The Sunday Sermon

Dearly Beloved Readers who are also Writers,

Lots of authors seem to be passing on words of wisdom about how to write a good story, edit it, and sell it. In other words, holding out the faint but oh so enticing hope that YOU, yes, YOU could be the next J.K. if only you follow the advice. I thought I might as well add my two penn’orth.

You might have noticed that I have written quite a lot, and I continue to write, every day, poems and pieces of prose, as well as working on one or other of my umpteen WIP. The general opinion is that I write well. Not genius stuff, but solid stuff that gets good reviews. The other thing you probably haven’t noticed, because we tend not to notice what’s not there, is that I don’t promote except to announce a new release or free story, excerpt or poem drawn from the book.

The word of advice is simple—if you want to be successful, stop wasting your time writing and get on with promoting yourself. It’s incredibly difficult to get an agent if you haven’t written exactly what they happen to be looking for this week, and it’s incredibly easy to get a small publisher who will publish your work, drop it into the arena of the internet, and quietly back away from it.

But there’s still self-publishing, the great democratizer, that gives us all a stab at being famous. Just bear in mind that if you want to rise from the mud at the bottom of the seabed, you have to market as well as promote. You have to create a web presence and a public persona that readers can pretend they know. You have to get reviews from the places that will accept self-published books, which means none of the big magazines or literary reviews. You have to spend money on buying advertising, organizing promotions, attending cons and book signings (if a book store will have you and you buy a big stack of your own books to sell), and you have to toil for weeks knitting effigies of your mcs or sewing scapulars with their toenail clippings to give away as prizes.

Who has all this time? Do some people get more than the regulation 24 hours in the day? Do they employ servants? Whatever their dark secret, some people manage to do all of this and hold down a day job too.

Anyway, the advice is there. Don’t write, sell. It’s given freely from someone who hasn’t been able to crack it, but at least knows that she’s doing it all wrong. Like me, you might decide to throw common sense to the winds and just keep on writing. Good luck, whichever path you take.

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Jane Dougherty

I used to do lots of things I didn't much enjoy. Now I am officially a writer. It's what I always wanted to be.

67 thoughts on “The Sunday Sermon”

  1. Ah, I’m sorry you feel like that – it is so discouraging at times, isn’t it? I think everyone is struggling with the balance between writing and promoting, even those with big publisher contracts, unless they happen to be those rare runaway bestsellers. I’ve heard of far too many who were excited to be attached to a big name but discovered there was no marketing budget for them whatsoever, so they had to hustle as much as any small publisher or self-published author. Ultimately, I seriously believe it comes down to dumb luck – being in the right place with the right book at the right time. And no one quite knows the full alchemy of that…

    1. You’re so right! If there’s no promotion budget, you’re sunk. The only advantage of being with a big or just a good publisher is that they can open theoretical doors that are closed to the self-published. I’m just going to keep on writing for the hell of it, but there just isn’t the time, the energy or the money for the rest of it.

  2. Jane, I appreciate your sincere comment. The writers’ world, publishing and marketing world differs a lot. If you are not famous, well connected, or lucky, don’t imagine too much. Poetry is a dying genre in many parts of the world, next is drama; better opportunity for fiction and non fiction. I have self published two poetry books, one by Partridge, and I have not obtained a cent of royalty so far, though it is selling poorly. The second self published poetry was published locally and recovered my cost with some profit. There are two to three books yet to be published, but I decide not to. The marketing and advertising world, and reviews etc all incur cost and time, which I have no interest to invest. If I am writing for personal joy, then best to keep it that way. Spend the time writing and enjoying it, rather than the stress of selling. In my world, you will starve to death if you wish to earn a living out of writing; of course with some exceptions. Attend my funeral and you may get the third book free.

    1. I have never thought I could earn a living at writing, even though we live on not much more than fresh air at the moment, but I would like to see a bit more than I’m getting so far. The staff at my publisher are either salaried or earning enough as free-lancers to keep afloat, yet a whole year of royalties earned me just enough to enter a short story contest! I hope you get your recognition, but as you say, it takes a lot of luck.

      1. I think one must not write for sales and recognition, otherwise the initial aspiration and direction will get muddled in snobbish and vain pursuit. .I try my best to learn and write well. No expectation, no disappointment, just write, even if no book can be published or sold.

      2. I think it is easier to let them come to you than seeking them; if they don’t appear, accept it as destiny. We do our part as best as we can, hoping the wheel of merit, opportunity and luck, will move.

      3. That’s a good attitude to take. I’m trying to step back from writing for a while and go back to all the things that have been pushed into the background. Pushing isn’t in my nature, and the feeble attempts at trying to be noticed haven’t worked so I reckon it’s time to give up. Let them come and find me 🙂

      4. Yes, but need to leave traces and hints for them to find you. Pictures, drawings, social media etc are some ways. Many Malaysians do not read my poetry, for they find the English too difficult, even for those who are educated overseas. In that sense, they are not pulled but pushed away. Plus the fact that there is a poetry phobia among them.

      5. I shall keep up with my blog, posting the short pieces that come from prompts. Interesting about Malaysian English. Reading pieces by Indian writers and poets and writers I often find the English hard to understand. English is such a flexible language that it has evolved quite differently in each part of the world where it is spoken. I had always thought that there was a strong tradition of poetry in Asian countries. Is it an élitist thing?

      6. In Malaysia, we have four main languages for three main cultures. Malay is the dominant one; English is supposed to be common ground in the past. For political and racial reasons, other three languages have been downgraded, bringing down the main dominant stream as well. I try my best and vain attempt to infuse some interest in poetry. We have to compete with sms, emoticons, and kindred kinds of bastardization of languages. There is weirdness, not elitism.

      7. We all have to battle against text language. It is terribly frowned upon in France to use abbreviations in messages even on twitter. English seems up for grabs to the lowest bidder though.

  3. I feel you. I went to a writers’ conference last weekend where this was a major topic of conversation, both in various sessions and in the hallways. The trade-offs are real, and it seems clear that being successful at independent publishing takes a level of entrepreneurial business skills and motivation that I don’t have. Not to mention, time. Between a full time job, basic housework, and some small modicum of a social life, it’s all I can do to get a little writing in each week, much less the rest. I have often asked the same question you do — do these people somehow have more than 24 hours a day? Ah well, maybe I am just not cut from the right cloth to do that. So I’ll continue to think of my writing as a rewarding and fairly inexpensive hobby rather than as a money-making venture, and who knows — maybe good writing will get me somewhere in the end.

    1. It’s very hard to get an idea of how many sales over the first year is considered ‘average’. I’ve seen figures in the thousands bandied about for books published by smallish publishers, and I know a couple of self-published authors who have also sold in the thousands. But I know a hell of a lot who if they make $25 a year feel they’re doing well. It doesn’t have much to do with the quality of the work, much more with how you sell it. Unfortunately.

      1. Well, I would say it has a lot to do with quality, in that it’s still relatively unusual for poor writing to make it big (50 Shades of Gray being one exception). But quality isn’t enough. There’s a huge glut of high quality work out there, which makes it hard to get any one story recognized. And it’s made more difficult by the fact that there’s tons of terrible writing being independently published, so if you’re self-publishing, it takes that much more effort to convince possible readers that you’re not one of those.

      2. That’s an important point. It depends what you mean by ‘big’. For me ‘big’ would be a few hundred copies sold, and ‘really big’ a few thousands. There is a lot of terrible writing around. There’s also a lot of mediochre writing that sells far more than I could dream of. I know writers who’ve done it. A best seller is in the hundreds of thousands, but there are very iffy books that sell in the thousands simply because they are pushed at the right people in the right way.

      3. I never really thought about how “big” I would be hoping for. I suspect that no matter how many copies you sell, you’re going to be looked down on by some people — you will never be able to sell “enough” unless by some miracle you’re the next JK Rowling, and even she gets tons of grief for not being good enough.

      4. Few people ever talk numbers. I saw on a forum someone from a publishing background say that you ought to sell roughly 3000 copies in the first few months if your publisher is even half-way decent. There were some dropped jaws at the figure, but there were also people who agreed that that’s what you should expect. Who knows what’s average.

      5. I’ve also been hearing that if you decide to self-publish but hope to get a publisher some day for the next book, they will actually count it against you if you have less than 5-10K sales for your self-published book, as proof your work won’t sell. Ouch!

      6. That doesn’t surprise me. It shows how little agents/publishers understand the mechanisms of marketing. You can sell any rubbish if you work hard enough at it. Alternatively you could have published the next War and Peace but if you don’t jump through all the advertising hoops, who would know?

  4. You’re right about self published authors – the most successful I’ve read about often come from a marketing background to begin with and some spend half of their week promoting their books. Half! You can’t say this approach isn’t financially successful, because it is.
    I’d like to be up to that, but I’m not sure I am. All self pub authors (and trad pub too) really need a marketing qualification to help them sell – I’ll be tempted to take one if I ever self pub.
    I’m with you – I don’t see it as sullying the work if you get paid. It’s just desserts. I see nothing attractive in suffering in a garret for my work – I want to get paid, thanks.

    1. You have the right attitude, I think. If you can look on the marketing side as the unattractive part of the job and the writing as the reward when you’ve done it, it could work. I did that when I first self-published but I don’t have the energy now. It’s old now. I have new stuff to write and find a home for. What’s sure is, if you don’t really work at the marketing side, you’ll get nothing but the pleasure of knowing that ‘you did it’.

      1. Ah, yes, my garden is taunting me – waving its long stems and autumn leaves at me. Really must grab those extra 3 days from somewhere 🙂

      2. Round these parts if you haven’t cleared it by now it’s too late. The wisteria is ready to burst, another couple of weeks and it will be in full flower bar natural disasters. Everything else is pruned and opening. This is the season of filling in dog holes, stopping the doves ripping the new leaves to shreds and keeping down the snail population while it’s still possible to see them.

      3. Sounds like you’re more advanced than we are for climate, though some things do grow here all the way through winter. We’re looking for a new house so my motivation to keep the garden neat has waned. Coupled with the fact our neighbour has just all but destroyed our beloved cherry tree and I can’t face the garden at the moment!

      4. He got a friend to ‘prune’ his side of the tree, which goes over the adjoining fence. The friend cut the tree completely flush to the fence and I think took a few of our limbs with it, so we now have half a tree. It’s heartbreaking

      5. That’s not allowed here. Even if a branch overhangs, though you have the right to demand that the owner of the tree prune it/lop it off, you are not allowed to do it yourself. We have a neighbour (other side of the wall, in the first floor flat) who is constantly picking away at a giant privet that was obviously planted where it is to stop whoever lives in his flat peering into our garden. Giant privets are hideous things. Imagine ordinary hedge privet tree size, with correspondingly large leaves, stinking flowers and berries, and you get an idea of the monster it is. It doesn’t bother us because it’s a tree, tree high but he doesn’t like it and is always picking bits out of it, claiming he only wants to give (our) wisteria that grows through it a sporting chance.

      6. It’s upsetting what he’s done, especially as it’s known by many neighbours for being a lovely tree that produces great fruit most years – and as his ‘mate’ lopped some of the branches off our side of the fence too. I can see the benefits of your system – especially if the owner of a tree has to keep it trimmed. No sticking the branches back on ours though

      7. It isn’t as though a cherry tree is a bother anyway. It’s not dangerously big, loses its leaves in winter so it doesn’t block out the light. But it does have a lovely shape, if it’s left alone of course.

  5. Write, write, write, because the more we write, the better we get. For me, marketing is like going shopping on a Saturday morning! I don’t want to go there, and much prefer to sit and write, write, write. However, I’ve given it a go and will continue to do so, but writing always comes first.

      1. I think I do, Jane. It’s hard work and eats time up very quickly but, like sleeping, it’s something we have to when we go down publishing our own work. As somebody said earlier, sometimes it can be all about being in the right place at the right time. That’s something I do firmly believe in.

  6. Marketing seems dreadful to me. I hate it. I definitely can’t handle working my day job, writing, and promoting. Most of the time, I can only handle doing one of those things mentioned above, and since I have bills to pay, the day job wins. Kudos to those writers who can do it all. And kudos to those writer who enjoy promoting. I guess I’ll languish in self-publishing obscurity since I can’t seem to crank out a new novel every other month and I can’t manage to be everywhere at once, blowing my own horn.

    1. I think you need a lot of energy and to be single-minded about it. You also need a certain amount of spare cash because promotion doesn’t come free. I’m with you here, so we can languish in obscurity together 🙂

  7. Excellent advice to market. And it’s so true. For so long all I did was write and focus on my craft, poetry, and blogging. Then in 2016, I discovered where my readers were (Facebook) and saw how important it was to wear a business hat in addition to the creative/writer’s hat if I were to remain a self-published author. In September of last year, I finally stopped lamenting poor sales and started advertising on Facebook and revived sales on a year old book. Then I published my latest book and made sure to advertise that, too, and I’ve seen how it’s crucial to have some sort of marketing plan in place before releasing a book or even after you released your book. New readers won’t know your book is a new release because you’ll be new to them anyway.

    Some of my friends pay hundreds of dollars to a publicist and attend author signings and Facebook parties but I decided to apply that money to advertising and I get about 350% ROI (sales x 100 divided by cost of promotion). I tried not adveritsing and it lasted only a day before I powered up all my ads again. Advertising allows me to write while I know my ads are working for me in the background.

    1. It can’t be done without spending money, I don’t think. And you have to keep at it, even when you have a fan base. I’d be interested to hear what you think of taking the same approach if you are traditionally published. Would you spend money on advertising a book when your publisher earns more than 50% of the profits from your efforts? More and more people seem to be going down this road.

      1. It takes money to make money and it took me 2 years after publishing my first book in 2014 to realize that. It’s also why I’m self-published and I prefer it that way. I’ve only queried once via twitter pitchmad and got a request for a full. But when I researched the company I didn’t want to give 60% of profits to anyone who wasn’t going to do any advertising for the book because they would rather concentrate their efforts on signing new authors. One of my by friends is traditionally published but she’s self-published since realizing the publisher didn’t do anything to market her book beyond the initial round of announcements and tweets. Her book was put into a box set with 9 other authors and the whole set available only for 99 cents. She tried rallying other authors in the set to pool in money to market th set and got a tepid response. She even paid for an ad but quit shortly after because it wasn’t worth it, not when the publisher took 60% of net before splitting the remainder between all ten authors. It’s also why she has 4 self-published books after that one trad pubbed book. The novelty of being pubbed by someone else wore off quickly the moment she saw that first royalty check.

      2. It’s hard to see what many of them do to earn more than the author, but that’s the way a lot of small publishers work. I certainly wouldn’t spend money on advertising a trad published book. I’ve never heard of publishers offering to pay 60% of the advertising costs either.

      3. I couldn’t get her rationale in paying for it either and the more popular co-authors in the box set not volunteering to help with the budget was a big sign that it’s not worth it to them to do all that work and put out an outlay of money to have the pub house take 60% of the profits anyway, and that’s after Amazon got its 30% since this pub house is all Amazon/Kindle Select. But some authors want to be known as hybrid, I think, so they take the chance with a small pub and then go out and self-publish their other books.

        For me, I just did the math when the same pub house requested a full ms and I just couldn’t do it. That book is my poorest performing one of all my books because I also don’t advertise it, but at least I still collect 70% of every sale.

      4. Some authors take the attitude that a publisher is ‘taking a chance’ with them and when they’re told they ought to be doing more promotion, they’ll go and do it regardless of who recoups the profits. I don’t get this ‘taking a chance’ thing. If a publisher does no more than a superficial edit and format the manuscript, it’s hardly a big investment they’re making.

      5. Exactly. I’ve seen books that were posted on Wattpad and then published by a small publishing house and it was exactly the same as the first draft. But it’s a perception thing, I think. The fact that someone deemed you worthy to be offered a publishing contract is huge to some people. I still have relatives and friends who don’t think I’m a real author even with 4 books out and for awhile it bummed me out. But I forgot all that when I saw my royalties that first month when I started advertising and I haven’t looked back since.

      6. A ‘real’ publisher gives it the seal of approval. If you do it yourself, who’s to say (except you) that it’s any good? If I had the money I’d advertise too. It’s not the theory that stops me, just the lack of cash.

      7. I’ve learned from self-publishing my books that the readers have the final say whether my books are good or not. Of course, I believe they’re good and some will say they’re not while others will say they are. In the end, they vote with their wallet by buying my books, signing up for my newsletter and preordering my upcoming releases.

        I didn’t have a lot of cash – or any for that matter – when I started advertising. I just knew that I had to start, even at $5/day and forego my day’s Coffee Bean cafe mocha. And ever since September 2016, I have used whatever cash I had on hand, budgeting $5/day-$35/week-$160/month. I just knew that if I never tried, I’d never know. The money I use now is rolled over from the previous month on a strict budget and whenever I stop, I don’t sell any books. That’s when it all made sense to me. It takes money to make money, and it takes money to gain visibility in a very competitive market. And in the absence of a Big 5 publisher throwing money to advertise my books, I had to do it all myself but I get to keep 70% of total sales in the process.

      8. The trick is to find your readers, and as you say, to find them, they have to be able to find you, hence the advertising. How much is just a little expenditure, and how much is an impossibility depends on individual circumstances. I wish I could lay my hands on $160 a month but it’s just not there. In my case, any expense is too much, so I’m resigned to never selling anything, and resigned to giving up on self-publishing. Interesting what you say about sales dropping off as soon as you stop advertising. Two friends who have sold a lot of books have said exactly the same thing. And that’s with a number of books available and dozens, (hundreds) of reviews on Amazon. I don’t know how to explain that.

      9. Don’t give up! I felt that way all of last year to the point of crippling anxiety after a bestselling romance author sent his minions after me for a tweet he didn’t take kindly and I thought my career was over. I had to pick myself up, wrote a new story and then treated it like starting over. I also wasn’t going to let some idiot drive me off the road called my life.

        As far as book sales dropping as soon you stop advertising, it’s all about discoverability, I think. Another way I’ve been able to gain more readers (and this doesn’t cost anything but goodwill) has been through newsletter swaps – not in the illegal way where you and another person swap subscriber lists – but where an author of my genre features my book in her newsletter and I do the same for her book. It doesn’t have to be the same time but it’s authors helping other authors. I can get as many as 30 additional books sold when I do that and it’s honestly one of the best ways to promote your book without any financial outlay other than maintaining your list through sites like Mailerlite or Mailchimp. If five other authors added my book to their weekly or monthly newsletter, just imagine how many more people would see my book? So it’s another way of casting a wide net.

        I also used Instafreebie which helped me gain new subscribers. I started with a free holiday story that people could download in exchange for an email address and that was one way that people could see my writing style and decide if I was the author for them. Sure, there are many who just want the free books but even if I only get 10% of those readers truly interested in me, that’s still 10% of readers I didn’t have. I also just looked up your author page and you have 15 books and a series. I would try offering the first book in that series for free and if you would like any additional information (I don’t want to hijack your comment thread any more than I have), you can also pop me an email at velvetdmadrid at gmail.com.

      10. That’s kind of you Liz, but I have more or less given up on the self-publishing lark. I’ve tried the freebies and if you don’t advertise you may as well not bother. The newsletter stunt hasn’t worked for me and I feel uncomfortable with myself when nothing happens. Neither I nor my books are cut out for the hard sell. We don’t have the right attitude. I don’t entirely understand it, but I can see where we differ from what I read of successful books and authors, so I’m sitting this one out.

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