Saturday, January 31, 2009

Casting For New Readers Is A Rough Job, But It's Just Fishing, More Or Less.

By John Ramsey Miller

With five authors (and guests) blogging on this site, there is going to be some overlapping since we are all thinking about similar things; our creative process, problems and the obstacles writers face on a daily basis including expanding our reader base. I’ve been thinking about the most important question after who is going to publish my book––how will I connect with my readers and what can I do to add more? How do I get a chance to sell my story to readers? How do I get through and make an impression they will act on?

Mind pictures help me, so I might imagine readers as fish swimming in a vast ocean. Each species of fish are fans of a genre, and they often swim through many schools of other fish of differing specie, eating what they are eating and then moving on to feed with various other sorts of fish. Food in the ocean is plentiful, and for the fish it becomes a question of which food they decide to open their mouths to take in. Imagine authors as a navy of fisher people, each in boats, trying to catch as many fish as possible. Each fisherman has to put their bait in front of constantly moving, well-fed fish who can eat whatever and as much as they like. Our dilemma is that the fish don’t need our bait, so we have to use some other way to entice them to try our bait, which frankly to the fish looks to be pretty much like the familiar bait they usually eat, and keep returning to. I love fish stories.


Given that there are tens of thousands of new stories to choose from, and readers are barraged with choices and they can only select so many, and the challenge is capturing their attention. I learned in advertising that it takes (I’ll say nine) impressions for a potential customer to act on an advertisement. This is more complex since most of us pass about a hundred thousand messages daily, and our brain (which sees them all) simply blocks out the ones that do not pertain to our needs or wants as a form of protection and I suppose to keep our brains from filling up (think computer ram). So if I am open to new tires, brain will tell me when it sees something related to the tires I’ve decided I want. If I like Good Time Tires, when I read the newspaper or watch TV or pass a Good Time Tires sign, my brain will shout, “Look, they have your tires right there! DO something!” And then I may buy, or I might just be nearing the time I have to make a decision, and my brain says, “Oh, they sell your tires. We’ll have to remember that.” Now at some point my brain will know that it is time and I’ll act and actually call someone who sells my tires, or pull into a dealer with the sign over the building. So, it’s the same with reading material. If I admire President Jimmy Carter, when I see a book by him or about him I might be more open to buying a book on him, and not one about Hoover, McKinley, or my favorite president, Jefferson Davis.

So, if you read the whole fish thing, it is a matter of finding our readers by capturing their attention, and at the present time everybody is thinking about a lot of things besides what to read. Our products are medicine for the mind and offer the client a way to escape their own problems and fears by getting involved and invested in someone else’s life or death dilemma, and best of all someone who doesn’t actually exist. And in most cases they get to see an underdog face impossible odds and actually come out on top, which gives them hope.

So how do we get to potential fans and convince them that our story is preferable to that of someone they know already, or several someones who have pleased them? How many of us have heard a reader say, “I loved Art Goobertug’s first book, but I haven’t enjoyed any of the last six he wrote.” After you close your mouth, you might well ask, “Why do you continue to buy books you don’t like. There are thousands of choices of authors who write good books, and maybe authors who write better books every time they write another.” These loyalists may say any number of things, and I have heard most of them, but it boils down to the experience they had the first time they read them, and they sincerely want to recreate that (might I use the word) experience again. I think it boils down to this––they bonded with that author, and, although they have been disappointed by the subsequent offerings, they haven’t given up on that author, and they hate to face searching the stacks for another author to enter into a relationship with.

Why are some authors more successful than others? Some few authors will become a James Patterson and others will remain Fred Futzwiggin. What’s the difference? You tell me. If you can, you’ll be rich… As best I can tell it’s a matter of bonding with readers and you can’t explain that.

The question I want to ask is, do you as a writer know how to form a mutually beneficial relationship with readers––and more importantly and firstly a way to get them to open your book for the first time and let your story into their minds? Can you do what Patricia Cornwell, Harlan Coben, John Grisham, and other successful authors have done and continue to do? The answer is, perhaps. Well, you have their kind of talent, but can’t seem to connect with large numbers of potential readers on a meaningful level, and then, as they do, figure out new and innovative ways to get your work out of the stacks and piles, and into hands. The worst part is even though successful authors will often share their secrets, but the formula is always shifting.

We all have to keep trying new things and methods to better our chances in an ever-changing world, and we have to do that ourselves because the plain truth is, nobody else will. Any secrets to share?

12 comments:

  1. "With five authors (and guests) blogging on this site . . ."

    Hey John, which one of the six of us did you vote off the island? :-)

    I guess my only secret would be to always try to write the book I'm dying to read.

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  2. You asked: ". . . do you as a writer know how to form a mutually beneficial relationship with readers––and more importantly and firstly a way to get them to open your book for the first time and let your story into their minds?"

    I think the two questions imply two different strategies. As Joe says, I try to write really high-quality stories, but in the context of your post, I think that's not the first step in the process. In order to get a reader to learn for himself how godd the story is, he first has to be driven to pick the damn thing up, from among the hundreds of titles on the shelf. A nice cover certainly helps, but as writers we have no control over that.

    This leads us with marketing and promotion. For NO MERCY, coming in late June, I intend to promote like crazy.

    But here's the thing: The promotion strategy I plan doesn't focus on the one book; it focuses on the character Jonathan Grave. As the first book in a series, NO MERCY will do what it will do, but I have to be looking beyond that title to building the franchise--the branding--of Jonathan Grave.

    Which brings me to the second focus of my marketing/promotion plan (yes, it's that formal, it's in writing and it has a budget attached) is on John Gilstrap. Publishers come and go, books are ordered and remaindered, but the one constant is my name. I personally think that too many authors focus too much energy on promoting a single title.

    If people are intrigued by Jonathan Grave, and they're intrigued by me, they'll buy the book. Right?

    Lord, I hope so.

    http://www.johngilstrap.com

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  3. John G., your plan and the one Lynn Sholes and I have is very similar. We focus on promoting our main character, Cotten Stone. Our website is www.cottenstone.com. Our display ads have her name plastered across the top because she is the "star" of the series, not us. Our fans don't love Lynn Sholes and Joe Moore, they love Cotten Stone. That's because they know all about her and nothing about us. If it were the other way around, they would die of boredom.

    One of the most frequent comments we get is not asking what we'll write next, but, "I can't wait to see what Cotten does next." In the minds of our readers, she is real. And that's just the way we like it.

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  4. Would you like an answer from one of the fishes? This blog right here is how you make an impression on the readers. Well, speaking for myself, it made an impression on me.

    I 'waded' through your post and what struck me is that the way to connect is by doing what you are doing. We didn't have the option of blogs years ago and didn't have the exposure to writers like we do now. We didn't have the option of Amazon and buying books online. We didn't have the option of book bloggers out their reading and reviewing books. Now with all those options, it brings the readers more options. The option to get to know more about the author, their books, their thought process and how they write.

    I found your site because of Michelle Gagnon. I read one of her books and looked for her blog to find out more information. Which lead me here, which lead me to discovering 5 more new authors to check out. Now when I am in the bookstores, I recognize your names and more likely to pick up your books.

    I did the same thing when discovered Lori Armstrong. Found her blog and worked my way through the five other authors. Discovered some books I liked and others not so much.

    I think too, that it depends on the readers age. When I was younger, I was one of those loyalists you talked about. I had the tendency to read everything the author ever wrote, but have become more discriminating with time.

    As I have gotten older, my reading tastes has gotten more diverse. Not every single book written by one author is going to be golden or be interesting to me.

    What captures my attention first is the title and description of the story. Then I will read the first few pages of the chapter and chose random pages. I usually know from the first page whether the writing will hold me attention and the story will engage me.

    I went on Amazon and started looking at your books. Side by Side immediately captured my attention. If you all want to recommend any books to add to my wish list that is a great first introduction to your writing, let me know.

    Long story, short (at last, you say) and winding back around to my original thought. Keep doing what you are doing. Technology is a wonderful thing. Keep on casting and we'll come after the bait.

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  5. It's a tricky question, isn't it? Especially since nowadays, publishers don't seem as willing to give an author time to build that audience. I'm a football fan, so let me use a different analogy (especially since tomorrow is the big game); in the past, coaches and marquee players like quarterbacks were given a learning curve. It was understood that Bill Walsh probably wouldn't make the Super Bowl in his first year as a coach. He was given time to improve, something that current owners don't seem to have the patience for anymore. They expect dramatic results from the starting gate, and if those goals aren't achieved, they're looking for a new coach before the season is over.

    Publishing has become a similar beast. It took Michael Connolly eight or nine books to achieve bestseller status. But these days, if you don't achieve stellar sales out of the gate, you're almost immediately relegated to midlist status. No coop placement, little ad money, so the chances of anyone finding out about your books is increasingly slim. The internet has provided a way to attempt to offset that, but again, you're just one voice shouting in the din. (But Robin, I'm so thrilled that reading my book brought you here, and introduced you to these other phenomenal writers!)

    So it's become far more difficult. And it is so frustrating to see familiar names at the top of the bestseller lists, even though some of those authors have been phoning it in for years. Why, indeed, do people keep buying their books? I like what you said, John, about trying to regain that bond. I just wish that after a certain number of attempts, people moved more quickly on to those who still put forth a serious effort with their work.

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  6. PS- here's hoping I'm not the one that was voted off ;)

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  7. I think Fred Futzwiggin is an unappreciated gem, and I await his next book with bated breath.

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  8. I better not have been voted off the island but if I was I'd be the last to know:)! I think every writer is facing the same dilemma. I try to write a book I would love to read and hope readers will too. As for self-promotion - you can still only get so far without your publisher's support - and that, as Michelle wrote, is all the more difficult these days. Wish I had some answers...

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  9. I meant five other authors. Sorry guys. If you want to read one of my books, either INSIDE OUT, THE first Winter Massey book, TOO FAR GONE, or best still THE LAST DAY, my new one. It is a standalone.

    And you waded through my post. I got to start writing shorter posts. And yes, first you write the book, but that step comes BEFORE who's gonna publish it... at least it did with me.

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  10. I meant five other authors. Sorry guys. If you want to read one of my books, either INSIDE OUT, THE first Winter Massey book, TOO FAR GONE, or best still THE LAST DAY, my new one. It is a standalone.

    And you waded through my post. I got to start writing shorter posts. And yes, first you write the book, but that step comes BEFORE who's gonna publish it... at least it did with me.

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  11. Thanks for the recommendations, John. Added Inside Out to wishlist. When I said 'waded' through your post, was just continuing with the fishing euphemisms. It was a great post and enjoyed reading it.

    Enjoy the Super Bowl!

    Robin

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  12. I had the fun of writing as a contract writer under a famous pseudonym years ago, which is how I launched my career as a mystery writer (albeit for a YA audience!). Now, how do I recreate that "pull" with the audience under my own name? To my "own" audience? There's the rub!

    And Joe, you are a star, especially at the Kill Zone!!

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