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.