Priming the Pump

The process of priming a pump involves putting a little fluid in the system so the pump has something to work with. It forces the air out so the pump can pump.

New writers need to prime the sales pump but getting those first few sales can rival the twelve labors of Hercules. So many things to do. So many moving parts. Getting advanced reader copies out to generate buzz. Chasing reviews. Cover reveals. Blog hops. Figuring out advertising. Planning release parties.

How’s a new writer supposed to do all that?

My advice: Don’t.

That’s a lot of stuff. It takes a lot of time to figure it out and more time to actually do it. That’s time a new author needs to be doing something more important. Writing the next book.

There’s a danger in priming the pump too early. Once you’ve emptied the metaphorical pond of readers, the pump stops working. In the beginning, that pond is really shallow. Maybe only a few dozen people pick up your book.

Then what?

Maybe they liked it, but it’s a one off. An artisanal potato chip packaged in its own bag. What can they do? They go read something else. Something you didn’t write.

Why didn’t they read your next book?

Because you haven’t written it yet. You were too busy with the labors of Hercules to get it written, edited, produced, and published. You spent so much time and money trying to sell your first book, you don’t have a follow up for the people you managed to sell it to. So they go away. Maybe they’ll remember six months from now. Maybe they won’t. In the meantime, your well’s run dry. The pump stopped pumping. You’ll need to prime it again.

Hercules only did his labors once. Don’t be Sisyphus, constantly having to roll that boulder up the hill only to have it roll back down with every new release.

Before you think about priming the pump, write the next book — ideally the next four — all in the same niche. If you change niches, you have to start over. It’s true that some readers read promiscuously, jumping from mysteries to thrillers to romance to gamelit, but that’s not how you build an audience.

I know that’s a big ask. What if you write all that, get it all published, and nobody likes it?

It’s possible. It might take ten or a dozen.

I got lucky after four but my work didn’t catch fire until I hit five. By the time I had eight, I crashed the Podiobooks server on Christmas eve because so many people wanted the next story.

How? Easy. I borrowed an audience to prime the pump and then kept them coming back by releasing more and more books. No ads. No blog hops. No “buy my book” social media. No ARCs. Just more books.

How do you borrow an audience? It’s not like a lawnmower you can return when you're done with your lawn.

Easy. Make allies.

I didn’t have to ask because all the Podiobooks authors talked about each other’s books to their audiences. There weren't many of us. We all knew each other, or at least of each other. We listened to each other’s work. We became allies. It’s just good practice to talk about somebody else’s work rather than your own. Much easier, too. Less like tooting your own horn. Less like “marketing.”

That was then. Now? It still works, but you have to find your people. They don’t aggregate naturally.

The answer: Social media.

Find authors in your niche. You should be reading them anyway as a matter of course. You can’t participate in the slow-motion conversation of letters if you’re not taking in what others are putting out. When you find somebody whose work you like, even admire, let them know. Reach out. Tell them how much you liked their last book.

Don’t ask for something. Give them something. Recommend their work on your reader-facing blog. Whatever it is you do to talk to the people you hope will be fans someday, tweet, toot, insta, tok about them. You can help them without permission and they will notice. Most will reciprocate when the time comes.

Caveat: Watch what they do in their own channels. Do they talk with their readers or just other authors? Do they just talk about their own books or are they active participants in a wider conversation? Are they authentic? Do they have a positive social presence?

A tip I got early on was to start talking to the fans I didn’t have yet. Don’t waste time talking about how to manage your time as a writer or the thirteen plot points needed to save the cat.

Talk to them about things readers want to know about. Things like when’s the next book coming or where you’ll be appearing at a convention. (Local cons are great places to meet potential fans.) One of my colleagues always operated as if he had thousands of readers, even when he only had a dozen. Now he has multiple thousands of readers. Still talks to them the same way.

Eventually, you’ll be able to turn to your allies and maybe ask for a cover blurb for your next release. I’ve had allies-turned-friends ask for help promoting a new release. Knowing their work, liking their work, it was a no-brainer. Of course, I helped.

Note the key words “eventually” and “knowing/liking.” Another important concept involves social capital and how you spend it.

Don’t recommend a book your audience won’t like. It could be the next Great American Novel, but if your audience is cozy mysteries, they might not appreciate it.

Every time you recommend a book, you’re risking social capital. If you’re right and the readers like the recommendation, you might add a bit of social capital in their account. If you’re not, you’ll lose a bit. The more capital you have with the individual reader, the more likely they’ll take your next recommendation positively. Your social capital balance becomes a measure of your influence. You want that balance to be as high as possible.

Of course, the more positively they respond, the more social capital you’ll earn with the other author as well. You become a stronger ally in their eyes.

But — as always — there’s a catch.

How do you write and publish that many books before you know if anybody will like them?

Go back to marketing. Your internal scan should tell you whether or not you’re a writer. Writers write. Steve Jobs had the right of it. Real artists ship.

Your internal scan might tell you, that one or two was all you had. You gave it a shot and now you’re ready to move on to something you’re more in tune with.

Maybe you need to put it down temporarily.

Maybe you want to write but can’t figure out how to keep doing it. It can be expensive, both in time and money.

I ran into that problem and did what any normal person would do.

I ran the numbers.

Up Next: By the Numbers