I read almost every day about writers struggling in the marketplace, either to get their books noticed and accepted by publishers, or, once published, to get them sold.
In both categories, there are scam artists who strive to take advantage of the inexperience of such writers by promising large rewards ‘for such-and-such a price’, whether they are trying to charge the writer to publish their work or later, to market it. The rule of thumb that should be adopted when it comes to paying to get published is ‘Don’t do it’. The same kind of rule also applies to marketing, except that, in amongst the scammers, there are some people who know what they are talking about and who are perhaps worth paying some kind of fee - but care is advised if those people are promising unreal results in a short time.
But what actually is ‘unreal’? And, more importantly, why is it unreal?
And the big question beyond all this is: Should a writer ever expect to make money? And if so, when?
The answer is surprisingly simple:
A writer can expect to make money when he or she attracts enough attention from the right people.
That answer, of course, prompts some further questions, which I will endeavour to answer for you: What is ‘enough’ attention? Who are the 'right people’? And how does one go about getting that attention from those people?
I once visited Niagara Falls, from the Canadian side, where it’s possible to stand within a few yards of the top of the huge cascade of water. At certain points, the falls are 180 feet (57 meters) high and allow 6 million cubic feet (168,000 cubic meters) of water over the crestline every minute - that’s about a million baths full of water every sixty seconds! The rumble of the water suggests huge power and volume. The image is one that I want you to keep in mind when you consider the public at large, browsing the internet, especially the huge booksales sites like Amazon, Barnes & Noble, eBay and so on.
The attention of the general public is pouring past any given point at any given time in even greater volumes than the water that thunders over Niagara Falls. You don’t see that attention; you don’t hear it; but it is streaming by in electronic fashion nevertheless. Just like at Niagara Falls, though, the wrong thing to do would be to stand in its way in an attempt to gather some of it for one’s own use. It doesn’t care about you, in the same way that the thundering water wouldn’t care - you would soon be overwhelmed, pushed over the edge, and would probably swiftly drown.
Many writers think, though, that placing their book on Amazon, for example, guarantees that they will capture some of that attention. They are wrong. Simply putting a book up on an author’s page on a site with such a huge volume of traffic racing by is about the same as tossing a piece of paper into the water at the edge of Niagara Falls - even if someone wanted to see what was written on it, it would be too rapidly swept beyond reach, over the crest. Attention, like water, doesn’t work that way.
But please keep holding that image. Attention and water are similar in a number of ways. Water is acted upon by gravity and seeks out the lowest point, carving out stream beds and river beds, eroding its way through hills and across plains, all the way down to the sea. And attention is acted upon in a similar way, by a similar force: not gravity exactly, but what I call in my book How Stories Really Work, ‘vacuum power’.
Vacuum power is generated by holes, gaps, missing things, losses, threats, mysteries, unknowns, risks and the like. In other words, attention seeks to flow towards anything where it senses something is missing or incomplete, just as water flows towards lower points or to fill shapes. Write a good story using plenty of vacuum power - as outlined in my book - and the reader will not only be ‘hooked’ into the tale from the start, but will be glued to every page and will not want to put the book down. The attention of the reader, if you can grasp this important concept, is flowing, flowing, flowing to fill the gaps in the story - not unintended gaps or plot holes, but crafted mysteries, unknowns and incompletenesses which, skilfully used, guide the reader through the tale to a satisfying ‘point of filling’ or fulfilment.
Attention is captured by vacuums in the same way that water is captured by gravity - the more vacuums, the more attention will be pulled in to fill them. A writer’s primary task, it might be argued, is to create a ‘Niagara Falls’ of a story - a book that constructs such a massively hole-filled geography that readers cannot escape its pull and plummet over its edge perpetually, falling into the story forever.
Conceive of that happening to an individual reader, caught in the overwhelming flood as their attention is ineluctable drawn to the story’s climax - but also conceive of it in terms of numbers of readers. If a book has sufficient vacuum power, it will pull in droves of readers. And that’s where we draw close to answering our questions above.
Attention comes in many forms. Most of the time it is invisible to us, like air or some other kind of gas. It floats around and is subject to the whims and graces around it. Then, when it detects a slight vacuum, it drifts towards it just as air or water drift towards a depressed point or gap. Given enough of a gap or hole, attention becomes Niagara-like - and at some point, just like water if the pressure is dropped far enough, it becomes solid.
Money is solid attention. When a reader hands over the cash - online or offline - to purchase a book, he or she is effectively solidifying enough attention to get the thing. They are saying ‘Yes, you have enough of my attention for me to part with some of my wherewithal’. How did you get to that point with them?
By creating vacuums.
Enough unknowns, enough mysteries, enough tantalising gaps, and a reader will be pulled into acting and will go through the physical motions necessary to get the book, whether that involves lifting it from a shelf, walking over to a cashier and pulling out his or her money, or simply clicking a finger on the ‘Checkout’ button on a website. Online sales are easier to get, from this point of view, because the amount of energy needed to compel a reader to click a button on a screen is much less than the energy required to get the reader across the floor of a shop and into his or her pocket. Someone could do a study on it, and maybe they will one day.
The point is that a writer can expect to make money when he or she attracts enough attention from the right people. That attention is attracted initially and most importantly by the vacuums built into a story, glimpses of which the writer shows the reader through things like the blurb, the cover, the first few pages, and reader reviews.
Sometimes - in fact, quite often - a single book isn’t enough to make this happen. It needs a book series to generate the vacuum power needed to prompt physical action on the part of readers. But please notice what you are doing: instead of stepping into the invisible Niagara Falls of attention pouring past you every day on the World Wide Web, you are creating your own waterfall - rather than being swept away by a river of awareness in which you will flounder and drown, you are building your own cataracts, capable of pulling readers into your own swirling lakes.
That’s a big difference.
How do you get the attention of the ‘right people’?
The right kinds of vacuums will attract the right kinds of people. Readers interested in things resembling your work will be drawn in by the way in which you present your work to them through crafted vacuums; those not interested will flood right on by and disappear. That’s what you want. Another common error made by writers is to imagine that they are trying to attract ‘everyone’ - they are not. They only want those who will like their work. And the way you build the vacuums determines who you draw in.
It’s almost a science.
The downside? It takes time. But it’s obviously better to build your own waterfall and fill your own lake over time than it is to be swept instantly to oblivion by a waterfall over which you have no control.
More on this soon - especially on what it is that the scammers think that they are doing which is actually doomed to fail in the longer term.
You can also get my book on marketing, which explains some of the science behind all this, here.