Learn from the Stories You Hate

Monica Valentinelli is an author who lurks in the dark. She has over a dozen short stories out in the wild, two novellas, and more on the way. Recent releases include “Don’t Ignore Your Dead,” which debuted in the anthology Don’t Read This Book and Redwing’s Gambit a science fiction adventure novella.

I don’t like every story I read and I’m guessing you don’t either. In fact, I’m quite certain there are some very popular books that make your blood boil as soon as you hear about them. Maybe it’s a story about a vampire who glitters or a tale where the relationship is based on bondage. Maybe it’s a tome about a teenager hunting down other teens or a zombie apocalypse series.

There are a few well-known stories that have caused me no uncertain amounts of angst over the years. To make my peace with them, I critiqued the work and tried to understand why it was so popular.

For the purposes of this article, the popularity of a book isn’t just about book sales. It’s also about word-of-mouth advertising. Imagine readers who are so blown away by a story they have to share it with someone else in their life. Commenters who hate a book so much they have to talk about it. (Both are forms of publicity, by the way, especially online where the value of publicity is the volume, not the quality, of the chatter.)

So what makes people talk about a story? Well, to understand that, we have to go back to why you or I would get upset about a tale in the first place. The answer is really very simple because it circles back to the books we love. It all boils down to that emotional connection with the reader. Powerful stories invoke strong emotions. The more potent the feeling, the greater the chance we’ll need to express what we think or feel about it.

Knee-jerk reactions occur even if we haven’t read a story – especially in cases where the contents of that book are so bizarre or are outside our personal tastes. I am not a fan of Twilight for many reasons, but I don’t begrudge Meyer her success. (Good for her!) Since I have been embroiled in the vampire genre ever since I can remember, I am hyper-sensitive to changes in the vampire mythos. This simply means I am not the audience for her books.

Being that engrossed in a genre or subject matter isn’t always a good thing, because to reach that general consciousness, to achieve mass market popularity, the story needs to have a broader, less-specific, appeal. To do that, sometimes old techniques like tired genre tropes work really well. Other times, it’s about taking a universally-recognized concept like religion or forbidden love and twisting it in such a way that it touches many readers. Can that be done intentionally? Well, the only real evidence we have originates after-the-fact. If everyone knew how to write a wildly popular book (or which ones to publish) I’m pretty sure we’d all be millionaires.

Regardless, the point here that I’m trying to make is that it doesn’t matter what makes a best-selling book popular. That’s just one example of something I took away from a series I can’t stand. So what does? Well, maybe (just maybe) it is possible that the books we hate are learning tools that can help us craft a better story. I feel that statement applies to every author, regardless of experience, because the more we continue to write, the more our work evolves. I also believe that there is a lot we can get from stretching outside of our natural parameters and reading books we would never write (but a lot of other people love).

It’s easier to think critically of a book (or genre) we normally wouldn’t read because we have some emotional distance from it. Mind you, negative emotions color our perspective significantly, so if you are diving in to a work you don’t appreciate, I’d recommend reading it a few times or discussing it in a book club. Then, ask yourself this question: “What’s so great about this book that so many other readers need to buy it, talk about it, and share it? What am I missing?”

The answer may surprise you.

It Never Rains But It Pours: Boosting Your Signal In A Saturated Market

Congrats! You’ve gotten an agent, sold your book to the publisher of your dreams, and received a tidy little advance.

“So, when’s my book tour?”
“Eh, we’re not going to worry about that. We’ve got this great advertising plan instead. We’re going to advertise on Facebook, GoodReads and Reddit.”
“Um, okay…but how am I going to talk to fans of the genre?”
“How am I going to reach into the community that I came from, where people know my name because I’ve blogged for all these awesome sites like Booklife Now and SFSignal and sold stories to all these genre magazines?”
“Well, we’re sending out about 50 review copies!”
“Oh that’s great. Where to?”
“Well, like 10 copies to the New York Times, and 5 to Washington Post and 5 to Times Magazine, and one to the Religion Reporter at–”
“Uh, guys, genre! That’s where people know me and would buy this awesome book!”

Now, this is based on the experience of two of my clients, amalgamated and exaggerated a little…but not much. It isn’t a hypothetical exercise for my amusement, it’s how the industry works.

Promotions and book marketing are a tricky sport. Profit margins are thin enough when things go well, even for the ‘Big 6’. Publishers need the best possible results for the least amount of money. The best results are, of course, going to be if the New York Times or the Washington Post pulls it out of the towering stacks of submissions and writes a glowing review. That happens just often enough to be worth the resources and effort.

It isn’t just a crapshoot on the higher levels, either. Reviewers and bloggers are inundated with unsolicited copies and requests, and time is limited. Will and skill aren’t always equal, so while there are hundreds of reviewers, not everyone will fit your needs. This is where knowledge and research are vital: Bitten By Books will have no interest in your Sword and Sorcery, while Monster Librarian probably isn’t the best place for your YA fantasy romance. The more you know your market, the better your results will be.

And, too, there is a fine balance between sending out more copies than will be bought, and not sending enough copies out. Send too many out, and you might cancel out your sales. Don’t send enough out, and you may end up hearing ‘wow, I didn’t even know your book was out yet!’. Neither one is desirable.

So, say you’re an author handling your own publicity, or wanting to bolster your publicist’s efforts. What do you do?

1.) Before you do anything, check with your publisher, agent, editor and publicist, or any combination of the above. Every situation varies, but you need to maintain both transparency and communication. Ask your team if you can help, and then go from there.

2.) When you talk to your team, ask them for whatever materials they have: a ‘tear sheet’ with the official info, e-books or NetGalley info, or a press kit. Also ask for a list of places that they are sending your books. There’s no point in sending multiple copies to the same place, it just wastes resources and makes you look sloppy.

3.) Research your market. Tor.com posted an excellent list of review sites, but don’t just go down the list, mailing a copy to each person on the list. Read the requirements. Check the list of books they’ve reviewed.

4.) You should be aware of books similar to yours, and authors in your subgenre. Google reviews of their work, and see who covered them.

5.) If your resources are limited, create a hierarchy. Who do you absolutely HAVE to have cover your book? Who is a potential? Who is just overflow, get’em if you’ve got extras?

6.) Social media is your best friend and your worst enemy. DO NOT follow the advice that so many self-help websites promote. Be genuine. Talk about things other than your book. Limit yourself to, at maximum, two ‘my book is for sale’ posts a day…and that’s your upper limit. Less is more, in this case, and if you power too often, you risk alienating potential fans in a hurry.

7.) Speaking of the ‘learn how to promote your book today!’ sites…avoid. Avoid at ALL costs. Instead, focus your efforts on industry professionals. Do your own research. Don’t fall for cheap mailing lists, or guarantees to get your book on a best-seller list. If it sounds too good to be true, it is. Even the best publicist can’t guarantee you a spot on the best-seller list.

8.) And if you do hire a publicist? Make sure you have a good contract. Specify how much you’ll pay, and when. Leave an escape clause. Err on the side of overkill, because it protects both the author and the publicist.

The book industry throws an incredibly steep learning curve at you, as a new author. It’s a learning curve that doesn’t ever level off much, either.

But, just maybe, with a little luck, a lot of very hard work, and copious amounts of alcohol, you can make it through this ring of hell, too.