If it's all up to fate, why spend 80% of your time trying to sell your books?

For me, it comes down to peace of mind. If one of my efforts falls flat, at least I can tell myself that I tried. If my career falls flat, it won't be because I didn't make an effort.

So I recommend that you try. You try everything. You try often. You keep at it, even when nothing seems to work.

But, luckily, sometimes things do work. I believe the failures outnumber the successes in marketing, but when the successes do happen, they make it all worthwhile.

Plus there's the unknown, cumulative effect of your efforts. You might have only gotten three people at your signing, but several hundred saw the sign promoting it. Factor X can come into play in small ways--you meet a TV producer at a convention, someone discovers your blog and wants to do a newspaper story on you, your website contest leads to a foreign rights sale. Your efforts yield more than book sales. They lead to word-of-mouth, brand awareness, and name recognition.

So next time you have a brilliant marketing idea, don't put all your eggs in one basket and count those chickens before they've hatched. The best stock portfolios diversify. Sometimes the sure-thing falls flat, and it's the penny stock that makes you rich.

If you know that a lot of your efforts will fail, you'll be a lot happier at the end of the day.


Anonymous said...

"You mention Patterson, but in the beginning, he was very self-promotional. He was everywhere--in ads, on postcards, being interviewed by everyone he could pay or bully or charm into interviewing him."


Patterson was on the Today Show yesterday, promoting his latest.

So even he still self promotes.

Your points are very well taken, however. Self-promotion is key to the success of any book, but even though it's key to success, it doesn't guarantee success.


JA Konrath said...

I blindly picked Patterson as a generic bestseller example, because I doubt he mails out postcards, speaks for free at libraries, and spends 40 hours a week promoting.

I know he tours--he even has TV commercials.

Anonymous said...

I agree with absolutely everything you've said here, and despite some posts on my own blog that might seem contradictory (my ability to contradict myself is part of my charm, I guess), they're really not. We don't know which half of the efforts works, so we do all of them. I do have one disagreement with you, though. It's this statement:

"I'm a minorly successful author."

No, Joe. You're wrong. You're making a living writing novels. That puts you in a vast, vast minority. You can't compare yourself to John Grisham, Stephen King, Sue Grafton or even Barry Eisler or other non-bestsellers who make a living at it and are on their way up. You've already done something--twice, if my understanding of your contracts is correct--that the majority of published authors will never do.

At Magna cum Murder I sat next to a lovely woman who had published 14 novels, almost all by good, well-established publishers. I remarked, "Congratulations! That's a career." She said, "Oh, I've never made my living at it."

To which I replied, "I wasn't talking money. Fourteen published novels is a career. It's a great accomplishment."

Money is a way of keeping score, but it's not the only way. Still, you're way ahead of most, both in number of books and the money you're currently making. That makes you a success, at least from this narrow view. There are other thing that make people a "success," most of which only you can determine. But still, as a writer, I wouldn't view you as a "minor success."

Mark Terry

anne frasier said...

This brings up an important point---one that many authors, both new and seasoned, fail to grasp: If you build it, they won't always come.

i was saying this exact thing to someone just a few days ago, but we were talking about musicians. i've noticed that writers and musicians often follow similar paths.

a local band had a show. put a lot of work and money into promotion. made cds. stuck those inside little stuffed animals. during the show, the stuffed animals were tossed to the crowd. they fell on the floor and nobody picked them up.
it depends on the individual, but for me it's better to not toss the stuffed animal to begin with. ;)

JA Konrath said...

"it depends on the individual, but for me it's better to not toss the stuffed animal to begin with."

If you've ever watch the VHS show "Driven", it's about the lives of superstars before they became famous, and what they did to make it.

American Idol aside, no one is simply 'discovered'. It takes years of paying dues, working your butt off, trying to get noticed.

But as painful as trying and failing is, I prefer it to not trying. I fear failure to such a degree that doing nothing would drive me insane. Which is probably why I never became a Buddhist.

Jim said...

I always wanted to write fiction, but mostly didn't. When I was younger, I thought writing would be a good way to (1) make a living; (2) impress women; and (3)live forever.

Well, I made a living -- partly by writing, but not by writing fiction. I'd like more money but who wouldn't? (Even Bill Gates would like more.) I somehow managed to impress a few women without having a single novel to my credit. I impressed one enough to marry me and stick around 20-plus years. (She'd have liked more money, though.) As for living forever -- well, that was just a romantic notion. No one cheats death by writing. Shakespeare is just as dead as the least famous and least accomplished of his contemporaries.

Fame was not on my list. What a bother. So what am I left with for motivation? I don't know, but I still want to write fiction. And now I am writing. Why? I don't know.

None of the motives mentioned above have anything to do with writing. Neither does book promotion, career promotion. I mention this last not as criticism, Joe, but just to establish how this comment relates to your post.

I've held meetings and I've been to meetings that hardly anyone came to who should have. (Yeah, I've also been a no-show myself a few times.) That sort of thing is aggravating and disheartening in any line of work. Writers have no monopoly on being slighted, or feeling bad about it. There's a lot of that going around.

Julia said...

I thought the Factor X was writing something people want to read.

Am I wrong?

JA Konrath said...

I'm all about Bob this thread.

There are a lot of people who write really great books and fade into obscurity. And those who write mediocre books and become multi millionaires.

That's Factor X.

Julia said...

There are a lot of people who write really great books and fade into obscurity. And those who write mediocre books and become multi millionaires.

I guess it comes down to trying to define "really great" and "Mediocre". Personally, I'm still puzzled as to why Happy Days lasted more than 2 seasons. Or MASH.

And this takes me to the cliche No accounting for taste.

JA Konrath said...

I'm not one to trash my fellow authors, but a look at the bestseller list will show you a lot of mediocre books. I've been on record for saying how awful Hannibal was, and for Patricia Cornwell's decline in recent books. Not many are happy with Tom Clancy's latest, or Clive Cussler's, or Anne Rice's.

Many writers had hits in the past, and are phoning in their recent titles, riding the wave of their early successes.

People keep buying them, and they keep complaining, but they still keep buying.

The discussion about who are our greatest artists has to be reflected by sales, because all other measures are subjective.

That does not mean our greatest artists don't falter, or sometimes suck.

The Historian is a huge Factor X success. So is The Traveler. And thw DaVinci Code. Brown had written three solid thrillers prior to DaVinci, but never had big success. Then, out of nowhere, he's the #1 bestseller of all time.

Right book, with the right publisher, at the right time.

Julia said...

What I'm puzzled about is the Factor X thing. If sales equal greatness, then how can those who write mediocre books become multimillionaires? If sales equal greatness, then selling enough books to make millions cannot, by definition, equal mediocrity.


That is my point. Sales does not necessarily equal greatness. It equals popularity.

The two shows I mentioned (Happy Days and MASH), in my opinion, ran out of steam in the second season. They began to bore me.

My point was that is I can't figure out how these shows were so popular, I probably don't have a rat's ass chance of guessing that X factor.

Elizabeth K. Burton said...

I'm always somewhat frustrated by writers whose concept of becoming a published author seems to me to have been derived from Hollywood: author signs contract and becomes instant success. [sigh]

Re: Hannibal. It's always been my contention that this book is Thomas Harris getting even with the people who said "We don't care what you want to write, we want another book with Lecter." For someone with his talent and craft to write a book that bad it had to be done on purpose.

As for Dan Brown, let us not overlook that what made DAVINCI great wasn't the book but the controversy. If the religious folks had just kept quiet it might have been yet another blip on the radar. But, no, true to form they had to launch protests. I need to figure out how to do that.

In my experience, the best promotion is the one that puts the writer in the same room with the readers, preferably with beverages of choice. This is especially true if said writer is nobody anybody ever heard of.

JA Konrath said...

"In my experience, the best promotion is the one that puts the writer in the same room with the readers, preferably with beverages of choice. This is especially true if said writer is nobody anybody ever heard of."


As for artistic greatness, art is a popularity contest.

There are many bestselling authors who continue to be bestsellers, but will be remembered for their early work, not the later stuff.

Stacey Cochran said...

An ancient Chinese man with a long white beard once asked me, "My young apprentice, will you be the eggs or will you be the basket?"

I did not know at first what he meant, but I have toiled many long years through prayer and meditation to understand his ancient wisdom.

And I now know which I am.

So, I pass the ancient's question onto you now, good people.

Will you be the eggs, or will you be the basket?

To learn more, please visit

Anonymous said...

FYI: (I'm responding to something Joe said high up in this thread.) Lots of bestselling authors speak for free at libraries, because how on earth else could most libraries afford them? Most see the value of good PR that libraries and librarians provide. (which I know is a message you often promote, Joe) Besides that, lots of librarians are reviewers and sit on the major award committees...

JA Konrath said...

My local library tried to get a famous local author to come and speak, and he said he'd be delighted to... for 10 grand.


Anonymous said...

And ancient Dire Straits lyric say: Sometimes you're the windshield, sometimes you're the bug.

Anonymous said...

Another benefit to self-promotion and building word of mouth is that it increases your chances of getting review attention.

Critics are swamped by books and it's a real disadvantage when we haven't heard of the author or the book.

A lot of the books I review are selected as a result of me having met the author at a conference, enjoyed their blog, etc.

Every little bit helps!

emeraldcite said...

I don't believe that meeting me would ever be worth ten grand even if I was famous. I would think they would use that money to pay the audience just to stick around.

I see the bestseller list as a lot of hype. The snowball gets rolling and suddenly it's too big to stop. People don't know what's good for them.

Thinking of Harris, I have recently reread Silence of the Lambs and although it was a good story, for the most part, I choked on the sentence fragments. Literally. I tried to read a page out loud and I gagged.

When I think about the book's readability, I wondered how the hell it made it so big. Then it dawned on me: hype. Grandma Goose told Friendly Fanny who told Crotchety Cecil who told ...

That word of mouth stuff works. And when that mouth is the gaping maw of Oprhaha, well then, you better open a Swiss bank account and hire some Oompah Loopahs with shovels.

My wife works at a bookstore and she tells me story after story of the Oprah followers who come in and buy the books she tells them to buy.

What's so funny is that I think Oprah's trying a little experiement: A Million Little Pieces . This book is about drugs and it's fairly graphic.

The people who come to buy it at my wife's store have no idea what they're getting. She tends to poll them.

"Do you know what it's about?"
"It's a memoir about a drug abuser. It's pretty graphic."
"I didn't know that, but Oprah says it's good."

Now, I'm not complaining about Oprah's book club because I think it's great that she can get an audience of TV watchers off their arses and into the bookstore.

What I do find frightening is that they have no idea what they're getting. No thought. They're damn book zombies.

For me, Facter X is word of mouth at the right time. Such a brutal, brutal world publishing is.

Bonnie S. Calhoun said...

Well Joe, I like your books so that makes you successful to me! I sometimes think success is in the eyes of the beholder. What are you seeking to get out of it? Is it the love of writing or is wanting to make money at it?

Most writers unless you become a King or Cussler (I'm reading Polar Shift and it's kinda slow)is just an ordinary living.

But I've found Brandilyn Collins, who can keep you on the edge of your seat and I wonder if the X Factor has to do with writing style?

What ever it is I hope I get it?

Mark Pettus said...


I'm on the uphill side of the publishing curve and struggling with my own motivation. While you are marketing your books to readers, and enjoying a good bit of success, I'm marketing my book to agents, and having a hard time measuring my success.

Right now, a request for partials is reason enough to celebrate, but sooner or later someone is either going to have to sign me or I'm going to quit buying champagne.

I'm having far more measurable success with readers than with agents. When I finished my book, I decided to try that whole test marketing thing, something I understand publishers never actually do. I gathered together my own target audience of early readers. After they finished reading, each of them had to suffer through a two page questionnaire and half hour interview. Now I'm getting more requests for manuscripts from friends of my early readers than I am from agents. One reader accidently left half the manuscript in a men's room at the Philadelphia airport. A fellow from Dublin recently called and asked me to send him the other half.

Maybe the X-factor for me lies in strategically placing my manuscript in restrooms all over New York. What do you think? Any idea where the top agents go to powder their noses?