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Why Authenticity Is the Best Way to Win Readers

Children’s author S.D. Smith had all but ruled out self-publishing. “I love that it’s possible and that the doors are open to finding an audience without permission from gatekeepers,” he said. But doing it by himself was daunting.

It was only when he found an ally that Smith reconsidered. “It was partnering with Andrew Mackay that made doing it on our own possible,” he said. Mackay’s publishing experience and shared passion for stories that foster “holy imagination” in children inspired Smith.

The pair set an ambitious goal: they’d do everything a traditional publisher does, but better. “[We wanted to] make a better book and share an excellent experience with readers. We never wanted to do it on the cheap as self-indulgent hobbyists. It was always about serving the reader.”

This reader-first approach paid off. His debut novel, The Green Ember, was a runner-up in both World magazine and Audible’s Kid’s Book of the Year Awards. His Kickstarter for the third book in the Green Ember series was fully funded in just three days. (But don’t worry: there’s still time to back the project.)

I chatted with Smith (full disclosure: he’s my cousin) about the importance of honing your craft, loving your readers, and finding allies on your self-publishing journey. The interview has been lightly edited for grammar and style.

You’d been writing for years before you wrote and published The Green Ember. What inspired the book, and how did you decide it was time to publish?

The Green Ember began as stories I told my kids. They started on our porch, watching wild rabbits hop around in our yard. I told my oldest daughter, just a toddler then, simple stories that grew into this long serial we would share on walks and at bedtimes. It was special for us and the kids urged me to write it down and share it with others. My brother-in-law had worked in publishing, so he and I started a small press and published the books independently. We were definitely uncertain, but he believed the book was good and I was so close to it that I knew it worked for us, but I wasn’t sure it would work for others. We were terrified we’d never sell the first 2,000 we printed.

Creating and sharing art is a profoundly vulnerable experience.

You spent years building up the website Story Warren before you ever published a book. How important was Story Warren to the success of the Green Ember series?

It has been a good experience on its own. I value the mission of Story Warren and appreciate so much the community of folks who make it happen. It’s been a resource for families and that’s what it’s for. It has been important in helping us connect with readers, but not a panacea. I’ve had good experiences with being in “creative communities” online and bad ones. You learn quickly who is in your corner when you step out in public and start getting punched. Creating and sharing art is a profoundly vulnerable experience. I have been profoundly grateful for those who have been allies along the way. But they aren’t found in one place.

You once told me that people overestimate the importance of “building a platform.” First, what do you mean by “building a platform,” and why is it overrated? What is more important than platform building?

This is a long topic, but I’ll try to be brief. The basic answer is the obvious one: A “platform” doesn’t help if your book is lousy. A platform is one way to get a “tryout.” We need ways to get our work in front of an audience, and having attention is helpful for that. But, if you spend all your energy on “building a platform” and none on getting better at your craft, then you have it backward. John Lasseter said, “Quality is the best business plan.” That’s a better creed than, “get famous so you can share your amazing talent.” Being is better than seeming. Platform-building can just as easily be an obstacle as a path.

Work hard. Do your best. Care about creation and connection. Love. Your. Readers.

With that in mind, what advice would you give someone who dreams of publishing their own book but doesn’t currently have an audience to sell it to?

Be generous. Be hospitable. The ultimate hospitality for a writer is to work hard at the book so that it’s a gift to the reader. For me, marketing only works if it’s about removing obstacles from people who want my work. I’m not interested in conversion of the disinterested masses. I’m interested in serving the hungry. So, whatever you can do to reorient away from self-indulgence and cheap marketing toward generosity and hospitality is good. A lot of people are cramming the attention lanes with a traffic jam of gimmicky noise. Maybe your thing, in contrast, is to make something great and share it with people who would love it. Start small. Think small. Begin small. If it’s good, it will spur demand. There is no avenue around hard work and quality. Stop lying to yourself. Stop looking for easy ways. Start thinking about giving a gift to people who long for what you’re sharing. Be kind to them. Love them.

One of the things I’ve admired in your work is that your stories come from a very deep and genuine place. It’s counter-intuitive, but that kind of authenticity is tough to pull off. How has that authenticity contributed to the success of your books? How can the rest of us capture it?

That is very kind of you to say. I have been waiting for someone to notice how genuine I am. Now it’s out there!

Seriously, I love what I get to do. It is very hard work, but I love the fact that I never have to have conversations with readers or do interviews where I have to manipulate, calculate, or tell half-truths to sell something. My books come from a very organic, honest place. They are stories for my kids that we are sharing with other families. I wouldn’t make a poison cake for my kids and the neighborhood kids, so I don’t have to ever think about if I’m tricking anyone. I know it’s not the best literature ever, but it’s the best I can do for my kids. So I feel good about sharing it with yours—if you are. And I’ve found lots of people are. So it feels like I’m not in a situation where I’m this Amazing Incredible Celebrity Author and these petty peons buy my books. No, I am a dad and these families are like mine. We’re on the same side and we are working together. I am supporting them. They are supporting me. I don’t feel better than them. I only see we have different roles on the same team.

Start thinking about giving a gift to people who long for what you’re sharing. Be kind to them. Love them.

You’ve used Kickstarter to publish a few of your books, and are in the throes of yet another crowdfunding campaign. What do you wish you knew about using Kickstarter when you first started out? What would you tell the first-time author who is considering crowdfunding?

It’s a great tool for sharing your work in a clear, generous way. It’s a chance to be bold in asking for backing (valuing yourself and your work) while being realistic about where you are in your career. (You don’t start off with a $100,000 goal, maybe.) I think it’s a valuable tool, but like all tools, they don’t do everything. A Kickstarter won’t save a bad book. It can launch a good career by giving you a “tryout” with some sympathetic people, but it won’t fix your quality problems. It gives you a framework to share, but it doesn’t save you from sharing dumb things. Most projects don’t succeed. If you produce a crummy, contrived video, then that’s out there. That’s who you are to those who see it. Invest in quality at every stage. Kickstarter can be an amplifier, but it can’t autotune your voice. You have to work very, very, very hard at both creation and connection. You can’t work so hard at your book, then share a crummy Kickstarter and expect to succeed. It all has to be great. It takes a ton of work and lots of help. Get help instead of doing something crummy. If you genuinely think your work is valuable (if you don’t, hang it up), then invest in removing obstacles for your audience. Start serving them now. Many artists don’t have good business or marketing instincts. I suggest digging in there as a learner. Learn about what it means to be generous and loving and hospitable in business and art. Then everything you do to share your work will be honest and, I think, more effective.

You recently switched to writing full time, which is a big milestone many aspiring writers dream of. Tell us a little bit about how you were finally able to make that move. What advice would you give to writers whose ultimate goal is to make a living writing full time?

I am very grateful that I’ve gotten this chance to try to succeed as a full-time author. I hope it’s my last job. It’s not for everyone! I’m doing this because myself and others worked extremely hard for a long time and people loved what we made and supported it enthusiastically. My family was uniquely suited to this kind of work. My wife has been in cahoots with me about this and we’ve been a team. She works very hard. Our book team has been tight and loyal and worked through hardships together. We have been willing to work longer and harder than most. We haven’t quit when it would have been easy to. We have had incredibly enthusiastic and supportive readers and allies. We have been blessed in amazing ways.

I think my best advice is in my answers above. Work hard. Get better. Be generous. Serve the story. Serve the reader. Be clear. Remove obstacles. Learn. Pay attention to quality. Be persistent. Listen to coaches. Ignore critics. Don’t be a pretentious artist. Be a generous artist. Drop the elitist sham. Work hard. Do your best. Care about creation and connection. Love. Your. Readers.

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