[Robert J. Sawyer] Science Fiction Writer
Hugo and Nebula Winner

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Self-Promotion for Writers

by Robert J. Sawyer

Copyright © 2001 by Robert J. Sawyer
All Rights Reserved

First published in the program book for Bloody Words, an excellent Toronto-area mystery convention.

I make a living writing genre fiction in Canada. You can, too. But to do so, you're going to have to engage in self-promotion. You might think that your publisher will take care of pushing your book, but the promotional budgets for most first novels are measured in the hundreds of dollars — and much of that will be designated as "co-op" funds, meaning they're only spent if bookstores are willing to match them dollar for dollar.

If you're lucky, your first novel will get part of an ad page your publisher has bought in a small-press genre magazine, perhaps a few dozen advance copies sent to reviewers (if it's a hardcover; don't count on that for a paperback original); and maybe a hundred review copies of the finished book sent out to newspapers and magazines (again, in the case of the hardcover; for paperback first novels, which most newspapers won't review, some publishers send out no review copies at all).

My advice: take whatever advance you get for your first novel (it'll typically be between $2,500 and $7,500) and spend all of it promoting the book.

If your publisher isn't doing any bound galleys, get your own made up. That was precisely the situation I was in for my own first novel, the outer-space murder mystery Golden Fleece, published as a mass-market paperback original by Warner in December 1990. Seven months in advance of publication, I had 75 bound galleys made; it cost me $240. I sent them to all the genre magazines, to all the major Canadian newspapers, to publishing trade journals, and so on.

Sadly, though, the book ended up having a lousy cover (it took me twelve books to get even cover consultation written into my contracts), it was not well distributed, and it sold very poorly. My agent's note accompanying my first royalty report said, "Royalty statements come worse than this — but not often."

Indeed, initial orders were so low that in the same month in which Golden Fleece was released, Warner declined to buy my second, by-then-finished novel. I was published and dispublished all within a month. And that would have been the end of the literary biography of Robert J. Sawyer if it hadn't been for my having done up my own bound galleys.

In the December 1990 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, the most literary of the American genre-fiction digests, Orson Scott Card, then that magazine's book reviewer, praised Golden Fleece to the skies. He called my main character "One of the most well-drawn, fallible, human detectives I've encountered in mystery fiction — in a league with, say, Ruth Rendell's Inspector Wexford," and went on to say, "You might as well buy two copies in the first place — one to read and keep, and one to shove at your friends, saying, `Read this! Now!'"

Those words certainly were a salve to my wounded ego, but they would never have been written if I hadn't produced my own galleys -- it was one of those, printed and sent by me, that Card had read.

Two months later, when Card published his best-of-the-year list, he named my book the finest science-fiction novel of 1990. By that point, you couldn't find a copy of Golden Fleece in any bookstore, but I had some: 300, to be precise, that I'd bought at 40% off the cover price when the book was first published. I took one of those copies, bundled it up with Card's review and all the other good ones that had come in by that point (from Books in Canada, The Globe and Mail, Library Journal, Mystery Scene, Quill & Quire, and The Toronto Star, among other places, all of which had reviewed the book solely because they'd received my own advance galleys), and sent the package to the editor of Doubleday's Science Fiction Book Club (the sister club to The Mystery Guild). She promptly bought the book, producing a lovely hardcover edition that was in print for years.

My agent then took the sheaf of great reviews and used them as the basis for an auction for my next two books, selling them to Berkley. He employed the same sheaf to sell my first three books, sight unseen, to Japanese publisher Hayakawa.

What about the other 299 copies of Golden Fleece I had lying around? Well, I went to the next year's Canadian National Science Fiction Convention at my own expense (it happened to be in Edmonton that year), and participated in as many programming events as the organizers would let me. I waited for the one that had the biggest crowd, and, at the end, I simply started flinging copies of my book into the audience.

Madness, you might think; surely, I wanted to sell books, not give them away. Ah, but readers who got the free copies of Golden Fleece liked it well enough to vote it the Aurora Award, Canada's national SF award, for best novel of the year. Hardly anyone had bought the book when it first came out, but I made sure that the most important audience for that book — the attendees of the national convention — had copies, and that won me the first of 24 awards my work has now received.

Of course, none of the good things described above would have happened if I hadn't written a decent book; it should go without saying that the most important thing you can do for your career is write the absolute best work you can.

It's now a decade later, I've sold a total of twenty books (fifteen novels, three anthologies, a short-story collection, and a literary memoir), my work appears on The Globe and Mail, Maclean's, and Amazon.com bestsellers lists, and Maclean's has said, "By any reckoning Sawyer is among the most successful Canadian authors ever."

Do I relax now? Not at all. I'm still doing everything I can to promote my work. I attend conventions all over North America (Bloody Words is just one of 15 I'm going to this year); I maintain a massive web site at www.sfwriter.com ("the largest genre writer's home page in existence," according to the British magazine Interzone, and "the most elaborate and interesting of any created by a Canadian writer," according to the Oxford Companion to Canadian Literature). I do a one-page newsletter two or three times a year that goes by paper mail to 500 booksellers, media outlets, and reviewers. I send out my own press releases every time a new book comes out, whenever I'm nominated for an award, or when anything else of note happens; those releases have gotten me on TV over 150 times. And although my publisher does send me on book tours now, I added six additional cities to my latest one at my own expense.

And I still give away lots of copies of my books: my wife happened to catch sight of Tom Harpur, the religion columnist for The Toronto Star, at a recent book fair. She gave him a copy of my latest novel, Calculating God, saying that he might like it — which he did, getting me an extra half-page of coverage in The Star on top of the review that appeared in the books section. Another copy of the book, given by me to a professor at York University, resulted in it being adopted as a mandatory text for the 175 students in his class.

Remember, nobody but you really cares if your book succeeds or fails. Your publisher has lots of other titles to worry about, your editor works with many other authors, and even a small bookstore has thousands of volumes in stock. It's up to you — yes, you — to make sure your book is a success.

Robert J. Sawyer won the Crime Writers of Canada's Arthur Ellis Award for Best Short Story of 1993. He's also won a best-novel Nebula Award from the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, and is currently a finalist for the Horror Writers Association's Bram Stoker Award for Best Short Story of 2000. He has been interviewed on Rivera Live with Geraldo Rivera, Canada A.M., Morningside, Imprint, National Public Radio's Talk of the Nation, and many more. Visit his website at www.sfwriter.com.

Rob's upcoming writing workshops and courses

More Good Reading

More about Self Promotion
Using your web site to promote your book
Rob's essay on getting good press
Rob's own print advertisement for his novel Calculating God (Adobe Acrobat file, 392K)

Letter to Beginning Writers
Rob's "On Writing" advice columns

Rob's thoughts on the process of being interviewed
Media backgrounder about Rob

Rob's upcoming appearances

My Very Occasional Newsletter

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