Mantras of the Writer
Money flows to the writer. You know that old saying, “If you want to make money, it takes money”? That’s not necessarily true in publishing. Money flows to you. Agents take a cut only of what they make for you (usually 15%, or if movies/TV, 20%). If this is your job, you should be paid. I don’t know what pro fiction rates are in all genres, but in spec fic, the pro rate is about $.08 a word. You should always shoot for markets that pay this or more, and if necessary work your way down. Dream big. Don’t pay to be published — let them pay you. You’ve earned it and you deserve it.
Always read your contracts. Contracts are designed to benefit a publisher, not a writer. Don’t be afraid to negotiate; publishers expect it. Red flags would be things like no reversion clause (you never get your rights back), rights to all interconnected properties when they’re only buying one book, the publisher keeping some or all of your subsidiary rights (these are rights like TV/movie options, foreign sales, video games, audio book adaptations, comic book or graphic novel adaptations merchandising, etc. Most book publishers don’t have the means or interest to sell these rights for you, and are only hoping to cash in if you sell the rights yourself. Keep the money.) Contracts are a lot of legalese, so if you don’t understand terms presented to you, ask someone, preferably a lawyer or agent, or in lieu of that, a writer experienced with contracts.
The Basics of Submitting Work
The first place one might start in the search for a perfect publisher and agent is with books similar in genre, theme, and tone to yours. Many times writers thank their editors and agents in the Acknowledgments of the book; you can learn who is publishing or representing fiction like yours that way. I always thanked Martin Biro, my editor at Kensington, for example. You can also check sites like Preditors and Editors, which let you know if an agent or publisher is sketchy or reputable, and the AAR website (the Association of Authors’ Representatives). A good agent should be a member of the AAR, or belong to an agency that does.
It is important to follow the guidelines as outlined on the submissions page. Agents and publishers get hundreds to thousands of submissions, and like any job, they look for ways to be efficient. One thing that knocks work right off the stack on someone’s desk or email Inbox is a submission that doesn’t follow guidelines. Standard guidelines expect the submission to be in manuscript format (we can discuss this if any of you are unfamiliar with it), usually the first three chapters of a book and a short, maybe 1-2 page synopsis or outline of the major characters and plot points of a book. A synopsis is a tricky process to get down just right, but the best are short, to the point, highlight the important characteristics of the main and secondary characters and the plot points which define the book’s arc, and lead off with something tag-line-ish, something they can sell to the marketing department. My novel, Chills, was described as “True Detectives meets Lovecraft” to capture the feel of it (it’s a supernatural thriller).
Now, here are generalities, not absolutes, but they’re usually pretty standard:
1) Publishers/agents can take up to 3-6 months to get back to you. Often, they quote a time frame in which you’ll either receive a polite response one way or another, or you can assume that their silence after that time is a no. It is perfectly acceptable to send a follow-up query in the case of the former, asking if a manuscript is still under consideration.
2) Most (but not all) rejections come by mail or email. Most (but not all) acceptances come by phone call or email. Email is the way most business is conducted nowadays.
3) Simultaneous submissions means you have sent the same manuscript to more than one publisher or agent for consideration. Some ask for exclusive rights to consider your book. Generally, writers only agree to this when a publisher or agent is considering the whole ms, not just a partial (which is the three chapters and synopsis or outline).
4) Most publishers and agents do not want multiple submissions — that means that you should only send them one book at a time. Once they decide on one either way, you can discuss with them your sending another for consideration.
5) Literary agents generally ask for 15%. What this means is that whatever money they make for you, they get a 15% cut of it, so it’s in their best interest to get you as much money as they can. Foreign and film rights agents usually take 20%. Agents only get paid if you do. For the most part, neither a publisher nor an agent should ever charge you money for anything.
6) A book can take 6-9 months or longer to see publication. Promotion, spread out at certain milestones (cover reveal, when it’s up for pre-order, etc), begins when you sign the contract. We can discuss this in depth, too, if folks want.
Being prolific can mean many things. Obviously, it means writing often (and ideally, writing well). I was always told that to stay relevant to readers, you need to put out at least one book a year. Financial security in this business is cumulative; rather than waiting for that one big payday, have enough books out there that you could live off of royalties if you need to. So assuming that completing and putting out a book a year is a given, let’s look at what else you can do.
In addition to a book a year, try to put something else out at least quarterly. If you’re talented in more than one type of art, maybe do companion illustrations or have videos of your readings or book trailers, or even little interactive games. In the past, I’ve seen people do music play-lists – soundtracks, essentially – for their books; they chose either music that inspired them as they wrote the books, or music they felt fits the theme or scenes in the book. If writing and only writing is your bag, get some short stories out there. One idea is to write short stories about minor characters in your books. You already have the world built, and it’s possible you might have added a little throwaway mention of some event or person that you could flesh out into a story. On my Patreon, I do a travelogue of all the “haunted” places I mention in my books, and give all kinds of easter-egg-like background and history about those places. Once, I made a street map of Thrall (the eponymous town of one of my books) that readers seemed to get a kick out of. I’ve seen people do Wiki-like pages on their website for the places or races in their books, which may work well if you’re doing a dark fantasy novel or a dark science fiction novel. Readers like to be tuned into the process, and they want to catch the current of magic and imagination in their favorite works of art. They enjoy those little details that make them feel on the inside, a part of the worlds you create.
The people I know who make a living doing this have a lot of projects going on at once. These projects are varied and usually with different publishers as well as some self-published work. Diversify your prolific-ness. When you’re in this business long enough, you see some publishers fail, go bankrupt, or get overturned as inept or even criminal in their business practices. If all your work and rights are tied up in one publisher, this can be incredibly damaging to the forward momentum of your career. This can also be financially devastating, if your sole or primary source of income is from your books. Try different publishing models and different publishers, based on your ability to promote, your reach, and the size of your readership. The average writer, I believe, does well with selling novels to mass market, novellas to small press, and self-publishing short stories or essays in collected works of fiction and non-fiction. This is not a hard and fast rule; it’s just a guideline for what works for me and what I’ve seen work for others. You may have a big enough fan base that you can self-publish everything, or may find a certain temporary comfort in building upward with different small presses to start. My point is, don’t put all your eggs in one publishing basket; diversify where you publish.
I know that there is something exciting about the idea of signing books, sitting behind a table and pontificating about the literary awesomeness of your most recent release, etc. And you know, there is. But arranging successful events is tricky. The key word there is “successful.” Here are some of the things I’ve found that work and don’t work as far as appearances go:
Individual book store book signings are hit and miss until you have a following already. If the bookstore gets a lot of foot traffic and the booksellers like you and love your work enough to promote it to customers, you can do pretty well. If not, you may be sitting at a folding table under a piece of cardboard with your name scribbled on it, shilling the two copies of your books that the store just happened to have on the shelves, in between giving customers directions to the bathroom. Instead, try to book events – things that are more than a signing. Talk to bookstores about book clubs or writers’ groups that meet there; if a book club is willing to read your book, you can offer to come and discuss it with them at one of their meetings. Writers groups are always looking for dynamic speakers to inspire and advise new writers. If you do tackle a bookstore itself, you can offer to do a reading or talk followed by a Q&A, or get some other writers together and do a panel. People will come out to the bookstore to hear you talk about how to get into writing, how to get published, how to develop a short story, even what scary movies you like.
Don’t forget about libraries. Libraries want to do fun stuff related to writing and reading. It works best, I’m told, if you approach the librarian in charge of events with a possible event already outlined, and a list of possible dates which may work for the library. They often don’t have a huge budget to pay for appearances, but many seem willing to negotiate something fair, and if you’re willing to do appearances for free, all the better for them. Libraries will also often take donations of your books, which puts you in circulation and contact with potential new readers who will then go on to buy your books elsewhere. A lot of us discovered our first book loves from libraries. Further, libraries will sometimes let you sell your own books after an event or at least hand out information about your books – bookmarks, stickers, postcards, etc.
If you’re going to hit the convention circuit, great. However, different kinds of conventions serve different purposes. Conventions that are all writers and editors are great for networking. You can sidle up to an editor or agent at a party and start up a conversation, maybe work your way toward impressing said professional into asking for your book. If you want to sell books, though, then these kinds of conventions end up being book trades between writers. Great for your TBR pile, not so great for your wallet. To sell books, reader or horror fan conventions are usually a better option. If you do choose to do a fan con, try to pick the ones that have a reader/writer track as well as movies, games, etc. This indicates that the con is 1) friendly to writers, 2) likely to attract readers and not just movie-watchers or game-players, and 3) open to programming which you may be able to participate in. Volunteering to participate in programming is another way to increase visibility. If people like what you say on a panel, if you come across as engaging or funny or charming, they are more likely to stop by your table and buy a book.
Genre labels are just words. You may think you write horror, but as Maurice Broaddus once put it, sometimes the only difference between genres is an extra zero added to your advance. While there are plenty of literary criteria I could give that distinguish horror from thriller, horror from dark fantasy, or horror from paranormal action, etc., know the audience you’re marketing to at an event. Know the loose genre parameters your book may fall under. Kensington markets many of my books as “Supernatural Thriller.” Works for me, if that opens up an avenue to reach readers who may like my stuff but are turned off by the “horror” label.
Think outside the box, too. Book festivals are another great option for scheduling events, considering readers are actually all coming out to one place to buy books. Try other kinds of festivals that are either amenable to book selling or to the genre you’re in – fall festivals, horror festivals, craft festivals, etc. Contact high schools and colleges – a lot of promising and talented new writers need guidance and direction, and are excited to hear what you have to say about the craft and the business. I know some writers who do bar tours and beer festivals for a number of reasons, not the least of which is because drunk people spend money. 😉
There is both an art and a science to promotion. A lot of it has to do with timing – when your book is due out, and when media outlets need information by. You also need to discuss with your publishers what they are willing or able to do for you in terms of promotion, and what you want to budget to do for yourself. In my experience, publishers welcome and encourage your efforts and ideas, because whatever books you sell make them money, too. Many don’t have the money for large, fancy book tours, but with the right planning, I believe you can do a little bit of everything to increase your readership and elevate the visibility of your work.
If you’re not familiar with Bookbub, make it a point to look into it. Essentially, it’s a curated list of books by genre that are directly marketed to the demographic of readers most interested in them. If you’re a fan of horror and fantasy, you can sign up for their emailing list and receive a daily heads-up about what new books are out in those genres and why they’re awesome. They spotlight these books with cover art, title, author, and a blurb regarding what the book is about. Now, getting your book listed is a difficult and expensive endeavor; I have only ever managed to get on the list because my publisher handled both the cost and the submission process, but I can honestly say that the difference in royalties between the quarter before the Bookbub and the quarter after was an extra zero tacked on the end, and then some. In addition to the financial benefit, it raises awareness of your work to a wider audience of people more inclined to buy your next one. You have a target horror audience subscribed because they are looking for books like yours, and through Bookbub, they’re finding your book. I’m not sure if all platforms like Bookbub are as effective, but BB is definitely one I’d recommend.
Brian Keene explained to me once that mass market paperback books have a shelf life in a bookstore of about three months. Three months. That’s not a long time to achieve fame and fortune and increase your readership, one might think. And one might be right. His suggestion, then, was keep reminding readers and encouraging sales. You can coordinate buying an ad in a major horror magazine with the publication schedule of the magazine (the first Tuesday of the month) and the returns shipment of bookstores (the end of the month). When The Rising (I htink it was?) came out, he bought an ad on the inside front cover – I stress placement because a) those are not cheap, but b) that is the most strategically effective place to put the ad. He arranged with the magazine to run the ad that first Tuesday of the 3rd month, and sure enough, the remaining copies of his book sold. Rather than having any returns, the bookstore ordered more copies, thus increasing his shelf life.
Get to know your local media outlets. Journalism is a job like any other creative job, and it often requires a hunt for content. Building a relationship with reporters and journalists, particularly those who cover local news or news specific to arts and entertainment, can open avenues of promotion through newspapers, radio, and even local television, and can increase awareness of your books to potential new readers whose loyalty stems as much from your being a local celebrity as it does from love of your work. Journalists keep your name out there in front of the eyes of the general public, and articles in media outlets often lend a kind of old-school legitimacy (OMG She’s in the paper today!) to your endeavors. I mean, try not to show up in the police blotter or anything, but cultivate relationships with the Arts & Entertainment writers, the Local News writers, and anyone else who may cover the same subjects your book covers. If you write about local locations which may be of historical significance, see if the historical society or local museums are interested in cross-promotion opportunities. Maybe they’ll carry your book in the gift shop if you give out book marks or pamphlets for their location at local book signings.
No one likes when people beg for awards, but there are a few little things which you can do to get noticed which I think are okay. You can let your publishers know that a number of prestigious awards look for recommendations or nominations specifically from publishers. I believe the Shirley Jackson Awards are an example of that. If you know people who compile annual Best-Of lists, you can send a free copy of your book, with their permission, for consideration.
Reviews, whether good or even only lukewarm, benefit you. Customers don’t always care about the specific issues people have with something because taste is individual, but they look at numbers – how many reviews you have, and if the majority, at least, is okay to good. Everyone gets bad reviews but I think most readers are savvy enough to take bad reviews (and good reviews) with a grain of salt. That your book is reviewed at all often seems more important, because it shows people are reading the book. A lot of reviews shows a lot of people are reading the book. Kensington usually offers the galleys of my books on Netgalley, so that I can just send a link to reviewers. They also send out a number of free review copies to their own list of people who then have the option to review the book on Amazon or Goodreads if they choose. Since these two outlets are where many readers go, it’s good if you have an account with each so that you can make sure the author information, your list of available work, your bio, and other news tidbits are all up to date. You can also see reviews there, but do NOT obsess about them and do NOT respond to them, other than maybe to thank someone who has brought a good review to your attention. (You really shouldn’t respond to bad reviews ever, but if you do, just thank the person for taking the time to read and review the book and offer wishes that perhaps they’ll like the next one better.) If you get good reviews, link to them on social media. Promote them.
Bridging the Gap – Getting Readers and Publishers to Notice a Marginalized Voice
In terms of raising awareness of writers who are marginalized in publishing sometimes, it’s my belief that the most effective way to do it is with positive reinforcement and sincere support. Retweet or repost promotional efforts of publishers or writers whose work you genuinely admire – and that qualifier is important. Sincerity is important. Maybe blog about the themes that are universally relatable or how easy it is to empathize with the characters. Discuss the relevance of the book as a part of your genre (or subgenre), and why the unique take on it is an infusion of creativity and freshness in the literary canon of your field. In other words, show readers, other writers, publishers – basically, anyone who will listen – why a horror novel by a woman or a person of color or LGBTQIA+ writer can still be scary and moving and significant to someone with a different, perhaps more mainstream set of experiences. However – and I want to stress this point – I think this is most effectively done not necessarily by emphasizing the “otherness” of the author but the universality of the book. For me personally, I’d rather someone talk about how good my books are, how scary, than how awesome it is that I’m a woman writer, like my gender or sex is some kind of novelty in the business. It’s not that I’m saying you need to, in any way, hide the unique identity of the author, but the point of building a readership is showing your work’s marketability to the widest audience possible; you want to appeal to as wide a reader demographic as possible. To do that, I think it’s important to demonstrate that varying perspectives in your genre enhance it as a whole, and ultimately work because as one species, there are fundamental, primal emotions (like fear, love, loyalty) which we all understand.
Getting publishers to pick up and push new voices is, I believe, a matter of legitimizing their financial profitability with a combination of subtle and overt positive reinforcement. Rather than tackle a publisher who, say, only publishes all white, straight males, praise and promote when a publisher publishes women, people of color, LGBTQIA+, etc. When the magazine or publisher is a high-visibility one, this promotional support is even more important, because it lets people know that women and other marginalized groups ARE out there, they ARE writing quality stuff and they ARE getting it published by tried and true publishers. It subtly reinforces the legitimacy of those writers in the the minds of readers, and reminds them of the variety of quality fiction out there. Promoting also brings sales and money to the publisher, reinforcing to them that publishing this woman or POC or LGBTQIA+ writer was a good idea, a profitable idea, and that they should do it again. Publishing is a business, and one in which the publishers hope to make some money, so a lot of times they look for people they’ve worked with before who are reliable and people whose name recognition will bring in readers and sales. Promotion of marginalized writers shows that despite not having the long history or track record as many straight white males deservably do, these marginalized writers are reliable, professional, and garnering a reputation that resonates with book-buying readers and other professionals as a “Name” author.
To put it bluntly, publishing is a business, and people are in that business to make money. Raising awareness of your profitability to publishers is a good way to get more work. More work means more opportunity to gain new readers.
Where Readers Seem to Be Finding Your Books
There will always be the casual browser at the bookstore (used or new books) who goes looking for that special hidden treasure, that new delight tucked away on some old dusty shelf. There’s a distinct pleasure in that, one that avid readers tend to look for even with the advent of much simpler avenues of purchase. Stick around in this business long enough and your books will start showing up at used bookstores, under the noses and in the eager hands of readers like that – the kind who mate for life, so to speak, with writers whose work they love. Stick around even longer, and you’ll begin to appeal to the nostalgia collectors, the completists, the ones for whom a home library is a thing of papery pride and joy. To me, my work on those kinds of shelves is a mark of true career success.
But we can’t overlook the electronic powerhouses which seem to be slowly supplanting bookstores across the nation. Let’s start with the assumption that you already have profiles on all these sites (if you don’t, go do that now. You should.) Keep these profiles as up-to date and detailed as possible. Make sure your new books are always linked to your name – that’s important, too. You can link your blog, your calendar of events, and even videos to these profiles, keeping readers in the loop wherever they go to find out info about you.
Amazon – there are a couple of tricks for getting noticed on Amazon, although it’s important to remember that thousands of other people are doing the same thing. Reviews do make a difference. It’s not so much what was said, as I mentioned earlier, but how often your book is being reviewed. I understand that certain algorithms on Amazon don’t kick in until your book has garnered a certain number of reviews – I think it’s 20. Like with many products, if I want to try something new, whether it’s a video game or a hair care product, I look to see that it has a bunch of reviews (that essentially, it’s been tested/used by a fairly decent sampling of people like me) and that the reviews are mostly good. I don’t care much about the particulars of why someone didn’t like something, other than, say, that it set the house on fire or some other dangerous thing. And I think most people tend to think of reviews that way. So long as your book doesn’t set the house of fire, people aren’t much going to care why someone didn’t like your book. Entertainment is subjective. But numbers – Amazon is a numbers game. Understanding the value Amazon places on numbers is an important step to elevating your work from the rest of the books being offered.
The only other way I see to raise the visibility of your book on Amazon deals with sales rankings. These seem to be contingent upon a number of sales in a brief period of time. If you could correlate selling a bunch of books and your promotional efforts, you would escalate in the sales rankings and your book would appear before new readers. Since Amazon is very category-driven, you often can rise to the top of the list in a very, very specific subset of your genre, but it’s more impressive to dominate your genre, or at least your subgenre, as a whole. Coordinated groups of sales, spread out over a period of time, might well trigger some algorithm that keeps you floating near the top of the list. I found a website that suggested stacked promotions every 90 days or so, I’m assuming so your sales don’t flag, and you reach a new influx of readers. Another website suggests making sure your book metadata is as complete as possible; evidently, the more details about your book the algorithms have, the more likely they are to suggest your book to potential customers. I suspect it looks for best matches, which equal more likely sales, so the more specifics a customer supplies, the easier it is for Amazon to match said customer with a good fit if the book mentions all or most of those specifics.
You can’t name-drop in the keywords section of metadata anymore, but evidently your book description can say things like “In the tradition of Stephen King,” or “If you like Dean Koontz, you’ll love this book!” My book CHILLS’s description references HBO’s TRUE DETECTIVES, and I suspect that raised its visibility with people looking for books like the show.
You can also include accolades, blurbs, bits of praise in your description. Since a lot of blurbs are attributed to the writer/editor/reviewer who said them, their names in your description may draw in people searching for their name.
If you’ve won any awards, you can put that in your description, too. I know a number of readers will search for “Stoker award” or “Shirley Jackson award” winners in looking for the best new work the genre has to offer that year.
You also want to work keywords and category into your description – think SEO, or the kind of words a reader might input in a search for books like yours. A Written Word Media article reports that Amazon’s suggestions include settings, something about the characters, like their roles or types in the story, the tone of the work, and plot themes.
Goodreads – A lot of people are finding out what the next great read is on Goodreads. According to a Huffington Post article (https://www.huffingtonpost.com/penny-c-sansevieri/how-to-become-a-goodreads_b_3719161.html), the average demographic there is adult female, avid readers though not terribly affluent, 81% Caucasian, and many with college-age kids.
Reviews are pretty important, since Goodreads syndicates those reviews to USAtoday.com, ecommerce sites, and library-related sites, according to that same Huffington Post article. I would argue that it’s probably just as important to encourage your readers to review your books on Goodreads as well as Amazon.
I’ve also noticed a feature called Listopia on Goodreads. There are several lists that I imagine readers might access in looking for good books – Best Ofs, Top 100s, that sort of thing. If you can encourage readers to add you where appropriate to their own lists on Goodreads, you’re increasing your visibility there to list-surfers. For example, here’s the link to horror-related book lists on Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/list/tag/horror
Curated lists – I mentioned Bookbub before. I think it’s a brilliant idea. I also think it’s a tough nut to crack. In my own personal experience, I’ve had better luck getting onto Bookbub when a publisher has submitted my book than when I’ve submitted one myself, but both individual writers and publishers have had their own varying degrees of success. What I like about the idea of curated lists is that, where most promotion is carpet-bombing and hoping to hit a few targets, curated lists are precision strikes. All these people who are looking to spend money on horror novels are voluntarily signing up to receive promotion about horror books – your horror books included. The return on investment here is much higher.
Here is a short list of (current as of this writing) curated book lists:
Amazon Prime Reading – it appears that the ones that make it to the top of the list are the ones released through Amazon imprints (they’re listed as “featured”).
Librosso – Become a Librosso Partner here: http://blog.librosso.com/were-reaching-out-to-all-the-authors/.
eReaderIQ – This website seems to list books that other readers have added, along with reviews.
What Deals Mean in PW
Nice deal is $1 to $49,000
Very nice deal is $50K to $99K
Good deal is $100K to $250
Significant deal is $250K to $499K
Major deal is $500K and up