I wrote a novel. Now what?
November 29, 2008 10:32 AM   Subscribe

Can I use viral marketing techniques to get my first novel published?

I wrote a novel (Nanowrimo), and I actually like it. Its still in draft format, so it needs some editing, but it is structurally sound. My question is, "Now what?"

A website with a little popularity is going to do an article on me and my novel, and it goes up on Monday. It should drive some traffic to the lowkey writing blog I started recently. I have NOT done much to this blog, just used it more as a static page to point potential clients to for freelance writing assignments. So what should I do to that site by Monday to further a goal of getting this thing published?

Similarly, is there a way I can use viral marketing to promote an unpublished book such that I don't have to go sending unsolicited manuscripts all over the place? The latter sounds like a pretty brutal way of trying to get published.

About me: I'm a freelance lawyer and have published academic articles, magazine articles, and done a good bit of freelance writing. This is my first novel.

Resources: I have a well-developed blog on my primary area of scholarly interest, but its not on point with my novel. I could potentially use that as leverage for promoting my book. I'm on the major social networking sites (facebook, twitter, linkedin, inactive on myspace), so I am open to using those. I am capable of building a website for the book, but that seems a bit ridiculous. I'd rather use the writing site I linked to.

About the book: The novel tells the story of a remote Alaskan village after a large-scale economic collapse. The book follows the people in this town, over the course of a single winter, trying to make a life for themselves in difficult conditions. It is character and plot focused (not premise focused). It has around 60 short chapters.

Any help with strategy as of this point would be greatly appreciated, if in the form of links to potentially helpful AskMe posts or other websites. Even if you think of something that may be helpful to me, but which answers a question I'm not asking, please do share.
posted by letahl to Writing & Language (38 answers total) 42 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: One route people have gone is to record themselves reading the novel (get an actor to do it if you're not good at readings) and post it as a free podcast.

Scott Sigler
did that and he's now a published author.
posted by grumblebee at 10:46 AM on November 29, 2008

Best answer: Similarly, is there a way I can use viral marketing to promote an unpublished book such that I don't have to go sending unsolicited manuscripts all over the place? The latter sounds like a pretty brutal way of trying to get published.

Probably not.

What you need to appreciate is that (a) this is the year of viral marketing -- everyone and their dog is doing it -- and (b) in fiction, it's a buyer's market: only 1 in 500 novel submissions results in a sale (although to be fair about 80% of those submissions consist of the incoherent effusions of people with neurological disorders). Editors have limited time for reading new work, and they're already surrounded by people pitching at them. The viral marketing signal is liable to be swamped by noise, or misinterpreted, or even taken as a sign that you don't know how the business works.

Put the boot on the other foot. Imagine you're looking for a professional subcontractor to supply your business with somewhere between $25,000 and $100,000 worth of material input (upon which you hope to break even or turn a profit) do you go with the viral marketing pitch from a no-name? Or the folks who seem to understand what your needs are?

Two other points. (a) NaNoWriMo targets 50,000 words. This is, unfortunately, about 60% short of the minimum length for an adult-reader novel these days (80K words and up). (b) Editors don't buy "rough drafts" from unpublished authors -- they want something that's ready to run with.

Finally: do not let me disappoint you -- you sound like you've got a solid idea of what you're doing, and the viral marketing shtick is a very good idea, once your book is published. It's a good way to try developing an audience. But it's not going to work so well on editors.
posted by cstross at 10:47 AM on November 29, 2008 [12 favorites]

(I should add that I had never heard of Sigler, and I would never have bought one of his books, but I was bored one day, so I listened to the first chapter of one of his podcasts, got hooked on the story, downloaded the rest... and then last week I found myself buying one of his books in a bookstore.)
posted by grumblebee at 10:50 AM on November 29, 2008

Following b1tr0t's advice is a pretty good way to ensure that your novel never sells to a mainstream publisher.

There are a metric shitload of obstacles along the way to self-publishing successfully, many of them non-obvious to industry outsiders. Too many to discuss here, but here's a good place to start.

(I don't like to resort to an argument from authority, but: this is where I'm coming from.)
posted by cstross at 10:56 AM on November 29, 2008 [4 favorites]

b1tr0t: fiction publishers aren't looking for new authors. They don't need to. They have to beat would-be authors off with a shitty stick. Your typical big New York publishing house gets more than a thousand unsolicited manuscripts across the transom in a given week; just opening the envelopes, checking that they're no-hopers, and shoveling them back out with a rejection slip is near-as-dammit a full-time job.
posted by cstross at 11:00 AM on November 29, 2008

Response by poster: Charlie, I am hearing what you think won't work, but what do you think will? Or could, or might? I could definitely get 80,000 words out of the story, so are you suggesting I consider that? And you comment editors don't want rough drafts; are you suggesting I finish editing and then pitch it?

Side note, I'm not going to self publish. I forgot to mention I self published a book years ago and didn't care for the experience. I want to write, not market, if at all possible.
posted by letahl at 11:03 AM on November 29, 2008

And you comment editors don't want rough drafts; are you suggesting I finish editing and then pitch it?

Yes. Yes, he is suggesting that. And if he is not than I am. Of course you need to edit it first. Either let it sit for a month or more without looking at it so you're able to read and critique it with a fresh set of eyes or find someone who hasn't read it to do the same. But there is absolutely no point in sending out unedited work.

Once it's been cleaned up, find an agent willing to represent you. They'll find a publisher. Sending an unedited manuscript to a publisher will simply not result in success.
posted by kate blank at 11:09 AM on November 29, 2008

Response by poster: Kate, I would not have sent an unedited manuscript to a publisher. I was just trying to pull some positive advice out of someone who is keen on demonstrating their knowledge of the industry. Thank you for your opinion that the traditional route is the one worth taking.
posted by letahl at 11:13 AM on November 29, 2008

Best answer: Genre writers (Asimov, King, Straub to name a few) published chapters from their novels as short stories in collections and magazines, both before they were established and after. Prior publication of a portion of your novel is a good thing; it says to an overworked editor that "Hey, someone else thinks this stuff is OK, so I'm not risking quite as much by putting this novel up for consideration." This method requires the unsolicited manuscripts route, but mailing fifteen pages to everyone is cheaper than mailing two hundred.

I'd say in general make your personal site non-bloggy about your work-in-progress. Readers want finished pieces to devour, not news (or lack-of-news) about how the novel's going.
posted by infinitewindow at 11:14 AM on November 29, 2008 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Charlie, I am hearing what you think won't work, but what do you think will? Or could, or might? I could definitely get 80,000 words out of the story, so are you suggesting I consider that? And you comment editors don't want rough drafts; are you suggesting I finish editing and then pitch it?

I'm not Charlie, but this is certainly what you should do if you're serious about finding a readership for your novel. Editing's one of the hardest parts of writing, but you're not going to find someone--anyone--interested in biting until you've gone through that process.

Similarly, is there a way I can use viral marketing to promote an unpublished book such that I don't have to go sending unsolicited manuscripts all over the place? The latter sounds like a pretty brutal way of trying to get published.

it's brutal, but it's practically the only way (there are exceptions, of course--if, like Christopher Paolini, your parents own a publishing house, you might not have to go through the process). I'm in a grad program full of would-be writers. It's that process of sending your stuff out until someone takes it that separates the wanna bes from the real deals. Remember, no one's going to publish your stuff unless you send it to them. It might be annoying, but it's also both practical and logical.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 11:15 AM on November 29, 2008

Best answer: I'd start by finishing the story. Get 80,000 words out of it, by all means. Stick it on the shelf for a couple of months, then polish it some more. If you get bored in the meantime, either (a) start writing another, or (b) start researching how the different parts of the publishing industry works (specifically: fiction publishing in book form). Preferably do both. The Writers Handbook will give you a decent 30,000 feet overview; other sources will give you more specific help (for example, in SF or Fantasy, the SFWA provides a lot of information for new authors -- but each field is somewhat specialized, and I can't easily advise you on, say, crime or romance). Again: see preditors and editors.

A hard truth we all have to grapple with is that we are not the best judge of our own writing's quality. (In fact, our subjective evaluations are usually lousy because when we look at our own books we're reading the text we wanted to write, not the text strangers see.) I usually recommend finding a local writers' workshop as a good way of getting feedback from folks in a similar position (with the proviso that there are good workshops and bad ones: avoid like the plague any that seem to be driven by folks in search of ego-stroking as opposed to constructive criticism).

Once your novel is satisfactory -- once you can't polish it any more -- it's time to send it out. My #1 goal in that process wouldn't be to sell it to a publisher; it would be to acquire a literary agent. The agent is your hired gun, on a 15% commission, and they're an insider who knows what they're doing: a decent agent will earn you far more extra money than they cost you. Also: many of the major publishers will no longer read unsolicited manuscripts unless they came by way of an established agency.

The most important point to note is that all of this takes time. Lots of time. Months at a minimum, more probably years -- and possibly even decades. Alas, that's because of the way the industry cycle works. There are no shortcuts (as long as you want to remain inside the established publishing industry) and anyone who promises you one is probably selling snake oil.

But you finished a first novel. 90% of would-be novelists never manage to get that far. It's a good sign: if you grit your teeth and keep slogging, you'll get there eventually.
posted by cstross at 11:23 AM on November 29, 2008 [11 favorites]

Best answer: The usual route, as far as I know, is to Finish Your Novel (that is, edit and polish it and...you know, finish it) then craft a brilliant query letter and seek representation from a literary agent. The literary agent then pitches your manuscript to editors. (I don't work in publishing and I'm not a novelist so take this all with a grain of salt.)

In the short and medium-term I'd work on making your novel as irresistably awesome as humanly possible and then think about either traditional publication or some alternate way of getting it in peoples' hands.

I think the most helpful question you can ask yourself is what you want to get from being "published." If you're just interested in distributing your novel then the ideas about recording it as a podcast/audio book etc might be just what you're looking for. But if you're hoping for placement in book stores/royalties/etc my understanding is that it's the "usual" way or...not at all. I'm sure there are exceptions, though.

Regardless of what you decide to do, congratulations on winning NaNoWriMo. I'm only a few K away myself. Your story sounds cool so I hope you're enjoying the process and feel all sorts of fulfilled and happy whenever it's "done" (or as done as something like this ever is.)
posted by Neofelis at 11:28 AM on November 29, 2008

...or, um, what cstross said. Curse my slow typing!
posted by Neofelis at 11:31 AM on November 29, 2008

Best answer: an old friend, Claire, sorta did it in an unique way...
posted by dawson at 12:05 PM on November 29, 2008

Write the entire novel. Find an agent -- by sending out manuscripts all over the place. The traditional mechanism is in place because it WORKS. It's what editors and publishing houses PREFER, and because of that, you'd do best to follow it, even though it's not fun.

Consider this: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt is no longer buying new manuscripts. When even business as usual is pretty slow, do you want to go into no-man's-land trying to land a publishing deal? No major house is filling their list with manuscripts they find on someone's blog.

Sorry to burst your bubble. I work at a major publishing house, and it gets really old hearing people looking for ways to circumvent the system that keeps our editors sane. We can't even read everything that comes in from agents; we sure don't have time to poke around on the vast internet for the next big novel.
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty at 12:18 PM on November 29, 2008 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Sorry to burst your bubble.

I was just looking for ideas. I do appreciate the feedback, but advice doesn't always have to be so negative. Lighten up! Writing a book and getting it published can be an adventure! If it can't, then I'll be writing a book and failing to get it published, and at least I still had an adventure. :)

Keeping an open mind is not just about "circumventing the system." I've been nontraditional my entire life and its been pretty good to me!

If you feel I should go the traditional route, that's fine, I accept that as your opinion, and I ultimately might choose to do so. But I'll still keep an open mind throughout the process! Other people's negativity can't stop me from being positive and open. If no one kept an open mind this world would be pretty boring. Most people are anyway. I try not to be!
posted by letahl at 12:37 PM on November 29, 2008 [2 favorites]

I would urge you to read the first part of this post by an acquiring editor for a major publisher.
posted by Jeanne at 12:53 PM on November 29, 2008

You should give the book away for free. Mainly because I'm personally curious if it's any good.

I think a lot of new authors are found through personal connections, actually. If your book is great, what you would do would be to get it in the hands of someone who can get it to someone in the publishing industry along with a personal recommendation.
posted by delmoi at 1:27 PM on November 29, 2008

delmoi: I think a lot of new authors are found through personal connections, actually.

Your thoughts run entirely orthogonally to my experience. Which is: new authors succeed because they can write. Connections are useless if you can't write, and if you can, you'll succeed without them (and generate them as a side-effect because everyone wants to know you when you're The New Hot Thing).
posted by cstross at 1:47 PM on November 29, 2008 [2 favorites]

A journalist-friend was able to get her first novel published by Simon & Schuster's Pocket Books imprint by 1) using pub industry/literary connections to land a well-known agent; 2) sending her MS to celebrity acquaintances whom she knew and/or interviewed, for advance praise (and name-dropping); and 3) using her media contacts to assure Pocket that the novel would get serious publicity and press attention after its release.

Do you have connections who could lead you to a good agent? Is there a media angle you can exploit to garner press for your novel? Are there any famous talking heads who might agree to read your MS and rave about it?
posted by terranova at 2:15 PM on November 29, 2008 [2 favorites]

Best answer: @Letahl, thanks for posting this question; I've been searching and googling to find out similar information the last few days. Some of the examples other posters provided are great.

Here are a few that I stumbled on to -- nontrational models, but both examples led to published books.

Mur Lafferty (okay I don't like her stories but very clever marketing and cool idea). She blogged and made a podcast; in this podcast, "I should be writing", she interviews science fiction authors (how do they write? any tips? how did they break in?). She was also writing books and was continuously receiving rejections so she read her book online. Subsequent to that it was published and a lot of other bloggers did whatever they could to promote her book. If she followed the traditional model she would probably still be sending out that manuscript. I really think her stuff is mediocre at best, but nonetheless, she found an audience.

Another person is Hugh Macleod. He has a really cool story -- he used to doodle cartoons on the back of business cards (for years). THen he made a blog and posted a cartoon a day, with no real objective behind this. He was offered a book deal that he rejected (he didn't like what they offered) -- but now his stuff is published and he is a consultant for a lot of other businesses (how to best advertise and reach your audience- ironic, huh?). Anyway, he definitely thinks outside the box when it comes to creativity and finding a way to get that medium to others. Seriously, check out his blog -- very inspirational. Even though they are just little cartoons, the writing and stories he provides along with this material is really interesting.

Please let us know if you find another alternate route that leads to your book being published.
posted by Wolfster at 2:35 PM on November 29, 2008

letahi, if you perceive the advice as negative, that's because the publishing industry is completely fucking brutal. It does you no good to go into the process thinking that it's going to be sunshine and roses, because it's not. It's a complete crapshoot even for established midlist authors. Better to find that out now than to be completely disillusioned later.

Mur Lafferty (who does a great podcast called I Should Be Writing) has written several novels that she has podcasted. She went to the Viable Paradise workshop. She had her first published book come out this year, after a publisher heard her podcast and even she thinks people should go the traditional publishing route first.

I think it's awesome that you finished Nano. But you also need to hear that the vast majority of writers never sell their first manuscript. I have friends who wrote more than five books before selling. A friend of a friend wrote twenty manuscripts before selling her first. You need to put this book away for a couple of weeks, at least, and then work on making it the best possible book you can. And then you write the next one, because you'll be better.

Also, spend some time researching the publishing industry. Find books that you like and that are similar to what you've written, and figure out what that publishing imprint looks for. Research agents. Yes, going the traditional route is hard, but that's what works. If there was a nice and easy way to skip it, we all would.

Again, if this seems negative, it's because breaking into publishing is incredibly difficult. Self publication is an option, if you're more interested in having a book in your hands than going the traditional route. Take a look at some samples on lulu.com or some other self publisher, then look at your manuscript. Do you think you're better than that? Good. Then do the work.
posted by sugarfish at 2:36 PM on November 29, 2008 [6 favorites]

Response by poster: Sugarfish --

I live in remote, interior Alaska. There are about a dozen people in my town in the winter. We haul water, cut wood, and bathe out of buckets. I kid you not. The nearest store is four hours away. Gas? Even farther. Bears are prolific and curious. Dogs get eaten by wolves in the winter. The mail gets dropped off by plane about four miles from here once or twice a week. Life here is "hard."

BUT, we make our choices. And, in my opinion, approaching this lifestyle with a negative attitude is not helpful. Even knowing that I am actually responsible here: responsible to haul water from the spring three miles away, responsible to cut enough wood and keep the fire going, responsible to make sure my dog doesn't go too far from the cabin at night, responsible to keep track of where I am in the woods lest I end up lost in 22 million acres of brutal wilderness. Keeping these harsh realities in mind, I still choose not to be "negative."

If there is a problem, I'm less of the person that's going to focus on the issue of there being a problem, and more of a person that's going to start figuring out how to chart a course and navigate the challenges ahead. And that approach, so far in this life, has worked well for me. I think I'll keep at it.

I hear what you are saying about the publishing industry being difficult, but its the same thing everyone is saying. Which makes me think, beyond it being true, that maybe people are focusing on this aspect of it to avoid taking responsibility for what they believe is their potential. (E.g., the industry is so difficult I might as well not even try.) Because once someone has said it once, twice, three times, there's got to be something to push onto the next step, which is planning. I mean, unless you are someone who will say, "Oh, it's difficult? Shoot, man. Well, nevermind then."

So, I'm there. I'm on the step of planning. And I totally appreciate your post, because it does assist me in this respect. I hope my explanation has given context of where I am coming from. Once I have got my planning down, then I'll be all about implementation. :)

To anyone who I have not responded to individually, thank you so much for your feedback and assistance. There are lots of comment responses to this AskMe post which will help guide me through both planning and implementation, and I appreciate that hugely. I'll look forward to straggle comments as well. Love mefi!
posted by letahl at 3:10 PM on November 29, 2008 [1 favorite]

I hear what you are saying about the publishing industry being difficult, but its the same thing everyone is saying. Which makes me think, beyond it being true, that maybe people are focusing on this aspect of it to avoid taking responsibility for what they believe is their potential.

People aren't saying it to dissuade you (or themselves), they're saying it because it's true.

Look at it this way, and I'll speak from my experiences in writing poetry, not novels. Of the 12 poets currently in my graduate program, 12 are talented, amazing, dynamic writers. To my knowledge, 3 have published anything. To my knowledge, these 3 people are the only ones who have gone through more than one round of initially sending work out to magazines. A great many writers will just stop after one round of rejections. Even more will never send things out at all. Is this because they're psyching themselves out? Maybe. But the truth is, no one knows the difficulty of getting stuff published better than those who have eventually succeeded--because it usually involves rejection after rejection after rejection. Is that rejection painful? Sure.

(Myself? 11 publications, none paying. And probably four times the number of rejections. I mean, ouch!)

But in order to succeed in being a writer that other people read, you have to know how difficult it is. You have to be prepared to face rejection after rejection and keep on soldiering on regardless. Why? Because no one else is going to stand up for your writing. Look at it this way: there are loads of incredibly talented unpublished writers with unfinished, unpolished manuscripts. Sorry, but you really are one in a million. You need to be willing to put your nose to the grindstone to distinguish yourself at all. The first part of that is completing your manuscript, getting your novel finished (that will kill off at least half of the competition, if not more). The second part of that is relentlessly marketing your writing to agents and publishers, pushing through rejections to find success. Why? Because no one else is going to do it for you. Because there are others just like you. Because people are never going to know how brilliant of a writer you are unless you show them and the current system that we have for publishing, while difficult, is incredibly effective. It rewards relentless and tireless writers of talent and quality. Think you're one of those people? Great. Then get to work!

Ironically, I don't find this kind of advice negative at all, and I've heard it from countless published writers. Why? Because it's practical. It tells you, specifically, what you need to do to succeed--which includes steeling yourself from rejection, because that's inevitably a part of the process. If it sounds terrifically negative to you, my advice might be that perhaps you shouldn't try. Because if you don't have nerves of steel, it's going to be much, much harder to put yourself out there, and that's what you need to do to get your writing read.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 3:46 PM on November 29, 2008 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: PhoB,

Thank you for your thoughts. You say, "I don't find this kind of advice negative at all," but you have to admit only half your post is advice, and the other half is naysaying. But I'm feeling you. It's difficult. Okay, got it. Now, trying to push past that...

For each of the offers to publish my scholarly articles, I received 100 rejection letters. But published they are, and I still hear people saying that you can't publish law journal articles without institutional affiliation or an established career.

I was also told that I could not build my cabin myself in the time frame and under the circumstances in which I built it. No way, no how. But sure enough, I managed.

Similarly, I was told law school was going to be really hard and miserable and brutal. Guess what? Not that bad.

I appreciate that you and others feel it is worthwhile to try and put the fear of god in me over publishing, but I'm just not buying. I'll do what I have to do, and that's all there is to it. If it doesn't work, maybe I'll try something else. No reason to make the experience all crazy and negative. It's just about doing what needs to be done, and that's neither a positive nor a negative thing. Or maybe I'm just being too zen. :)

posted by letahl at 4:02 PM on November 29, 2008

Best answer: letahl, I think the advice implicit in what everyone is saying is "don't give up when you get rejections, because it happens to everyone." It seems that you have the temperament to deal with it, which is great; but I think people are just trying to make sure you go in with realistic expectations. Don't take it personally!
posted by danb at 5:51 PM on November 29, 2008

Best answer: I don't think it's all that negative either. The advice here sound more like it's about effort involved in a strategy vs. the probability of that strategy working.

Would it be possible to build a cabin in Alaska using only a steak knife and a spoon as tools? Possibly, but would the amount of extra effort I'd expend be worth it? Would it result in a lousier cabin than one built with proper power tools? I don't think I'd risk freezing my ass off for the sake of being a maverick knifey-spooney builder.

Similarly, would the effort that you would have to put in to producing a viral marketing strategy be worth the less-likely-than-the-traditional-manner probability of a publisher/editor picking up on it? Would that effort be better spent on polishing your work and finding an good agent who will go to bat for you?
posted by CKmtl at 6:04 PM on November 29, 2008 [2 favorites]

letahl, it sounds like you have a good attitude going into getting your work published, especially considering your experience with getting scholarly articles into journals.

Which makes me think, beyond it being true, that maybe people are focusing on this aspect of it to avoid taking responsibility for what they believe is their potential. (E.g., the industry is so difficult I might as well not even try.)

I'm definitely not trying to dissuade you, but I am trying to give you a picture of what I know of the current fiction publishing industry. And I'll tell you the truth. Besides knowing working writers, I've met editors and agents. I've gone to conferences where they've spoken. I've eaten dinner and chatted with them. And I've heard tons of stories where someone has tried to go outside the normal channels, doing things like sending in their query letters on pink scented paper, or calling the agent every day to make sure she got the partial, or carpetbombing queries pointing back to a blog. If the agents and editors weren't annoyed by the actions of these writers, they were amused. But those writers certainly didn't sell.

Publishing has a system. It's your job to learn that system, to prove to your agent and editor that they should take a leap and enter into a business relationship with you. Would you respect someone who came to Alaska and moved in next door to you who hadn't even brought proper winter clothing? Because you're doing the same thing.

I urge you to take cstross' (who does happen to be a working writer) advice from above. Educate yourself on the publishing industry. I wouldn't want you to get taken advantage of by an unethical agent, who are legion. The only way to protect yourself and eventually get your work published is to know what you're headed in to.

Best of luck.
posted by sugarfish at 6:31 PM on November 29, 2008 [2 favorites]

I know that Mark Danielewski publish parts of House of Leaves online and, supposedly, created quite a cult following before the novel was actually published.

Does it require luck? Yes.
Can it be done? Yes.
posted by icarus at 8:45 PM on November 29, 2008

Some raw data:

* Age when I decided I wanted to be a writer: 8.
* Age when I got my hands on a typewriter and taught myself to use it: 14.
* Age when I wrote my first novel: 15.
* Novels written between age 15 and age 28: about 12. (All rubbish.)
* Age when I first submitted a short story to a magazine: 16.
* Thickness of file of rejection slips prior to first story sale: 3 inches.
* Age when I sold my first short story: 22.
* Age when I first came close to selling a novel: 28.
* Age when that first book deal imploded (prior to publication): 30.
* Age when I first sold a non-fiction book: 31.
* Age when I landed a (paid, monthly) magazine column: 34.
* Age when I next wrote a saleable novel: 34.
* Novels written between 28 and 34: 3. (All rubbish.)
* Age when the second saleable novel finally sold: 36.
* Age when a short story was first shortlisted for the Hugo award: 37.
* Age when the SSN came out: 38.
* Age when I first won a Hugo award: 41.
* Age when I finally shut down the freelance journalism and became a full-time novelist: 41.
* Age when the money coming in exceeded my previous employment: 43.
* Age now: 44.
* Number of books sold: 16 (novels), 2 (short story collections), 1 (non-fiction)
* Number of titles in print: 13.
* Number of titles fallen out of print: 1.

letahl: I'm not suggesting it's going to take you 30 years, but it took me 30 years, and for 85% of that time it felt like banging my head on a brick wall. Then, suddenly, after 14 years of failure, the brick wall collapsed. (And let me tell you, it feels very weird to be a success, to have multiple books in print, be getting fan mail from all over the planet, to be earning a living from what used to be my hobby.)

Most of the authors I know have similar stories (although the lucky ones skip the juvenilia stage). There's an old saw about the shortest route to literary proficiency being by way of a million words of crap -- because that's what most of us have to work through before we make it. (I reckon I wrote closer to two million words of crap, although to be fair I started young.)

Also: that first novel sale doesn't mark the end of the struggle; if anything, it merely marks the beginning of a new phase, your life as one self-employed contractor among many, shovelling product into the maw of a corporate behemoth and hoping they don't decide to pay some other contractor to do you work. Yes, you need a solid 5-10 books in print and earning out -- and at least one new title a year coming into print -- in order to give yourself a decent standard of living as a midlist genre novelist. Yes, they expect you to write a book every 12 months, like an egg-laying hen. Yes, it's a business, and if you can't do the work, they won't pay you.

Those editors and agents and reviewers and marketing folks and sales people -- yes, they love literature, else they wouldn't work in an industry which is chronically underpaid. But by the same token, they won't buy your books unless they're commercially viable, because if they don't turn a profit they'll go out of business, and if they go out of business they can't publish the books they love any more. So if you fail to deliver on their terms, you've got a long future ahead of you as publishing industry roadkill.

Anyway, this is why I take a jaundiced view of short-cuts -- because my entire experience tells me that they don't exist.
posted by cstross at 5:18 AM on November 30, 2008 [28 favorites]

Response by poster: Charlie,

Thanks for the note. I think its great that now I'm hearing about the industry, and what steps to take, rather than posting a "How do I write a novel?" question on MeFi. Everything is a new step, and that's the amazing thing about personal progress! I think you've got a lot of good, thoughtful feedback on this post and I appreciate it. You are welcome to be a little cynical; sounds like the industry is! There are so many people out there who think because they are in a creative writing MA program or because they work as a receptionist at a publishing house then they know everrrrrything about not only novel writing but novel publishing as well. Well I know nothing, and I can only imagine that compared to the vast sea of things to know that I'll continue to know nothing. I wasn't looking for a shortcut, was just trying to make sure I didn't miss an opportunity. All the concrete suggestions as to a different approach I should take are definitely appreciate. I wasn't considering trying to make my living as a novelist, and it sounds like that's a good thing! It's impressive you were able to persevere as long as you did, and an awesome testament to perseverance that you became as successful as you are. Anyway, thanks for the feedback.


As a side note, someone sent me this Mefimail and I liked the link:

Hi, I didn't post this as an answer in-thread because it's a little orthogonal to what you asked, but you might want to check out www.nomediakings.org for some thoughts and advice about self-publishing. A lot of what they talk about seems in keeping with guerilla / viral marketing.

Good luck!
posted by letahl at 10:34 AM on November 30, 2008

Response by poster: Received this good Mefimail:

...And I've [published stuff] by keeping at it, just like you've succeeded at academic publications by keeping at it. What EVERYONE on that thread seemed to be saying--not just Charlie Stross--was that being tireless and keeping at it is the way to succeed, despite the rejection that you'll undoubtedly face. And that rejection has nothing to do with you, because we all face it; the key is not talking it personally, just like you should take the "negativity" of the industry personally. That's not naysaying at all--it's just what you have to do to get your writing read. I mean, if you believe in your writing, why _not_ do everything necessary to get it out there? I don't think anyone said you shouldn't try at all, or that it's impossible. Just that it's hard. And it is hard. That doesn't mean it's not worth doing.

At least one posted felt that I appreciated only Charlie's posts. Not true at all! And I'm totally sorry if it came off that way. I appreciate everyone who has taken time to comment and give positive feedback about how to go about publishing. Thank you all again.
posted by letahl at 11:38 AM on November 30, 2008

I really appreciate this thread. I had an idea for a sci-fi novel. So I wrote it. It took about 20 months and then I edited it several times on my own. I got to 84000 words and 350 pages. I'm working on the second book, the original idea was that this was going to be a trilogy. I read a book "Publishing for Dummies" and read several articles and blogs about publishing. After doing that I knew that this is a long struggle, and one that it will take time for me to figure out, since I don't know anyone on the inside to refer me to their friend the agent or their personal editor.

Self publishing wasn't going to cut it just yet because I don't have anyone to give me direction. Plus, I have no idea whether anyone would care to read my book. So I look at this whole episode with the first book as "learning". Since I wanted to understand is if anyone cared to read a book like this at all, I did a couple of things. I've done some viral marketing, and I'm watching the clicks. People see my google ad, follow it to my blog where they can get a free excerpt and then I can track if they go from my blog to the Amazon Kindle site where at some point has an opportunity to download a full version. Sales are slow yet I am getting clicks. I have entreated people to leave some comments but most don't.

On the other hand, I've also been spreading my book around to people I know (for free) who might be interested in the subject to get comments.

The first set of comments I got was from one adult reader who said that he thought that it was a great story, but that a typical teenager would have difficulty reading this story. A really good student might work their way through it. Hmmm...will be a tough sell to the masses.

The next set of comments I got was from someone who understood (from a academic p.o.v.) the topics that I used as the back story. He commented that the story was very good, that I had good control of the subject matter but I needed to clean up the text more. So I fixed that first, to the point where I got all the punctuation problems cleaned up and all the "the the" errors out of it. My only method was to have my book read to me by my macbook. That alone was quite enlightening. That doesn't replace the need for a real editor...

I've spread several pdf versions to friends and acquaintances who are interested and many (but not universally) have said something to the effect of "I got to a point and I had to pull a dictionary out to understand what you were saying"... I had expected this. Unfortunately, like many "artists" that I've run into, I wrote the book that I want to read. The realization that forcing people to carry a dictionary around to read my book is not a good selling point. Of course on an electronic reader, this isn't a problem, since they have dictionary functionality attached.

Anyway, getting something published and getting rejected many times is something that I am preparing myself to deal with. I've gotten to the mindset that this is going to be a lifestyle, rather than an event. Every writer that I've met or read about has talked about 10 years, 20 years. So I figure it will take me that long to figure out the physical publishing industry. In the meantime I get to test market my book to see if anyone cares. So I'm using the web and the Kindle for that. I need someone to get to a point in the story and say, "You blew it on page 275, you ticked me off and I had to put the book down." I can't do that if all I get is pat rejections from agents and publishing houses.

So there it is. I'll be at this for a while. Thanks again for the advice here...
posted by Armen Chakmakjian at 7:33 PM on November 30, 2008

Best answer: I think the only "viral" way to market a manuscript, that makes any sense at all, is to become an internet microcelebrity and then promote your manuscript.

I have noticed that there are a number of people who have used an identity as a blogger to promote fiction manuscripts, and actually get book deals. You'd need to become fairly well-known blogger (which, of course, in real-world terms isn't very well known at all) in order for this to be a viable path to getting your manuscript published.
posted by jayder at 7:42 PM on November 30, 2008

Best answer: I've reread the thread and the comments, and I still stand by what I said above--that editors would much prefer to find your novel through the traditional means. But I've been thinking this over, and I have another suggestion.

Here's a dirty little secret about modern publishing: we don't just want an author who can write a good book. We want an author who has a built-in platform, regularly reaches thousands or hundreds of thousands of people in a demonstrable way (blog subscriptions, email database), is media-genic for television and radio, can tour for weeks with no complaints (ie, no day job), and on top of all that, drop a well-written novel a year like clockwork.

So what about doing BOTH? What about using the traditional method of sending out manuscripts to agents in order to land a publishing deal as well as using social networking, including your blog, to build interest and a fanbase to bring to the table? Trust me, you do want an agent to help you deal with the publishing house and landing a contract; they're worth their fees. Not only that, but they can get you a better deal than you could yourself by holding an auction for your work. But they'll be more interested in you, and editors will be more interested in you, if you have an established platform. The reason houses now want a platform is because social networking makes it so easy.

As for whether sharing your work online for free will make it less valuable--it is rare, but it has happened, that books are published entirely from work that is already available for free online (see Upgrade Your Life, Stuff White People Like, etc. While no novels immediately jump to mind, I'm sure it's been done. I do know of authors who post excerpts, or expiring chapters or something like that of novels in progress). I think social networking and other online outreach is tremendously important to you as an author both before and after publication, but I do not think it is a substitute for following the traditional and preferred method for landing a publication deal.

(Take a look at author Cherie Priest for an example of an author with a blog that has nothing to do with her subject matter but a lot to do with her life--she went from being self-published to landing a multi-book deal with Tor and is now a fulltime writer.)
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty at 11:08 AM on December 1, 2008

Response by poster: Great answer, Peanut. Now that's the kind of thing I was lookin' for!

I did put up a sample chapter in time for the traffic today and got some good feedback. Not a ton, but some!
posted by letahl at 6:57 PM on December 1, 2008

Best answer: Hey, I liked it.
posted by delmoi at 6:18 PM on December 6, 2008

It might be hard getting people interested if they only ever see one chapter. Why not charge $1 for the rest of the book as mentioned above? I guess it won't make you much money, but it's less scary to publishers than "free online", and helps keep possible readers interested.
posted by jeffburdges at 3:50 PM on May 18, 2009

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