In recent months writers have asked the same questions at our workshops. How does one get a book up and running? How does one get a newly published book into the bestseller category? What are some of the secrets of learning how to be a writer whose first book succeeds right from the start?
We asked first-time author Dr. Andrew Lam who is one of our Irie Books top-selling writers if he would share the secret of his success with Saving Sight: An eye surgeon's look at life behind the mask and the heroes who changed the way we see.
His response (below) is candid, clear and correct as far as the procedure one needs to follow in order to make a book into a success. Andrew's background is scientific and medical, yet his approach to book marketing is creative and inspirational. He is a retinal surgeon with a history degree from Yale and an assistant professor at Tufts School of Medicine. Dr. Lam resides in western Massachusetts with his wife and four children.
HOW I MADE MY BOOK AN AMAZON BESTSELLER
Eight months ago, Irie Books published my first book, Saving Sight, which blends my experiences as an eye surgeon with the stories of medical heroes whose inventions saved the sight of millions around the world.
Since its launch, Saving Sight has been an Amazon bestseller in its category (ophthalmology) and sold thousands of copies. It won awards from the New England and London Book Festivals. I was flattered when my friend Gerry invited me to share the things I’d done to promote my book. I drew up this list, which I hope may benefit some fellow writers out there.
1. It’s all up to you.
From the start, my attitude was to take complete ownership of the success or failure of my book. Yes, your publisher will help market your book, but it’s useful to adopt the mindset that it’s all up to you. This keeps you alert, engaged, and constantly trying to think of ways to get your book into readers’ hands. Besides, no one is going to care about the success of your book as much as you will.
So, if you’ve just gotten your first book published, give yourself a brief pat on the back and then start learning the new skills necessary to promote it yourself. Don’t waste time waiting for others to do it for you.
2. Marketable? It better be.
Like a lot of first time authors, I loved writing my book. There were no deadlines, no expectations. I wrote in my spare time and did it because it was fun. I also knew I had a good, marketable idea, and I didn’t think anyone else had the expertise or ability to write a book like mine.
My first idea was to write a nonfiction book profiling a group of heroic medical underdogs—with my degree in history and familiarity with the scientific literature, I was well-poised to do this. Later, I realized my book would appeal to a far larger audience if I blended those stories with exciting episodes from my surgical training—to show what it’s like to learn LASIK and cataract surgery; to reveal how surgeons feel when they aren’t sure what to do; to share the joy of saving someone’s sight; and to be honest about what it’s like to fail, when failure can mean blindness.
No one had ever written a book like this. There was no competition. And, even if it didn’t catch fire with the general public, I knew there’d always be a niche audience of eye doctors and patients who would buy it.
In short: the importance of having a ready audience for your book cannot be overemphasized.
3. Write the absolute best book you can.
Books sales grow from word of mouth. Readers recommending books to their friends is a far more effective form of promotion than advertisements, media interviews, or even book reviews. No one beyond your circle of family and friends is going to buy your book unless it is actually good. So do all you can to make sure your book is the best it can be. I spent countless hours writing and re-writing my book. I showed it to a lot of readers and took their advice. I listened to my agent's and editor’s suggestions and took them to heart. If your book isn’t good, it won’t sell.
4. Make it look good.
Presentation. It’s important. And no one will care as much about the presentation of your book, website, or Amazon landing page as you will. I worked closely with my book designer to make sure the cover and layout were as perfect as possible. I made sure to have a nice-looking, professional website. When the book launched, I quickly learned to navigate Amazon’s Author Central and “Look Inside” functions to make sure everything about my Amazon landing page looked attractive.
5. Have an “all of the above” promotion strategy.
When I sat down and thought about what I could personally do to promote my book, I divided my efforts into three categories.
a. Personal Contacts – the first, and easiest, thing I did was simply reach the people I knew. I tried to enlist as many of them as possible to help me spread the word. Prior to the launch I invited family and friends to read advance copies and asked them to leave an honest Amazon review and share what they thought via social media. I used Facebook to announce the launch and share articles and reviews. I also posted to Facebook groups pertaining to ophthalmology, optometry, and patients with various eye conditions. Think hard about how to reach groups that might be interested in your book.
b. Local and Regional Media – I tried to saturate my local region (western Massachusetts) with news about my book. I gave numerous book talks at libraries in which I donated the proceeds to the libraries. I did the same with Lions and Kiwanis clubs. I priced my book inexpensively to encourage people to buy it—believing that growing my readership was paramount and would lead to greater word of mouth recommendations. I succeeded in getting articles about the book in local newspapers, radio and television. I sought out book clubs to speak to. No group was too small to talk to, no interview too insignificant. I sent a press release to my hometown paper in Illinois. Media exposure has a way of snowballing. The more you put your name and your book out there, the more opportunities will come to you.
c. Professional Resources – Not everyone will have these opportunities, but I was able to get articles and interviews in many ophthalmology trade magazines and newsletters. I reached out to optometry schools and medical associations. I made bulk sales to pharmaceutical companies. I sent free copies to reviewers and influential leaders in the field. In my practice, I am constantly meeting new patients who have an interest in the subject of my book, giving me many opportunities to interact with potential readers.
6. Never give up. And have fun.
Like a lot of authors, I spent years writing my first books, hoping they would one day be published, wondering if they would ever see the light of day. Before writing Saving Sight, I’d actually written a WWII novel called Two Sons of China (recently released by Bondfire Books). It took two years for my agent to land a publisher for my novel. While I was waiting, I wrote Saving Sight, and was chagrined when that agent declined to represent it. “Too niche,” she said. I then secured another agent for Saving Sight, who struck out with the major publishers and gave up. But I didn’t. I got yet another agent. I believed in my book. I didn’t know if it would ever “succeed,” but I never doubted its quality and that it deserved to be published.
This multi-year journey was only tolerable because I was having fun. I enjoyed writing. I was passionate about the history I wanted to share, and the idea that people should know what their surgeons actually think.
And remember, it’s a marathon, not a sprint. There will always be new opportunities to promote your book, even years after its release. There are also many definitions of success. Doing what you love is certainly one of them, no matter how many books you sell.