Discoverability and Donald Rumsfeld

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In the immortal and (blessedly) paraphrased words of Donald Rumsfeld: “There are known knowns. There are known unknowns. But there are also unknown unknowns.”

And unless their name is Snooki or ends with Hilton, authors begin their careers as unknown unknowns. Many aspire to become known knowns. How to get there from here is the question of discoverability, the second-hottest buzz-word in the book industry right now.*

I spent a lot of time as an unknown unknown. In fact, I like to think that I still am. I never set out to become anything different. But I get a lot of emails from people who think I know what I’m doing asking me for the secret for becoming known, and so here are my thoughts. First, some background, because I’ve watched this issue with interest long before I started writing.

Before I ever finished my first manuscript, I wrote book reviews for a crime fiction website and also for the New York Review of Science Fiction (okay, one review for the latter. Still fun to say). Once I began writing seriously, I took a job in an independent bookstore. Here, I read a ton of books and slathered our shelves with staff picks. I spent every spare minute of my life reading, writing, reviewing, editing, and publishing. Books were my life. Across these pursuits, I noticed a few things about how books are discovered (and more often: how they aren’t).

At any one time, only one or two books are going gangbusters. That’s it. You can chart the book industry around these releases. The Harry Potters, Twilights, Wimpy Kids, Stieg Larssons, Gone Girls, Hunger Games, 50 Shades, Dan Browns . . . they came one at a time through the bookstore, and we who work in the industry pule and moan during the weeks in between. “Where’s the next The Passage?” we ask ourselves. And our reps, who arrived with their stacks of catalogs, would promise that they have it right there. But they rarely did.

The entire publishing industry buzzes about which book might be next. Not BOOKS. Book. There’s a tier of bestsellerdom, and the very top, the ones we aspire to be like, are frighteningly rare. The chance of ever writing one of these books is about like winning a Superbowl, as the quarterback, and getting the MVP award. It was hard enough to get on my high school varsity football team (which is why I didn’t). So what’re the chances of being a Superbowl MVP? And yet, it is with this Potterdom/Elway dream that we sit down and begin work on our rough drafts.

The bestselling books in my bookstore were from people grabbing this rare “big thing.” Something to marvel over: Last year, 1 out of ever 20 books sold was written by E.L. James. That’s an extreme case, but I can tell you that when Harry Potter was out, my boss at the bookstore knew the ISBN by heart from keying it in so often. There is nothing more unrealistic than hoping to be discovered this hard. Sure, like the argument for playing the lottery, it happens to someone. But it doesn’t happen to a whole lot more someones. Nobody knows how to write or market these books on purpose. Not even the publishers with their massive advertising budgets or the reps with their stack of catalogs. They get just as frustrated about this as we do. Trust me, the mobs with their pitchforks and their torches pick houses seemingly at random. (The torches for reading under the covers. The pitchforks for anyone who interrupts their reading).

As someone who has been fortunate enough to see a small mob outside my door, is there any advice I can impart? That’s what these emails beg of me, and that’s why I’m writing this blog post. Because I’ll tell you, the great frustration from my success has been not knowing what the hell happened. I was just writing because I’ve always wanted to. Putting my stuff out there. Having a good time. Hell, I read better books than Wool all the time. That Ted Kosmatka and Max Berry don’t outsell me 100 to 1 is mind-boggling to me. As my mother used to tell me: “Life isn’t fair.” (What my mother lacks in Rumsfeld’s optimism, she makes up in honesty and terseness). The quest of the struggling writer, then, is to make life more fair. How to do that? How to become discovered? I can only tell you what I’ve observed in my journey from unknown unknown to “is-that-what’s-his-name?”. And I’m not certain there’s a lot to draw from it.

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