Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Putting Your First Novel To Work

So, last week we were talking about selling your first novel, and some things you'll want to look for from your publisher (and some things you might want to avoid). Either way, if you're ready to go into the trenches with your firstborn, there's a lot you'll want to think about. And once the dust settles with the writing and the rewriting, one of the things you want to kick around in your brainpan is the idea of how to make your first novel work for you.

And, really, whether you're working in the small press or with a NY publisher, your basic approach to that question isn't going to be that different. Neither is the publisher's, surprisingly. Because the truth is that most first novels don't get a whole lot of support from their publishers when it comes to advertising, or a push from the sales reps, or any kind of real-deal game plan as far as publicity goes. In most cases first novels are more like sacrifices to some pagan god. Think King Kong, for example. A whole lot of books get marched outside the gates of Skull Island and roped up on that platform facing the jungle primeval. And not to be too graphic, but just around 95% of them don't have anything approaching a happy ending no matter what the author puts down on the page. Nope. They're just offerings to a king-sized remorseless god, which means they make a quick trip down a hungry monkey's gullet and torpedo their way through his lower intestines on their way to oblivion. Sorry, Charlie, but that's the way of the publishing world.

So you can count yourself lucky if your first novel turns out to be the literary equivalent of Fay Wray, the kind of book that can tame a monster, bring him to his knees, and be the beauty that slays the beast. There are a lot of variables to that kind of success, and it's a wide spectrum that stretches all the way from dumb luck to jaw-dropping talent. Of course, expecting that your first novel will be a huge success is, well... kind of like expecting that you can slay a giant mythical gorilla without so much as a .22 in your hand and look like a million bucks while you're doing it. It's probably not going to happen. Really. I'm not kidding. (Don't give up on the dream, though.)

To kick the extended metaphor aside, what I'm saying is that there's not much you can bank on with your first book. But that doesn't mean there isn't plenty you can work toward. Your novel is the tool you're going to use to do the job. Here are a few ways you can use that hammer:

1. Get your book out there. I mean pre-pub. Push your publisher to do Advance Reader's Copies, and get them into as many hands as you can. Traditional review markets, high-profile bloggers, genre websites... all are good. Of course, there are no sure things and it's a mistake to attach any expectations to the ARCs you send out. By this point you have to trust in your work and let the chips fall where they may.

2. Get out there yourself. If you do the social network thing, get busy. Facebook, Twitter, blog. Do some interviews. Let people know about your book... and you.

3. I'm not much on writers' conventions myself, but jump in if you're comfortable. You may just end up blowing a grand flying off to some city and seeing notmuchofit but some Marriott by the airport, but depending on your personality you just might do well -- making connections, meeting editors, moving forward. (Of course, you could always end up sitting in your room and watching cable, too. Fact is, I've been to a couple of cons where that was the best-case scenario.)

4. If you've met editors who have expressed interest in your work (or, even better, bought it), give them a copy of your novel. Don't shove it at them at a convention, unless they ask you for it. Offer to mail them a copy. Odds are better they'll actually look at it, and not leave it in a hotel room to terrify the maid.

5. Once the book is out, put your author copies to work. Send them to writers you admire and professionals you've met (or the editors mentioned above). If you have a nice first-class hardcover, show it off. Hey, it'll make a better impression than an ARC will (on first glance, anyway -- what really counts is what's on the page).

6. Lastly (and this may be the most important advice of all): BE PROFESSIONAL. Don't be an annoying, pushy jerk. If you're smart, you probably already know the difference. If you're not, I could write a dozen posts about how to conduct yourself as a pro and you wouldn't figure it out. I'm figuring you're smart, so I'll leave it at that.

Beyond that... well, there are always new whistles and bells. There's always some flashy new form of ePromotion, or networking, or whatever. But my advice is to trust in the tried and the true methods -- especially #1 and #2 above. You get your work out there, you act like a professional, you trust in your book, and (as I said above) you wait for the chips to fall where they may.

In other words, when it comes to marketing your first novel there is no magic bullet.

Well, maybe there's one.

Tune in Friday and I'll tell you about it.