My latest story, Sarajevo Rose, has been published in The Antigonish Review, on shelves now (if you’re in Canada). http://www.antigonishreview.com
Thought Catalog published another article of mine, which you can read here:
Once again, it was kindly received. I’m getting more and more into this kind of writing; it’s like eating soup when you’re sick because it’s the only thing your sick stomach can keep down. Fiction is an uphill slog for me right now, and it’s so much easier to just write about what’s going on in my life, and get instant feedback from readers.
Also, I took the photo that’s used in this article. And while it’s noisy as hell due to my inexperience at shooting in close to perfect darkness, it is the first photo I’ve ever had published. So that’s kind of cool.
It’s a little over a year since I published Scar, and the promotional effort has finally run out of steam, so I thought I’d share a few thoughts on the whole process of bringing a book like this into the world.
This industry is a joke. I’ve worked in my life in a few different fields, but never have I encountered the lack of professionalism I’ve found among those who work in the publishing/media industry. In fairness, an alarming amount of bloggers, reviewers, radio hosts and writers are, in fact, amateurs, working at something they love in the off-hours they have outside of their regular, paying jobs and their lives, so they get a free pass. Likewise, some people I’ve worked with have been fantastic. However, I have been deeply disappointed by the blithe indifference of some ‘professionals’ I’ve dealt with.
By way of example; I was scheduled to be interviewed on a major national arts and culture program, the sort of coverage I barely dared dream of. For months, I was told I was going to be on the show – then suddenly, one day I wasn’t. Just like that, they decided not to do it. Likewise, I was told I would get coverage in a national newspaper; that didn’t happen either.
If I sound bitter, it’s because I am. I almost wish I hadn’t got so close, because I never expected to get coverage like that. But to be promised it, and to have those promises broken, took a huge chunk out of my enthusiasm. This is not in any way unusual, but for me, it was unexpected, so be warned. In media, nothing is real until it actually happens. I had to stop announcing upcoming interviews or reviews because so many of them fell through at the last minute.
I can’t complain about the coverage I did get, though. For an unknown writer with a self-published novel, I got a good deal of media attention – way more than many people in a similar position to me. And what did that attention get me? Next to nothing.
Luckily, I went into publishing Scar with what I hoped were reasonable expectations. ‘If it sells 500 copies’, I thought to myself, ‘I’ll be happy with that.’ Well, I’m not happy. Scar is still for sale, and as a self-published book on Createspace, will never go out of print; it’s possible that someone will be buying a copy of Scar after I’m dead. So the final numbers are never in. But with thousands of books published each and every day, and Scar now a year old, and with me no longer attempting to get any kind of media coverage, it’s safe to say that Scar has reached its twilight years. Not only am I nowhere near my dream of supporting myself through writing, I haven’t even recouped the money I spent bringing Scar to print and promoting it. Far from being a career, writing for me has become a massively expensive hobby. To date, I’d estimate I’ve sold less than 100 copies of Scar, in all its formats, and that includes friends and family who have bought it.
Yeah, it’s depressing. To work this hard on something, pour your heart and soul into it, and find that nobody gives a shit is not what an aspiring writer dreams of. I would not have chosen this.
But a more fundamental question is, if I could have known what the reception would be like for my book, if I could have known how disappointing this whole process would be, would I still have published Scar? The answer, if there was any doubt, is yes.
This is why attitude is crucial if you want to be a writer. If you’re writing because you think you’ll get rich, you’re doing it wrong. Breaking even is a dream for most of us. I wrote Scar because I wanted to, because I had things I wanted to say and scenes I wanted to write. I wrote Scar to address certain aspects of my past and of myself, to express certain ideas I had, and, if it doesn’t sound too grand, to change who I was. And I did all of those things.
Of course, I could have just written the book and left it at that. I didn’t need to put myself through the heartache of publishing and marketing a difficult novel in an ADD world. My reasons for doing that are not all that clear to me, mainly because I don’t have the heart to examine them too closely. I suspect that I would find something small and unpleasant at the bottom of it all, some pathetic craving to win the admiration of strangers which I have worked hard to weed out of myself in every other facet of my life.
Either way, Scar’s out there, and I don’t regret it. I’m upset that I failed, but not that I tried. There are things I would do differently; if I knew I’d sell less than 100 copies, I wouldn’t have spent thousands of dollars on marketing. But I would still have published, still gotten reviews, still done interviews. Doing those things was its own reward; I had fun doing it, which I didn’t expect. Failure is a prerequisite of life; hiding from it is ultimately the surest guarantee against both success and happiness. So no, I don’t regret publishing Scar.
A couple of weeks ago, I went to see a show put on by someone I consider to be one of Canada’s best songwriters. When he started playing that night, there were three people in the audience, including myself. By the time the show finished, the audience had peaked at four or five. Last night, I was talking about it with some friends. One of them voiced the opinion that if he were that songwriter, he would have left without playing anything; what’s the point?
I disagree, though. An audience of one is still an audience. I always said that if one person was moved by my book, one complete stranger who has no reason to lie, who doesn’t know me but truly loves my work, it would all be worth it. Well, that theory was put to the test with Scar. Some people have really loved this book. People I don’t know and will never meet, who only know me through Scar, were touched by what I wrote. That’s worth a lot.
So my advice to the hypothetical wannabe writer I loosely address this blog to is to be sure in yourself why you’re doing this, and be prepared to fail miserably. If it’s money and fame you’re after, put out a sex tape. Writing is a compulsion; it has to be, like a caged animal obsessively rubbing its body bare against the bars of its cage. There’s nothing else on this world I’d put anything like this amount of work into. My story goes to prove that you can work your ass off, do everything right and still fail.
Writing’s the only thing I ever wanted. The other things people want – material possessions, relationships, careers – never really interested me, and I never made any great effort to acquire those things. Interestingly enough, though, all of those things happened while I was busy chasing other dreams. Maybe there’s another lesson in there somewhere.
Will I write again? Almost definitely. Will I self-publish again? Quite possibly. The publishing industry is still the giant mess it was when I started this blog; in some ways, it’s probably worse. Until publishers start trying to publish quality writing and support and nurture new talent, instead of endlessly chasing the Next Big Thing by mindlessly aping the Last Big Thing, self-publishing still holds out hope to dreamers like me. But I’ll approach it with less starry-eyed optimism, I know that. I’ll work just as hard at writing something new, but I don’t see myself going to the same efforts to promote it. It turns out that all the promotion in the world is not going to make people like my books. Not many people, anyway.
It’s not all bad. A few weeks ago, my ten-year-old niece was told to do a project on somebody she admires. We live on separate continents, but she picked me, because in her mind, I’m this famous published novelist. And at the risk of sentimentality, that was worth more to me than any amount of glowing reviews.
Getting interviewed by the media is not as difficult as you might think. We live in a 24 hour news cycle, and your next door neighbour has a blog. The all-consuming internet beast needs to be fed, and your book could be a tasty little morsel.
You can get interviewed in print. You can get interviewed on the radio. If you’re lucky/brilliant/connected or some combination of all of the above, you can get on TV too. You just have to know where to look.
The Media Kit
The first thing you’ll need is a media kit. This will contain a press release, which sounds fancy but is really one or two typed pages announcing the publication of your book. It should tell people the synopsis of your book, and also why they should care. This is not the time to be modest. Remember: nobody cares that you published a book. Why should they? You need to make them care, by telling them something about the book that makes it newsworthy. Do you explore issues that are currently in the news? Do you offer a fresh perspective on an important topic? Are you an expert in your field? Offer the media something that they can use.
Your press kit should also contain a short author bio, a sample interview Q&A, some talking points your book raises, and high-resolution images of you and your book cover. All of this is designed to make a journalist’s life easier, and make them more likely to want to talk to you.
Now you’ve got your press kit, what do you do with it? You need to get it out to the media; journalists, bloggers, producers. Where do you find them? Well, the internet, of course.
You can find bloggers online, obviously. Newspapers and radio/TV are more difficult, but still doable. Use HARO; this is a free email service that journalists use to find sources. This is probably the single most useful thing I did to promote my book; it enables you to contact people in the media who are actively looking for stories! Just follow the rules; don’t send your press kit to people who asked for something totally different.
As discussed in a previous post, I hired a publicist, and she did most of the pitching for me. With that said, some of the interviews I got came about as a result of my own efforts, and HARO was central to that.
Target, target, target! Do not waste your time sending a generic press kit to a list of impersonal names; even fairly obscure journalists get dozens of pitches a day. Drop a few lines in the email letting this particular journalist know why you chose them, and what you, specifically, can offer their audience. The human touch goes a long, long way.
Often, the best way to get an interview is to make yourself a worthy interview subject, rather than pushing the book. For example: I wrote this article on Thought Catalog. It went viral, and suddenly people wanted to interview me about that, rather than about Scar. The closest I ever got to major national media coverage came from that article, not from the mere fact that I had written a book. It’s 2012, and attention spans are short. Articles get people in the media at least as much as books do.
Be nice. The media industry is still largely one of personal relationships, so you want people to like you. Ultimately, you’re asking these people to give you free publicity, so make it pleasant for them. Make their jobs easier, and they’ll give you the press you need.
One of the easiest ways to get press coverage is in the local market. Does your town have a university? If so, there may be a college radio show that would happily have you on. Community radio is another great place for authors to get attention. The same is true of TV, especially if your book has a strong local angle. My hometown newspaper did a full page feature on me and my book, even though I haven’t lived there for a decade. (Naturally this depends on where you live/are from. If you were born and raised in New York or London, the local angle won’t be as useful. Then again, you’re already in the center of everything anyway.)
Persistence Pays Off
I have to persist in talking about persistence, because it happens to be key to all of this. It takes persistence to write a book; it takes persistence to self-publish. Virtually everything I’ve talked about on this blog requires enormous persistence. Getting interviews is no different.
Jobs in the media are highly desirable, which often means they’re underpaid, if they’re paid at all. You’d be amazed how many people you will deal with in the media that are doing this as a hobby. Anybody can host an online radio show from their basement, and lots of people do. Blogging is not known for the vast amounts of money it generates, either.
As a result, people don’t necessarily have the time to respond to your emails. Life happens. People have jobs and kids and cars that break down, and promoting your book might be quite low on their list of things to do. Every single interview I’ve ever done required multiple emails or phone calls to arrange. And then there’s all the ones I didn’t get to do. Yeah, there’ll be lots of those.
Have fun with it
I’m a classic introvert, but I have to admit, being interviewed on the radio about your book can be a lot of fun. Most radio hosts are pretty genial folks – it’s their job, after all, to get people comfortable and willing to talk to them. Let’s be honest – this is what you dreamed of, isn’t it? I did. I dreamed for years about being interviewed for a book I wrote. I dreamed about doing it on the BBC or in the New York Times, but everybody has to start somewhere. You get to have conversations with people you would never otherwise have met, some of whom may have real insights into your book. After all, writing is a lonely profession, and it’s nice every now and again to hear something back from the void.
Getting press coverage ultimately requires a skill set you should have developed long before you got to this point, because it’s the same things you need to be a writer in the first place. Persistence, patience, creativity, and an ability to cope with failure. It’s another uphill slog, but we’re all just hoping the view is worth it.
My latest interview, with Starla Faye of Two Talk Books, can be listened to here:
I had fun doing this interview. Starla was very enthusiastic about Scar, and read the book very thoroughly in preparation for the interview, which is less common than you’d think.
It’s important when promoting your book to get reviews, from credible reviewers. But remember this: credible reviewers are only credible because there’s no guarantee they’ll like what you wrote. Some may hate it.
Some reviewers who don’t like your book will simply refuse to review it. Others will give negative reviews. You can imagine my feelings when I read this little beauty:
Firstly, he didn’t even finish the book. So how he makes comments such as, ‘the footnotes….are universally unnecessary’ escapes me. The ones he read might seem that way, but he obviously didn’t read many.
Secondly, contrary to his claims, Scar was professionally edited. Nor is it ‘a collection of first-draft ideas rushed to completion’. From conception to publication, Scar took the best part of a decade to write, and about thirty seconds to trash.
Finally, all of his criticisms concern the font or layout of the book. He’s the only reviewer to comment that the book was physically difficult to read, and the only reviewer to write a review that doesn’t mention anything about the writing or the story, concerning himself only with the physical properties of the book.
I could go on.
But here’s the thing: I asked this reviewer for his opinion. In fact, I hounded him for it; you have to when you’re a self-published author trying to get reputable reviews. He gave his opinion. I don’t agree with him, and I don’t agree with writing a review of a book you didn’t finish, but that’s really his call.
Once you put your book out into the public domain, it becomes vulnerable to exactly this. Some people are not going to like it. This is what it means to be published; the public are free to read and judge your book in any way they see fit, bringing to it their own tastes, preferences, prejudices and biases. This goes double for reviewers, who usually have a stack of books waiting to be read, and don’t have a lot of time to devote to fully understanding every nuance of your project.
So take it on the chin. Know that this is all part of the game. The best response to a bad review is silence. I managed that, more or less, until this post. Do as I say, not as I do, I guess. It’s hard – no, it’s impossible not to take it personally when you get a bad review, for me at least. But I asked for this; firstly by publishing a book at all, and secondly by aggressively seeking reviews for it. This all goes with the territory. If you’re not ok with that, don’t publish.
I sat down with Sharon Jenkins, the Master Communicator, for a chat about Scar on her radio show, The Literary Showcase. You can hear my segment here.
Or you can listen to the whole show here.
Come closer. Closer. Listen. I’m going to tell you a secret.
Are you ready?
Nobody really knows how to sell books.
Oh, lots of people will say that they do. Some people have made a living out of claiming to have the secret. Big publishers exist purely to sell books, and make millions, so they must know, right? Wrong. 70 per cent of books make a loss. Think about what that means, especially when the average advance for a first book is $5000. Most books make less than that. And that’s not self-published books, that’s all books published. Seventy per cent. In my non-writing life, I run a pest control company; if 70% of our treatments failed, we’d be out of business in a month.
But if no one knows how to sell books, how are you supposed to sell yours?
If I had the answer to that, I’d be writing this blog from the cabin in the woods I’ve been dreaming of my whole life. Instead, I’m writing it in a basement in a city I barely know. I don’t know how to sell books. But one thing that virtually everyone insists you need to have is reviews.
Book reviews may not be as important to sales as they once were, but they’re still one of the most helpful things you can do to sell your book. Get as many reviews as you can, but know that not all reviews are created equal. Amazon reviews are nice when they’re positive, but everybody knows that they could just be written by supportive friends and family. You can pay people to write positive reviews of your book on Amazon, too, so the credibility is diminished. What helps more is a review from a reputable reviewer.
Now, if you’re not with a major publisher, you’re not going to get reviewed in a major newspaper or magazine. The big publishers buy up ad space in the big papers and ensure that only their own books get reviewed, so unless you have an ‘in’, you can forget about getting a review in The Guardian or the New York Times.
Luckily for us indies, bloggers have become far more important in the last few years, and they’re much more open to reading a book by an unknown . If you’re as small-time as I am, pretty much any blog is good, but here’s a super helpful list of the biggest names in the game: http://www.invesp.com/blog-rank/Books#visit.
Remember when querying blogs to choose carefully; don’t ask a site that only reviews sci-fi to take a look at your romance novel. And don’t be formulaic; these bloggers have writers emailing them all day long, begging for some coverage. They can spot a form email a mile away.
I’ve been fortunate to be reviewed in a few different publications, by professionals. This is the value of a publicist; without her help, I’d have maybe one or two of the reviews I currently do. Here’s the list of professional reviews of my novel as of August 2012:
Yeah, six. It took me and a professional publicist six months to get this many, and as you can see, they’re not all positive. One in particular is brutal – more on that in another post.
For all these reviews, how many books do you think I sold? That’s right, none. Not one. As far as I can tell, these reviews have not helped me in the slightest. People have bought my book because they know me, or because a friend recommended it. Some people found it on goodreads.com; some people read an article I wrote and bought a book because of that. But, at least as far as I know, these reviews did nothing whatsoever for my sales.
So are reviews a waste of time? Well, no. I don’t think so. For a start, you didn’t write Scar; you wrote your book, and it’s not mine, and so just because reviews didn’t work for me doesn’t mean they won’t work for you. Secondly, reviews have a purpose beyond selling books. At their best, reviews by professionals can actually help you grow as a writer. An insightful reviewer can reveal weaknesses you didn’t know you had, making the next thing you write stronger. On the other hand, a really negative review, like all of life’s setbacks, at least offers you the opportunity to grow as a person.
My six reviews may not seem like a lot, but I was happy to get them. The most damning criticism of all is silence.
My latest efforts at promoting myself have yielded these tasty nuggets:
Let me know what you think!
“Do you want to spend 80% of 80% of your time Facebooking about cats in the hope that you’ll make a 2.12% increase in sales on a book you had to write in 18 days?”
I read this article – ironically enough, I found it on Twitter – and I have to say, my own experience backs this up. I’m glad someone was willing to come out and say it.