For authors, what’s the best thing about digital publishing? It allows them to stay current with readers, feeding their endless hunger with a quick stream of books. (“Readers wanted more, and I can write faster,” said C.J. Lyons of her self-published ebooks, though she has published traditional print titles as well.) But you can’t rely solely on publishing yourself online. (“A big part of the world still loves physical books, so if you want to reach 100 percent of readers you have to do both,” offered Douglas E. Richards.) And even if you’re big in the e-universe, like Richards, that doesn’t necessarily translate to print sales. (“Barnes and Noble hasn’t heard of me, and I would like to remedy that situation,” acknowledged Richards, whose boyhood dream was to see his books in bookstores.) So, though everyone sees ebooks as the future of publishing, we’re not there yet.
That’s not a surprising conclusion, but the panelists at this year’s ThrillerFest VIII (July 10–13 in New York) grappled ably with the ramifications. Several panels—e.g., “What Are the New Rules of Digital Success?” and “What Are the New Rules of Social Media?”—addressed current changes head-on even as panelists acknowledged that change keeps happening. “My best friend is now the Amazon algorithm,” said L.J. Martin, who sat on the digital panel, “but if they change their algorithm, you are dust.” Of the huge profits authors can now rake in from ebooks, thriller author and international property rights lawyer James Grippando noted, “We’re dreaming if we think that 70 percent split will stay around. When publishers get their act together, it won’t be like that. And Amazon’s investors will demand more profit.”
For authors, the new environment means not simply writing a good book but knowing how to push it, and part of that means pushing oneself. (Said Grippando, “Brand authors are the winners.”) Publishers now expect their authors to engage actively in social media (although they need to be careful, as D.P. Lyle noted at the social media panel: “You could do something stupid if you don’t know how a new platform works.”) The great benefit of social media, explained Dan Blank, is that while traditional media (ever harder to get) happens only around a book launch, social media are “what you do between books. It’s how you keep readers engaged, and you connect with them directly.” Social media are simply how people communicate these days, and they are a route every author should take.
Not that we know the benefits; acknowledged Alma Katsu, “Absolutely no data prove that social media are worth the investment, though we will probably be able to do that in ten years. You just have to decide what your goals are.” For the authors on the social media panel, the goals were mostly to get their names out there, communicate more effectively, and generate enthusiasm for their works, though for C.W. Gortner, who uses social media to promote not just his books but his animal rescue efforts, one reason for using social media was “to leave the world a better place.”
With all these changes, some things remain the same. Authors still try to write engaging works that will find a broad audience, and that’s a job they face alone. On the panel “What Are the Secrets Behind Award-Winning Fiction?” six successful authors shared tips from “write the book you want to read” (Sean Chercover) to asking yourself “that magic question, What if? What has nobody done yet?” (Jon Land). Addressing the effort to sort one’s way through the background noise made by critics, media, and even readers, William Landay had the last word. “You have to know what you’re about, what your values are. You can’t let anything affect the writing process; it’s too intimate.” Serve your readers, indeed, as the authors on the digital success panel admonished. But serve your vision first.