There’s no need for me to introduce Josh Lanyon because if I have to, you don’t read books in this sub genre. Josh is well-known to probably everyone who reads or writes gay romances or gay fiction, especially those of us who love mysteries.
There are many posts in this series that new M/M writers will find helpful, depending on what you’re looking for, but the knowledge behind the one you’re about to read is hard to replicate. There’s something to be said about having longevity in this business.
On behalf of all those new AND experienced writers, I’m really grateful for the time and effort it must have taken Josh to write such an awesome and intelligent piece about how to make it in this industry. Here’s the post:
The price you paid for your riches and fame
Was it all a strange game?
You’re a little insane
The money, the fame, the public acclaim
Don’t forget what you are
You’re a rock ‘n’ roll star!
Jim McGuinn and Chris Hillman
Wave has done a couple of posts on up and coming M/M writers. She wrote: I love M/M romance and its authors and want to give a few of the newer writers an opportunity to shine. “Newbies” tend to get lost in all the hype surrounding better known authors, and some eventually get so disappointed at not making a breakthrough that they give up.
I thought her post was a wonderful idea, which is how I came up with the idea for my post. After the initial thrill of having your first book published often comes a period of significant disappointment and frustration. Why? Because very rarely does a new book from a new author do even remotely close to what that author hopes. Partly this has to do with unrealistic expectations, but partly it has to do with the fact that most new releases sink like a stone. And that’s no reflection on the book or the author, it’s just the way it goes. It’s the law of averages. Think for a minute how many M/M titles are published each week per publisher. Now multiply those publisher releases by the month. Basically a devoted M/M reader has over fifty new releases to sift through each month. How in the world do these readers find your first book?
Or your second?
Or your third?
Chances are they won’t. Not unless you’ve got something driving interest and attention. A review here and a couple of banner ads there are probably not going to do it. So today I’m going to talk about the formidable concept of Breaking Thru.
First let’s define what we mean by Breaking Thru because it means different things at different points in your writing career. Initially it means simply getting published. Until that happens (and it will, by the way) it feels like storming the citadel. Then you get published and the battle begins to persuade anyone to actually read your work and maybe offer a review or two where someone else can see it. And finally comes the longest, hardest struggle of all…the struggle to stand out from the herd (the “herd” being all those other talented, ambitious, hardworking writers in your genre). Or, to put it succinctly, to have a lot of people reading and loving your work.
If you’re not interested in breaking thru — and not everyone is — you can stop reading now. Breaking thru is as much about popularity as it is quality — it’s terrific when the two coincide, but they don’t always. If that idea offends you, that’s okay. Knowing exactly what you want out of your writing career is the first step to real success.
Let’s get the bad news out of the way. Everyone will not — cannot be — an M/M writing rock ‘n roll star with all the perks of the fast cars, the chilled champagne and the hot chi–oh. Anyway, it doesn’t matter because you don’t have to be Jesus Christ Superstar to be very popular and make money. Lady Gaga is not Barbara Streisand, but I understand she does okay for herself. There’s room for all of us to thrive in this genre.
I think now’s as good a time as any to address the cult of personality. There’s no question that some writers are better than others at self-promotion, and that the writers who excel at self-promotion have that certain je ne sais quois…call it personal charm. But there are plenty of popular and bestselling authors in this genre who do very little online promotion — very little promotion at all: KA Mitchell, JL Langley, ZA Maxfield, and Carol Lynne spring to mind. Promotion can help sell your books, but all the promotion in the world won’t turn a book no one wants to read into a bestseller. Also, personally, I think no promotion is better than the wrong promotion.
The three elements of a successful writing career:
Hard work (this is better described as sustained effort)
Luck - Well, we can’t do much about the luck thing. I wish I could reassure you that it doesn’t matter much, but sometimes it feels like the biggest piece of the puzzle. Here’s my philosophy on the luck thing — create good karma for yourself by treating others as you wish to be treated.
Also, do not commit to more than you can do. Do not break commitments. Lend a helping hand when you can. And before you open your mouth — or your laptop — think about how it would feel to be on the receiving end of your remarks because, honey, what goes around, comes around. Often with a vengeance. Try not make enemies. If you succeed in becoming an M/M rock ‘n roll star you’ll make more enemies than you ever dreamed merely by virtue of being popular and successful.
Practice random acts of kindness. Seriously.
Talent/skill – It’s tempting to say that this is the least important part of the equation. Certainly I think innate talent, aptitude, she-was-born-with-it — though useful and a big boost toward mastering your art — is the least important part of the equation. Skill, the dedicated honing of one’s craft…is important. Very important. But we all know plenty of popular writers who write stuff we consider vastly inferior. And unknown writers whose skill we envy.
Two weeks ago I was on one of those Love Romance Café chats and for a change I read all the excerpts. Guess what? There are a slew of really good writers out there now. Good stories and good writing. And a lot of it from writers you’ve never heard of. I mean really never heard of. Because those authors who popped up on Wave’s up-and-coming list are — by virtue of the fact they were recommended — already in the process of being “discovered.”
I did a quick reconnoiter of various publisher’s M/M lists and try these names on for size: Christiane France, Imari Jade, Mimi Riser, Red Haircrow, Trina Lane, Kate Appleton, Blake Deveraux, and Sabrina Luna.
There are a lot of unknowns struggling to keep their chins above frigid water. Now, I’m not saying every unknown M/M writer is fabulous. And, to be brutal, natural selection will take care of many of the weaker writers in our genre. But like I said, I’m sure we can all name some fairly lame writers who are just jaw-droppingly popular.
NO, NOT ME.
And this is where the single most important element of breaking thru comes in.
Hard work — a sustained effort.
Granted, part of that hard work, that sustained effort, goes into becoming a better writer.
These are the elements of a successful book — notice I didn’t say a “great” book:
Reader expectation, like luck, is something you can’t control. Every reader brings her or his own set of expectations to each and every book — along with her or his education and experience and emotional history. You can’t control any of that, and all books are doomed to fail with a certain percentage of readers merely because of reader expectation. The recipe for success is to meet the expectations of the majority of people buying your book.
Style/Technique. Lord knows we all write endlessly on this topic! Suffice it to say, you should be working all the time to refine your craft. Writers aren’t born. Storytellers might be born, but writers are made. It takes time and practice to make a good writer.
Storytelling. Of course, of course you should be true to yourself and that means writing the characters, themes, and stories that interest you. But remember, we’re talking specifically about “breaking thru.” If selling a lot of books and being a Popular Author is important to you, then commonsense suggests that you take a look at the most popular books and authors and analyze what they’re doing versus what you’re doing. If you can’t bear the thought of writing your version of…cowboys or vampires or steam punk or BDSM or whatever the flavor is this month, then please don’t hit all the lists whining about how oh how can you get better sales? It starts with writing the kinds of stories readers like to read.
Two tips on this: write stories with universal themes and high concepts. Universal themes are things like coming of age or love and loss. High concept stories are topical, recognizable, resonant, often controversial, and almost always fun and/or cool.
Okay, so in short: be all that you can be, write the kind of thing that seems to sell, blah, blah, blah…and now let’s get down to the nuts and bolts of where to spend your effort in breaking thru.
First of all, consider what it is you’re “breaking thru.” You’re breaking thru the heart-sinking reality that no one knows you. Or if they do know you, they haven’t been moved to buy your work in any great numbers.
There’s a reason why a career break thru requires sustained effort and not just hard work. For the majority of us, it takes time. A lot of time. Years. For every Jane Seville or Ginn Hale who comes blazing out of the shadows with a first novel that readers adore, there are five hundred or more of us slogging away writing book after book after book. The clock starts from the point you release your first M/M novel. It doesn’t matter how many years you spent sharpening your quill pen — I started submitting novels when I was about sixteen (and getting routinely rejected, I might add). It doesn’t matter. For the M/M audience, the curtain went up when you walked onto this stage. Remember my earlier new release math? The week your first book goes live you’re competing with ten or more new M/M titles — some inevitably from well-established and popular authors.
Don’t forget that it takes several mentions of your name to even register with readers. The actual figure goes up every year as the airwaves grow more crowded. It used to be five mentions, then eight, then ten… But it also has to do with quality versus quantity.
Recently there was a post here by Rick Reed on the topic of overexposure. Rick was questioning the conventional wisdom that the best possible promotion for a writer is building a large backlist as fast as possible. The unsurprising consensus was that some writers can crank out quality stories at a fast pace and some can’t.
Listen up boys and girls. Overexposure does not come from too many releases. Overexposure results from the promotion of those releases.
This is the single best piece of advice I can give you. Write as fast as you competently can and build up a sizable backlist. When you start out, readers are buying your stories based on the story concept, not your name, so the more stories and the more variety, the greater your odds of appealing to more readers. Eventually (depending on how successful you are coming up with story concepts that appeal to a lot of readers) you’ll build a readership and your backlist will sell based on your name alone. Even so, your readers will only buy your work as fast as their free time and budget will allow. Eventually it all evens out. Multiple releases may be a concern for jittery other writers. They’re not a concern for readers provided you aren’t trying to write faster than you can produce quality work.
So where does overexposure come in? Overexposure is the result of ceaseless, relentless promotion of your work. Obviously, with all those terrific competing authors flogging their wonderful books you have to do something to stand out from the crowd. So you blog, you send your books in for review, you give interviews, you buy banner ads, you comment on discussion lists, you write articles for sites like this, you produce book trailers, you exchange links, you post excerpts — and you keep releasing new titles.
There’s nothing wrong with any of that. In fact, it’s all good, useful stuff. What I’ve found is a combination of all of the above is the most effective approach. But when does it become too much? (I mean for other people.) When does necessary publicity spill over into overexposure? You know that old saying familiarity breeds contempt? Never more so than in self-promotion.
If you’re waxing wise on your various lists every single day — if every day you’re out there pounding the beat requesting readers to comment on a blog or check out an article or give you an “atta boy” for a new review — you’re well on your way to becoming human wallpaper. It may be counterintuitive, but the more you post, the more invisible you become.
Cultivate a little mystique. It’ll do wonders for your nerves and your reputation. If you don’t post all the time, there’s a good chance that when you do post, people will find what you have to say of more interest. And restrain yourself from asking constant favors of readers and fellow writers. The whole point of doing all these blogs and interviews and articles is to find new readers. If you limit yourself to only asking for favors when you really need them, chances are you’ll get a better turnout.
Obviously I’m not talking about your own personal blog. Blog there as much as you like, however beware of sharing too much information especially when you’re starting out. New writers have a tendency to, well, blether. And all that soul searching becomes embarrassing once you succeed — and you will, if you can hang on and keep doing the right things.
One thing I don’t recommend is reviewing your peers. I’m not saying reviewing isn’t a great learning tool for your own writing. It is. And I know there are those who fondly believe reviewing is a good means of self-promotion — and it is a way to get your name remembered — but nothing breeds resentment like one writer having the audacity to down grade a colleague. Perhaps in a perfect world peopled by more noble beings than ourselves we could graciously accept a three star review from a writer we consider our inferior, but not in this one. Avoid the temptation of those cheap and lazy Good Reads stars. And if you’re a reviewer with aspirations of writing fiction, plan on using a pen name.
The exception is the occasional sincere and enthusiastic review of a fellow writer — the kind of thing Lex Valentine and Jaime Samms do. That’s an effective means of earning some good will and of illustrating your ideas and feelings about writing and books. One part of networking is creating productive alliances, but another part of networking — the often overlooked part — is creating positive associations with your name. If people see your name and think…blowhard or cantankerous or ego-maniac or — worst of all — crap writer then all the mini interviews in the world won’t save you.
The important thing to take away from this is that no single item is the solution to your writing career break thru. No single thing can make or break you. One bestselling book doesn’t define your career anymore than one flop does. You must prepare for the long haul.
You’ll need to do a variety of things starting with writing the best books you’re capable of. You need to write a lot of stories of the type that readers want to read. That may require a compromise on your part or it may not. You’ll need to promote those books while remaining sensitive to reader saturation levels. You’ll need to try a variety of promotional efforts and you need to continue to do them for a long time. Way past the point where you think it’s not doing any good and what’s the use? You’re going to need patience — more patience than you think — and you’re going to need discipline. The discipline to keep writing when it seems like no one is buying your work, and the discipline to keep smiling when it seems like people less deserving than you are gobbling up all the cake.
Don’t worry about the cake. There’s enough cake to go around.
If you can do all these things — do them with graciousness and good humor — and keep doing them, you’ll find yourself a place on that great literary bandstand playing air guitar with the rest of us.
Josh Lanyon’s Contact Information