Tag Archives: self-marketing

Milestones from my book marketing marathon

What do you call a race without a finish line?

That’s not really a riddle. Or if it is, I don’t pretend to know the answer.

I’ve been thinking a lot about book marketing lately…because I’ve been doing a lot of book marketing lately. I keep coming back to that cliché about how (fill in the blank) is a marathon, not a sprint. As much as I want to quickly plow through my list of marketing tactics so that I can wrap up this project and begin planning my next novel, progress is unavoidably slow.

And pushing myself harder will only cause me to burn out faster.

Maybe the whole marathon metaphor is flawed in this case because publishing The Renegade Chronicles felt a lot like crossing a finish line. Leading up to that achievement was a series of tasks that required sustained pacing and a “keep your eye on the prize” mentality.

But even with Rebels and Fools, Heroes and Liars, and Martyrs and Monsters displayed on my bookshelf, trophy-like, a new endurance test lies before me—the next leg of the never-ending race.

In the spirit of celebrating small successes along the way, I submit the following 10 marketing and sales milestones:

1. Last month, I got a bit of press thanks to Action Publications.

2. Over the past couple of weeks, I sent requests to roughly 80 book bloggers. Three of them have expressed interest in reading and reviewing Rebels and Fools.

3. I’m on deck to be included in a “Newly Released” list on one website and the subject of an author spotlight on another site.

4. My professional Facebook page recently reached 100 likes.

5. The Fond du Lac Public Library now carries all three volumes of The Renegade Chronicles.

6. I’ve sold 75 “units” over the past six weeks. This includes paperbacks, individual e-book downloads, as well as the three-in-one digital collection.

The flag of Denmark

Right now, someone in Denmark might be reading my book. How cool is that? | Photo by US CIA via Wikimedia Commons

7. Three of those e-book sales were from readers in Denmark.

8. Last week, I received some very positive feedback from someone who doesn’t typically read fantasy: “I wasn’t sure if I would (like it). This isn’t my normal genre. I struggled just a little in the beginning trying to keep track of who all the characters were, but after that I was hooked. … I love the number of strong female characters, the bit of romance, all the adventure and plot twists. … I’ll be sure to post a great review when I finish.”

9. I will be the featured speaker at a Fond du Lac Area Writers’ meeting in June.

10. On June 17, I will be the featured artist at Cujak’s Wine and Coffee Bar during the Tour the Town Art Walk in Fond du Lac. (I’ll provide more information closer to the event.)

On second thought, writing, publishing, and book marketing are not so different from actual marathon running. The finish line is simply a measure of progress, not a true end—because there’s always the next race and another opportunity to improve.

Thanks for reading my blog and for your ongoing encouragement. I’m convinced “word of mouth” is the most effective form of marketing, so if you know anyone who likes fantasy adventure, please tell them about The Renegade Chronicles!

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5 ways to support the writer in your life

Do you know someone who is committed to the craft of writing? Congratulations!

Maybe this writer is a relative, in which case you have destiny to thank. Or maybe you’ve befriended someone who has been bewitched by the notion that stacking words one atop another to build a story can be fun and profitable.

Either way, if you’ve spent any amount of time around a writer, you’ve probably already learned a few things about this admittedly strange species:

She might have told you how she came up with the idea for her story and why it’s awesome.

He probably dished on the details about his creative habits or writing schedule or preferred typeface.

Perhaps she shared her protagonist’s astrological sign.

(On second thought, maybe condolences are in order.)

Here’s the thing about writers. We spend a lot of time alone, populating a private world with imaginary friends—er, people—and thinking about topics reserved solely for storytellers and serial killers (e.g., how much midazolam would it take to knock out an average adult male?).

Eventually, we need to come up for air and share some of our “head happenings” with the wider world…or, at least, with our most-trusted loved ones. (That’s you.) And that means his success as a writer depends, at least in part, on you.

So whether they are still in the planning phase, frantically pounding out the first draft, or up to their elbows in edits, here are a handful of ways you can support any writers who cross your path:

1. Encourage them

In addition to a killer concept and mad composition skillz (i.e., the two sides to every story), thick skina strong spine, and enough patience to fill a Buddhist monastery, a writer needs encouragement to survive.

Oh sure, we might be able to sustain ourselves for stretches on ego alone, but eventually our confidence fizzles, and refueling is necessary. We need to be told that we aren’t wasting our time. These proverbial pats on the back can take the form of compliments. For instance, if an idea they share sounds cool, tell them. If nothing else, praise their dedication to what so often can feel like a hopeless pursuit.

Face-to-face chats are great, but don’t forget about Facebook and Twitter and wherever else in cyberspace your writer roams. Follow their author accounts. Like and share their posts. Comment on their blogs. If you engage them online, others might also!

(Yes, I actually wrote the word “cyberspace.” Apologies.)

2. Read their stories

Every writer needs readers. This is true even before a book or short story is published. Alpha readers, beta readers, pre-readers—whatever you want to call the role, you are a prime candidate for being the first eyes on a story.

You aren’t obligated to give a thorough appraisal of the piece, and no one should expect you to play the part of proofreader, but some feedback is appropriate. What did you like? What felt a bit off? Praise is always appreciated, and depending on your rapport, constructive criticism can be very helpful too—emphasis on “constructive.”

But never leave a writer hanging. You gotta give ’em something. And if you don’t make it to the end of the novel—or even the end of the first chapter—let the writer know. You can soften the blow by saying something like, “I don’t think I’m your target reader because this part didn’t work for me…”

3. Buy their books

Encouragement can come in a variety of forms, including financial support. In fact, one surefire way to show the writer in your life that you approve of their writing is by sponsoring them. Just ask my wife! (Insert rimshot here.)

Sure, there actually are donation/sponsorship websites like Patreon, but the most forthright way you can support your writer is by buying her book. Even if you still have an early draft on your e-reader from back when you served as a beta reader. And even if you don’t plan to read the thing cover to cover. Owning a copy of your writer’s book proves, definitively, that you give a damn.

It’s not just about the money, either (though that helps). The more sales a book receives on a site like Amazon.com, the better its ranking becomes; the higher the rank, the greater the visibility—and, therefore, the greater the opportunities for additional sales.

4. Review their books

five out of five starsHere’s where support starts to feel an awful lot like work: After you’ve read the book, write a review and post it on Amazon and as many other sites you can find that carry the book.

Actually, this isn’t as onerous as it sounds. No one expects you to write a college-essay style literary criticism piece that compares your writer’s story to Great Expectations. A few sentences will suffice, and if you have more to say, great! Be honest, but if there’s a lot you don’t like, maybe focus on the stuff that shined. Then copy and paste copiously around the web.

Why are book reviews important? People tend not to trust a book until it has 100 or so reviews. Sadly, it’s the quantity of book reviews—more so than the quality of what’s written in them—that prompts customers to put a book in their cart. Ten 5-star reviews just seem less trustworthy than dozens of reviews that average to 3.5 stars. Strange but true.

5. Spread the word

Whether self-published or traditionally published, any writer worth his carpal tunnel will spend time and money on promoting and marketing his book.

But a single writer can cover only so much ground. Even Jesus saw the value of sending His followers far and wide to share the Good News, thus increasing His geographical footprint. I’m not saying you have to quit your job and become a full-time missionary for your writer’s fiction, but if you come across folks who might like the novel, tell them about it.

Or, better yet, lend them a copy of the book.

Bottom line: Successful writers need readers, and as the friend or relative of a writer, you can make a significant impact on whether her attempt to “make it” as an author turns out to be a nightmare or a dream come true.

(Besides, haven’t you always wanted your name to appear on an acknowledgements page?)

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4 reasons why fiction writers struggle with marketing

Please excuse me while I make some excuses.

You see, I’ve read 3,009 articles about how fiction writers need to become savvy marketers and self-promoters if they want their books to succeed commercially, and I fear I’m becoming a convert. (This very blog is evidence of that.)

Many of these how-to editorials cover common ground, but every now and then I discover one that contains tidbits I hadn’t uncovered before, as was the case with “10 Things Authors Ought to Know about Book Marketing.”

And even though writing advice is often rife with contradictions, one theme rears its draconian head again and again when it comes to writers and marketing: you should start your marketing strategy well in advance of your book’s publication.

Blocks of Swiss cheese

No time or interest in marketing your fiction? How about some cheese with that whine? | “Swiss cheese cubes”. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Even if you don’t have anything else published yet.

Despite the chicken-and-egg paradox this presents—how can I get fans when I don’t yet have anything for them to be fans of?—I can appreciate the proactive approach presented in articles like “When should you start marketing your book?”

With so many marketing tips for fiction writers out there, I’ve come to a couple of deducations:

  1. Self-promotion must be important.
  2. Writers, apparently, aren’t inherently good at it.

But why don’t fiction writers approach marketing with more gusto? Read on.

Disclaimer: These are not universal facts about the fascinating and complex animal that is the Earth-dwelling author. They are possible truths about most fiction writers…or some fiction writers…well, at least, one fiction writer.

Excuse #1: We don’t have time.

Just about every writer I’ve met wishes he or she had more time for fiction writing. So when it comes to finishing that short story or meeting a novel’s daily word-count quota, that must come first, and writing blog posts, participating in forums, and engaging in other social media inevitably fall to the back burner.

Or off of the stove entirely.

On the other hand, I’ve come across very successful bloggers who seem to prioritize their marketing strategy above their fiction, periodically lamenting about their lack of progress on the latter. I suppose procrastination takes many forms, including other potentially productive, writing-related activities.

Certainly, there’s a balance to be maintained when it comes to creating a writing schedule—not this!—and even small steps can reap benefits.

Another thing to consider is that while promotional writing and fiction writing share some commonalities—including the arrangement of words and punctuation—the two disciplines have significantly different skill sets. Just because someone can crank out a novel, it doesn’t mean he or she innately understands or will excel at marketing writing. (Just ask anyone who has ever reduced a 100,000-word manuscript down to a single-sentence synopsis in order to hook an agent or editor.)

Learning how to promote one’s writing and oneself as an author takes time too.

Excuse #2: We don’t like talking about ourselves.

If fiction writers thought they, as individuals, were particularly interesting, they would be writing memoirs, not novels. Self-promotion (especially if done heavy-handedly) can sound an awful lot like bragging.

Fiction writers might sprinkle autobiographical details throughout their plots and into their people, but it’s far more comfortable to couch personal thoughts and emotions in imaginary scenarios.

While putting a piece of fiction out into the world does open us up to criticism, how much more vulnerable is an author when he or she puts him- or herself out there…as him- or herself?

It’s one thing to weather the blow when a reader bashes our characters and quite another to endure venom directed at our own character.

Excuse #3: We’re a little antisocial.

Writing can be a very solitary experience, and I suspect the craft attracts more than its fair share of introverts.

Think about it. We don’t need anyone else when it comes to thinking up ideas, performing our finger exercises at the keyboard, or tinkering until we’ve hammered out a full-fledged novel.

(Which isn’t to say that there aren’t advantages to letting others assist in the process, such as joining a writers group. Also, if you want to go from being a dabbler to a bona fide published author, you’re going to have to depend on others somewhere along the path from final draft to sale-worthy book.

These days, marketing—when done well—requires a certain level of networking. However, we authors generally prefer one-way narration to two-way conversations. And if we are engaging with the masses, we find that we must become “fans” (or “friends” or “followers”) of others in order for them to even think about being “fans” of ours.

One hopes that there are other motivations and rewards for networking with other writers and readers of your genre (other than just future sales), yet there is something inherently predatory when it comes to joining online communities, in particular, with the ulterior motive of building a fan base—even when you do it “right.”

Plus it can be difficult not to take it personally when forays into the marketing arena don’t pan out—such as when an insightful and time-consuming blog post doesn’t garner any comments. (HINT HINT!)

Perhaps worst of all, networking blurs the lines between author and audience as well as creator and creation, when we really just want to be appreciated our work. Because at the end of the day…

Excuse #4: We want our writing to speak for itself.

Yes, it’s naïve, but I believe there’s a part of every fiction writer that thinks if he or she writes something wonderful, a handful of people will read it and love it, and then news will spread faster than a virus in a zombie flick.

Sadly, that’s almost never how it works, and even though the popularity of self-publishing has put an awful lot of power in writers’ hands, that doesn’t necessarily diminish the challenges of getting your story to the reader. Even authors who go with traditional publishers have to pitch in when it comes to promotion if they want their books to get noticed.

With an ever-increasing amount of competition for readers’ time and transactions, there is no shortage of other writers who are trying to do exactly what you’re doing.

“If you write it, they will come” just doesn’t work.

No more excuses…

Even if there’s some merit in these excuses, it doesn’t change the fact that marketing one’s fiction is essential.

If we ignore the business side of writing, we might as well keep our manuscripts stored safely in a box under our bed or on a hard drives and forget about publication altogether. A book that isn’t nurtured by a deliberate marketing plan—or, at least, exposed to some occasional sunlight—is bound to wither.

What’s the best way to approach marketing? There are at least 3,009 articles out there to answer that question, but I’ll add this: when it comes to the challenges of marketing, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach—not so unlike fiction writing.

Good thing you’re so darn creative!

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What else a writer needs to succeed (Part 2)

Missed Part 1?  Here’s a quick recap:

  • Yes, a successful writer must come up with creative ideas and adeptly wield words—a master of the craft of writing—but other essential attributes sometimes get ignored.
  • For example, writers of all skill levels ought to grow thick skin.
  • No matter how well-written your manuscript or book is, some people won’t like it.  Some might even hate it and voice their opinions publicly.  Deal with it.
  • Constructive criticism is a gift.  Make use of what you can and ignore the rest.
  • Resist the urge to lapse into despair if you get a negative reaction or a lambasting review.
  • And defy the urge to defend your work.  Don’t tell your readers they are wrong.
beached jellyfish

Jellyfish can be graceful creatures, but outside of their comfort zones, the lack of spine proves to be a major disadvantage—not so unlike writers. | Photo via Wikimedia Commons

At first glance, the picture I painted of the well-adjusted writer might resemble some spineless creature, smiling timidly as his work is ripped apart.

But even if writers tend to absorb ideas from the world around them like a sponge, that doesn’t mean they should lack backbones like said sea creatures.  In fact, if there were classified ads for novelists, I’m pretty sure the following phrase would be prominently featured:

Invertebrates need not apply

I stand by my advice that serious writers should keep their mouths shut and ears open when it comes to feedback (positive or negative).  So much about art is subjective.  Anyway, arguing your point isn’t likely going to make the masses suddenly adore your book.

In all likelihood, vehemently defending your work will only make you look like a jerk.

Ultimately, your story will have to speak for itself.  However, keeping a healthy distance between creator and creation doesn’t equate to spinelessness; on the contrary, it suggests there is a strong backbone supporting the aforementioned thick skin.

Because, at the end of the day, a writer does have to defend her decisions, if only to herself.  When rejection rears its ugly head, when years of hard work doesn’t seem to be paying off, when it feels like the rest of the world is rallied against you—that’s when a backbone is needed most.

Even if a solid support system is in place, there will be times when a writer must be his own cheerleader.  He will have to muster the energy and enthusiasm to press on even if his last blog post attracted only a handful of readers or yet another agent passed on representing the manuscript he sacrificed so much to produce.

Without a backbone, the tag-team combo of inevitable obstacles and increasing doubt will reduce a writer to a puddle of goo.

A backbone also combats the reclusive tendencies that plague many writers.  Let’s be honest: the act of writing is potentially isolating at best and incredibly private at worst.  Some of us choose this artistic expression—as opposed to, say, acting—because we can do it whenever we feel like it…on our own terms…behind closed doors…in the safety of our own homes…

But unless you’re content with being a mere dabbler (not that there’s anything wrong with that), you’re going to have to put yourself out there.  Sure, you could go the Emily Dickinson route and isolate yourself, but I’d argue that an author’s fiction benefits from many and varied life experiences.

Anyway, if you want the world to embrace your work—while you’re still alive—you have to take active steps to be a part of that world.

Even if you’re not a card-carrying risk taker, writers must embrace some measure of extroversion if they are going to get the word out about their book.  I don’t care if you’ve been picked up by a major publishing house or are single-handedly peddling your self-published novel: Your biggest promoter will always be you.

Maybe that means joining a few online forums filled with readers of your genre or networking at national conferences.  Even if you’d rather spend all of your free time fashioning fantastic fiction—or if you’ve always hated blogs—today’s writers know that self-marketing comes with the territory.

With some extra layers of skin and a strong spine, you’ll be well-equipped to step boldly into the wild frontier that is modern publishing.

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What’s in a (brand) name?

When one first decides to become a novelist, many important questions come to mind:

Even though the first question is the only example that impacts the act of writing, all three are related.  However, I suspect most writers don’t spend too much time pondering genre.  One typically decides to be a writer after coming up with an idea (or twelve).  Choosing a genre to write tends to follow the same thought process as choosing which genre to read.

Cover of Stephen King's "Under the Dome"

Note the size and placement of the author’s name.  Would I have purchased this book if Stephen King’s name weren’t on it?

A lifelong fan of science fiction and fantasy, I always saw myself as a conjurer of tales that contain magic, mad science and/or other manipulations of the laws of reality.  I didn’t overthink it.

And while I did grow a full beard and pretentiously smoke a tobacco pipe for a few months in college, I’ve dedicated more time to addressing the second question above: real name or pen name?

In my early days of being a writer—when I spent nearly as much time fantasizing about how wonderful being an author would be as I did writing actual fantasy—I came across the same bit of advice for up-and-comers time and time again: Start with a pen name.  That way, if at first you flop, you can always try, try again without carrying any baggage with you.

When at last you’ve taken the publishing industry by storm and the masses finally appreciate your literary, then you can start slapping your real name on the cover.  (You can also let your new readers know about the various non de plumes you collected over the years to boost sales of those older books.)

Call it confidence or just plain cockiness, but I quickly decided such pessimism wasn’t for me.  Why bravely venture down the road of achieving my dreams while preparing for—no, planning for—the possibility of failure?

So then the big question became how to write my real name.

David Williams?  Far too common.

David M. Williams?  Better, though not by much.

D. Michael Williams?  Hmm…

D.M. Williams?  We fantasy writers do seem to like initials…

But in the end, I settled on spelling it all out.  And while future journalistic and PR writing would bear a byline of first and last name only (mostly because throwing in a middle name just seemed pretentious in those situations), I vowed all fiction would unabashedly boast my full name.  No guts, no glory, right?

Having made that important decision, I was able to move onto arguably more important endeavors, such as writing novels, editing novels, finding an agent, creating this website, etc.

So imagine my surprise when the big question recently made a reprise.

Oh, David Michael Williams will be the name that appears on the proverbial spine of my speculative fiction—from sword-and-sorcery short stories to sci-fi series.  But what about other types of fiction?

No, I’m not talking about erotica or the steamier subgenres of romance.  Or gruesome horror thrillers whose macabre details might inspire my neighbors to install extra security.  Or even essays that take a politically controversial stance.

I’m talking about a chapter book for children.

Here’s the thing: An author’s name is more than a mere label.  It’s his or her brand.  And if you don’t think brands are important, take a look at the covers of books penned by New York Times bestsellers.  While a newbie’s name likely will be printed at a much smaller size than the title of a book, a name like Dan Brown or David Baldacci takes up more space than the title.

Nora Roberts could slap her name in big letters on a half-finished crossword puzzle, and people would buy it.

If you need further evidence that brand names do matter, consider this: When Stephen King wrote the book Thinner under the pen name Richard Bachman, he sold 28,000 copies during the first run.  But after the public learned Bachman was really King, ten times as many copies sold.  Same product, different results…simply because of the brand.

Now if any of these heavy hitters decided to genre jump (and if the experts are to be believed), he or she should create a pen name so as not to confuse fans.  After all, if Dan Brown put out a collection of poetry, readers expecting another Robert Langdon adventure would be more than a little disappointed after the first stanza or so.

Even writers who aren’t household names are advised to adopt aliases when dabbling in multiple genres.  Because writers aren’t just people who write anymore.  We’re also supposed to be business experts in our own right; masters of our one, chosen genre; and personas with an online presence in order to engage prospective customers.  Therefore, each specific audience requires a separate identity.

I’m told that in order to be successful, writers must also be marketers, self-promoters, and subtle salesmen who don’t wait for their target audience to find them, but rather relentlessly seek them out.  Just about every how-to article on the internet instructs authors to develop websites, engage in social media, and build their brand online and offline.

That’s a lot of work for one person (especially when that person already has a full-time job, wants to spend time with his family, and, oh yeah, actually write new stuff now and then).  Juggling multiple brand names means either investing more resources into self-promotion/marketing or splitting up what time has already been allocated for such things among the various personas.

Today I’m David Michael Williams and tomorrow…someone else?

Once again, I find myself tempted to flout conventional wisdom and do it my own way.  If I’ve learned anything on this long and winding road toward publication, it’s that the entire process—from conception to sale—is as much art as science…with a little of the arcane tossed in for good measure.

And while I understand the danger of confusing and perhaps disappointing readers, I’m pretty sure most folks are smart enough to realize that If Souls Can Sleep and The Pajamazon vs. The Goofers Twofers are intended for two distinct audiences, even without seeing their covers.  Besides, most stores are pretty good about clarifying categories.

Sometimes I fear the business side of books distracts writers from our chief concern: the craft of writing.  We spend a lot of time these days plotting how to get more manuscripts into readers’ hands, and maybe that’s unavoidable.  But I, for one, am ready for another reprieve from thinking about my own appellation and, instead, selecting the perfect name for my next villain.

At the end of the day, I’m an ordinary guy with a very common name who likes to write books for various age groups.  I’m happy to share my thoughts on different aspects of the craft, but I can’t claim to be an expert.  I’ve put away my pipe and shaved off (most of) my beard because I’m not a celebrity and don’t care to be one.

Granted, that’s not a very compelling brand, but I’m just naïve enough to believe that the words in my novels should matter more than those on the About the Author page.

What is your thought on pen names and managing multiple author names?  Comment below and/or weigh in at Writers Poll: real name vs. pen name

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I should be thankful, but…

These are exciting times for writers, I’ve been told.  Often.

Never mind that fewer hardcover and paperback books are being printed and distributed throughout the country.  Even though brick-and-mortar bookstores are going the way of the typewriter, I’ve been assured there’s a bright dawn on the horizon for those who have stories to share with the world.

Thanks to the Internet, e-books and a cornucopia of other online resources, it’s easier than ever for fiction to flow from writer to reader.

The traditional publishing model, if not dying, is being forced to evolve.  And while The Way Things Are shift closer to The Way Things Were, many people are celebrating the fact that electronic formats make self-publishing an option for anyone with a tale to tell.

Consider this excerpt from Social Media Today’s “How Social Media is Changing the Publishing Industry”:

“The days of having a book in your head and never seeing (sic) in print are long gone.  Any writer or author can now bring their (sic) book to life with self-publishing and a viral social media campaign.”

Am I the only one who doesn’t necessarily see this as a good thing?

Let’s start with some of the pros for self-publishing:

1. A self-published author can earn more money per book sold.

2. Social media channels give writers the ability to plug their product 24/7.

3. There’s no editor to say, “No, your work isn’t good enough.”  ANYONE CAN PUBLISH A BOOK!!!

Why wouldn’t previously unpublished novelists be throwing their hats in the air?  No more rejection letters from big, bad publishing companies!  You always suspected the public would rave over your book, and now there’s no hoity-toity, fascist editor to block your progress.

At last, the Internet has made the publishing industry a democracy, where the people can choose what they want to read out of the widest array of possibilities imaginable!

But here’s the thing: Even though the old system was imperfect (as evidenced by the apparent decline of traditional publishers and an ever-decreasing number of new authors sharing shelves with the few big names), I actually liked the idea of having professionals decide which manuscripts get the thumbs up or thumbs down—even if it meant getting rejected.  The bar was set high, and I was happy to have something to work toward.

And because I’m a reader as well as a writer, I like going into a bookstore and knowing that the hard-copy occupants of those many shelves were pre-screened by someone who understood what was likely to be popular and, therefore, enjoyed by one or more target audiences.  I liked the fact that there were bookstores…

Sadly, I see the landscape of e-publishing not as a democracy, but as anarchy.  In an online arena where any word-slinger can make his or her mark on any number of websites, the average reader has to spend as much time dodging egregious affronts to the English language as finding exactly what he or she was looking for.  There used to be a “right way” to get published; now anything goes.

It’s like the Wild West, which was also free-spirited—but ultimately dangerous—place.

So when I hear the occasional success stories of those who have self-published or signed on with one of the many small online presses and made a ton of dough, my inner cynic can’t help but chime in:

1. A self-published author can earn more money per book sold, but there’s no guarantee anyone is going to find or download your book, and the more wannabes who put a 99-cent price tag on their novels—or worse, give it away for free simply because they want readers—the actual value of books go down in the public’s mind.

2. Social media channels give writers the ability to plug their product 24/7, which means that anyone who ever wanted to write the Great American Novel (or yet another Twilight rip-off) is doing the exact same thing, so good luck getting noticed.

3. There’s no editor to say, “No, your work isn’t good enough.”  ANYONE CAN PUBLISH A BOOK!!!  Which means for everyone decent book out there, readers will have to sift through hundreds of horrible manuscripts that shouldn’t have seen the light of day.

Or the glow of an e-reader, for that matter.

The fact that the article excerpt above contained two grammatical errors in the first two sentences only underscores my concern of quantity trumping quality.  Just because anyone can write and publish his or her work in a digital format, it doesn’t mean he or she should.

This Wild West of the written word—while an exciting environment for dabblers; experimenters; and writers who don’t mind making time to be their own editors, publishers, and publicists—presents a more pessimistic scenario for readers, who will have to sift through a lot of worthless rocks to find those sparkling gold nuggets.

And writers those who have the raw talent and the fortitude to hone their craft (and make it darn near perfect before publishing it one way or another) will have to depend a lot on the luck of the draw.

Eventually, however, the Wild West will be tamed, and a status quo will come to the formerly anarchic arena of online publishing.  A just system will emerge to distinguish the true talents from the dreamers.  Hopefully, more authors will find financial success because there will be more opportunities than before the “Gold Rush” and less competition from all the cowboys who thought having Microsoft Word and an idea or two were enough to qualify them as good writers.

So even though I should be thankful to living in a time when, theoretically, I can get my fiction in front of as many readers as possible, I’m far more thankful for the opportunities that remain for selling my manuscript to a traditional publisher and that there’s still a chance I might see one of my novels, as a hardcover or paperback, in an actual bookstore.

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Art vs. entertainment

Jealousy is an emotion we unpublished novelists know too well.

Every success story of an out-of-nowhere-bestselling writer stirs up a storm of frustration, indignation, and, at times, incredulity.  Why not me?  What did that guy or gal do that I didn’t do?  Why does he or she get a lucky break when I’ve been working so hard for so long?

Never mind that in many cases, the wunderkind has worked equally hard, if not harder.

I had already considered myself a die-hard fantasy fan when J.K. Rowling came onto the scene.  I couldn’t believe how many people who had never picked up a book with a dragon on the cover were suddenly under the spell of this modern-day fairy tale packed with borrowed mythologies and tried-and-true tropes of the genre.

A self-purported purist, I refused to read a single page of that upstart’s story.

Eventually, I caved—in no small part because of my wife’s relentless insistence that it was worth my while to read the series—but I’m pretty sure my initial goal was to find evidence that the imposter and her Chosen One storyline could not stand up to the true fantasy authors I had enjoyed for years.

In hindsight, a couple of things have become clear: One, J.K. Rowling is a very talented storyteller, and it would have been a mistake if I had let my jealousy keep me from enjoying the epic tale of Harry Potter and pals.

But jealousy plays only a part in my wont to make snap judgments about “the next big thing in books.”  The other side of the coin is my presupposition that sudden popularity somehow invalidates the integrity of the literary work.

In other words, if the masses love it, it can’t be excellent.

Yes, even a genre geek like myself can be a literary snob sometimes.  I was wrong about Ms. Rowling, and I’m glad I gave Dan Brown and Suzanne Collins a shot.  However, I stand behind some of my other suspicions of overnight successes.

For instance, when 14-year-old Christopher Paolini’s Eragon hit big, I swallowed my skepticism and read the book cover to cover—and was bored out of my gourd.  The predictable story failed to draw me in, and I found the writing itself adequate at best.

How could this book have become a best-seller? I wondered, and then I attributed it to the hype of a his being a teenager author.  Perhaps his age was more of a novelty than his fiction.

To be fair to Mr. Paolini, I probably wasn’t the target audience for his books, and I know of some adult fans whose interest in the Inheritance Cycle has waned from volume to volume.  But if I had been a younger reader who hadn’t been introduced to certain fantasy themes in other series, I might have enjoyed his story more.

Then Twilight came out, and I found myself rolling my eyes all over again.  I could forgive angsty teen girls for falling under the garish and sparkly spell of a vampire-human-werewolf love triangle, but why were grown women so infatuated with this insipid story?  I even tried reading it to see if I were missing something obvious.  Nope.  The prose was amateurish; the plot, slow and simplistic.

Clearly I wasn’t the key demographic for that series either.

But it was some time during Twilight’s rise to fame that phrases like “guilty pleasure” and “mind candy” started popping up.  Fans of Stephenie Meyer’s fiction would claim that the books were just fun, and even if they were superficial in some ways, it was a fun escape.  And isn’t that what entertainment is all about?

In a word: absolutely.

But is that what art is all about?

Um…well…

And this is where I start sounding elitist all over again.  Entertainment tends to cater to the masses because most forms of entertainment strive to make a profit.  The more fans you get, the more dinners you get to eat at Red Lobster.  In the entertainment industry, the quantity of fans (i.e., customers) trumps quality of the work (i.e., product).

I have no problem with grouping television shows, films, and video games in this category (though many examples do much more than entertain), but somehow books seem like they should aspire to be something more than escapist fun.  Art shouldn’t just be about a rollicking good time on a page.  Art should be deep, its themes and cultural commentaries transcendent of the story itself.

Entertainment is bubble gum.  It tastes good for a while, but it loses its flavor quickly and has no lasting nourishment.  Art, on the other hand, is a savory feast that assails the senses with complicated flavors, an experience that sticks with you even after you leave the dinner table.  Sometimes that lingering feeling is the result of a satisfied stomach; sometimes it evokes a decidedly uncomfortable sensation.

Therein lies the problem: Art isn’t about making people happy.  It’s about making them think and feel a wide range of emotions, exposing them to different aspects of the human condition.  It’s not primarily escapist because that might preclude the possibility of empathy and internalization.

Alas, there is no “art industry.”  Companies that seek to make money pump promotional dollars into what a snob might call drivel but what the masses call a beach book or “a fun read.”  Companies publish what people pay for, and apparently, the people want steamy stories without a lot of substance.  Hence, Fifty Shades of Grey.

I’ve heard people say that writers shouldn’t get jealous when a book does well because there are plenty of readers for all.  Also, any book that gets people to read is a win for all writers.  I might agree if I didn’t suspect that superficial and salacious treats like Twilight and 50 Shades of Grey (which, incidentally, started as Twilight fan fiction) were taking literature to the lowest common denominator.

I realize it’s bad form to criticize other authors, especially since my fiction has yet to be published.  We live in a democracy where people vote with their money, and thanks to e-books and social media, self-publishing and self-promotion have never been easier.  Anyone can be an author.  Allegedly, anyone can become a successful author as long as they give us customers exactly what we want.

But what about what we need?

Perhaps people need to escape.  Perhaps they need books (and movies and TV and video games) to shut out reality and lose themselves in makebelieve.  Perhaps books should encourage us to turn our brains off instead of turning them on.

No.  I just can’t buy that.

Then again, maybe even this cynicism comes right back to jealousy.  Maybe there are depths to today’s bubblegum fiction that simply elude me, and my fear for the fate of literature is unfounded.  Maybe it’s OK for books to aspire to be entertaining and profitable and nothing more.

Because if I ever become a bestselling author—if my novels prove appealing to the masses—no doubt there will be some aspiring author who pages through my book and questions the quality therein.  Maybe I’ll be accused of being shallow or a sellout.  That’s the thing about entertainment and art: brilliance is in the eye of the beholder.

I just hope the next literary triumph skews a little more toward artistic than entertaining.

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