11 May 2014 by Published in: Uncategorized 32 comments

I get a lot of emails from authors who are just starting out, or who are on the road but frustrated at the level of success they’ve seen thus far. I wish I had more time to correspond with everyone, but the truth is I’m usually slammed with writing/publishing related tasks, and don’t have a lot of opportunity to do more than offer a brief sentence or two.

But the last few missives I received got me thinking about what I wish someone had explained to me before I started self-publishing in June, 2011. So here’s my top 10 list, such as it is:

1) There are lots of talented writers out there. Lots. And it seems like everyone’s now got a book, or books, on Amazon. Being good isn’t enough to guarantee you anything but satisfaction for a job well done. It should, but it doesn’t. Don’t take it personally.

2) There are lots of crap writers out there. Lots. And while many sink to the bottom of the swamp with nary a whimper, some sell well, and some even become bestsellers. This is because the world’s unfair and, depending upon the genre, oftentimes readers don’t care much whether they suck or not, as long as the story entertains or reaffirms some conviction or bias the readers have. These authors succeed in spite of their abilities, rather than because of them. Don’t take it personally.

3) The internet is filled with gurus who know nothing. It’s hard to turn around without bumping into a writing or self-publishing expert. Most of them are completely full of shit, and don’t sell many books – but that doesn’t stop them from trying to get you to part with your money to hear them tell you what you need to do to sell well. Whenever you hear advice, consider the source. If it’s a million selling author, that means more than from someone whose work ranks slightly lower on Amazon than the collected love poems of Adolf Hitler in original German. Seems like everybody but me is selling seminars, courses, or how to books that promise much and deliver nothing. Must be a good business there, but I prefer labeling my fiction as such and putting in a car chase or gunfight rather than trying to trick the dim or desperate out of a few bucks.

4) You need to be able to put out books at a decent clip. Sure, you might hit huge off one, but probably not. You’ll be building your readership the hard way, which means one reader at a time, and the more quality books you have on your virtual bookshelf the more likely one will catch someone’s eye. This doesn’t appeal to a lot of authors’ wish that they could write a book every year or two and have a nice living. Sorry. I have yet to see that happen. But it’s a seductive siren song, so lots of newbies listen to it like it’s still a viable way to go. In self-publishing, not so much.

5) Most authors will mistake causality for coincidence. And most will use the inverse of this to rationalize to themselves why their approach, even though it hasn’t yielded fruit, is still viable. Drives me crazy. I’ve interviewed dozens of successful authors (not successful defined as “if I feel like a success, I am one!”, but rather successful as in having multi-year careers earning six or seven figures self-publishing) and they all have one thing in common: they all work their asses off with single-minded determination. And while they have that in common, they don’t follow anyone else’s path – they blaze their own, paying attention to whether what they’re doing is getting them the results they want, and if not, they change on a dime. They don’t take philosophical stances or make ideological points with their careers. They’re pragmatic, business minded, and are some of the most aggressively competent folks I’ve met. And they didn’t get that way buying someone’s course or book or tuning in on their blog. They researched, figured out for themselves what works or doesn’t (and they change when tactics stop working), and are hard at it early and often. In other works, they augment their literary flourishes with very determined marketing and promotion efforts, and don’t view some things as beneath them or unimportant compared to writing. They do everything, and most of them do everything well.

6) Screw moral support. You don’t need a village to raise an author, and there shouldn’t be any requirement for hugs to make you feel good. This is a very hard business to succeed at, and you need to lose the need for affirmation and community. It will do you no good but connect you with thousands of other authors who aren’t selling anything, either. If you want to feel good, write something really meritorious and put it out there, and then do it again and again until someone notices how good your work is. I’m not saying you should shun the company of your fellow scribes, rather, I’m saying that being the most popular person in the soup line is still a lousy place to be. So aspire to greatness, and do whatever it takes to get there. Every hour you spend on Facebook or Twitter or some forum mewling to other kindred spirits about how your sensitive inner self sometimes gets so confused is an hour of your life wasted that you could have put to good use improving your craft. I’m not saying don’t participate in social groups. I’m saying it shouldn’t matter to you, and you shouldn’t need constant stroking. If you do, fine, join a support group, but don’t mistake being an author for going to meetings.

7) Time is not infinite, and it goes by quickly. Don’t waste it. Don’t write crap, don’t put out stories that are forgettable or that you wouldn’t read if you weren’t the author, and don’t take your audience for fools. Their time is valuable. More than yours. They are paying for your work – you aren’t paying them. That makes them the customer, and you should hold your customer in high regard because without them, you’re nothing. So don’t waste their time with sub-par dross, and don’t waste your own on work that isn’t your very best. You have no idea or guarantee how many breaths you will take between when you read these words and when you keel over. Don’t act like you have forever. You absolutely, positively do not, and the great lie, the most destructive conceit, is that there’s still plenty of road left. No, there isn’t. There might be, but there also might not be, and nobody knows for sure. So don’t put off till tomorrow what you can do today, and prioritize your shit so you’re doing things that matter, like you’re only going to be around for a few more hours or days. If you’re wrong, nice surprise. If you’re right you won’t have frittered away what you had left playing some idiotic game or staring at the tube or exchanging vapid pleasantries online. Treat your time as precious and use it wisely.

8) Being a successful author is not a game or a scam or some lucky break. It is a job, just like any other (if you’re lucky) and it requires lots of application and concerted effort, or you’re fired. You are the CEO of YouCo, Inc. and as such have to stay ahead of all curves, drive yourself to consistently outperform, and master new and uncomfortable skills. That’s the gig. If you don’t want to do it, start querying agents in the hopes one of them decides you’re the next Hemingway and he/she is going to make you a massive star. Be sure to let me know how that goes.

9) The quality of your writing, in your ability to turn a phrase, to spin a yarn, is massively important. It can seem as though it isn’t, especially if you listen to all the morons out there advising you to spend N hours on blog tours or giveaways or X hours on social media or Y assembling street teams or Z pricing your work as though you were Ludlum and chasing down distribution so you can compete for physical shelf space with the 300K trad pubbed books that will release this year. But while anything can happen, usually your ability to make a real go of this will come down to how good your storytelling is and how relevant you can make yourself to your readership. All the rest of this nonsense is like cheap icing on a birthday cake. Your job as author is to ensure that you can make a cake like nobody’s business, and once your target customers taste it, they recognize its superiority and come back for more. The notion that you can just fart out cakes that are half-baked is as destructive as any corrosive ideology I’ve seen. Some authors can put out a consistent stream of high-quality work on an aggressive schedule, but they are in the slim minority. Most who do so have to work very hard to keep their quality high, and it’s mind-numbing, demanding work. I’ve had a number of articles and interviews devoted to my publication speed, but guess what? That’s not the story. The story is not being able to release 10 books a year. The story is being able to release 10 books your readership thinks are good and thus sell well. Don’t confuse yourself, and don’t settle for good enough. There’s no such thing as good enough. There’s as good as you can possibly do, and nothing less.

10) Pick a genre that’s large enough to support you. Understand the genre well before you try to write for it. Don’t chase fads. See my point #7 again. Don’t waste your time. Write every book as though that’s the one that’s going to be the breakout. Because neither you, nor anyone else, knows whether or not it is. But if you didn’t put your all into it, it probably won’t be. And there’s a small universe of potential readers for your work when you’re starting out, and they are leery of trusting you. They have good reason to be skeptical. They’ve been burned too many times by sub-par work and sophomoric craftsmanship. So they’re looking for reasons to hand you your head and dismiss your work as garbage. Don’t give them the ammo with which to do so. Know your genre cold, make damned sure you’ve read hundreds of books in your genre, and ensure that your audience, should your work be well received, is large enough to keep you in pens and paper.

A caveat: don’t genre jump. You’re not an exception. Sure, you feel like you are, because you’re so special and different, but the only ones who are going to agree with you are other authors who also aren’t selling anything, and maybe your mom. Pick a genre that’s a decent size, write appropriately to it, spend time letting your potential readers know your work’s available, and develop a system that you can live with. I counsel spending 25% of your time on marketing/promotions/production work, and 75% on writing. I’ve found that a good mix. You may feel differently. That’s fine. Figure out what works, and I do mean really think about it hard – as though your life depended on it – then work your system, and pay attention to whether or not it’s delivering results.

If it isn’t working, change it up. Not after fifteen minutes, but if you haven’t gotten where you want within a realistic period of time, find a better way of doing it, because otherwise you can spend years spinning your wheels. Nothing wrong with that, but I prefer results over effort and I value outcome over process. If my process isn’t working I find something that is, usually by modeling successes in the field and analyzing what they’re doing right.

And my bonus item:

11) Which I never needed anyone to tell me, but still: It’s possible to do it, and it’s possible that you will be the one to do it. It’s more possible that you won’t, but that’s what makes it interesting. You need to find inside of yourself the stuff that matters and do it for real. While that’s no guarantee, there are so many who don’t do it all out, who phone it in or kinda sorta do it, just being one of those who does it balls-out can be an edge. You’ll need all the edge you can get, and being willing to do whatever it takes is certainly an edge.

The good news is that every month, someone does it. Every. Single. Month.

Question is what you’ll do to make one of those your month, and once  you’ve had your month, what  you’ll do to have a career of ’em.

That’s what I wish someone had told me three years ago. Now I’ve told you.

Go back and read my “How To Sell Loads of Books” blog, and my “Author Myths” blogs. Combined with this list it’s as good a place to start as any, and I won’t charge you $5 or $50 or $500 to hear it.

Just go buy one or two of my books if you found this valuable. If not, hey, you got your money’s worth, so don’t whine. But you can still buy one of my books. Wink.

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Comments

  1. Sun 11th May 2014 at 6:34 am

    Russell,
    Thank you. You can’t see me but I’m giving you a standing ovation. Spot-on advice.

    Reply
  2. Sun 11th May 2014 at 8:54 am

    Good post, Russell,

    I hear you on #10 with the genre-hopping. My faux-erotica cookbook just never took off like I had hoped it would…

    Reply
    • Russell Blake  –  Sun 11th May 2014 at 12:11 pm

      Sorry to hear that. Perhaps a trilogy that’s a conflicted coming of age tome addressing teen confidence, self-esteem and the importance of individuality (whilst courted by smoking hot androgynous hunks who don’t actually want to do much besides worship you) could work? Only different…make em supernatural in some way…

      Reply
    • Keith Dixon  –  Sun 11th May 2014 at 1:11 pm

      Well I liked it, Claude. Got me hot in all the wrong places …

      Reply
    • cinisajoy  –  Fri 16th May 2014 at 4:52 pm

      Wants to read this.

      Reply
  3. Sun 11th May 2014 at 6:04 pm

    Great post, especially #6. It’s great being popular among authors and making lots of friends, but it isn’t the way to further my writing career. Of course, it’ll be lots of fun when/if I ever make it to one of those conventions. We can play drinking games and charades and be the funnest group on the floor. But again, like you say in #7, time is finite, although I do love a great party, it’s not writing.

    Reply
  4. Sun 11th May 2014 at 7:04 pm

    Well-put, Russell. Very well-put.

    Reply
  5. Sun 11th May 2014 at 7:15 pm

    If at any time tips #1 through #10 become overwhelming, visit Russell’s FB page for his Blackout Margarita recipe.

    Reply
  6. Dorothy
    Sun 11th May 2014 at 8:07 pm

    Oh … I thought this post was going to say, “Happy Mothers’ Day! I bought you a pony!”

    A pet peeve of mine is aspiring writers talking about when (or how, or if) they’re going to “quit my day job” and live off writing. You don’t “quit” your job–you *change* your job. Nobody says, “I quit my day job and became a chemical engineer” or “I quit my day job and became a high school teacher.”

    #8, yeah.

    Reply
    • Russell Blake  –  Sun 11th May 2014 at 9:24 pm

      Rumor has it ponies will eat you out of house and home.

      I used to work 40-50 hours a day when I had a company. Then I quit my day job and retired, and started another business where I worked 50-60.

      Then I quit that one to write, and only work 80 or so hours a week now. Sometimes 100.

      Yeah, quitting your day job sounds neat until you actually do it…

      Reply
  7. Sun 11th May 2014 at 8:26 pm

    Nice post. My favorite line >>

    “I’m saying that being the most popular person in the soup line is still a lousy place to be.”

    It’s already May and I’ve got some writing/publishing to do. Giddy up.

    Reply
  8. Matt Ryan
    Sun 11th May 2014 at 9:13 pm

    Great post, Russell.

    I agree with most of your points. I’d feel a bit hypocritical spending the time reading this post and writing this comment, if I agreed with them all.

    Reply
    • Russell Blake  –  Sun 11th May 2014 at 9:25 pm

      It would be a boring, but better, world, if everyone agreed with me all the time about everything.

      Reply
  9. Mon 12th May 2014 at 3:03 am

    This is so true. I keep using work as the excuse for me not writing but I need to get use to writing in short bursts. I really want to aim to do a book a year

    Reply
  10. Mon 12th May 2014 at 3:25 am

    Well said Russell. I get a lot of questions too. New authors can’t believe how fast and hard and well you must write to succeed. I wrote a free mini book on platform building to save time explaining. I want to help but Idont have time, too busy writing 75% of every writing day.
    I disagree about genre hopping. I’m trying memoir, romance, YA and suspense. It keeps me fresh and excited to do new things.
    Aloha
    Toby Neal

    Reply
    • Russell Blake  –  Mon 12th May 2014 at 12:03 pm

      Well, perhaps I should qualify my statement that you are free to try whatever you like, but if you want to sell well in any of the genres, you’re best sticking to one. Hope you are the exception. Always nice to be fresh and exciting.

      Reply
      • Toby Neal  –  Mon 12th May 2014 at 10:07 pm

        Well, I’m back to writing my main mystery line for guaranteed bread-and-butter results, but I think I have a knack for romance since that’s what keeps the readers raving. And, to be fair, the YA series my agent is selling is teen sleuth… I’m hoping by doing some trad pub deals as well, I’ll expand my reader base across all arenas. Cast a wide net, I say. Or, throw stuff at the wall until it sticks. I like how you’ve kept yourself fresh with subgenres and other than romance and nonfiction, that’s what I’m doing too. Oh, and how do I get to be a guest on your blog? *bats eyes*
        We can swap, I feature authors I think my readers would enjoy, and I know they’d like your Jet series.

        Reply
        • Russell Blake  –  Mon 12th May 2014 at 10:27 pm

          Well, to be fair, it’s just my opinion, and if you have an agent selling it, they might be able to brand it differently. My thinking runs thus: if you’re self-publishing, every hour you are writing would best be spent writing the work that’s in your genre, because that’s what readers will identify you with and you don’t want to mix them up or give them any doubts about who and what you are. If you can get someone to pay you to write in a different genre, super, because the publisher has offset your time/risk with money. But if it’s on spec, I’d avoid it, because my experience has been that you’ll just make the casual reader less likely to buy anything if they aren’t completely sure what it is you write. That’s why I’m doing my romances with a pseudonym – RE Blake – so that those expecting JET don’t get a nasty surprise, and those enthralled with RE Blake’s fine stylings don’t find themselves buying an action tome.

          I don’t normally do guest blogs, but would be willing to make an exception for lots of cash or if the topic was something my audience might enjoy. Email me through the site.

          Reply
          • Toby Neal  –  Tue 13th May 2014 at 2:00 am

            I tackled the genre question on my blog and with my readers here: http://tobyneal.net/2013/09/01/writing-different-genres-turn-readers/

            I think what’s key is that you don’t totally lose all author platform-building efforts so that your faithful readers can dip a toe into your other work. Your solution, by using an initial, totally works. That’s my plan for YA, b/c my mysteries are rated PG-13 at least, and I’d hate to have some dewy-eyed ten year old download the rest of my books…So far, the one romance I did is well reviewed but sells well behind the mysteries, supporting your theory.
            My plan is to wait until I have at least three more to really promote it. Things don’t get rolling until then anyway in any new series…But hey, Melissa Foster pulled off a genre swap! I hear she’s making bank on her romance line.
            And, I’m going to check out your romances. Does that count as “lots of cash?”

          • Russell Blake  –  Tue 13th May 2014 at 11:37 am

            You can definitely change genres, but if you do, best to do it like Melissa or Holly or Elle and be able to generate 6-12 books in that genre within a short space of time – in other words, commit to it as your exclusive genre, don’t dabble in it to see if it gets some traction or not.

            Every author “hopes” their audience will follow them over. That’s why they genre jump, and then flail when they discover that 99% of of thriller readers have no interest in their romance, or 99% of their romance authors have zero interest in their cozy whoddunnit. And yet authors ignore the counsel to stick to a genre so as not to confuse their readers, preferring to operate their publishing business as though it’s there for self-actualization as opposed to selling products to readers, hopefully profitably. My point is that until you’re massive, you are starting over when you go to a new genre, and the chances are nil that you are able to take whatever rep you’ve got in one genre and have it serve any duty in another. Authors hate hearing that because they believe they’re different, but they never are. I know Melissa and Holly and Elle’s stories intimately, and they didn’t genre jump, they switched genres and put 110% into their new endeavor, forever leaving their old one in the dust. Which made their new venture work, as opposed to trying it, seeing if it worked, and then deciding whether that was a good idea after.

            Authors dislike the idea that readers have short attention spans, buy certain authors because they want a particular experience (and not whatever new experience the author feels like offering up today), and categorize their faves by genre. “Russell, he’s the thriller guy.” The more confusing you make it for people to understand who you are, the less likely you’ll sell well. Readers are fickle and have short attention spans, and there are a million authors vying for it. “Russell, he’s the thriller/non-fiction/romance/not sure what’s next guy” doesn’t shift books. I say this not because I have any vested interest in your outcome, but because I haven’t seen it work for folks who try writing cross genre. I’ve seen it work for folks who change genres completely and start anew from ground zero in that new genre building a brand and devoting 12 hours a day to it, but not from folks who do a little of this, a little of that. Sorry. So we have to disagree on that one. Hope you’re the exception.

            The initial/pseudonym is what I came up with as a good compromise. That way anyone who wants to follow you, can, but you don’t kid yourself that you don’t need to build a completely new brand in your new genre.

  11. Jack
    Mon 12th May 2014 at 9:53 am

    #12: Don’t engage in lengthy message board fights with authors who can’t sell more than 5 books a day, but will fight you tooth and nail about the most basic steps of publishing. Amirite? 😀

    Reply
    • Russell Blake  –  Mon 12th May 2014 at 12:02 pm

      Well, yes, there’s some wisdom in that. Proof’s always in the pudding, no?

      Reply
  12. Mon 12th May 2014 at 1:39 pm

    Great post. This list should be required reading for every reader (as well as anyone who thinks they want to be a writer). Love #6 – if more writers spent time working on their craft and less time postulating on facebook, they might find more success.

    Reply
  13. Mon 12th May 2014 at 6:35 pm

    #7: Time Is Not Infinite… kinda made my heart start pounding a bit. It’s a call to arms really. Often I read books that are popular but also crap and I think, “Why write good stuff at all? It’s bad stuff that sells.” Thanks for reminding me. We only let ourselves down when we write substandard work.

    Reply
    • Russell Blake  –  Mon 12th May 2014 at 6:43 pm

      Exactly my point. If you’re not doing this for real, as in to the absolute limits of your abilities, you’re cheating not only the reader, but yourself, because the odds say you won’t make it anyway, and thus what you write is really a sort of declaration about yourself, your abilities, your philosophy of craft – a private emancipation proclamation that maybe, just maybe, someone other than you might be interested in reading.

      But in the end, you’re cheating yourself, because your time is extremely limited and infinitely valuable – or not – depending upon how you value it with your efforts.

      Reply
  14. Mon 12th May 2014 at 8:22 pm

    Thanks Russell
    I was going to blog something along these lines, but you’ve saved me the time. I can just link to it. I so agree the key, beyond all the other BS, is to tell the best stories you can. The other stuff won’t just take care of itself, but it don’t matter a dime if the stories don’t hold.

    Reply
  15. Amber D
    Wed 14th May 2014 at 6:26 pm

    Thanks for sharing, Russell. Great post, all 11 things. 🙂 Especially #7 and getting better at #6.

    Reply
  16. Thu 15th May 2014 at 3:22 pm

    you hit on a lot of points I’ve been struggling with- and you’re right facebook hugs are not selling books- thanks

    Reply
  17. Jean Joachim
    Thu 15th May 2014 at 8:15 pm

    Thank you for the spectacular advice and the locker room pep talk. Super information and I’m on it now. Also bought your book, Angel in Fur.

    Reply
    • Russell Blake  –  Thu 15th May 2014 at 9:47 pm

      Oh, good. I hope you enjoy it. It’s a subject that’s close to my heart, and was one of the most draining books I’ve ever written.

      Reply
  18. cinisajoy
    Fri 16th May 2014 at 5:06 pm

    Number 7 and number 10 are spot on.
    I think every author needs to remember those two especially.
    I think new authors forget that without the reader, they will go hungry. And yet I see so many talking about readers like the readers are idiots.
    It would be best for these new authors to remember who butters their bread.

    Reply

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