This Week in Publishing, and My Challenge to Kristine Kathryn Rusch

By Lori Culwell

I try to give you updates from the publishing industry every week that might actually make a difference to you in your book sales and promotion, so this week, I should be thinking and talking about things like how/ why Barnes & Noble is inexplicably opening four new stores. (did they magically discover how to incentivize my reading eBooks in their cafe? I’m dying to know!). I also could be telling you that there is a new WordPress hack going around that I had to clean off of two authors’ sites this week, and to remind you that you should really, REALLY keep your themes and plugins updated, and that if you don’t want to worry about this, maybe you should switch hosting companies.

Or I could be writing about how Phaidon Press being for sale is another clear indicator that publishers are getting the picture that they need a full-service, full-scale digital department if they plan to stay alive. It is interesting that Richard Schlagman would put the business up for sale so that someone else can “lead it from print to digital”— I wonder if this means he just loves printed books and doesn’t want to see them go away, or if he simply does not want to learn the entirely new digital paradigm that is becoming the norm in publishing. Seems like someone with digital experience could take Phaidon’s list and do well with it, does it not?

I should also maybe do a feature on Triberr and how I’m hearing that people are really loving it. In fact, I think I will do that next week, because I have an interesting case study to share about that. For now, I think you should go over and see if it floats your boat.

This book would not exist without self promotion. At all.

For some reason, though, I can’t stop thinking about this blog post by (already successful author) Kristine Kathryn Rusch, and how it’s bothering me so much that people are reading it and taking her advice, I keep reading the comments and I feel like I want to scream because those authors are going to end up so disappointed and frustrated. I tried to forget about it, and Suw Charmon-Anderson from Forbes did a piece on it where she echoed some of my sentiments, but I still feel like first-time indie authors are going to read the original post and be mislead and feel justified in not wanting to promote themselves, and this is really bothering me. Also, as an aside: the title of Charmon-Anderson’s article, which is “Book Promotion for Self-Publishers: A Waste of Time?” makes me want to throw up, as much as if I were a doctor reading the headline “Exercise: Will It Really Help You Stay in Shape?”

Also, as another aside to Suw Charmon-Anderson: that GoodReads chart in your article is missing a key piece of data in the promotion lifecycle of “The Power of Habit,” which is the day Anderson Cooper Tweeted about it. This happens to have been the impetus for me buying that particular book. I believe this strengthens the argument for social media as part of book promotion in general.

Back to the main point: indie authors and self-promotion. In the context of “first time, no one knows about you, self-published author,” Rusch’s post is so wrong it scares me. I know from first-hand experience that this is wrong, and so I am going to try to use this post to implore the author to reconsider her statements and to please give her readership some actual useful advice and at least encourage them to use HER as an example. She blogs, and is on Twitter and Facebook, and so is clearly not taking her own advice and just moving on and writing other works. Please, do what she does and not what she says, ok?

Her post has several flaws in it, the largest and most egregious one of which is that Rusch was ALREADY A PUBLISHED AUTHOR when she started self-publishing, so really, her saying “just publish books and don’t promote them” has a completely different meaning for her.

Honestly, telling self-published authors who have no association with publishers not to self-promote is absurd. Where would Amanda Hocking be if she took this terrible advice? What about John Locke? J A Konrath? Brittany Geragatolis? What about Kyle Humphrey and Graydon Sheppard, who HAVE a book deal because of self-promotion?

Oh, and also? Let us not forget that I have had this experience personally, and I would in fact not have a career as a writer and five published books without self-promotion. In 2006, I actually did follow Rusch’s advice. I wrote a novel, and waited, and played by the rules, and after a year, it was painfully obvious that unless I told someone about my work, NO ONE WOULD EVER KNOW ABOUT IT, and I felt sad all the time because I had put so much work into something that clearly no one was ever going to see. That’s right– I self-published my first novel, promoted it on MySpace nine hours a day, and finally it sold to a big publisher. I started promoting because I waited for the magical day when my work would catch on based on its merits, and when that didn’t happen, I decided that I was going to have to go out and find the audience for my work myself .

Yes, in fact, if you are a traditionally published author for 30 years and then you indie pub your reverted backlist, it IS ok for you to sit and wait for the money to roll in. You are capitalizing on CAREER MOMENTUM, meaning back in the day, someone put out your work, there was support behind you, and someone was giving you a push to get that momentum going.  You acquired a readership, and now you are capitalizing on that.

Sadly, these days it is damned near impossible to achieve that kind of momentum without your participation, even if you are traditionally published. There is no such thing as “be patient and move on to writing the next book,” and it is irresponsible for a person who has already made it over the mountain to give advice on what it’s going to be like for you to climb it. Conditions have changed in the past 30 years, and this is not (at all) an atmosphere in which newcomers can afford to sit and wait around for someone to come and find them while they work on producing more books that no one will read. This is a formula for depression and creative frustration, and I just feel like Rusch has no business giving this advice having not lived this experience herself.

Another twist is the fact that Rusch DOES promote her books on her Twitter feed, and not with the “Annoy your followers on Twitter by mentioning your book’s title every other Tweet” strategy she mentions derisively. I agree—this IS annoying, and you should NOT do it to promote your books. What you SHOULD do is what Rusch is actually doing, which is to blog and engage and converse with people on Twitter in real conversations. Could THIS be why she’s now selling so many of her self-published books? Why do I find this ironic?

The part of this post that I have the real issue with is the assertion that “what you need is to wait for time to pass,” because it leaves out the very fundamental issue of leverage. With no previous audience (therefore no leverage) and no time put into promotion (even telling people you know “Hey—I wrote a book!), where are these book buyers going to come from?

Here is the quote that is haunting me:
The indie writer, particularly the indie writer with very few books published, has to be patient. The readership—and the income—will grow exponentially if the writer continues to produce work.

Um, no it won’t. Not without building your audience and telling them about your books. The readership (and your book sales) do not grow in a vacuum. They grow because you’re blogging and talking to people and they are liking your work and telling other people about it, and yes, you are continuing to write books because you are a writer and that’s what you like to do, but also because you are putting effort into building your network of readers, and connecting with book bloggers, and generally treating your writing like it is a business that involves marketing, because it is and it does.

Rusch is glibly making points that show she has simply never been an author without a book deal and an audience, and so, in closing, I would like to issue a challenge to Kristine Kathryn Rusch: please write a book and self-publish it using a pen name that no one knows, then utilize your “complete lack of promotion” strategy. Don’t tell anyone about it, don’t connect it with your already-published brand name. Don’t Tweet about it. Don’t email your list. Don’t do anything of the things you think new indie authors don’t need to do.  Do not mention that your books have been on the bestseller lists for years and years, and that you wrote a book in the Star Wars series.  Nope, none of that.   For the experiment to be pure, you’ll need to put it out, then (as you say), forget all about it and go on to writing the next book. Wait a few years, then report back as to whether you’ve made any sales.
Just to make this interesting, I will do the same thing with one of MY unpublished novels. Let’s have a contest where we pretend we are at the beginning of our respective writing careers, and that we are indie authors.  We will not use the years we’ve put into building up our networks and talking to people about our work to try to make book sales. To test your theory, let’s each put out a previously-unpublished novel under a pen name, do no promotion at all, and meet back here in a year to compare statistics. It will be, for all intents and purposes, a self-publishing cage match. Maybe this will be the basis for Suw Charman-Anderson to do a whole series for Forbes. Suw, are you interested?

My guess is that without the power of our already-existing networks, at the end of a year we will both end up like the authors who call and email me every day for help, all of whom have a single problem in common: their book has been out and no one is buying it. They are producing more and more books and waiting for momentum to start growing on its own, and it is not happening, and posts like yours are encouraging them to stick their heads back in the sand and keep waiting.

The bottom line: you have to have sold books to sell books, and to sell books, you have to get people to know about your books. These days, you have to get the ball rolling yourself if you want to have a career as a writer. To think (or tell others) otherwise is naïve and irresponsible.

Kristine Kathryn Rusch, please email or Tweet me. Let’s get this challenge started!

By the way, lest I sound like the curmudgeon that I am, I will say that I agree with Rusch 1000% on one point: HIRE A GOOD EDITOR.

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