Wednesday, July 01, 2015

Discoverability--The Author's Biggest Challenge

I had a novel due to my publisher today, so yeah, this post is late. I have a serious case of fried brain, too, so I hope this makes some sense.

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!

9 comments:

Roger Simmons said...

Discoverability, Bitten By Books keeps posting these free reads they have found, making me discover two or three new authors each month. Of course my TBR pile does not need any more. I always end up researching the author and end buying more of their books. Quite the gimmick.

Suzanne Johnson said...

Ha--that's a pretty good tactic, Roger....I might have used that one myself :-). Free reads are good for fans and they're good for finding new readers, at least if you have the audience to begin with. Thanks for dropping by!

Jillian said...

THIS. THIS. THIS. This is my issue. I am so really, really frustrated about the fact there is such a randomness to getting discovered. It's so hard to build an audience and you're right. We can try a lot of avenues but there is no real tried and true method. It's like luck and magic blended into the pot at the end of the rainbow.
There are so many choices out there for readers that it is hard to stand out.
Great post. Now, where's that magical pot of golden luck? I'm off to keep looking for it....

Lots of good wishes on the new book and getting it turned in.

Suzanne Johnson said...

@Jillian--it is SO frustrating! If you find that magical pot of golden luck, blow a little in my direction too!

Christine Glover said...

I am the Loretta Lynn of the Romance Writing World. I take every opportunity to connect with a reader/s that I can take time wise and that's a fact. I haul my books to tiny fairs and meet readers, might get lucky to sell a book or two. I have a street team--it helps. Newsletter has some reach. Bling? Gets my name out there. I spend more time on the Internet than ever before. Promotion, but not in your face stuff. I just figure it is one reader at a time, one book at a time. I don't expect to become the next breakout wonder -- yet. I've stopped worrying about it. I can't worry about it. It just sucks up too much of what's left of my time to write. I have a marketing background. It takes 7 hits for a buyer to even remember your product/name/whatever it is your selling. I work on selling me, my brand is my name. If I can get my name out there a lot, then there's hope. I hope readers like my books and recommend them. I had a friend buy my debut novel in paperback and then the book was passed from person to person in her circle. They loved it. But are they buying my new books? I don't know. It's a shill game. I keep singing "one reader at a time Sweet .... " and pray that one day my books might pay for my writing habit LOL.

Ali Hubbard said...

Great post! Definitely let me in on the secret if you learn it. Lol. I wonder about alliances and if the highly read trad pub people at the Bigs have some agreement to cross promote so much. I see it every once in awhile. It may be a different scheme when you have 20k fans following you, etc. Not like my well-meaning tweets. Lolol

Christine Glover said...

Cross promotion can work. But it's still not a perfect world.
Sigh

Chris Bailey said...

Thanks so much for getting real about the business, Suzanne! When I'm considering a book, I look at covers, I look at blurbs, I read reviews, and on Amazon, I take advantage of "look inside." If at any stage the appearance of the book is less than professional--whether art, typography, sentence structure or spelling--I (virtually) walk away. Free doesn't mean as much to me as readable.

Another element that seems to matter is time. My favorite authors didn't become my favorite authors overnight. I most often read a new-to-me author because someone else recommended it--and not just by saying the book is great. They have to say something specific that piques my interest. And even then, I may wait before I buy. That means I rarely buy in the first month, which is supposed to be so important for rankings. Sometimes I don't buy until the writer has three or more books out there.

Bottom line--you nailed it. Keep plugging away. None of us would be writing or reading if we weren't afflicted by stories. This is a lifelong pursuit. Anytime I meet someone who I think would connect with the Sentinels or Penton or the Collectors, I tell them why I think so. Keep the faith.

Carla Swafford said...

On the nailhead, girl! You can do all the social media stuff you want, unless you have a unique skill in talking with people on-line (funny works), it's best to write the next book and hope one book hits the right combination. It may never happen (NYT), but many authors have a wonderful following after twenty books or so. So like you said, keep writing.