The meteoric success of Harry Potter worldwide was considered a one off phenomenon until 50 Shades came along. And then we remember others – Lord of the Rings; The Da Vinci Code; Wolf Hall; Alice in Wonderland; The Hunger Games; Twilight and so it goes on…bestselling books – blockbuster films…Now we writers scratch our heads in awe and wonder and reflect on our sales…
Learn the principles of book success and you too could have a winner on your hands…
What is the magic ingredient for success..?
Luck? Timing? Knowing the right people? All and none of these play some part at some time in the process of any sales idea, and for writers the process is multiplied – from the initial capturing of the publisher; to the distribution (ebook and hard copy), advertising and PR machines (both traditional and new technology); to the end consumer. Yet the secret to success in sales fundamentally boils down to one thing: hard graft, banging on doors (literal and metaphorical) and not taking ‘no’ for an answer…
But that pre-supposes we have a product that is desirable.
Sales work based on commoditisation of dreams, and this applies to books as much as honeymoons. The first sell as authors must be to the publisher and often this is in advance of a demand curve in the consumer market. How will a publisher know whether a ‘new’ idea or taste will take off? Is it worth their investment? As writers we maybe should add ‘Premonition’ to our list of magic ingredients…
So, let’s go back to the ingredients of the books…
Great books capture the imagination. They create new worlds that parallel our own and are filled with flawed and beautifully rich characters. They relate to us and our knowledge of the world, challenging our perspectives and beliefs. And we will them on. To dare to be more than we can. To fly, to discover, to be heroes, even dark heroes. They fill our imaginations, where we cannot or do not as they inspire us with their humour, their empathy, their power, their wealth, strength, wisdom, foolishness. We are safe engaging with them in our heads and sometimes we take them to our hearts. So when we, as authors are creating people and places, do any of these descriptions fit our offering? Because if we do not love and develop our characters, other readers will surely not be enamoured of our art.
And what about those great authors?
Well – they are not all wealthy and Oxbridge, or even English – although the quality of their writing is intrinsically linked to the quantity of their sales. Yet, stylistically, we are forgiving – the Da Vinci Code and elements of Harry Potter do not shine consistently in the way that say CS Lewis’ or Tolkein’s craftmanship does.
The Observer published a scathing attack on the Harry Potter books in 2000, written by Anthony Holden, who posited that reading the series “is an activity marginally less testing than watching Neighbours. These are one-dimensional children’s books, Disney cartoons written in words, no more.”
Essentially with the fast pace of self publishing, whether we like it or not, a new quality level has become acceptable amongst readers avid for stories.
This suggests that the power of the story is more important than the quality of the writing – certainly with 50 Shades this was considered to be the case by reviewers.
From The Guardian – A professor has written an academic analysis of the Fifty Shades of Grey phenomenon, finding that – despite containing “some of the worst writing I have ever seen and a plot that made my toenails curl” – the erotic novel “is less pornographic than it is a self-help book”.
Where does this leave you?
This leaves you to decide…
For whom am I writing? Me (and my mother, who will obviously think everything I write is totally brilliant and should be up for the Booker), or a busy, social media/trending aware reader? Clearly there are demographics across the board, some of whom are technology refusers or late adopters and for whom the hard copy, well-written book of classical or traditional tastes is perfect. Just be aware of your reader when you are crafting your characters, plot and locations…link genre to reader!
Look at the process and timing (contemporary tastes) – certainly events such as 9/11; Brexit; Social and Political Revolutions create great opportunities for new tastes and new storylines. How much does your writing fit into a period of interest to you and or to contemporary readers? How timely were Harry Potter? 50 Shades? Twilight? Consider the contemporary events that meant a world of magic, of good defeating evil, of the battle of the underdog, of the story of the victim and the victimizer, of the lost souls and alternative parallel universes… Just consider, in the age of #Metoo – where does 50 Shades sit?
So now we have that evasive list of secret ingredients: Honed, quality writing craftsmanship; Genre specific novel format, aimed at key demographics for that genre; Plot – well structured, with twists and turns, unexpected diversions and digressions; Clearly devised and richly developed characters with or against whom we side; Themes which relate to time, context, audience and plot; Mood and atmosphere relating to genre and style. Language that is varied and appropriate to audience, plot and character. Even with all this, the hard work has only just started…
Editing and Proof reading
Make sure you do – even the best books have errors – and as a writer, editor and publisher, I am always surprised to find errors in bestselling and prizewinning publications – you will never find all your errors, but that does not mean you should not try…good publishers will all have editing teams in house to support their writers.
Thinking about book covers
Great covers sell books – don’t be fooled into producing your own (unless that is, you are a professional photographer, graphic designer, typographer…) poor covers are very off-putting… and the same goes for poor quality print. Do not stint on the print – books are expensive to produce, but cheap-looking books are more difficult to sell – in the words of Polonuis – ‘Costly thy habit as thine purse allows’ – goes for book habits too! Most publishers produce covers for their writers, either in-house or from a pool of contracted artists.
Approaching publishers and agents
Whether we like it or not we are sales people. Curiously we create a baby, nurture and love it and watch it grow in our minds, on our laptops and finally on paper. Yet we seem to be project people and as guardians of our writing, we seem to be already on the next project before the ink is dry on the current one. Creating and forming ideas is so much part of the psyche of writers that parenting the product is often considered as dull and time consuming and fraught with negative responses to our creations. It is thus ignored or not addressed with the necessary energy required to give it life beyond our walls. So we look for quick fixes or intermediaries. The first pacifies our conscience… “I went on the course and it didn’t help” and the second is expensive and frequently achieves nothing but bad feeling. We need to identify those publishers who already publish the genre and style that would best fit our writing. Researching in the writers and artists yearbook will yield the best contacts and their details. You may want to get yourself a literary agent – they are especially important for certain genres, but you can do it yourself…but it is essential to research first – pick the most likely agents and publishers by approaching those who are specialists in your genre and writing area. Crafting a short but punchy introductory letter, including a synopsis and the first 3 chapters, as well as the last chapter, and following it up with phone calls and emails may eventually get you somewhere. But it is a painstaking process – for every published novel there are literally hundreds which do not make it. That’s where smaller on-line and boutique publishers – like mardibooks– fill a market niche– remember to research these and identify who will give you the most support not just to get you ‘out there’, but in the whole process going forward, in working with you to craft your work, with editing, developing your market, helping with covers, PR, social media and with sequels, off-shoots and other developments. This includes going into print, getting into libraries, booksellers and book fairs etc.
Creating a market
Social media – for all writers, whether with a major publishing house or a small boutique publisher like mardibooks, and for self publishing, social media presence is vital. Major publishing houses will have publicity and PR machines and will support you with distribution and access to market. Small publishers have differing value propositions here, but the better ones will have registered ISBNs, access to the correct registrations and distribution routes to the high street as well as on-line.
After sales PR, subsidiary products and sequels are also part of what good publishers will support you with…and form a whole other article…
Mardibooks offers writers’ workshops in conjunction with Magical Journeys. Our next workshop is in Lanzarote 1st-11th November 2018…checkout our website for details…
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