What Is Literary Success?

…Success is in the eyes of the reader.

J. Michael Straczynski
Photo by Mohamed Nohassi on Unsplash

What Is The Message You Want Readers To Receive?

Success (contextual noun): 
a reader understanding the communicated message or story.

-personal definition

I work full time as a copywriter, copyeditor, and webmaster. No one will ever see my name on that work, but to me the work I do each day is vital. It serves a purpose to hundreds of thousands of people and my readers understand the messages I deliver. To me, that is success.

In regards to my personal work, I hold myself to the same standard. I’ve raised my standards to meet those of my professional work, including building a Content Management Plan and hiring a content manager for 5-10 hours per week. No one cares about the name that they see on the cover. No one cares about my author photo other than photographers or the curious few. Maybe the people who are in the acknowledgments will read the acknowledgments. It’s still my work and I’m still the author, but does anyone care that it’s “me”? No.

I am nobody.

Success is when my work stands on its own and delivers a message. But is that message consistent with what I’m trying to communicate?

Speaking Your Reader’s Language

There are several circumstances that can impact a reader’s ability to comprehend your work. Language and cultural barriers make up a blended cohesive layer that impact much of the literary world’s divides. This is often difficult for authors to anticipate and understand without extensive research and preparation. Additionally, multi-lingual authors who are first starting out often are unprepared for the issues they may encounter when writing in languages that have strong nationalistic identities associated with regional forms of their language. This can often lead to bigotry directed toward authors who are attempting to cross these barriers and share information on a global scale.

In circumstances like this, defining your reading audience and speaking your reader’s language is important. However, language is a complex and metaphorical thing which often lends itself toward ableism in this regard. Readers can come in every variety. If they see a message in your writing that makes their worldview feel threatened, even if it was not intentional, they may write a review. Often these reviews will be negative and based entirely on that emotional reaction instead of any careful thought or self examination as to why their worldview has been challenged.

Did you challenge that reader’s worldview on purpose though? Did you challenge their worldview in a way that was intentional and controlled? It is important as a writer to deliver our messages with intention and control. By being intentional with our writing, we are mindful of the consequences of the words we put into the world and how they may be perceived by others.

So often individuals forget to be intentional and fail to be mindful with their words. That is why sensitivity readers and developmental editors are such powerful assets for an author to access when preparing any piece of work. Ask yourself, if you’re afraid of offending people, who are you afraid of offending? Do you think, maybe, it’s okay that they’re offended? Or is this a group of people historically targeted and oppressed? Are you representing some aspect of them as a caricature instead of a character? 

As authors, once our mass produced publications have gone to print, our words are our actions in writing. These have consequences we must be prepared to face, including the feedback we receive from our readers.

How Are You Taking Feedback?

Incorporating feedback is vital to improving one’s craft and delivering a message successfully. Can your work be divorced from you and stand on its own? The reader is the one who decides this. A reader has no context for who you are once your work is out in the world. So, why would you assume anything other than positive intent from those who do know you and have shown you that they care in the past?

There is a tendency among authors to expect only positive reviews from those who know or interact with them. Criticism comes in many forms and not everyone is your friend. People are not nice, and many people have self serving intentions. There are those who seek to sabotage those who they see as a threat for whatever reason. There are those who seek to demolish honesty that “threatens their success.”

But as I’ve already addressed, what exactly is that success that is so threatened? Two definitions of success I recently saw shared mostly included: recognition for work and money.

Part of observing this definition involved some bizarre hypocrisy. Individuals who said they did not want fame were the same individuals who regularly post pictures of themselves, aim to raise follower counts, have private DM chat groups dedicated to sharing their social media posts, and use other such “fame” focused behaviors for marketing. Is this part of the “success game” of social media that has been created within this “Writing Community” we have created? If I told that person of this observed hypocrisy, would they ever speak to me again? Or would they be so offended that they would drop me. Would they treat me and the years of communication we’ve had as a personal attack or view it as feedback on how they could improve themselves through self examination? Is it potentially even no longer safe to give positive feedback in many instances due to risks of misinterpretation without extensive editing?

How Do You Respond To “Bad” Reviews?

As previously mentioned, challenging a reader’s worldview can result in a negative review. This is not a “bad” thing. In fact, challenging a reader’s worldview can be a measure of success. There are books with a high impact on changing our society for the better with negative reviews because they challenge the reader’s worldview. 

In fact, here are some examples from famous titles currently available on Amazon, including sadly commonly challenged worldviews ranging from feminism and adolescents’ rights to self discovery to a conspiracy theory still used to promote Holocaust denial:

Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret – Judy Blume

All American Boys – Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely

American Psycho – Bret Easton Ellis

The Awakening – Kate Chopin

As I Lay Dying – William Faulkner

Diary Of A Young Girl – Anne Frank

In many of the above instances the individuals giving the “bad review” needed to be offended. The negative review has everything to do with the content being challenging to the worldview of the reader. It’s not a bad thing to challenge a reader’s worldview.

Do You Care More About Being Understood Or Selling Books?

So, what is success? 

Selling books is great if people read them. Selling books is great if you have found an audience who really, truly loves them. But what if people are buying your books and not reading them?

In 2015, Jellybooks revealed that 40-50% of ebooks purchased through their network are never read.

Readers connect with plots. Readers connect with book covers and hearing other readers talk about your stories. Readers connect with public libraries, newspapers, and radios talking about your books and writing. Readers connect through comments on WattPad, AO3, personal blogs, or whichever platform you use. 

Readers connect with engaging stories that they understand in a consistent way that they can share with those around them until someone says, “can you just send me a link to it?” or  “who did you say the author was again?” while writing down its information.

 Knowing that someone understands your work is so vital to having that person authentically share your work, and that is the first step.

Choosing to ignore finding that audience or once they’ve been found, slighting them, and or hurting them with mindless actions are the worst things any author can do. At best, these actions are self sabotage. At their worst, we can look to the example of Joanne Rowling who has destroyed her entire body of literature’s fan base. Some claim that she never existed and the books materialized out of the ether. Others, myself included, view them with a new interpretation – that everything contained within is in some way a reflection of who she actually is. Every deceit of herself, every lie to her reader, every ploy as she struggled to keep up with social change is now buried within those lines of text.

Your definition of success originates from within. Remember that committing to your definition through consistency in action matters. I hope this reader focused definition of success offers those still searching for their own definition an option.



Here’s Your Sign: Developing A Marketing Plan For A Book To Find An Audience

Your Book Is A Roadside Attraction

It says a lot about an area and the people that occupy it when they put up signs like this. Same with websites, social media accounts, and advertising – we can think of each of those things as these weird little signs that can point potential readers in our direction to stop along the road or they’ll drive on past us without a second glance.

If someone interacts with it via a ‘like’? That’s like a snapshot along the highway. It gives us a chance to show up in a friend of their’s feed.

Signs, ads, billboards, gas stations with interesting tourist traps, roadside attractions – if done right all of these will attract a steady stream of individuals that will take the time to stop for a while and be present. We’ve been doing this since ancient times and building legends, even pilgrimages around them. Why not do the same for your book?

Finding & Attracting Your Audience

I write poetry and American Gothic. I may incorporate additional elements, such as science fiction and futurism, but my best work is and always will be heavily influenced by grief, magical realism, questionable realities, and regional social commentary. Most of what I know about my audiences comes from WordPress analytics. This helps me know that while my top 10 countries for visitors in 2020 were:

  1. the United States
  2. the United Kingdom
  3. India
  4. Canada
  5. China
  6. Australia
  7. France
  8. Germany
  9. Finland
  10. Phillippines

Beyond this information, I don’t know much about my readers besides the google searches they use to find my website. And those keyword combinations? They make me smile, but they aren’t very helpful.

So, how do we, as independent authors and publishers, find our readers? How do we decide on where to spend our advertising efforts? How do we interact with social media? The answer is one that is anxiety inducing and one no one wants to hear: YOU or YOUR BOOK have to get the attention of an audience of potential readers by putting out the correct signs to lead them to your work. You have to hope that the law of numbers is on your side and for every thousand people looking at an ad, one person will click all the way through to buying your book.

I have a poetry book that’s being released later this month. How am I going to find its audience?

Breadth vs. Depth

When you first start marketing something, if you don’t know where your target market is hiding, you need to play a game. Be the pied piper and bring those readers out of the woodwork with your magical marketing flute by having your song go to where they are.

As much as we all love existing in our comfy social media reading and writing community bubbles, be it BookTube, #WritingCommunity, #WritersCafe, #PoetsOfInstagram, #PoetryIsNotDead, or your writing Facebook group. The reality is that’s not where the majority of your future readers are going to hang out. So where are they?

We’ll have to check a broad selection of sources before we can focus our energies on a depth of understanding of our eventually targeted audience.

Break your marketing budget up between time and money.

Your time will be dedicated to attracting readers by dedicating time to them without spending money to have others do it for you. There are lots of free or low cost options that are time intensive, but very rewarding in terms of readership response.

But there’s that first hurdle – designing an ad.

Design A Professional Ad That Targets Your Audience

I hate putting myself out there. I am socially awkward and constantly afraid of annoying people. Somehow my whole life I’ve been told that I both talk too much and too little. But here’s the thing: at the end of the day, no one is going to advocate for you in the way you need to advocate for yourself. So, I better go annoy some readers, because it’s impossible to please everyone and I never expected the whole world to like me.

But where do our readers hang out online and in real life? It’s quite possible they don’t hang out in the same places, or if they do, they’re not attracted to the same style of advertisements.

Every genre is marketed differently. I’m going to use the example of Romance as a genre that is well known for having a specific marketing style that is recognizable even if the words are absurd. World of Longmire did an entire feature on some generic romance novel covers that I’m going recommend you look at as examples because none of these are real books and I find them entertaining.

Just like a book cover, your ad should make your genre immediately recognizable without any text. IngramSpark puts out articles on cover design trends (here’s the one from 2020). The trouble I have with this article is that at least one of these design tactics ignores how many readers, myself included, look for that immediate non-verbal cue to inform a potential buyer of what the book is about.

Your advertisement is probably going to be based on your book cover. If you pay for a book trailer or make an advertisement in Canva be sure to check where all you can then take that ad. What are the requirements of your potential advertising platforms? These requirements are essential for preventing wasted time and money. Plan this in advance.

Where Do Paid Ads Go?

Independent Newspapers

Supporting other independent publications, such as your local independent newspaper in your closest major metropolitan area is a great way to keep your money supporting other independent authors. If you write stories that are regionally significant, you will likely find a reader base by advertising in this area as well.

If you have trouble thinking of which metropolitan area near you is “the city” think about which city nearby people moved to after high school to find work (if they moved). For me that was Richmond, Virginia.

If you have the budget in time for contacting each place, nothing is stopping you from advertising in a variety of independent newspapers in select areas across the country where you think you have a chance at attracting readers. Readers of independent newspapers are often attracted to other independent publications, such as ProPublica (yes, they accept advertising). Here are some independent newspapers currently advertising available space:

Independent Bookstores & Conventions

I know it’s hard to imagine right now, but there will come a day when meeting readers in person and showing your face will make a difference, especially in niche genres like Science Fiction, Fantasy, True Crime, Horror, and more. As an introvert, conventions are the most extroverted thing I do and they exhaust me. But the opportunities to get known are the thing to point out here.

At a talk hosted by Neil Gaiman in Pittsburgh in 2012 he mentioned the importance of conventions and writing conferences early on in his career. While I recognize that the indie writing and comic scene has changed somewhat since the 1990s, it has not changed as much as many people think. People like getting out of their house, and once more people have the vaccine, I believe this will happen again.

At conventions, authors have opportunities to sign up for panels, to give writing workshops, to volunteer to help host events, and run booths to sell their books and other merchandise (bookmarks, buttons, world maps, posters of book covers, etc). By being willing to get out from behind a screen and engage our readers in person we form connections that can’t be made through text on a page and give ourselves a voice and image. Plus, if you volunteer with the convention yearly, often times you get additional networking benefits such as meeting new people who may know other potential readers of your work.

If that sounds scary, it should. You should proceed with authenticity and caution, fully recognizing the limitations your innate human flaws create. To quote T. Swift “Haters gonna hate hate hate hate hate,” and you should be prepared for that with no plans for retaliation. Be kind and show gratitude to your audience. Show this time and time again. Your thoughts will guide your actions. Think about your readers, even the ones that give you 1-star reviews, like a tiny choir of angels cheering you on (and remember that Satan was an angel too).

When you’re at a convention you’re genuinely not alone unless you choose to be. Friends and strangers interested in your book that could quickly become your readers will make your acquaintance.

While you’re waiting to foster the bravery for conventions, you can contact independent bookstores that are part of larger networks to see if they would be interested in an ARC of your book. This can lead to bulk orders to sell the books in their stores if they think it will sell. Myopic Books in Chicago will purchase used copies of your book from you (at a reduced rate, most likely at a loss) and sell them at a low cost if you get any returned. While you’re going through the effort of selling your book to independent bookstores, you can discuss with them the options to do live events to drive up interest in your book.

By encouraging readers to go through independent bookstores to purchase your book you are helping a local economy and community. You are becoming part of something greater than yourself. People remember this and word of mouth marketing is valuable. Make good impressions – these will travel far.

Take Advantage Of Your College / University

Remember that place that took your money in exchange for a degree and some unique memories, some of which you may be taking to your grave?

Take some time to reach out to your alma mater’s bookstore and say, “I’m an alum/alumna and I wrote a book! I would be very appreciative if you could sell a few copies on commission and add me to the section dedicated to alumni publications.” Some university bookstores make it even easier than that if they’re part of the Barnes&Noble college bookstore network and you’re already selling your book through them.

Every alma mater has an alumni newsletter – be it digital or print. You likely have access to an alumni network, even if you’ve never been in contact before. Take advantage of these resources and announce your book to them. There are usually forms to fill out, but they’re all pretty simple. Your spouse or partner can also do this for you with their alma mater.

Reach out to any of your former professors if they’re still teaching and see if they’d be interested in reading your book. You may be surprised by the answer. It will also encourage you to have the book in the most polished form possible before you send it out into the world.

Look into listing an ad for your book in your alma mater’s newspaper, especially if this has decent circulation. It’s important to note that you don’t necessarily have to be an alum of a school to run an ad in that university’s paper – check their rules.

University campuses are incredibly effective places to advertise books, especially if that age group is your target demographic. That said, if you’re writing a book about planning retirement late in life, maybe don’t try to sell that to someone who just turned 18.

Public Libraries

Public libraries are a quiet refuge where people that don’t know what they want to read can go and discover something new. That new thing could be you.

Another great place to donate copies of your book is your local public library. As you travel, you could also do this with the public libraries in the locations wherever you go. With the advent of digital lending it is a lot cheaper to offer free copies of your book to public libraries, but physical copies have the benefit of being able to sit on the “New Arrivals” display near the circulation desk.

Some public libraries host genre specific book clubs. See if you can submit your book to be on the upcoming reading list for one of these.

Many libraries will work with authors if they would like to plan and host a free event to promote their book. You may need to print out flyers or a poster detailing your target age range, genre, and what you plan to do with your audience, but this is a way to introduce yourself to a smaller group of potential readers. For more details, contact your local public library since policies and associated fees vary based on location.

The Social Media Fallacy

Social media isn’t very social. Between FOMO and the constant need to satisfy the dopaminergic attention seeking behaviors of yourself and others, you’re wading through a sea of noise. You will deal with people that will treat you as less than human and you will fight uphill battles against anyone with more money than you because the reality is that YOU are the product, not the Advertisements that are paying for you to see them.

Social media feeds are governed by algorithms that dictate every advertisement and post you are exposed to based on engagement patterns and paid sponsorship targeting. If you want to use social media to sell something to a different audience than the one you normally interact with, you will either need to create a different account for that type of interaction or you will need to work hard at using the exact hashtags for optimal exposure. That is, unless you are buying advertisements.

If you decide to buy advertisements you need to do so intelligently. Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter each have methods for targeting a specific audience.

There are classes and books available on how to use social media algorithms and this is the area most talked about for independent authors at this time, so I’m going to leave this category here for now and not repeat what others have said.

Targeting Feed Advertisements

Take the time to learn how to engage your audience. If you are looking to engage an audience on Twitter to use the platform to advertise your work for free, create a strategy. You will want to learn how to do this with all platforms if you plan to minimize the amount of money you spend.

Newspaper and Magazine Book Reviews

As someone that reviews independent published and publisher books, I want to be very clear:

Best Sellers Happen Through Marketing

There are always exceptions. Many newspapers and magazines include editorial book reviews for new releases. It never hurts to contact someone and ask if your book can be added to that review pile. If it seems like someone could potentially be interested in your book, why not ask? What’s the worst they can say? No?

Tracking What Works

You will be receiving a lot of data as you market your book and start to sell it. What do you do with that? This is where we start cutting out excess spending in areas that aren’t helping us.

Create a milestone timeline for sales and advertising budget allocation. By 6 months – 1 year you should be allocating 80% of your budget (time and money) toward the advertising sources responsible for 90% of your sales. Unfortunately, you won’t be able to know everything when it comes to your readership. This is where interacting with your audience and getting to know them really matters the most.

Maybe you wrote a book that was NA, but your actual readership tends to be in the 30-45 age range? What if you thought your audience would be predominantly female and non-binary, but instead they’re male and non-binary? As authors our assumptions about who our readers are going to be can be wrong. Pay attention to who your readers actually are and embrace them as they are.

Do You Have Marketing Tips?

Do you have non-social media marketing tips that I missed? What do you think of these?

I hope this was helpful for those that are publishing independently and looking into marketing their work.