We All Start From the Same Place

I offer a lot of marketing advice, much of it to new authors who are either finishing their book or those who have just recently released. If this advice is offered on a forum, inevitably someone will come by and post something to the effect of, “Well, that’s easy for you to say. It’s much different when you market. But that doesn’t help someone like me who hasn’t sold hundreds of thousands of books and has no name recognition.”

Every time I see this I have to smile, because I know something they obviously don’t. That I, too, was in the exact same place they are now, lacking a platform and completely unknown. When I finished my first book, I had no blog, Twitter account, or a presence on Goodreads. The truth is, except for a few celebrities we all start out from the same place: at square one and having to build an audience.

I’m a firm believer in the power of word-of-mouth. In fact, I’ll go so far to say that it is the only way a book becomes successful. One author, or even an author and a severely overworked marketing department at their publisher, can’t do it by themselves. What is needed is an army of people telling others that they must read a particular book.

But word-of-mouth advertising can only work if you have fans out there spreading the word. This then is presumed to be a chicken and egg dilemma. How can you have word-of-mouth if you don’t have fans, and how can you have fans without word-of-mouth? It would seem to be impossible. What I find so fascinating about this situation is that it is like a magic trick. It appears mysterious until you’re shown how the magic is done and then it is just so obvious.

I was reminded of this recently when watching an episode of The West Wing. It was a rerun (obviously), but I hadn’t seen it before. This was one of the later episodes where Santos is running for President. It doesn’t matter if you know the show or not, the point is that this guy was running for President, and no one knew who he was. His successful and experienced campaign manager took him to New Hampshire to start his campaign. Santos expected there would be a rally or convention where he would address hundreds (or possibly thousands) of people. Instead he was driven to the city dump, where people were known to frequent, and he was instructed to walk up to folks as they dumped their garbage and introduce himself. Just as you might expect, Santos looked at his manager incredulously. He was running for President of the United States, not city council of Concord. This was ridiculous! How can you get to be President if you can’t get people to come hear your speeches? If no one knows who you are, how can you gain a following, and without a following how can people know who you are?

The answer is very simple, so simple it is hard to accept especially for those expecting more, and I’ve noticed people are always expecting more, expecting life to be easier than it is. The truth is—the answer to the question of how you get fans without first having word-of-mouth is—you get them one at a time.

This sounds insane, I know. When I finally realized that I was expected to build a beach one grain of sand at a time, I was stunned. Really? Do you know how long that will take? The sheer absurdity of the size of such a task is overwhelming. I just did the impossible! I wrote a novel, and I got it published! Do you know how hard that is? And my reward is that I have to build a beach, grain of sand by grain of sand? Are you nuts?

But a funny thing happens. It’s called math. If I talked to fifty people, ten might read my book, of those ten, three might like it. If I got ten people to like my book, one of those ten might like it enough to suggest it to others. That person was a fan. And for every fan I made, they made two more. Word-of-mouth. One out of every hundred fans might be a super-fan, a cheerleader who imagines it is their calling to spread the word about you and your book to everyone.

After about two years of gathering grains of sand via the Internet, bookstores, book clubs, and conventions, all this unseen percolation rose to the surface, and I began to notice the effects. It was a bit like sailing for the mythical new world and seeing a thin hazy line on the horizon and wondering…could it be? No, it’s just a mirage. Then the next day it is still there and wait—it’s bigger. Could it really be? A week later you can make out slopes, hills and yes a beach…a beach with sand! Yes! Yes! It is! It’s word-of-mouth!

So whether you are running for President, self-publishing a book, or publishing through a big New York firm, it’s all the same. Everyone builds their beach one grain at a time, one sale, one reader, one fan, one super-fan. It sounds ridiculous, but it works. Having a big publisher gives you a little leg-up because they made their own little beach already, but that work doesn’t necessarily translate to you. Those are the publisher’s grains, not yours. And your publisher may help you build your beach by giving you a pail, and a pail sure helps, but let’s face it, building a beach with a pail is still a lot of hard work, and that pail is only on loan. If you don’t build a big enough beach in time, they might take it back and give the pail to the person whose book is releasing the month after yours.

When I was gathering my grains of sand and thinking how impossible it was, I was convinced I was doing it all wrong. No one else did this. Everyone else had better techniques, better connections, maybe a better book. I had the feeling I was destined for failure because getting readers one at a time just felt so stupid…and yet it worked. Was it hard, hell yes. Did it happen overnight, hell no. But it did work.

So, if you start feeling discouraged, take solace in the fact you’re not alone. Almost all of us start at the same place, but little by little, you, too, can build a beach. I did, and I’m never going to stop adding grains on my own. Each of those grains has the possibility of becoming a fan who also spreads the word, adding their own grains to the beach. Word-of-mouth is the key, but you have to start that cycle, and it starts one…reader…at…a…time.

Michael J. Sullivan

Michael J. Sullivan is a speculative fiction writer who has written twenty-five novels and released nine. Eight of his fantasy books (The Riyria Revelations, and The Riyria Chronicles), were published by Hachette Book Group’s Orbit imprint. Hollow World, a science-fiction thriller was released by Tachyon Publications. The first four books of his new series, The First Empire, has sold to Random House’s Del Rey imprint, and the first book is scheduled to be released in the summer of 2016. He can be found on twitter, through his blog www.riyria.com, and on his facebook page and his publisher’s page for the series.

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