- Tim Mathis
6 ways to support your favorite books (and also me).
I wrote this post shortly after publishing my second book. The information stands if you want to help me out, but it's also here because I think it's a useful introduction to things you can do to support any author you love.
My book, I Hope I Was Wrong About Eternal Damnation is, among other things, a chronicle of some of the worst experiences of my life. It's full of stories from my religious experience that are painful and embarrassing, and while I don't like to use the term lightly, it's fair to say that the central narrative it shares - of leaving faith - was traumatic. A decade later I still have an anxiety response when the topic of religion comes up in conversation, and I have a hard time talking about my life between the ages of 16 - 30 because I feel like I spent those years sucked in by the strange combination of cult, MLM, and conspiracy theory dynamics that are always at play in organized religion. In the book, everything is couched in ironic humor to help dull the sting for readers, but for me it'll always be a project that makes me cringe.
I chose to return to it though, consciously and of my own volition, because I came to the conclusion that the book has the potential to help in the current cultural moment.
The first time around, two primary types of people expressed appreciation for the book: 1) people who had left (or were leaving) religion, and 2) people who wanted to understand why religion has the power to make people so crazy. Last year, mid-Covid, I realized that there are an increasing number of people in both of those particular boats. While the relationship between religion and our current list of world crises is complicated, it is undeniably true that religion's politicization and unhinged social stances have pushed huge numbers of people past their breaking points. And in the society as a whole, the Trumpification of religion and the relationship between religion and social division has a lot of people wondering what the hell is happening.
So, I rushed in like the hero that I am and decided to rewrite the book. I know firsthand that the experience of leaving faith is shitty, and I think telling my story might make it a little less terrible for people going through it themselves. And for the rest of you, the book - which you could summarize as a list of ways that religion drove me mad - might help make sense of some of the dynamics that seem to be driving the world as a whole into chaos.
Now that the book is done, getting it into the hands of the people it'll help is my own crusade to fight. Particularly as someone who decided to publish independently, no one is responsible for the project's success or failure but me.
Having said that, I also know that some of you will identify with the story I tell, and will want to see the bigger picture project succeed. I know because people have told me so, and because I know that this type of story is one that a lot of you can empathize with. As weird as my own life has been, I know that I'm telling a story that is common. Millions of people quit faith and are left with scars as a result. Millions of people are going through the process as we speak. And even more are trying to figure out why religion affects people the way that it does.
So, while you don't owe me a thing, I did want to talk about a few things you can do if you are interested in helping I Hope I Was Wrong About Eternal Damnation succeed in finding its audience.
First things first, how does a book find an audience?
It might seem overly simplistic, but it's genuinely true that word of mouth is the only legitimate answer to this question. If people read a book - any book - and like it enough to tell other people about it, other people will read it. That's it.
One of the primary roles of a traditional publisher is to try to generate word of mouth. Advertising and a great cover and marketing blurb and all that can hook initial readers, but all of that is just baseline. If the people who read it don't like it, or don't tell other people about it, any book - no matter the marketing budget - will disappear into the ether.
And for most authors, independent or not, the creator is primarily responsible for figuring out how to generate word of mouth. Your own word is the first word, and you have to convince other people to give your book a shot. If you do, and they like it, the word will start to spread. If enough people like it, or find it useful or funny or interesting, it'll take on a life of its own. It'll circulate in an audience. That's ultimately my goal.
That sort of process has happened in a niche audience with The Dirtbag's Guide to Life, which is an amazing thing to be able to say as a creator. But I gotta tell you, even though I Hope might be a superior book in ways, it faces bigger challenges, because it's on a topic that a lot of the target audience won't want to talk about publicly. The process of leaving religion already comes with enough personal and social consequences. Publicly discussing a book about losing faith is just going to piss off their family and raise concerns from their old friends, and it's probably an unreasonable ask for people in that position.
That, honestly, is why I decided to write this post. If you're someone who is comfortable talking about this book, and you believe in the goals of the project, you're particularly important. I wanted to be specific about some of the things you can do.
So then, what kind of word of mouth helps? Here are 6 things.
The good news is that contributing to word of mouth doesn't require a significant amount of time for any one individual. It's about getting a bunch of people doing small things. Specifically, you can do any of these:
The foundation is basic, friend to friend recommendation. Seems small, but it's true. According to Goodreads something like 70% of people report that their primary means of book discovery is directly via their friends. It makes sense: if someone who knows you tells you they think you'll like something, they're probably right. So, if you want to help, tell people about the book who you think will like it.
Online reviews are more important than most people realize. Or, well, maybe you do realize it. Do you put more weight on one expert recommendation from the New York Times, or 1000 positive reviews on Amazon? Both have their place, but I'm guessing you feel that the crowd response is a more trustworthy indicator of quality. If a lot of people have read a book and enjoyed it, it's human nature to assume that you'll likely have the same experience. Almost all of my sales will happen online. There are huge barriers to selling independently published books online without reviews. With a base of reviews, they will sell similarly to traditionally published books. So, it's a small thing but a huge, crucial help if you submit your reviews on Amazon, Goodreads, or other rating sites.
Social Media is definitely important. With The Dirtbag's Guide to Life, people will frequently tag me when they post about the book on social media. Frequently, I can see an associated sales bump at that date and time. If they have a big following, I can see a significant bump - sometimes 20 additional sales in a day. Enduring posts (vs. temporary stories) definitely seem to get a more significant response, but anything helps get the word out. In a similar vein to friends telling friends, people on your feed trust you. (Side note, but a friend's Facebook post is how I first heard about my favorite book discovery of the last year, Kiese Laymon's Heavy, which you should totally read.)
Enduring reviews or print articles. It is of course true that if you have a blog or you write for a publication, and you talk about a book, people who might potentially like it will be exposed. Another long term impact is that these types of reviews lend social credence to a book's value. If you Google a title, and ten reviews pop up, it communicates something. If you like the book and you want to write about it, amazing. If you're looking for content about people leaving religion, hit me up.
Podcasting and YouTube channels. I'm going to be totally honest with you - talking about this book publicly is still painful, and I dread doing it. Also, for people going through a spiritual crisis, hearing other people talking about what they've gone through is hugely helpful. Better in lots of ways than reading about it. So, if you have connections, let me know. Better yet, tell them about the book. I can talk myself up but it's much better coming from someone else. I'll send them a copy, totally, and they'll be much more likely to read it if it's been recommended by someone other than myself.
Buy it? Sure. Absolutely. But I'm not trying to trick you when I say that it really is more valuable to read the book and talk about it than to pay money for it. If this book really 'succeeds', it'll make me a few thousand dollars a year - which is to say writing will almost definitely never be more lucrative than my day job as a nurse. My goal is genuinely not just about sales (although I'll admit to checking my sales reports for emotional validation multiple times a day). I want to get it to folks who will get something out of it. If you want a copy, you can buy it, but also feel free to message me through the contact form in this blog menu. I'm happy to send you an electronic version for free.
That's it. I'm sure there's more you can think of, but that's really the start.
In the big picture, for an independently published author, the goal is to connect with my audience in a way that accomplishes the sorts of tasks that big publishing houses often help with: getting my book in front of its intended audience, establishing an online presence to build social credibility, creating some level of online buzz and word of mouth, and getting the book's existence into the consciousness of enough people that it will have an enduring impact. No one owes it to me to help with that, but if you are someone who believes in the project, I wanted to give you a sense of what types of things help - particularly at the beginning of a book's lifespan.
There may be some barriers to establishing word of mouth on this project, but the first time I published it a small crowd of people reached out offline to express appreciation that I was talking about a topic that they could empathize with but for various reasons didn't discuss often. This time around, I've already had a half dozen more similar, unsolicited comments. I genuinely do think there's a value in getting this project out there, and there's a group of people it will help. That group - church leavers and people trying to understand religion's complicated consequences for believers - isn't going away, and my impression is that there's a need for more stories like my own being made publicly available.
You don't owe me nothing, but if you want to help, those are a few places to start.
I Hope I Was Wrong About Eternal Damnation: An Absolutely True Memoir is available on Amazon and shortly will start finding its way onto other online marketplaces.