Welcome to the Talkative Writer’s guest post with Australian speculative fiction writer Peter M Ball.
Peter Ball is the manager of the Australian Writer’s Marketplace and co-ordinator of the bi-annual Genre Con writer’s conference. His SF and fantasy short fiction has been published in Strange Horizons, Apex Magazine and the Harper Voyager anthologies Dreaming Again and Year’s Best SF 15. In 2009, he won the Aurealis Award for Best Science Fiction Short Story. His novellas Horn and Bleed are currently available through Twelfth Planet Press, and he’ll be releasing Flotsam, an urban fantasy novella trilogy set on the Gold Coast, through Apocalypse Ink publishing in 2014. Find him online at www.petermball.com.
And now here is Peter in his own words:
There’s all sorts of advice out there about how to write a book. There is remarkably little that tells you what things will be like once the book is finished and released into the world, waiting for other people to read it. When you hit that point, you’re more-or-less on your own, despite the fact that it’s a strange and bewildering time for an emerging writer.
My first book, Horn, came out back in 2008, right about the time when I first met Karen. My third, Exile, was released onto the virtual shelves a few weeks back. I have a weird relationship with having new books out. See, I’m a part-time writer. Half my days are spent at the keyboard, producing new words. The other half are spent working for the Queensland Writers Centre and managing The Australian Writer’s Marketplace, where I spend a lot of time talking to aspiring, emerging, and established writers about their careers.
That combination tends to warp your thinking a little. For me, having a new book out isn’t just an exciting thing where I’ve sent a new story into the world; it’s an experience I examine for teachable moments. Which is why, when Karen asked if I’d be interested in writing a guest post for her blog, it got me thinking about book releases, the things that caught me by surprise when I first had a book out, and the good advice you get from friends who have been there before and offer their guidance.
With that in mind, I put together a list I like to call: THE FOUR THINGS NO-ONE TELLS YOU ABOUT HAVING A NEW BOOK OUT
ONE: YOU REALLY NEED TO FIGURE OUT HOW TO TALK ABOUT YOUR BOOK
When I first asked Karen if she had a specific goal in mind for the guest blog, she suggested just talking about the book: why I wrote it, what sparked the idea, what I’d like readers to take away.
My immediate response: oh, boy. That may not end well.
See, if you Google my name and wade deep enough into the pages of results, you’ll eventually find links to a series of interviews I did when Horn was first released. Being a young and naïve writer at the time, I thought my job was done the moment the book came out, so when an interviewer asked me to describe the novella I’d just launched, my answer was basically: “Um… ”
Things didn’t improve much, after that. I spent much of the interview stammering out answers about my PhD, which I’d recently decided I wasn’t going to finish, rather than talking about the book I was trying to convince people to buy and read.
It took me about three years to figure out the best way to talk about Horn, and it proved to be remarkably simple: Horn is a hardboiled novella about unicorns for readers who really hate unicorns. It’s a neat synopsis because it invites questions, and lets people know up-front what they’re getting into – unicorn lovers should stay away.
If I’d only thought of it three years earlier, I could have saved myself some really embarrassing interviews.
Fortunately, I’m going into Exile a little smarter than I was three years ago. I’m more or less prepared to talk about things and know the key points I’d like to focus on. And while it’s tempting to focus on the trappings of the story – cults, demons, occult hit-men and an oncoming apocalypse – Exile is really the beginning of a three-part series of books where I convince people the Gold Coast is one of the most Gothic places on earth.
That’s both the spark and the thing I’d like readers to take away, all rolled up in one sentence.
TWO: BE READY FOR THE SOUND OF SILENCE
When established authors release a new book, it becomes news. There’s a flurry of reviews and conversations, guest posts and interviews. There is an audience out there eager for information and the internet goes out of its way to provide it.
When you’re an emerging author – a term that’s flexible and can be applied to someone with four or five books out – the most likely response to a new book is silence. You’re still in the process of earning your audience, rather than feeding an established need, so the reviews are slower to appear and there are far fewer guest-post invitations and interviews.
It’s easy to fret about that silence. It’s only natural, ’cause you really want your book to succeed, and publishing is a slow-moving business where feedback on how well things are going can take a period of months. Don’t mistake silence for failure, and don’t panic when there’s no-one talking about your book. This goes double if you’re working with a small press.
I’ll say it again: when the silence hits, don’t panic. Odds are your book is doing exactly what it’s meant to be doing, and the best thing you can do is go get started on your next one.
THREE: YOU HAVE TO HUSTLE (AND REMEMBER THAT VERY FEW OF US ARE NATURAL SALESPEOPLE)
Having just told you not to panic, I’ll now contradict myself: be prepared to hustle a little. The social reading site, Goodreads, spends a lot of time researching what it is that actually makes people pick up a book and read it, and the truth is that authors hard-selling their work rates way below word of mouth and recommendations from trusted sources.
Even then, it usually takes between 6 and 12 touchpoints – moments where your book is brought to the awareness of reader – before they break down and buy it. The more trusted the touchpoint, the fewer you need, but it’s still a process that builds up over time. The presentation where they explain this is fascination and the notes are freely available online; I strongly recommend any aspiring writers (and curious readers) go check it out.
You can’t make people talk about your book if you’re an emerging writer, but you can go to the places where people are already talking and be part of the conversation that’s already happening. This is where the hustle comes in. Take the opportunities to get out there and talk about things. Promote your book by being part of the conversation.
Note that I said part of the conversation. This is a very different thing to shoving your way into a conversation and selling your book. It seems counter-productive, but the hard sell is one of the worst things you can do when you’re an unknown author; there is nothing more untrustworthy than an emerging writer with a new book on the market. Your authority is completely shot. Everyone is waiting for the sales pitch to begin, and you’ve got about the same credibility as a shonky used car salesman.
Just show up and talk about the things that interest you. Mention your book in your bio. Engage with readers and create a touchpoint that you can build on in weeks or months to come. Let other people find the book and talk about it, ‘cause their friends will trust them far more than they’ll trust you.
FOUR: YOU’RE IN IT FOR THE LONG HAUL
There are people who are on the fence about ebooks and their effect on the industry. Personally, I’m a fan, for one big reason: my books aren’t going away anytime soon.
This is a big contrast to the print market, where the initial promotional drive for a book has usually been accompanied by the knowledge that it will be hard to find outside of the initial two-month window after it’s first released. Bookstores, after all, only have so much space on their shelves, and it’s largely devoted to the new, the shiny, and the perennial classics of every genre that sell reliable numbers.
It’s hard to blame bookstores for this: If I were running a bookstore and I had the choice between stocking, say, a print copy of my books or a copy of The Hobbit, I’m perfectly happy to admit that The Hobbit is the better choice for that space. Tolkien has a profile in the fantasy genre that’s pretty damn hard to beat. The odds of someone coming in and looking for my books are pretty slim.
And that’s okay, right now, because like many writers I’m in it for the long haul. My career isn’t defined by the success or failure or one book, but of multiple books released over the course of my lifetime. Barring unexpected death, worldwide apocalypse, or a sudden global disinterest in the act of reading, Exile isn’t the last book I’ll publish.
Don’t get me wrong: I’d be happy to see the book succeed and disappointed if it fails, but ultimately I’m aware that it’s one book among the many I hope to write before I’m done. With ebooks making my backlist perpetually available, each of those new books is a new chance to snare readers I missed the last time out.
In my day job I speak to a lot of writers who think of their first book as an all-or-nothing affair – the thing that will make or break their careers. That makes perfect sense, when you’ve only got one book ready to go, but it’s not entirely true. When you look at the careers of many full-time writers, they’ve got backlists that span multiple books and frequently have more on the way.
It’s not the new release that makes or breaks a writer, but a sustained engagement with their audience over time. Release your book, do the promo, but always remember to write the next thing.
That’s a lesson, coincidentally, I learned from my esteemed host, Karen, back when my first book was released, and it’s still one of the best bits of advice I’ve ever received as a writer.