A couple of months ago I downloaded a 99¢ novel by John Locke. I’d become aware of him as a dominant presence on the Kindle bestseller list and figured I ought to see what all the fuss was about. I don’t remember which book it was, and I don’t see why it should matter. I didn’t finish it, not because it was horrible, but because it didn’t knock me out. (Hardly anything does, at this stage in life, and I don’t start reading as many books as I used to, and finish but few of the ones I start. But that’s me, see. It’s not the fault of the books.)
I wondered how on earth John Locke managed to have such a following, but he’s not the first bestselling author whose success has baffled me. I decided karma provided the most logical explanation; in a prior incarnation, our Mr. Locke had removed a thorn from the paw of the Grand Poobah at the Great Library of Alexandria, and this was hard-earned payback.
Then John Locke got a ton of press for selling his one millionth Kindle book. And, as soon as he did, he released a book he’d had waiting in the wings all along. He called it How I Sold 1 Million eBooks in 5 Months, and offered it not at his usual price of 99¢ but $4.99 (or $9.99 in paperback).
Yeah, right, said the snarky voice that lives inside my head. Who could resist paying five bucks to learn how to write mediocre fiction?
I told the voice Thanks for sharing and ordered the book. This was on June 21, and I started reading it on my Kindle that night. I read the rest of it the following day, and started re–reading it the day after that. And the next day was June 24, my birthday, and I started the day doing something I’d been absolutely certain I would never do. But what the hell, I figured I was finally old enough. So I joined Twitter.
Because John Locke told me to.
That day or the next, I asked my web guy to set me up with a blog. Five years ago I was on a book tour in aid of The Burglar on the Prowl, and each night I made myself write a newsy paragraph on the day’s events, and emailed it for him to post on my website. It was a pain in the ass, and it didn’t accomplish anything, and that was the end of my blogging. But now I wanted a real blog, one I could manage myself, and that’s what I asked for.
Because John Locke told me to.
Then I tweeted, letting the world know that I had a blog on the way, and that in the meantime I was open to guest–blogging on other people’s sites. And invitations flowed my way in a gratifying stream. And I started writing guest blogs.
See, John Locke had told me, astonishingly enough, not to blog every day, but to write one good blog and leave it up long enough for people to find it and be moved by it. But, like the cowbird and the cuckoo, I could lay my eggs in other bloggers’ nests. So I did, and found various ways to tout A Drop of the Hard Stuff and Getting Off. And, when people commented on my guest blogs, I went on–site and responded to their comments.
All because John Locke told me to.
I Kindle–published some short stories, too. I’d already been doing this in a small way, and “Keller in Dallas” has been selling briskly on Kindle for almost two years now. But it had never occurred to me to put my contact information on the story’s first and last page, or to tag the story so it would show up in searches, or—
You get the idea. More important, I got the idea. The ideas, really. Plenty of them.
That’s all of Mr. Locke’s tips that I’ll reproduce here. (Locke’s keys? No, maybe not.) You’ll get the rest from his book. And what you’ll also get—and you may or may not care for it—is his approach, his world view, his attitude.
John Locke’s background is in sales, and he blogs and tweets with the aim of increasing his own sales. He wants you not only to buy his books, but to help him get others to buy them. As he explains, the actions he takes online are frankly manipulative; he outlines a method of gaining a reader’s allegiance and illustrates it with a blog about Joe Paterno and his mother that leaves one gaping. The damn thing seems so calculating. . .
But here’s the thing. It’s not cold and calculating. It’s warm and calculating.
Because the man takes pains to point out that your manipulation has to be sincere. (And hold the joke about Sincerity is everything, if you can fake that you’ve got it made.) The whole notion of sincere manipulation is, it seems to me, the great secret of successful salesmanship. The first person you have to sell is yourself, because the truly effective salesman is the one who believes in what he’s selling.
When you don’t, Locke points out, people can tell. And you do yourself more harm than good.
A lot of writers have read his book, and it’s hard not to notice all the imitations of Why I Love Joe Paterno and My Mom out there already, and what a patently obvious load of crap they are. Yes, John Locke knew what he was doing with his blog. Yes, he wrote it to sell books. But he meant every word of it.
And if you write the same words, and don’t mean them, you’ll fall on your face.
Funny thing. For all the instructional books for writers I’ve published, I’ve read almost nothing on the subject. I’ve been wondering why that is, and my best guess is that I’ve never lacked confidence in my fundamental ability as a writer. I’ve had to learn things, plenty of them, but I somehow knew I’d be able to teach myself.
On the other hand, there’s plenty I had to be taught about the business of writing, and the whole inner game of writing, and some of my most useful teachers have been people in other fields. Metaphysical types in the Human Potential Movement taught me principles that had an immediate and lasting effect on my own writing, and went on to make up the core of Write For Your Life. Zig Ziglar’s Secrets of Closing the Sale spawned a couple of Writers Digest columns and let me see things differently.
My own wife, fashion model–turned–bookkeeper, let drop a fascinating tenet of accountancy: If you’re collecting 100% of your receivables, all that serves to show is that your too-tight credit policy is costing you money. Is there any aspect of my profession to which that principle applies? No, not really—but I see the world a little differently, a little more clearly, for knowing it.
I see the world a lot more clearly for having read John Locke’s how–to book, and much of it applies directly to my own place in it. (And much, I should add, does not. Mr. Locke writes incisively and persuasively on finding one’s ideal target audience and giving them what they want. There’s nothing wrong with that, but I already know what I write, and I’ve long since worked out for myself that it is not my job to give my readers what they want. It is rather for me to please myself first and write the books I want to write. That’s how I came by those readers in the first place, and it’s the only way I know to serve them well.)
Never mind all that. The point is that I have a great deal of respect for John Locke, and more than a little gratitude. That won’t make me read his novels. But that’s all right, he’s doing just fine without me. And if he writes more about salesmanship or promotion or the business of being a writer, he’ll get an immediate one–click order from me.
Even so, all my respect and admiration for Mr. Locke can’t keep me from having a similar regard for Russell Blake.
Russell Blake? You don’t know who that is?
Well, he’s the savagely funny author of How To Sell A Gazillion eBooks In No Time (Even if Drunk, High or Incarcerated). This volume, just now published and not yet wiped off the Amazon site by forces for the betterment of mankind, is a joyously vicious satire and parody that makes sport of John Locke, and indeed of the whole brave new world of self–publishing and self–promotion. If you don’t find Mr. Blake outrageous, and indeed offensive, you would seem to be missing the point. And the same thing goes if you only find him outrageous and offensive.
I don’t know what John Locke will make of Russell Blake’s book, but my guess is he’ll hate it. The targets of even the most affectionate parody are almost never amused. All the same, I’d say the book is at its heart the last word in flattery, and that the two books balance each other in a salutary way.
But is it possible for me to enjoy and respect both of these disparate books by very different writers? Well, I don’t see why not. Let’s think about this, shall we?
“Why I Love John Locke and Russell Blake.”
Might be a blog there. Then again, could be I’ve just written it…