God's War by Kameron Hurley

In 2011, after much angst and delay, my first novel, God’s War, came out from Night Shade Books. It went on to win the Kitschy Award for Best Debut Novel and was nominated for a Nebula Award as well as a Locus Award for Best First Novel. I earned out my advance in about six months and sealed the deal for the third book in the series not long after that. I’ve also just sold UK and audio rights for all three novels in the series.

Looks like a smashing good success all around when you string it all together like that, doesn’t it? In fact, it looks almost miraculously easy, as if I must have written some kind of exceptional book or something. Now, don’t get me wrong. I love my books. But I also read a lot of other books in 2011 that I thought were a lot better, some of which didn’t make any awards list and many of which are still earning out their (probably substantially larger) advances.

So how did this happen? How does a little book that was rejected at nearly every other publisher as being “unmarketable” and had its first contract cancelled for similar concerns get so much… well – as people kept putting it online – “buzz”?

The real answer is, nobody really knows exactly why some books get talked about and some books don’t. A lot of people will tell you that who you know is what gets you published. And until I went through this process, I’d be the first to tell you that that’s bunk.

What I didn’t realize was that I was about to become one of those “silly punks” myself.

But turns out that once you can actually write a good book, that it does actually matter a good deal who you know and who’s heard of you. Recently, in this post over at Staffer’s Musings regarding the relationship of book bloggers and publishers, God’s War and its marketing came up again in conversation, with an assertion that, hey, you know, it must have been because it was such a good book that it made all these lists.

But there were a LOT of good books that didn’t make these lists. What helped God’s War get noticed? There’s a lot of mysterious stuff that happens among readers with particular books, and I can’t pretend to get that, but what I can do is tell you how I went about trying to get this book noticed, and how a small but passionate bunch of book bloggers, colleagues, and friends helped get this book’s name out in 2011. Is this approach applicable to other books? Sure. If you’re willing to play the game. And accept the fact that what you’re about to launch yourself into is a casino, not a meritocracy.

I realize authors can’t be objective about their work, but God’s War was declared “unmarketable” by every major publisher it went to. Yet when it landed at Night Shade, Jeremy Lassen, my acquiring editor, leapt onto a term I’d posted on my website header: “Bugpunk at its best.” I’d slapped that on my header in a slightly tongue-in-cheek way, because hey, yeah, everything is “punk-this” and “punk-that” these days and this world is powered by insects, so isn’t that funny? Ha ha those silly punks!

What I didn’t realize was that I was about to become one of those “silly punks” myself.

In fact, what “Bugpunk” did was take the first step toward differentiating the book from other books. When it showed up on the press release, I knew I needed to find other ways to speak about the book that were just as accurate and… stand out. What I landed on was “Bugs. Blood. Brutal women.” Those were the three key themes I wanted to return to, the aspects or talking points that I needed to hit in every interview. This was a tale of bugs, blood, and brutal women. It said exactly what the book was about, without giving away too much.

Rapture by Kameron Hurley

Once I had that down, it was time to get that to other people. I can point to just three or four big influencers who helped get the word out to those secondary and tertiary influencers. And I can tell you right now that a couple of those were people I was already acquainted with in real life. I remember going to Clarion back in 2000 and David Hartwell telling us we should go to conventions, and I rolled my eyes and thought, “What on earth am I going to do at a convention?” What I didn’t realize is that what most writers do at conventions is hang out in the bar and get to know each other. It’s pure networking, built around a shared profession and shared geeky interests. Is it a lot of fun? Absolutely. Is it going to be of benefit to you once you have written a book?

Oh, you betcha.

I’ve been blogging since 2004, and got recognized at my first convention as a blogger, not a writer. It was through blogging that I met and/or was known to a lot of folks, including Jeff VanderMeer, who later asked me to guest blog over at his place. Once that series of posts went out, it felt like everyone had heard of me. After I published a few stories in Strange Horizons, I think folks started to think of me more as a writer and less as a blogger, though I still posted regularly and still had a loyal following. My agent actually got the call from the first editor who bought God’s War because she remembered a story of mine I’d published in Strange Horizons – and she also edited Jeff VanderMeer. When that contract fell through, I guest blogged about the experience over at VanderMeer’s website, and that’s when Night Shade contacted my agent and asked to see the novel.

Nothing about my “first novel” experience felt very “first novel” to me because I’d been in this business in a way I considered busting-my-butt-to-professionalism for about a decade. I already knew a lot of writers. And I knew a lot of the pitfalls. I also knew where people went to read about new books.

So when my book was ready to come out, the first thing I did was submit a Big Idea piece over to John Scalzi on his blog, and send an ARC to Niall Harrison over at Strange Horizons, and VanderMeer invited me to guest blog on the Amazon book blog. Then Matt Staggs asked folks to pitch him an interview on his Facebook page, and lo, an interview with me showed up on Suvudu. How did I know Matt Staggs? He’d done PR work for Jeff VanderMeer.

God's War by Kameron HurleyIt wasn’t until the Big Idea piece on Scalzi’s blog – where I stuck to my brutal women and blood bits of the blood, bugs, brutal women trifecta – that the other book bloggers started asking for review copies and interviews. A couple of early bloggers actually ended up “winning” ARCs when I did a giveaway on my website. I say “winning” in quotes because I actually gave away two extra copies than the giveaway was originally toted as to ensure that they got them. Turns out they were directed over from my site by Colleen Lindsay, an online community manager over at Penguin who’s been doing marketing and PR in the book biz for yonks. How did she know about me? She read and followed my blog. I went ahead and knocked out three book trailers as well, all targeted to different types of readers, and started sharing those all over my own networks as well as in my interviews.

In addition to sending out ARC’s to the usual suspects, Night Shade also posted a copy of God’s War on NetGalley and gave away nearly 3,000 copies for a Barnes & Noble free Friday promotion. This happened right after the Scalzi piece, as I recall, which was great because then people who heard about it there could pick it up for free from B&N.

I was also running Facebook ads and Goodreads giveaways at the same time. I gave up Facebook after awhile because they just didn’t get any clicks, but the Goodreads giveaways had hundreds of participants.

I don’t think I really had a grasp on what was happening until October of that year, when I was sitting at a hotel in Orlando with my partner and some stranger came up to him and commented on his shirt. We made small talk, and recommended books to one another. My partner slyly suggested that the stranger check out a book called God’s War, and the woman replied, “Oh yes, I think I’ve heard of that one.”

Rapture by Kameron Hurley

And then there was another friend of mine who told me he went on a blind date, and told his date he really enjoyed this book called God’s War and his date said, excitedly, “Oh yes, by Kameron Hurley!”

Clearly, people had heard about this book. Which… wow. That’s half the battle, right there.

But after some early love from i09, Locus, Publisher’s Weekly, and a really passionate bunch of book bloggers, things died down for awhile. I figured this was the “long tail” of book sales, and things were about done.

Then, early in 2012, things really started to snowball, because that’s when Niall Harrison of Strange Horizons finally read (and actually enjoyed!) his ARC of God’s War and began talking about it on twitter. (CORRECTION: Niall just informed me that he read the book in May 2011, so my memory is really off with this one. This would have to be “mid-2011″ as opposed to “early 2012.” It was a wild year, and I apologize for my faulty memory). The excitement the book generated among Niall’s followers was contagious, and more reviews started showing up all over the place –NYRSF, Tor.com, EscapePod, Strange Horizons and people’s book club lists. I think it was even mentioned in a blurb that went out from the Science Fiction Bookclub at some point. And let’s not forget the podcasts. Oh, thank the book gods for the awesome podcasters.

Bugs. Blood. Brutal women.

I’d always thought the book would do better in the UK than the US – it’s dark and weird and all that – and so when I heard I was nominated for a Kitschy Award, I desperately hoped the attention would help open the book up to folks over there.

I did not, however, expect to win…

So, yeah. Surprise there.

I remember that the day before I got the call about the Nebula nomination, a really great writer had just emailed me to say she’d nominated me, and I nearly emailed back, “Ha! Well, at least I’ll know where my one vote came from!”

I had vastly underestimated, I think, how many people in the field not only knew of me and/or the book, but who had actually read it.

Bugs. Blood. Brutal women.

My goal all along was to try and get this book to the people who would really love it. The ones who’d be passionate about it the way I was, and share that passion with others. I think what often makes marketing your book so terrifying is that you often don’t really know who those people are. So you just go to the places that you go – Scalzi’s blog, Suvudu, i09, Goodreads. And then there are the podcasts, the forums, and the folks on Twitter who you follow, not to mention other friends and colleagues.

At some point, God’s War reached some kind of critical mass, to the point that even if you hadn’t read the book, if you ran in SFF circles you’d probably heard of it. This was a combination of giving away a lot of free copies up front in the form of ARCs, giveaways, and the B&N Free Friday and just the general love and enthusiasm readers and established book bloggers had for the book. Basically, if you wanted to get a copy of this book, no matter where you were, it was pretty easy to get. For folks overseas, the $6 DRM free ecopy was an easy buy. I’m a big fan of cheap and/or free copies of first novels.

All I need to do is write some magical book and the book fairies will come down and ensure my success!”

But let’s not kid ourselves, here: it sure didn’t hurt that a lot of people already knew my name from my blogging and guest blogging days. Or that they’d seen me at Wiscon. Or read a short story in Strange Horizons. Or followed me on Twitter.

There’s something VanderMeer once said in a blog post, and, I’m paraphrasing here, about how this business is really rough, and not everybody makes it. What that means is that year after year, the ones who are still around, even if they may not like each other, do end up having a mutual respect for one another, the sort of respect you have for people you’ve been on some long, agonizing, dangerous journey with.

I do look up sometimes, and I think back to who I was twelve years ago at Clarion, or eight years ago when I started blogging, and I have a particular fondness for those folks I’ve corresponded with and followed and read during that time who are still around. We’ve watched each other go through the crap, and keep on slogging. I want to support these people in any way I can, even though I haven’t really met any of them formally and even though I’m terrible at forming true friendships.

Infidel by Kameron HurleyWhat I didn’t realize until God’s War came out was that I think there are a lot more people who know of and support me than I ever realized. Oh, sure, it doesn’t hurt if you write a book that’s all Blood! Bugs! And Brutal Women! but it’s just as important to ensure that people know it’s out there. That people know you’re out there, and you’re not going away.

It’s easy to look at that first paragraph I wrote of this post and say, “Oh, that writer must have written some amazing book destined for success! All I need to do is write some magical book and the book fairies will come down and ensure my success!”

In fact, this business is more complicated than that. It’s not a meritocracy where only the good, perfect stuff gets read. It’s more like a casino where you know some of the dealers, maybe, or you once had a drink in the same room as the casino owner. You may still double down on the wrong number on the roulette wheel, or try and bluff the wrong hand, but if you’re lucky – oh so very lucky – the owner might recognize you, and comp your suite for the night, or the dealer might be a buddy who cuts you off before you make a fool of yourself. Stranger things have happened.

Finally, I’d also like to put things in perspective. “Success” is a weirdly relative term, because after all those reviews, all that passion, all the buzz and chatter and the increasingly crazy awards season: God’s War has sold, as of last week, just 7,424 copies.

Passion and buzz are relative. It depends where you’re sitting, and what circles you run in. I’m still shocked and amazed, sometimes, when people tell me they’ve heard of my book, or when somebody tells me they found a copy at a used bookstore in Rome. Some part of me thinks it’s still some small, intimate thing after all this time. And maybe, in an elite club of under 10,000 folks, that’s still sort of true.

It might be a casino, but it’s our casino, and we all sure do like playing here.

*Nancy Kress tweeted this quote, attributed to Daniel Abraham, in a different context, “Publishing isn’t a meritocracy. It’s a casino. You need to have a lot of chips in play.” I agree with this statement as well.

Written by Kameron Hurley

Kameron Hurley

Kameron Hurley is the author of The Mirror Empire, as well as the award-winning God’s War Trilogy, comprising the books God's War, Infidel, and Rapture. She has won the Hugo Award, Kitschy Award, and Sydney J. Bounds Award for Best Newcomer. Hurley has also been a finalist for the Arthur C. Clarke Award, Nebula Award, the Locus Award, BFS Award, and the BSFA Award for Best Novel. Her short fiction has appeared in Lightspeed Magazine, Year's Best SF, EscapePod, The Lowest Heaven, and the upcoming Mammoth Book of SF Stories by Women.

http://kameronhurley.com     @kameronhurley

Discussion
  • Kai in NYC June 25, 2012 at 3:10 am

    Ha ha: I was your friend’s date! Thanks for the reminder to move “God’s War” into my Amazon cart…

  • DD Cross June 25, 2012 at 4:08 am

    Nice.

  • Paul (@princejvstin) June 25, 2012 at 4:19 am

    Hi Kameron, and thank you.

    I do think that there is an enormous amount of luck and chance in the publishing business.

    And the dirty secret is? There always *has* been? I can tell you of many novels by promising authors I’ve read, which did not catch fire, and so the novels, and the author themselves, have disappeared, never to be seen again. (Or sometimes, resurface under a pseudonym, but not always).

    It’s a crooked game, too, but if you don’t bet you can’t win. (h/t to Sarah Hoyt).

    There is also an “outsize” effect. People who don’t read your book can hear about it, and your influence can far outstrip the 7424 (that’s IT?) copies you sell. But that, too, is luck. Even the most social author can fail at getting word of her book out there.

    I watched a poker game this weekend between Steven Brust and Ellen Klages. Ellen was the better player, that much was clear.

    But Steve won. Because he was lucky and the right card came along at the right time.

    Not fair, but that’s poker. And publishing. And life.

  • Mark Lawrence June 25, 2012 at 4:58 am

    I would largely agree that success in this business is a matter of luck rather than merit. You need to write with some measure of skill, but how high over that hurdle your talent lifts you is not the biggest determining factor in your success.

    However, on the ‘who you know’ front … not so much. Knowing the ‘top’ people in the casino doesn’t help you win at roulette, and I liked the casino analogy.

    I’ve been helped enormously by the positive reports of bloggers – but I know hardly any of them, I’ve never been to a convention, and at the time they helped create a buzz for me I didn’t even own a twitter account.

    I will concede that after getting signed I do by default ‘know’ a couple of very ‘right’ people – i.e. the editors at the publishers who signed me. They get my book on bookshelves. In my observation it seems that the number of shelves your book gets itself on is a huge factor in success. The largest though, surely has to be what fraction of people who read your book take the trouble to recommend it to a friend.

    I’ve seen some authors who are clearly the darlings of the magazine/short literature circuit and regulars at conventions, and I’m sure it helps them get the word out – but it’s not _required_ bloggers will support books they like without needing to be glad-handed or have their online egos tickled. I’m very pleased about that, cos I’m not good at that stuff.

    So yes – casino. Yes, networking helps, it’s not essential though.

    Also, as you point out, the noise made online is often not a good reflection of the action in bookshops. Many books overlooked by the few hundred regulars at forums and blogs are busy selling by the 10’s of thousands to Joe Public. Many books constantly discussed in online threads are minority tastes and sell poorly.

    It’s a complicated old business driven by highly non-linear dynamics that are hard to predict and hard to understand. I’m glad I don’t have to bet my money on which books will make $$$.

  • Justin June 25, 2012 at 5:15 am

    Great post, Kameron.

    One of the points I think might be missing is that your blogging, your networking, your meeting with VanderMeer… none of that is luck. That’s you being smart. There is an aspect of who you know, but who you know… or better said, who you take the time to get to know… isn’t a fluke. You worked for those connections, and the quality of your work and personality have allowed them to flourish.

    Calling that luck, or a fluke, or a chance of fate, is greatly selling yourself short.

  • Mishell Baker June 25, 2012 at 5:46 am

    I think “casino” may be overstating the case. There is often some luck involved, but it’s not luck that makes people “buzz” about a book. I never buy anything because of what an author says about his/her own book. I buy it because of what my friends say on Twitter, or what relatively unbiased 3rd-party reviewers say (I also tend to discount interviews on blogs that are obviously chats between pals). I would venture to say that the only self-promotion that really matters is getting your book into the hands of people who do not already love you. If the book lights them on fire, that isn’t luck. It means you have written something good. Your own story seems to suggest that you are mystified by the sudden explosion of success after you’d stopped actively marketing. Your book didn’t stop. Your book marketed itself by being good. That’s not luck. That’s hard work and talent (and the fact that you were smart enough to give copies of the book away to prove that it was good).

    Knowing people can smooth the process and give you confidence, and it can often help in “getting the name out there.” But most people don’t buy books because the name is familiar; they buy the book because someone they trust has said, “You have to read this.” Or because it has won an award (which amounts to the same thing).

    “Meritocracy” doesn’t work because a book can be popular and sell well without some people ever admitting to it having any merit. But “casino” definitely doesn’t work either, because in a casino everyone is playing with the same chips. You have obviously written something special, though your modesty seems to prevent you from admitting it!

  • Kameron Hurley June 25, 2012 at 6:23 am

    I guess what I’m saying is: when you’re a first-time novelist, every little bit counts on getting the word out. You can write the best book in the world, but if nobody has heard about it, nobody is going to read it.

    And none of this happens in a vacuum or comes out of nowhere. When people tell me, “You just wrote a good book!” it ignores all the stuff that happened behind the scenes. If I’d just written a good book but didn’t do any interviews or guest posts and didn’t tell anybody I knew about it, would anyone have bought it? Would it have been shared as much if nobody had been following my blog for years and was already interested in reading my first novel?

    I don’t know. There are books with bigger marketing budgets that sell more copies. But I didn’t have a marketing budget. I had a blog. :)

  • Daniel Abraham June 25, 2012 at 12:29 pm

    I actually used the line in a presentation at Taos Toolbox about how to succeed as a writer. There were five points that I made and the meritocracy/casino thing came under the fifth point (“Be persistent”). The first point was “Be good.” It always bends the chances in your favor when you do good work. :)

  • Nathaniel Katz June 25, 2012 at 12:52 pm

    The casino does seem like a very good analogy for publishing and one that applies to my own (far more meager) experiences with short stories and the like. Also, the post reminded me that I have a copy of God’s War from a week or two back when the number of trusted reviewers and readers loving it got too much to ignore. I think I’ll read it next and see the winning hand.

  • Michael Sulivan June 25, 2012 at 3:10 pm

    Hmmm….I see something totally different. Your post seems to imply that it’s a matter of “luck” or “merit.” But my take on your success was…”elbow grease.” I hate the whole “it’s luck” argument – and actually posted on this recently because it removes any responsibility (for good or ill). But the secret to success to me seems pretty straight forward:

    1. Write a good book (and by good I mean a book that people like so much that they want to buy others from you and will tell their friends and family to read it).

    2. Pound the pavement getting it in front of people: bloggers, people on goodreads, those that post on fantasy forums.

    3. Once you get enough of #2 then the magical fairy dust of “word-of-mouth” takes over and the word starts to spread. – At that point your responsibility is to write more books and keep your quality level high so as to not break the trust of the people who are now acting as your evangelists.

  • Kameron Hurley June 25, 2012 at 3:42 pm

    Daniel – Yay context! I saw that tweet and thought, “That is BRILLIANT.” In this case, I think I’m imagining a scenerio where everybody who’s playing at this particular casino is already good? And once you reach a certain level of skill, well, it doesn’t hurt to have people around who can give you pointers and introduce you to folks who can loan you money and are ready to send you to bed when you’ve overspent yourself…

  • Daniel Abraham June 25, 2012 at 4:05 pm

    Michael: “The harder I work, the luckier I get.” — Samuel Goldwyn

    Kameron: Being good helps. Being on time helps. Having a reputation for being pleasant to work with helps. But even then, good writers fail and bad ones catch the wind. Seems to me that success can’t be earned so much as prepared for.

  • DD Cross June 26, 2012 at 4:19 am

    That worked for Samuel Goldwyn, but the expression: “I’ve worked like a schmo all of my life and I’ve got nothing to show for it,” works too. You can work hard, or you can work smart. Chasing nickels to pick up pennies, and extolling the virtues of “nicey nice” co-working isn’t realistic. If you want to make bank from your work it’s going to take a lot more than waxing poetic, and hanging onto the notion your writing is a bright light waiting to be switched on you’ll need some serious reading material in the waiting room. It ain’t who you’re sweet too, so much as who you know. Publishing is neither a casino, or a meritocracy it’s a stacked deck where even the crummiest manuscript, in the right hands, pays off, and the brilliant narrative remains dormant in some slush pile because the folks who pull the strings will never see it. And you better have at least a couple follow ups to that book if it DOES break out.

  • Aaron Rosenberg June 26, 2012 at 6:52 am

    Well put, Kameron. And well done, as well. :)

    And I would say that, yes, it’s a casino with a minimum bet, or a drinking age, or whatever other qualifier you like that can translate to “everyone playing is at least a decent writer.”

    Daniel, I agree with you. There’s definitely a combination of getting lucky breaks and working hard/being prepared to capitalize on them properly. Plenty of people get a break but don’t take advantage of it properly, while others carve out at least some measure of success for themselves with little to no luck at all–but when you’re prepared and that opportunity comes along, that’s when things can really take off.

  • Cerece Rennie Murphy June 28, 2012 at 6:40 am

    Thank you for this post. As someone who is just starting out in this business, Kameron’s guest post, plus all the comments are so helpful. I am preparing to self-publish my first sci-fi novel in September and I am working hard to be prepared, but it always feels like it’s never enough. This post just added a few more items to my things to do list and I’m mostly grateful for that. :-)

  • […] “Publishing isn’t a Meritocracy, it’s a Casino*” by Kameron Hurley […]

  • Miro August 12, 2013 at 9:34 am

    A good book will be read, and it will receive some honest good customer reviews that actually look legit. If a book is so good that out of your first 200 copies, one in 5 will want to review it, it will get good positioning in online stores based on its high rating and number of reviews, so it will start selling and find an audience. It will succeed far beyond the 5,000 copies friends and luck will get you.

  • […] editor, art director, and person. Nothing in this article is intended to discredit his ability. Publishing is a casino, as Kameron Hurley’s coined phrase goes. Sometimes things just come up snake eyes. However, […]

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