After You Publish

Creative Commons Duane Romanell
Flickr Creative Commons: Duane Romanell

Back in 2004, Mark Zuckerberg and some friends launched a social networking website in his dorm room — Facebook.  By 2007, he was a billionaire.  In 1995, J. K. Rowling typed the manuscript for Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone on a manual typewriter and, after numerous rejections, sold it to Bloomsbury Press for an advance of fifteen hundred pounds.  In 2004, Forbes named her the first person to become a billionaire solely by writing books.

Most writers realize that their chances of selling like Rowling are about as likely as having their blogs turn into Facebook.  But when you’re putting the finishing touches on your first novel – or holding the galleys of your first book in your hand — it’s hard not to imagine it going out in the world and finding a large and grateful readership. Truth is, releasing your manuscript out into the world is a bit like the opening day of a small business.  Exciting as the moment is, the real work is still ahead of you.

That work is usually frustrating and full of setbacks, and sometimes outright failure.  You may run through every agent you can find on the internet and get nothing but rejections.  (Note:  I’m assuming your manuscript has been revised, edited, and proofread until it’s genuinely ready.)  If you publish with a small press or self-publish, there’s a fair chance you’ll sell three dozen copies in your first two years.  If so, the good news is, this is pretty typical – it doesn’t necessarily say anything about the quality of your writing.

The bad news is, this is pretty typical.

Beginning writers are held back, first, by the fact that they’re beginning writers.  It’s like applying for your first job and hearing that no one can hire you without job experience.  Despite what you might have heard from companies offering to up your presence on search engines, most readers buy books because they know what they’ll be getting. They’re most likely to buy something by an author they’ve read and enjoyed before — it’s no surprise how sales of The Cuckoo’s Calling jumped after J. K. Rowling was revealed as the author.  They might also buy on the recommendation of a friend or a reviewer they trust – again, someone who’s already read the book.  This means the best way to get a readership is to already have a readership.

The problem is, with your first book, you’re starting with a readership of zero.  Building your readership from scratch is slow and painstaking.  You fight to get your name out to the public but only pick up a handful of readers with each book signing or online chat or $0.99 e-book giveaway.  Sending out thirty review copies might net you five good reviews in hometown newspapers or small, out-of-the-way blogs, which will garner a few more readers.  But if you’re good, those handfuls of readers will tell their friends about your first book and probably buy your second.  That’s how your customer base builds.

You’re also likely to be handicapped when you’re first starting out by being published by a small press.  Kind of like running your first business out a rented garage a long way from the 4,000 square feet on Main Street you’d like to have.  Since bigger publishers are still oriented toward blockbusters – the sort of books they can spend half a million dollars promoting for a ten million dollar return – small presses are the most welcoming home for writers who are just starting out.  Thing is, e-books and POD have made it much cheaper to produce a book, but marketing costs as much as it ever did.  A small publicity budget just doesn’t buy much.

A couple of years ago, a client of mine (who asked that I withhold his name to protect his relationship with his publisher) published a series of international thrillers with a small but respectable press.  He did everything he could to boost sales.  He sent out review copies and got a number of good reviews from other noted writers in the genre and from Kirkus.  He hired a publicist and got the book placed in creative venues — such as several large independent bookstores in the city where one of the books was based.  He started a blog.  But many of his efforts were hampered by the small press’s lack of resources.  For instance, his publicist had timed the release of one book in the series with National Mystery Month, but his publisher didn’t get him galley and review copies in time.  This isn’t necessarily a sign of incompetence.  Since each book earns very little money, small presses have to juggle a lot of them with a very small staff.

If you keep fighting despite the setbacks, you can build your readership.  A writer I’ve known for many years published the first of her theme mysteries more than a decade ago.  Though they were published by a mainstream press, she hired her own publicist, arranged her own book tours, and managed to place her books into unique venues.  Slowly her readership built.  By her fifth book, she had broken into the New York Times extended bestseller list.  She hasn’t made a billion dollars (yet), but she is making a living with her writing, and her earliest books – the ones that only garnered a few readers — have now been collected together into anthologies.

So don’t let the battle to build your readership discourage you.  It’s always worst when you first start, and it does get better.  In the meantime, I invite anyone who has found anything that helps to post your ideas right here.

0

About Dave King

Dave King is the co-author of Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, a best-seller among writing books. An independent editor since 1987, he is also a former contributing editor at Writer's Digest. Many of his magazine pieces on the art of writing have been anthologized in The Complete Handbook of Novel Writing and in The Writer's Digest Writing Clinic. You can check out several of his articles and get other writing tips on his website.

Comments

  1. says

    Interesting post, Dave. Our present industry upheaval feels a lot like being in a Dickens novel: it was the best of times, it was the worst of times, etc. With one novel released from a small press and another soon to be released, your post certainly has the ring of truth about it. My own experience is much as you described.

    One thing that I didn’t notice in your list of PR techniques is connecting with book clubs. I fell into this because so many of my friends and acquaintances are readers and book club members. It is s slow process, but when you have even a small group of people who are thrilled to hear you talk about your baby, it certainly builds one’s morale and makes the difficult PR job feel easier. It also makes it more likely that the book club will want to read your next book as well. Book clubs do not always require an in-person visit either. Thanks to conference calls and book plates that can be signed and mailed to readers, I can connect with book clubs in distant cities and give them an experience almost as good as my being there.

    Wish I had more tricks up my sleeve, but this is pretty much it for now. Look forward to hearing what others have to suggest!

    0
    • says

      Actually, Linda, that one trick is a good one. Book clubs are an excellent way to connect with readers — there’s something about meeting the author in person that sticks with you.

      Thanks

      0
      • says

        Hi Dave. Great article! I am just starting out, working on my debut novel. It is great to know what to expect. How does a novice go about connecting with book clubs? That sounds like a great resource. Thanks again.

        0
        • says

          It depends on your location, of course. I’d just try the Google machine and see what you come up with.

          Or would any WU readers have any suggestions?

          0
  2. says

    Dave, this reminds me of how much of a balancing act we have to do at all stages of our writing careers. In the beginning, it’s trying to carve out the time to write. And later, we must balance it with other tasks. I like the idea of only doing what you enjoy for promotion, and building a readership slowly and steadily through good books. Yup.

    0
    • says

      I think good books are the key. If you aren’t writing something worth reading, no amount of publicity will sustain your career.

      I remember a talk given by Patrick O’Connor, a legendary editor, in which he said that a full-on, no-holds-barred publicity campaign could generate no more than about 400,000 sales. This was why he read every book that ever cracked 1,000,000 in sales — there had to be something real there.

      0
  3. says

    Good, honest post, Dave. Wouldn’t you agree that we’d better love what we are doing first? I mean, we need to be writing for ourselves, and then we can trust that other readers will want to get in on the fun someday, too.

    I know this is simplistic, but it is the basic reality that keeps beginning writers sane. Well, at least it works for me.

    0
    • says

      It’s true. In fact, if you get into publishing for the money, you probably won’t make it. The writers who sell best are the ones that are writing because they love it.

      0
  4. Denise Willson says

    Writing is, I suppose, like everything else worth having: a lot of hard work, and a dash of luck.

    Thanks for the wonderful post, Dave!

    Denise Willson
    Author of A Keeper’s Truth

    0
  5. says

    Dave-

    Back in 1996, I invented a term: the five-book threshold. That’s on average how many books it takes to gain a solid foothold with readers.

    It can be fewer titles, it can be more. The point is, it takes a while for readers to find you, trust you, and start talking. There does come a tipping point, happily, where your fans are either a group large enough or loud enough for some of them to start recruiting more.

    A few days ago, commenting on a post by Robin, I described authors’ annual income as a sloping curve. The beginning of the curve feels long and flat. If all goes well, especially the writing, then the curve begins an upward turn. The first part of the curve is the first five (or so) books. The upward turn is fans buzzing.

    Eventually there comes a point when an author stops worrying about any of that. People start to talk about the author and her latest title, pretending that they’ve read it. That’s when a reputation has taken hold. The author has has proven herself dependable. She is a steady and excellent storyteller.

    If readers of your post feel discouraged by your realistic picture of the post-pub road, Dave, they might think of themselves as a rock band. Not even the Beatles were an overnight success. They toured, played clubs, wrote and honed their craft for years. Maroon 5 did the same and so did countless other musicians and bands.

    Gotta sing for a while before lots of people start listening. It’s not just time passing: It’s you, getting better.

    Outstanding post, Dave, thanks.

    0
    • says

      The five-book threshold sounds exactly right. I’m hoping that readers of this post will be able to fend off discouragement long enough to hit the threshold.

      I almost went with the rock band analogy, which is apt, but I don’t know enough about the music industry to avoid foolish mistakes. In terms of finding creative ways to get your work before your audience, I do remember that They Might Be Giants, in the early eighties, began recording their songs as the greetings on an old, tape driven answering machine. (Kids, ask your parents.) Fans could call a number in Brooklyn and listen to the latest song.

      0
      • says

        Dave, you said, “The five-book threshold sounds exactly right. I’m hoping that readers of this post will be able to fend off discouragement long enough to hit the threshold.”

        In addition to readers of this post, what about publishers? In the current marketplace, is it realistic to expect publishers to stick with an author through four or five less-than-blockbuster books? Or are you and Don assuming that the author will have to change houses a few times in order to hit that threshold?

        I know so many authors who’ve been dropped after book two (or in some cases, even book one) delivered disappointing numbers. This makes it hard for me to picture a publisher hanging in there for four poorly selling books, hoping that the fifth time’s a charm.

        Thoughts?

        0
        • says

          You’re right, this is a problem. Especially since writers, once they start selling well, often move to another publisher where they can make more. So publishing houses are even more unwilling to nurse a beginner through the early books only to watch them jump ship as soon as they start to pay off.

          On the other hand, if your sales are steadily growing, and if you’re willing to put in a lot of effort yourself, smart houses will stick with you. Especially if you’re writing a series. Series authors are wise to stay with a single publisher so that the entire series will have a consistent look. Consider how unmistakable the Anchor versions of Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency books are. Going the distance with one publisher also opens the possibility of boxed sets and anthologies.

          But a lot of writers may have to run through one or two publishers before they really hit their stride.

          0
          • says

            I agree with Dave, it’s a problem. Authors can get dropped by their publishers too easily, too soon.

            What I’d add is this: The reason is sales, which are determined not by publishers, booksellers, media or anyone else. It’s determined by consumers. Readers. They are the voters. They’re the ones your campaign is trying to reach.

            Dave said something else true: “If your sales are steadily growing…a smart house will stick with you.” (And smart authors will stick with their house.)

            Fact is, most publishers take on debut authors on a two- or multiple-book contract for that very reason. They need more than one title to gauge the trend in sales. Again, those sales come from readers which means we all know what to do: Tell great stories. Rinse. Repeat.

            Dave, I’ve very glad you didn’t go into rock’n’roll. This publishing gig is tough but you’ve got the chops. Always a pleasure to read your smack-on advice.

            0
  6. Marcy McKay says

    Sometimes I think WHY I am doing this (writing/struggling, struggling/writing)? Then, I remember, I can’t NOT write (excuse the bad grammar). I have to write, like I have to breathe. So, the my best ammo is to write the best book I can (then another and another). Great post, Dave.

    0
  7. says

    Really good advice here and I like the perspective of not letting the battle of building readership be a discouragement. It is a difficult swim for the little ducks in the big pond. And we little ducks (self-pubbed and/or small indie pubbed) work extra hard to produce high quality stories so we can compete. I think what disturbs me most is when I see a big name book publisher that I know and trust put out poor quality stories that they just advertise the heck out of for sales.

    I recently read a book by fairly new author, at a very famous publisher, splashy full-page ad in NYTimes Book Review, lots of favorable pre-pub reviews by fellow authors, many Amazon customers’ reviews via free review books, but the story was really poorly executed in the writing. Heavy narrative distance, way too much passive voice and overuse of the verb “to be,” way too much “telling,” and the back story dumps that went on for pages throughout diluted all the suspense into a choppy mess. I think this really was a huge editing failure on the part of the publisher since the characters and storyline were good. This author needed someone to reel in the mechanics of the story and tighten all the screws. Don’t the big time publishers do that anymore?

    I guess what I’m saying is that it appears that we little ducks in the pond are swimming harder and longer than the big ducks who are quacking and splashing all over the place.

    0
    • says

      Paula, I know from another client’s experiences that the publisher is, as you say, often to blame for shoddy sequels. My client had a three-book contract with a major publisher in England. The first books were fairly successful, so the publisher put pressure on him to deliver the third as soon as possible. It didn’t leave him a lot of time for considered rewrites, let alone a thorough developmental edit. It’s a foolish practice on the part of publishers since they wind up damaging the author they’re trying to build. But it is often good for the short-term bottom line, and they consider that reason enough to do it.

      Incidentally, the first book of the trilogy — the first book he published — was the fourth novel he had written. As I said a few months ago, some of the development you go through happens before you sell that first novel. (http://writerunboxed.com/2013/11/19/creating-a-masterpiece/)

      As to whether publishing houses still edit books today, some do, certainly. I’ve even encountered some agents who are gifted editors. But I suspect that a lot less editing happens than there used to. That’s why it’s a good idea to hire an independent editor to work on your manuscript before it goes out.

      0
      • says

        I was wondering if a writer would be wiser to hold on to their MS until they have three or so ready? That way you can get them out before the public in a period of maybe six or eight months, sort of like a blitz attack :)

        0
      • says

        This brings up another question. I have been trying to weigh the pros and cons of traditional publishing vs. self-publishing. It is enough to make my head swim, frankly. I see favorable and unfavorable points for each. My question is, why not self-publish if you have to pay for an editor anyway? I know that distribution is the biggest attraction for traditional, but yet, there are still many of the same problems as one that self-publishes. It seems like with the big houses, unless you have a big name and are known, they don’t try hard to promote you, so you have to promote yourself anyway. So, again, why go the traditional route?

        0
        • says

          This is a good question, especially since mainstream publishers do tend to show less respect for midlist books.

          One answer is that, with a mainstream press (even a relatively small one), you are more likely to have skilled professionals designing your book — people who know how things like font and margin size affect readability. Yes, if you self-publish, you can hire a professional book designer, but many authors don’t think of it.

          Also, mainstream presses still serve as gatekeepers. Sadly, self-publishing (especially e-publishing) is so cheap and easy that a lot of writers who aren’t quite ready to publish do so anyway. They end up wasting time promoting a book that is too flawed to sell well when they should be learning to write more effectively. It’s hard to accept that all those rejections you’ve accumulated mean you should either rewrite your book from scratch or start a new one, especially since it’s not necessarily true — some really good books are repeatedly rejected. But for many writers, that hard truth is the truth.

          0
  8. says

    Good stuff, Dave – thanks for posting.

    I also think that the small presses should try to take advantage of the added nimbleness a small organization can ideally have. In particular they can learn a lot from current best practices used in promoting self-published books. Strategic promotions for deep discounts and/or giveaways have proven themselves very effective in garnering reviews and raising the Amazon rank for ebooks, with relatively minimal cost and no sacrifice of physical inventory. The result can be thousands of readers, rather than dozens.

    0
  9. says

    Wonderful work and advice here, Dave. Thanks. I am one week from launch of my first book (selfie-pub w/small press.) Through daily prodding beginning back in January and enduring many unanswered emails/phone calls/personal pitches and refusals, here’s where I am at:

    Three weeks from now I will have books in 7 countries and at least a dozen states. Locally in Northern CO I’ve managed wholesale sales to two locations, consignment sales in two others will have consignment review application into an independent retailer in downtown Denver. My book will be in two vacation homes and a hostel in Puerto Rico, homes in Saudi Arabia and in the Philippines, rental homes in OR and WA, in the hands of a charitable foundation creator in CA, etc.

    There are a few others, some I’m still waiting to hear from, but I’ve approached this as a journey in exposure. I am fortunate to be able to give several (upwards of 40+) books away for free to different venues to do nothing but increase exposure and feed the word-of-mouth sales, with the sole purpose of gaining momentum for books two and three to follow.

    The future is still uncertain, no doubt about it. So I go at it today and don’t worry about tomorrow, until it arrives as today, and I will attack the self-promotion journey some more.

    Thanks for a great post and encouragement it gives us newbies working to cause a small ripple in the ocean of publishing.

    0
    • says

      Congratulations, Dean. It looks like you understand the work required to launch a novel. Getting them placed in guest houses is a nice, creative idea, as well.

      0
  10. says

    Everything you’ve written strikes a chord, but especially the notes in the comments, like Donald Maass’s “Gotta sing for a while before lots of people start listening. It’s not just time passing: It’s you, getting better.” And your response, “The five-book threshold sounds exactly right. I’m hoping that readers of this post will be able to fend off discouragement long enough to hit the threshold.”

    That is it: fending off discouragement long enough to step across the tipping point. Excellent post filled with solid wisdom, Dave. I’ll be thinking about this piece for a long time to come. Thank you.

    0
  11. says

    Hi Dave,

    These are good points, and something I strongly believe in. I’m in the process of figuring out where I’d like my debut novel to have a home, but no matter where that is, I have labored long, driven by a desire to touch readers’ hearts, and, driven by this principle I will continue to write tales and make them better. And a book is a collaboration, of course – author, editor, agent, beta readers, other key people. We can only focus on making them as good as possible as the writer and captain of the ship, and trust that the world-of-mouth tailwinds will carry us onward.

    0
  12. says

    Bummer. A little realism goes a long way. You are right on, of course.
    But, you point to garage businesses as though you’ve never heard of Microsoft, HP, google. Starbucks started out as one dinky little shop. We all have to start somewhere.

    Blessed are the writers who get off on the process. We can focus there.

    P.S. My debut is under contract, and I’m writing book two. Bring on the hard work.

    0
    • says

      It’s true, a lot of great businesses (and bands, for that matter) started in a garage. My point was that your writing career is far more likely to start in a garage (i.e., modestly) than to start in your own industrial park. That stage comes later.

      0
      • says

        Dave,

        You’re right. I admit it can be exhausting, the whole deal. I started out as a journalist, and then got into media relations. When I decided to leave that for fiction writing, I had no idea I would still be marketing, still be selling. I have social media nightmares, actual nightmares. I just want to write books in peace and quiet, but can’t. This brings me back to your original post.

        It’s that place you see in every great rockumentary where the cocky lead singer stumbles off the stage. The drummer looks at the bass player and asks, “Hey man, when is it ever going to be about the music again?”

        0
        • says

          It is a problem, though I suspect that it’s one that authors have always faced. In the nineteenth century, most famous writers also did the lecture circuit — Twain was apparently a great standup. In the eighteenth century, you published a book by convincing donors to support you — an early version of crowdsourcing and Kickstarter. I think that, given a choice between doing book signings and begging strangers for money to publish, I’d prefer the former. And Facebook can be fun — if all else fails, there’s always Candy Crush Saga.

          Of course, there were always writers who simply wrote, such as Emily Dickenson or Gerard Manley Hopkins. But they did it by not publishing in their lifetimes.

          0
  13. says

    Very good post. And I liked Donald’s mention of the 5 book threshold, as it’s a confirmation of what I’ve been telling myself since publication of my first book in 2011. I’m working on the fourth novel in my mystery series right now, and have always maintained that once more books in the series are available, I’ll start to reach the sales numbers I’m hoping for. To back that up, many of the reviews I’ve been getting say the reader is looking forward to the next book in the series.

    I have frequently used the analogy that becoming a successful fiction writer is a marathon, not a sprint.

    0
    • says

      Series often have a real drawing power. I mentioned that readers often buy books by authors they know and enjoy. They’re even more likely to buy books with characters they know and enjoy. Also, as you write several stories involving the same characters and settings, you get to know them much more deeply. The later books in a series are often better than the earlier ones.

      0
      • says

        Yes, I was told to start book two immediately because “people love a good series.” I would also love to mention Don’s writing books are exceptional. I have them all, and they are awash in highlighted scribbles.

        0
  14. says

    While a lot of what you say may be true Dave, I believe that if a writer really believes in his work he will make things happen. You CANNOT sit still. You HAVE TO market your work. I am self published but I have heard from traditionally published authors that it is the same.

    I refused to accept that I would only sell a few dozen copies. I believed that my book could touch people so I ordered 300 copies for my first print run. I sold out within a about a two months. It is five months since my official launch and I have sold over 700 copies on my own. Bookstores and other outlets have sold a few copies but their sales people are not as committed as I am. I try to guess blog and send traffic to my Amazon page but I realize that the more I am out there, the more I sell.

    Yes I want to write other books but I’m not going to wait till I write 5. Unfortunately when readers finish a good book they want more and it’s a disadvantage if you don’t have another one waiting but for now I have to try to make a living with this book, while I write the other. It is a hustle but I am determined to reach my sales target. Everyone wants to be on the bestseller list, but whether I get there or not, I just want to make a living doing what I love.

    I have not totally embraced the social media bug and I do have website shame, so the more I put myself out there, doing radio interviews, book signings, trying new outlets, doing free speaking engagements, the more people find out about my book.

    ‘Write a good book’ was the best advice I got. After you publish – Believe in your book is the best advice I can give.

    0
  15. says

    You’re right that, the harder you work, the more books you’ll sell. But I think you’ll find that your second book is easier going — or at least will give you bigger rewards for the same amount of work — because you’ll be working from the larger baseline you’re already establishing.

    Best of luck.

    0
  16. says

    Thank you for writing this article, Dave. And I agree it is very important to grow your readership. And publishing a book is only one way. Others are by writing for publications such a literary journals. Another is by creating or contributing to blogs. My blog is nearing 200,000 page views.

    0
    • says

      Thanks Leanne.

      One place where I think a lot of writers go wrong with a blog is that they make it solely about their book or about their writing life. Blogs are far more effective selling tools when they have original content that your readers might be interested to read. For instance, if you write modern noir, you might blog about classic noir writers of the forties and fifties.

      0
  17. Ellie Anthony says

    What a great article, thanks Dave!

    It’s a great reminder that anything worth having involves time, effort, commitment and patience, plus a real passion for writing in the first place!

    0
    • says

      Thanks, Ellie. And you’re right about the need for passion. If you’re simply in it for the money, you probably won’t be able to stick with it long enough to make a go of it.

      0
  18. says

    Wait, let me get this straight, with great marketing, a so-so book can ONLY generate no more than 400,000 copies? I am pretty sure that’s a bestseller and a writing career. Sign me up for some blackbelt marketing! On the other hand, I see many GOOD books barely selling because they aren’t marketed by the author or pub house. Isn’t that what the five-book threshold and author growth curve are really about, building an audience over time? You can do this before the book is written. I begrudgingly started two blogs, a twitter account, a Facebook fan page and also began creating videos featuring the setting of my book, Venice, Italy. I also made business cards to hand out, as if the book were already written. I cringed when family and friends took forever to sign-up for the videos or read my blogs but soon found the videos were being retweeted — by complete strangers. When I went to Venice after a year of my vlogs being on YouTube, I was a semi-celebrity because my videos were posted on Facebook pages of the establishments I featured. All with less than 25 videos! Its annoying (or is it?) but people keep asking when the book is coming out. Sure it took time, a long time, but so does writing a book. My brother says “I still think you can write a really book good book & it will sell, without all that other stuff.” Really? Not so sure, from what I see here on WU & at writer’s conferences, its always a grind. So get out & pound the pavement as well as the typewriters.

    0
    • says

      Understand, when O’Connor was talking about an all-out marketing blitz, he was talking about appearances on Letterman and Fallon, full-page ads in the Times (New York, LA, and London) book reviews, author tours and signings that are featured on local TV. You know, everything a publisher with deep pockets can throw at you. And, yeah, sales of $400,000 sounds like a writing career, but if the book isn’t any good, you wind up being a one-book wonder. Even with all the gods of marketing behind you, careers are built on repeat customers.

      I like your marketing approach, though. The videos sound like an excellent, relatively low budget way to generate buzz. Thanks.

      0
  19. says

    Although I haven’t gone down the publishing road, I imagine
    it’s no different than the businesses I’ve created or helped build.
    You need a detailed business plan before you launch your book and
    you need help. One day, when I get away from my blogs and actually
    spend more time editing my latest manuscript, I’ll be happy to give
    it go, but for now I’ll soak up posts like this and hopefully learn
    a few things along the way. Thanks for your perspective
    Dave.

    0