Indie Writing: Why more than talent is required
There is no dearth of talent
Some people believe that the sole determiner of a writer’s success is talent. Well, let me let you in on a little secret: there is no dearth of talent. The world is filled with incredibly well-written people you’ve never heard of. They hang out at open mike poetry peddling their wares to a dedicated indie crowd. Its roots are in the oral storytelling traditions of our ancestors or the anti-establishment principles of Jack Kerouac. They are rebels who don’t let the New York Times Best Seller List write their reading list.
Finding your audience
But you stumble in the door, and you find out they aren’t your audience. Sure, you can keep reading “Killer Romance” and “What’s Up on Vicksburg?” over and over again. You can pay constant homage to your beatnik poetry roots. But you’re never going to get these guys interested in horror. No matter how transgressive it is. No matter how many times you mention William Burroughs. They have seen your brown face and those little green naps on your head and they DO expect you to sound like Alice Walker. You better get your little Peter Straub sounding ass on down the road, girl.
So you go to the political place with the idealistic younger people and the fundraisers for charities you believe in. And you read Zombie Haiku, because EVERYBODY loves zombie haikus. Then you feel a little more comfortable, so you start reading the stories about evil cats at ManulFest. Because we all have cats, and we all know they are secretly out for revenge.
Now, someone is listening.
Courting your audience
The first hurdle you face is not convincing people you’re good: it’s trying to persuade them to devote a chunk of their limited free time to giving you a chance in the first place. You are competing with a lot of other people, many of who are known quantities. You start out as an unknown quantity.
People do not initially know whether or not you have talent. They do not care. When you first start out, you can hardly even give your book away for free. Your first job is to just convince everybody that for some reason, they should give a shit about your book.
It’s not easy. It may take years.
Once you have convinced people to actually READ your book, THEN it will matter whether or not you are talented.
Increasing your audience
This subject came up recently, because an old and dear friend who also writes became extremely incensed over the fact that the IndieReCon contest is a Reader’s Choice Award (in my words) or as she put it, “a popularity contest.” As such, she said, it proves nothing about the talent of the author.
Reader’s Choice Awards or Viewer’s Choice awards like the ones our local paper the Bay Guardian gives out, and other voting-based awards like the BAM (Bay Area Music magazine) BAMMIES are a contest to determine how popular your artistic product (your band, your book, etc.) is.
Now it is entirely valid to say that a Reader’s Choice Award doesn’t prove you are superiorly talented. It’s just not relevant. Talent is not the only thing you need to develop an audience. You also need promotion. You can promote yourself, or hire or cajole someone else into doing it, but you will need it.
Without promotion, no one is going to give a shit about your book, your band, your local art exhibit, or the play you’re in because no one will hear of it. The theater will have empty seats, and the venue will not want to book you again, because you are costing them money.
As one of my fans said (in response) she was voting for me not because of my popularity as a human being, but because of my popularity as a writer. She read my writing – some of that writing I occasionally give away for free to develop an audience – and she liked it. In fact, I specifically gave away Legend of the Luna on Labor Day Weekend to promote the contest and increase voting.
These contests aren’t to determine your popularity as a person. They are to determine your popularity as an author. They are to let the local bookstore know whether or not the books you want them to clutter their valuable shelf-space with will actually sell.
Representing your set
Now, I learned everything I know about marketing from my mom or from my rapper friends back in the 90s. These guys were Ephriam Galloway, Sick YG, Hugh EMC, Rappin 4Tay, JT the Bigga Figga, this promoter Edwin Hagler aka Duga the Hip Hop Informer, and his friends at KMEL, Chuy Gomez and Franzen. Everybody was selling tapes out of their trunk and using small distribution companies, City Limits, or small record labels like Dog Day or In A Minute.
These people believed in coming up together as a team. You represented someone or something. You represented the Fillmore, and you cared about the other people trying to make it because you were on the same team. You weren’t supposed to be cutting each other’s throats, because if one of you made it that could only be good for the rest.
So that’s how I feel about my writer sets, the Ladies of Literature, the Writer’s Muse Magazine people, Horror Addicts, Women in Horror, my local ladies on the San Francisco Goth scene, the Black Women in Horror Writing, and the writers who listen to the Dinner Party Show as well. We are supposed to have each other’s back, like you and me against the world style. Not climb up each other’s backs.
If you can’t stop talking about yourself long enough to prop up your fellow writers, the ones who you should represent if you do consider yourself a part of any group (horror writers, women writers, black writers – I consider myself part of several groups) people are going to get sick and tired of hearing you talk about yourself all the time.
Social skills do matter
That said popularity as a human being has a direct impact on whether or not you can convince people to read your writing. If people think you’re a douche, they are not going to want to buy a donut from you at a 7-11, much less give your book a chance.
That is not to say that complete jerkholes can’t make it, but it’s like Hugh Laurie’s character on House: when you’re a total dick, you have to be exceptionally talented for people to put up with your shit. Lots of other doctors, who have bedside manners, are making a living by being competent and professional. If your ego is telling you that you’re the House, M.D. of literature, go ahead, be an ass. Maybe you’re the Mozart of the paperback and that can work for you.
Personally, I am going to go with the idea that there are hundreds of thousands of talented writers out there. Many are just as talented or more talented than I am. Given the choice between two equally talented writers, an anthology, small press publisher, or fan might chose the one who is not a raving prima donna. So yes, I think social skills count for something.
One other thing: If you are indie, and you aren’t selling enough books, make sure you have something out there for free, even if it’s just a short story or some poetry. Most of your future readers will not pay for the first thing they read by you, but if they like it, they’ll buy something else later and it will pay for itself. Also – make sure your books are competitively priced.
The indie writers I know who are having the most difficult all seem to have their books priced way too high. See what other people you are competing with charge, and ask your friends who buy books for opinions. Check out the cost of books at your local bookstore, etc.