A Grain of Sand in a Sandstorm

Being a writer and being an author are two different things. In general, we tend to think of a writer as simply someone who writes; whereas an author is a writer who has published his or her writing. People can be writers for long periods of their lives without becoming authors. In fact, most writers I know have spent years, if not decades, writing without publishing a single book.

But all that writing doesn’t prepare an experienced writer for tackling the role of author. One can master writing and fail at publishing. Which sucks, frankly. All those years of practice (and avid reading) have probably made the writer a damned decent writer, one worth reading. Unfortunately, becoming an author was probably the primary driving force of all that writing practice and study. The writer has been at it for ten, twenty, thirty years, without any external reward, a reward only delivered upon becoming the author of a publication.

Why so many years as writers, but not authors? Well, a lot of the work is reading. Book after book, after book. That takes time. Then, at the start we write for ourselves. We are our own first readers. Which is fine when we’re not publishing yet. Even moving from writing for one’s self to writing for a broader audience is an adjustment. I suppose some writers start out writing for a broader audience, but I think that many of us follow the path from avid reader and lover of stories, to making tentative forays into writing by taking a college class here or there, slowly gaining some sense of the rightness in the act, and then persisting, maybe earning a degree in writing, or investing a lot of personal time reading writing reference books and studying the art of writing on our own. Either way, the writer works long and hard at the craft before he or she ever reaches out to a larger audience, approaches a publisher, or attempts to indie publish. I often see in an author’s bio blurb that he or she started writing at eight or ten, or as a teenager. Sometimes, the author is in his or her forties or fifties when they finally publish. That’s a lot of years of reading and writing practice before leaping into the role of published author. Considering the complexity of writing well, that’s probably a good thing.

Regardless, when even the most practiced writer takes the leap into publishing, it’s a blind move. Writers submit their work to publishers, or hire independent editors and cover artists, and self-publish. We’ve seen the results…some good, some bad. Through one route or another, though, their writing gets turned into a book, which is put out into the world for consumers. In other words, a grain of sand gets tossed into a raging desert sand storm.

If one is lucky, which 99.9% of us are not, a publisher decides to invest whole hog into the book and prints and distributes it worldwide. It becomes Harry Potter, or Twilight, or 50 Shades of Grey. It may or may not be well-written, but it is published, and marketed ad infinitum. And, the writer makes the leap into being an author without any trouble.

If that’s you, this blog post is not for you.

This post is for the rest of us, wandering with deflated confidence at the lack of progress our book(s) have made in getting readers’ attention. We knew we were nobodies as writers, but we had hoped we’d achieve a little somebody-ness after publication. We’d all seen the movie. We built it, but they did not come.

I now have five grains of sand out swirling among the millions of sand storm books. Five books that are no more visible against the onslaught than having one piece of sand was, and I’m starting to think that even when I have 10 or 20 or 30 grains of sand out there, my books will maintain their status quo of invisibility. I clearly need to do more than produce books, though I continue to write and improve my craft (a couple projects will be out by year’s end). What I need to do is apply the kind of study of craft to my publishing career as I do to my writing career. Still, I can’t help but feel that I’ve taken a wrong turn somewhere.

I know it’s not like this for everyone. We even know those authors who have mastered promotion, but not writing, right? Their writing may be tepid at best, confusing and illogical at worst. Rife with dangling modifiers and abandoned plot points, their stories are products of enthusiasm rather than skill. Yet, the authors are successful despite the fact that they don’t read much and haven’t studied the craft. They are authors who want to be Michelangelo without learning to draw first, the master chef without learning to sauté, the gold medalist without learning the rules of the sport. They are fulfilling their fantasies too, just not one based on reverence for the art of writing well. Despite all the problems with their work, they sometimes have far more publishing success than practiced writers do, while practiced writers watch from the sidelines with not a little stunned amazement. Still, if we have taught ourselves to write well—not an easy feat—then we should be able to learn how to promote our books successfully as well.

Sounds doable, but if you’re a serious introvert like me, if your stomach over cooks into curdled eggs at the thought of telling someone about your books with the hope they might want to read them, then, learning to write well suddenly becomes a breeze. After all, writing practice is perfect for the introvert since it involves reading a lot (solitary activity) with writing a lot (also solitary activity). Being a writer doesn’t require us to speak to people. But being an author does. And speaking to people is a challenge for introverts.

Selling yourself, your writing, your books is not easy for us shy types. I can promote books others write, but when it comes to my own books, I feel like I’ve entered a nightmare universe where I’ve become a multi-level marketing sales person selling overpriced dish soap to reluctant, resentful friends and family. This is not the dream that drove my passion for writing.

I spent decades studying the craft of writing, but I only began to study the industry and what it means to be an author after I got published. Crazy, right? About the only thing I know I did right was carefully chose a pen name that I still love. Then, I was told to set up social media accounts, so I did. Solicit reviews? Did that too. I connected with some fabulous, genuine reviewers out there—and when you find then, treasure them!—but I also suffered the sting of so-called reviews by self-absorbed, posturing bloggers who couldn’t even get the facts of my books accurate in their reviews and who had more fun trashing my work for their own self-gratification and amusement, than seriously reading and critiquing it. So yeah. Not bitter. Moving on. Ads on review sites? Put the books up for free or on sale on a regular basis? Thousands of my ebooks have been downloaded. Along with millions of other free books. So, effective? My follow-up sales numbers say no. I’ve discovered that getting one’s books downloaded and actually read are two totally different events.

I’ve tried all of these promotional strategies, and my books and my author persona might be a slightly larger grain-cluster of sand, at times, than when I started, but they are still indistinguishable from most of the other grains of sand blowing around in the giant dust devil of book publishing. Plus, soliciting for reviews and mentioning my books on social media remains a nausea-producing event. So it’s been a bit of a nonstarter for me. I was really beginning to wonder whether I should just publish and not promote at all. Sort of like throwing pennies (my books) into a wishing well (Amazon) and hoping my wish would come true, that I’d pick up some readers by sheer chance.

Then at RWA 2016 this past week, I was fortunate enough to attend Damon Suede and Heidi Cullinan’s session on developing a promotional plan that fits different types of writers, even shy, introverted ones like me who love writing but hate promoting. To think that I might be able to forge my own promotional path to some level of author success is exciting. So, I’m going to sacrifice a bit of my precious writing time to engage in their “game” system to formally develop my special brand and my best route to promotional success. My books and my dream for sincerely interested readers are worth it. Maybe in a year or two, I will be a big enough grain of sand to get noticed.

Not surprisingly, I’ve turned my own blog post into an ad for some other authors’ book rather than my own, but I simply don’t mind promoting other people’s work if it’s good. The promotional book for artists is called Your A Game: Winning Promo for Genre Fiction. The authors, Suede and Cullinan, have a website with resources too, if you can’t swing the book just now. Go to your-A-game.com. Maybe, with the perfect brand and promo plan, we’ll find each other’s books in the storm.