I shall endeavor to post, sporadically, items of interest about writing, for the amusement of readers and other writers, and I invite you to return, sporadically of course...
Some boys dream of growing up to be forest rangers or firefighters. Although I don’t recall such aspirations as a youngster, I ended up doing both. Later, when I was travelling in
I began writing seriously when I was about twenty-three and stationed as a rookie forest ranger in the isolated northern
The first book, a thriller (no doubt to compensate for the sensory depravation), was written on an electric typewriter, borrowed from office surplus at the ranger station. Naïve about the business of writing, I hammered out nearly 500 pages, one after the other. Exhausted, my one typing finger numb and calloused, I promptly mailed the hefty manuscript away to a prominent
After a few months of wallowing in the inhumanity of an indifferent publishing world, I determined to learn all I could about the business. I discovered a book club catering to writers and purchased a small library of instructional and inspirational books on the craft which, not surprisingly, all said pretty much the same thing (but at a much higher aggregated cost). What it really came down to was the writer needs to find an original approach, tailored to a specific market, and rewritten to polished perfection. To break into the market, the unpublished writer has ultimately to produce a work substantially different or considerably better than the bulk of product that has been turned out in recent history. Ironically, this objective is presented as though virtually anyone can do this, which no doubt supports brisk sales in writing how-to books. The reality, I discovered, was a little different.
Of all the fiction manuscripts written, polished, agonized over and submitted, less than one percent are actually purchased and published. Fortunately, I possessed three traits key to the aspiring novelist—unbridled enthusiasm, a belief that I was different, and an almost sadistic level of self-discipline. The odds, rather than discouraging me, egged me on like an unclimbed mountain.
Armed with the accumulated written advice of numerous editors and writers, I commenced my second book. Naturally, I wanted a blockbuster which would garner a massive advance and vault me into the rarefied air of those authors that had racks of their books in neat rows at stores like Wal-Mart and Costco. I went with a high-concept futuristic thriller and signed an agent in the
The third book came and went in a staggering blur of work. It was a literary work, based on a profoundly Canadian theme, and by God, it was going to be perfect. It would move people. It would be a classic. It would win awards. Schools would put it in their curriculum. I spent ten months writing the first draft, discarded it and started over, then rewrote it thirteen times. More rejections. Main character not sympathetic enough. Not commercial enough. Etc. And, oddly (as I was marketing in the
By now I had written three books and had a stack of rejection letters with which I could wallpaper the interior of an average-sized house. My skin had thickened and I could handle rejection (an important skill for any writer), but I had spent more than enough of my limited spare time writing without a tangible result and I seriously began to question what I might get out this endeavour. That mountain home in the
First consideration was what sort of product to produce. I settled on a genre (mystery), as it is easier to break into the market with a genre than a stand-alone blockbuster. A genre offers many advantages, but I also needed my product to be unique. I chose to write about forest fire investigation, as no else in the genre had done so, and settled on a first-person perspective to heighten immediacy in the narrative. Next concern was building a customer base, so I planned to write a series. Now that I knew what I would write, I had to evaluate the resources I would require, which for a writer is primarily time and research cost. Here again, forest fire investigation was a logical choice, as I had experience in the field and wouldn’t need to learn everything from scratch. With this plan in mind, I wrote the first two books in the Porter Cassel series.
Now that my product had been produced, I needed a marketing plan. For most of my years as an aspiring writer, I endeavoured to sell my books almost exclusively to publishing houses in the
I still don’t have a house in
Oddly enough, most writers prefer to spend the majority of their writing career writing. Marketing seems like someone else’s job, a nuisance, or a second thought. Well, since writing is ultimately a competitive business, I thought I’d take this opportunity to assist you in making your book signing events as disastrous as possible so you’ll become discouraged and just focus on writing. The more you write, and the less you sell, the better for me, your competition. So, in the spirit of ruthless free enterprise, I offer the following suggestions:
1. Don’t organize any book signings at all. Do a launch, if you have to, with the publisher, then knuckle down, nose to the grindstone, and just write. Your mom will be proud and you’ll avoid a lot of other distractions as well.
2. Trust your publisher will be the only flag waving advocate you need to let the world know how incredibly talented you are. The smaller the publisher, the more you should depend solely on them for promoting you to become an international best seller. Publishers have unlimited resources to expend on your behalf.
3. Do not develop a marketing plan. Good heavens, those things take time. You have to do research, talk to regional bookstores reps about placement opportunities, returns policy, and all sorts of other pesky time consuming tasks.
4. Ignore independent book stores. Sure, they keep your books in stock, available for discriminating readers to fondle and sample, without requiring steady high volume sales like the big box stores, but events at independents don’t sell as many books.
5. Do not, under any circumstance, cultivate amiable, respectful, and mutually beneficial relationships with bookstore managers and sales staff. Sure, these people could be your partners and your bread and butter, recognizing you and recommending your work to readers, but you have all that icky interpersonal work to do. Best to remain aloof and untouchable. You are, after all, the writer. They just sell stuff.
6. Sit down behind your signing table. Shoppers are busy people and don’t need to be bothered with a polite and intriguing sales pitch as they walk past. If they’re interested and want to know what your book is about, they can take the initiative to pry a conversation out of you—or they can just read the back of your book. Standing and greeting shoppers is likely to cause them to engage and become interested. More of that icky interpersonal stuff. Better to sit quietly like a piece of furniture.
7. Amuse yourself at a signing. It can be pretty boring, stuck in one spot with people ignoring you. Read someone else’s book. Better yet, fiddle with your personal electronic devices. Text. Play games. Hey, this is your time, right?
8. Allow yourself to become easily discouraged. Even if you are doing a tremendous job, giving it all you have at an event, you’ll only sell a book to a maximum of ten percent of the people you talk to.
9. Make your event as short as possible. An hour or two. Get it over with. Why stay at a bookstore for six or eight hours? You’ll just have to talk to more people. Sooner you get out of there, the more time you’ll have to write.
10. Take long breaks. Wander around the store. Observe your table discretely from a distance. If people come over and browse at your table without you there it doesn’t get any better than that. Heck, next time, you don’t even need to bother setting up a signing. The book store can sell your books. That’s their job anyway.
Often I’ve visited book stores where an author sits glumly behind a table, watching silently as shoppers pass by to search out the latest best seller. They sell perhaps five or six books in the course of an afternoon. To these authors I say: Keep up the good work.