I’d like to introduce you to two writers, Cassandra and Ian.
Ian is a creative and productive multi-genre writer. He can turn his hand to just about anything: short stories, drabbles, novellas and so forth, and in just about any genre — realistic, literary, science fiction, fantasy, horror, etc. He has a good command of the English language and a workable knowledge of things like Shunn format and how small presses work, so he gets published quite frequently. Whenever a submission opportunity comes up, he will often have something to offer — but he finds that he is in competition with dozens, perhaps hundreds of other, similar writers out there, all chasing relatively few opportunities to get into print.
Ian’s stories are good, workmanlike, competent, and occasionally great, having an emotional impact upon many readers.
Ian spends a lot of his time on social media, chatting with other writers, getting involved in sometimes lengthy conversations; he has also self-published quite a bit of work and has attempted to sell it through Facebook advertising and along other channels, without much success. He’s very focused and competitive, but he hasn’t made much money from his work yet.
What tends to happen is that Ian’s stories sell in small amounts in the period immediately after being issued, but then fade away. He has to keep pumping work out there to get little return.
Cassandra is also a productive writer, and as talented as Ian. A few years ago, though, she decided to specialise in science fiction and fantasy, and began to focus her energies on learning the craft of writing. She loves Tolkien and Herbert and when reading immerses herself in famous epics. Instead of spending a great deal of time on social media, Cassandra has taken a few eclectic courses on creative writing and seeks out those novels and short stories that have a lasting reputation with readers, whether they are science fiction or fantasy or not, in order to study what makes them work.
Gradually, she has accumulated a knowledge and skill set. She does a few readings of her own work with friends, and engages with a few selected writing groups on social media. Whenever she can, she meets with authors and interviews them, finding out what inspires them but also what techniques they use when writing. She runs her own blog in which she posts regularly with plenty of pictures, and a small community has developed around it, deeply interested in her interviews, reports and findings.
With each new book she reads or author she interviews, Cassandra learns something new about fiction writing and the publishing industry in general.
Over a few years she has seen many authors succeed and fail, and has studied thousands of stories of different kinds. She has slowly grown a reputation in the blogging world and her following is growing in number terms too.
When she releases a book of short stories or a novella, many of her followers eagerly buy it as they are keen to see how she has transformed all her experience into fiction. As she accumulates a back catalogue, those in her community who discover her work through one book seek out the others, resulting in multiple sales.
Her blog is full of beautiful posts about excellent books, authors and small presses, with useful tips, touching on all aspects of the fiction writing industry, and she shares things she learns as she continues to develop expertise. Writers and readers alike follow her.
Cassandra doesn’t chase readers — they come to her. She occasionally engages with them through her blog community and has meaningful conversations with them whenever she can.
Cassandra is doing ‘pull marketing’. She tends to sell more books than Ian without having to advertise at all.
So what lessons can we learn here from Ian and Cassandra?
Ian is focused outward, on submission opportunities, on getting work out there, on trawling for readers; Cassandra is focused inward, on craft, on knowledge, on building relationships. Ian’s success, when it occurs, is swift but short-lived; Cassandra, on the other hand, has a series of simmering successes over a longer period.
Is focus enough?
Almost. Ian’s ‘push marketing’ methods find larger and larger circles of people who might be interested in what he has to offer — but he would probably have more success if he invested energy into his work so that readers would remember it and recommend it to others. If you want to pull readers to your work and avoid endlessly hunting for them, you need to put time into developing a your fiction so that it markets itself. Build your skills in your chosen niche (or niches) and demonstrate your competence to every reader who picks up one of your books.
If Ian sells ten books and no one remembers them for long after they’ve read them, he may have wasted his time. If Cassandra sells three books, but each reader raves about what they’ve read and remembers it for long afterwards, the likelihood is that she will achieve ongoing sales in the future.
Neither writer is completely 'wrong' or completely 'right'. Each brings valuable viewpoints. Which writer most closely resembles you?
Pushing and pulling are both hard work, but while pushing has its plusses, pulling promises reliable future value.