That Time I Bought a $425 Lottery Ticket


The Lottery Office. h/t Flickr user Arralyn!


In 1978 the Paris Review interviewed Joyce Carol Oates as part of their ongoing “Art of Fiction” series. It’s a fantastic interview that I recommend highly to anyone interested in writing fiction. At one point the interviewer asks Oates whether she subscribes to the old adage that it’s more difficult to write a good story than a good novel. I find her reply instructive:

“There is nothing so difficult as a novel, as anyone knows who has attempted one.”

Preach, sister. And I would expand upon her answer by noting that for a self-published author the task is even harder, because once you’ve written this most difficult of all things to write, you have to turn around and become a publisher, and perhaps a typesetter and graphic designer too. And that’s just to get the damn thing out the door; then, if you want sales above the single digits, you’ve also got to become a marketer.

That’s the phase I’m in now with my novel Blood Family. I’ve written it, I’ve typeset it, a fabulously talented graphic designer created the cover, I’ve published it in two formats on more than half a dozen sales channels, and now it’s time to try to market it. But how? There are entire blogs about marketing self-published books, so I won’t dive deeply into that topic here. I will say that last year I became fascinated with the story of how a first-time author landed a major book contract and film deal by self-publishing his novel first.

This article on tells how Canadian writer and professional linguist Sylvain Neuvel wrote a science-fiction novel, Sleeping Giants, inspired by what happened when he told his son he was going to build a toy robot for him. Neuvel details his son’s response:

I was expecting a one-word answer, but he wanted to know everything about it before I built it. But Dad, where is it from? What does it do? Can it fly? He wanted a backstory, and I didn’t have one, so I told him I’d think about it. A few days later, we were watching Grendizer, a Japanese anime about a giant robot from outer space—like any bad parent, I made my son watch shows I liked as a kid—and I asked myself what it would be like if it happened in real life, if we found a giant artifact from an alien civilization. I started writing.

After Neuvel finished writing his novel, he spent six months sending queries to more than fifty literary agents asking them to represent it for potential sale to publishers. “Most didn’t answer,” he said. “All of those who did turned me down.” So he decided to self-publish his novel, but even so, he wanted to give it something extra to help it rise above the sea of self-published books released each year.

“I needed a quote to put on the cover to make it look legit, so I sent the book to Kirkus for a review,” Neuvel said. “I wasn’t expecting much, but I thought I might at least be able to use a couple words out of context.”

If you don’t already know, Kirkus is a respected book review organization, like Publishers Weekly. A good review from either one of those places can make a big difference in a book’s fortunes because it functions as an imprimatur of quality. We somehow don’t think a book is a “real” book unless its cover quotes a positive review by some trusted or authoritative source, such as Kirkus, Publishers Weekly, a big-city newspaper, or a successful author. Books published by major publishers or even small presses can get these cover blurbs far more easily than self-published books can.

Kirkus, however, offers self-published authors a way to get a good review quote on the cover—if you’re lucky. For a mere $425, you can pay Kirkus to review your book. Let me answer the obvious question right now: you are not buying a positive review. If you don’t believe me, you can read some of the reviews that self-published authors have paid Kirkus for. My favorite negative review on that page says: “An incoherent work that may be particularly unpleasant for animal lovers.” Ouch. Not only is that a negative review, but the author paid $425 for it.

If you get a negative review through this program, you’re out the money you paid, but the consolation prize is that you can ask Kirkus to bury the review, and it’ll never see the light of day. (I don’t understand why the author of the “incoherent work” mentioned above didn’t choose that option, but that’s their problem.) The hope, of course, is that you’ll get a positive review that you can quote on the cover of your book and elsewhere, helping you gain the attention of the book-buying public.

That’s what happened to Sylvain Neuvel—in spades. “I got a great review, a starred review, and the month that followed was the craziest of my life,” he said. (Kirkus designates books of special merit by placing a star next to the review.) Hollywood movie producers started emailing him the day the review came out, and within a month he had a film agent, a literary agent, and a two-book contract with a major publisher, in addition to selling the film rights to Ridley Scott, director and producer of the Alien films. Pretty good return on his investment, right? So good that it made me wonder whether I should get a Kirkus review too.

I thought about it and thought about it and thought about it, discussed it with my wife, did some research on it, thought about it some more, and after consulting an oracle (more on that in another post) I decided to go for it. Went to Kirkus, created a profile, uploaded the files, entered the credit card number, clicked Submit. Shook head. Tried to think about something else for the seven to nine weeks it would take to get my review back.

But it only took about six weeks for me to receive an email from Kirkus with the subject line “Your review is ready to download.” Instantly my heart and temples began pounding, and my palms grew slick with sweat, and I thought about those psychology experiments where they determined that any emotional response is heightened when your nervous system is already ramped up, and I knew that if I read a bad review in that hyper-aroused state, I would be absolutely devastated. So I closed my eyes and pushed myself back from my computer and slowed my breathing, and I reminded myself that no matter what this review said—good, bad, or indifferent—it was only one moment in a writing career with many years left in it. I repeated that to myself over and over until my temples weren’t pounding quite as hard, and I felt ready to open the email and read the review.

It was a good one. Here are some highlights:

Fantasy and horror blend in Winter’s debut novel about a man who discovers his family’s links to the supernatural. … Overall, this novel has a lot to recommend it, especially its complex set of characters, including protagonists and antagonists who provide clear context to Alex’s life and to the more fantastic elements of the story. The prose is clear and crisp throughout but never rushed, giving the tension plenty of time to build. Winter also makes sure the emotional elements of the story—fear, grief, uncertainty—fully hit the reader. … A clever, engaging view into dark places.

I bathed in a kind of warm broth of relief all day long after reading that review. People have very kindly congratulated me, especially my writer friends, who have told me that Kirkus is famously stingy with good reviews—a fact I’m glad I didn’t know when I sent the review off. It’s not a starred review, so Ridley Scott hasn’t been ringing my phone off the hook just yet, but I’m very happy with it. I’m happy that one of the biggest gambles I’ve ever taken has paid off. Now to actually use it in some marketing …

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