Riding the turbulent waves of the current literary marketplace

Here’s a thought-provoking question for the holiday season, campers: as a reader, how do you decide which books to buy?

I’m particularly interested in the logic behind picking up books by living authors — because, let’s face it, Dickens and Thackeray are not going to benefit much at this late date from your patronage. Are you, for instance, the type of reader whose purchases lean toward authors whose work you have enjoyed in the past? Do you operate mostly upon recommendations from friends?

Or are you a trawler of award lists, seeking out exciting new voices? Maybe you’re an inveterate reader of online reviews. Another popular route is to wait until a series hits the big time, jumping on the bandwagon at book 2 or 3.

Or, perhaps due to the persistent nagging of someone like your humble correspondent, are you among the minuscule minority of aspiring writers that regard keeping up with the current market in your chosen book category as a necessary — nay, indispensible — part of becoming a professional writer, and thus make a point of conscientiously snapping up its new releases? If you’re particularly saintly (or particularly aware of the logical effects of readers’ habits upon publishing decisions), you might even go out of your way to buy new releases by first-time authors, both on general principle and because savvy aspiring writers are aware that the best way to impress editors with the marketability of first books is for a heck of a lot of them to sell.

Or do you pursue the route embraced by a startlingly high percentage of aspiring writers, not buying books by living authors at all?

Seriously, I’m curious. Depending upon which source one favors for statistical analysis, somewhere between a quarter of a million and a million fresh titles come out each year, many of them by first-time authors. And with the explosion of the self-publishing market, the majority of those books will not have a major publisher’s marketing oomph behind them.

It’s not as though any of us have the resources — or the shelf space — to snap up more than a small fraction, after all. So again, I ask you: out of that bewildering array of titles, how do you decide which few will grace your bookshelves?

While that question is already roiling in your brainpan, allow me to add a follow-up: is that decision more or less complicated if the book you’re considering was self-published? If so, how did you even find out about the book in the first place?

And, if your mental processes are not already groaning under the weight of so many rhetorical questions in a row, let’s flip the question on its head: if you were a self-published author — and I know that a hefty percentage of you have at least considered it — how would you go about influencing a reader’s choice to pick up your book, given the vast array currently available to amaze, educate, and delight the reading public?

I sense some of you clutching your aching heads and moaning, “Oh, God — it’s hard enough to write a book; now I have to market it, too?” but honestly, these are not questions that authors, self-published or otherwise, discuss enough in public. Indeed, quite the opposite: we’ve all seen countless interviews in which successful authors talk about their craft as though the question of how to sell it to readers had never once sullied their creative processes, right? Apparently, the instant these authors typed THE END, the Publication Fairy tapped them on their respective shoulders, snatched the manuscripts from their trembling digits, and plopped them on a bookshelf in a well-established chain of stores. From that point, all the authors had to do was sit back and wait for the positive reviews to roll in — accompanied, naturally, by the monetary rewards that good authors deserve.

Come on, admit it: you’ve harbored this fantasy, too. It’s stunningly pervasive. And that’s fascinating, for in the literary world as we have known it in recent years, authors are routinely expected to promote their own books — and not just by showing up to publisher-arranged signings and interviews. Increasingly, they are their own book publicists.

So I ask you once more: how precisely would you go about it?

Yes, this is a heavy question for the holiday season; I would understand completely if you would prefer to slide it delicately to the back burner while you slipped out for an eggnog latté and a cranberry scone. But on the off chance that some of you haven’t noticed, I’ve devoted my blogging life to talking about the kinds of practical authorial issues that writers often actively avoid examining in serious detail. Or, in many cases, issues that aspiring writers did not know would be, if not crucial, then at least important to their books’ success.

Sensing a vicious circle? Published authors often — indeed, usually — struggle for years or even decades to break into print, then equally often find themselves unprepared to promote their books. Yet due to the pervasive belief in the Publication Fairy, it’s actually quite rare for first-time authors to talk about what they had to do to become so, at least in a forum in which an aspiring writer is likely to hear it. So while they are actually out busting their proverbial humps to sell just a few more volumes to a reading public that — spoiler alert — tends to buy books by authors whose work they already know, their fans frequently receive the impression that those authors’ only contribution to the process involved writing the book in the first place.

A significant achievement, of course: I don’t mean to imply otherwise. But certainly not the only one on a savvy modern author’s r?sum?. And certainly not the only one that would be beneficial for aspiring writers to see discussed.

That’s doubly true for writers considering self-publishing, of course. While their counterparts in the traditional publishing world have entire marketing departments to tell them what to do (and, surprisingly often, to change their titles, a perennial complaint of first-time authors), those brave and resourceful souls taking the adventurous leap into self-publishing often do so without a clear idea of what kind of environment is likely to greet their landing, if you catch my drift.

For all of these reasons, I am delighted to bring you a wide-ranging discussion with self-published author, blogger, and all-around fab guy D. Andrew McChesney, better known around Author! Author! as thoughtful and incisive inveterate commenter Dave. Here’s the blurb for his exciting naval fantasy — yes, you read that book category correctly — Beyond the Ocean’s Edge, available now from Outskirts Press.

Is it possible to sail beyond the ocean’s edge to another world? In 1802, Royal Navy Lieutenant Edward Pierce is ashore on half-pay because of the Peace of Amiens. He fortunately gains command of a vessel searching for a lost, legendary island. When the island is found, Pierce and his shipmates discover that it exists in an entirely different but similar world. Exploring the seas around Stone Island, HMS Island Expedition sails headlong into an arena of mistaken identities, violent naval battles, strange truces, dangerous liaisons, international intrigue, superstition, and ancient prophecies.

Sounds like quite the rollicking ride, does it not? But quick: on which shelf would you expect to find this in a brick-and-mortar bookstore?

Think that’s a stumper? Try this one on for size: how would you go about reaching the naval adventure and/or fantasy fans eager to read such a story — say, via the Internet? Heck, how would you even find out what sites those readers were already visiting? Or what books they were already reading?

Dave generously agreed to allow me to grill him on these points, as well as many other challenges that frequently come as surprises to traditional and self-published authors alike. Nor is this the first time he has offered his hard-earned insights: as I sincerely hope those of you considering sticking an exploratory toe onto the difficult path of self-publishing will recall, I blandished have last year into guest-blogging about the practical and absorbing task of choosing a press. You may also remember his second place entry for adult fiction in 2010’s Great First Page Made Even Better Competition and first place in the essay category of 2009’s Author! Author! Awards for Expressive Excellence. Heck, he even painted the canvas at the top of this post, providing the genre-nailing image for his book’s cover.

He’s paid his dues, in short, and then some. Let’s hear what he has to say, shall we?