If you want people to read your book, publishing is only part of a long story

Kevin S. Giles

The author, Kevin S. Giles, pondering his next cavalcade of words. Sunglasses optional.

By Kevin S. Giles

I learned a few things in 2015. One of these discoveries was a reminder that promoting a book takes a lot of work, even more than it did in the early Internet era. Infinite online opportunities await hopeful authors. So does the challenge of cutting through the “noise” of tens of millions of people trying to get noticed all at once, many of them promoting a political bias or sharing false information. Yes, the Internet has opened a new frontier to authors. No, finding an audience doesn’t come easy, because distractions abound.

When I published Summer of the Black Chevy, the spam started rolling in like a winter storm. Internet marketers promise they can deliver a rich market of readers – for an undisclosed price, of course – and they aren’t entirely wrong about that. Navigating the Internet, and rising above the noise, does require a strategy that largely involves social media to target customers.

F. Scott Fitzgerald row house in St. Paul

On an October day in 2015, I visited the F. Scott Fitzgerald house in St. Paul, with fellow Deer Lodge, Montana, native Haley Owens. Fitzgerald wrote portions of “This Side of Paradise” while living there.

Many new authors think that once they publish a book they’ve finished their work. In their world, readers will flock to their creation, sales will surge, and they’ll soon live in big houses in Maine near Stephen King. Or something like that. It’s distressing to learn the opposite: that few people know about the cherished book, many friends ignore it, and even adorable Aunt Minnie lied when she said she bought it.

Book promotion, especially for regional writers, is a matter of economics. Paying Internet marketers on the assumption they’ll deliver book sales in return is a dangerous risk. Many good writers have fallen for it. Writers could spend thousands of dollars in hopes of attracting readers and never recover their expenses. But here’s the gamble: we know that effective advertising grows sales. So what to do?

The challenge for any author, then, is to rise above the mundane. Be accurate. Write a good plot. Tell a good story. Know how to spell. Understand pacing. Avoid gratuitous vulgarities. Know your subject. Write and rewrite. Rewrite again. Make sure your book reaches professional standards.

I didn’t know how Summer of the Black Chevy would resonate with readers. Does any author? Fortunately, weeks after publication, the best kind of reviews began to emerge. Readers told me they identified with characters in the novel as people they knew. They also didn’t want it to end. I can’t think of two better compliments.

That’s a good start for building a wide audience that will keep Summer of the Black Chevy in circulation for years to come. Any author who wants to ward off discouragement should consider the example of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby, which sold only 21,000 copies when published in 1925. That number was “disappointing” because Gatsby hit the market after two Fitzgerald novels of greater repute, This Side of Paradise and The Beautiful and Damned. But that wasn’t the end of the story.

Gatsby is now considered a literary masterpiece. It’s sold more than 25 million copies worldwide. Its popularity led to four movies: a silent film in 1926, a 1949 drama starring Alan Ladd, another in 1974 starring Robert Redford and, in 2013, another starring Leonardo DiCaprio.

Not that any of us should presume that limited sales for our novels mean they’re sleepers that someday will rise to Gatsby fame. But the point is this: writers should work hard to make good stories, and once those writers become published authors, they should believe enough in what they’re written to tell readers about it.

That’s the secret, then, that any serious writer will examine in a single sentence: What’s the potential for my book?

In today’s publishing landscape, most promotion lies with authors, and success becomes a matter of endurance. Knowing the Internet audience helps, too. More women buy and read books than men, for example. On Facebook, more women than men click on more of my posts. Overall, women dominate Facebook and Twitter and social media in general. (An exception, by some studies, is that men dominate Linked-In.)

Publishing a book is, in effect, the first chapter of that book’s existence. The rest of the story lies with finding loyal readers who care so much about your book that they’ll tell other people about it. That won’t happen unless the reader regards the book – and the author – as a friend.

Kevin S. Giles is an American journalist and author who writes about his native western Montana. Two of his books take place in his hometown of Deer Lodge: a novel, “Summer of the Black Chevy” (2015) and the nonfiction work, “Jerry’s Riot: The True Story of Montana’s 1959 Prison Disturbance.” (2005)