THE Secret Handshake of Successful Digital Publishing

You’ve been to all the blogs.  Read all the books.  Gone to conferences.  Heard the gurus.  Tweeted.  Facebooked. Blogged.  Pinterested.  Consulted your spiritual adviser.  Paid a psychic.  Sacrificed a goat.  Hit a gopher with a stick.

And none of it has really worked.

John Locke wrote a book on how it works.  Joe Konrath has a very popular blog on how it works:  The Newbie’s Guide to Publishing and has a free download written with Barry Eisler giving a lot of great information.  Heck, Jen Talty and I’ve written a book on how it works: The ShelfLess Book:  The Complete Digital Author.  But knowing how it works, doesn’t necessarily equate to it actually working.  It’s like knowing how to perform brain surgery via a YouTube video and actually performing it.  And having the patient not only survive, but thrive.

Okay, that last one was a bit much.  But you get the idea.

As I was sacrificing my latest goat to the Gods of Publishing (called readers, not agent, editor, publisher, bookstore), I was ruminating on this matter.  I was trying to boil it, the same time as the goat, down to ONE THING. How did I go from a couple of hundred eBooks sold in January 2011 to over 400,000 sold in the year and grossing seven figures?  While there was a big stew of ingredients (goat, chickens, gophers, a newt eye), what was the key ingredient?

What was The Secret Handshake?

Okay, get the kiddies out of the room.  Close the doors.  Pull the shades.  I’m going to let you in on it.

The secret is:


Part of it came to me reading this excerpt from the NY Times titles is “Is Lana Del Rey the Future of Pop Stardom?”

I have no clue who Lana Del Rey is.  Still no idea except having read this article about her.

6 “gurus” gave their take on her success and potential for future success.  It seems like all six are saying different things:

  1. Online fame is the only sure bet
  2. It’s about discovery
  3. Don’t believe the hype
  4. Fans, not videos make a star
  5. The hunger for new content
  6. The complete package

But if you read carefully, you’ll see they’re all saying the same thing.  For this singer, who I’ve never heard of and have no clue who she is, to hang around and be successful long term, she needs CONTENT.

I was watching an interview with Chris Rock.  He said after his stint on SNL he was kind of washed up.  No one wanted him.  He felt the pressure to do shorter bits so he could get a special, but it wasn’t what felt right to him.  He did a bunch of things, but they are all related to content:

He went with longer shows when everyone else was going shorter because it’s what he believed in.  (Don’t follow trends, do what is your passion)

He ‘trained’ for his shows like a prize-fighter.  Literally.  Locking himself away for two months, working his material (he worked on his craft).

The real stunner was when he said he tested his material in the toughest place he could find:  West Palm Beach.  He figured if he could do his show in front of that audience and it worked, he could do it anywhere.  He said it was like training underwater, and then performing above water later.  My wife said:  that’s why everyone goes to Colorado to train at altitude.  It’s harder.  It makes you better.

I mention this because I see swarms of writers focusing on tweeting, blogging, promoting, etc, but I’m seeing less and less focus on content.  Our online workshops on promoting and marketing sell out, but less people sign up for the ones on craft.  That’s backward.

Three years from now, the only people making a living writing are going to be the ones who keep producing quality content not the ones who tweet, blog, Facebook, Pinterest, hit a gopher with a stick. That isn’t to say that no promotion is required, but its not the main ingredient in successful digital publishing.

While discoverability is key in digital publishing, sustainability trumps it.  And sustainability comes from consistent, great content that your readers love.

And our bestselling author from Australia, Colin Falconer is one of Five Compelling Reads from Authors You Need To Know this week on Nook, so check out Venom.

Write It Forward

About Bob Mayer

Bob Mayer is a NY Times Bestselling author, graduate of West Point, former Green Beret (including commanding an A-Team) and the feeder of two Yellow Labs, most famously Cool Gus. He's had over 60 books published including the #1 series Area 51, Atlantis and The Green Berets. Born in the Bronx, having traveled the world (usually not tourist spots), he now lives peacefully with his wife, and said labs, at Write on the River, TN.

Posted on March 6, 2012, in Write It forward and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 51 Comments.

  1. Thanks for this. I’m going to a writer’s conference in a few weeks. I’ll let everyone else attend the standing-room-only presentations on promotion. I’ll be in the front row at all the presentations about craft.

  2. Yes, thanks for this. It’s amazing how completely lost this is in a lot of the hoopla and hand-waving you see around the indie publishing culture. I think you’re dead right, in the long run, for those who want long-term careers, content is all that’s really going to matter.

  3. Bob, Congratulations on your success. Appreciate the affirmation to keep my head in the story.

  4. Gideon Jagged

    Reblogged this on Alchemy of the Word and commented:
    The only way to make a hit is to write well. “Nothing survives except brillian execution.”. The words I live by.

  5. well stated bob, content matters…. no doubt out “promo” work and our “content” work can
    get out of balance, sustainability matters


  6. Yes, content is what makes me, as a reader, buy another book from an author. And content means great storytelling + good writing. I find myself searching the inside of a book or downloading sample chapters before I buy now. There are too many people self publishing that have bypassed learning the writing craft. Thanks for reminding people to study the craft of writing.

  7. Author Kristen Lamb

    You know I totally agree about content and that is why I promote your books and workshops as much as I can and at every opportunity. Yet, I think what we are seeing with writers is the same transition we saw with soldiers. They had to be faster, better and smarter than any previous generation. They had to learn to use technology and harness critical thinking skills. The soldier in today’s Army is extraordinarily educated and cross-trained. Modern warfare demands it.

    Writers are the same. Show me a writer who focuses on the book and does no social media platform-building and I will show you an invisible writer (no matter how good the book). This is a writer that is leaving a heck of a lot of her career to chance and they great Fates that her book will be in the right spot at the right time with the correct alignment of stars. To go indie with no platform is just…suicide.

    Show me a writer who does nothing but promote one book to death and I’ll show you a tarred-and-feathered writer everyone ignores and who eventually burns out and fades away.

    The learning curve for the modern writer is steep, especially for the newbies. Most indies don’t publish with a back list of 40 vetted titles and so they are going to have to work harder. Sweat equity and understanding how to effectively be an author entrepreneur are key. Amanda Hocking, H.P. Mallory and John Locke worked all of it. They wrote a lot of books and worked the business end.

    So content these days also includes the author. Thanks for the post and I won’t tell PETA about your goat-slaying ;).

  8. Ok. The real secret is me. I’m KIDDING! Content will always be King. Your content is your product. Make a quality product, that people want….It is all about content. You can tweet until the birds sing, but it all comes back to content. Without it, what do we have? Now to go put this on Google+…

  9. I think marketing workshops sell out over craft workshops because there are thousands of craft books to choose from, and craft hasn’t changed that much over the years. What people ignore in the whole craft vs. marketing debate is the power of the single hit (viral) idea.

    Whether you’re a skilled writer with a prestigious MFA or some hack banging out pages on an ancient laptop (I am the latter!), even if your books are of consistent quality, only a few will “take off.”

    For my new series, Poke, I imagined a paranormal power that works when someone puts their finger in the main character’s belly button. My friends said it was too weird, but I knew it was exactly the kind of risk I wanted to take. Heck, I LOVE the idea, and that’s reason enough, even if I didn’t think it had “take off” potential. I’ve had a few people post reviews saying they don’t like how the power works, even that it’s gross. What do I think? YAY! Someone had SOME sort of reaction to my concept.

    My Poke books may not take off, but I will keep taking risks with my content and producing as much as I can (with love).

  10. You mean I have to write another book?
    I agree agree agree with you, Bob, as always. Great information,
    thank you.

  11. I had a conversation with a friend who wailed “look where you are after only a year!” And then I had to remind her that it just looks like I started a year ago. It’s easy to forget those years of writing, rejection, and frustration.

    Indie publishing is new, but writing is not, and I think that it’s hard for an indie author to figure out what leads to success, when at first glance, it looks like everyone just started and the playing field is level. But there is a huge difference between an author with a backlist (whether that backlist was traditionally published or never saw the light of day) and an author who’s just finished her first book. Both might have put up that first book in January of 2011, but the author with the backlist can just keep working through his/her stuff, putting up more and more content, while the other author actually has to write more books.

    Whether indie or traditionally published–or both–it’s all about persistence. And more content.

  12. Thanks for the reminder- but I still might go out and get a goat.

  13. I’ve been taking craft classes and writing for seven years now. I’m still writing. Thanks, Bob, for the reminder that the work is Job One. Everything else is just details.

  14. Great post, Bob! I totally agree with everything you said. I gave a workshop on self-publishing this past weekend, and number 1 on my hand out was “Write a great book. And then write another. Repeat.” They asked about the role luck has played for me. I said that while I’ve definitely had some lucky breaks thanks to forces outside my control (such as retailer promotions and publishers offering earlier books for free, etc.), where I’ve really had a lucky break is that I write books that readers seem to like. My task now is to keep writing books that readers like so I can remain a very lucky, very happy self-employed author. My 20th book hit the e-shelves today, the 12th to be self-published. It’s still a thrill to see a new book moving into the hands of readers.

  15. As always Bob, you are compelling! I found this post insightful, because the more I get involved in the online writing community the more it takes up my time. I’m trying to do my best to gather online presence and momentum by ‘turning up’ for these discussions. But somehow I have to also find a balance in all these things. I remember you saying during the Warrior Writer course last year that you divide your time 50/50 between marketing and writing, and I’ve kept that idea at the forefront of my mind. It is still my goal and yet, I seldom achieve it in actuality. This year so far it’s looked a lot more like 70/30. So I’m struggling to keep the writing side up.

  16. For a while, I was spending too much time on social media and not near enough time writing. I reached a point where I was completely burnt out. I’ve reversed my efforts and it feels so much better. I’m also relieved to learn that I don’t have to sacrifice any animals. That would be a deal breaker for me.

  17. Amen, amen, a thousand times AMEN to you on this post, Bob!

    I’ve been telling other writers this again and again: Honor your craft; above all, strive to write a great story. I’m convinced that over ninety percent of what will determine the success of a book (or any product) in the marketplace has to do with its quality. In books, content is king. All of the other marketing elements that we try to help “discoverability” won’t help much if what the reader “discovers” is a lousy story. Because he won’t be back to buy stories from you in the future.

    You correctly say that “sustainability” trumps “discoverability.” And reputation is the key to sustainability. If more writers paid attention to honoring their craft, instead of looking for marketing shortcuts and “secrets,” fewer would be lamenting poor sales.

    Keep beating the drum about this.

  18. Thank you, thank you, thank you. I shall go back into my writing cave now and write.

  19. Reblogged this on Hunter's Writing and commented:
    Bob Mayer points out writing success is down to craft – CONTENT and sustainability.

  20. Very good article, Bob. Easy to forget in all the hoopla.

  21. In an older blog post Bob gave new authors a template, which included waiting until they had three books before really making the promotional push. As a writer AND as a marketing person, I agree with this statement. Why? With our first book, we make a promise to our readers. Its up to us to deliver. Most writers have a few manuscripts sitting in their desk drawer. Those of us who have had book published with epresses or traditional publishers will admit that it wasn’t our first book that sold, but perhaps the 3rd for 4th…or 10th. While I can have a book ready for publication in a month. Meaning, the cover and the file conversion. The book still needs to be written. Rewritten. Edited and revised. This process is, for most of us, a year. Just because we can upload it faster doesn’t mean we can write it faster. The focus is on the promise to the readers and that promise comes in the form of a story.

  22. Great post! Strikes me that discoverability and sustainability mean pretty much squat without ABILITY.

  23. Back in the day when we aspiring writers sat around our RWA chapter meetings, before e-publishers existed and there was no indie e-publishing (ok, “none” is probably the wrong word, but there were very few) the advice the published authors gave to the unpubbed who had finished a manuscript and were querying/submitting and waiting … “Write the next book.” And “Write a Good Book” was always the first rung on the ladder to publication. Now that we have the marketing responsibilities, this advice often slips by. Thanks for bringing it back to the forefront.

  24. Well, I just have to say, Hoorah! Finally. Someone said it.

    I also know of some very good, I’d call them veteran, writers who have obviously worked their craft, who can’t move their content….yet. They know they’re in it for the long haul, and work to become more visible so that their quality can lend them that sustainability.

    It’s such a tightrope to walk. You need your content to get noticed to end up having it sustain itself, and that means promo.

    Content is the answer, I know, but in the meantime, the content needs an audience.

    Great post! Made me mull this concept over yet again.

    • Yes, Thea, it’s a tightrope walk. I go to my computer thinking, I must post on Twitter! I must Tweet and Re-Tweet! My ideas are nebulous, however. What is this FOR, exactly? Just making noise on Twitter is like trying to jump into the middle school dodgeball game w/o knowing the rules. I slow down, take my time. After all, there’s always…writing to do!

  25. Amen. And all that huff puffery takes too much time & energy. It’s not sustainable.

  26. Truthfully, I find the writing content and social media issue fascinating, maybe because I can, meaning as an aging writer, my goal is twofold: one solid book written; have an excellent blog. Obviously, I’m not the main audience here nor should I be but I’ll offer an observation.
    Simply from an older and somewhat Zen perspective, it really is about doing and being what gives you joy. Then, it all works, really; of course, you may be surprised at what gives you joy, really. What is so incredibly exciting is to have all this discussion.
    Thanks so much,

  27. Great blog. I so agree. Kristen made a good point too. We need to do it all and do it well.

  28. Yep, it seems that writing everyday and getting a lot of books out there is part of the secret. ;) Who’d have thought it was really about writing and content and doing what I love which happens to be different from what I’ve been told I should do as far as book length, etc.? ;)

  29. Great post Bob, thanks for the insight.

    Two words: Hugh Howey. Perusing the sci-fi lists I had seen the first Wool title and, with its title and cover I really had no idea what to make of it. Blurb sounded good but, on my first impression, pass.

    Enter Stephen Knight, a writer I think is pretty cool, praising Wool. So I now take a look at it. Wow! Awesome. I downloaded a bunch more of his titles that same day and am now a big fan.

    On his blog he’s apparently in early talks with the BBC about Wool, which seems very “series friendly” and has his agent talking with movie folks on this side of the pond, all on top of huge sales.

    NONE of this happened because of a blog, tweet, giveaway or a free promotion. It’s all happening for only one reason: readers are falling in love with his work, buying more and talking about it .

  30. Great post, Bob.
    As someone who’s been delivering content online for over 20 years, I can attest to what you’re saying. The US and international sales of my books can be tracked back to the blog, newsletter and articles I’ve shared over the years.

    People can FB and tweet all they want and, it’s a great idea but, at the end of the day, as a writer, you have to back it up with something.

    All this buzz about the “changing publishing industry” is overlooking the fact that readers have not changed. People still want good content in whatever genre they’re reading.

  31. Thank you so much for stressing content. Content is King. I want a good book… a great book and memorable character. Then I’ll check out the author.

  32. Great post. Nailed it. Oh, I’m visualizing more Whack-a-mole!

  33. For me it’s all about content and honesty. If I like the book and then research the author and they are not authentic in their blog, face book, or other social media, I’m turned off and won’t read them again. If their posts and tweets are all about marketing, forget it. Being approachable, and real, is worth more than a million tweets, and so is giving back to the writing community. You do so much of that, Bob and Jen, and I do think it pays off for you because it comes from a place of honesty.

  34. I agree 100% that content is the key. However, a problem for self-published authors is objectivity. Sometimes (every time?) they can’t be a good judge of the quality of their content and whether it’s really ready for prime time. Seems like everyone needs to hire a professiona editor, but because that’s a cost that’s been traditionally borne by traditional publishers, some writers will be (and have been) tempted to cut the quality corner.
    BTW: thanks for commenting onmy post about an Author Bill of Rights.

  35. Kirsten Zeller

    Yay for this post!! With anyone now able to publish their books very cheaply through Amazon, I think it’s easier to find books out there that are basically junk. Yes, you can publish your book, but that doesn’t mean you should. Write a good book first, don’t just shove it out there. So many blogs I’ve been reading lately are about promoting your book, not about how to make your book better. That should, indie or not, be our first goal as writers. Thank you so much.

  36. Great advice. Last year I attended my first writers’ conference and chose sessions that focused on the business side. This year I plan to lean toward craft classes. I have decided that the best thing I can do for my writing career is to learn to write really well. I want to stay updated with the social media and publishing, but that won’t count for anything without great books. Thanks!

  37. Great Post, Bob. You took the words right out of my mouth, including the stick hitting a gopher.

  38. Thank you, Bob. Do you offer suggestions for Craft Conferences? I’m in the Atlanta area.

  39. Thanks a lot for posting this. :) Often times I’ll stumble upon an author’s blog post that made it big pretty fast and they’ll say something along the lines of, “I have no idea how this happened…” or “I don’t know why so many people bought my books…” etc. But, clearly, it IS the content. If you can garner at LEAST a 3-star rating on your work, people will be willing to try your work on for size (especially in the form of a $.99 downloadable ebook).

    Price and reviews will open the door… content will keep it open.

    Now I’m gonna go practice that secret handshake… :P

    – Esther

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