Readers are everything.
Posted by Johanna Harness on Oct 9, 2010
Last week in “Happy Trumps Smart,” I talked about choosing a writing path that gives me energy and makes me happy, despite prevailing wisdom about how the industry works and what I should be doing. In just a week of following my heart, my writing paradigm has shifted and so much has come into focus for me. I’m not sure I can pull it all together in a single blog entry.
I can tell you this: for the last six months, I’ve been confused. I’ve been listening to conference speakers, reading industry blogs, and talking to other writers. The one thing I have not been doing–my biggest short-falling: I have been ignoring my readers.
Now, before you object that I’m pre-published and have no readers, I’m going to counter that with a simple bit of truth: readers come first. What? Yeah. Readers come first. That’s the one piece of the puzzle I’ve been missing all this time. Once that single piece fell into place, everything else followed.
Readers are everything.
The one, single reason so many of us strive to find an agent: we want people to read what we’re writing. That’s the traditional paradigm, right? You write something that you think is pretty darn good. You try to find someone to publish it, so readers have access to your writing. Once they have access, then they get to decide whether they like you enough to buy another book. Your first book published will probably not be as good as your successive books, but professionals commit themselves to helping grow an audience and career. That doesn’t happen anymore.
You know all this talk about platform? I used to think it was about showing you had the qualifications to write a book. For instance, if I’m going to write a book about turnip farming, I should have some turnip farming qualifications: some education, some experience. But that’s not really what platform is about–not the way it’s being discussed right now anyway. What everyone really wants to know is not whether you have the necessary qualifications to talk about turnip farming, but whether there is an audience who wants to read more about turnip farming. So if you regularly speak on the subject and fill arenas and go on talk shows, the publishing industry gushes and says you have a platform. What they’re really saying? You have an audience. They can sell your book because you already have readers. Do they want you to have your facts straight and all your qualifications in line? Sure. But no one cares about your qualifications to write about turnip farming if your book won’t have readers.
The other bit we keep hearing over and over again: no matter how you publish, expect to market your own book. Everyone groans. Shouldn’t the publisher and bookstores sell the book?
The discussion here always revolves around how to get an audience for your book after it’s published. Yeah? Forget it.
Why? Because it’s not going to happen.
If you don’t already have an audience to create buzz for your book, you will not get the shelf time to make it happen. Take a look at this blog entry from Northshire Bookstore (@NorthshireBooks) and you’ll get a better idea of what’s happening to shelf time.
Of course, it could be that your book hits the shelves at precisely the right time when a cultural spark creates demand for it. But you know what? You have no control over that. I’m sorry. You don’t. Agents try to predict the books that will hit this sweet spot. Publishers try to predict it. They have better market research, but they don’t know either.
About a year after I queried my first book, I started querying my second. My initial approach? Take a look at the list of agents I queried with my first book. I’d already done the research. Plus I had even better data because I kept notes about agent responses. I had a better sense for how agents interacted with the world based on their interaction with me as a pre-published author. (You know what they say about watching how your date treats the waiter? Yeah. No matter how an agent treats clients, I don’t want to work with someone who treats people badly. I don’t care if you let me into the cool club if you’re mean to others. Period.)
So I took my list and went back into my favorite querytracker and. . . oh wow. You know how many agents on my list left the business in that last year? Close to twenty percent. And some of these people were agents I would have crawled through glass to have represent me! Out of curiosity, I went back to the rude list and saw the percentage was considerably higher.
This threw me into a tailspin. How could I tell if any agent would be in the business long enough to sell my book?
Ultimately, I didn’t query that book. I didn’t self-publish. Instead, I just sat down and cried.
This business is filled with good people just trying to make a living. Inside the publishing industry, there’s a lot of pain. These books I’m writing are not pieces to be moved around the board and I’m not willing to go all-in with just any agent. I’m not that kind of girl. I want someone who will still be there in the morning.
Here’s the hard truth: I need to be the kind of author who gets signed by the kind of agency that will be around tomorrow. And what keeps the agency in business? Sales. And what drives sales? Readers.
And this is where people cry about unpublished authors not being able to get an agent and it’s a catch-22 because it takes an agent to get published. Maybe this used to be true. It’s not anymore. Quit saying it. Just stop. It sounds true, but it’s not. First of all, if you are already published, but your book didn’t sell, it’s not going to help you. You are probably in a worse position than if you never published. Harsh. I know. Because nobody cares if you’re published if you don’t have readers. Second of all: you don’t need an agent to build a base of readers for your writing.
You’re starting to see the theme here? Readers. Readers, readers, readers. Readers are everything.
We can be asked all the questions about platform and publishing history and marketing and bio, but really all anyone wants to know is if you have a reader base already.
And this? This is the amazing and wonderful thing for writers: you can build your own audience. How? The same way you build any relationship: earn your readers’ trust. It’s not a gimmick. There are no shortcuts. You have to earn it.
The primary investment you need from readers is their time, not their money. Books are relatively cheap for the experience they provide. Great readers frequent libraries as well as bookstores. If you write it and readers want your work, they will get it. It’s not about the money.
So how does a pre-published author develop an audience?
Give away writing of value.
Also, to be fair, don’t require a full measure of trust from the beginning. You and the reader? You just met. You may or may not have been recommended by a friend. Readers want to see what you have to offer.
A stand-alone, short story has more value than an excerpt.
Why? Because a stand-alone story satisfies the reader.
An excerpt leaves the reader unsatisfied until the book is purchased and read.
An excerpt is a sales pitch. A short story is a gift.
If you want to build trust with your readers, gifts are better than sales pitches. Always.
You have to decide the best distribution method for giving away your valued writing.
If it feels smarmy, it probably is. Treat yourself and your writing with respect if you expect others to treat you and your writing the same way. So you know what? Don’t spam people. If you do, everyone assumes your work is the quality of spam.
Give away your work in a context that reflects value. For my YA novels, I’m experimenting with a reader-based website (http://www.clairemorgane.com) and a newsletter. The great thing about both these options is that they provide data about the size of my readership and how it’s growing.
Because here’s the thing, The Big Thing, I finally realized:
Publishing options are all about distribution.
You don’t have to decide how you want to be distributed until after you build your audience. I keep saying it. I’ll say it again: readers come first.
I’ll go one step farther: you don’t need to worry about getting an agent unless your readership requires mass distribution.
Talking to agents about mass distributing a book with no established readership is like walking onto a factory line and asking someone to make a million gizmos because your grandma wants one. Maybe a million people will also want your gizmo, but you’d better have some data to back that up.
I’m taking a new approach over the next six months.
I’m putting all my time into my readers. I still have queries out there. I have eight partial/full requests fulfilled and awaiting replies. I’m still open to and excited about working with an agent and publisher. But whether or not I sign a contract has very little to do with my path forward.
My challenge, no matter how my work is distributed? Build a relationship of trust with my readers.
When I have a better idea of the size of my readership, then I worry about distribution of my novels. If I have a small, devoted following, I go indie. If distribution needs warrant a big publisher, finding an agent becomes that much easier because I have the data to show there’s a need.
I have so much more to say about my plans for Claire and my middle grade novel and building up the #amwriting community. As writers, we need to choose the path of empowerment and make decisions based on the things we can control. We’re all in this together and we can help each other. I’ll be talking more about this in the coming weeks.