The Sun Singer's Travels

Malcolm R. Campbell's World

If you’re a writer, how much snake oil have you bought this year?

“During a gold rush, sell shovels.”  – Sam Brannan, San Francisco, 1848

If you’re rushing out to look for gold, you really do need a shovel. However, the prevailing wisdom seems to be that most of the people who sold shovels made more money than most of the people  who searched for gold.

snakeoil1The invention of the e-book and print-on-demand publishing has created a gold rush for those who want to write novels. In fact, it appears that more people are writing novels than reading novels. This led to a glut of snake oil salesmen/saleswomen.

Actually, most of the salesmen/women aren’t selling real or imagined snake oil for whatever ails you. They are selling recipes, step-by-step plans, tricks and tips, and inspiration for whatever real or imagined diseases are ailing your books and your promotion efforts. Some of the deals might work. Some might be a collection of bits and pieces of other deals. Some cost more money than your book is likely to make even if they do help.

Since most people believe they’re less gullible than the people who lived during the patent medicine era, today’s writing/promotion tips sales people have ramped up the look and feel of their websites, e-mail and Facebook promotions so that the whole shebang looks more professional than Clark Stanley’s liniment advertisement.

Nonetheless, a lot of it still looks like snake oil to me even if no snakes were harmed during the preparation of the dreck being peddled to writers who want a quick fix. It’s amazing to me how so many people think a single e-book, podcast, webinar or course will turn them into Nora Roberts or Stephen King with the promotional power of Harper/Collins getting the books out into the world. So, they roll the dice and after everything is said and done, their Kindle and CreateSpace books still aren’t finding many readers.

Perhaps, I’m wrong. Maybe people are more gullible than I thought, for some of the “deals” I’ve seen promise you, for example, that you can turn out books without doing any writing, learn a couple of secrets and become a bestselling author, or learn more in a few hours than what a professional book publicist learned in a lifetime of education, experience, and hard work.

awpYes, do your research. Google any publisher or platform you’re thinking about using and see what people are saying about it. Take advantage of some of the free or minimal-cost books that show you step-by-step how to format and convert a DOCX file into a Kindle book. Check Indies Unlimited for how-to articles. See what the going rates are for professional editors and cover artists. If you’re active on the social media, ask others (other than sales people) what kinds of services, books and ideas they found helpful. You’ll also find ideas at Poets & Writers and the Association of Writers and Writing Programs.

Sometimes, nobody is really sure–including publishing experts–why some books take off and others don’t. If you read a lot of writing magazines and writers’ blog posts, you’ll inevitably come across lists of famous authors whose books were rejected multiple times before their now-famous first novel found a publisher. Now, the rules are changing and many of us are part of a continuous gold rush, so to speak, to write good stuff that finds an audience when too many people are turning out books.

Once upon a time, most of the writers’ advice out there was about writing, whether you majored in English, went for an MFA, or read a series of textbooks on your own. Then, one learned how to write queries letter that were sent to agents and/or publishers, a synopsis of their book (if fiction) or a proposal (if nonfiction), and how to create a resume of strong writing credentials–and subject-matter credentials as well if you wanted to write nonfiction.

All of that still happens. But most people feel that route is a long wait or a dead end and jump straight into self-publishing along with millions of other people. The writing snail oil people are trying to convince you that what they offer will give you an edge over the rest of the crowd. Sure, some teachers, mentors and gurus know the latest versions of what works as of now, but they are hard to find.

Yes, I’m a cynic about this, and that means I want to know I’m getting something of value before I pay $99 for a book of secrets or $499 for a webinar. What I often ask webinar producers is this: why are you selling your secrets in a chatty, A/V presentation rather than putting them in a paperback book that sells for 99₵ or even $2.99 or $15.99 (with a look inside feature on Amazon so I can see what the introduction and table of contents look like? They never say, “Well, Malcolm, I’m selling snake oil and the higher the price, the more I make and the more the buyers think it’s worth.”

On the other hand, that $499 webinar might help you strike it rich.


Malcolm R. Campbell’s new novel “Eulalie and Washerwoman” has a snake in it, but no snake oil. 




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