Not THAT Sophie (Tales from the “Writer’s Life”)

The discovery that my forthcoming historical novel, The Sister Queens, had appeared on Amazon for pre-order was magic – magic with a little “humbling experience” tacked on for good measure.

I was ecstatic when a friend told me that my book was listed. Here was proof indeed that I had not imagined the whole “book deal thing.” Ha, I thought, let’s see NAL wiggle out of this now. But my enjoyment soon led to a sober realization – you are only as good as your sales and rankings. I may have a book listed on Amazon (and IndiBound and Books a Million. . .) but I am NOT a household name. I am not even close.

What, you may ask, brought this fact home to me? To paraphrase Pixar’s marvelous Toy Story, “a child’s plaything.” You see I am NOT the first “Sophie” Amazon suggests when one goes to the search window and begins to type. Doing this (when I should have been researching my next work of historical fiction) I discovered that when I get to “p” (s-o-p) Amazon kindly suggests another Sophie – obviously a sales-super-star – “Sophie the Giraffe.” I was not familiar with Ms. Giraffe before this, or with her body of work. Sophie the Giraffe is a teether, as in infants gum her with vigor, drop her on the floor and then squeal impatiently until she is returned to their grasp. I have included a picture of Sophie G so you can appreciate her magnificence.

Coming behind a rubber toy in a “suggested search” list is a humbling experience. But when I looked more closely at Sophie G, I realized I could learn a thing or two. Sophie is NUMBER ONE in the Amazon “Baby” bestseller rankings (we will not discuss how far from number one I am on any list presently). She gets an average of 4.5 stars from reviewers. And she is able to command some serious cash for a figure only 7” tall. In fact, a single giraffe teether costs $7.00 more than a copy of my novel. Wow (hint to readers, buy the book – I don’t care if you chew on it).

Sophie G is obviously doing something right. Here’s what I think.

First, she has a clearly focused target audience. Sophie G isn’t trying to be “all things to all people,” she is not a “work of commercial fiction with literary prose, a touch of romance, sci-fi overtones and a Jane Austen zombie character.” As a writer knowing your audience is just as important. Getting cute; trying to catch a ride on the newest trend; or counting on a massive cross-over audience is probably a mistake.

The Sister Queens is a work of historical fiction. It was written for readers who love stories of royal courts, and specifically those who are drawn to the intrigue, the rivalry and the lifelong connection inherent in a relationship between sisters. That focus needs to be clear in my packaging (cover, on-line presentation) and promotion efforts (which blogs my publisher sends ARCs to, where I choose to advertise). As the weeks pass, my cover is revealed, and I begin to blog on book-related topics you will all be the judge of whether my focus on my audience is as crystal clear as Sophie G’s.

Second, Sophie G excels in branding. She is HIGHLY recognizable. Believe me. I was at Starbucks recently and there, tucked along side a baby in an infant-car seat, was Sophie the Giraffe. Boy did I get excited, “that’s Sophie the Giraffe,” I babbled to the store’s assistant manager (who luckily has known me for years), “she comes up before I do in an Amazon search.” Writing a good book isn’t enough (not these days with over 8 million books available on Amazon). Authors need to work on their branding. They need a distinct, consistent style so that their audience knows what to expect from their novels and anticipates, with pleasure, the release of their next work. There are lots of very excellent writers working in my genre and in fiction generally but most will never achieve the “marquee name” status of Sophie G. To do that takes luck to be sure but also a whole lot of careful branding.

Third, Sophie G has people talking. Over 700 people have reviewed her on Amazon and those reviews are GLOWING. If I could get a few people to use phrases like “don’t let the price deter you” or “absolutely wonderful in every way” I’d be downright delighted. It’s clear that Sophie is exceptional at what she does. Those who buy her are well satisfied and they talk about her (not just on Amazon either. . . I bet she’s on parents’ lips at play-dates and at playgrounds in cities nationwide). Buzz, buzz, buzz.

The basis of buzz for an author is, of course, writing the best novel that you can, but buzz requires something more. You need people to be so enthused about your book that they talk about it and recommend it to friends by name. Of course the two things I’ve discussed already – targeting an audience and carefully branding yourself – can help but, in my opinion, generating buzz also requires author interaction with potential readers.

An author seeking buzz must make him/herself a vital part of writing communities and participate in social media in a “value added” way. In other words, to get “buzz” from others we have to give of ourselves; providing content (e.g. blog entries on our historical research, links to interesting articles on writing, tidbits on characters that readers can’t find between the covers of our books) that people find interesting and valuable. This is the opposite of the “me focused” on-line activities I frequently see from writers – you know the kind, “buy my book,” “another good review for me,” etc. I’ll bet Sophie G never goes around saying “aren’t I great.” And I’ll bet she never bad mouths the competition either (“that porcupine chew toy looks like it’s better suited to a dog”). Publishing is a small sand-box, there is no reason not to play nicely.

In the end though, whether you are an author or a teething toy, it is important to recognize that there is something downright unpredictable and serendipitous about buzz, sales and rankings. Do your best but don’t beat yourself up if you run distant second to a Giraffe. And if keeping track of sales numbers makes you crazy, don’t do it.

Me, I am going to leave the field to Sophie G and stop searching for myself on Amazon. I suspect the final months before the release of The Sister Queens would be better spent putting what Sophie G has taught me into practice.

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