Wednesday, July 01, 2015
Discoverability--The Author's Biggest Challenge
I was asked in a recent interview what I considered the biggest challenge facing authors today and, in my mind, there's only one possible answer.
A long time ago--you know, like three years--my answer would have been "getting published." Authors were rabid to find the right agent, the one who'd recognize the potential of their precious novels and have the contacts and drive to find a home for them. If the publisher had hopes for the book or series, they'd pay decent advances.
Two, or even one, year ago, since I'd found the world's most awesome agent and had been blessed to be published, my answer would have changed to "staying published." Because getting published is great and all kinds of awesome sauce but, face it, most of us aren't going to hit the NYT Bestseller List right off the bat, if at all. With the big publishers retrenching, they want bestsellers. They don't want to buy books from authors with moderate sales unless that author has a damned good (i.e., proven to be commercially viable) idea. Advances are dwindling and royalty rates aren't rising.
Today, my answer is a resounding one word: DISCOVERABILITY. If you've published and haven't already built a following (or if your following is small), you either already curse when you hear that word, or you will as soon as you do publish. Take my word for it.
Here's the deal. Never have there been more opportunities for authors to publish their work. If you want to continue chasing the dream of the Big Five or Six or Four or whatever it is this week, you can do that. If you want to go with a small digital publisher and earn higher royalties, you can do that too. And if you want to venture forth on a journey of self-publishing and claim an even higher royalty rate, you can do that too. The stigma that used to accompany self-publishing has been eradicated as more and more established authors choose that route in order to maximize their earnings and actually earn a living wage from their writing. Regardless of which path you choose--or a combination of the three--the bulk of marketing, which has to do with discoverability, falls to you. Yep, you.
What those publishing changes mean is that, every month, a LOT of books come out, in a bunch of formats and from a bunch of different sources. I do a monthly column for tor.com called "Fiction Affliction," where I spotlight the books in all the speculative fiction genres each month. The number of books continues to grow and grow and grow and grow and...well, you get the idea. I find myself editing back the lists, much as a reader has to do when faced with a barrage of new offerings each month.
How do I pare? I ask some questions and I look at a couple of things. Is the cover professionally done? If not, it gets hacked from the list. Is the book's blurb professionally written, or does it have typos or grammatical/punctuation errors? If so, it gets hacked--I mean, if you can't get your blurb right, what are the chances the book will be right?
Sadly, that eliminates about 50 percent of my list each month. When I read the blurbs and decide some of them are too smexy or experimental or downright weird, that eliminates another ten percent. So the 150 or so books featured in Fiction Affliction each month represent only about 40 percent of the books out there. There are probably some absolutely brilliant gems in the hacked 60 percent but I have to choose.
How does a reader slog through the 100-150 new romance titles each month? After all, as a reader, I can't afford to read even 40 percent of the books released this month. I might read three or four.
And there you have the problem of discoverability. The book I turned in today will come out next spring in a month with approximately 500 other novels--because it's not just our own genres competing for readers' time, but all genres.
How does my novel rise above the herd?
How do readers discover it when there are hundreds of other books--some on their auto-buy list--competing for their attention?
I don't have any answers. I've blogged until I'm exhausted from hearing myself blither on. I've hired PR firms, held Facebook events, held giveaways, searched for magical swag, and tried to figure out a way to do all of the above, plus social media, while holding down a 60-hour-a-week day job and maintaining a household that includes a housebound 90-year-old.
And, at the end of the day, it comes down to a magical confluence of word-of-mouth, timing, and dumb luck. If your book is really well-written, it helps but, unfortunately, it isn't a requirement.
At the end of the day, all we can do about today's biggest issue--discoverability--is keep plugging away. Keep our names out there and hope familiarity breeds curiosity, and curiosity can lead to word-of-mouth and dumb luck and all the rest.
In the meantime, keep on writing!
BIO: Novelist currently living in Auburn, Alabama. Author of the Sentinels of New Orleans series (urban fantasy, Tor Books) as Suzanne Johnson. Writing as Susannah Sandlin, author of the Penton Legacy (paranormal romance) and Collectors (romantic suspense) series from Montlake Romance. See my author website for more info!