Today’s post is the first of three parts by the fabulous Martha Kennedy as she struggles with the weird world of marketing a novel. Many of us have trod this path and even more will be treading it soon. Each of us has a story (or many stories) to tell about the perils of publishing in a market that’s been reinventing itself continuously for decades.
This is for all of us who have written books, are thinking about writing a book, or are attempting to market a book in a world where none of the old rules apply.
I write literary historical fiction, so everything I have to say is from that perspective. People who write different things, in other genres for different audiences are likely to have their own stories about this process. My novels (so far) all are set in the rather dim past in Switzerland. I suspect the ONLY genre less appealing to publishers than historical fiction might be poetry.
But that’s okay.
Before I submit a manuscript, I hire a professional editor. Then, I scrupulously follow the requirements of each agency to which I submit my project. There is really nothing more any writer can do. I write well. I know this because my work has won awards. And, strangely enough, I’m OK with the system as it is. It hasn’t worked for me, but I understand why. Here’s what I’ve learned.
YOU NEED A BIT OF LUCK
You can be the best writer in the world. Ever. Objectively the best. Yet it does not mean your work will sell to a publisher, get printed, or distributed to the public. On the flip side, you can be a not-so-good writer and wind up with a bestseller.
To detail the whole long road of what it takes to get your work commercially published these days, you have to know from the get-go that it might actually be (oh my god!) a crap-shoot.
It’s an inscrutable equation that leads to a bestseller. The right story. The right voice. The right time. Taken objectively, Dan Brown’s “The Da Vinci Code” is not a great work of art. It is, as Brown himself says, “An entertaining story.” A manipulative page-turner with a provocative, captivating theme. It was exactly right for the moment it was published. Dan Brown is a good writer, but a lot of what propelled his book into the stratosphere, was luck.
Another historical novel that’s not great literature (or even good literature, or good writing) is New York Times bestseller, “Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker.” The author, Jennifer Chiaraverini, had a solid following based on the Elm Creek Quilts series and the book hit the market exactly as the United States elected its first Black president. There is much wrong with the book, including plagiarism, yet many people (not me) found it to be likable and readable.
This advice for authors about the advantages of being nominated for a Goodreads Choice Award is telling:
Being nominated for a Goodreads Choice Awards is the result of several factors:
A book needs to have gained traction on Goodreads with people rating and adding the book to their shelves. As always, getting your book into the hands (and e-readers) of as many people as possible is key. Goodreads has many tools to help authors and publishers promote their books to readers. These include our giveaways program, targeted advertising, Ask the Author, editorial interviews, and more.
Keep the moment going by sparking discussion about your book through Ask the Author.
Consider advertising the book on Goodreads to keep reminding people about the book (and mention existing ratings/reviews to reinforce how readers are loving it).
Write a really, really good book!
Writing a really good book is at the bottom of this list for a reason.
IT’S ALL ABOUT MARKETING
More important than your book is a query letter that stimulates literary agents to salivate while imagining the big bucks they’re going to get when they sell your book to a publisher. And maybe Hollywood.
Books have been written on how to write a query letter. I have written successful ones, I think. Honestly, I’m not sure if my letters were great or the person on the other end of the message liked the idea, or their boss said, “Hey, if you get a query for a book about leprosy in the 13th century, ask for the manuscript.” I have no way to know. Regardless, there are a few basics that apply:
- It must be grammatically perfect. No typos (if you can swing it; I’m incapable).
- It should be written with a degree of panache. You need to generate some excitement.
- I learned to study my audience and followed instructions, skills every writer needs.
Love them or hate them, selling your book is a lot easier if you have one. That being said, agents are (in my experience) petty little gods and goddesses who deign to recognize the work of writers who they regard as fools.
Why do I have such a cynical view? Experience. I’ve queried hundreds of agents. Pretty much universally, I have gotten little but arrogance and rudeness in return. Lucky for me, I think it’s funny.
The world-shattering tumult of the Protestant Reformation enters the Schneebeli household when Rudolf Schneebeli is born two months early and dies a few minutes later — without being baptized.
Named for the well trodden track linking the Schneebeli farmhouse to the old Lunkhofen castle, The Brothers Path is set in a Swiss village near Zürich, between 1524 and 1531.
It chronicles the lives of the six Schneebeli brothers, Heinrich, Hannes, Peter, Conrad, Thomann and Andreas. Each brother navigates his own path through, around or directly into the deadly drama of the Protestant reformation.
Two hundred years after the events recounted in The Brothers’ Path, thousands of immigrants, mostly Mennonites and Amish, left Switzerland for America seeking the safety and freedom they could not find at home. If the novel teaches a “lesson” it would to remind us why immigrants to America have always been adamant about separating church and state.
Come back next Saturday for part II of “So you want to be a writer.”