(Welcome to the latest installment of The Path to Publishing, a series on starting a small press aimed either at the writer who wants to improve their stature or the editor who wants to run an independent publishing house. If you missed any of the prior posts, you can find them here.)
by Gideon Marcus
A Cautionary Note
Last time in the series, I took a step back from the nuts and bolts of publishing and talked about the time you’ll need to dedicate to writing just to produce your first salable book. Becoming an author is hard, or everyone would do it (not just talk about doing it). Or, as one writer friend put it:
“I feel that many of us have this ambition and glamourise the lifestyle of being ‘an author’ without appreciating how much of ourselves we need to invest into the process. Also, how much of ourselves we are able to give, determines how long this will take. “
So if you’re coming into this series with starry eyes and your very first, probably not seriously edited book, you’ll definitely want to take a look at Part 4 of this series before you go on.
But let’s say you have paid your dues, sweated blood, etc. and you’ve got a bonafide actual decent book. It’s been edited by a professional, or at least someone of professional quality. You’ve circulated it amongst discerning readers, and they all love it. It’s free from embarrassing spelling and grammar mistakes. You’ve decided not to go the traditional publishing route for all the reasons I discussed in part one of this series. Now what do you do?
Getting lost online
Whether you decide to self publish, create your own small press, or go for a traditional publishing route, you’ve got to build an audience. If you stick your book on Amazon or other distributor, no one will find it buried deep under millions of other titles. People need to find out about your book. That takes marketing. Presumably, you don’t have the thousands of dollars required for an ad campaign on Facebook or Amazon, which is what it takes to get your book ranked above all the other authors and publishers pumping money into ads.
That’s all right, you think. Social media is free! Just set up accounts on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, and folks will beat a path to your door.
This generally won’t work.
Take your average Twitter member of the #writingcommunity. They’ve generally got a slightly larger following than followed count, promote their self-pub book in half their posts and make vain attempts at interaction in the other half. Their tweets are riddled with hashtags. Sometimes their posts are relentlessly hopeful, announcing their 436th query submission or the fifth sequel in a series no one has read; other times, they are filled with despair: a savage rejection (or more commonly, no answer from an agent/publisher at all), or a plaintive wondering if all this tweeting will ever result in a single sale.
Probably not. The writers who follow each other usually don’t buy each other’s stuff. If they did, the #writingcommunity would be a lot more successful than it is. So if most of your followers are just other hopeful writers, who followed you in the hope you’d follow them back to buy their stuff, you’re not going to get much action.
Instead of social media being where your presence is, social media needs to be an extension of your presence. And your presence does not begin and end with your book. It begins with you.
I’m going to start with a cynical-sounding statement: Assuming a basic minimum threshold of quality, people don’t buy books because they’re good. They buy them because they were told to, or because they personally like the author.
At any given moment, a reader has millions of books to choose from, thousands of which were written this year. Even if they’re very picky about genre and style, said reader probably has more titles available than they have time to read. If your book is just another in a long list, even if it’s great and well pitched, it’ll get lost in the shuffle.
So you need to acquire fans, folks who have a reason like you and thus want to support you and read your stuff.
You need to establish a presence.
The best way I’ve found to do this is to blog. Not necessarily a book-related blog, or one on how to sell books or about how your writing is going. Just something you put consistent free content into. What do you write about? Anything you’re passionate about! The passion is the key. That energy is contagious and will get fans and friends. Plus, if it’s not something you’re really into, you will run out of steam.
As long as you can write decently well (see the last article), and as long as you keep it up, you will amass an audience. A few examples:
- I started Galactic Journey in 2013, writing about the late 1950s in science fiction magazines and space shots. It made sense: my wife had requested story recommendations, and I was already a space historian with an expertise in the era. Over time, the site blew up and gave me the fanbase and prestige to make trying to market books not completely ludicrous.
- My friend, David Portree, is also a space historian writing on the what-ifs of spaceflight. He’s done work for big outlets, but he also has maintained a spaceflight blog in one form or another (currently No Shortage of Dreams”) for more than a decade. He now has a huge following on Twitter, a lot of loyal fans, and he’s about to start writing books. You can bet they’ll do well.
- Cora Buhlert, who runs Pegasus Pulp Press, has been selling her fiction for several years. But long before that, she’d already become an esteemed name in the science fiction community. She still is — last year she got her first Hugo nomination in the category of best Fan Writer! Her case is interesting in that none of her books is, by itself, an outstanding seller, but in aggregate, she’s moved a lot of titles. And books don’t spoil — every new fan she makes is another person who might buy five or ten or twenty books in the back catalog.
The Rewards of Fame
Aside from amassing a fanbase, there are two other big reasons why producing consistent free output is important. For one thing, all writing is useful, helping you to hone your skills. Heck, someone might spot your work and offer you a job — it happened to me after I’d written several wargame reviews on Board Game Geek.
The other reason is it’s a heck of a lot easier to break into the bookstore market if you’re somebody. Whether you go the small press route or simply self-publish, you’ll have a lot more credibility if you can call up a bookseller with some sort of prestige on your c.v. you can lead with.
But bottom line, you build up a presence because, in the end, you’re selling you. People will buy your books because they like you and want to support what you’re doing. That they get an amazing read in the process is a bonus.
That, of course, is why the quality of your books need to be high — goodwill only goes so far. But if you write great books and have enough fans who read them, then they will recommend them to others (tell them to buy them), and the whole thing will snowball.
Things to Come
Next time, I’ll be talking about bookstores: why I love them, how they’ve been essential to the success of Journey Press, and why you should consider them as a significant avenue for distributing your works.
See you then!