I frequently read all kinds of interesting comments made on forums, or as comments attached to articles that I would often like to respond to, but can’t. Well, I suppose I could if I really wanted to, but I don’t for the same reason I tend to buy more items off Amazon using the one-button-click option than the checkout option. Most of the time I see something and feel like responding, so I click on the reply button only to discover I need to be a member, or some other requirement, and, well I reconsider realizing that I’m not that enthusiastic about the idea to go to that much bother just to make a minor point. In the end I think it is for the best as I would likely end up in a flame war due to some stupid remark I made in haste.
Recently however, I was reading someone commenting on how self-published authors can’t be successful because they require word-of-mouth to make sales, and you can’t do that if you don’t already have readers. I’ve actually read this in more than one place, and the mere saturation is one of two reasons that caused me to write this post.
Word-of-mouth advertising can only work if you have fans out there spreading the word. This then is presumed to be a chicken and egg dilemma. How can you have word-of-mouth if you don’t have fans, and how can you have fans without word-of-mouth? Therefore self-publishing can’t work.
What I find so fascinating about this argument is that it is like a magic trick. It appears real until you’re shown how the magic is done and then it is just so obvious. Until then however, the argument can be quite convincing. I remember when I was first published through AMI. I went to my first book’s release party at a Barnes & Noble all excited at the expected throngs of readers who would clamor for my book. I actually thought this, even though the logical part of my brain reminded me that such a thing was impossible. No one knew I existed so how could there be fans waiting? I made the assumption that the publisher had done advertising and raised interest—maybe. So going to my grand opening I was clearly of two minds, hoping for the best but expecting the worst.
In reality it was neither. There was a good crowd of some twenty-five or so people, and I sold almost as many books. The downside was that almost all were people I knew and had personally asked to attend. This was also the last crowd of that size I would see. The following months saw me standing inside bookstores feeling sleazy as I tried to coax people into buying my books. The first time I did this, I sold five. I felt awful, but the store manager invited me to return saying, “You did great! You sold more books than any other author we ever had!” This just made me feel worse.
It was about this time that I saw an episode of The West Wing. It was a rerun, but I hadn’t seen it before. This was one of the later episodes where Santos is running for President. It doesn’t matter if you know the show or not, the point is that this guy was running for President, and no one knew who he was. His successful and experienced campaign manager took him to New Hampshire to start his campaign. And Santos, like me, expected there would be this rally, or convention where he would address hundreds of people. And just like me that didn’t happen because hundreds of people didn’t know he existed. Instead he was driven to the city dump, where people were known to frequent, and he was instructed to walk up to folks as they dumped their garbage and introduce himself. Just as you might expect Santos looked at his manager incredulously. He was running for President of the United States, not city council of Concord. This was ridiculous! How can you get to be President if you can’t get people to come hear your speeches? If no one knows who you are, how can you gain a following, and without a following how can people know who you are? How can you get fans if you don’t have fans?
The answer is very simple, so simple it is hard to accept especially for those expecting more, and I’ve noticed people are always expecting more, expecting life to be easier than it is. There is this idea that when you are published, you’ve done the same as winning the lottery, and now all your troubles are over. You’ll be able to quit your day job, and spend your time basking in the adoration of your fans. This is the fantasy, but the reality is a bit different.
The truth is—the answer to the question of how you get fans without first having word-of-mouth is…one at a time.
This sounds insane, I know. When I finally realized that I was expected to build a beach one grain of sand at a time, I was stunned. Really? Do you know how long that will take? The sheer absurdity of the size of such a task is overwhelming. I just did the impossible! I wrote a novel, and I got it published! Do you know how hard that is? And my reward is that I have to build a beach grain of sand by grain of sand? Are you nuts?
I went to my first signing like Santos went to the dump. I introduced myself and felt foolish doing so.
“Excuse me, sir. Can I tell you about my book?”
“You wrote it?”
“So you’re an author?”
“Huh. I’m just here with my wife. She likes these romance books. Honey, you want to talk to this guy, he’s an author!”
“No! I’ve got what I came for, I just need to pay for it.” She had a copy of one of the Twilight books under her arm.
At this point I wanted to crawl under a desk somewhere.
“But he wrote this book—he’s a real author. Tell her what your book’s about.”
In my mind I was imagining stabbing myself in the eye with an ice pick. Can I leave now? But I grudgingly went through the motions of explaining, knowing it is pointless and humiliating at the same time. I’d never sell any books like this. This isn’t what I thought being an author would be like. I might as well give up and keep whatever shred of dignity I have left.
“Will you sign it for me?” she asks.
“Huh?” I ask. “You want to buy it?”
Afterwards I turned to my wife with a huge grin on my face and she smiled back then whispered in my ear. “Next time try not to look so shocked.”
There is that old saying, “behind every great man, there’s a great woman.” I’ve never understood it. Besides the obvious sexist slant, the behind part doesn’t work either. To make it more accurate I think it should be written, “It is almost impossible to succeed unless you have someone who believes in your dream, even when you no longer do.”
By now you know I never could have gotten anywhere without Robin’s help. Not only was she the architect of my campaign, my Josh Lyman (if you know West Wing), but she believed in me even when I no longer did. There is just no way you can build a beach one grain at a time, the idea is preposterous unless someone else looks you in the eye and says, “I’ll help.” An idea by itself can easily wither, but one with support can grow. Spouses are great for this, word has it Stephen King’s wife rescued his first published novel, Carrie, from the trash.
Later in the West Wing series Josh had Santos going to supporters homes and giving speeches to five or six people over chips and dip. Robin had me going to book clubs, often held in people’s living rooms. It still seemed hopeless, but as long as Robin believed, I could too.
But a funny thing was happening. It’s called math. If I talked to fifty people, ten might read my book, of those ten, three might like it. If I got ten people to like my book, one of those ten might like it enough to suggest it to others. That person was a fan. And for every fan I made, they made two more. Word-of-mouth. One out of every hundred fans might be a super-fan, a cheerleader who imagines it is their calling to spread the word about you and your book to everyone.
After about two years of gathering grains of sand via the Internet, bookstores, book clubs, and conventions, all this unseen percolation rose to the surface, and we began to see the effects. It was a bit like sailing for the mythical new world and seeing a thin hazy line on the horizon and wondering…could it be? No, it’s just a mirage. Then the next day, it is still there and wait—it’s bigger. Could it really be? A week later you can make out slopes, hills and yes a beach…a beach with sand! Yes! Yes! It is! It’s word-of-mouth!
So whether you are running for President, self-publishing a book, or publishing through a big New York firm, it’s all the same. Everyone builds their beach one grain at a time, one sale, one reader, one fan, one super-fan. It sound ridiculous, but it works, and is the only way it works. Having a big publisher gives you a little leg-up because they made their own little beach already, but that work doesn't necessarily translate to you. Those are the publisher's grains, not yours. And your publisher may help you build your beach by giving you a pail, and a pail sure helps, but lets face it, building a beach with a pail is still a lot of hard work, and that pail is only on loan. If you don't build a big enough beach in time, they might take it back. So the problem and the solution is still the same.
Right now there is a writer, just starting out named Libby Heily. Just recently she launched herself into the self-publishing world and was hit by the same revelation I was. Really? One grain at a time? She has a collectionof short stories and a collection of flash fiction out—one for 99 cents the other for free. And I hear a novel may be forth coming. But the reason I bring her up is that she recently made a guest post at M. Pax blog entitled: MyAdventures In Self-Publishing, that reminded me of how hard things can seem at the start.
This was the other reason I made this post, because when I was gathering my grains of sand and thinking how impossible it was, I was convinced I was doing it all wrong. No one else did this. Everyone else had better techniques, better connections, maybe a better book. I had the feeling I was destined for failure because getting readers one at a time just felt so stupid, and I thought I was alone.
I just wanted to say…you’re not.
Good luck Libby