Success Is Not A Meritocracy

There is an old adage that goes, the cream always rises to the top. This ancient bit of agricultural wisdom is widely applied to mean that success comes to those who are worthy of it. I doubt there is a writer alive who does not harbor the fantasy, however deeply, that somewhere, a big-time movie producer or the acquisitions director of some major publishing house is reading his or her book and thinking, “My god! Why have I wasted all my years producing such drivel when this was out there? This person can write! I must sign them immediately, no matter the cost. Estelle, cancel all my appointments and find this author for me.”

That’s the dream. We think success will somehow find our books. Stop rolling your eyes and just admit it. Every writer harbors some version of that fantasy. If you didn’t think your writing was worthy, you wouldn’t put it out there. So you hit the publish button and wait for the calls and offers to start pouring in. They don’t. You find a few minor successes – a few nice reviews, a nice initial bump in the book rankings, maybe your book even won an award. But then everything seems to fizzle and your book languishes.

In the mean time that book, A Half-Hundred Variants of Off-Black has sold a zillion copies even though everyone says they hate it and it is being made into a movie with A-List actors. Probably in 3-D. There’s your cream.

Beneath your stoic exterior, you’re pulling your hair out and yelling, Why, god, why? Whose [BLANK] do I have to [BLANK] to get a [BLANKING] break in this business?

This frustration is caused by an unspoken and unrealistic belief that writing a good book is somehow enough. There is an innate faith that if your book is as deserving as you believe it to be, and you’ve been a good little writer all year long, the success fairy will come and grant your wishes.

Rick Taubold put it well in an excellent article on the subject of book marketing.

“The experts tell us that whether an author is indie or not he/she , [sic} needs to think about marketing from the moment the book is begun. But wait. Didn’t traditional publishers deal with all the marketing, leaving the author free to write? No. That hasn’t happened for several decades. Most books receive minimal marketing (unless the publisher has good reason to believe it’s going to be a bestseller out of the gate). An author who believes that a book will sell itself is sadly mistaken.”

Rick makes the case – and rightly so – that book marketing begins with a good product. Painstaking proofing, editing, beta-reads, tweaks, cover design, book description, etc. The problem is, a lot of folks seem to think once they have put the final polish on their little gem, it will glisten enough to attract readers. It won’t. Sure, as soon as you hit the publish button, your book is available on the biggest online retail site, and maybe even 25,000 other sites all over the world. So is every other book.

To get any real traction, you’re going to have to promote the book. The good news is that there are lots of ways to do this. The bad news is that what works or worked for one person may not work for you.

If you have enough money left over from the expense of editing, cover design, and formatting, you can hire a media relations firm, buy a tour bus and set up a bunch of book signings and speaking engagements. Okay, let’s call that plan B.

The book launch is often used in combination with giveaway goodies. Big Al wrote a great post on Rafflecopter. Laurie Boris wrote about Goodreads giveaways. If done well, a book launch can get you off to a nice start. Just don’t let the book lose too much steam before the next marketing stratagem.

Initially, you will probably try to capitalize on your established social media presence. That was probably why you established it in the first place. Be sure to check out this recent article by Nick Forristal on book marketing with Twitter.

A lot of authors go with the KDP Select program and maximize the use of their free days to ramp up their book rankings. KDP Select doesn’t seem to work as well as it once did, but a number of folks still report some success.

You can do blog hops and author interviews, send out press releases, etc. You’ll get some exposure (which is always good), but I haven’t heard of anyone being discovered that way.

Reviews are important, though not necessarily in the most obvious way. Yes, it is nice if people look at your book page and see a couple dozen four and five star reviews. The problem is that reviews have been tainted by the twin scourges of sock-puppetry and paid-for reviews. But the reviews that are likely to be the most helpful are those by actual book bloggers. Why? Simply put, book bloggers have followers and their reviews carry weight with those followers. Each review you can get from a book blogger is a double-whammy. Unfortunately, most of the bloggers with large followings (like Books and Pals) have long wait times. On the bright side, very few book bloggers will charge you even a thin dime to review your book. The IndieView has an extensive list of book review sites that are indie-friendly.

The final, ugly bit of promotion deals with placing your work with book promo sites. There are many sites that offer free and low-cost promotion. Indies Unlimited is one of those sites where you can get a lot of exposure for no cost at all, and purchase advertising at ridiculously low rates. My advice is not to put all your eggs in one basket, though. Martin Crosbie put together an excellent list of book promo sites that he has shared with IU.

Some of the paid advertising can be a little pricey. The key is return on investment. If an ad cost you $200, you want to be sure it sells enough books to justify that cost. As with anything, it doesn’t always work. Nothing always works.

All of this stuff falls within the general category of book hype. That is, it involves what you say or pay people to say about your book in order to generate interest. What you want is for the book hype to generate book buzz. That is when people start talking, blogging, and enthusing about your book. If you can obtain sufficient book buzz, you’ll have traction.

The thing to remember is that there is no secret formula. What worked for someone else may not work for you. What worked for you once may not work a second time. Something that never worked before might skyrocket you to success on another try. Marketing is a black box. Having so many tools at your disposal can be confusing, but it is better than having too few. Mix and match – try a little of everything. In the case of books, the cream doesn’t rise to the top on its own. It has to be promoted there.

Author: Stephen Hise

Stephen Hise is the Evil Mastermind and founder of Indies Unlimited. Hise is an independent author and an avid supporter of the indie author movement. Learn more about Stephen at his website or his Amazon author page.

23 thoughts on “Success Is Not A Meritocracy”

  1. Stephen, you’ve hit the nail on the head. There is no one, sure method, regardless of the hype pitched at us by so many “experts.” And Rich is right; so much of it is luck. But we still have to do the work of getting the books out there, the never-ending job. Great post.

    1. Actually, I can get more depressing. However, I didn’t mean this to discourage anyone. I think there are a lot of great indie books out there just waiting to be discovered. They won’t be, unless they are promoted into the hands of readers. It’s fortunate for all of us that promotional opportunities abound and increase every day.

  2. Luck does play a role in every kind of success.

    As for the bit about being a jerk, I’ll just mention Hugh Howey. I don’t know if there is a nicer guy out there. I think the jerks who are successful are successful despite being jerks, not because of it. The same is probably true of being a nice guy. It may not have any role at all in your ultimate success.

    Right place, right time, right vehicle. Yeah, luck enters into it, but you can’t win if you don’t play.

  3. I feel your sentiments exactly about trying to get a book discovered and turned into a movie. And you’re absolutely right that there is no one sure-fire way to promo a book and have it sell a zillion copies.

    Until there is, we all keep plodding along. 🙂

  4. You’re right, there is no secret formula. Plus, just working hard isn’t enough. You outlined it very well, Stephen. Professionalism from start to finish and trying to find ways to connect with your readers. Oh, and yeah, lodging the horseshoe in the appropriate spot can help too.
    Good article!

  5. You said it well. One thing I would add is this: although luck is an arbitrary thing, which might or might not strike, promotions can be channeled in a less-than-random way. Blanket bombing does not work for books – all promotional efforts must be targeted as narrowly as possible. That’s why clever market research, which attempts to find the real audience of each individual book, is vitally necessary. That’s why narrow-genre books sell better. Marketing is all about audience … finding it and showing it a product they NEED. Although we understand this intellectually, there is an emotional impulse in authors that makes them bombard everyone they possibly can, thinking that the higher the number of people – any old people – who see their cover, the higher number of purchases is possible. The reverse is often true – the narrower you focus on readers who need to find your kind of book, the higher the number in that group will buy it. I’m still learning this. I am also still learning how to find a specific audience for each of my titles.

    Wish me luck.

  6. Almost missed this one, Stephen, I’ve been a little busy and distracted of late; so glad I didn’t though. Excellent article, my friend, choice links and good advice. It will be another few days before I’m properly back in the saddle but when I do it’s right back into at 100%: 50/50 writing and marketing.

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