Like hobbits, innocently and merrily leaping from the Shire to embark on an adventure (filled with good food, second breakfasts, and shortcuts to mushrooms) a new writer jumps into the Big Bad World of publishing expecting to take their comfort zone with them. By the end of it (not that there is an end – it’s all one step on a journey) they’re the battle-scarred Halflings we know from the films andbook. Innocence is gone and lives changed forever, never to view the writing world the same way again.
It’s not a quest, is it? More a battlefield, especially now with the revelation of sockpuppeteering from well-known writers in the crime/thriller genre. The Amazon review scandal has seemingly united the publishing world in a desire to stamp out this practice, and fair play…but this highlights the increasing desperation with which writers – both professional and traditionally published, and newbie self-publishers – seek to increase their readership. I won’t join the flaming torch and pitchfork mob baying for blood, because life’s too short. There’s a positive side to this scandal, believe me. Join me on our quest for readership, and all will be revealed…
Reviews are gold dust, dear hobbitses, more valuable than the jewels in Smaug’s hoard. We all need them – and we all wants them, preciousss. For a positive review not only boosts your confidence and self-belief, it’s a mark of quality – and therefore, another tool to gain new readers. Trouble is, there’s been too much emphasis…no, not emphasis – reliance: too much reliance on Amazon reviews. Every day, you’ll see the latest five-star review posted on an author’s Facebook wall or Twitter feed; a new reason to try this author’s work if you’ve not already done so. I even see writers complaining they’ve not received enough reviews – one said recently: “This is my favourite novella, and I’m disappointed that there’s only twenty or so reviews on Amazon. Please post a review when you read it.” For fuck’s sake. Never mind the quantity, feel the quality. The majority of readers are getting wise to the way publishers and writers game the Amazon system, and have begun to treat all glowing reviews with suspicion. The sockpuppet scandal reinforces that distrust.
A review from a blogger or a webzine that thoroughly dissects the work and shows the flaws as well as the plus points is more useful, especially so when said reviewers post it on Amazon. The few Amazon reviews I have for The Caretakers were kindly reposted by the reviewers from their own blogs – Ginger Nuts of Horror, Dreadlocksmile Reviews, Horrorweb – and they supply enough information for the potential reader to decide if the novel is for them. Unfortunately, we’re led to believe that the more reviews you gain the better the work is, so we’re terrified that a potential buyer will ignore the book because “it has less than twenty or so reviews on Amazon”. The more reviews you have, the more visibility you get on the Amazon rankings. So everyone rushes around, getting friends to ‘tag’ and ‘like’ reviews in the hope it’ll boost the visibility of their work.
The knock-on effect of this is Amazon is seen to be the be-all and end-all of publishing – which is exactly what Amazon wants! That guiding beacon through the wilderness of non-exposure is, on closer approach, the great flaming Eye of Sauron, determined to swallow the rest of the publishing world.
So what to do, hobbitses? Those shining lights in the Dead Marshes – AKA blogsites, Twitter and Facebook: will they guide us to exposure and recognition, or are they false lights, determined to plunge us into the black depths of obscurity?
Blogtours and online interviews are wonderful things; they really are a chance to connect with new readers, as loyal followers of the blogger will be more open to the recommendation. Facebook is good, but too many people in the business see it as primarily a marketing tool than for what it is: a social site. Many of the well-known and traditionally published writers on there use it as a place to chat and connect with their friends first, promote their work second. On the other side, Hoovering up friends can increase your potential readership, but your new contacts will quickly ignore you if all you do is spam about your work constantly. I’ve unsubscribed from countless newsfeeds because they’re all about the book and how well it’s doing, how many Amazon reviews it has, etc. Yes, promote your work by all means – but promote yourself as a person first. Interact with your new friends; take an interest in them and their lives. If not, they’ll either unfriend you or (so as not to upset you) unsubscribe from your newsfeed. And then you really are invisible…
Take a leaf out of Ian Woodhead’s book. If you’re reading this, chances are you’re friends with him already. His newsfeed is an absolute joy because it’s full of jokes and puns. Even folk who aren’t interested in zombie apocalypse novels pay attention to his page because he gives something back: there’s nothing like a bit of humour to brighten the day. And because of that, he can promote his work in between jokes, which lessens the chance of being seen as a spammer.
Another one is Suzanne Robb, who has an ingenious method of promoting her friends’ works: she posts pictures of herself holding said author’s book, with her Boston Terrier Loki cuddled up behind the pages. Not only does this emphasise her niceness and selflessness (like me, she finds it hard to self-promote) but it also means those authors will return the favour in promoting her work. Never underestimate the Power of Cute!
There are some great methods of promoting your books now, with the availability of photo-editing software and Meme Generators. You can Photoshop an image from a famous movie with the cover of your books – have a look at the way KHP viral-advertise their books:
The Power of Cute is one thing – the Power of Humour is just as effective.
Make ‘em laugh, and they won’t mind being advertised to.
But that’s the digital domain. What about real life, and physically meeting people and gaining readership? The next step on our journey, young hobbitses, is arduous…Let us pause a while, for a fine, refreshing pint of brandywine or six at the Prancing Pony. Welcome to conventions.
Tread carefully, fellow travellers. These can be fantastic experiences, and you’ll have a lot of fun; meeting Facebook friends in the flesh, drinking, attending readings and signings, drinking, rubbing shoulders with industry professionals, drinking…
But industry-heavy conventions, such as FantasyCon and the World Horror Convention, are primarily attended by publishing professionals and fellow writers – very few non-writers go to them. They’re great for networking, and you’ll learn much – and maybe even have the chance to advance your career by introducing yourself to certain people…but to gain new readers? Very slim. Far better to try to find more fan-based events like FandomFest in Louisville, or Comic-Con in San Diego – there’s a more healthy mixture of professionals and fans in those, and thankfully we’re starting to get a few more in the UK. Dave Youngquist reported Dark Continents Publishing made more sales at FandomFest than we did at FCon and WHC put together, purely because there are more readers and fans than writers and publishers. When launching books or performing readings at conventions, you’re struggling for space with the countless other writers and small presses doing the same thing…
And be careful. Everything seems sweetness and light; all these strangers are now firm friends and will do anything for you…but beware of the knives hidden behind the smiles. Some writers can be notoriously bitchy, especially genre writers, and it’s very easy to get sucked into the petty squabbles and politics behind the scenes. You may think that siding with one faction against another will help advance your career – being seen to agree with the “right people” will help certain publishers remember you when they’re considering names to invite to the next “mates only” – sorry, “invite only” – anthology. Yes, it happens, and sadly it works. The amount of writers who’ll stab each other in the back to get their name in this year’s “must-read” anthology’s TOC is pretty sad. Don’t take sides, don’t get involved; it’s a waste of time and energy. Life’s too short, and writing time is preciousss…
On the other hand, you’ll be amazed at how approachable and friendly the hobbits that have moved away from the small press and are now Shining Elves with glittering mass-market publication deals are. These fair and noble creatures remember their roots and will quite happily mix with dirty unwashed and unpublished hobbits, and may even partake of your pipeweed. Most of them, anyway; you’ll find a few that disappear up their own arses the minute they sign a major deal, but these are thankfully few and far between, and have already vanished into the West.
Oh dear. I see a few too many pints of brandywine have been quaffed, and one of our group is having a pop at a famous editor. Let us leave the Prancing Pony. It’s a big, wide world out there, and conventions are merely stops along the way. Now, the next stage of our journey begins: the murky Mines of Anthologies.
Anthologies, hobbitses! Quite simply the best way to get exposure and enhance your chances of being recognised. And yet, this is the most perilous path of our journey, because constant unseen traps lie, waiting to ensnare the unwary…
Exposure only, or for-the-luv anthologies, are the subject of fierce debate. Two blogposts illustrate the divide here: Ray Garton, from March 2013: http://preposteroustwaddlecock.blogspot.co.uk/2012/03/how-to-deal-with-writers-effectively-in.html and Tracie McBride, August 2013: http://traciemcbridewriter.wordpress.com/2012/08/27/free-fiction-a-contrary-viewpoint/
It’s worth remembering that a professional writer is perfectly within their rights to expect payment for their story/introduction, but too many newbies subscribe to Harlan Ellison’s dictum: “Fuck you! Pay me!”
For young hobbitses journeying from the Shire, we may feel the need to get publishing credits under our belt, regardless of payment. I won’t get into the argument here (and believe me, it IS an argument, as you can see above) but here are a few things that may help: consider the potential readership of the anthology. What about the publishers themselves? Do they have a good track record in putting out quality anthologies; do they have respect and sway in the small press world; have they been around for at least a year? The boost to getting a publishing credit under your belt has to be countered by the potential readership of the antho you’ve been accepted into. Too many small presses spring up, like mushrooms after the autumn rain, but you don’t want to pick a Stinking Fuckhorn over a delicious Chestnut Lovely…
There are plenty of shortcuts to mushrooms, all of which have to be treated with extreme caution. There are many markets which don’t pay, but are guaranteed to get your work noticed by professional publishers: the BFS’s Dark Horizons is one. Whereas certain anthologies springing up from the who-the-hell-are-you presses make money and readership purely from knowing the contributing author will get family and friends to buy the book (likely from Amazon) to “support the author”. Make no mistake: this is a trap, but easily avoided. Do your research, but don’t rely too much on forums that bad-mouth every new publisher that comes along. Get in touch with the writers who’ve been published, contact the writers you know who no longer work with them…and ask around. Make your own judgement. If in doubt, don’t submit.
But don’t sweat it if you’ve been published by one of the shysters. It’s all a learning curve, and you’ll never forget that buzz you felt getting an acceptance email. Yes, the experience is soured by the realisation of what you’ve been accepted by, but that buzz has probably given you the self-confidence to move on and target bigger and better markets.
Cast a wary eye on anthologies that boast of a well-known writer in their TOC. It’s a headrush to realise you’re in an anthology with (insert best-selling author’s name here); but ask yourself this: is it an original, unpublished story they wrote specifically for that anthology because they loved the theme of the book, or is it a reprint? Some editors will get in touch with big names and ask them to submit a tale – original or not – knowing that the author’s name on the TOC is a boost to the contributing writers, but also to potential readers. If it’s a reprint and you’ve never heard of the other authors, think carefully. Don’t rule it out completely…but don’t be blinded either. And even if the rest are unknowns, you’ll strike up an internet friendship with them and be able to share experiences and advice. Who knows, those unknown writers the industry experts would advise you not to submit with may turn out to be the horror stars of the future.
With the self-publishing revolution it seems every man and his dog are setting up their own small press these days, which increases the number of markets to choose from. That’s not a bad thing: many new presses that have opened are run by writers with a love of the genre and a desire to make their own mark. Some also have a very co-operative spirit in their approach to publishing, and seek the input from their authors with editing, cover art, and so forth, all in the spirit of sharing resources and emphasising mutual benefits. Peter Mark May’s Hersham Horror Books is an excellent example of this.
Still, what to choose? How do you make your name or story stand out in a sea of similarly-themed zombie apocalypse and Lovecraftian collections? The ones to pay special attention to are the imaginatively themed anthologies; crossover is very popular these days, and anthologies such as Aaron J French’s Monk Punkhave seen professional writers submit work because they’re inspired by the theme, and warm to the idea of an editor taking a risk that the mainstream publishers wouldn’t.
And because a title like that doesn’t confine itself to one genre – fantasy, science fiction and horror all come into the mix – the potential for readership increases. If it was a straight horror anthology, only the horror fans would buy it; if it was a straight fantasy collection, only the fantasy fans would buy it. By getting a tale into the TOC of a book like this, you’re getting your work read by people who wouldn’t normally touch your chosen field…and may well change their minds about the genre.
On a side note, the number of well-known writers who submit work to markets that pay 1 cent per wood – or even less – is increasing, as the digital revolution and the recession put the squeeze on writers on both ends of the spectrum. An age in which even professional writers seek to expand their audience by ignoring Harlan Ellison’s dictum “Fuck you! Pay me!” and no longer insist on the HWA’s recommendation of 5 cents per word minimum payment is hard, but opens all sorts of opportunities for us hobbits: the playing field is levelled, and we have the chance to share TOC space with better-known – and more experienced – writers. The Shining Elves have paused in their trip westwards, and happily rub shoulders with us…
We hobbits are a social bunch, but many of us decide to branch off on our own into the MistyMountains of Self-publishing. That path is fraught with many dangers, but so many rewards as well, and you can achieve a massive readership just by digital sales alone.
Indeed, the best way to achieve global reach is by eBooks. Stateside and overseas readers are more willing to take a chance on a new book by an unknown author if it’ll only cost a couple of dollars, whereas in the days of print-only they’d have to factor in the cost of post and packing to their countries, as well as the price of the book itself.
If you’re confident enough to market your own work, and have ensured it’s been properly edited and proofed, Middle-Earth is your oyster. Yes, you may find it hard at first to get recognition, but eventually the quality of your work will speak for itself. If you can interact with bloggers and review sites – or contact those who may have seen your work in a previous anthology or website and enjoyed it – they may be more than happy to review or spotlight your work. Unfortunately, so many good-natured reviewers who are well-known in the genre world are snowed under with their TBR pile, so it could be a while before they get to yours.
There are many excellent blogs and websites which give advice to the self-publisher – too many to list here! Suffice to say, you stand more chance of being successful if you manage to get your name attached to some quality anthologies or magazines first. Then, of course, the hard work really begins: maintaining your place in the increasingly dim light of exposure, and spending just as much time marketing and promoting your work as writing it. You’re quite likely to be holding down a full-time job as well as juggling with family commitments; so while it’s certainly achievable, it can take a heavy toll on you. But it can be golden, particularly if you release a series of novels or novellas: the free promotion tool of Kindle Direct Publishing can be a great hook if used wisely. Give away the first instalment free of charge, and chances are you’ll hook readers who will pay to read the other instalments. Don’t short-change your buyers, though: make sure that first instalment can be read as a stand-alone piece, rather than have the story end halfway through with the words TO BE CONTINUED.
You’ll hear many self-publishers extol the virtues of going it alone, and some even sneer at those who opt for the trad-pub route; while some trad-pub writers and publishers turn their noses up at the self-pubbers. There’s no right or wrong path in this ever-changing Middle Earth; you have to decide what’s right for you, and that can only come with trial and error. One thing I still don’t understand is the amount of publishers who refuse to embrace eBooks. Print and digital are not enemies, one isn’t going to supplant the other, and a publisher must offer both if they’re going to do their authors justice. A US publisher that will only publish you in print? That’s not going to help you gain new readers if they have to fork out for transatlantic postage; similarly, a digital-only publisher must be treated with extreme caution: with practice, anyone can create eBooks these days, so why should you let the majority of your book’s income go to a publisher who just runs it through Calibre and throws it up on Smashwords?
So, hobbitses: we’ve mingled with the Shining Elves and their multi-book contracts; stomped our hairy feet all over the marshlands of the social media network; traversed Moria’s dark and cavernous Mines of Anthologies; wandered alone into the MistyMountains of self-publishing…and we have a few publication credits in our haversacks. Hardly bulging with the publishing gold and jewels we were led to expect when our adventure began. Still no end in sight.
I hear a few of you muttering angrily. Why are we listening to this “wise traveller”? What does he know that he can teach us? All we have experienced are the pitfalls, despairs and fleeting joys of minor publishing credits in anthologies, some of which sank into obscurity the moment they were published. Alas, I am no wise and guiding wizard. I am a mere hobbit, like yourselves. Did you not see I was the same height as you? I know, I know; my big floppy hat and my staff make me look bigger. (Steady, ladies.)
But did I say I have the answers? Did I say I know the way to the West where the Shining Elves go, there and back again? Of course not, for no-one knows! I am here because, like you, I am a wayfarer and still have much to learn. As I depart and you go on, you will have learned more and will be able to advise the next traveller on the path.
We have lost sight of our goal, young hobbitses…I mean, fellow travellers. This is not the Quest for Publication; it is the Quest for Readership – the two are not mutually exclusive, but success in one path does not guarantee success in the other. This does not satisfy you; many of you gaze in the direction from whence we came, yearning for hearth and home.
But that is where the Quest for Readership truly ends, dear travellers! We have scoured the dark world of publishing, forgetting that our true audience is right where we left it!
“But my family and friends have no interest in horror!” you exclaim. “They’re reading that Fifty Shades of Grey bollocks and Twishite.” Really? Are you certain? I thought so too…come, peer into this murky Palantir, and let me show you what I found…
Never underestimate the value of family and friends. They may not like the genre you write in, but they’ll know people who will. My sister reTweets and reposts Facebook posts about my writing because she has so many followers – followers who, like her, would not consider reading horror.
But since then two of her friends have read The Caretakersand thoroughly enjoyed it, and spread the word whenever they can. Both said it was not their type of book to begin with – they read mostly crime fiction and romance – but it pleasantly surprised them and they’ve been following me since. They both have large followings on Twitter, but something more important: friends in the hometown.
On Jubilee Night, I went out with them and had a few drinks, and got chatting to a schoolfriend of Bev’s who expressed an interest in the book. She ordered it (from the Evil Empire, alas) and then took a photo and put it on Facebook. Soon after, one of her friends asked about it, and so I posted the link that detailed the reviews, sample chapters, and so forth. A promise to buy it when payday comes, a new Facebook friend and voila: even if she doesn’t get round to buying The Caretakers, she’s aware of my work.
Your hometown and workplace are full of potential. Who’d have thought The Shire was full of people interested in your work? Putting a copy of your book on the reception desk at work – or the canteen – can work wonders when visitors come. That bloke coming for an interview who travelled from London or Manchester? He may not be seeing you, but he’ll see the book on the desk, ask the receptionist about it, and anything can happen: “I love horror novels. Tell me more…” or: “I can’t stand horror, but my wife/kids can’t get enough of it.”
Thinking outside the box can reap rewards. My hometown’s annual music and beer festival, the Bunkfest, had a storytelling stage the last two years. I put my name down for last year’s one and it went so well I was invited to attend again. A packed room was partly the result of people spreading the word from last year’s performance, and I met a new friend who’s a fellow Lovecraft fan.
Here’s the link to my reading!
Never underestimate the power of booze and books – it was after the reading when we all hit the pubs that I got chatting to a couple of people who hadn’t attended, but had heard of me, and wanted to know more. Result: three books sold. But one of those was for an anthology, and the only reason it sold? I read out a passage from a fellow contributor’s tale and they fell in love with it. Another lesson to learn (and one of the boons of anthologies) – it’s not just your own work you can promote; reading another’s story can sell the anthology, and maybe – just maybe – get the buyer interested in further material…
Not vast numbers sold, of course, and it was interesting to hear how so many people there had no interest in eBooks; sadly, print only is the order of the day at readings such as this. And even if you don’t sell any, it doesn’t matter: they’ve come to hear you read a story, not buy your book; any sale is a bonus, and should be seen as that. I had lots of feedback from my reading afterwards, and word is spreading. Not fast enough to boost me up the bestseller ranks, or enough to get an agent to notice me, but who cares?
Gaining a reader isn’t about obtaining a sale. It’s that wonderful thing, when a person who you’ve only just met is interested enough in what you’ve read or performed to want to spend a little while longer in the worlds you’ve created. You may get feedback from the book sale, you may not. They may give up halfway through and donate it to a charity shop. Even then, that’s no bad thing; most of my favourite writers’ works I found in second hand bookshops. “Who’s this?” I would think, pick the book up and be a fan from then on.
So even if your book is discarded, it’s on another journey: into another reader’s hands, and you’ve taken the next step in your own quest: into the reader’s imagination. That’s the goal, dear hobbitses: sales and reviews are nice, but the feedback from one reader who wouldn’t normally read the genre we work in, and is not to be found in all the Facebook groups or conventions which are our normal catchment area, is golden.
Ah, I see we are back in The Shire, from whence we came. No richer, perhaps (certainly the conventions in the Prancing Pony depleted our coinage) but wiser and knowing the quest is a never-ending one will inspire us to undertake the journey again, and explore all the avenues even further.
Please feel free to give your hard-working guide a five-star review for his guidance and map-making skills. That bloke over there is paying…