by Jeffrey S Savage
For nearly twenty years now, I’ve worked in high-tech sales. I’ve detoured occasionally through marketing and have taken brief side trips into other fields, but pretty much since I got married, my paycheck has been tied to how much money I generate. In some ways, being in sales is great. I’ve taken my wife on wonderful trips to many places, brought home bonuses of all types, some pretty sizeable commissions, and managed to support my family without having a college degree. I know exactly how to close a deal and how to make sure my employees do the same. I’ve never failed to increase my employer’s sales numbers and have been compensated for my efforts.
That’s the good news about being in sales. The not so good news is that sales is a very high stress job. If you don’t close the deal you don’t get paid. Your job performance is available for everyone in the company to see all the time, and job security is only as strong as your last month’s numbers.
What that has done is to change me from a fairly laid back person who was not the most organized in the world, to a serious type A. I research my competition ruthlessly. I learn everything about their products and teach my salespeople how to exploit the weaknesses I discover. While I am honest at all times in my dealings, nothing makes me happier than to take a sale away from the companies who compete against me.
Some of the things I’ve learned over the years have been very beneficial in my writing career. As soon as I set the goal of one day becoming a full-time writer, I researched everything I could. I learned the market, and tried to duplicate what I found. I’m not the most talented writer in the world, but I studied hard and worked at improving my skills. I’ve also worked hard at marketing my books.
The one thing I didn’t bring with me to the writing world though was the desire to take down my competition. In fact if I’ve learned one thing about the publishing market over the years, it’s that you really don’t have true competitors. Don’t get me wrong, I check all the metrics I can find, and nothing would please me more than to be the top selling fantasy author Shadow Mountain has. (Selling exactly one book more than my good friend James Dashner.)
The difference between my current day job and my writing job is that when another author sells a book, it isn’t taking food from my family. In fact, if another author succeeds in selling more books, it can have a very positive effect on me, and visa versa. Take Stephanie Myer of Twilight fame, for example. She has sold a lot of books. People who may not have read a lot of fiction (and certainly not speculative fiction,) have come up to me and commented about how much they love her books, and wanting to know what other books I can recommend.
Look how many readers have been introduced or reintroduced to fantasy because of Harry Potter. It isn’t like all the other fantasy authors suddenly stopped selling books when HP came out. Quite the contrary. When readers finished an HP book, they went looking for other books to continue to feed their hunger. The same is true in the LDS market. People who never picked up an LDS novel, may try a Julie Bellon book and discover that LDS fiction really is good. What will they do next? Hopefully go try another LDS author’s books. I’m totally cheering on Brandon Mull and Obert Skye, because if they succeed my publisher will have an easier time helping me succeed.
Not only that, but who do you think are the top recommenders of good fiction? In my neighborhood, people come up to me all the time and ask what books are good because they know I’m a writer. I’ve got a library of LDS and national novels that I share out all the time, giving people a taste of this mystery author or that romance novelist. One of the best proponents you can have for your books is another author.
Once you realize that we are all in this together, your next question should be, what can I do to help the other man or woman? It’s not just enough to avoid slamming your “competition.” If you really want to succeed in the long run, you should be looking for ways to help everyone else succeed. If for no other reason than, what goes around comes around. Here are a few ideas.
1) Buy other authors’ books. Read them, recommend them, and share them. If you are not reading what others in your space write—if you are not supporting the very industry that pays you—you have no business writing. Sound harsh? Maybe. But the truth of the matter is that good writers read a lot. And if they want improve they should know what other writers in their space are doing. I was so dang impressed to hear that Stephen King himself was going to be waiting in line at midnight to buy HP 7. He is the man.
This is especially important at book signings. Always, always, always, buy another author’s book if you are doing a joint signing with them. I don’t care how tight on money you are, do it. You will make a friend; you will look classy in the eyes of the store employees; and you will support the cause. Yes you could probably get the book cheaper if the author is with your own publisher, but that’s not the point. It’s like encouraging the other runners when you are out training together.
2) Speaking of book signings, only rude, arrogant, or unknowing authors recommend just their own books at signings. If you are sitting beside another author, take the time to learn about their books and recommend them to people browsing. If you are signing alone, ask the shoppers what kind of books they like, and know enough about the stock (see item 1) to recommend other authors. Of course your main job is to sell your own books. But if you lead a customer over to Michele Holmes new novel because they love a good sweet romance, the customer will almost always ask you to tell them about your book. And believe me, those recommendations from other authors will come back in spades.
3) Spend time noticing other people’s accomplishments and giving other authors a pat on the back. I guess probably all of us spend a lot of time checking for our own reviews, sales stats, etc. But it means a ton when you drop an e-mail to another author congratulating them on making the DB top ten, or telling them what a ward member said about their latest book. We all need that kind of encouragement.
4) Use your connections to help other authors succeed. When I was in the process of getting my first novel accepted by Covenant, I sent an e-mail to Chris Heimerdinger, asking him for advice. He was the top man at Covenant and I was a nobody. It would have been easy for him to blow me off. But he didn’t. He went out of his way to give me good advice. I noticed in the back of Brandon Mull’s new Fablehaven book that he thanked Orson Scott Card for giving him advice on the business of writing.
Let me tell you right now, that it also makes a world of difference if you—as an established author—hand carry another author’s manuscript into your publisher and recommend it. I know not everyone is in a position to do that, and not all manuscripts merit it. But if you are in a position to do so, help them get out of the slush pile. That will help them, your publisher will appreciate you, and you’ll garner good karma. If you have an agent, recommend them too.
5) Give blurbs freely. Okay, I know I’m going to tread on touchy ground here. But I’ve been known to create controversy in the past. (See LDS Pub a couple of days ago.) So why stop now? I like to give a blurb to anyone who asks. Even if their work might not be the genre I write in or something I would not normally pick up to read myself. We all have to ask other authors to give us blurbs. I’m actually hoping that with my Farworld series I can get some pretty high profile authors to say something nice. Even if you absolutely hate a book, there is always something good you can say. It may help that author’s sales, and I highly doubt that you’ll suddenly lose all credibility if you blurb something that isn’t as great as you think it could be. (Fortunately I’ve never had that problem. Everything I’ve blurbed HAS been great.)
6) Share the knowledge and expertise you pick up through your own trial and error. There will always be somebody ahead of you on the road to success and there will always be somebody behind. Lend them a hand, by telling them what you’ve learned.
And equally important, don’t be offended if they chose not to take your advice. What worked for you may not work for them, and no matter how tried and true you may believe a rule to be, there are going to be other people who see exactly the opposite. That’s all good. The point is offer advice freely in forums, in classes, on blogs, or in person. I’ve learned a ton by listening to other, more experienced, authors. LDSpublisher
is a great example, as was Miss Snark. They didn’t gain anything for their efforts, since they offer advice anonymously. But they help tons of other writers and make the publishing world a little better.
7) Promote literacy. As I may have said on this blog before, I hate the word literacy. It makes reading sound like work. It’s like calling basketball exercise, or calling RISK strategy and logic training. Reading should be fun. But for some reason lots of people don’t read. I keep a shelf-full of can’t miss books which I recommend to people who for whatever reason never try fiction. The Outsiders, Ender’s Game, Where the Red Fern Grows, A Wrinkle in Time, Harry Potter, Redwall, To Kill A Mockingbird. I know I can find something that will open their minds to how cool books can be.
I go to library events, often donating part of my sales back to the library. I am also involved in the Storymakers literacy program, where LDS authors go to ward enrichment nights and give five minute presentations on the importance of literacy. These do not promote our own books, but rather stress the importance of reading as a family, the value of scriptures, the prophets’ words of the importance of having a home library. In September, James Dashner and I will be speaking to a young mens’ group. And in particular to one boy who is not really into sports or scouts, but who loves to write fantasy, and would like to be an author when he grows up. Julie Wright just got back from speaking to a three stake youth conference.
Again these programs are not to sell YOUR books. They are not church sponsored infomercials. They are about helping other people, and giving back a little. If you want to get involved in a program like this in your own area, let me know. You can come to one of our upcoming nights, or we can send you a copy of what our program is like.
8) Point would-be authors in the right direction. Whether it’s your local writing league, a good class, a conference, or a critique group, it is important for beginning authors to meet other people in their same position. Many times, a writer feels like she is the only one out there who stays awake at night with scenes running through her head, or who listens to dialog in the shower, or talks to his characters over breakfast. Help them network with others so they can realize they are not the only odd ones.
Finally, don’t forget what it was like when you started out. Once you’ve been in the business for awhile, you realize that writers are not these demigods sitting on gold thrones listening to their muse play the harp all day. But remember how amazing it was before you had your first book accepted to talk to a “real writer.” Even a little encouragement from someone who had his name on the cover of a book went a long way. It won’t kill you to take a few minutes on the phone or in person to provide some direction and encouragement. You don’t have to volunteer to read her whole manuscript. But just a few tips, some advice on how you made it, and a “Go get ‘em” Can really help.