I'm having one of those days where I feel like to be an aspiring writer is to be doomed to failure. (And to anyone who replies with a Yoda-like, "There is no aspiring, you are a writer!" you may want to be warned that in the mood I'm in, you're very likely to be given a recommendation for a diverting, but probably anatomically impossible, solo activity.)
The problem is how to become visible. The much-touted e-book market, which takes away the roadblocks of finding agents and publishers, fails on the level that those roadblocks kept out a lot of writers whose work was simply not ready for publication. Now, anyone with a computer and a modicum of technical ability can upload something to the big e-book sellers. So instead of having your query letters swimming in a sea of millions, your e-books are swimming in a sea of millions. How do you get seen?
Well, I'd like to say I have the answers, but I'm still trying to figure all of this out myself. In the interest of honesty, I have to say that my sales record thus far at Amazon and Barnes&Noble does not give me much confidence in my likelihood of retiring early. Now, that's not to say that I'm giving up, or am sorry that I took this route; as I've commented before, I've had thirty or so more people read my work than I would have if it had remained sitting in my desk, so what have I lost?
Nothing, of course. And I have along the way gleaned a few lessons from my experience and the experience of others, and that's all to the good. If you are a writer, here are a few things to keep in mind from one who, like you, is fighting invisibility.
1) Make sure your manuscript is really ready. Get people to read it, and not just your parents and your significant other. Find someone with a keen eye who isn't afraid to tell you what, and where, the problems are, and when they tell you, listen. And, for cryin' out loud, be careful about grammar and spelling. I still remember getting a link from a writing hopeful (with a plaintive request to repost it), and when I looked at his online excerpt, he'd misspelled the word "fluorescent" in the first line. Use your spellchecker, and ask said keen-eyed friend to look for words that the spellchecker would miss -- than/then, their/there, too/to, etc. It's not that we don't all sometimes make those simple types of errors, but that's one negative impression you can easily avoid making.
2) Network. Word of mouth is incredibly important; if you're going the agentless route, it's the only game in town. An excellent way to start: join Twitter, and then look for other writers. Follow their blogs, be generous with your responses to their work, and be free with your "retweets." However, be careful of overusing posts on sites like Facebook. The intent of Twitter is to link people with common interests, who presumably are expecting you to be promoting your work just as they do theirs. Facebook is a different entity, and your family, friends, and coworkers will probably be understandably annoyed if every time they get online they're inundated with sales pitches.
3) Keep writing. I had to be reminded of this one just today. My almost-completed work-in-progress, Signal to Noise, is at the stage of waiting for feedback from a few of my above-mentioned keen-eyed readers, and so I've spent the last couple of weeks not writing much except on my blogs. The result: a bad case of post-partum depression. The best way to become a writer is to write. Write daily, and don't let the mechanics of sales and promotion ruin the experience of writing for you. (Feel free to remind me of this one the next time you see me weeping despondently into my beer over my week's sales figures.)
4) Try some new angles. I mostly write novel and novella-length stories, and have had fun lately entering flash fiction contests. It's a tremendous challenge, when you're used to having 250+ pages to work with, to tell a story in a hundred words! Break out of your mold; it can be rejuvenating. Try poetry. Try a different genre. Try using an unfamiliar point-of-view. Frustration can come out of stagnation.
Mostly, just keep at it -- writing, promotion, and all. It sounds trite to say that victory goes to the persistent, but so often that seems to be the case. Work to perfect your craft, have fun, find some like-minded people to connect with, and then go for it. Truly, what do you have to lose?