Monday, April 25, 2011

Whatever it Takes: Wait, what does it Take?

Something happened to me last week that ruffled my feathers for a good long time. In fact, it had me so flustered I couldn’t avoid venting about it to fellow writers. Last week, a reader took issue with the way in which I was promoting my story on a very popular web site I happen to be a member of. Until this happened, she’d been a faithful fan who always commented on how much she enjoyed my story. Because she found my promotional efforts too aggressive, she withdrew her support of my work, which translates to withdrawing her support of me. I took the time to explain to her why I was promoting the story in the manner I was, but she wasn’t satisfied with my explanation. In her mind, I’d stepped over the line in an effort to achieve success. At that point, I graciously bowed out of the discussion on the grounds that we’d agree to disagree. All the while, I was gnashing my teeth at this affront. To be fair, I do tend to take things quite personally when it comes to my writing, but this left me a little more irritated than I let on to her. It wasn’t her disdain of my tactics that I took issue with. It was something else she said that left a sour taste in my mouth. It was something along these lines: I know exactly what it takes for writers today to be successful

No, you don’t, and I’ll tell you why. No one really does, especially not new writers who have yet to have a legitimate publishing credit to their names. Side note, yes I hear how catty I sound, but I warned you this issue really chapped my hide. I suppose I could’ve launched into a heated debate with her about what it really takes, but I knew instantly this was going to be a topic for my next blog post. So, what does it take?

I hate to tell you folks, but having a great story isn’t enough. It’s a key element to success. A great story will increase your chances of getting a reputable literary agent with the power to get your work in front of top notch publishing companies and make that sale on your behalf. Notice that I said it will only increase your chances. I didn’t say it would guarantee an offer of representation. The truth is that it won’t. Agents are inundated with submissions. Before they even see your great story, you better have a killer query letter with a polished list of qualifications. At the very least, you should have a writing credit under your belt. Because guess what? Even that very fine query letter has a good chance of being tossed aside by the agent’s assistant if you’re not an experienced writer. Now, that’s not to say no agents will take new writers. Some will, but even the use of the word some is inflated. It’s more like a few will take unpublished, unproven entities. It’s their livelihood. Can you blame them for being cautious?

If you think your killer query and great story are enough, think again. There’s one more, very important, thing you need as an emerging writer when submitting to prospective agents. You need a solid marketing plan. Long gone are the days when publishing houses expended a lot of capital to promote their writers. The bigger houses may still be able to do this, but you’ll notice it’s only being done for their top grossing authors with a proven track record of success. They’re not going to give a new author that kind of budget, if they give her one at all. Instead, they want to see what you’re willing to do to promote your story. And if you want to be taken seriously, you can’t draft a one paragraph document that says you’ll ask friends and family to buy a copy of your book. Don’t get me wrong, you can include something along those lines as part of your overall marketing plan, but you need to have a solid plan that shows you have a good grasp on your target audience and how to get them to let loose their purse strings to buy your book.

In case you’re wondering, good reviews alone are also not enough to generate book sales. You can have one reviewer call your book “a must have for every shelf” and another reviewer say your book was one she “couldn’t put down”, and that’s great for your ego. However, that’s just a small step down the long path of promotion. You can’t rely on good reviews alone to entice new readers to purchase your book, no matter where those reviews are posted. Unless you’re lucky enough to have the money to hire a publicist to do all the work for you, then you need to be willing and able to get out there and pedal your product.

As I near the end of this rant, I suppose now would be a good time to assure everyone that I’m in no means trying to discourage new writers from giving it a shot. On the contrary, I’m trying to educate them. I want every writer I come in contact with going into this experience with their eyes wide open. If they can do that, I think it will help them to succeed earlier or better or both. At the very least, it might help them to keep things in perspective.

So, the moral of the story? A great story doesn’t do you any good if no one knows about it. If it’s not illegal or immoral then I’ll do whatever it takes to get my work noticed. For every self-righteous reader I lose with this approach, I’m more likely to gain another more understanding version in its place.

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