Friday, May 10, 2013

Harry Potter was a Fluke

I recently had an argument with another writer. It led to several swears in a cozy cafe - all of them from him - but I wasn't about to step down.

"No," I insisted, if you want to succeed as an author, you must start as a nobody and accept that if you want that to change, you have to promote yourself."

He went on to tell me that it is the publisher's job to organize authors' promotional campaigns and to distribute their books, that the writer should only be concerned with writing and editing, and conveyed several other ideas that would might have been true ten years ago. Despite his own experience with steady rejection, he insists that submitting and waiting for an advance is the only way to do it.

All of this came about when I explained that my first title had just been released and I had spent the better part of the week busy with promotion, tirelessly putting months of planning into action - I expect to be doing this all the way through until the release day of the next title, and at that point, I'll be promoting them together. I'm very driven to succeed, not because I want so $ell, but because I want to be read. That's why I write, and it's why I work hard and take those steps one must take if they want their work to be successful.

As much as I would love to have Tor Books putting my work on the shelf and doing all the work for me, I have come to recognize that even authors who are in such a position have worked long and hard to get there. Brandon Sanderson wrote thirteen books before he finally sold the sixth one of them, and in the meantime he got his masters degree in creative writing. Robert J. Sawyer increased his popularity to science fiction readers by using well-thought-out SEO strategies. Most authors who make a sale to a New York publisher have some sort of trail of short stories and mid-list novels to account for their sales.

Many writers, however, use Harry Potter's J.K. Rowling, or similar rags-to-riches authors, to fuel their dreams that all it takes is writing that great book then riches will come. While this isn't impossible, it belongs in the realm of lottery tickets. It is very difficult to predict what a large publishing company will like, even if you try to match current trends in fiction; you can only write the best story you know how to, learn more about your craft, then get out there and get people (editors, publishers, beta readers) to engage with it. That's what promotion is. J.K. Rowling worked hard to capture her dear tale, persisted in sending it out, and became one of the lucky few who happened to have a book that was dear to her AND was liked by a publisher, but there are those countless others who receive rejection after rejection, and among them are the many who keep writing, take what opportunities they can get, and embrace promotion.

"A man makes his own luck." This is the proverb I prefer to live by. It's not about becoming a Tor Books or a Penguin Books author. It's about becoming an author who people know about, an author who has a growing fan base, and in this day and age, with the internet and eBooks and all the opportunities to reach your audience, this doesn't require a contract with one of the Conglomerates.

I am an author for Burst Books, a small and growing company, and I'm proud to be part of it. I'm happy to have a home for my prose where I know the editing and production team is as passionate about a quality book as I am about writing, and I'm glad to embrace this opportunity the house has given me to connect with my readers.

This, for me, is the writing dream, and it's what makes all the hard work rewarding, because I know that everything I'm doing is an act of obedience to the deepest passion I know. As for the writer? He left, grumbling, telling me to "Listen to someone who knows."

"I listen to people who succeed at selling books," was my quip, but I kept that one to myself.

Graeme Brown is a Winnipeg author and junior editor for Champagne Books. He writes epic fantasy, with his first story, The Pact, now available. He is a frequent blogger and a tweeter, and a full-time math student.


linda_rettstatt said...

I don't think the issue is so much a matter of "traditional" versus "small press" any more. I have a friend who published earlier this year after getting a six figure advance from one of the big houses in New York. Yes, they do set up events and signings for her. But she's had to work her butt off to promote on her own, too. Champagne, does set up promo opportunities for us, like the one yesterday at Coffee Time Romance and More. Just doesn't require packing and changing planes. We all have to promote if we want to sell books. That simple.

Liz Fountain said...

The framework that works for me, because I'm genetically averse to "selling," is connecting with readers. The best part about having 100 plus people come to a book launch party was being able to read to them and share the story. That's the most fun, and my approach is to trust that if I work as hard to connect with readers as I do at the writing, we'll find each other. That way is a joyful path for readers and me, both.

Liz Fountain

linda_rettstatt said...

I agree with you, Liz. I always say that booksignings aren't primarly for selling books (though we hope for that end result), but they are for growing your readership. And that's more about selling ourselves by connecting with people.

Julie Eberhart Painter said...

It's important to show enthusiasm for your own work, soft promotion, and be as interesting as you can as a person so that readers will want to know you through your books.

However, getting your foot through the big NYC/London, etc., doors takes several basic characteristics -- unless you are Lottery winner type. 1. Know somebody in a powerful position in publishing. 2. Get other writers to promote you. 3. Don't be a passive seller; meet and greet. 4. Most important, be a really good storyteller with an appropriate and distinct voice for everything you write.

Here are some interesting factoids that seem to follow a pattern: Nicholas Sparks was a salesman (pharmaceuticals). Dianna Gabalden had her foot in with elite academia, and so did Mona Simpson, long before we knew she was Steve Jobs' half-sister.

Many writers were journalists, sportswriters and columnists (Anna Guindlen and Lewis Grizzard) or hard crime reporters before turning to fiction. More than a few were screen writers or in the public media in a high profile capacity.

Anyway you look at it it takes time, hard work and luck.