Most of you will be familiar with this image by now – it’s the cover of my story His Work To See, a book that I try to give away for free to anybody interested.
There’s a key word in that last sentence. And it isn’t ‘free’.
The image, which Malcolm McClinton created for the book and which I love, elicits one of two reactions from people. Either:
“That’s an angel pinned to a wall, in agony. Why would I want to read about that?”
“That’s an angel pinned to a wall, in agony. I want to read that and find out why.”
Before I published the book, a couple of well meaning types took me metaphorically aside and asked me whether I wanted to reconsider the cover. They knew that the book was intended as a free sample, so that people could try something of mine before deciding whether they wanted to pay to do so, and worried that it might put a big chunk of people off. A lot of people, they thought, might have the first of the above reactions. They might, on the basis of the cover image, decide to steer clear.
Good, I thought. I hope they do.
Not everybody, of course. That would be a stupid way to have a writing career. Just those people who think the first thing.
An author’s job has always been to find readers. Not an easy business on an Interweb full of instantly downloadable entertainments, but we writers need you to read our books and feed our careers. Writers worry a lot about finding readers, and can be seen going to ever increasing lengths to inveigle you into picking up their books.
However, what’s just as important these days is putting readers off reading our books. It might sound counter-intuitive, but it’s true. In fact statistically, if I really want to be a success, I should probably try to put most people off reading my books.
Don’t worry. Logic will be along in a minute.
The other day, an editor who has enjoyed some of the quirky short fiction that I’ve had published by Obverse Books mentioned that they’d given Thy Fearful Symmetry a whirl. They enjoyed the writing, but the horror elements were too strong for their tastes. They asked whether any of my other books were less visceral.
I thought about it, and told them no. I thanked them for checking out TFS, but suggested that they probably shouldn’t check out any of my other books right now. It was an odd moment. I’ve never asked anybody not to read my fiction before.
The thing to remember – and this is easy for enthusiastic authors to properly credit – is that not everybody likes the same thing. The most popular authors in the world have plenty of detractors who don’t enjoy their fiction. When you think about it numerically, it is almost always going to be the minority of people who like one particular thing. A different minority will like thing number 2. Thing number 3 will appeal to another minority again. Those minorities might be big enough to create bestsellers, but it’s still less people liking a specific thing than those who don’t like it.
My job when encouraging people to try my work is to find the right people to encourage – that (hopefully sizeable) minority who will like, or even love, the particular stories that I have to tell
The thing is, His Work To See really does contain a scene in which an angel is staked to a wall. There’s no getting away from it. That happens in the book. I take a (made up) angel and stake the lady to a wall. It really, really hurts her.
I could tone down the cover so it doesn’t look like a story where that sort of thing goes on, and some of the first group described above might then download the book. Who am I helping, though? They’d get to that bit and very probably decide that I don’t tell the sorts of stories they want to hear, thank you very much. They won’t be back to try something else, and who would blame them? There are a lot of other things they could be reading or watching.
That would be a shame, because my next book is Craven Place, and that doesn’t contain any angels being tortured. It’s less horror and more spookiness, and the readers who like it aren’t always going to be the same readers who like His Work To See. If I somehow hoodwink everybody into trying the one with the tortured angel, a lot aren’t going to try the new book – even if it’s exactly the sort of story they like to curl up around.
It all comes down to honesty in the end, and its cousin trust. I try to be honest about my stories, because I want you to enjoy reading them. Outside of live performance, there’s no form of entertainment as intimate as reading. It’s just you and me in the end. Me telling you a story, and you listening, making it better with the images you bring to it in your head. You know that feeling when you sit down with somebody, and they try to tell you about something that happened, and you’re bored out of your mind but trying to nod and pretend to be listening, and it seems to go on for hours? I don’t ever want you to feel like that because of me. When we finish our story, I want you to look at the clock and wonder where the time went.
I worry sometimes when I see some authors trying to batter everybody they know over the head with their new book. I understand the impulse – books are hard to write, and after all the time and effort they want it do well. They’ve often convinced themselves that everybody will love their book, if only they give it a chance. They’re wrong. Some people will, if it’s any good. A lot of people won’t, and no amount of tweeting and sharing will change that. If they’re successful in wearing down those who aren’t all that interested in the first place, then a person who would never enjoy the book might read it. They’ll probably hate it. They might even tell people they know that they hated it, and drop a one star review on Amazon and the like for all potential future readers to see. And that’s fair enough.
Authors have to trust that readers know what they want to read (I wrote a post last year called It’s The Book, Stupid – it got read and liked a lot, and touches on some of the same things). Of course, we have to give them a chance to make up their minds – they have to know a book exists in order to read it – but once they’ve looked at it and made a decision we should trust them and move on.
I was really lucky last year. Thy Fearful Symmetry did much better business than I had any right to expect (it still does), and it was down to you lot more than anything I did myself (except for writing a book you mostly liked, and presenting it well). Those of you who enjoyed it told other people. Some of you, and some of them, went on to put a review up on Amazon, Goodreads, or elsewhere. The reviewers I sent it to (and I only sent it to people who I thought would actually like it) have shared their own enthusiasm for the book. Even better, many of you continue to do so, and people are still finding and enjoying it for the first time a year later. Long may that continue,. It’s not something that as an author I can manufacture through an aggressive publicity campaign (these days, often known as ‘shouting loudly and often at everybody, until they cry and buy the book out of self-defence’).
I hope a lot of that process was about honesty. I write a book, and worked hard to make it as good as I know how. I told people about it, honestly. Some people encouraged other people to pick it up, and they did that honestly too. Thy Fearful Symmetry did well because of lots of little bits of trust linking together.
I mentioned recently that towards the end of 2013 I’ll be having a trial run at writing full time, taknig a year and seeing what I can make happen in it. If I’m in any way successful, I suspect this is how it will happen – a reader at a time, finding my stories honestly and enjoying them for what they are.
I hope so, anyway. It seems a good way to have a career to me.