When I was a kid, one of my favorite movies was Cecil B. DeMille’s THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH. One summer, my cousins and I got to see a performance of the Ringling Brothers Circus in El Paso, Texas. Three rings going at the same time. Trapeze! Horses! Tigers riding elephants! On all sides, in every direction, there was something bright, wonderful, and spangled to catch your eye.
Same thing goes on in the world of fiction.
Writers often like to think of themselves as reclusive hermits hidden away, creating characters and special worlds all by themselves.
In fact, writers are performers. They should remember that the stories they produce for publication are being paid for by a public that wants to be entertained.
Are you a literary writer? Is your favorite novel SNOW FALLING ON CEDARS? Do you scoff at genre fiction and hold up your nose at the commercial market? Do you spend hours polishing every word, every nuance of meaning in your prose? Is your ambition to write a critically acclaimed masterpiece that even Oprah will love?
You’re still a performer, baby. Just like Kiri Te Kanawa’s soaring arias sung before a black-tie crowd. They’ve paid big money to hear the soprano sing, and they don’t want an evening of sour, off-key notes.
But maybe you’re a commercial writer instead. You write paranormal romance or maybe you love steampunk or you craft mysteries. You know that plot and characters count as much as style, and you aren’t afraid to admit that you write for money.
Dressed up or down, we put on a show. And our reader is the person strolling along the carnival midway with exactly $7.99 left in her pocket after paying admission to the fair. She can buy fried chocolate-dipped bacon and a drink or she can spin around the Ferris wheel or she can go see the bearded baby and the two-headed horse.
“Hurry! Hurry! See the colossal wonder of all time! ”
I’ve stretched the metaphor far enough. Here’s the point: how are you going to get a reader’s attention? How do you attract an individual into plucking your book off the shelf (or clicking a Buy Now button) when there are hundreds–maybe thousands–of competitors around you?
Yes, I see a hand waving frantically for my attention.
“I know! I know!” says Hermione Student. “You attract reader attention with the book cover!”
Sure. The one aspect of your book that’s the least in your control unless you self-publish. And even then …
Let’s consider covers briefly:
In legacy publishing, the cover is designed to catch the reader’s eye. That works slightly. Everything depends on whether a bookstore clerk has faced out your pretty book so a reader will see more than the spine.
A small percentage of the reading population will buy a book primarily because of its striking cover.
I knew someone who used to buy Signet Regency romances because she wanted to “collect all the covers.” Once Signet changed artists, this individual stopped buying the books. (Hardly the type of “reader” I want. How about you?)
An extremely effective book cover in recent years has to be THE LUXE by Anna Godbersen. This teen novel featured a girl in a splendid ball gown guaranteed to make most female hearts beat faster. Even women who didn’t buy the book recognized the cover and usually asked, “Is the story any good?”
Ah, that’s the crux of the matter. We not only want to catch the reader’s attention, but we want the reader to read what we’ve written.
The old publishing adage runs like this: the cover gets a reader to pick up the book. The back blurb gets the reader to open the book. The first page gets the reader to buy the book.
Fine. But what if you’re self-publishing instead? Determined to follow the e-reader route, you refuse to be a slave for some gigantic publishing house. You intend to blaze your own trail, establish your own destiny.
How will you attract reader attention electronically? There are ways and means by which to publicize yourself, of course. Let’s consider once again the cover. Will you choose some generic freebie that has all the appeal of a posterboard with crooked hand lettering? Or will you hire an artist? The latter course costs money, and writers usually are reluctant to shell out.
If you can work Photoshop and/or draw digitally, you can design your own cover. There’s a whole science behind the artistry–what the images convey and what attracts readers and what repels them. Go ahead and jump for it if you’re so inclined.
Electronically, you have a postage-stamp size to work with. Is it striking enough to get a potential reader to click Buy?
Once again, all it’s probably going to do for you is get a potential reader to look.
To get readers to buy, you have to close the sale.
You do that by how you open the story, by whether you hook the reader or the reader zones out.
Offer something on page 1 that’s going to convince the reader to pay for your immortal prose.
Gimmicks and publicity aside, it’s still about your performance. I’ll address that in my next post.