To begin with, I’m sorry for being so late. Real life got to me this morning, before I was awake enough to defend myself.
Now let’s talk Sale-ability, that which causes a book to sell well, which is not the same as being a good book, or being a bad book, or really being anything but saleable.First, I wish to stress that there are writers who don’t write for money. They write for self-expression, or for their grandchildren to read. Some write so people will know what they did or thought. Some write to share stories they were told, or to promote an ideology, or, yes, to gain power and adulation.
Me? I’m not an author. I’m a writer. I work for a living. Sure, I’d probably be creating something even if writing hadn’t been published, but dear Lord, there are better ways to hit your head against a wall. I’d probably be doing something like stuffed dragons, because at least they’re cushy when you hit your head against them.
As you see by the “hit your head” I had mixed success through the years. I don’t remember which letter I’m on in Larry’s chart, but it’s the spot where “you make enough to live a middle class life if you were single.” Which I realize isn’t bad. And since my husband also has a job, we both live a middle class life, or will once the sons are off the payroll.
I am not, however a mega seller blockbuster.
Part of this is that I didn’t even understand what I was writing for, what I wanted to do, or how to get there until maybe five years ago, and the last five years have been a mess health wise.
First thing, find out why you’re writing and what you want from it.
Second, monetary success is not a measure of quality. No, please, don’t quibble. It is not. Partly because there is no defined measure of “quality” for writing, beyond a certain level. Sure, you read books you feel are intensely artistic, but sometimes when you’re a professional you understand that the most artistic books are those that hide it, and bury their art under the plot and the experience, making themselves like glass, so all the reader experiences is the story.
So which one is the “good” one. Neither. Both. It doesn’t matter.
Sure, the second one tends to sell more (not always. There’s a tons of other factors in saleability than just “easy to read” though by damn if you want to sell a lot, you’d better start there.)
But there a ton of books that were massively popular in their day (a lot of Victorian novelists) which have been completely forgotten, and even when you want to read them you have trouble getting into.
So, by the only definition of “quality” we have — is read a century or more after author’s death — selling very well now is not a definition of quality. Much is being acclaimed now (truly. It makes no difference.)
Second thing to know is that if you’re not selling a ton, it doesn’t mean you’re bad, or even mediocre. You might be, but you won’t know from that.
Third – Books that sell well are easy to read.
You have no idea how many times I borrow a book from KU because it has a great description, and I want to love it and immerse myself in it, and it kicks me right out, into the cold store, to look for another book.
Things that kick me out, in order of the most to least egregious:
1- I can’t make any sense of the first two or three pages. Remember to ground your reader. He comes into your world looking for a place to be while living the story. Give him character, place and problem right up front. Or, from my days of journalistic training: Who, where, what. Later you can give them the why and the how, but it’s very important for us to know who is doing what to whom and in what setting right upfront, okay?
But most importantly, make sure what you have on the page isn’t word salad, intelligible only to those who are in your head and seeing what you see. I’ve been known to start books with the description of a storm, to set the mood, but at least you can follow what I’m saying (and it’s usually a camera pan closer and closer to the character.)
What am I talking about? Well, I don’t have an example, but it would be something like:
The which where place where monastery was filled with people on a hill. This goes on for pages, and I skim three pages to make sure it wasn’t some weird glitch in the beginning, then return the book.
2- I can make sense of the first three pages, but I’m completely trapped inside someone’s head. And this person is like your grandfather when he talks about his war experiences. He talks of people you’ve never heard and situations you don’t know, as though you’d been right there with him, and you’re just reminiscing together.
Make sure your characters have a body. Make sure you give us where their body is while their thinking. And make d*mn sure that whatever is going on around their body is at least somewhat interesting, while the mind is running on its treadmill.
3- EMOTIONS. Yes, I’ve told you that a novel is a unit of emotion and that the medium we work in is emotion. This doesn’t mean we can understand or certainly not empathize with free-floating emotion. Give the readers a reason to know what the character is feeling.
“Bob was frightened. His hands sweated. His mouth was dry” is not a bad gambit, provided you ground it in the next sentence.
BUT “A knife touched his throat. Bob’s hands sweated. His mouth was dry” is FAR MORE grabby. BTW remember to put the cause before the emotion. Yes, I know you want it to be a surprise. Trust me, it works better the other way around.
4- You’re not me. I just checked and you weren’t. However this is a problem I have, and a problem that conversely doesn’t affect me when reading: Tone down your vocabulary.
You’re presumably a person of your words. It would appall you to find out how short most people’s vocabularies is. When your friends say you send them to the dictionary, it’s not praise. It means you wont’ sell as well.
So, if you want to sell a ton of books, make it easy to read your books and hard to put them down.
Fourth — and I fall down in this a lot — make sure you write things that appeal to a vast number of people.
I fall down in this because I have strange tastes, starting with liking science fiction. The genres in order from most to least popular are something like, off the top of my head: thriller, romance, mystery, fantasy, science fiction.
It doesn’t mean you can’t make more money than Croesus in science fiction. You can. The market, particularly indie, seems to be more vast than anyone is aware of, judging by the fact I know people making seven figures that none of you (or me) ever heard of or brushed against as authors. What writing science fiction means, though, is that the chances are lower.
But then within the genres there are things that sell better than others. And it’s not always by subgenre, either.
Look, no one knows how to tap into this. It’s a matter of plugging in to the “spirit of the times” and some people are completely plugged into it, and some are not. And no one can tell you how to get that. This is why traditional publishers kept going from imitating one bestseller to imitating another bestseller, trying to tap into that zeitgeist.
So, I can’t tell you how to do it, but I can tell you how not to do it: don’t write mostly about obscure things, that you know for a fact most of your audience has no interest in, or even don’t know exist.
An example of this would be the gentleman who came spinning onto my blog very upset that I wrote BRITISH history novels, but not Portuguese history novels.
Leave aside the fact that the outright historical novels I wrote were both commissioned and I wasn’t picking the subject.
If you saw a book on the shelf with Dona Leonora, a strong and tragic woman, chances are you’d go “Who?”
And if you opened and saw “Queen of Portugal” you’d go “what?” particularly because most people think Portugal is somewhere in South America (no, I’m not joking.)
So, even if you bought it, you’d think it was about some pre-discovery American Empire and be sorely disappointed.
But if you see “Anne Boleyn, strong and tragic woman”? It might not be your cup of tea, but at least you know what the books is about.
(Not saying, btw, there’s no place for all the history I know, like the king whose brother deposed him and married his queen, by claiming the king was a lunatic and imprisoning him in a bedchamber the rest of his life. I mean, that will show up somewhere, but a space empire, or something.)
So, to begin with, try to APPEAL to your readers. Remember you’re running a business, not a university. If you try to “educate” people, they just won’t read you. On the other hand, if you appeal to them and reward them with fun, you can slide any number of “knowledge” and “improvement” under the camel’s nose and into the tent.
Finding out what appeals to people is more difficult. Reading bestsellers won’t help. The reason they appeal might be something other than what you notice. BUT at least try not to make them work too hard and not to repulse them up front.
So, fourth, remember you’re selling this to people, and that you can choose what your product looks like and how much it appeals, at least to an extent. Don’t go out of your way to write stuff you know will make most of your prospective readers mad (this can range from not having people eat meat if you’re trying to appeal to vegetarians to not having mistakes if you’re trying to appeal to history buffs. Even if you’re sure that your history is better than what’s out there, don’t violate what the readers “know” without explanation.)
And that’s about it. Making it good (or bad) is entirely up to you.