By Colleen Devine Ellis
Fame. Fortune. Awards. Celebrity friends. Almost every author dreams about the amazing, life-changing results of publishing a book. For some, like J.K. Rowling and Salman Rushdie, this is reality. For the rest of us, it’s still a dream. The fame happens for some, the fortune for fewer still, and the celebrity friends are rare (an exception is Cheryl Strayed posting selfies with Reese Witherspoon from the set of Wild).
Amazing things can happen when you publish the book you’ve devoted so much of your time and life to, so being realistic about your expectations and defining what will make the book a success will save you from feeling let down and disappointed if your wildest dreams aren’t met. Defining expectations helps you to enjoy and celebrate the accomplishment that your book truly is, rather than disparaging it because it didn’t meet unrealistic goals. There’s still room for the seemingly-impossible in your dreams, but defining the possible and how to achieve will make for a happier, more productive experience.
There’s no reason, except the odds, that any or all of your dreams can’t come true for you, but the total success at the level of Wild or Harry Potter happens to very, very few. Instead of putting all your efforts into winning the one-in-a-million author lottery why not also work towards being among the most successful of the other 999,999?
What do you want, really? Define your wildest expectations, don’t be shy. And then start to look at how you can help these expectations become reality, rather than leaving it up to the book fates.
For a writer, fame usually means becoming well-known for the quality of your books and significant accomplishments through positive reviews, sales, and interest in you as a writer (unless you’re James Frey or this young writer. Don’t be them.). Remember that for every piece of Twilight fan fiction that sells millions of copies and has a major motion picture in production, there is just about every other book published.
Be ready for fame. Have a website or Facebook page that includes information that the media and readers can use, like book covers, a bio, reviews, interviews, blurbs, or anything else that is unique to you and your book. If you don’t have much to put on your online page, start to gather things, they don’t have to be hi-tech. A do-it-yourself interview using your smart phone and YouTube can be an interesting addition to your public profile and also show the media how you present yourself for broadcast. Even if you don’t become a household name, these efforts will help you to establish your identity for the reading public and boost your visibility.
Fortune starts with sales. Everyone wants to sell tens of thousands of copies; it leads to freedom, security, and hopefully the bankroll to write another book.
For printed books there are two main sales outlets; online retailers like Amazon and Barnes & Noble, and brick and mortar stores that include bookstores, both independent and chain, gift shops, airports, and general retail outlets. To get your book into these sellers, you need a distributor. If you are working with a traditional publisher they most likely have a distributor and you should get specifics from them on how they distribute books. If you are publishing the book through a print-on-demand vendor they will have options for distribution.
A quick recap about how book sales work: retail sellers order books from publishers or wholesalers for a significant discount off the retail price. If they don’t sell the books in a predetermined amount of time, the store sends the book back to the publisher, paying only for books they have sold. Almost every book in a bookstore is returnable; think of them as out on loan until someone buys it from the store. Getting books into stores is just the first part of successful selling. Now you must let readers know to look for the book when they are in their local bookstore before they are returned to the publisher.
For e-books, there are no limits dictated by inventory and distribution but promotion and advertising become more important to draw readers’ attention. There are different sales opportunities and limitations based on how you are publishing your book, so familiarizing yourself with how the sales channels work and what that means for your financial compensation is important.
Researching and creating a list of prizes to apply for is a beneficial addition to your expectations list. There are many besides the Pulitzer, the Booker, and the National Book Award but most of them exist in semi-obscurity except to those who are part of the community that offers the prize. Many of these prizes that you’ve never heard of are well worth your time to investigate and apply for because they get your book attention from a community that is already predisposed to be interested, and if you win you can honestly call yourself ‘award-winning’ which is something to put on your website (see “Fame”).
Finally, back to Salman Rushdie — celebrities like him, even rock stars! Just a reminder that before the fatwa demanding his death was declared by the Ayatollah Khomeine of Iran in 1989, he was not well-known outside of literary circles, despite his Booker Prize in 1981 for Midnight’s Children. As soon as he had a price on his head, his popularity with lots of people, not all, went up tremendously. This is not the recommended way to get celebrity friends. Consider selling your book’s film rights and writing the screenplay, which may be – honestly — a better way to start.
Colleen Devine Ellis, a former publicity manager for Barnes & Noble and the University of Texas Press, runs literary consultant and runs Devine Literary Publicity and Marketing in Austin, Texas.