Sunday, September 02, 2007

Ants and Grasshoppers

Last week I got eighty-five emails from people I've never corresponded with before. Strangers to me. However, I wasn't a stranger to them.

These people found me. They found me, and thought enough of me to write to me. Some wrote to say thanks for my website and blog, which has a lot of info for writers. Some wrote to say they like my books. Some wrote to say they appreciated an article I recently did for Writer's Digest. Some wrote to ask for advice. Some wrote to exchange links, or to tell me they've already linked to me. Some wrote to ask me to be their friends on MySpace, Quechup, or Crimespace.

They found me by searching online, by reading my books or short stories or articles, by following links from other sites, or by having people tell them about me. Google Alerts has also informed me that 27 sites have mentioned me and/or linked to me in the past week, and my website and blog have had over 5000 unique hits since last Sunday.

And what have I done in the past week to garner all of this attention?

Nothing. Nada. Zip. Zilch. Buttkiss. I sat on my ass and reorganized my iTunes library. ID4 tags suck.

Of course, the lesson to be learned here isn't that doing nothing will make people seek you out.

The lesson is that if you work hard establishing a brand and spreading name-recognition, then you don't have to work 24/7, because the machinery is already in place to do it for you.

Consider the old parable of the ant and the grasshopper.

The grasshopper believed that all he had to do was write a good book, and his future was assured.

The ant knew that writing a good book was only the beginning, and he had to make sure people knew about his book by building a brand and spreading name-recognition.

Smart ant.


Naturally, your writing is a big part of your brand. What you write is going to attract a certain audience. You should know this audience. You should like this audience. You should be a part of this audience.

But your brand is more than just your writing. It's your personality. Your expertise. Your persona. It's what makes you special, and what makes others want to seek you out.

Remember that no one can look for you if they don't know you exist. So a large part of your brand is aligning yourself with something that people do seek out, so when they look for it they will find you.

What about you and your work is interesting? Unique? Similar? Important to others?

Think about it. Think long and hard. Anyone can find you by Googling you. You need to make them find you when they're looking for something else.

But before you go searching for people, you have to create something that they want.

If all you have to offer is a book, which costs money, it's doubtful you'll ever have a big web presence. A certain number of people on the Internet may be looking for books, but the majority of them are looking for two things: Information and Entertainment.

If your blog is only relevant to a few close friends, and your website is only a big advertisement for your writing, why should strangers bother visiting either, let alone link to you?

Your main goal, if you want people to discover you, is to entertain and inform them.

Your Internet presence isn't about what you have to sell. It's what you have to offer, usually for free.

What are you offering? What on your website will make a surfer stay for longer than ten minutes? What on your blog will make it relevant in five years?

Just being a published writer isn't enough. Nobody cares that you're published. Nobody cares that you have a book for sale.

What do they care about?

Camaraderie. Offer people a place where they can be in touch with you, and with others. There have been close to 300 posts on A Newbie's Guide to Publishing. But there have been almost 10,000 comments. If the users generate the content, they'll return.

Expertise. By consistently putting relevant information on your sites, the search engines will keep ranking you higher and linking to more of your pages. People will also link to you, and recommend you to others. They'll also seek you out for real life appearances, speeches, and signings.

Entertainment. Guess what? Your three sample chapters and two paragraph author bio aren't enough to keep the average surfer interested for more than a few minutes, if they even find your site. And I don't believe that Flash animation, cool music, or games and videos will either.

Give surfers enough information about you and your work, presented in a fun way, to make them like you as well as your writing. Your website isn't an ad. It's not an appetizer either. It should be a fun place to go even if you weren't pimping your books.

This is also important when speaking in front of people. When you are giving a speech, doing a panel, or attending a signing, you are an entertainer. That means you must be entertaining. That means learn how.

Freshness. Make sure you add, update, and change your sites often, so people come back. Make sure you stay in touch with those who get in touch with you. Reward those that keep coming back.

Real Life Relevance. You're a writer, so chances are you're on the Internet constantly. The average person isn't, and doesn't put as much value or importance on it as you do. Give people something they can use offline. A free short story or book they can print up. Audio or podcasts they can download and take with them. Contests to participate in and newsletters to sign up for that result in stuff sent snail mail. An email from an author is nice. A real life handshake and a smile is even better.


Once you've established your brand, the hard part begins. No one is going to magically discover you just because you've got a cool website or a great novel. Sure, some writers get lucky with a huge marketing campaign. The rest of us have to seek out readers in order to make them aware that we exist.

On the Internet

You already know your demographic, and who your readers are, because you've spent a long time thinking about it. Now you need to go out and draw them to you. Here's how.

Find Websites. Look for websites, bulletin boards, Yahoo groups, blogs, listservs, message boards, and forums where people who like your books would visit.

Offer Links. Exchange links with those sites. Or link to them and write about them, so when people are searching for that site they'll find your site.

Participate. Be a human being, not a salesperson. I never seek out MySpace Friends by saying "I'm an author, read my books." I send them invitations and a message saying that I looked at their page and enjoy the same authors they do. After a few back and forth exchanges, 95% of them figure out I'm an author too, and many of them go on to read my books and are glad I contacted them, rather than annoyed at me spamming them.

Remember what people care about: Camaraderie, Entertainment, Expertise, Freshness, and Real Life Relevance. When dealing with people, low key flattery works better than bragging, listening is more attractive than talking, and being likable will sell more books than actively trying to sell books.

Revisit, Revamp, Repeat. Too many writers quit their blog after a year. They don't update their sites. They don't check in with their old web haunts. They don't seek out new haunts. They reach a point and simply stop.

You shouldn't ever stop making your Internet presence larger. And I don't mean commenting on the same six blogs you do every day. I mean searching for new sites and new people, going back to sites you haven't been to in a while, and making sure your sites are worthy of the hits they're getting.

In Real Life

If the Internet is where you're doing all or most of your promotion, you're going to fail. The majority of your readers aren't on the net, and they've never visited your website.

At first, many of your readers will find you accidentally. While browsing in a bookstore, or at the library, or a garage sale. They're looking for a book, and they find yours. You have little control over this. Yet, this is how a lot of books are sold.

Others will find you through articles or reviews written about you in the newspaper. You can spend big bucks on a publicist to get more reviews, or some local radio or TV spots, but I'm not convinced that those are cost-effective for new authors. The same goes with advertising. Does it work? Maybe. Is it worth the cost? For midlist authors, I don't believe so. Spending hundreds, or thousands, or tens of thousands on media attention and ads isn't as cost-effective as traveling and actually meeting the people you want to reach. Which leads us to:

Meet Your Publisher. The best money you'll ever spend is flying to NY and meeting your editor and the many folks at your publishing house and being charming. We do more for people that we like. Get them to like you.

Meet Fans. At the beginning of your writing career, meet as many readers as possible. This means going to conventions, book fairs, and conferences. Do book signings. Speak at libraries. Shake those hands. It's time consuming, and costly, but a smile and a kind word will get people to pick up your books.

Meet Booksellers. Real life is better than online. Booksellers have influence and power. They can handsell you. They help spread the almighty word-of-mouth that all authors need to succeed.

Sell Stories and Articles. I've got a few hundred thousand books in print. But my name has been in print several million times, thanks to short stories and essays and articles I've sold to magazines and anthologies. By publishing your writing, you can reach more people in a shorter amount of time than anything you can do online. Plus, there's no greater advertisement for an author than a sample of their writing.

Enlist the Media. You don't need a publicist to get you featured in the local paper. You just need to write a press release, making sure it has a hook and enough spin to interest them. You can contact reviewers, and radio stations, and local TV, and do it for free.

Enlist Your Peers. We're not in competition with each other. Someone can buy both my book and your book. So it makes sense to help your fellow writers. Pool information and resources. Trade contacts. Rather than sing your own praises, sing their praises, and they'll probably sing yours in return. I've been invited into many anthologies because I've had a beer with a fellow writer at a conference. When I'm interviewed, I mention their names. Sometimes I interview them. Sometimes they interview me. The more friends you have in this biz, the better off you are.

Of course, in both real life and online, be generous, grateful, amusing, and loyal. You are not a salesperson. You're an ambassador, representing your writing.


Going back to the parable, the ant worked hard building a brand and establishing name-recognition, and several things happened.

1. The ant passed a tipping point. In the beginning, he sought out fans, speaking engagements, and media attention. But after a while those things came to him, in greater frequency than he could have imagined.

2. The ant realized the past continued to work for him. Booksellers he met years ago, stories he wrote for old magazines, and blog posts he penned in 2004 continued to send new fans his way.

3. The ant reached a lot of people, and those people talked about him with many others, spreading word-of-mouth and expanding his audience much further than his personal efforts.

4. The ant became a bestseller, then had a three-way with Angelina Jolie and Catherine Zeta-Jones.

And what of the blissfully ignorant grasshopper who disliked public speaking and believed that all he had to do was write good books?

He attended a single writing convention and complained the whole time, did two booksignings in his home town, and was cut by his publisher for poor sales. Then he died of cancer.


1. Figure out who your readers are.
2. Figure out what your readers want.
3. Reach out to your readers.

This will not only help you sell more books than you would otherwise, but keep this up long enough and you'll find that the longer you last, the easier it gets.

Or you can do nothing and die of Kaposi's sarcoma.

The choice is yours.


Anonymous said...

Note to self:
A three-way with Angelina Jolie and Catherine Zeta-Jones is better than Karposi's sarcoma.

Note to Joe:
You continue to be a real gem for writers. I, for one, am truly grateful to you for your seeming limitless generosity.

Jonathan said...

Hey there Joe - came across your blog a few months ago through a literary agent's site I was browsing at the time. I can't say enough what a great resource this blog and your site has been for me as an aspiring writer. Thanks for giving so freely of your experience.

ghunter72 said...

I just got done reading your article in Writer's Digest. As a result I am here and will probably read one of your books next. I guess your program works. Thanks, ghunter72

Jude Hardin said...

I don't know.

The grasshopper always seemed like the cool one in that story. He lived for the present, the now, with no worries about the future.

When you get down to it, the present is all we have. Tomorrow is a myth.

The ant, on the other hand, worked his ass off for a precarious future, a future where he was doomed, like Sisyphus, to continue his labors indefinitely. Winter comes. Winter goes. Back on the treadmill, bitch.

My advice? Do what makes you happy right now. If you're happy doing all the things Joe suggests, then go for it. If it's causing you a great deal of stress, then why bother? Might as well stick with the old day job.

Success, IMO, is living life on your own terms right now.

Let the ant have tomorrow.

Tomorrow, the ant will die too. Alone. Broke. Just like the grasshopper.

The difference?

The grasshopper had a swell time singing in the sun.

JA Konrath said...

Success, IMO, is living life on your own terms right now.

I always thought success was not failing. :)

I'm all for being happy. But this isn't A Newbie's Guide to Happiness. This is A Newbie's Guide to Publishing, in which I share my tips on how to succeed.

I have dreams. Like pets, dreams require care and feeding. Dreams require maintainance, and that maintainance is often hard. But that's the price you pay for having dreams.

If you have no hope for the future, and can easily shrug off failure, I'd question how important your goals are to you.

Buddha was a smart guy, but I wouldn't want to hire a bunch of Buddhists to design and build a sky scraper.

Anonymous said...


How many people will now discover your blog after Googling the words "Angelina Jolie," "Catherine Zeta-Jones," and "threeway"?

Just wondering what a blogger's gotta do to boost his readership...

Andrea Allison said...

I know I don't comment much here, but I do love your blog. I learn alot. BTW, I am one of those people who did link to you in a post last week from a group blog about writing called Write Stuff.

Jude Hardin said...

I always thought success was not failing.

If you have no hope for the future, and can easily shrug off failure, I'd question how important your goals are to you.

I'm guessing you equate "success" and "failure" with certain dollar amounts.

It's a trap some of us fall into, thinking if I can only get X, then I'll be happy.

Credit institutions and advertisers make billions of dollars a year fooling people into thinking that way, the illusion of happiness through the acquisition of material things.

X, of course, is never enough.

The six-year-old Camry gets you around okay, but you've really got your eye on that new Jag. So, you get the fancy car and the new house and the plasma TV, and then stroke out worrying over how to pay for it all. They lay you to rest in the Elite model casket, 'neath the green green grass of home (which, ironically, is the highest-priced patch of real estate you're ever likely to purchase).

I have a certain dollar amount that would allow me to quit my day job and write full time. That's my goal for now, but I refuse to consider myself a failure if that doesn't happen.

Having learned a little bit about the publishing business over the past few years, I've come to realize the vast majority of novelists never earn enough to support themselves and their families. I don't think that makes the vast majority of novelists failures. If they're doing something they love, living within their means, living life on their own terms, living for the moment, I would call that a huge success.

I think you're a huge success, Joe. You're living your dream, and that's all any of us can hope for. Your tips and advice are much appreciated. Your work ethic is admirable, and I'm glad you've found some things that work for you and are willing to share them.

But, I think there's still a place in the world for the grasshoppers, too. I envy them, actually.

I think the grasshoppers enjoy life, no matter their bank account balance, and to me that's the ultimate success.

BTW, could you please direct me to A Newbie's Guide to Happiness? I'm on submission right now, and if I could only get...


JA Konrath said...

My definition of success has nothing to do with fame, or money, or the number of books I have in print, or movie deals, or the number of countries I'm available in, or anything that can be measured numerically.

Success to me means not failing.

I want this career to last the rest of my life, so I'm working to make sure that happens.

Josephine Damian said...


What do you think is the reason for blogger burnout?

Seems to be more common among women, whom I guess are more frazzled by trying to write books, blog and take care of the house, hubby and kids.

My goal is to keep my blogs going while I'm in grad school, and I think the key is: pace yourself.

Still, I'm concerned by all the dropped blogs I see - I don't want to be a burnout victim.

Josephine Damian

Jude Hardin said...

Success to me means not failing.

Success and failure are rather subjective concepts, though. Don't you think?

I want this career to last the rest of my life, so I'm working to make sure that happens.

I understand that. Like I said, I admire your work ethic. I'm sure your publisher does too.

But the sad (and unfair, many times) fact is, publishers drop authors every day. Sometimes, despite an author's best efforts, sales fall flat and they find themselves back to square one. That just means a book, or a series of books, didn't do well enough for the publisher to keep pouring money into them. It doesn't mean, IMHO, the author is a failure. Maybe he has to go back to teaching or bartending or whatever for a while. So what?

Cormac McCarthy, for example, has lived in extreme poverty most of his life. I consider him a success, though, because he did it his way. He's lived life on his own terms, day to day, much like the good old grasshopper.

I wish I had the courage to do that. Maybe some day.

Anonymous said...

Interesting back and forth about success and failure, Joe and Jude. Thought-provoking.

That the post could spark such a discussion while also being informative AND freakin' hilarious...? Well, that's great writing.

I enjoy your humor, Joe. Good for you that your labors are paying off now that you've passed the tipping point. So many of us are still working toward that goal, but I think you've provided a common sense approach to reaching it.

And Jude? I dig your 'be happy now' philosophy. It sounds so simple, but so many of us say, "Well, duh," and then fall right into the trap you described.

"I would be happy if only I..."

I think I'll just be happy. And work hard on my writing career.

Book Two of the River City Series is out at the end of the month from a small press. I've got half a dozen appearances lined up already. At least I'm moving in the right direction.

JA Konrath said...

Sometimes, despite an author's best efforts, sales fall flat and they find themselves back to square one.

I'm here to prove that an author's best efforts can make a difference.

If you look at people whom the world deems successful, most of them share a single trait.

It isn't talent, or genius. It isn't any form of superiority. It isn't even hard work.

The secret to success is persistence.

How persistent are you going to be if you're happy?

I know that's an odd question, but being satisfied with the way things are is not a precursor to the constant vigilance required to keep climbing.

Anonymous said...

This has been a great discussion, you two.

Joe, I think you've finally said what's been danced around a little bit.

It's worth pointing out that Morgan Freeman was once asked what his secret to success in Hollywood was.

His response?

"I didn't give up."

It's a powerful thing, that thing called persistence. I really don't know anyone who's a goal-setter who didn't make a set of new goals after they accomplished the first ones.

Spy Scribbler said...

LOL, Joe, "not failing" sounds like you're living life, to quote Jude, "on your own terms."

I've been telling myself to spend one or two hours a night on marketing, until I run out of things to do. I'm hoping that if I get all the pieces in place, then things will start happening automatically.

You are definitely an inspiration!

Anonymous said...

Hey Joe - You once substitued for a writing teacher at Harper College (pen name EE Knight), and that's how I met you. Even though I'm sure you thought it was a drag, doing that good deed paid off, because anytime someone mentions they like mysteries, I recommend you. So yay!
Kim Brunner (who couldn't remember her stinkin' password...)

Jude Hardin said...

How persistent are you going to be if you're happy?

...being satisfied with the way things are is not a precursor to the constant vigilance required to keep climbing

I don't necessarily equate happiness with complacency.

I think Frank said it best. You can be happy with the way things are, and work hard on your writing career. Best of both worlds, a sort of ant/grasshopper hybrid. A granthopper! :)

I know, realistically, that my novel on submission will probably never make any bestseller lists. It's just not that kind of blockbuster book. But, I think it's a pretty good little harboiled/noir private eye thing, and I'm hoping the right editor will see the niche potential. I enjoyed writing it, and I'm happy with it, and if it doesn't sell I'll pitch my second one and hope it does.

You're right about persistence, Joe. It's the only way to make a dent in any profession. I just think we should enjoy the journey as well.

Really, life's too short not to.

Jude Hardin said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Trace said...

JA – After reading the Oct. issue of WD, I can’t help but think the grasshopper you refer to is James Boice. It will be interesting to watch his career (and health) knowing that he does not share your passion for promotion.

Anonymous said...

I'm with Jude Hardin on this one. Do the promotion if you enjoy it. If you don't, then don't. I'm thinking about Lynn Viehl, who only started enjoying her writing when she STOPPED doing all the promotion and stayed home to write. Wouldn't you know it? Her sales took off then too. Now she's happily published, making some money for herself and her publisher (Joe's definition of success) and most importantly, enjoying writing again.

JA Konrath said...

I find it interesting that practically everyone I've ever met hates at least some aspect of their 9 to 5 job.

But writers seem to think that they're not only entitled to make money from their words, but that they also shouldn't have to do anything they don't feel like doing.

Can you be successful without self-promotion? Yes. You can also cross the street with your eyes closed and not be hit by a car. That doesn't mean it's a smart thing to do.

Will self-promotion guarantee success? No. Nothing guarantees success.

Here's the irrefutable fact: The more you self-promote, the more books you'll sell.

Ignore that at your peril.

Jude Hardin said...

Conflict=drama=entertainment=word-of-mouth=NYT list=...sales....

The list of variables that might make a writer successful (again, depending on your definition of success) are virtually infinite. When you get down to it, publishing is more of a crapshoot than any of us want to admit.

Why would anyone in his right mind spend months, years sometimes, working on something that, statistically, might never earn him a dime?

Why would anyone pour his heart into 400 pages, knowing the meanies with bows and arrows are menacingly lurking to pierce that same heart at the first opportunity?

Why would anyone but a lunatic spend an entire day rewriting a single paragraph?

I'll never forget what Pulitzer winner Maxine Kumin told me face-to-face one day, almost thirty years ago: We do it because we love it.

To me, that's the only reason that makes any sense.

I admire your determination and enthusiasm, Joe, and I wish you best of luck with your current projects and your future ones.

You continue to inspire. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Joe: Your point is well taken that we as authors can put in the time and effort to help ensure success. Different people will choose different levels of effort for different reasons. I've been working hard, as have you, and although I started out as a nobody 1.5 years ago, my books are now in stores and getting good reviews by such organizations as Library Journal, Booklist, ForeWord Magazine, and many others. The secret, as you say, is hard work and perseverance. Thanks for sharing things that work and things that don't.

Anonymous said...

Love the enthusiasm and encouragement that comes through in this post.

Jude Hardin said...

I've posted the first chapter of my wip on my blog. I would appreciate any comments/feedback/suggestions.


porchwise said...

Found you by reading your article in Writers Digest. Also downloaded your free book from your website but am working on my second novel about P.I. Hamilton Shamrock but I will read the freebee ASAP. Also need to read the complete Newbie's Guide as a quick glance told me it's going to be a useful tool.
Many thanks, Robert J. Freemyer
(first novel: Broken City)

Kim Rossi Stagliano said...

I've read your blog. See you elsewhere. You always talk to us like we're human. I see blogs/posts where the author talks "down" or pontificates about how to become a successful writer. Not you. So I bought Dirty Martini. I loved Dirty Martini. I bought another Dirty Martini as a birthday gift for my sister. And now I will buy Rusty Nail and, and, and, (trying to think of the name of your other book) Pink Lady? No, no, another sweet frothy drink. GRASSHOPPER? Definitely not. :) Loved your thanking the umpteen booksellers in DM. Was Elizabeth Murphy at The Learned Owl in Hudson, Ohio? I used to live there. Great store.


Anonymous said...

Excellent advice! THANK YOU!

Filippo said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Filippo said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Filippo said...

Who would have thunk that some words of advice from an AUTHOR would be sent to me, a RADIO SHOW HOST, from an Italian FILM DIRECTOR, Gabriele Iacovone.

It seems that your words speak VOLUMES to more than just authors. I would say that even takes your argument to a whole new level.

Though I know about "marketing" and "publicity" etc., ironically, I have done some of the things that you have mentioned in this post naturally because I have always been an entertainer, FIRST.

Where I also went, in my mind, with what you were saying is, "What kind of a life do we want to live?" What I mean by that is, that if one follows your advice, one will succeed in the ways that you mention but also will have a satisfaction of having really touched people not just through their BOOKS, for example, but rather through their own personal interactions.

And to me, I think that is part of the experience for which we have come. That, and to have a three-way with Angelina Jolie and Catherine Zeta-Jones, he, he, nice touch, kudos.

I also started a blog a year ago and it has taken a year for it to take shape as to what I want it to be. My blog is for everyone who loves things Italian and an "Italian" way of being, but only the positive aspects.

I like to say, every culture, race, religion, etc. has something good that it offers, but not everything it offers is necessarily good. Why not take the good and emulate it?

So, I have taken what I think is good about my Italian-American heritage and want to share it with the world. So I have a show heard on national radio and at and my accompanying blog is found on the link, "Filippo's Blog," for all those who might be interested.

There, now I got to give you my kudos, add my two cents, and make use of your advice!


Anonymous said...

The point that you make about spending the money to meet your publisher is so true.

I'm a small independent publisher who publishes a monthly literary magazine and an annual collection of new writing. Over the next two years I will also be publishing two fiction novels, and both those authors are writers that I have developed personal relationships with through publishing their shorter work. Knowing them and knowing that they are willing to get involved in the whole publishing process was as much a part of my decision as their excellent manuscripts.

A relationship is not as important as an excellent manuscript. But given the choice between two authors who have excellent manuscripts, it's an easy decision to publish the one of the person you know, that you get along with, and who has made it clear that they're keen to work hard to help make the book a success.


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