Self Publish Your Novel Part 5: Write the Novel You Want to Read



This post is part of a series of posts about self-publishing. I’m revising my book Self Publish Your Novel and posting the chapters as I finish them. If you’d like to be alerted when the new version of Self Publish Your Novel is available, please click here.


Getting published is easier than ever, but getting people to buy and read your book is still very difficult. Many struggling authors tend to focus on marketing, pricing, and the mechanics of publishing in an attempt to figure out where they went wrong, but the most likely reason a book isn’t attracting readers is that it simply isn’t good enough. I didn’t intend this to be a writing book, per se, but in some ways the content of your novel is so inextricably tied up with your efforts to market it that I would be remiss not to mention this aspect.

HAPPY-READER-300x200Your novel doesn’t have to be great literature. In fact, while quality is definitely an important factor in determining a book’s success, it’s far from the most important factor. There’s only one surefire way to write a bestseller, and that’s to be famous before you write it. Stephen King could put together a book of stories about his visits to the supermarket and it would sell ten million copies. Sarah Palin’s book is outselling the Bible because she’s pretty and she’s been on TV, not because she has anything interesting to say. Yes, Stephen King was once an unknown too, but the point is that as an aspiring author it’s a mistake for you to compare your work to Stephen King’s and think, “My book is as good as that, so it will sell millions of copies.” First, it probably isn’t. Second, your book is going to be missing the one element that has been critical to the success of every Stephen King book since Carrie: the name “Stephen King” on the cover.

The good and bad news about marketing fiction is that beyond being a celebrity (or at least a known author), no one really knows what goes into making a successful novel. Look at J.K. Rowling, who is one of the bestselling authors of all time (and the twelfth richest woman in Britain). The first of her phenomenally successful Harry Potter books was rejected by twelve publishers – and that’s after she had gotten a reputable literary agent to represent her. If any of those publishers had had the slightest inkling that the Harry Potter books would be even a tenth as successful as they turned out to be, they would have snapped it up in a second, but they had absolutely no idea.

Imagine if you were to take the Hope Diamond to twelve of the most reputable jewelers in New York and not a single one of them would give you a dollar for it. It would make you start to think that the whole profession of jewelry appraisal is a lot of bollocks, wouldn’t it? Now imagine that someone in the know about the jewelry business informed you that most jewelers lose money on most of their sales and only manage to stay in business thanks to a handful of fluke successes. At the very least, you would think twice about trusting one of those jewelers with the success of your own gem. You’d be well advised, in fact, to eschew the guidance of professional jewelers altogether and take matters into your own hands. Replace “jewelry” with “manuscripts” and “jewelers” with “publishers” and you’ll have a pretty good sense of how the publishing industry works (or doesn’t work).

A moment ago I stated that no one knows what causes a novel to be a success, which isn’t entirely true. The one characteristic shared by all successful novels (other than those written by known authors) is that they are books that people tell their friends about. The rub, of course, is that no one knows what exactly causes someone to be filled with the urge to tell another person about a book. Quality helps, sure, but when’s the last time a co-worker brought in a copy of Charles Dickens’ Bleak House or Voltaire’s Candide and said “You have to read this”? What makes people do this with the Harry Potter books and The Da Vinci Code and Twilight? Like most people, I have no idea. But I do know this: for someone to want to recommend a book to other people, they have to be excited about it. And how do you know what people are going to be excited about? The best way to answer that question, in my opinion, is to ask yourself what you are excited about – and then write about that.

This is a critical point. Writers are often told to “keep your audience in mind,” which is good advice – unless, when you think of your audience, you imagine some amorphous crowd of people who fit some particular demographic. If you target your book at 30something college-educated male science fiction fans or 20something white single mothers, you’re going to fail. No one wants to read a book targeted at a demographic. You want your reader to think, as they are reading your novel, “Wow, this author knows me.” How do you accomplish this? Again, write what you are excited about. No matter how eclectic your interests, there are other people out there like you – and they have friends. Did J.K. Rowling know that there was an untapped market of tens of millions dying to read about British children attending a school of wizardry? Probably not. But she was excited by the idea, and that excitement is infectious.

Don’t write for a demographic. Don’t write for publishers, reviewers or agents. Write for yourself and maybe for that handful of people who really “get” you. Don’t worry about the appeal of your book being too narrow. My first novel, Mercury Falls, certainly isn’t for everybody. To be honest, I’m surprised that its appeal has turned out to be as broad as it is, considering that it’s filled with obscure references to everything from Occam’s Razor to Creedence Clearwater Revival to Wargames. What I’ve learned is that, ironically, by intentionally refusing to pander to my audience, I actually made Mercury Falls more interesting for readers outside of what I originally thought was my target demographic. Readers respond to authenticity, originality and excitement, even if it’s not packaged in a way they expect.

The other huge advantage to writing a book that you’re excited about is that it’s much easier to market. Those of who have witnessed my marketing onslaught for Mercury Falls may be surprised to learn that I absolutely abhor sales. I’m probably the worst salesperson in the history of humankind. And yet, I have no problem wholeheartedly recommending my book at every opportunity because it’s a book I believe in. I don’t mean that I believe that it will sell millions of copies; I have no idea how many people will ultimately want to read it. It’s not a book calculated to generate sales; it’s simply the best book I could write, and as such it’s something that I want to share with people. I’d stack that enthusiasm against the cold calculations of the clueless publishing houses any day. And that’s why I’ll say again: Write the book that you want to read. If you can do that, you’re a long way toward creating a successful book. Too many writers worry about getting “published” when they should be worried about writing a book that people will want to read.

It’s true that the odds of a self-published book being successful are extremely small. But to say that self-publishing generally results in failure is to confuse cause and effect. The odds of any book being successful are extremely small. Books published by traditional publishers are more likely to succeed because publishers have the luxury of cherry-picking the one book out of a thousand that they think will sell (and they are still wrong most of the time!). Saying that publishers create bestsellers is like saying the NFL creates great football players. The NFL doesn’t create great players; all they do is try to predict which players will be great. Similarly, if a publisher decides to publish your book it’s because your book has a good chance at success. The difference between writing and playing football is that writing is a solitary endeavor. While a professional football player would have a hard time succeeding outside the NFL, you don’t need the approval of a Big Publisher any more than a marathon runner needs the approval of the National Marathon Runners Association. If you have a book in you, write it.


This post is part of a series of posts about self-publishing. I’m revising my book Self Publish Your Novel and posting the chapters as I finish them. If you’d like to be alerted when the new version of Self Publish Your Novel is available, please click here.

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