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5 Steps to Success as a Writer


Perhaps you’ve written what you consider to be potentially a best-selling novel. The only trick now, you think, is to get it in front of readers and all will be well. You’ve done the hard bit: the rest is simple marketing trickery, isn't it?

Writing with the intention of publishing is a double-edged activity: yes, it is a definite achievement to have written a book; but no, the bulk of your work has not been accomplished until the book is sold in viable numbers. It’s not ‘trickery’: it’s hard work.

Here are five things to keep in mind:

1. Word of mouth.

Though you might have visions of thousands of people wandering into bookshops and being hooked by your blurb into a purchase of your treasured work, it's much more likely that your success will begin with your friends, family and colleagues. They know you, as well as the book, and so will be more willing to spread the word.

A survey of 1,000 people by BML for World Book Day in 2005 found 25% of respondents had bought their last book for pleasure on the basis of a recommendation from a friend. ‘Word of mouth is still number one even in this media-saturated age,’ says Joel Rickett, deputy editor of The Bookseller. But word of mouth doesn’t just happen. What you need is the viral effect - you need to tap into streams of communication, which right now have opened up more than ever before in the history of humanity with social media. Hoping to become a best-selling author without confronting the world of social media is like wanting to breathe without dealing with oxygen.

But social media starts with an emphasis on ‘social’: where does your social life start? With your friends and family. And so does your success as a writer.

2. The book group is the next level.

Book groups used to be a social pastime involving actual meetings between live people in their homes, and that still happens, believe it or not. Nowadays, though, reading groups are more likely to be on the internet.

Book group favourites from recent years include The Time Traveller's Wife, The Life of Pi, The Bookseller of Kabul, Shadow of the Wind, The Alchemist, and so on. Once a group of people start talking about your book, you have the equivalent of a car’s starter motor in operation. Book groups can act like an extended family; warmth can be generated by them, but in this case they have never met you personally.

3. Your physical presentation.

When paperbacks first came out, their covers were just that: paper. Pulp fiction got its name from its cheap pulp covers and poor paper quality. These days, thanks to the rise of cheap publishing elsewhere in the world, a book’s front cover is an artistic and commercial challenge. While there has always been great cover art on novels in British mass publishing, production quality is now in a different league. ‘Penguin blazed a trail but everyone else has caught up. The cover can make or break a book. The book as “object” is ever more important,’ explains Mr Rickett.

There used to be complex commercial agreements in place that controlled the price of books; now they are readily available through local supermarkets and chain bookstores. If your book isn’t claiming prime real estate in those stores, you will struggle.

But you can get there bit by bit.

4. Your title. Titles like The Keeper of Lost Things or The Missing Ones play heavily on the vital authorial ingredient of mystery to almost compel the passing reader to pick them up; others, like Salmon Fishing in the Yemen or A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian use comic juxtaposition to engage the reader’s attention; The Time Traveller’s Wife is another example of capturing attention by blending science fiction - time travel - with domestication - wife - to almost ‘trick’ the reader into paying heed.

Think ‘Title = vital’. The words rhyme, and they should chime in your mind when you’re thinking of naming your work.

5. The all-powerful reviewer. When naming an internet purchase, what’s one thing that people normally do these days? Check the customer reviews. Reviewers on Amazon and on all kinds of similar websites have the power to make or break any product, and the same applies to your book. Reviewers are the next level of admirers for you, potentially. Beyond the book group, they are lone fans, able to contribute to the sales growth of your work, or not.

That brings us full circle back to friends, family and colleagues. Get the friendliest reviews you can from as many people as you know, and use those as a starting point to get more.

You managed to get as far as getting your ideas onto paper; now you have to get that paper into people’s hands. Cycling through the above - friends and family, book groups, presentation, your title, your reviews - is a good way to get started towards success.

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