How I Failed My Way Into A Book Deal – Guest Post by Matt Ellis

I first met author and editor Matt Ellis last summer through Twitter.

We exchanged a few emails, after which Matt posted a thoughtful review of one of my short stories, If You Go Into The Woods.

In that some post, Matt aired some of his concerns about self-publishing, not least how the promotional burden can chew up precious writing time, and we corresponded about that for a while.

Several months later, after an underwhelming experience with self-publishing, Matt made a radical decision about one of his books. Here’s Matt to explain what he did, and why he did it:

The Joys of Unpublishing, or, How I Failed My Way Into A Book Deal

This winter, my life’s dream was realized: my novel was accepted for print publication. The road to the book deal was long, and fraught with uncertainty and second-guessing. Like many authors, I had initially put my work out there as a digital original when I met with rejection from traditional publishing houses. As an indie author, I beat myself up about the fact that I wasn’t marketing my own books effectively. In its six months on Kindle, my novel Lumpen: A Novel of Prague, sold just eight copies. I tried to prime the pump with a book giveaway, but nobody signed up; I built a following on Twitter and blogged with equally dismal results. I researched keywords and comparison titles, but this all proved ineffective – in other words, I was a failed indie author.

I have always been on the creative side of the writing business: I worked in the editorial office of a major publishing company and later as an author coach and manuscript editor to many indie authors. For me, the real writing starts and ends with the book itself – the rest is just a necessary nuisance. The whole experience of self-promotion left me uneasy, and for good reason. The new dual role of author/marketer is engendering quite a few misplaced priorities, mostly arising from the groupthink enabled by Twitter and the indie success stories picked up by the media. My experience was the opposite of every other success story. Here’s what I learned.

1. The Route to Print Publication is Not Solely Through Sales

Most indie writers will never achieve the kind of sales that garner a book deal. Overpowering sales are impossible to resist for any publisher, so – yes – if you are selling hundreds of thousands copies of your book, it will get noticed. Otherwise, you are not much more than forward-thinking slush. Publishers have and always will be drawn to thoughtful narratives and lively prose. Handheld readers, indie publications, and the Web are changing the way books are delivered, but they have not shaken the foundations of good storytelling, nor have they revolutionized what goes into crafting a beautiful sentence. I would venture to say that knowledge of story structure is more valuable than ever, as genre writing dominates these new platforms. And genre writing relies more on lean efficient structure than it does bumps in the night.

2. Genre Chasing is Futile

Owing to my work with genre writing and indie writers, I am privy to some of the keywords indie writers use in hunting Google for advice. Such combinations as “dystopian or paranormal” and “top paranormal novel sales” are typical examples of keywords by writers of highly suspect intentions. Writing in a popular genre to increase sales or get a book deal is the tail (the tale?) wagging the dog. By the time a genre is ‘hot’ and by the time you write a decent novel in that genre, you can be sure the world has moved on. True, you will see some sales from hardcore fans of that genre, but most consumers tend to move with the trends: they liked zombies today, they will like reincarnated Greek Gods tomorrow. Following the latest hit may provide you some kicks in the short run, but won’t give you much juice for the long-term life of your career.

3. The Route to Success is Not Through Following Other People’s Formulas

My failure was not solely due to my lack commitment to the promotion process. Right now, I could go on Twitter and collect enough free reading material to last me a year. Most indie writers are following the same formula of giveaways and contests to promote their books. And in addition to these promotions, they are blogging about tips to help other writers promote their books, replicating the same moldy formula in hopes of having the link passed around. I think these tactics worked when there was less competition, but the next wave of successful indie book authors will find vast sales by discovering the next promotional innovation.

I understand the tangential value in some of this marketing: it is social. Writing is lonely, but the marketing involves other people with whom you can connect and who will respond, even if it is only because they are in the same boat. A support network is invaluable for a writer putting material out there for judgment. The danger is when the job of promoter becomes much more seductive and rewarding than that of writing.

The antidote for all this is the same as it always was: boring and old school hard work. You can ‘game’ Google and keywords, but you can’t game readers. With that in mind, I have a few guidelines I use for myself when starting a new project:

1. Write a novel, not a ‘WIP’. Acronyms release you from responsibility. Works in progress are temporary; novels are forever.

2. Don’t ‘sprint’ or otherwise rush through the writing process. Effective writing can cause riots, ignite revolutions, and induce love. Treat the form with respect.

3. Despite what you hear to the contrary, there is no substitute for having an editor. The only reason not to hire one is monetary — editors are expensive because they bring real value to the project. Professional editors who publish their own work have editors. Self-editing is as useful as talking into a mirror and trying to be your own psychologist.

4. Rewrite. Do not use reviews by customers as a basis for that re-write. Anybody who buys your novel deserves to see it at its best. The first draft of Lumpen took six months to write; the rewriting took a year and a half, using advice from Beta-readers and a professional editor.

5. Get your work out to everybody possible. This is where indie writers really get it right. Lumpen was only discovered because I wasn’t shy about passing around links to my work.

I have nothing but respect for people who can wear both the writer and promoter cap. But – in writing and in a writer’s life – there is also value in discomfort, and value in honest failure. The only joy that matched publishing Lumpen digitally, was unpublishing it, so it could have a second chance.

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Matt Henderson Ellis is an author coach and manuscript editor at Word Pill EditingLumpen: A Novel of Prague, will be released by New Europe Books, in the USA, in February 2013.

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Today’s guest post is a little different and I hope it will generate a good discussion. Matt has chosen a different route than most of the regulars here, and I want to thank him for a thought-provoking post.

And I hope Lumpen is a smash on re-release next year.

David Gaughran

Born in Ireland, he now lives in a little fishing village in Portugal, although this hasn’t increased the time he spends outside. He writes fiction under another name, has helped thousands of authors build a readership, and has created marketing campaigns for some of the biggest self-publishers on the planet. Friend to all dogs.