Monday, July 8, 2019

The Case For Being a Writer, Not a Marketer

A lot of things have been swirling around in my brain about writers and getting paid.

First, a little bit of background might help set the stage. In 2008 I left the world of software development. I volunteered to do websites, for free, to members of Batavia Mainstreet, an organization devoted to helping promote Batavia’s downtown, which consists of mostly small businesses. At the same time an artist’s cooperative, Water Street Studios, was forming in Batavia. I worked with artists from that organization. I realized that many artists were not good marketers. I became a bit obsessed with the idea that artists, and later mostly writers, should get paid for their work.

It’s now 12 years later and I don’t have much to show for my efforts. A couple of books have influenced my recent thoughts.

I read Journey of a Novel: The East of Eden Letters by John Steinbeck. He kept a journal, written in the form of letters to his agent, while writing East of Eden. I found it fascinating. First, Steinbeck was unsure of his writing. East of Eden was not his first novel. The man had an American classic, The Grapes of Wrath, already written and published, yet he still seemed unsure, insecure, about the quality of his work. More to the point of this post, he only mentioned issues related to potential sales of his new book a couple times, and only in the vaguest terms. He didn’t write anything about his “platform,” his book description, the book cover, garnering book reviews – none of the things today’s authors have to contend with. 90% of his concerns were about the story. The other 10% of his journal entries were about his pencils; the man was obsessed with his pencils.

This book, along with other things I read, made me start to question the wisdom of self-publishing. I expressed these thoughts in public and a friend recommended I read How to Land (and Keep) a Literary Agent by Noah Lukeman. I read the beginning of the book and then stopped, convinced this wasn’t the way to go either. First, Lukeman recommends authors adopt a 20 year timeline. 20 years to hone our craft, find an agent and get published! I’m 62. Many of my clients are older. Waiting 20 years is just not practical. He may, however, be right. That is depressing. Shortly after reading that, I came across the chapter on the author’s platform. An author is expected to have a website, a robust social media presence, a podcast or YouTube channel, a public speaking business, and ideally interviews on national media outlets like CNN. All this is before landing an agent or publisher! It made me wonder: what do agents and publishers do anymore? I know the answer; I’ve published posts on that question before. The answer is nothing for new or midlist authors.

Where does all this leave me? Despair? Not really. It has shifted my attitude, my expectations, and hence my advice to writers.

My new advice: obsess about the quality of your writing; stop obsessing about sales, especially online sales. I wish I knew the secret. I don’t. But, I’m now convinced no one else does either. Focus on the only thing you can control: the writing. A lousy book cover will deter sales, but a really expensive book cover guarantees nothing. Write a good book description. You’re a writer; at least spend the time to try and sell your book, do the best you can and then forget about it. You already know how I feel about formatting: keep it simple and cheap. Expensive formatting will not sell more books. If you enjoy them, do readings and signings. You’ll sell some books and have some fun. If you enjoy blogging and social media, do it. If you have the money and think you can write some ads, try it. But, if all this sounds like a drag, then stop trying to be a businessperson. Just stop.

Forget all the online marketing tricks, especially the ones that cost you money. Most of them are just another way to separate you from your money.  Consider this from JA Konrath, an author who has sold more than 3 million books, both self and traditionally:
“Bookmarks don't work on me, so I don't give them away. I don't click on Facebook ads, so I don't buy Facebook ads. I've never gone out of my way to go to a booksigning, so I no longer do booksignings. And so on. I'm not saying that these things don't ever work for other authors. But if it doesn't work on me, I don't do it.”
Consider how you buy books. I have never once gone to BookBub, or participated in a giveaway. I don’t browse for books, so the “magic” of the cover doesn’t really matter to me. I get suggestions from friends, on Goodreads, or in my writing group, or I read about the book in a mainstream newspaper or magazine. That’s how I develop my list of books to read. How do you come across books you end up reading? Use that to decide how to market your own books.

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An aside: the entire article by JA Konrath is pretty interesting. It’s title, On Writing Shit, caught my eye and it’s worth reading. Basically, he says don’t try so hard to make your book perfect, it’s just not worth it. It’s destined to become a future blog post. Read the entire article.
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Get working on the next book. Enjoy writing again! If you want to be an artist with words, be that and skip the rest. Life is way too short to do otherwise.

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