When nothing’s happening on my Amazon page or any other, I tell myself one thing: ‘Remember how you discovered Robin Hobb.’
Thirteen years ago, when I went to the till in Waterstones with a copy of Robin Hobb’s Assassin’s Apprentice, I took the first step in radically shaping my future as a writer and a reader, even though I didn’t know this at the time. When I read Assassin’s Apprentice, it planted a seed in my imagination. When I started writing about people with mind powers, I began my harvest, and set out in the hope I could someday write something that might do for someone else what my hero had done for me. No Robin Hobb, no Tommy Muncie as the world of fiction now has the potential to know him.
Let’s not descend into hero worship though. There’s another lesson to be had from how I discovered Robin Hobb’s books. When I bought the first one, I did so with that familiar feeling of ‘I’ve been looking at that on the shelf and thinking it looks good for AGES and it’s about time I tried it.’
I recently saw an advert for community volunteering that said ‘You don’t know me yet, but you could.’ I stopped think for a moment, not because I was going to answer that add and sign up, but because I realised that without intending to, this line spoke so brilliantly for books and authors as well. Every trip I’ve ever had to Waterstones or any other book store went through my head as I realised this was what shelves full of books had said to me, every time. Stephen King once wrote that the opening to every book should say ‘Come in here.’ Until I saw that advert, I’d never thought about what a book itself said, before I’d even opened it and tried the beginning lines.
For two odd years, Assassin’s Apprentice sat there on the shelf in the shop saying ‘You don’t know me yet, but you could.’ My answer was always, ‘Yeah, but perhaps another day’ and I’d buy something by Stephen King or Iain Banks instead. When I finally did say ‘Okay, it’s your turn’ I found a book that turned me into a superfan. I’d wanted a book as good as Assassin’s Apprentice that good for ages, and the oh so familiar ‘I wish I’d done it sooner’ is still on my mind whenever I pick up one of Hobb’s books.
I wrote before about how I’ve given away over 600 copies of Shadow’s Talent but am under no illusion that it is not going to generate 600 reviews, and even if people read the whole thing I may never hear from them about it. What I resisted exploring in that same article was the idea of planting a dormant seed that might someday sprout: if Shadow’s Talent is on someone’s e-reader, there’s the potential for it to have the same effect on someone that Assassin’s Apprentice once had on me. Someone might be saying ‘Yeah but perhaps another day’ every time they scan through their library and see it there, and when that day comes there’s just that chance of ‘Hell yeah why did I never read this before?!’ Hell, even the people who’ve paid money for my book when it wasn’t on promotion might not read it straight away. As daft as it sounds, I have books on my shelf that I paid for in a shop years ago and then for some reason just never ended up reading. I do sometimes wonder if self published authors who boast of large sales figures ever stop to think how many buyers actually read the book.
When I discovered Assassin’s Apprentice, it was the book that interested me rather than the author, but in the day and age of the internet and ebooks I find it’s often the other way around now: I’m picking up books because the author has caught my interest first. Brandon Tietz got my attention with a column on Litreactor. Again, this writer had no idea he’d caught my interest nearly a year ago, or that I bought his book a good ten months after seeing that column, until he woke up one Sunday morning to find my review of Good Sex Great Prayers on Goodreads. I received thanks via Litreactor. One example of many. Even offline, the author can catch my attention first. I remember discovering Anthony Burgess because someone told me about how he’d travelled all over the place and spoke a dozen different languages, and it made me wonder what kind of fiction someone who had done that would produce. I knew John le Carré wrote about spies, but I never picked up his books until my mother told me that the author once was a spy.
One of my friends recently told me he would read my book as soon as he got time, and I said ‘Be honest though: you don’t usually read fiction and you’re only interested in the book because it’s me who wrote it.’ He was honest. He said yes. That was fine, but I look back on that now and realise this is exactly what self published authors forget when they market their work: you can get someone to read it if they see that YOU are interesting, and therefore the book might be, because it is a product not only from you but OF you. Why some authors neglect to market themselves as well as their fiction is a mystery to me. Indeed, the night I gave a reading from Shadow’s Talent to a local creative arts club, I had the feeling that many people turned up because it was me doing this and not because they were sold on the book already.
I’ve bought some book advertising, I’ve put links to my stuff on forums and writing sites, and I’ve used Twitter and Facebook and even this blog and generated only a very low level of readership in my work so far. But unlike so many self publishers I consider this stage exciting rather than a cause to write ‘Woe is me’ posts on forums or my personal site. I’ve seen quite a few posts like this recently, and in every single one of them the author never comes across in a positive light for me. I don’t reply in these topics simply because I cannot find my sympathetic voice, because an author considering themselves a failure or not getting the sales levels they really want is a poor tactic for getting people to notice their work. I never see an author who might be writing a story worth reading when I click in these posts, because I see an author who complains and says ‘I’m failing.’ What I wish I was seeing instead was an author writing the kind of posts that say ‘I’m worth knowing’ despite their struggle to get known.
I’ve been there. I’ve been the author with head in hands in front of a screen thinking ‘What the fuck do I do now?’ What I always come up with is that voice that tells me to be patient, and to keep doing what I can to make my writing and my presence on writing sites as an author say ‘You don’t know me yet, but you could.’ Maybe one day, someone will know me and my work because I’ve done for them what Robin Hobb once did for me. I dare to dream.