There is a reason why in the past decade or so the world has shifted from the utter Westernization (i.e. consumerism) and values thereof, and adopted outlooks that have more in common with Taoism and Buddhism than the Colonization values we were dominated by for so long.
Much of the teachings of ancient cultures is evergreen; from the medicinal, alchemical experiments which led to major drug discovery and manufacturing, to metallurgy and engineering, to mathematics and astrophysics, ethics and philosophy.
This is merely a long, convoluted way of saying that I have finally read the Art of War by Sun Tzu.
Yes, he’s one of the characters of Birthright, Book 2 of the Legacy series.
No, I did not make him up – he actually existed.
The Art of War is exactly what you think it is: a manual on how to be victorious on a battlefield. The strategies that Sun Tzu writes about are simple and generic enough to apply to many spectrums and fields – and over many eons. This is why this book is read by politicians, military generals, scholars and business moguls alike. It is the first self-help book, one without flowery bullshit or long convoluted theories. Even the writing is akin to bullet points. Simply read, think and follow the instructions. This blog post is about my interpretations of the book, in the context of my profession: writing and selling books. I doubt this was what Sun Tzu had in mind when he wrote this down but the irony stands tall in the fact that the Art of War is a book after all.
But enough dawdling; let us get to the point.
The Art of War has its own terminology but Sun Tzu identifies 3 main parties: the General, the Opponent and the Ground. In war, Sun Tzu says, the General can only attain victory if he knows himself, his enemy and the battleground. Let us interpret this: the General is the Writer, the one creating the product, the book. The Opponent is the Reader – no offense. There is no defeating of anyone here – not unless one drops a copy of War and Peace, or Patrick Rothfuss’s The Wise Man’s Fear on your head. Then seek medical treatment immediately, and possibly Patrick’s contact information to urge the release of Book 3.
By enemy or opponent I am referring to the barrier that naturally exists between the Writer’s book and the Reader – the state of “not yet acquired book”. Nick Stephenson, founder of YourFirst10KReaders and the course thereof, underlines 4 different reasons why readers do not buy your book: indifference, skepticism, worry and procrastination. This is the true enemy, but typing or indeed saying all that in context is far too exhausting – so let us agree that the opponent is the Reader who has yet to buy your book and be mature enough not to get all huffy and offended about it.
The Ground is fairly straightforward. To both the writer and reader the ground is the common place where both parties meet: an author’s website, Amazon, the bookstore, or in the case of some erotica authors, a sex dungeon.
We don’t judge.
And now we shall talk about some ideas and notions that Sun Tzu discusses in the Art of War.
Seizing any opportunity. Carpe diem. Opportunities arise only to those who can see them, and to those who thoroughly know the three parties discussed above: writer, reader, platform. This sounds like the most obvious notion here but it is also the root of every mistake writers make when marketing. In essence heed Plato’s old, and overused, saying: know thyself.
You don’t have to write all the books – merely the ones you like, love and lavish in. You write your books. By the same principal you don’t need all the readers – but your readers. Understand what your readers want, but also know that when it comes to your work, you set the standard – for better or worse.
Platforms work very much in the same way. You may control your own site (or at least you should) but other sites like Amazon are all subject to the whims of the corporate overlords that rule their domains with an iron fist (or at least an iron wallet). Facebook is my favorite platform to shit on, despite using it 90% of the time. Most, including yours truly, have complained about the paid ads, all the while not understanding that we needed a solid business plan (or at least our heads out of our asses) in order to carry on the momentum that the Facebook ad generates. It’s literally like being shot out of a cannon: Facebook will light the fuse, but it’s up to you to set the sights and provide a safe landing spot with mattresses or bales of hay, if you believe in the physics set by Assassin’s Creed.
Understand the Changes. Like most Buddhist aspects, this one is best explained with a story. It’s 2011. Amazon is in full stead and this new convoluted contraption called Kindle created a veritable avalanche of authors who understood what a great opportunity this was. Soon words like “ebook”, “epub” and “mobi” (the ebook format not the washed up musician that bears a remarkable resemblance to Community actor Jim Rash) were staples in our vocabulary. Amazon created Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP), a mecca for people with grand ideas, various degrees of penmanship and very little patience for rejection letters.
And the best of these all enrolled in KDP Select.
Select was the Holy Grail – one could set their book for free, which tapped into the baser elements of human greed. We all like free shit. More so, we like free shit that we actually like. And once we get a lot of free shit that we actually like, we feel some guilt for liking it and proceed to buy, with money and all, the subsequent products.
2011 is known by many as the Kindle Gold Rush. I’ll let you crack that code. But sometime in late 2011 or 2012 (historians and the author can’t be arsed to google it) Amazon switched the algorithms of life, pulled on the quantum strings that hold the universe together, and with a few lines of code proceeded to make .99c as the lowest pricing option. Like frogs during an Egyptian biblical plague the authors fell, their precious funnels rendered asunder. Indeed somewhere in the area of 70% of all authors who reaped rewards from that free promo were now slumped against a wall with dark clouds and the aforementioned frogs as their sole companions.
So what’s the point?
Sun Tzu speaks of understanding changes, of being aware of new circumstances and new factors that emerge. Many of us remember Bruce Lee’s famous quote: Be like water. That is how one survives in this world. The other 30% of that equation found a way to embrace the changes and make them work to their advantage. And if you think that is difficult, you are right. But bear in mind that Sun Tzu was a war general.
And if he could survive an ancient Chinese horde of sword-wielding warriors, I think we can survive whatever schemes the corporate overlords come up with.
Allies. It is the nature of humankind to be social, to interact in whatever manner we are capable of with one another. All wars are won by teaming up – selling a book is no different. Joanna Penn, the god mother to all self-published authors, puts forth the concept of Co-petition (an antithesis of competition) – authors promoting one another to get more fans, and by extension more money.
You mean, if I am a new author I do not have to compete against the gazillion of titles out there?
Nope. Simply cultivate your fans, meet with other authors, hold hands and march together.
But it’s not just your fellow confederates that may be allies. Even corporate overlords allow affiliates, knowing full well that the cogs are what make the machine spin. So do not be afraid to whip out your big cog and approach Amazon, Smashwords, Nook, Apple and whoever else for a chance to mutually fatten your wallets. It is important for long term growth to seek allies who share your interests – be they artistic or monetary.
Vanguard and Rearguard. While this is strictly a militaristic term, it does have some benefit to the point I am trying to make. In my interpretation the Vanguard is whatever new goals you are trying to push forwards. The Rearguard is and will always be your author platform. As such, linking these two is essential. When an army moves, it moves as a unit. The formation changes, but not the integrity or the solidity of the army itself. Therefore when pushing for new frontiers, be they new platforms, new series or whatever, understand that it must all fall back to the Rearguard, your platform.
Energy. This has nothing to do with electricity, but it is very relevant to a situation where the Author is depleted of energy just at the notion of certain things, eg. web design (a current Herculean Labour I am going through). Fortunately there exists something called the 80/20 rule. In essence, if you put 20% effort in the right areas, you will gain 80% improvement in your ultimate goal. To a writer this is the economy of resources and morale. If you cannot design a cover or a header, outsource it. If you are incompetent at web design, seek assistance. It will cost money (not too much though), but you will make that money back in the first few months, if not weeks. Do not lose heart over something that is not even in your job description in the first place. Understanding your limits is key to victory – refer to the first point for more details.
Spies. If you have a team of masked ninjas with knives and coercions to make people purchase your books, please refer me to your supplier. If however you do not live in an asylum or have more money than God, then this interpretation is for you. This refers to tactics such as Facebook ads, Twitter and other such platforms, which boost your already existing platform. Bookbub is a particularly vicious and territorial Nemean Lion that stands proud atop its mountain and may only be dissuaded with meals that cost less than 1.99.
Not as cheap a date as you might imagine.
Spies also refers to, more importantly, to your mailing list, particularly your street team – those rabid fans who will happily consume and support your every story, who march with you on every battlefield. Understand the different types of spies, employ with subtlety and you may move forwards to victory.
Herein Lies the conclusion to this lengthy diatribe about Sun Tzu’s the Art of War. I highly recommend splurging for a copy and spending an afternoon getting your mind blown. It is truly evergreen, able to be interpreted by various people in all walks of life. Much like the version of Sun Tzu in my Legacy books, the Art of War is truly immortal.