But even as self-publishing opened the door for a lot of writers to make comfortable livings instead of papering their walls with rejection letters, one common refrain among writers wandering into self-publishing is, “I don’t want to do all the publishing stuff. I want a publisher to do all that. All I want to do is write.”
I know a lot of people who answer that with a condescending sneer. They like to say, “Writing is a business, and you have to treat yourself like an entrepreneur.”
Doing the Bare Minimum
Maybe that’s true, but I think the people quickest to shout it just happen to be the people who are naturally gifted in those areas. Whether it’s business management or social media engagement or product marketing or graphic design…there’s always someone to tell you that this is a fundamental part of your job, and you should be more committed to it.
Personally, I disagree. It’s a fundamental part of your product and of your product’s success, but if you just want to be a writer, that’s a completely legitimate goal. It also means you’re going to have to get clever doing just enough of the work to find success without diving into new and unfamiliar waters in search of success.
For what it’s worth, none of this has much bearing on your choice to go indie or pursue traditional publishing. Even if you have a publisher doing the work for you (and landing a publisher is more work that’s not writing), the publisher will end up asking almost as much work from you as you’d have to spend doing things yourself. I can tell you this from experience.
If you’re ever going to publish your work, you’re going to have to contribute in some big ways. Let’s talk about some of the most basic.
One of the main things writers want a publisher to do for them is marketing and promotion. From what I’ve seen, major publishing houses do provide this. They arrange for review copies, they might schedule some radio or podcast interviews if you’re important enough, and they’ll place your books in bookstores.
That last one is the one that really matter. Visibility in a bookstore is still the most valuable service (by far) that a traditional publisher can give you. Its value is declining with every bookstore that shuts down, and publishers’ power to secure that visibility fades with every rack of paperbacks that gets replaced with an e-book kiosk or a shelf full of boardgames, but books on shelves will get your name out there.
It’s not really enough, though, and the publishers know it. Search the web for “author platform” and you’ll find thousands of articles from writers, agents, and editors telling new writers that one of the most useful things to mention in a query is a strong author platform.
That means that you, as an author, need to bring your own audience to the table. That means self-promotion. It’s usually done via a blog or other social media. Sometimes via newsletters or mailing lists. Book signings can do the trick, too, but that sounds like an awful lot of work to pick up a handful of new readers.
Of course, the most effective platform of all is a track record of hundreds of thousands of sales.
But all of that is work you’re going to have to do. My advice to you is to start a blog right now, and focus on that first. Readers (who aren’t writers) really like to grab a peek behind the curtain at the writer’s life. If you’re quirky and inspired, that reaffirms the fantasy. If you’re boring and real, that lets them sympathize with you (and maybe dream a little bigger after your example).
If you don’t feel like connecting personally with your readers, you could always write to other writers. Writing can be a very lonely profession, and there’s so much mystery and opacity around the path to success that writers are always happy to compare notes and learn from each other. Share your experience–whether you’re just starting out or have already found some success–and other writers will care.
All that talk of “platform” is about promotion in a general sense. It’s promoting you as the author brand. But, of course, to sell a book, you need to spend some time promoting the book.
The two most important tools for promoting the book are the cover art and the product description. I’ll talk about cover art in a moment, but first let’s consider the product description.
I’m using the name “product description,” by the way, because that’s what Amazon calls it. You might think of it as the synopsis or the back-cover copy (although the terms aren’t entirely synonymous). Basically, the product description is the sales pitch for your story.
If you’re self-publishing, you get to craft your own product description and copy it into the “description” box at whatever website you’re using to publish your book. If you’re traditionally published, you get to craft your own product description and copy it into an e-mail to your editor, who will hand it over to someone with marketing experience–someone who almost certainly hasn’t read the book–to clean it up and add some pizzazz.
It’s nice to have a professional watching over your shoulder, but the quality of his revision is going to depend heavily on what you give him in the first place. That means learning to write product reviews is an important skill, no matter which path you choose to publishing.
Covers are much the same way. Unless you’re a natural at the graphic arts, you’ll probably end up relying on someone else to craft the single most important sales feature of your book.
That’s stressful. The best thing you can do to limit the risk (and the stress that goes with it) is to practice developing “cover concepts.”
Learn how to choose scenes that would make good covers. Learn how to provide brief but effective descriptions of the visual elements that a cover artist could capture well. Learn how to find and caption reference images to share with your cover artist, whether it’s a landscape that would make a good backdrop, an actor that’s a perfect fit for your swashbuckling hero, or the exact style of sword he wears on his hip.
Coordinating with the Pros
Whether you’re working with a Manhattan publishing house or doing this stuff on your own, your best bet is to collaborate on a lot of these things with experienced professionals. I lean on Joshua Unruh (my Director of Marketing) to refine all my product descriptions and on Rachel Giles (my Cover Coordinator) to convert my scenes and reference images into beautiful, polished covers.
Having those resources is such a blessing. I’d encourage you to start looking now for some people you can depend on. But while you’re at it, start watching for blog posts from my resources, because Joshua and Rachel are both regulars here at Unstressed Syllables, and they’re going to spend most of their time teaching you how to get the most of those relationships.
Aaron Pogue is the head publisher at Consortium Books, author of the bestselling Dragonprince trilogy, and serves as the User Experience consultant at Draft2Digital.com. Every Saturday he shares an article about publishing and the new book marketplace.
Find out more about Aaron Pogue at his author website.