Discoverability remains the one elusive skill writers have to master, especially indies and small press authors. A couple writers and I kvetch about this constantly. It used to be “Just put it out there. They’ll buy it.”
And then easy access to Createspace and ebook platforms swamped the market. Then it became “Oh, just get a great cover.” To do that, you had to 1.) be good at Photoshop, or 2.) pay someone. Except I a.) sucked at Photoshop (Hint: Composite images take a lot of time and care), and b.) I was broke most of the time. At one time, I paid a professional editor on the theory that I can either edit or buy a cover, but not both. And honestly believe the worst person to edit a writer’s work is the writer.
Then it became about newsletters. I used giveaways to build the list. At one point, my mailing list was over 600 people. Most of those have been culled in the Great GDPR Panic of 2018. (Let us pause for the victims of that tragedy… OK, great pause!) But it wasn’t GDPR and a lack of response from subscribers. Some didn’t open at all. Nevermind clicking links. They didn’t open the damn newsletter. A friend of mine said they subscribed because the giveaway was basically a raffle. They didn’t win the Amazon card or their free books, so they just ignore the newsletter they signed up for. She calls these people “free whores.”
Have to agree. We’re not doing this as a charity.
The problem is that we, as writers, see something that works. Except so does everyone else. And when everyone is doing it, it no longer works. “Oh, look. He’s stripping to ‘You Can Leave Your Hat On’ like [insert indie author who hit the NY Times bestseller list stripping to music from The Full Monty] did. Too bad a hundred other people did that.”
Indie pub, which I’ve recently abandoned, has been called “a shit volcano” and for good reason. A lot of awful books are getting published. And selling. It’s not that the public wants the literary equivalent of Sharknado. It’s that they’re cheap or free. You can scroll through one in a couple of days and not have to challenge your brain any.
My friend scrupulously tracks her promo efforts (which explains why she’s selling better than me.)
But as I see people hit it out of the park, it comes back to the same thing over and over, lessons learned from traditional publishing:
- Write a good story: And that means being yourself. Yes, the closer you get to the traditional publishers, to more you have to put up with blockbuster syndrome. (How does that work, anyway? It always results in huge losses. I blame lazy accountants.) But breakthroughs are either original or strike a nerve or simply land in a spot where people are looking. Fifty Shades of Gray may not exactly be Philip Roth material, but women are just as horny as men, and they want something beyond porn. So maybe not a good story, but your story. Otherwise, why does anyone care?
- Make it look good: Covers matter, which is why I went small press. I don’t have the time to devote to mastering Photoshop at a level I need to make my covers look as good as they need.
- Know your audience: Not sure, but my audience is largely between the ages of 35 and 65, about evenly split between men and women. Which means they’re not as enamored with their smart phones or as prone to shrugging off “old” things. Mind you, at 14, I was into classic rock when it was still called “old junk.” But my audience grew up on Star Trek, the original Star Wars, and see Christopher Reeve as Superman. (Actually, I don’t mind Henry Cavill, but I do wish DC would hire some damn writers.)
I generally have stopped chasing trends in marketing. By the time you hear about them, they’ve stopped working. None of the social media advice I’ve been given has panned out, and I actually unfollowed a writer who was prone to quoting herself a lot. Hey, you say it works, but I’m not hearing Andy Weir say the same thing.