This post is from a reader’s point of view. With just one complete (unpublished) manuscript and so much to learn, it would be presumptuous of me to give advice to anyone as a writer. Although I may be very new to writing, blogging and platform building, my fifteen-year experience as a translation instructor (tons of proofreading) plus a seasoned reader’s mentality qualify me to form a solid opinion on both the quality of any text and its potential appeal to readers. I also consider myself a good “success gauge meter”: I voted for J. R. Ward’s Lover at Last and Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam in the Goodreads Choice Awards, and both titles won in their respective categories. I missed in the Paranormal Fantasy category, but I hadn’t read the winning title (Cold Days by Jim Butcher) so there you have it.
When I got myself a Twitter account and a blog, my first impulse was to connect with new writers like me. It was fairly easy to locate budding authors, newbies, and aspiring writers through their profiles and also through comments on relevant blog posts I read. Naturally, whenever I saw they had just taken the plunge and published their first book, I jumped at the opportunity to connect, thinking that maybe I could review their work and exchange knowledge and advice to our mutual benefit. More often than not, my enthusiasm didn’t last. Almost 50% of the new writers I located were—presence-wise—below par. By that I mean their blog writing (if any), their book blurb, book cover—you name it—was lacking. Even worse, the online behavior of some was totally off-putting, downright inappropriate even, making me move my cursor away from any suggested links or “Follow” buttons; one potential reader turned away, and I know I won’t be the only one. Now, I’m positive that’s the last thing any new writer wants. So why do they do it?
There’s a ton of free advice out there (free e-books, blogs, comments with useful links) and it’s easy to sift through it, determining what’s good and what’s not: the number of followers plus the commentators verifying a tip from their own experience is always a good indicator, so, again, why do people ignore all this and do their own thing at their own expense? The answer probably lies in an urge I also have and have to stomp my foot on: the need to rush and put your work out there for everybody to see. And it doesn’t necessarily stem from a get-rich-now attitude but rather from this sweet feeling of awe and pride at what you’ve accomplished and the wish to have others recognize and acknowledge your hard work. To quote successful author R. S. Guthrie from a guest post of his for Molly Greene’s amazing blog:
“Patience is tough. We are a society that needs instant gratification. Don’t. Need it, that is.”
Rushing it means: no proper editing (“my BFF has a degree in English, and she’ll do it for free!”); no proper beta reading (“my sister plus my BFF who has a degree cheered and raved!”); no proper social media training (“I’ll just auto DM [Direct Message] anyone who follows me with all my book links!”); and, yup, just a handful of readers (the sister and the BFF with the degree).
But this post focuses on how potential readers can turn away from new writers even before they sample their work. Based on my reaction, I’ve compiled a list of off-putting elements that can seriously reduce a new writer’s chances of building a solid platform—the keys for increased sales:
A blah blurb
Your book blurb has to capture attention from sentence one. Use keywords, sound bites, shape and mold it, keeping your target audience in mind—not your literary aspirations. “Brand” your book in a couple of sentences. If the blurb is neither here nor there, ending with “a blend of mythology, suspense and romance with horror elements” no one will even bother with the free excerpt. A debut novel should clearly fall under a specific genre, sub-genre or if it’s a hybrid, it should be well defined. Readers will stay away from books that are all over the place.
A botched bio
When you talk about yourself in a slapdash, disorganized way, even letting glaring grammar or spelling mistakes slip in, why would a reader think your book looks any different? Here’s an excerpt (info is edited out) from a first-time self-pub author’s profile:
“I was born in (a city). After school, I realized that sleepwalking through it wasn’t a great idea. Soon realizing that I needed an education. From the 1990s I worked for (a company): where I ended up as an analyst. But here’s the thing: I always wanted to write so I wrote two books in my spare time. Both were rejected by the agents I sent them to.”
You’re probably finding yourself inadvertently sympathizing with agents—who would’ve thought?—even though you haven’t laid eyes on the poor writer’s actual work! On what grounds should a reader give his published book a shot when all he’s highlighted here is his incompetence?
So, even if you’ve never been outside your home town and lead a seemingly uninteresting life, if you define yourself as an aspiring writer, surely you can find a clever way to talk yourself up. Hobbies, volunteer work, cute pets, guilty pleasures and wild aspirations all offer author insights that will make readers like you—a good step before deciding whether to try out your work. “I don’t do drama; I only write it” is the way Janice G. Ross defines herself on her Twitter profile (@JGRWriter). My next click was on her site link.
If you still can’t come up with anything, check your favorite authors’ bios for ideas.
An unsightly cover
Clashing colored patterns, stock photos slapped together, weird fonts; don’t go by the “don’t judge a book by its cover” adage. Stick to the “make a good first impression” one instead. I rarely bother with a book if the cover is uninspiring, and I can admit to having bought lots of “ugly” books just because of the pretty cover (okay, the catchy blurb too). So try asking your beta readers’ and editor’s opinion before sticking with your personal choice.
Irritating or needy tweets
The first tweet the “botched bio” guy sent me was an ad about a male escort service. Seriously. He hadn’t even bothered to check that I live on a different continent. He wasn’t even promoting his own stuff (or was he? *shivers*), but tweets of the pushy/needy type abound—especially auto DM services with links to authors’ blogs, pages etc. I’m the last person to wag a finger here, as I actually did that for about a week to whomever followed me until I was told by a valid source it is considered annoying. To be absolutely honest, I don’t personally find auto DMs annoying as I still have a manageable flow of new followers, but what if the super-popular writer or blogger you DM gets dozens of similar messages daily? Most likely they’ll ignore you when what you really want is to get on the good side of those “big fishes”.
The best thanks-for-the-follow tweet I’ve received was from Joseph Amiel (yes, the best-selling author!) who wrote: “@mmjaye Thx for the follow by the writer of (upcoming) FATE ACCOMPLIS.” I thought it was brilliant; you thank but also offer basic info on your new follower that might entice your own followers. This way, you show that you care and share, and that you are a giver. I’ve found that’s the operative word in the game of platform building. (Update: To get a clearer picture on how DMs can really irritate a successful tweep, scroll down to the comments’ section and read Nat Russo’s comment.)
Your BFF’s Amazon reviews
I saw a tweet the other day proclaiming an indie author’s debut novel “the most amazing thriller ever!” based on its reviews, and I clicked on its Amazon link where, indeed, four raving reviews were posted. Now, my seasoned reader’s mentality has made me suspicious so what I did next was to check what other books the reviewers had rated. Guess what? The “most amazing thriller ever” was the only book they’d ever reviewed! Now isn’t it obvious that these four persons went through the review process trying to support a friend? As commendable as this may be, the end result was that I didn’t think they were being objective so I passed.
What I plan on doing when that blessed time comes to ask for reviews is to go to friends I’ve made through my platform building with a strong presence in either Amazon or Goodreads—people whose reviews carry some weight with readers. But even if I turn to personal friends for a review, I will kindly ask them to write a couple of brief reviews on other books they’ve recently read prior to posting their review of mine. If they’re good friends, they won’t say no. This way their inevitable—and much desired—raving will be more believable 😉
The bottom line is that no matter how good a writer you think you are, before taking the plunge, you have to invest months in studying things like market trends, codes of conduct, what works and what doesn’t, and the good news for the most part is that it won’t cost you a cent. Successful indie authors are more than willing to offer advice and support, and their blogs are an invaluable source of knowledge. Still, if you don’t trust a newbie’s word (and you shouldn’t), check out the following blogs of writers/bloggers (random order) who have been around for quite some time and know what they’re talking about. You only stand to gain.
Joanna Penn – The Creative Penn
Joel Friedlander – The Book Designer
Molly Greene – Molly Greene’s Blog
Belinda Pollard – Small Blue Dog Publishing
Nat Russo – A Writer’s Journey
The list is by no means exhaustive, but it’s a good start.
Thanks for taking the time to read this post. What would make you turn away from a new writer? I’d love to have your opinion on the matter as well as any additions to the above list you may wish to suggest.