Posted Feb 27, 2008
Last Updated Apr 6, 2008
    This is an email I sent to some friends and kinfolk.  It was inspired by a blog by novelist David Louis Edelman, and it deals with "book flogging."  Which is to say promotion.  Sometimes used pejoratively.

    As an author, and spreader of ideas, viewpoints, and unavoidably values, I love to be read, and to have an impact on people's viewpoints.  And to be read requires that people know about my books.
    So.  What's to know?  First, we live in a world of variability, of preferences and choices, with some of those preferences and choices more widely attractive than others. 

    Which leads to the question, what sells?

    But "what sells" isn't the only question — not even the key question — because many kinds of things sell.  There are sizable markets for books on darn near everything.  The real problem is to connect with your intended readers.  Some readers want to be thrilled.  Others prefer scared.  Some want romance, or  excitement, spirituality, religiosity, mysteries,  futurism...and still others scenes of the past, realistic or not... The variety goes well beyond what is reflected in the shelving in bookstores. 
    Some readers like maximum intensity, others subtlety, or wit, or grimness and cruelty; or love, or kindness, even self-sacrifice...commonly in different mixes.  (Most of mine are spiced with action, adventure, and ideas.)  And even these have different flavors, different herbs and spices.  Bookstores can't possibly sort all that out for us, so as readers we watch for certain authors who have pleased us, or in whom reports have enticed our curiosity.  

    The trick, then, is to get on enough of those mental lists readers create.  

    My first novel, The Yngling,  was more sword and sorcery than science fiction, but it had an SF feel, so in 1969 it was serialized by the leading SF magazine, Analog, and got an exceptionally high reader rating.  (It spawned three others, plus a collection.  Since then, scattered amongst my more strictly SF novels, I've sold a detective novel, The Puppetmaster, and an American political novel, The General's President, both to an established SF publisher with a top-flight distributor.  And both, in the bookstores, were shelved as SF.  
    How come SF?  First they had SF elements, or Baen wouldn't have bought them, but those SF elements were more or less incidental.  On the other hand, more than a few books shelved as "mystery" and "mainstream" — and especially spy thrillers! — also have SF elements.  Even feature them!  But since all of my published novels have been marketed as SF, readers who react favorably, when they see my name on a book, are browsing the SF shelves. 
    Summarizing: within the shelving categories lie a number of subclasses unaddressed by shelving.  And those subclasses have different flavors.  Not even electronic bookstores can sort all that out.  So within the shelving categories, they shelve alphabetically by author names.  Shoppers in turn tend to scan — say the SF shelves, for author names they have in their mental list.  "Oh!  Another Patty Briggs novel!" (Another N.Y. Times best seller,  incidentally! ).  A hand reaches, extracts the book.  The shopper may or may not trouble to read the jacket blurb, or the teaser page (just inside the front cover), may simply pop it into her or his shopping basket.  Life is good!  

I'm a Patty Briggs fan, incidentally.  (Metaphorically waves at Patty in far-off Montana.)  

    (Have you noticed I like to use parentheses?  At least in emails and blogs.  They are a useful form of punctuation inadequately recognized in textbooks, so far as I'm aware.)

    The trick is to get on the shoppers' mental lists of favored authors.  (That's what this article is mainly about.)  It involves first getting published, preferably by an established commercial publisher, then continuing to write.
    Actually I've never tried to "write for the market" (though there are good reasons for doing that).  Nor have I worried about the conventional wisdom on "how writing should (or must!) be done."  The conventional wisdom is valuable food for thought, but it comes from human viewpoints, colored by all sorts of factors, and deserves evaluation.  It was not handed to Moses on Mount Sinai.
    So I write on impulse, sometimes schooning along joyously, sometimes darting around mentally like a weasel in a rock pile, looking for just the right word, the right concept.  (This can sometimes require sleeping on the matter.)
    In fact, I start out with the assumption that under that big bell-curve in the sky are enough people who'll discover and like what I write, that my books will be worth a publisher's investment.  (That's right.  The publisher depends on people buying his books!)  So far I've seen 27 of my novels published — out of 29 written.  My second novel (the only one that failed to find a publisher) was The Metamorphosis of the Virgins, a period piece set in the 1940s.  In writing it, I mined the experiences of farms and logging woods, steamships, hiring halls, and waterfronts.  My agent at the time, the late great Scott Meredith, told me it was the best novel he'd ever failed to sell.  (That was in 1974 or thereabouts.  I  still feel  complimented.) Virgins was followed by 26 straight that were commercially published, a goodly run.  My recently completed 29th novel, The Signature of God, is currently with an experienced and respected agent who seems pleased with it.  Its prospects are therefore good, but we'll see how it flies.  I believe well.

    (Recently my 1987 novel, The Regiment [the first in a series of five], has captured the fancy of two Hollywood writers, who are contemplating an animation script and a live action script, envisioned as leading to a series.  Having spent several years in Hollywood, I am pleased but not all aflutter.  When I was there, the hearsay was that for every film produced, 40 stories were optioned.  And that three were produced for every one that was actually distributed to theaters.  [We're talking a ratio of 1:120.  Howja like them odds?]  I suspect those ratios were educated guesses, but not far wrong.)

    (As far as that's concerned, how many novels are written for every one that achieves substantial bookstore distribution?)  

    Now, back to the crux of this piece.  Once published, a novel, to be very satisfying to the author, has to be read by lots of people.  Thousands at least.  And now I'll let you in on how that happens.   ("Shhh."  Peers around  furtively, then whispers:)  Big sellers start with word of mouth.  ("Mouth" being figurative; it includes the keyboard and the internet.)  Recently, David Louis Edelman wrote a dandy blog on how to boost sales by your favorite author.  Check it out at


Most of it I'd heard or read before, but he laid it out in an organized way, and inspired me to rethink the subject.  Then I created my own, boiled-down list.  

    One thing David didn't include, perhaps because it  seems self evident, is: the novel has to be something a lot of people would buy, for whatever reasons.  

    Anyway here's what I came up with:


Buy the author's books, one of them at least

Read that or those book(s), at the library if need be

Tell your circle of friends and acquaintances about the author's books.  (Unless you didn't much like them, in which case mum's the word)

    If you like it or them enough, and if you're comfortable doing that sort of thing, use social networking tools, like Digg, Stumbleupon, My Space, LibraryThing...  (Thanks for the tip, David.  I'm still internet challenged, but I'm learning.)

    Write a positive, honest Amazon review.  Amazon is where people tend to go for reviews.  

Suggest the author's books to your reading circle or book club


pester people to read them,

or special order the author's books and then not buy them

Thanks for your attention

John Dalmas