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.