Writing, especially fiction writing, is a tough business to get into and a tougher one to stay in. Generally, neither authors nor publishers make a significant profit until an author’s fifth novel is published. Most of the time, the majority of the meager money that publishers put into publicizing books goes toward review copies and the usually unproductive author tour. How many books do first-time authors sell? Over 195,000 new novels are published by traditional publishers in the U.S. every year. Of those, 70% sell fewer than 500 copies. Yikes.
To be in the other 30% of authors, you must seize every promotional advantage you can, especially by using the web and other new media. My first novel, Rabid, sold out of its first print run of 10,000 copies in under two months and is currently chewing through its second print run, which is better than average.
To sell your book, (1) inform people that you and the novel exist, (2) interest readers enough to buy your book, and (3) build a relationship to keep them coming back for more.
For all this, the Internet is the perfect medium.
To announce your presence to the world, first you blog. Before your book is published, start your own blog or blogs on subjects related to your book, especially controversial themes or subjects that people want to know more about on an easy, free blog host like Blogger/Blogspot, Livejournal, or Xanga. Join blogs. Be a guest blogger. Trade blog posts with other bloggers. Many small blogs and blogger networks, including those that you start or join and co-op blogs, allow you to write one blog post and then cross-post to them all, which means far more bang for your time and typing buck. Some blog networks also feed into search engine news services, which is an added publicity bonus.
Personally, I have a science blog, Science for Non-Majors (general science essays including genetic engineering of food animals, opinions about recent research in autism and Alzheimer’s Disease, and why snot is slimy,) and participate regularly in co-op blogs like Criminal Minds at Work (for authors of crime novels, as Rabid has both a murder and a trial in it,) and The Write Type, plus one at my publisher’s website, and blogger networks Bloggernews.net and Opednews.com.
Writing guest articles for newsletters, print, e-magazines, and other blogs is one of the best ways to reach new readers. Articles for big blogs and e-magazines, such as this one or Bookslut, are generally exclusive. Don’t cross-post these, though you can link to the post from your other blogs with a teaser about the article. Query blogs via email with a paragraph about the topic of your article and why you should write it. Find popular places to post by using tools like Technorati or PageRank on the Google Toolbar, which is also an indication of popularity — a higher number is better. Statsaholic and Alexa are other sources for traffic information that you can utilize.
Literary journals, especially e-journals, are excellent places to publicize. Excise self-contained nuggets out of your novel and submit them. You can also write stand-alone prequels, sequels, or exquels to your novel. Lists of literary journals, such as this one at Poets & Writers, abound.
Social networking sites are also great places to up your profile ante. Wikipedia has a good but incomplete list.
Goodreads is a must-visit social networking site for authors. It’s similar to MySpace except that it’s geared toward bibliophiles — a target-rich audience. Add friends, join groups, and post book reviews.
Gather is a community of writers and is another great place to make friends and turn them into readers by cross-posting your blogs and essays.
Once your book is added to Amazon, enroll in the AmazonConnect authors’ program. You can post blogs, announce book tour dates, and connect with people who have purchased your books in the past. Your posts show up on your book’s page.
Forums and newsgroups are the great underground for authors. Make a list of topics, especially controversial ones, in your novel, and search YahooGroups, GoogleGroups, and search engines for “forum” plus your topic. Post to the introductory thread with details about your book, then respond to other people’s posts, and cross-post any topically related blog posts as thread starters. Include your book’s title in your sig file, but don’t actually advertise your book as that will likely just get you branded as a spammer. As long as your posts are on topic, helpful, thoughtful, and informative, people will visit your signature links. Forums are good places to enjoy yourself while “working.” Caveat: trolls lurk under these cyberbridges, avoid getting involved in any flame wars.
Where to get ideas for blog essays: news items (write an opinion piece, not necessarily contrary, and link back to the source article), forum posts (on a discussion thread, when you write a long answer to a post, copy/paste your answer, tidy it up, and post it on your blogs), your characters (write short stories about them, which you can then submit to literary journals, or do “interviews” with them, which is always an amusing exercise), or questions that people ask you about your book.
After you inform people that you and your book exists, give them more information. Seventy percent of readers who are thinking of buying a book by a new author search the Internet before they buy.
The first thing you should do when you sign your book contract, if you haven’t already, is buy your name as a web domain address. You might want to buy the dot-net and dot-org versions as well as the dot-com, because if you don’t, someone else will.
So what do you put on your web site? First and foremost and as always, content is king. Readers want to know more about you, your book, subjects in your book, writing your book, excerpts from your novel or other short stories, and your characters. Don’t just slap up a couple sales pages.
For example, my own website, TKKenyon.com, includes a bio about my scientific work (virology and neuroscience) as well as fiction writing, essays on the craft of fiction writing, and about subjects that are themes in my novel, and more about the characters in my first novel, Rabid. Most people want to know more about two of them: Dante the tormented Jesuit Catholic priest, and Leila the wild graduate student.
Republish essays that you hold the e-rights to on your website. Link to others and to your blogs. Include a few pictures of yourself but nothing that will overly interest a stalker. Write content for the site that includes important key words and optimize your pages for search engines, which includes naming pages using commonly searched words that are also subjects of the essay and ensuring that the links between pages work. Add content frequently. Include a way to email you (important for building an email list, see below,) and a way to purchase your book immediately. To do that, join an affiliate program, such as from Amazon.com, BN.com, or Powells.com.
After you’ve found someone and sold them your novel, sell them the next one by building a relationship with them. As any MBA will tell you, the easiest customer is the repeat customer. To do this, build an email list.
Anyone who emails you, write them back and add them to your emailing list. When you start out, you can do mass emailings to your friends, but as you get bigger you should have an opt-in email list. You can collect email addresses from people at bookstore signings if you buy a little $2 bag of truffles and have a drawing, no purchase required. (Note: if you require the purchase of your book to enter the raffle, your contest falls under state lottery and gambling laws, and you don’t want that.) Send out at least a couple newsletters each year and make sure there is a way for people to remove themselves from the newsletter so you are in compliance with anti-spam laws. Definitely make use of your email distribution list to announce the pre-sale and sale of your next book.
AmazonConnect, mentioned above, is a great way to contact people who have bought your book from Amazon.com. In addition, AmazonShorts is a program where you can post short stories about your novel’s characters, or other short stories, 2000-10,000 words in length, and sell them on the cheap. While it will not provide retirement income, it is another way to introduce new people to your writing or update them on the further adventures of your charaters.
On your website, add an address where your readers can send you snail mail (like a PO Box, not your street address) and send you a self-addressed, stamped envelope. Then, send them a personalized, signed bookplate to stick in their book. Use large, 2″x3″ or larger, printer-label stickers, and write a quick note and sign them.
So that’s how to use the Internet to rise above the fray: find readers, give them information, and build relationships with them. In-store book signings sell only a few books and publishers may or may not allocate much in the way of publicity funds and manpower to first-time authors. Your own efforts on the Internet can make a dramatic difference in whether or not your novel succeeds.