Sunday, February 10, 2013

Becoming a Bestselling Fiction Author

How to Become a Bestselling Fiction Author
By Jennifer Ashley
Workshop, Glendale Chocolate Affair, Feb 2013

Tips to increasing the odds of sales, exposure, and bestsellerdom, regardless of whether you’re trad pubbed or self-pubbed

What this worshop is NOT about:
Marketing campaigns
Being a one-time blockbuster / flavor of the month
Social networking yourself until everyone hates you, including your pets
Writing “what sells”

Instead: How to build a successful career--writing books for a living

1. What do I mean by Bestseller?

National Lists:
NY Times
USA Today (approx 10,000 sales in a week makes this list)
Amazon Top 100
            # 90-100 = about 300 books a day (of one title)
            #50 = about 700-800 books a day
            #40 and down, thousands of books per day

Not small lists:
Fiction>Mystery>Ebooks>Mysteries & Thrillers>Historical>Regency>1812>Left-handed Spinsters>  "Ooh, I'm number one!"
(These lists can get your book exposure, but the actual sales are small)

National bestsellers happen with a burst of sales at one time

A book can sell just as well over time and never hit a bestseller list

Bestsellerdom Isn’t the Whole Story!

Five Steps to becoming a Print Bestseller
Great book
Package (cover, blurb)
Print Run  / Placement in Stores
Pre-orders and Re-orders
Word of Mouth

Five steps to self-pub E-Bestseller
Great Book
Package (cover, blurb, price)
Availability (top e-vendors)
Alerting the masses (newsletters; FB)
Word of Mouth

What Does the Author have the most control over? 
Great Book

2. Write the Very Best Book You Can

A. What Makes a Great Book?
(Regardless of Format; Packaging; Marketing)

Memorable Characters 
           Examples: Sherlock Holmes; Scarlett O'Hara; Jackal in Day of the Jackal
            People who stick in our minds
            We want to know all about them
            Don’t necessarily like them
            If unlikable character is focus, need sympathetic one to connect to reader (Dr. Watson, Melanie and others, French policeman in Day of the Jackal)


            Don’t pull back from emotional encounters

            Be in the moment—immediacy more interesting than the big picture
            Example: Battle of Waterloo from POV of an infantry captain of a square, not the bird’s eye view of every battle movement

            Never let down the intensity. Rest, but not for long
            (example: Action TV shows like Burn Notice—few lines of personal / emotional plot thread; pause a beat or two; someone breaks in with action plot)

            Keeping it intense:
                 When revising, cut deadwood. If the back of your mind is saying "Blah, blah, blah," the paragraph / page / scene needs to be cut!

Put the good stuff up front
            Bourne Identity—Jason Bourne drowning
            Marie Force romance—Man steps off curb, woman runs into him on bicycle, she’s hurt and might lose her job, has kid to take care of (we know all that right away)
            Outlander—“People disappear every day”
            Entire first scene / chapter should be the hook

            No throwaway lines!
            Every piece of dialog moves the story forward or deepens characterization (ideally, both)
            Find tightly written books and TV shows / movies and study their technique
            (Example: Buffy the Vampire Slayer--pick an episode and listen carefully to every line of dialog)

Satisfying elements for your target audience:
            Thrillers: Edge of seat, gripping scenes, constantly asking “what’s going to happen?”
            Romance: H/h together, tension between them never stopping until end (whether it’s between them personally or outside problems)
            Erotic romance: Same as romance, but sexual tension includes more erotic details. Must be believable
            Mystery: Who did it? Why? How? (Nero Wolfe and Agatha Christie good at “how did that person drop dead in front of everyone?”) “How” less fashionable these days: Who and Why are more prevalent
            Horror: Fear—but believable. Play to a basic fear we all have (what’s in the dark, dying in dreams, monster under the bed, helplessness). Stephen King popular for a reason
            Historical novel: Historical detail in POV of a character or characters who takes us through those details

B. Increasing your odds of bestsellerdom, or at least great sales

Hedge your bets:
            Some time periods, settings, style of writing, and topics are vastly more popular than others
            Realize that setting in a place and time that there is little interest in will lead to smaller sales.

Caveat: Write what you are passionate about instead of trying to fit it into a box. A writer can have a lucrative career writing wonderful books without ever hitting a bestseller list

“What Sells?” 
Trends / vs. Universal Themes
            Look beyond the outer trappings of popular novels to find the theme that speaks to the readers

            50 Shades and similar books: Outward Perception: “Erotica (esp bondage) Sells!”
           Theme: Woman Coming of Age: Woman who is inhibited emotionally for whatever reason finds man who awakens her sexually and emotionally, using sex and emotional challenges to do so.

            Twilight: Perception: "Vampire books sell (esp to teens)!" 
            Theme: Surrendering completely to someone who takes care of you (boyfriend, husband, God), is the way to true serenity and happiness (some of that in 50 Shades as well)

            The DaVinci Code: Perception: "Treasure hunt books sell!"
            Theme: People will go to any lengths to preserve the status quo of their religious beliefs (any beliefs for that matter).

           Gone With the Wind: Perception: "Civil War books sell!"
           Theme: Woman will do anything she must to save her symbol of stability and happiness (her home)

           Day of the Jackal: "Catch the assassin books sell!"
           Theme: Little guy is put in charge and saves the day (Star Wars, Harry Potter, and Lord of the Rings/ the Hobbit, similar theme)

            Ben-Hur: “Action / adventure stories set in Biblical times (with chariot races) sell!”
            Theme; Revenge versus Forgiveness (Ben-Hur starts out driven by revenge on his ex-best friend; his encounters with Jesus teach him that revenge isn't enough—forgiveness and love is necessary for a full life)

            Outlander: “Time-travel and Scottish books sell!" 
            Theme: Woman torn between two worlds—where she thinks she belongs (the “right thing to do”) vs. following her heart

Trends die swiftly ---> Themes endure

3. Consistency: Schedule; Packaging; Content

In our society, consistency is our best friend
Consistent Quality (don’t put huge effort into one book and blow off the others)
            Releases out at a consistent pace (1 per month; 1 every 6 months; 1 per year)
Series vs standalone books (series are more popular, but standalones w/ related style can work)
            Deliver series consistently—stick to what series is about
            Consistent Packaging  (find one cover look for a series and stick to it--same fonts at the very least!)
Give value for money--"cheap" should not mean a throwaway story or book. 

Give your very best book, regardless of the book's price or how much money you think you should make.

Make it about the book, not the money!
Consistency builds


Lexi Post said...

Inspiring post. Thanks Jennifer. Your information is always helpful and always the kick in the pants I need ;-)

Catherine Scott said...

Food for thought as I work on my first novel. Thanks

Alina Voyce said...

A lot of interesting points - my problem is, people don't know that my books are out there to start with! I have a website and an fb page - but my 'likes' on these don't reflect the number of reviews my books get. When people DO read them, the proportion of readers who go onto the next in series is high, which suggests that this hopefully isn't a quality issue? But although they tell ME that they've enjoyed my work, that's doesn't necessarily lead to reviews and ratings (some people use these to assess a book before purchase, but don't add their own thoughts on the title after they've finished it) - Word of mouth doesn't ever really kick in, to a level that would cause a stir and get me on a bestsellers list - but that's okay. I am writing for the joy of storytelling - AND for my small band of loyal, precious readers (slowly growing worldwide) who keep me smiling... And keep coming back for more. Excellent post, Jennifer. :)

Jennifer Ashley/ Allyson James / Ashley Gardner said...

Alina: A slow build of audience is a very good thing. My first book didn't light any fires, but it interested a few people, who followed me, the next book interested them and a few more . . . Gradually I built a following, by writing more books, by keeping in touch with my readers, discovering what my strengths were as a writer, and going from there.

And I do want to emphasize that bestsellerdom isn't the whole picture. We're conditioned by publishers, the people who run the bestsellers lists, and ourselves to believe that a writer can only be successful if she's a bestseller, and that's just not true. I sold many books, built a following, and made a good living years before I hit a bestseller list.

This post is more what I've observed others do, and what worked for me to reach bestsellerdom.

It's actually better to build a career over time than fly in, have a hit, and then slide downhill from there.

Jenna Storm said...

Great post for those of us who are still in the beginning of our writing career. Besides being inspired your post gives me the kick I need to become a better writer and get more books written! It won't matter how many followers I have unless I can offer them more to read.

Jenna Storm

Alina Voyce said...

Thanks Jennifer. A slow and steady climb then. And I will definitely listen/keep in touch with my readers. Today it was the turn of a lady who approached me at my 'day job' (I'm a lowly shop assistant!). She grabbed my arm and said: "So pleased I saw you. Wanted to say that I've read two out of three and can't wait to start the third..." then she went on to say things that had my smile growing! Encounters like that NEVER grow old!! :)

Anna Questerly said...

Thanks, Jennifer. Loved the part about trends vs themes. Great info. Sorry I missed your presentation at the Chocolate Affair, but the ladies kept me busy ringing up their book sales!

Laurie Schnebly Campbell said...

Wow, Jennifer, I'm coming late to the party but BOY is this a great blog!

I love how you dissected the themes of popular books for what they're truly about...thanks for a fascinating read. :)

Mina Burrows said...

You're such an awesome writer and person, Jennifer. Thanks for sharing this. Made my day.

Jennifer Ashley/ Allyson James / Ashley Gardner said...

No problem, Mina! Hope it was helpful.

I do need to revise the number of book sales in the Amazon top 100. Those ranks now represent many more sales than they used to.

Mary Brosz said...

This is really helpful. I've only checked out one link so far - the literary fiction link - but I'm going to explore all of them.Thanks