How to Stand Out in a Crowd

One of the major laments that comes up whenever the discussion about the transition from the traditional publishing model to the new digital publishing model commences, goes like this: “It’s all well and good for you to advocate going direct, but you’re an established author. Of course this will work for you! What about me? I’m just starting out. I’ll be lost in the sea of other folks just starting out.”

I heartily recommend that anyone who has had that thought pass through his brain should read my essay “The Myth of the Established Author.” That should deal with many of the erroneous ideas that are wrapped up in the notion that there is some serious advantage to being an established author when it comes to the transition. There isn’t.

But, at the risk of seeming incredibly harsh, let me offer a comment before offering some practical advice.

The fact of the matter is that any beginning author, in this era or any other, has faced this same problem. How did any of us get “discovered?” We were all unpublished. We were but one person in a sea of thousands filling publishers’ slush piles with the flesh of dead trees. Getting discovered, getting eyes on our manuscripts has never been easy. It’s just a fact of life and even if we rolled the clock back forty years, it would still be as tough to get published.

Yes, publishers serve as gatekeepers, but let’s examine that statement. Ask yourself this: have you ever read a book coming out of a major publisher that you thought sucked buttermilk? I’ve certainly bought and read absolute stinkers. Most authors, in fact, have read a book from a major publisher and said, “I can write better than that,” and set out to prove they could. As gatekeepers, traditional publishers might have kept the absolute worst trash ever imagined—and I’ve read slush before, and some of it can be perfectly dreadful—out from public view. But taste is very much in the eye of the reader, and what one editor adores, or what one market segment adores, could seem like utter crap in your eyes. (For me, it’s James Patterson. I can’t stand his work, yet the man’s an industry and every book appears on bestseller lists. Go figure.)

Don’t worry about about not being established. Not being established is actually something you can deal with. Moreover, it’s something every author must deal with in the digital age, whether they’ve been published before or not. Seriously, as a published author, I face problems new writers will never have to address. Bantam Books, for example, has the last two books of my DragonCrown War series available for digital download, but not the first two. And they’ve not put together an omnibus edition of all four. Which mean, boys and girls, that as far as folks who only read digitally are concerned, that whole four book series might as well not exist. I mean, who’s going to jump into a four book set on book three?

Jim Lowder and others have offered some wonderful suggestions on how to deal with this sort of thing. They all revolve around making yourself a presence on the internet. Whether it is networking with other authors, forming little co-ops, putting together projects that can leverage one audience off against another, or just becoming a new-media guru so folks can find you via Twitter and Facebook and in podcasts, video blogs, streaming internet radio, through or Digg or any number of other things; you establish yourself.

I have touted the book Crush It! by Gary Vanyerchuk many times. Buy it. Read it. Live it! You want to establish yourself, gain visibility and build an audience? Vanyerchuk lays it all out for you. His advice is positively brilliant. I’ve either done everything he talks about, am in the process of doing it, or am making plans to get to it. If you want a bible for building an audience, Vanyerchuk’s book is it.

I’m also working on an ebook on all of this, with a lot of stuff specific to writers. That should be available very soon, by the end of March at the very latest.

There is a catch. (Of course, there always is.) It’s the same catch that always lurks there. As I’ve noted in past posts: doing this stuff is simple. It isn’t easy, but it is simple. You will have to put work into it. You’ll have to turn the TV off and use those hours to build your presence online. You have to ask yourself which you want to do more, veg-out in front of the boob tube, or build yourself a career? Those are your choices, and if you put in the effort, you have a chance at realizing a solid return.

Some of you might read my words as being condescending, but I’m right here in the same boat with the rest of you. I’ve spent the last two and a half years learning how to sell ebooks. I’ve learned how to use Second Life as a marketing tool. I’ve done the same with Twitter and Facebook. I’ve had to learn new skills and change the way I do thing to aid those skills. It’s cost me time and cost me money, but it’s work that’s necessary. Why? Because I actually love my job and don’t want to see it go away because of the incompetence of others.

Two points: First, as a test, I did a story and made it available for the Kindle under a pseudonym. I have not mentioned it to anyone. I just chucked it out there with no support whatsoever. And it sells. Moreover, the sales are even with the sales of some of my other short stories, the ones that come out under my name. So being established, at least nearly as I can tell from this hideously unscientific experiment, doesn’t count for much. A blind squirrel finds an acorn now and then, likewise a reader doing a general search will find your unheralded story and buy.

Second, there are writers out there who won’t do the work. In Second Life we have the capability for authors to do readings. I had one of our regular visitors mention a particular author to me, one who had a book coming out soon, and asked if I could get him to come into Second Life and do a reading. I said I’d try. I shot an email off, no answer—even though this same author is working Facebook and other social media to push his book. Maybe the email got lost, or the reply to me got lost or maybe he decided that wasn’t something he wanted to do. That’s okay, but it’s an opportunity that’s lost to connect with an audience. Those opportunities are not things any of us can afford to pass by.

The big problem I see with all the anxiety over the transition, with all this wondering “Will things collapse or won’t they?”, is that it’s pointless. The facts of life are simple: whether or not traditional publishing survives, or makes a move to remain legitimate, what they do is immaterial to whether or not we prosper. The work you do in establishing yourself online, in building an audience, will help you sell physical books just as well as help you sell digital books. If things don’t go bust, you’re in clover. If they do, you’re even better off; and there are things you can do digitally that traditional publishers will never touch, but readers will gladly gobble up.

And, on top of all that, traditional publishing still needs our words. The one quote from Lenin that I really like applies here, “The bourgeois will sell us the rope with which we shall hang them!” You put together a novel, publish it online, do it as a podcast, or do your own limited edition; traditional publishers will turn around and buy up the mass market rights from you. They’ve done it with Scott Sigler, among others. They will literally pay you to do the things that will completely destroy their old business model.

They will subsidize their own destruction. Consider it “economic aikido” on your part. Use the force of their greed to destroy them—or, at least, to put money in your pocket.

One last point. There’s a lot of palaver about the fact that writers lack “legitimacy” if they’re not published by New York. That was then, this is now. To paraphrase Jerry Pournelle on the subject of awards, “Money will see you through times of illegitimacy better than legitimacy will see you through times of no money.” People who cling to this notion of legitimacy are just hiding from the harsh realities out there. They may look down their nose at you because of where you got your start, but let them. Let them because you’ll be able to tip them well after they’ve cleared your plates and asked if you want to see the dessert menu.

So, please, no more worrying about what will happen if you’re not established. Worry about what you’re going to do to establish yourself. Channel your anxiety into useful activity. Instead of wondering how the future is going to shake out, put the time and work in now to shape the future to your liking. That is how you will become established in a future you help establish, and that’s exactly where you want to be.

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6 Responses to “How to Stand Out in a Crowd”

  1. Hey Mike, I’m about 3/4 of the way through Crush It! and it was a timely recommendation indeed for me.

    I’m also glad to see the summary results of your experiment just putting a short story up on AMZ, since I spent most of my free time so far today cleaning up some work for ePub/Kindle publication.

  2. Hmmm…using Second Life to do a reading? That might be tempting to do one day!

  3. Mike, any word on the progress of this: “I’m also working on an ebook on all of this, with a lot of stuff specific to writers. That should be available very soon, by the end of March at the very latest.”

  4. Jim, I’m working on it yet. Did I say March. I must have meant May… you know how those “M” months can be confusing. 🙂


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