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The Alchemy of Dreams


Let’s talk about the alchemy of dreams.

Many writers enter the fray wanting to become rich from their writings. Very many of them hope to be able to write a best-selling book which will not only make them famous, but will provide them with money for the rest of their lives. Just one book. So good, though, that Hollywood will call and offer vast sums to turn it into a movie. Then the movie will take off at the box office, thus ensuring abundant wealth for decades…

It’s a common dream. It’s an easy dream, too, because all of the framework is there: we see it happening all the time, or think we do. It’s the ‘J. K. Rowling Dream’, isn’t it? ‘Desperately poor single mum pens manuscript in coffee shops and on trains, and, after being suitably rejected time after time, is "discovered" - her first book revolutionises reading in schools, it’s so popular; her second and third and many more follow, with all the glamour of the film world trailing behind. Now she’s rich beyond everyone’s wildest dreams but still a nice person - if only we could be like her…’

With any dream, there’s a certain amount of unreality - that’s why it’s a dream. But if you really want to make a living from writing, it might help to let a little reality in. Not an uncontrolled flow that will overwhelm you with commitments and routines and everything else that swallows all your time and prevents you from even getting started, but a tightly-supervised trickle of reality that is just enough to help make your dreams come true.

Start by defining what you want. It might help to base that on what you actually need, rather than on some wild fancy. Do you need millions of pounds (or dollars)? What would it take for your life to be comfortable without being unreasonable about it?

How about we start with £100,000? Not enough to conquer the world, but enough, perhaps, to secure or pay off a mortgage, or to live comfortably for a while. How do you go about acquiring £100,000 from your writings?

The first thing to note is that I said ‘writings’. The dream of making a fortune from one book contains just a little too much unreality. It can and does happen, but we can significantly lower the odds on your dreams coming true if we admit into the equation the possibility that you might need to write more than one book. Picture a series of books. This has many advantages. Readers who love your first book will go on to buy a second and third; those who discover your work by reading your third will go back to find your first and second. Multiple sales. But of course, the first book has to be good enough to prompt people to buy the second; the second and third have to be good enough to make people go and buy the others. Quality is important.

So you have to write a series of books. The more books you write (given that they are well-crafted and appealing) the more chance you have of reaching that £100,000. For the sake of the argument, let’s imagine that you have five books in the bag: that equates to £20,000 per book. The amount of money a writer makes from any published book varies wildly from place to place, contact to contract, genre to genre - but an average would probably be around £1.00 per book. So each of your five books has to sell 20,000 copies. In the world of traditional publishing, 10,000 copies sold is considered good. You have to be slightly better than just ‘good’ then.

What would be a plan for doing this? You might initially think that all you have to do is to appear in front of as many people as possible in order to get 20,000 of them to buy. If 3% of any given body of people end up becoming customers (based on an old marketing formula) then your five books have to appear in front of about 660,000 people. How is that possible? Well, there’s Google and Facebook ads, and a population of way more than that on the planet. But that would be an exhausting and ultimately fruitless way of acquiring enough sales, because it’s based on the lie that marketing is ‘just a numbers game’ as well as some surprisingly deceptive data about how sales are achieved. I suppose if you were to individually contact 660,000 people, there might be some chance that some of them would be remotely interested in your book series - but they would have to listen to you first, even for a split second, in order to find out whether or not they were interested.

Successful marketing doesn’t work like that. It’s not purely a numbers game.

It’s an affinity game.

To find people who might be remotely interested in your book series you need to look in places where such people might gather. Remember when you were younger and you played a game of looking for a hidden object, with the person who had hidden it giving you guidance with the words ‘Warmer…’ or ‘Colder…’? The ‘warmer’ you were, the closer the object was, until finally, right on top of it, you got told ‘Hot’. It’s the same with marketing. You can try to put yourself in front of 660,000 stone-cold people and hope that a few of them warm to your books, or you can look for the hot springs: where do your readers gather? What else might they be interested in? Out of 660,000 people, only a certain percentage will even be readers; only an even smaller percentage will read the kind of fiction you write; and an even tinier group will be looking for exactly the kind of stories you have written.

Do you locate these people and fire your books at them like targeted missiles until they buy? No, marketing is an affinity game: affinity is to do with nearness and trust. Approach gently, with warmth; engage lightly, with reality.

‘Sales’ and that elusive £100,000 isn’t, or shouldn’t even be your ultimate goal. Your prime aim should be to fulfil a particular kind of reader. Your books should be aimed at providing certain types of readers with exactly what they need - so much so that it should feel to them as though they have been looking for your stories all their lives. Do that, and they will not only love your book and recommend it to others, they’ll seek out your earlier or later books with vigour and buy them immediately.

This is the alchemy of dreams: mix a little unreality with a drop of reality; stir gently, taking care to use only the exact ingredients that you need. Plant your seeds only where the land is fertile. Water with hope and then be patient. A dream coming true is an unreality entering reality. Too much of either and the seeds won’t grow.

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