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.
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.
It 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.”
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.
What 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.