Friday, 3 August 2012

Essay: Dear Aspiring Author...

Or how self-publishing authors can reach their audience

So you've written your masterpiece, or perhaps twenty masterpieces, and you've dutifully printed them out double spaced and sent off numerous queries to likely agents and publishers, and you've papered the walls of your study with the resulting rejection slips. Well, maybe you used them for toilet paper, or threw darts at them, or kept them in a filing cabinet so you can exact a suitable revenge when you're on the bestseller lists, whatever lights your candle. Or maybe you just don't want all that hassle, or perhaps you're an established author, but your current publisher won't touch that edgy novel you've been working on. So you've realised your only option is to self-publish. You've organised some cover art, and had ten friends read your work looking for typos, you've managed the ebook formatting, you've agonised over pricing strategies and - hey! Success! Your book is up on Amazon (or Smashwords or Barnes and Noble or wherever). And you've set up a blog and submitted copies to a hundred possible reviewers and dissuaded your mum from writing an 'It was AWESOME!!!' review on Amazon and - then you waited.

So now what? Now you need to let people know your masterpiece is out there. This is the hard part. Getting noticed on Amazon (or anywhere else) is well-nigh impossible, and you may be feeling a bit nervous at this point. You wrote your book because you really wanted to tell that story, but maybe nobody will ever buy it or read it. Well, I have good news for you. Somewhere out in the world are people who are just as keen to read your book as you were to write it. How do I know this? Because I am one of them. I love to read, and I'm very open to indie and self-published works. Well, to be completely honest, I personally may not want to read your particular book (if it's angel/werewolf all male erotica or cute talking animals - probably not), but however specialised your genre, somebody somewhere will love it, I guarantee it. So your first task is to -

Connect with readers

So how do you find readers? Bookshops, libraries and other real-world places, even if you can get permission to do some selling there, will only reach a handful of potential fans, so you will need to use the internet. You probably already belong to writers' groups online, but although these people may help with critiquing and other advice, they're trying to sell to you rather than buy from you. You may have followers on your blog but at this stage they too are probably fellow authors. What you need is places where avid readers congregate, and that means social networking sites aimed at readers such as Goodreads, Shelfari, LibraryThing, BookJetty, weRead and the like. There are also a few specialist websites, like, which are very welcoming to self-publishing authors, so try the forums there, and there are forums on the booksellers, too (although the Amazon ones can be a bit of a bunfight). If you belong to Facebook or similar, there may be groups there (I wouldn't know, I'm not on Facebook).

I am going to take Goodreads as my example, because it seems to be the biggest of its type and it's also the one I know, but the others are very similar, as far as I can see. Goodreads encourages authors to sign up, both to catalogue, rate and review the books they read and also to list the books they've published. It also has numerous groups, each with its own discussion forum, for various inclusion criteria - there are groups for genres and sub-genres, for specific authors, for nationalities and so on. There are also groups for indie authors, but again these are not necessarily stuffed with potential readers. If you can't find an appropriate group (for that werewolf homoerotica, for instance) you can start your own.

The best groups are those aimed at your specific genre or sub-genre, because its members are those most likely to be interested in your book. Most groups have very strict rules for self-promotion which can be summarised as - OK in the self-promotion folder, not OK anywhere else. And even where it's allowed, don't overdo it. Now you might think that all this is very limiting - how can you possibly sell your books when you can't even mention them outside of a tiny little authors' ghetto (which many group members never bother to read anyway)? Indirectly and subtly is the answer. Don't think of it as selling - it's simply a way of communicating with readers, informally and socially. So read the threads, and join in the ones that interest you, or start your own and - enjoy!

In time, you will become known on the groups that you belong to, and if you post interesting and insightful comments, occasionally people will look up your profile to find out more about you. You can help this process along by discreetly mentioning your author status: "As an author myself, I've found that..." or "I've never written about dragons in my own books, but I enjoy Robin Hobb's series...". Don't overdo this, and don't mention your books directly. Shelfari will flag author's names above their posts, but Goodreads has neither an author flag nor a signature option, which is a pity.

So the next question is - what will people find when they go to -

Your profile page

It may seem obvious, but it should be an author page. When you first join Goodreads, a profile page is created for you automatically but it's designed for readers and you need to join the Author Program to ensure that your profile shows you as an author. This is your shop window, as it were, so make sure all your published works are shown there, with correct titles, cover images and no duplicates (contact the Librarians to correct any errors).

What else? To make sure your profile page is successful in drawing potential readers (or at least not turning them away), you need to think like a reader. What do readers look for from an author page? I can only speak for myself, but I look for a clean, professional presentation. So a photo is good - a nice head and shoulders shot that looks like a studio effort. The blurb should tell me a little bit about you, but more about the books - in particular, I like to know whether you write epic fantasy, modern fairy-tales, paranormal romance or lesbian steampunk. But don't write too much here because it pushes the books further down the page.

Since your page shows you as both author and reader, it will also show your Goodreads shelves and statistics, and experienced users will know at a glance whether you're really a Goodreads user or are just there to promote your books. Users will have a lot of books shelved and rated, and possibly reviewed, and will have recent updates.

But one of the most important items on your author page is actually quite inconspicuous - the link to -

Your website

You might have a full-blown website with its own domain name, or it might be a ready-made blog, but either way it must look good. Again, it's a shop window, so make it clean, easy to navigate around and informative. Forget the writing tips, cute cat stories and excitable parenting tales; your front page should showcase your books. And (just in case there are any publishers loitering) have a clear 'contact me' link. The writing tips can go on a separate page, and the personal stuff on a separate blog altogether (look professional, right?). All that's needed on your book website/blog is a brief biographical summary.

When I (as a potential reader of your books) visit your website, I'm looking for really basic information: what books are available, in what formats and where can I buy them? what are they about? will I like them? Sample chapters and reviews are useful too. If I'm already reading one of them, I'll also be looking for some background information - more about your created world and characters, maybe, and please, please, please - a hi-res map (I love maps). And if I'm a fan already, I'll want to know when your next book will be out.

Again this should be obvious, but a list of links to pages on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Smashwords (and everywhere else your book is available) should be somewhere easy to find. Prices are useful, too, but make sure they're up to date. There's nothing more off-putting than thinking a book is really cheap and finding, when you click through, that it's not any more. On the other hand, you'll lose custom if you show the price as higher than it is. So keep the links and information up to date, or don't show them at all. And the same goes for -

Your book pages

Back on Goodreads (or your preferred site), every individual book has its own page, showing basic information like publisher, page count, format, cover image, blurb and so on, and also reviews and ratings from readers. Again, this needs to be tidy, with all the correct information and cover image. The Librarians can correct any errors. On this page, prospective purchasers can click directly through to Amazon or a range of other online sellers to view the book there, maybe download the sample and (you hope) buy it. This is the moment of truth, so make sure that all those links work. There is nothing more frustrating for a customer than getting one of those 'sorry, can't find it' pages.

So now you're all set. Your book(s) is/are out there, you've made it easy for people to find them, check them out and buy them. Suddenly you have readers. Before you know it, you'll be -

Getting reviews

This is where things may get sticky. You wanted people to read your book, now they have. But readers are opinionated, and some of them like to post reviews. And not all those reviews are going to rave about your book. Now rationally, you know all this; check out a few of your favourite reads and see just how many negative reviews they get. No book is perfect, no book is going to be loved by every single reader. Widely read books with thousands of ratings and reviews will have their share of 1* reviews as well as the 5* ones. So cherish the positive ones, ignore the negative ones and learn from the detailed ones (the ones that list plotholes, or explain just why your characters don't work or your magic system is unoriginal). There are two golden rules for reviews:

1) There's no such thing as a bad review. This may be hard to believe, but it's true. I once wrote a 1* review that wasn't much longer than: EEK! Vampires!!! Well, I bought it by mistake. And of course, there are vast armies of people who will read that and say: Mmmm, vampires... my favourite. Now a review that says: this is a dreadful book, it's so badly written it's practically unreadable - that's more difficult, but (and this is hard to believe too, but it's also true) some people will read that and say: gotta check that out, nothing can be that bad. And unless the reviewer says exactly how it's badly written, that kind of review is not going to impress potential readers anyway. Avid readers (Goodreads members, for example) are a sophisticated bunch, and they know how to read between the lines (of reviews just as for books). So don't agonise over it. Eventually, there will be a spread of reviews and ratings which give a better picture.

2) If you're tempted to reply to a review - don't. Just don't. No matter what. Don't even post a 'thanks for your thoughts' comment, or if you really must, keep it private (I actually like it when an author thanks me for a review, but not everyone does, so be cautious). Don't correct errors. Don't explain, don't defend, don't attack, just don't. Let it go. A public thank you makes you look needy, corrections make you look pedantic, explanations make you look obsessive, a defensive attitude makes you look arrogant and any kind of attack on a reviewer makes you look like an asshole. Once you start a dialogue, it's liable to spiral out of control and be reposted all over the internet for the amusement of a bunch of strangers who will now never, ever buy one of your books. So just don't.

The only exception to this is if the reviewer makes derogatory personal comments about you. Then you can politely ask the site to remove that review. But bear in mind that criticism of your book is NOT a personal attack.

But hopefully the reviews and comments will be positive or, at the least, constructive, and you can bask in the warm glow that comes from knowing that this story that's been in your head for months and years is now out in the world and bringing pleasure to complete strangers. So now you can focus on...

Building your fanbase

There is one blindingly obvious way to do this: write more books. If you have a drawer full of rejected manuscripts, short stories and novellas - now's the time to dust them off, polish them up and get them published. If you haven't, then fire up the word processor. But it goes without saying, everything should be of the same high professional standard (no first drafts).

What should you focus on? If the published work is part one of a trilogy, then by all means devote most of your efforts on part two, but your fans (you have fans now, remember?) will want to know more about this world you've created and the characters in it, so give them more information. If you have short stories that fill in some of the background, that's a good start. Put them out on your website or publish them on Amazon for free, as a taster. If you have part two mostly written, post a sample chapter or two on your website. If your master-work has a complicated magic system or religion or political structure, post some of your notes on those topics. If you have a map, post that too. All of this keeps your fans interested, and gives them added value.

Your website (or blog) should also keep fans informed about the progress of the next book. You should post something regularly just to update people with the current situation. Remember, your website (or blog) is aimed at readers, not necessarily other writers, so keep the technical details of self-publishing for a less conspicuous part of the website, or a different blog altogether. And if you get a nice review, it's usually OK to post a snippet or two, with proper attribution to the reviewer and a link to the full review. But if you want to post your thoughts on reader-related issues, like new kinds of e-readers, or discuss possible cover art, that's fine too. And if people leave comments, it's nice to respond. This is the time when purely social sites like Facebook come into their own, too, and by all means Tweet away.

As people post reviews or leave comments on your blog or even email you directly, you will be building a list of names and contact addresses. Be cautious how you use this information, though, since not everyone will welcome a direct approach from an author. Don't send out frequent mailshots, but an occasional mailing to announce a new book is fine. Personally, I hate it if I've read and reviewed part one of a series, and then find out much later that part two has been out for months, and I didn't even know. So when you publish something new - tell the world. Tweet it, blog it, Facebook it, post announcements everywhere self-promotion is allowed. If someone reviewed and liked a previous book, it doesn't hurt to ask them privately if they would like an advance copy of the new book for review. Not everyone will be interested, and some will take the free book and not post a review, but you might get lucky.

What about 'friending' people who read your book or post reviews? It's all too easy on social networking sites to send out invitations to all and sundry, and frankly, if it's just someone who added your book to a to-be-read pile, it makes you look needy. It's fine if it's someone you've had some real correspondence with - beta readers, for instance - but otherwise I think the contact should all be the other way. Your fans can follow you, or click the 'I'm a fan' button, if there is one, and of course they may want to be friends, but let the approach come from them. And don't resort to trickery or inducements to add extra followers - it's much nicer if they come of their own free will.

And finally... what NOT to do

I've made a lot of suggestions for things you can do to let people know about your book, and to grow your fanbase from there. But there are a few things you should never, ever do, either because they're dishonest, or they get up people's noses, or they're just rude. You should NEVER:

·         boast online about how good your book is;
·         contact everyone who shelves, rates or reviews it;
·         respond publicly to reviews;
·         post fake reviews, or get others to do so;
·         namedrop or link to the book in random threads;
·         repeatedly hype the book, even in the self-promotion folder;
·         recommend your own book when people ask for suggestions.

Why am I telling you all this? Because I'm a reader actively looking for new fantasy to read, and I've been frustrated over and over again by authors who make it difficult for me to find their books. Unintentionally, of course, but the obstacles are there. Goodreads, Shelfari and the like are a wonderful resource for readers, but they can also work for you as an author. If you're a skilled Facebook user, or blogger, or other type of networker, then by all means use those methods as well, but it also pays to be where the avid readers hang out.

But always bear in mind: these sites are there for readers first and foremost, so wear your reader hat often and your writer hat just occasionally. Ultimately it comes down to some very simple rules: be professional; be considerate; be humble. And remember: out there are people who really want to read your book. All you have to do is find them.

Yours sincerely,

A Reader


  1. Interesting comments. Thanks for sharing. Writers tend to get so caught up in the designated author ghettos that it's easy to lose track of the reader's point of view.

    This was the kick in the pants I needed to make some improvements to my website.

    1. Steve, I'm glad it was helpful. It's pure self-interest on my part - there's so many interesting books out there, but sometimes authors make it really hard to find them!

  2. Pauline,

    Cool article. I enjoyed it, and it gave me some information that I needed.

    Coincidentally, I just started really exploring Goodreads.

    What do you think about the practice of linking to all reviews from the writer's blog? Do you see it as a positive or a negative?

    Also, I'm going to have a novelette out soon that takes place in the same world as my novel. I'm going to offer it for free download on my website in the hopes of creating buzz. Do you think asking book bloggers like yourself to check it out and perhaps provide a link is a good idea or a terrible one?

    Thanks again.


    1. Not sure what you mean about linking the reviews. If you mean an author linking to reviews of their books - good idea. If you mean a review writer linking to a Goodreads review from the blog, or vice versa, I don't do that (the blog is just where I dump my Goodreads reviews), so I can't comment.

      Free stuff is always a good way to introduce people to what you do, and it never hurts to ask bloggers to check it out. I don't really read short format work myself, but some people will.

      Glad the essay was helpful. Goodreads is a terrific way for authors to connect with readers, in a low key way. The discussion groups are a great way to find out what readers like and don't like.

  3. Pauline,

    I meant the former on the reviews.

    I've read a lot of advice on the subject of NOT responding to reviews. It seems, however, that it would be hard to link to a review without saying something about it, like Terry Ervin did in his blog link to your review. Does that violate the advice against commenting?

    I joined a couple of Goodreads groups yesterday and started exploring.

    Thanks for the advice!


    1. OK, I see what you mean. Sorry to be dense (blame it on the cold meds!).

      I was really only referring to comments attached to the review itself, whether on Goodreads, or Amazon, or on the reviewer's blog, because those are visible to everyone who happens to be taking even a casual interest in the book. It really looks bad if an author is getting into a debate with a reviewer, so that's a case where it's best to just say nothing.

      Naturally authors want to link to reviews from their blog. That's just good marketing to blog or tweet about it. But you have to be diplomatic, I think, and not say anything bad about the review or the reviewer. A blog is not a private place. I thought Terry was very cool about my not exactly glowing review, and brave to post the link. He told me he was going to do that, which was courteous of him, and I found the comments interesting. I don't often see reviews of my reviews. However, I'm following my own advice and not responding to them :-)

      Look forward to seeing you on Goodreads.


    2. Brian, some more reading for you on the subject of authors responding to reviews, and how not to do it:

      It seems to me that most of the trouble between authors and reviewers goes on in Romanceland. Over here in smaller (but more exciting) Fantasyland, I think we all get on pretty well.


  4. I am an active reader and reviewer and I always like it when an author gives me a feedback but after hearing so much about bad behaviour of certain authors I might start to believe it is better not to answer at all. However I completely agree: there are no bad reviews.

    1. There's been a lot said recently about bad behaviour, but I can honestly say that I've never had a bad response from an author, despite my (how shall I put this) robust style of reviewing. Maybe fantasy authors are all just very nice people.

  5. You know, it's incredibly hard to post in topics and not throw in snippets like 'being a writer myself, I find that...' or 'in my own book, I did...'

    I know it's incredibly rude and really bad form and annoys the hell out of other people, but God it's hard not to do it, partly because now that I've gone and written a book, it's very hard not to think of other books in the context of editing and writing and character development and whatever else you have to think of as a writer. Sometimes I want to get involved in a discussion, but find I have nothing to say that doesn't involve the whole 'as an author myself' angle.

    Maybe I'm obsessing about it a little too much at the moment, but I do worry very much about being branded one of those 'bad behaviour authors'. I'm not stupid enough to go and reply to people's reviews (publicly at least), but I can imagine it being hard.

    1. I'm not an author, but I can imagine how much writing fills your thoughts all the time. Of course authors are obsessive about their work, that's what makes them good at it. If you want a place to hang out where it's not just OK to talk about your writing, but positively expected, I can recommend the forums at Mythic Scribes. Lots of great fantasy writers (published, self-published and aspiring), and a lovely friendly atmosphere. Link here:

  6. Awesome, thank you! I'll go check it out.