Please welcome J.C. to Writer Unboxed! This is his first official post with us as a monthly contributor, and we are thrilled to have him.
There comes a point in the life of your Work In Progress when — hot dog! — it’s no longer a Work In Progress. The sucker’s done, you did it … heck, you frickin’ nailed it, and the time has come to query agents, or present it to your agent or editor, or self-publish. The rest of this essay assumes that your work will resonate with the appropriate gatekeepers, and soon soar beyond your grasp, off into the world, to be consumed by an audience.
This distribution could come in the form of a big-name publisher, an indie press, DIY-fueled print on demand, self-recorded audio podcast, home-brewed blog serialization … whatever. Point is, it’ll be out there. But unless you’re blessed with an existing audience (fancy-pants publishers call this a “platform,” though I prefer the term “wicked awesome fans”), few people are going to know about it. Your brilliant tale is bobbing in a sea of other brilliant tales. Your signal is lost in all that noise.
To leave the success of your work completely in the hands of a publisher publicist is foolish; that professional may be talented, but he’s pimping at least twenty other books this month, and is spread so thin, he gives Laffy Taffy a run for its money. To believe that random word of mouth alone will differentiate your stuff from other novelists’ is equally wrongheaded; how can people gab about something they don’t know exists? You’re a writer, which means you’re probably broke, so self-funded ads are out of the question. And doggone it, Oprah isn’t returning your calls.
There’s a dozen-dozen ways to combat the great enemy Obscurity — but this month, I recommend making friends. It’s good for business.
Cranking out that novel (or other creative work) was a solitary act: It was just you and the words. Now that it’s in the wild, you’re personally, ethically obligated to give it every chance to succeed. Reaching out to published peers and influencers can help. By contacting fellow players in the industry, you can earn the attention of colleagues, share your content across multiple fan-bases, and increase awareness for your work.
Now remember, making friends is good for business. And business is what you should be most concerned about, now that you’re staring down the howitzer barrel of earning out that advance. Make-believe time is over. You’re no longer a wordsmith; you’re a businessperson. It’s time to strategize. You gotta move books, man.
So make friends. Do some research. Find online-savvy authors in your genre — or compatible genres — who like to blog, are on Facebook or Twitter, or release content in other interesting ways (like podcasting). Examine what they’re talking about in these spaces, especially if they’re talking about other authors. This is a good thing, particularly if you’re already a fan of their work. This is an opportunity to make friends.
Reach out to these authors with a respectful email that gently flatters and then gets down to business: You’d like to engage their audiences in a creative way that helps boost awareness for your work … and in exchange, you’ll promote the authors’ works via your online outlets. It’s a mutually-beneficial opportunity for you, the person you’re pitching, and both audiences.
I’m all about making such offers, often with creators who’ve never heard of my work. Despite the seemingly impossible odds, I have found it to be particularly effective in not only forming win-win alliances with fellow creators, but making true friendships. Those are also good for business.
For instance: I’m a writer who releases his novels online as free serialized audiobooks. Each week, new chapters of my novel (which I record myself) are released on my site and on iTunes as a podcast. I’m part of a small-but-growing subculture of authors who use this content-powered “loss leader” strategy to build an audience for our stuff.
Scott Sigler  is another popular podcast novelist. A few years ago, Scott and I got to talking. We’re both thriller writers. (Scott writes brilliant sci-fi horror; I roll with technothrillers.) We were releasing our then-unpublished podcast novels at the same time, and we both craved larger audiences. What if we combined our efforts and promoted each other’s work in an innovative way? Since our manuscripts weren’t published anywhere in “ink,” we could alter the manuscripts, and make references to each other’s novels within our own work. Better still, we’d host a contest for our listeners: They’d have to listen to both books to catch these “crossover” references. Those who spotted all six crossovers could win a prize.
The cross-promotion worked. Our audiences grew exponentially, and we now share a great many fans. We consistently promote each other’s work on our podcasts and websites. We found common ground, discovered an untapped opportunity to cross-promote, and ran with it.
Your cross-promotional pitches need not be so ambitious. You could scheme on something as simple as a series of mutually beneficial Twitter “tweets,” a blog post, mentions on your Facebook pages, an ad swap, a one-minute audio commercial to play on a podcast … the low-impact list goes on and on.
Want to upgrade that cross-promotion? Consider a short fiction collaboration, serialized at your websites. (Part 1 would be at your site, Part 2 at your collaborator’s site, and so on.) Team up for appearances at conventions, and promote this “twofer” appearance to your audiences. (This increases the number of attendees, and widens your net for new customers.) Same goes for book signings, if geography and budget permits. You’re limited only by your imagination, and the interest level of your cross-promotional partners.
Of course, the more successful the creator you’re pitching, the more likely they are to either ignore your request, or reject it. That’s cool. But don’t let the fear of rejection stop you from pursuing an alliance. Heck, it didn’t stop you from writing your book or querying agents, so why should the possibility of “no” stop you now?
In fact, my mantra is “All they can say is no.” I’ve pitched popular podcasters, bestselling novelists, film actors and directors on my fiction, often asking them to lend a hand (or credibility) to my projects. This crazy-ass breed of chutzpah has scored endorsements from the creators of Friday the 13th, The Blair Witch Project, Final Destination, several movie stars, “cameo” podcast appearances by cast members of Firefly, Battlestar Galactica, and more. Their assistance either dazzled my fans — which is also good for business — or helped move the needle with the promotion of my work.
I share these successes not to brag, but to prove that this strategy is extremely viable, and that it gets people talking about your work … which is the whole point, right?
By approaching influential creators — and equally important, creators on the same influential “level” as you — and asking them to help evangelize your work, you’re offering them an opportunity to provide something of value to their audiences. They’ll be talking about something cool and interesting. People love to read or hear about cool and interesting things. Plus, these creators benefit by your cross-promotional love via your online outlets. Every fan counts, and new fans are precious indeed, whether you’re a noob or a veteran.
By making friends, you’ll also form meaningful bonds with fellow authors. Cross-promotional potential will become more evident, the more you correspond. These professional alliances become personal ones — and even more opportunities can spring from these relationships. I’ve referred colleagues for freelance fiction writing work, and they’ve opened doors for me. It’s not a magic bullet to a love-in, but goodness, does it make book promotion easier and fun.
So make friends, whenever you can. Target colleagues in your genre and reach out. They’ll likely be flattered to know that you want to help tell the world about their work … and may very well respond in kind.