Best Advice Redux

By John Gilstrap

In the interest of full disclosure, I must confess that today’s post start as a response to Michelle’s post from yesterday regarding the best and worse writing advice we’ve received. Michelle pretty much nailed everything on the head, but there’s one more that plays to the heart of this whole author-as-marketer thing.

When my first book, Nathan’s Run, was published in 1996, the Internet as far as I knew it, consisted of the AOL Writer’s Club—singularly the best virtual writers’ hangout I’ve ever been affiliated with. Those were the days when you paid for online time by the hour. Between the newness of my writing career, the newness of the technology, and the overall coolness factor of it all, I spent a lot of time with my friends in the Writer’s Club. Enough time, in fact, that it prompted my editor at the time to issue the following bit of advice:

Don’t let being a writer interfere with actually writing.

Writing the next book is the single best thing you can do to gain support for the previous book. After a while, an author’s body of work becomes sort of a self-sustaining marketing tool. The poster child my editor named as the antithesis of this advice was Truman Capote, whose writing quality was, he believed and I agree, inversely proportional to his fame.

This advice resonates loudly with me every year when conference season rolls around. Properly selected and managed, I think that conferences are the single greatest marketing tool available to writers—both budding and established. The real work is done in the bar, whether you’re a drinker or a teetotaler. You just need to screw up the courage to talk to people. It’s not the place to pitch your books, but it is the place to meet and impress fans and industry people alike.

Even though I recognize the value of conferences, it would be entirely possible for an author to spend 75% of his annual allotment of weekends traveling the country and talking about himself. There comes a point of diminishing returns. I have my favorites—ThrillerFest, Bouchercon and Magna Cum Murder—which I try to make every year, and I might throw in one or two more if I’m invited or if it’s close to home, but that’s it. It has to be.

Standard book signings are to me a waste of time. Ditto book tours.

Facebook and Twitter are great as tools, but I believe they work best as subliminal pleas for business. If you post and say something smart, I might try your product. If you send me a direct request, the likelihood drops dramatically. For the life of me, I don’t understand why writers flog their work on writers’ boards. One or two posts per day on social media are ideal because I don’t think anyone does more than two things per day that are interesting enough to tweet about.

When all is said and done, I think the truth about effective book marketing is harsh news for new writers: You’ve got to build a fan base, and the only way to do that is to churn out a consistent stream of good product that is appropriately priced. Every minute of self-promotion that takes away from your ability to churn out at least one book per year (but probably no more than two), is doing so little good as to perhaps be doing harm.

11 thoughts on “Best Advice Redux

  1. John, you have pretty much summed up exactly how I feel. There’s nothing more important than writing the best book you can.

    “Standard book signings are to me a waste of time. Ditto book tours.”

    I fully agree. And I have proof why this is true. I also can show that the marketing efforts of the publisher are many times more important than the writer’s at making a book sucessful. I’ll blog about it in a future post.

  2. John, Thanks for making me feel good–ie, agreeing with the way I feel about signings and the social media. It’s all about the writing.

  3. Well said, John. One of the first things I tell newbies at conferences is you have to be a writer, not someone who has written a book. An agent or publisher wants to make an investment in someone who can do this over and over again. So don’t dwell on one book year after year. Keep producing new stuff.

    And yes, of course, if you are “building a platform” but have nothing of value to sell, what’s the point? Spend most of your time creating value.

  4. Why “no more than two” per year. Without getting into the whole quality vs. speed debate, if you can write more than 2 quality books a year, wouldn’t that only work to increase your fictional “real estate.” Especially now that authors have the self-publishing venue. Say, for example, one or two legacy print books a year, and fill in the gaps between with ebook releases.

  5. Rob,

    Two is an arbitrary number, I suppose, but there’s danger, I think, in non-franchise names flooding the market with product. As the fan base builds, I believe that anticipation is an important element of marketing strategy.

  6. As much as I love jabbering and talking anyone’s ears off I know that I suck at marketing, at least I know I think I suck at marketing. Therefore I plan to write, and keep writing until the writing gets itself sold as a story, rather than as a commercial marketing package.

    by the way, I’m hosting a local radio show this evening for a couple of hours. If any of the writers on this blog are interested in giving something away (ebooks, paper book, audiobook, airline tickets and hotel accomodations to Bora Bora, etc) as part of your own self marketing email me … basil (at) basilsands (dot) com

  7. Hey, John, I was part of the AOL Writer’s Club, too! And I agree, it was fantastic. I even hosted a “workshop” there of my own for a few years.

    Yesterday I finally wrote THE END to my contracted manuscript. Now I’m off into edits, and as soon as that’s out of the way, I’ll be starting on book two.

    I don’t intend to be one of those “I wrote a book” people. I want to say “I am writing another book.”

  8. Although there are writers who manage to produce more than two quality, full-length novels a year, I strongly believe they are few and far between. There’s a writer whose books I used to enjoy. Now he’s writing one every month or so, and he’s lost me as a reader because I find the new ones to be barely literate. So I do think there’s a danger in diluting your body of work. I have an earlier, unpublished novel that I considered posting on Amazon- but the truth is, I don’t think it’s a strong as my current novels. And I’d rather that it not be the first book of mine that a reader encounter, so I’m keeping it tucked away in a drawer.
    That’s one bit of advice I forgot to mention yesterday. If your first novel isn’t acquired (and the vast majority aren’t), set it aside and start another one. Every book that you write teaches you something, but not every one of them merits a wider audience. The trick to really becoming a writer partly involves recognizing that difference.

  9. I remember those days on the AOL writing boards in the mid-nineties fondly. I made a lot of friends there (and on earlier Prodigy writing boards) and I am still in touch with many of them today. It’s been fun to watch the developing careers of folks like you who I knew back then.

    My own career road has had its ups and downs. I basically had to reinvent myself with a new name and a new genre after my initial success with Harper back then, but the one thing I never quit doing was producing and writing the best stuff I knew how. In the end, that’s all any of us writers can do and while it may not ensure success, it’s the best and most reliable method I know for selling books.

  10. You’re absolutely right. The best thing for a career is to be prolific and get your products out there. The rest should be secondary, but we fall prey to the hype that we have to promote, promote, promote. We have to keep up with what everyone else is doing or we’ll be left behind. At least that’s the mentality that afflicts us. Setting daily and weekly writing goals is the only way to combat this type of pressure.

  11. John–well spoken, both on networking and writing that next book.

    I,for one, can attest to the value of networking at conferences. My latest book was purchased after chatting in a Mexican cantina with an editor, both of us wearing balloon hats and drinking tequila. If you go to my website, you’ll see a group of us authors (several who visit this blog) all wearing our fun hats and sitting in an outdoor bathtub. Yes indeed. I love a good conference.

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