Are literary fiction writers getting bad advice about publishing?
by Mike Sahno
I’ll go out on a limb right off the bat and say that most writers get at least some bad advice somewhere along the way. Literary fiction writers are no exception.
Now, I’m an indie author who formed his own company to publish his novels, and I categorize them as “literary” – I’ll let future generations determine whether they’ve really reached that lofty stratosphere of literary fiction. But I can say for sure that I did the best I could on all three of them.
I haven’t received all the bad advice listed below, but I’ve been on the receiving end of a few bits and bytes over time. Here are the worst:
1) “Just Hang in There Until You Find an Agent or Publisher.”
If there’s anyone subject to Death By Committee in writers’ groups, those of us trying to write classics must be the most vulnerable. If we keep taking chapters to a group before an editor ever sees them, they keep getting marked up.
Literary fiction writers know that the market for our work is not as big as, say, Mystery or Paranormal. So we often figure we need one of the Big Five publishers.
I almost made the mistake of “hanging in there” until I found an agent or publisher. In fact, over a period of 20+ years, I hung in there, sending out query after query. Once, I got a request for my manuscript from a VP at the William Morris Agency. I was beyond excited – this could be the Big One!
I not only sent the entire manuscript, but also took the step of going to Fedex and overnighting it. This is going back twenty years, and I had a job that didn’t pay all that much, so it was a heavy lift. But I wanted to make sure this VP got the manuscript right away and saw that I was serious.
Then I waited.
Every trip to the mailbox was torture.
Finally, the letter came. It was a personal reply from the VP, but it was a rejection letter. He actually encouraged me to send something else, which you don’t always get, but this rejection still devastated me. The only way I can describe it: soul-crushing.
I almost gave up on publishing after that. It still hadn’t occurred to me to self-publish, because it wasn’t considered “respectable” then.
But when I finally published, I formed my own company, hired an editor, made my books available in e-book and POD, and gained an audience online and in person.
2) “Don’t Worry About Building A Platform – Readers Will Find You.”
Oh, yes. If there’s one thing I wish I’d really, truly known before I published, it’s this: you must build a platform before you self-publish…especially literary fiction.
Now, I’ll be the first to admit, it’s pretty tough to build an audience for your novel if you don’t have anything but a novel. I mean, I’m primarily a novelist, not a short story writer. So when I was putting out pre-publication messages to build my platform, I didn’t have a clue how to do it.
The other aspect of my pre-publication I wish I’d done differently is what I now call the Big Marketing Gimmick. I’d written three novels over a period of 20+ years, and I figured the best way to get attention for them would be to put out all three of them at the same time. After all, what a story! Who has ever done such a thing?
Well, now I know why no one’s ever done such a thing. Ouch.
I also put out a press release about the launch of the company and the three novels, in an effort to get journalists around the globe to beat a path to my door (see the section below on press releases).
I’ll also be the first to admit that marketing is not an exact science. Even with 15 years of marketing writing experience under my belt, I still didn’t know whether I’d hit a home run or strike out. And let’s face it, home run hitters (to beat the analogy into the ground) strike out a lot when they’re not hitting home runs.
So start building your platform well before you launch. Have a social media presence in places where literary readers are likely to visit. I use Twitter and Goodreads, but don’t be afraid to experiment.
3) “Go on an Expensive Book Tour.”
You can do a blog tour without spending a ton of money, but if you think you can go on tour like U2 and fill stadiums, er, bookshops, I’ve got some property in West Texas to sell you.
I hope no one has actually undertaken such a thing to promote any novel, much less a work of literary fiction. Of all the mistakes I’ve made, this is luckily not one of them.
Rather than trying to do an expensive book tour, why not go on a blog tour? You can pay for one, or do what I’m doing and contact people yourself.
Many bloggers who are also authors love the idea of hosting each other; I’ve already done this with fellow literary fiction author Jay Lemming, I’m hosting best-selling author Marie Lavender on her upcoming blog tour, and I plan to do more in the future. (This is one more way that networking through blogging can help your career…Anne)
4) “Send Out Plenty of Press Releases.”
I doubt authors of literary fiction are sending out too many press releases, although it might not be a bad idea to send one for a debut novelist…two, at most.
In my own case, I launched my company with my first three novels on the same day, so I figured it only made sense to launch it (and them) with a press release, on that day. I think it might have gained me a few sales…though probably not enough to cover the actual cost of the press release!
The problem with press releases in general is that the audience for them is not the same as your audience. It’s mainly business people who read them, and if your literary novel is the topic…well, let’s just say the response is likely to be, “Eh, who cares?”
So, I wouldn’t recommend sending out more than one or two press releases, at most. If it helps, great; if not, find other places to invest your marketing dollars, like Facebook or Twitter ads, or book giveaways.
Should you decide to send out press releases, the most useful ones are probably with your hometown radio or newspaper. I didn’t try that, but if I’d thought of it, I would have.
5) “Invest Most of Your Time Working on the Next Book Instead of on Marketing.”
This sounds like a no-brainer, right? A novelist will write those novels, and let the marketing take care of itself, right?
If you’ve got the budget to pay other people to do it all for you, then by all means, go for it. But unless you’re King Croesus, you’re probably going to have to invest some of your time and energy in that icky world of marketing.
By the way, this isn’t just the reality for self-published authors. Even novelists who have contracts with traditional publishers report that they’re now expected to roll up their sleeves, get their hands dirty…you get the idea.
See, the days of having the good old publishing company do it all for you disappeared a long time ago…kind of like the days when a company took care of you for 25 years and then gave you a gold watch. (Remember those? No? Well, anyway…)
So that means that you, the author – whether traditionally-published, self-published, or some hybrid in between – have to take some responsibility for your author business. And it really is a business. Not really such a bad thing, when you think about it that way.
Since I self-published my three literary babies and launched them on an unsuspecting world, I’ve had ups and down, but I have made – and continue to make – book sales. In fact, my current re-launch of novel #3, Miles of Files, is reaching my widest audience yet.
So go ahead and start working on your next book, but make sure you start marketing, and don’t stop. For me, the most effective marketing strategies were:
- My email list
- Networking/cross-promotion with other authors
So, What’s the Bottom Line?
In a 2015 article by Jane Friedman, agent Ayesha Pande was quoted as saying, “I see writers of literary fiction making increasing use of digital platforms to access and communicate with their readers.”
I think it’s increased even more since then, especially since we now have an entire community of writers like Dan Holloway, author of Self-Publish With Integrity, who writes literary fiction but is also very active online.
Award-winning novelist Jane Davis, who wrote an article last year called Why I Self-Publish My Literary Fiction, made some great points about the safety and sterility of books under the traditional publishing model. Jane had some real problems with the traditional model, and says, “Self-publishing is the mechanism that freed me to be more ambitious in terms of where I wanted to take my fiction. Instead of being dictated to, I am free to write about the issues I’m passionate about and fascinated by – the big subjects.
Remove the pressure of trying of to mold something to fit the current market – which agents admit is risk-averse and overly-commercialized – and it grows wings. For authors of literary fiction, creative control isn’t just a plus. Increasingly it’s becoming a must.”
I couldn’t have said it better myself.
by Mike Sahno (@MikeSahno) March 12, 2017
Mike Sahno is the author of three novels: Brothers’ Hand, Jana, and Miles of Files and the founder of Sahno Publishing.
He’s a former marketing executive and college English instructor. His marketing articles have appeared in Fortune, Entrepreneur, Bloomberg Businessweek, Good Housekeeping, Redbook, and Woman’s Day as well as many other publications.
He’s available for professional speaking engagements upon request.
What about you, scriveners? I admit I generally advise literary authors to go for a trad. contract. But I was intrigued by Michael’s approach, so I wanted to give it equal time. Have you read any self-published literary fiction? Have you published some yourself? What was your experience? Do you have any questions for Michael?
While Michael is at the helm here today, Anne is visiting the blog of Stephen H. Provost, novelist, memoirist and editor of The Cambrian. She’s talking about the Camilla Randall Mysteries series.
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