Colorado State University Center for Literary Publishing

The Myth of the Overnight Success Story

Oct 21, 2015

by Sarabeth Caplin Stoneburner

The expression “overnight success story” is a misnomer, unless “overnight” is loosely defined as several years. When I self-published my first book, a memoir, in 2012, my only goal was to see my words in print . . . and make the bestseller’s list. Self-publishing seemed like the fastest route to getting my work out there, thus speeding up the process of making my lifelong dream of literary fame come true.

My first clue as to just how misguided I was should have been the little time it took to go from finishing a manuscript to clicking “publish” on CreateSpace. In other words, it took no time at all. So many steps were half-assed (like editing!) or skipped over altogether: mainly, building a platform to actually sell the book to people who didn’t have the bias of already being my family or friend. In fact, if you’d asked me back then, I couldn’t have told you what a platform was, or why it’s even necessary.

Publishing traditionalists bemoan the rise of indie publishing, thinking that “crap books” will overload the internet and make the “good books” harder to find, but that’s actually not true. Amazon is flooded with books, traditional and self-published, but the sales numbers speak for themselves. The quality books written by visible authors will sell. Bad quality books, or even well-written books but with unknown authors, will sink to the bottom. Platform is the key to any author hoping to make a living, or at least put gas in her tank, which I’m happy to say I did for the first time in September 2014. Note the gap between then and my book’s initial publication date: it took two and a half years before I saw any kind of payoff. If I keep building up my marketing and networking skills, perhaps I can make a car payment by the time I’m thirty.

So how does platform work? In short, a platform is what you do to make yourself known to your readers. Truthfully, I learned about it on the go, mostly by realizing what didn’t attract potential readers to my book: spamming people on LinkedIn with “Hey, I’m an author!” messages. Posting Amazon links over and over and over again on Twitter and Facebook. It didn’t take long to realize those “methods” hurt writers more than helped them. Do you like getting internet spam? I didn’t think so.

The first wise thing I did was create accounts on all the major social media sites: Google+, Twitter, and a Facebook business page. The more places your name can show up on a Google search, the better. Second, rather than reaching out to everyone I knew all at once, I sought out subsets of people who shared an interest in the subject of my book: religion. From Twitter hashtags to Facebook groups for spiritual authors, finding niches was absolutely critical. But in many author forums, I was treated much the same way I treated my audience: as a potential buyer. No one likes being treated that way.

Changing my outlook from making sales to building relationships is what changed everything for me. I sought to genuinely connect with other authors in my genre, marketing consultants (one of whom I found out lives in Colorado Springs, and is now one of my close friends), and yes, people who enjoy reading the topics I write about. Building relationships account for most of the time it took to get somewhere, but you know what? It’s been completely worth it. One such friend helped me find Booktrope, my current publisher, and referred me to people who review books as a hobby. When I decided to make my book free for a few days in August of this year, it shot up to #1 on the bestseller list for personal-growth books on Kindle, and stayed there for six days.

Two and a half years to become an “overnight” success (at least in my own eyes). Looking forward to seeing what I can do with five.

photo of CreateSpace logo by CreateSpace.com

photo of Booktrope logo by Booktrope.com

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