By Sean Platt
Of course authors want to sell books. Unfortunately — even though the advice is long in the tooth — doing so isn’t as simple as “write what you want and readers will find you.”
Too often, conventional writing advice will suggest that writers simply follow their muse, to write from their hearts and wait for the readers to come. But most authors who have been writing for a while know the folly of blindly following that advice.
You have to write for readers first if you expect commercial success.
And yet, the opposite advice, that you should only write for the crowds and never with your passion, is potentially even worse.
Sterling & Stone, the publishing company I run with my two storytelling partners, David W. Wright and Johnny B. Truant, has published more than five-million words in just over three years. And in that time we’ve become rather intimate with both sides of the argument.
Most recently at Realm & Sands, Sterling & Stone’s genre agnostic imprint, we’ve been working on a project that we nicknamed “The Beyonce,” because contrary to the way we normally promote our books — discussing them at length on our weekly Self-Publishing Podcast — this one was a secret until launch day.
Why would we do this?
Because we wanted to see if we could write a commercial book, where the promotional heavy lifting was done by the title, cover, and genre. We’ll get to how we did that in a moment. First, a word about optimization.
How to Get Better With Every Book You Write (Always Be Optimizing)
We’ve never done anything like this before. If anything, we’re accused of discussing our internal projects on the podcast too much. But that’s what we do, and the nature of our business: We build stuff and we talk about it, and the podcast is the best the mechanism for that.
From the ground up, this was an entirely different project.
As we always say on the podcast, “this isn’t advice.” The three of us tend to do things our own way, and generally speaking, just writing something and releasing it with zero fanfare is probably the wrong move for most authors. But it was an experiment we absolutely wanted to try, and frankly long overdue because, well, in the last few years, we’ve marched to the beat of our own drum without pause.
At Sterling & Stone, we always follow our own muses, placing creative drive before sales 100% of the time.
At The Collective Inkwell, our horror/sci-fi imprint, David and I published Yesterday’s Gone — a fantastic series, but one that no publisher in their right mind would ever have published due to its then unheard of serial nature.
But we didn’t let that stop us. We told the story we wanted to tell, in exactly the way we wanted to tell it. Yes, that ended up working well for us, but it was miles from a guarantee.
As much as the three of us see ourselves as author entrepreneurs and businessmen, we also consider ourselves artists, and won’t allow sales to ever dictate prime directive. Each of our six imprints has a golden rule to follow:
- Collective Inkwell is mostly those stories that Dave is most driven to tell.
- Realm & Sands books are born from the questions that Johnny and I want to answer through story.
- Guy Incognito (our children’s line) is made up of stories we’d want to share with our children.
- LOL are stories are designed to make us laugh out loud (well, not Dave … he hates everything).
- Lexi Maxxwell (our adult line) stories are filtered through a sexualized world view.
- The Smarter Artist (our nonfiction line for writers) books always start with the question, “what will help our audience if author entrepreneurs most?”
Sales have always been a secondary consideration, especially during these last three years of our company’s infancy, when we’re trying to establish ourselves as storytellers and constantly sharpen our craft. But another Sterling & Stone truth is that we’ll never sit still, and are always trying to improve what we do.
Every year we piggyback off our prior year’s accomplishments so we can constantly leapfrog ahead. This means iterative growth and constant optimization.
Even if we put stories before numbers, we’re constantly tweaking our catalogue to drive sales and goose revenue across every imprint. The quality of our catalogue has always been more instrumental to our long term goals than any temporary ranking, but optimizing our published titles (with better covers, product descriptions, and keywords) is part of our overall formula.
But this time we asked ourselves, could we optimize a book before it was written?
Can You Engineer a Bestseller?
We started our year with that question. At first we thought that yes, we could do that, but only if we banished our muse to the back seat. But that thought was so counter to the way we’ve run our business for the last three years that it was difficult to support the idea … until we figured it out.
We finally realized that we could serve both masters simply enough by picking a really popular genre where we’d be thrilled to write anyway, then tweak our style to neatly fit in that genre.
In the case of our “Beyonce,” that book was Invasion, the genre was “alien invasion,” and the writing style was “page turner.”
This was a straightforward project for Realm & Sands. We love genre hopping, and the idea of writing an alien invasion story sounded like tremendous fun. We feed ourselves creatively by trying different writing styles and had yet to pen a true page-turner.
Strong Fences Make Great Art
We’ve always believed that strong fences make great art, and you’ll see that aesthetic in almost everything we touch. Unicorn Western was born from a joke; The Dream Engine was written in 30 days while 1,000 people watched us conceive then articulate the story; Axis of Aaron is based on a book cover we purchased before its conception; Invasion is a tightly plotted page turner, written in a popular genre.
We made the restrictions part of our art, and as usual, our art prospered as a result.
Invasion is great. It ticks all the genre boxes. It does everything a book like that is supposed to do. It keeps readers tearing through the pages pages (the most common early response has been “DAMN YOU! I DIDN’T SLEEP FOR TWO DAYS!!), and the title should grab a lot of eyeballs because it’s in a genre where people are constantly searching for something new to read.
Commercially, Invasion does everything it’s supposed to do. And more importantly, it satisfied us creatively.
Get Your Muse and Your Goals Working Together
We wanted to optimize our sales for Invasion, and in this case we wanted to do it before we wrote it, but we were never willing to sacrifice our creative drive.
As an author, that’s the biggest thing you owe to yourself and to your readers. I don’t believe that you should ever sit around and wait for your muse to strike. Writing is a job, and if you expect great things to happen then you need sit down and do the work. But I also believe that you have to write what excites you.
If you’re sitting at your desk for four hours straight and can only mange to peck out a few hundred words, you’re probably writing the wrong thing.
The best way to be a commercially successful author is to write what people want to read. But you must also write well, and reasonably fast if you want to stay top of mind. That probably means writing what makes you happy.
At Sterling & Stone, we’ve tended to treat ourselves as the ideal reader. Creatively that’s worked, but commercially it’s required more of our time to optimize everything to get our catalogue working together.
Our optimization approach will be an interesting experiment to follow. We can’t wait to see how it unfolds. Two months ago when we started this project we asked ourselves how we could silence our muse to sell more books. The answer?
We didn’t. We got them working together instead.
Sean Platt is the founder of the Sterling & Stone Story Studio. Together with David W. Wright and Johnny B. Truant, he’s published more than five-million words. Find out more at http://sterlingandstone.net, or follow him on twitter at http://twitter.com/seanplatt