For Writers: Hard Advice Which You Won't Want to Follow
This article is going to be hard-hitting and I’ll probably get attacked for it, but I see far too many writers wasting their time and energy daily trying to sell their books when the facts about what to do to be successful are staring them in the face, and something has to change.
Some of these truths are going to be hard to accept, but I don’t think there’s much point apologising for them when they are, self evidently, true.
The reason I can be so blunt — and want to be — is that I care about many of these writers as individuals and I want to see them, and others like them, succeed. This isn’t because I like the ‘warm feelings in my heart’ which I get when I see people doing well, but because there’s a central and vital importance involved in freeing up artists and artistry so that they thrive and spread triumphantly across the globe. Anyone with eyes in their head can see that there are many things wrong in the world — and one of the ways of working to restore the balance is to give artists and writers the tools to be strong, vibrant and effective communicators. Waves of beauty and wisdom and aesthetic cleverness and poetic potency can cut through tremendous amounts of chicanery and depression and apathy and ignorance. What a writer or artist does with his or her time is important — making the results of that work more powerful and far-reaching is crucial.
So if you read this, and find that it applies to you, please be prepared for some shocks and bumps and perhaps unwelcome revelations — but all in a good cause.
What You See Other Writers Doing
You don’t have to take my word for it — what do you see writers doing in your newsfeeds and on your screens? What are some of the first words you hear or read from a writer who is trying to get you to pay attention to what they have to say?
‘Hello, how are you? My name is…’
‘I hope you’re well! I wanted to tell you about…’
‘Please read or click or like or…’
Everyone does it, right? You’ve done it; I’ve done it. The only difference between you and me is that I realised years ago that this approach didn’t work. Hardly anyone pays attention to such staid openings. Meanwhile you and millions of others are still beginning their communications with these lame introductions or some variation of them and hoping that they will get a positive (for ‘positive’ read ‘financially rewarding’) response.
Perhaps sometimes you get a ‘like’ or a comment or someone pauses for more than five seconds on your website. So you’re encouraged to keep on doing the same thing. But nothing else happens.
Thirty years ago, I briefly had a small stall in a weekend market in Adelaide, Australia. I was trying to sell my drawings. I’d lug a heavy foldable table and many pieces of art over a mile to the stall and set everything up carefully — and then sit and watch as market visitors idled their way along the aisles, pausing and looking and occasionally chatting. My eyes would follow them like a hawk’s, watching their body language for the slightest indication that they might like my stuff enough to reach for a wallet or purse. None of them did, ever. Well, except for one guy who wanted a tailor-made drawing of an Australian singer for $10.00. All my other efforts were in vain.
Years later, when I tried selling books on the internet, the same thing happened, but this time online: I would set up a ‘stall’ and then watch as people filed by, occasionally clicking and liking, but never, ever buying. I theorised that I wasn’t getting enough sales because I wasn’t reaching enough people — I bet you have reached a similar conclusion, haven’t you? — so I joined as many groups as I could which didn’t object to ‘spam’ and started advertising my book regularly, cycling through these groups in a patterned ‘campaign’, and expecting results.
What were those results?
Zero sales. Over months, even a year.
I even spent money on the much-vaunted Facebook ads, enticed by the promise of reaching an algorithm-driven ‘correct public’.
Albert Einstein is supposed to have said ‘Doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results is the definition of insanity.’ (There’s some doubt over whether he actually said that or not, as you can read here if you wish to be distracted.) Whoever said it, the point was clear to me back then: something wasn’t working.
So I started to research attention — what it was, and how to attract it.
The Writer’s Greatest Fear
As a writer, one of the most important skills you must master if you want to sell your books is to earn the attention of your readers. Not just any attention, and not just any readers: you want the right kind of attention from the right kind of readers. Chances are that you are pouring a lot of time and effort into getting anyone to look and listen, and they are drifting by. They drift by for two reasons:
1. They’re not the right people and
2. Your work isn’t holding their attention.
Oh this is terrible, I know, but someone has to say it — and you probably won’t hear this from friends, family or your usual beta readers — but the likelihood is that a) you’re not talking to the right people and b) that your work isn’t good enough to delight anyone enough to make them open their purses or wallets.
It’s the writer’s greatest nightmare.
It’s what no one dares to tell you for fear of crushing your soul.
The work you have poured your life’s blood into maybe isn’t good enough to sell.
You’ve not only wasted your energy and passion, but, by presenting it wrongly, devalued the attention of potential readers.
You might not want to read on… but if you do, I can show you the way through this.
What You’ve Done Wrong
The error is threefold, then: you’ve written something which lacks appeal; you’ve shown it to the wrong people; and you’ve presented it in the wrong way.
No wonder you’re getting zero sales.
Lots of smiles, lots of ‘likes’, maybe even lots of positive comments, but no one is reaching into their pockets.
What’s worse? By presenting your work in the usual bland way in which everyone else is presenting theirs, you’ve said ‘I don’t really care what you were doing or what you’re interested in, I just want you to buy my book’. You’ve disrespected any potential buyers, even if they were the right public and even if your actual book was great.
In brief, you’re taking your readers’ attention for granted.
a) you’ve written what you think is a great piece of work and put it out there expecting it to be lapped up, without due regard to your readers, and
b) you’ve not bothered to find the people who might have the remotest actual interest in what you’ve written and
c) you’ve expected them to stop what they were doing and pay attention to you regardless.
Attention is like money: you have to earn it.
Attention is like water: to make it flow, you have to dig holes and channels.
Attention is like blood: it won’t reach the right places unless it is pumped.
Attention equals time and energy from people: they won’t give it lightly, just as you wouldn’t.
You haven’t done anything maliciously or on purpose. You just thought that was how things were done. You didn’t stop to think that none of these approaches work on you as a reader; you just saw everyone else doing it and expected it to work for you as a writer.
Your Job as a Writer
How do you earn attention? How do you dig channels and holes to guide and gather it? How do you pump it to where it needs to go? And how do you get people to give it to you when they have other things to spend it on?
I’ve written three books on this from different angles, and you’re welcome to buy them if you wish, links are coming up: but right now, I’m trying to get you to listen to hard advice which no one else is ever likely to give you because they are afraid of hurting your feelings.
I’m more afraid of you failing to be effective.
First of all, it’s your job as a writer to grab, glue, guide and move readers. There’s a technology to that, used by every successful writer who ever lived, and that technology is described in great detail in my book How Stories Really Work.
Second, it’s your job as a writer, as part of the above and everything that follows, to master the arts of controlling attention, as outlined in my book The Seven Levels of Attention.
And third, it’s your job — and duty— as a writer to get your work into the right people’s hands, as described in my book Crack Your Marketing.
As a service provider, you need to provide a book which delights, dig channels which enable people to get it, and use techniques which place it correctly in front of the right readers.
From the cover of your book to its blurb, from first line of your book, the first scene, through to the final chapter, from the first time the correct reader hears of your book’s title through to it arriving in the post, you need to be in control. Each step presents you with an opportunity to delight your audience, to achieve your purpose as a writer.
Are you accomplishing any of this?
Are you truly providing powerful, high-value fiction in an engaging and entertaining way?
Are you keeping promises set up in your fiction and delivering on reader expectations?
Are your readers developing into super-fans who do all your marketing for you?
Then doing the same thing over and over with the expectation of accomplishing different results won’t get you there.
You need to rethink the experience you’re giving your readers and potential readers.
You expect respect.
You don’t want someone wasting your time or money.
You want to buy things which you have been convinced will delight you, not just because someone has pleaded with you to try them.
So do your readers.
So make your words count.
Make your characters count.
Make your scenes count.
Make your cover and blurb count.
Make every word you issue about your work count just as much as the words within your work.
I’m offering a service which can guide you through at least some of this, but it’s not cheap, even at 50% off. If you want to learn how to do all of this yourself without any help, buy the three books linked above, read them carefully and apply them.
For the sake of the people around you, for the sake of the world, you need to be more effective.
Go for it!