Friday, 3 March 2017

The Amateur Author's Hat Trick - How Not To Sell Your Work

Today I'm going to talk about how money affects our perceptions. I can hear the protests already. "Nonsense," you cry. "The tawdry values of the commercial world are as mere dross to me, a civilised and educated person."

A civilised and educated person
It's not so. Granted, we're not sycophants. Granted, we don't imagine that some mindless chattering humanoid is a finer and better person than the good man who owns the corner shop, just because he owns a string of oil wells or department stores. But consider for a moment what happens when money changes hands.

When we pay money for goods or services, we place ourselves in an intrinsically different relationship to the seller than would otherwise be the case. We are now in a commercial relationship, and there are certain ground rules with commercial relationships. They are relationships of trade, and the fundamental requirement of trade is value received: to wit, that for a trade to be successful, the value of what is received must, in the estimation of the trader, be equal to or greater than the value of what is given. When I buy a litre of milk from Mr Patel, we are both happy because the milk is worth more to me than the money I pay for it, and the money is worth more to him than the milk. This is the basic rule that makes the whole, vast edifice of the commercial world function.

Therefore, as a writer, if you want people to buy your books, it is up to you to induce them to think it is going to be worth parting with $10, or $3.99, or whatever. It is no use, as I frequently see, blagging your book about in Facebook saying that you need money to pay for your mother's operation, or because you and your five children are facing homelessness, or any other sob story. This is not because your fellow writers, and other people on the internet, are stony-hearted, clutch-fisted misers. It is because that is begging. Begging is based on a whole different set of premises than trade, and different rules apply. And when you try to do it in the context of a commercial transaction, you meet with no success because you've stepped outside the accepted conventions for that. 

So, bottom line - if you want to beg, you need to do it in the appropriate forum. If you want to sell, you are expected to offer value for money. There are no exceptions to this.

Now, in order to make people think your book is going to be value for money, you must consider several things. I'm not even talking about the actual writing yet. There is all the 'outside' stuff. Your cover. Your promotional materials. Your blurb. A good blurb is vital. It needs to tell the potential reader what kind of book it is, what it's about, and it needs to hook him enough that he will pick up the book (if he's in a traditional bookstore) or look at the 'look inside' (if he's in an e-store).

The Moment of Truth

Now I'm talking about writing. The 'moment of truth' in the sale of a book occurs when the potential customer opens the book. When he reads your opening lines, or perhaps, if he's in a traditional bookshop, a random passage out of the middle. 

It is this moment that will determine whether or not he will buy. 

Now, we all have our personal preferences, and things that will 'hook' one reader, or turn him off your work completely, vary as much as the individual readers vary. At this point I must leave the general and take up the specific. I cannot tell you what will appeal to all readers - in fact, there is no such thing, for even taken on the average, readers' expectations vary with the genre. 

What I can tell you is what will put me off buying your book.

1. Boring subject matter
2. Poor quality - in the literary world, we call this 'bad writing'.

Now, as far as the subject matter is concerned, this is not something I'll be discovering in the 'look inside'. The blurb will have told me what the book is about. If you've got me past that point, to where I am actually dipping into your book, your cover designer and whoever wrote your blurb have done their jobs - you have a potential sale.

The only thing that is now going to stop me from buying your book - the only thing, because at this point I'm already aware of its price - is bad writing.

There are some forms of bad writing, of course, perhaps most, that will not be immediately apparent from the first few pages. If the writer cannot control his plot, if he cannot sustain interest, if he cannot produce sufficient dramatic tension, if his characters are internally inconsistent, these things will probably be overlooked at the 'look inside' stage. That's not to say they aren't important, but they will probably not cost you that initial sale.

What Will Cost You The Sale

Again, I cannot speak for anyone but myself. But I can share with you my own selection process.

Because I look at so many books, over time I've come to look for certain key indicators that a book is probably not going to be worth my time or money. This is what I think of as the Amateur Author's Hat Trick. 

1. First person
2. Present tense
3. Bad grammar.

Now before you start citing all manner of popular authors, hear me out. The term I used was Key Indicators. Of course first person is not a bad thing in itself. Many great writers have used it. Dickens used it on occasion, as did Lovecraft, Poe and Stevenson, to name just a few. 

Similarly, present tense, when used appropriately, is not always a bad thing, although those occasions when its use is truly appropriate are few and far between. Generally, it's not all that suitable for main narrative.

When these two things appear together, though, the result at first glance is cringeworthy, and in my experience usually indicates a writer who does not know what the hell he is doing and doesn't read enough.

Whenever I encounter this unholy combination, I expect to see a generally incompetent use of language evidenced by grammatical errors, and frequently spelling mistakes as well. I am seldom surprised, and it is this deadly trio that I have come to refer to as the amateur author's hat trick. If I see it, I am positively guaranteed not to download the book, even if it is free.

It's Not a Gift

One often sees amateur writers protesting vehemently the criticism and bad reviews they have received. How dare you, they cry. I'm 'a autism author'. A double amputee. A veteran. Whatever. All this is irrelevant. It is WHINING.

Now, before you go off on a rant about how cold and uncaring I am, let's consider again the essential difference between a gift and a commercial transaction. Say your four-year-old child comes home from Kindergarten and proudly presents you with a wonderful necklace he has made from acorns. You exclaim delightedly, you put it round your neck immediately, and if you're a really loving mother, you wear it to the office the next day and treasure it forever. But you do not rush off to Tiffany's and plonk down $5000 for the matching earrings. You don't, do you? Even if they sold crap like that.

And that, Virginia, is the difference between a commercial product and one that isn't. A matter of value, which in the literary world is solely defined by quality.

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