Somewhere between the dream of a best-seller and the reality of the sales challenges that writers face, is the process of marketing. Whether trade published or independent, carving out a market share for our work is the most difficult and daunting of tasks. Many Indie writers, faced with low sales and the endless requirements for being “heard” simply give up their dreams and return to a life without publication. Even those who succeed often suffer periods of challenge. It makes me wonder if Harper Lee had the right idea – one story to tell.
I think if Ms Lee wrote To Kill A Mockingbird today, her publisher, agent and well-meaning fans would be making demands for a sequel. “Come on Harper, people want to know what happened to Scout and the boys. What if we visit Scout and say she’s like 16, maybe she’s pregnant or how about a killer virus has turned Atticus into a zombie?” It seems that success breeds high demands for more of the same. JK Rowling could likely write five or six more Harry Potter stories. In fact, her fans would probably have her continue until the books became so boring that only low sales would serve as the stopping point. James Patterson has no issue cranking out the next Alex Cross story even though some of the books average 3 stars.
As unknown writers, we all wish we had that problem. Failing to get any attention is certainly a disappointment. But it isn’t the worst kind that an author might face. You can write and publish your masterpiece and receive no fan-fare. No attention however is not necessarily a personal thing. There can be many reasons why readers don’t purchase your book. Very acceptable reasons that have little or no impact on your ego because they are not a direct critique of your abilities as a writer. Perhaps the genre is filled with many choices. Perhaps you don’t have adequate time or resources to market and communicate your work. Perhaps it is just the wrong place at the wrong time. The lack of readers may be disappointing but it can still be viewed as a marketing issue, not a writing quality or style issue.
Writers often discuss reviews. Reviews are the best validation our work can receive. In fact reviews drive sales, especially for an Indie author. The more the better. Bad reviews may hurt, but as someone said – no press is bad press. Every reader won’t like your work but even a bad review can highlight the “good.” For example, a reviewer may be offended by the amount of violence or sex in your novel. Another potential reader might read that and think, “well hell, that’s exactly what I’m looking for in a story.” Even a troll review – “this author is an idiot and the story is just stupid” – doesn’t do much harm, as the educated reader understands that people write such things for even stories such as Beowulf and The Sound and the Fury. The only truly “bad” reviews are the type that point out mechanical issues like spelling, typos and grammar. Those tell a reader that the author is not careful in his or her craft.
So what about great reviews? No harm in getting all four and five stars right? I mean that is our goal, to produce work that readers universally love. Five star reviews are great for business, they’re great for our confidence, and if you’re Harper Lee that’s all you want – One book, great reviews, and now I’m getting back to my life. Of course, it’s pretty safe to say that you aren’t settling with just one book. In fact, you probably want to write several and you may even decide to write a series. And that’s where great reviews can get inside your head.
Great reviews create expectations. I don’t know if Ms. Rowling stood a chance writing anything after Harry Potter. Stephen King had a hell of a time getting people to accept that he didn’t want to do another haunted car, vampire or rabid dog story. He stuck to horror mostly, but he expanded his story lines to many different areas. Each one of these are examples of authors with critical acclaim, mad skills, and a fan base that will forgive the occasional off book (like The Tommyknockers). For the new author, we ain’t so lucky.
When I sat down and wrote my first novel, the fear of a sophomore slump was already on my mind. The more my beta readers enjoyed the first book, the more I grew concerned for the second in the series. Much of my labor on the second book was finding the “voice” of the story again. I published book one with zero fan-fare. It was a quiet launch with no promotion because I wanted to finish book two before book one received any real attention. If readers hated book one then I had little to worry over book two – they’d hate that one too. If they loved book one, however, I worried that I might not be able to meet the expectations in writing book two. I didn’t want those high expectations influencing my writing. So I finished the two books and began the slow, deliberate marketing process. Book three (and maybe four) still need to be written and therein lies the problem.
Great reviews create their own hardship for the writer. I received a review from a reader at Good Reads. She sent me a very nice email that read, “I put your novel in my Top 10 books of all time and I can’t wait to read the second.” I was flattered and I was thrilled. And I am also scared to death. What if book two gets placed in her “the most disappointing sequel ever!” file? Yesterday I received another review (if you haven’t done a book give away on Good Reads you really should). The reader wrote at length It was a great review. He said, in part, the following:
“Though they are traveling on somewhat different roads, Mr. Esposito has much in common with the great Cormac McCarthy. They both understand the power of economy of line. They both know how to render you nearly unbalanced by terror. Read this book and see what it is to really fall into a saga you can’t put down.”
I have no way in which to judge whether my work is even close to the neighborhood of Mr McCarthy (The Road, No Country for Old Men, Blood Meridian). I am honored that this reader believes such. As a writer, the amount of validation required before we begin to believe in our work is endless. And while I prefer this review to one that reads, “this guy is terrible and should never write another word,” the expectations for my next book feel all the more daunting.
They say that it is better to have loved and lost than to never have loved at all. Perhaps in writing, having fifteen minutes of fame is better than none. But writing is so much more than putting words on paper. It is placing a piece of oneself on that paper -it’s personal as love. Every glowing review creates a greater expectation to please the reader again -writers are obsessive like that. Yes great reviews are a good problem to have, but nothing is free and the cost of great reviews are paid through efforts to exceed the readers’ expectations the next time. And although I’ll happily try to pay that cost… it’s a really big bill.