It Helps If You Can Write

by James Scott Bell

“For a long time now I have tried to simply write the best I can. Sometimes I have luck and write better than I can.” – Ernest Hemingway

There’s an old joke about a guy who gets paired with a priest for a round of golf. They hit the first green in regulation. The priest has a thirty-foot putt with a big break. He crosses himself and drains the putt.

The guy misses a five-footer.

On the next green, the priest crosses himself and nails a fifteen footer. The guy misses his.

Same story on the third green.

As they’re about to tee off on the fourth hole, the guy says, “Father, I noticed what you do before you putt. You think if I crossed myself I’d start making mine?”

The priest says, “It couldn’t hurt, my son.”

On the fourth hole the guy has a straight ten footer. He crosses himself, putts, and misses.

“So what happened?” he asks the priest.

And the priest says, “Well, it helps if you can putt.”

Which is how I feel about the whole how do I sell more books issue.

For many writers out there, unleashing a plethora of fancy marketing tricks is like crossing yourself. It can’t hurt. But to sell and keep selling, it helps if you can write.

The data backs this up. For example, BookBub recently put out an infographic based on a survey of their subscribers. Natch, most of them use BookBub to select new titles. But from there, two old reliables assert themselves as the largest slices of the book-buying pie.

The biggest factor is word of mouth. Overwhelmingly (and it has always been thus) people buy books they hear about from trusted sources. This usually means someone they know and can rely on, but also includes online communities such as Goodreads and well-trafficked blogs.

The other big slice is when an author someone has enjoyed in the past comes out with a new title. Once this happens a couple of times, the author has made a fan.

And how are fans created? By really good reads.

The $64,000 question (for those of you who remember the cultural derivation of that term) is this: What constitutes a really good read?

I am going to tell you.

It depends.

Thanks for stopping by!

Okay, here’s what I mean: It depends on your genre, your voice, your professionalism. It means you are able to write a book that not only meets expectations, but in some way exceeds them.

In other words, not just the “same old.” Because we’ve got too much of that. It means adding your own special something to the story.

I think of the old pulp writers. Who were the ones who caught on and were able to sell issue after issue, book after book?

Raymond Chandler, who could write description and dialogue like a trench-coated angel.

Erle Stanley Gardner, who could create twisty-turny plots featuring the smartest lawyer in the world.

Robert E. Howard, whose voice was as big and bold as the Texas winds that raised him.

Max Brand (real name: Fred Faust), the most prolific of them all, who elevated the standard Western into something that reaches into the soul.

I could go on, and we all can create our own list of favorite writers. What they will have in common is storytelling ability and “something more” that resonates with us.

Marketing only gets you an introduction. It’s your writing that does the heavy lifting. Which is why I offer a free novella to those who want to sample my wares. That’s a fair exchange. It’s like an arranged lunch date. As long as I don’t have broccoli in my teeth, maybe a reader will want to read more of my stuff.

So to you writers just starting out, or are trying to get a foothold in the market—keep learning and growing. Yes, you’ll need to lay a marketing foundation (e.g. a website, a bit of social media presence).

But keep the main thing the main thing: Always strive to write your best and sometimes you’ll have good luck and write better than you can!

20 thoughts on “It Helps If You Can Write

  1. Getting back after being inundated with marketing sessions at RWA, which I chose over craft this year, since my craft skills are better than my marketing ones. It’s brain overload, and unless you’re someone who can sell ice to Eskimos, you need a good product.
    My brain still hurts.
    I have “first in series” free for two of my series, and once I did that, my sales took a significant bump.
    The best marketing advice across the board is still “Write the Next Book.”
    (One non-marketing workshop I did squeeze in was an all-day series of workshops by ATF agents, including Randi, the explosives detection dog. My brain hurt worse after 8 back-to-back 30 minute sessions crammed into 7 hours, but what I learned there was amazing and more fun than trying to think about drip campaigns, keywords, CPC and ads.

    • Yeah, the problem with such sessions is that you can get the impression you must do everything, or you’ll miss out on a tipping point. Keep the main things the main thing–and the next book is a main thing.

      • One speaker stressed choosing ONE platform, and said to get rid of the FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) mentality and make sure you’re writing good books. I think her session was the most realistic for us “We are our entire company” authors.

  2. There has been quite a lengthy thread on Goodreads about paid promotions and other marketing issues, all by SPAs, naturally. The thread split when readers pointed out to these “authors” that the money they were spending on various marketing ploys would be far better spent on writing classes. We were called bullies for daring to make such suggestions.

    I am a professed cynic, so it didn’t take much effort to see that these amateurs desperate for readers and reviews–other than from the friends and family brigade, that is–could not write their collective ways out of wet paper bags. So I left a couple of lengthy reviews pointing out the many errors of their ways. Unfortunately, I was roundly attacked for my efforts, cyberbully that I am.

    These types of scribblers would never appreciate Mr. Bell’s cogent wisdom. Thus they will never sell their little books to a wider audience than each other, never really learn how to write, and continue to throw their money down the publicity rathole.

    Everyone else gets it, though…

    • Thanks, Maggie. It’s hard to find places anymore where one can disagree agreeably, isn’t it? At least in the “old days” when there was a literary feud (e.g., Norman Mailer v. Gore Vidal) there was a little panache to it!

  3. I wholeheartedly agree. I have more than once loved the first book by an author (I’m a sucker for debut novelists) only to be sadly disappointed when the level of writing on their second book didn’t measure up. No matter how successful the debut, the second (and third and …) needs to be just as good, if not better than the first. I’ll stick with this author (and others) into the third book, but then if their writing doesn’t improve, they’ve lost me no matter how many newsletters they send me or free promotions or invitations to join their “tribe.”

  4. Thanks for this post. It is always reassuring, to those of us who are beginners, to read your recommendations on marketing.

    I’ve read Marketing for Writers Who Hate Marketing, and it made sense. It also reinforced that gut instinct – first of all, work on the writing, book after book.

    I enjoyed Framed when it was first available. And I fell in love with your Kit Shannon, Sister Justicia, Ty Buchanan, and Mike Romeo series. (I even tried to talk you into a “final” book for your Ty Buchanan series.)

    Thanks for all your teaching and advice.

    • The whole reason I wrote the marketing book was to give reassurance. I had met, and continue to meet, so many writers who’s knickers are in a twist about marketing, unnecessarily.

      As far as Ty, I’ve had a number of similar requests. But the way the third book ended was so perfect I am loath to add to it.

  5. I’m reminded of the old business school philosophy: Nothing kills a bad product faster than good marketing.

    That craft thing really is kind of important.

    • Sounds like the ancient wisdom of the Samurai. Or Peter Drucker.

      My grandfather was a top 10 salesman for Encyclopedia Britannica during the Depression. He had a silver tongue all right, but also the product to back it all up.

  6. Goodness, this is so true. I try so many people’s books who are begging people for reviews and stuff. Either the book is not to my taste (like super-dark fantasy) or it’s so poorly written than fanfiction dot net would be ashamed to take it. I never know what to say to those people.

  7. Pingback: Courage, Stupidity, or Cowardice? | Cage Dunn: Writer, Author, Teller-of-tall-tales

  8. Excellent advice as always, Jim. Blogging and (some) social media I enjoy. Books signings, I love. Other than that, I hate marketing. I’d rather spend my time writing.

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