Sunday, November 24, 2013
Death to the Midlist, Long Live the Ownlist
In all the talk about types of authors (indie, traditional, blended, A-list, midlist) there is, in my view, emerging a more definitive typology. I'm calling it the "ownlist writer."
The old designation of "midlist writer" referred to that land of lean where writers who were not of bestselling status used to hang out. These were the writers who did not get much more than catalogue placement, who were not given significant marketing dollars or push from the publisher. This often made economic sense for the company. After all, they are in business, and the goal of business is to maximize profit. The way to do that is to invest in "sure things." In the case of a publishing company, the sure thing is the A-list author--the author whose books have already proved popular with readers and have a sales record that can be largely depended upon.
Case in point: I remember reading a Publishers Weekly article some years ago about how a publisher had decided to make one of their authors the next "big name." This was after five or six thrillers, which were gathering great word of mouth and increasing sales. The significant marketing push behind his next book did exactly what the publisher anticipated, elevating that author to the A list, where said author is a dominant force to this day. A fellow named Child.
But only a handful of authors ever get this treatment. The overwhelming majority wind up as midlisters, where the seas are turbulent.
Now, In the very old days (pre-1980 or so) a midlist writer might actually forge something of a career. If he showed steady but not spectacular sales, accepted advances commensurate with those sales, then he could actually hang on. Almost always he'd have to supplement the writing income with a "day job." But at least he could say he was published.
Then came the era of the blockbuster. Sidney Sheldon. Stephen King. Judith Krantz. Robert Ludlum, Michael Crichton, Tom Clancy, John Grisham and lately a guy named Patterson. They became the "tent poles" that held up the edifice for everyone else. And of course, this is who the publishers put their money behind.
And the midlist, as a place of repose, began to dry up.
Which meant that more and more writers began to lose the writing part of their lives. The only place they could go was to tiny publishing companies outside Manhattan, hoping for placement in enough independent bookstores to make the effort worthwhile.
Then digital self-publishing became a viable alternative. Each month we hear about more writers making significant income self-publishing (we also hear about writers who have not realized that level...yet. See my post on "harsh realities.") And we also now know that the best way to market your self-published work is by owning your own list.
That means readers who have opted to be on the writer's list and notified directly when a new book is available. As the author adds quality product to his line, the list grows, along with the author's income.
How do you start growing such a list?
1. Have a website which has an box for people to sign up for your list.
2. Offer an incentive to sign up. I run a monthly giveaway. Each month, all new signups are entered into a drawing (I use a standard number randomizer) for a free book of mine. If you don't have your own books in great numbers yet, give away books by someone else. Like me. Or you can give away your short form work, which you are writing to support your full length work.
3. Speak everywhere you can. Yes you, unknown author, go to your local library and volunteer to do a talk on the subject of your novel. Go wherever they'll have you. At these talks pass around a legal pad and ask people to put their email on it if they'd like to be notified when something of yours comes out. What, you don't do public speaking? Afraid? Nervous? Join Toastmasters. Or get The Quick and Easy Way to Effective Speaking by Dale Carnegie and practice!
5. The very first thing in the back matter of your self-published work should be a short descriptive paragraph and a link. Currently, mine looks like this:
For a complete list of my fiction and writing books, please visit my website and consider signing up for my free updates (it's on the left side of my homepage). I will not share your info with anyone for any reason, and won't stuff your mailbox, either.
6. Make your emails short, entertaining and with a soft sell. This, to me, is something a lot of authors are missing. I don't send out a "newslettery" email. I don't want to give the feel of a sales brochure, or even something that's going to take too much time to get through. I send short emails, and try to include a bit of humor, something about what I'm working on, and a link to one or two items for sale. If it's a book launch, I make the entire email about that.
7. Be careful with subject lines. I try to avoid words like FREE and DEAL and other sales-type language, because sometimes those get dumped into spam folders. Do, however, make it specific. For example, an email I sent about my online novel writing program had the subject: Especially For Writers. It did quite well. I once sent out an email with the subject line: News from James Scott Bell. That didn't get nearly as many clicks, because it's too generic.
8. Mail regularly, but not too frequently. My rules of thumb:
a. More than once a month is too much. If there's some sort of really crucial news you must share in the same month, go ahead. Just don't make a habit out of it.
b. Less than once every three months is too little. Even if you don't have a book coming out, update your readers on your progress, a little window into your writing life.
Nurturing your own list is the best single platform-building tool you have. Start now. Don't stress about numbers. Some is better none, and having an ongoing process is the key. Another bonus: If you are angling to become traditionally published someday, having a list is one very good sign to a publisher that you're out there doing something to support your books.
And don't forget to sign up for my emails. That way you can actually see what I do and learn what might work for you, too.