17 April 2014 by Published in: Uncategorized 21 comments

In this final installment, I cover a few of the most destructive myths. A warning before you read further: if you’re looking for feel good affirmations, this ain’t gonna be your brand of cereal. But I’ve always believed that it’s best to go into any enterprise with your eyes wide open. God knows I’ve done a few where I didn’t, and those were always failures.

16) Write a good book and you will make decent money. Or write a lot of good books and you will make decent money. Would that it were so. Reality is that the overwhelming majority of good books, which is to say competently written-and-edited tomes, fail to sell much. That’s the harsh truth. If you dislike that fact, that’s fine. The world should be fair, but it’s not. Puppies starve or are crushed by cars or brutalized by sadists every day, good, hard working people are maimed or killed in horrible circumstances, and evil men who have never contributed anything worthwhile to the world prosper while screwing everyone else. So let’s get clear on that. The world is not only not fair, but it’s highly unfair much of the time. Never more so than in the arts.

In the old days of trad publishing, if you rubbed shoulders with the right people in a small area of New York, your odds of being published were off the charts compared to the great unwashed. One of the reasons is because of nepotism. It’s natural. People are more likely to sign you if they know you. Just the way things work. But even so, that was no guarantee you’d have much more than bragging rights. Because readers reject most books traditional publishing slings at them. Whether that’s because the trad establishment’s hopelessly out of touch with what the vast majority of readers prefer and are victims of their own inbred literary tastes, which are usually far more advanced and nuanced than yours or mine, or because nobody has the faintest idea what the public prefers (even on their best day), is debatable. If you’re reading this, it’s probably not your problem, because you’ve chosen to self-publish. Which is a double-edged sword.

Let’s assume you’ve written a good book. Hell, let’s assume it’s a frigging awesome book. I mean, Lord of the Flies-level prose, an incredibly innovative story with unexpected hooks and a message frenzied crowds can rally behind, mesmerizing mastery of craft…the whole shooting match. And let’s further assume you package it well, and have a competent editor polish it, and a proofreader catch most of the nits. You put it out there with an awesome cover and a breathtaking blurb, you do all the right things, you tweet, you facebook, you advertise, you blog, you do interviews, you go to bookstores and kiss babies and shake hands…and nothing happens. The book doesn’t move. You’ve lost a grand or two and are scratching your head, or if like me, are standing on the roof of your house, brandishing a broadsword and a tequila bottle, screaming incoherently at passers-by whilst making obscene gestures with your man thong. Meanwhile, your slow cousin who can barely cobble together three sentences makes a hundred grand from her zombie-vampire love triangle potboiler, with more typos per page than a prison menu and a plot that would make Dr. Seuss cringe.

That’s reality. Shit happens. If you’re writing because you think it’s your ticket out of whatever misery that is your daily grind, think again. It’s not a ticket to stardom. It can be, if you win the lottery, but that’s not a business. That’s playing the lottery. If you write you should do so because you love it. Not for any other reason. And you shouldn’t expect your first, or your fifth, or your tenth book, to put you into the black. Law of averages says you won’t do well. Sorry. And it’s not because you, or your writing, blows goats. Although you or it well might. It’s because life isn’t fair. So get over it already.

When I offer advice, I do so with the expectation that you can write decently. If you can’t, that’s not necessarily a deal killer, but it makes your chances far, far worse. My message is simple: working very hard and very smart can improve your terrible odds, but that’s all it can do. It’s not a magic pill, nor a recipe for success. There is no such thing. The concept that anyone has one is bullshit.

I can tell you how to operate your writing and publishing company intelligently, but you need to recognize that most well-run publishing companies fail. Just as most well-run any-kind-of-companies fail. Most start-ups don’t last. They go belly up. Even those with the smartest people and shiniest wow products. That’s just how it works. Don’t start a company if you’re uncomfortable with that idea. Own it, internalize it, and if you’re okay with it, then plot how to be the exception. Because being one of the majority means you won’t make it. Harsh? Yes. But that’s life.

As I write this, I realize that this topic deserves more examination than a few paragraphs. So forget the rest of the myths I was going to cover today. Let’s focus on this one.

It’s a depressing business. There’s no certainty to any of it. You dance at the king’s pleasure, and there’s no reason to it – it seems completely random…and yes, unfair. Most authors I talk to don’t like hearing that, or think that somehow, they’re the exception. Only they aren’t. Everyone thinks they’re the exception. Every. Single. Person. They’re right and they’re wrong. We’re all special snowflakes, but the world doesn’t really give a crap. So what to do?

I’m a big proponent of choosing a genre that can support you, which means one that’s popular, and sticking to it (with the caveat that if it doesn’t meet your expectations after a massive, concentrated effort, pay attention to the result you’re getting, and switch to something with better odds). I’m also big on publishing regularly, meaning every three or four months (more often if possible) if you intend to make this your living. I’m huge on pro editing and covers and proofreading. I consider your cover and your blurb essential to success. But those are the basics. Important basics, but still, building blocks.

They will narrow your long odds because most authors simply don’t do what they should to make themselves successful. Understanding that is an advantage. It means you already know more than 90% of those who will publish on Amazon this year. If you do everything right, that will make you the 10% that has a chance.

But still, it’s not a lock. By any stretch of the imagination. Get clear on that. In all businesses, this included, you can do everything absolutely, spectacularly right, and go nowhere. Because God hates you. Or because the world’s unfair. Or because you’re not good enough. Or were born under a dark star. Or didn’t get breast fed enough as a child. Pick your reason. It doesn’t matter what it is, as long as you recognize that in ALL industries, most businesses do not succeed.

Nobody’s holding a gun to your head, forcing you to write. It breaks my heart when I correspond with authors for whom writing is their last chance – they have no money, no prospects, their life has hit bottom, and their hope is that their book will pull them out of the swamp.

It doesn’t work that way. It can, but it’s as rare as flipping a coin and having it land on its side. Mostly, those are people whose dreams will be crushed by a cold uncaring world. Is that fair? No. Go back and reread my words about life not being fair.

I wish I could tell you how to avoid being that person. I wish there were a formula. What I’ve come up with I share openly: Pick a genre you love and that’s large enough to support you, stick to it, write a lot of seriously good books, focus on improving your grasp of craft each time you sit down to write, make each book your best ever (meaning respect your reader above all else), package and quality control your books like the pros do, market intelligently, and spend massive amounts of time and energy working smarter than everyone else. And above all, be extremely realistic about everything. Some might say, cynical. I’d say pragmatic. Don’t allow your mind to be your worst enemy. Understand you’ve taken on a difficult challenge. Eschew those who cheerlead and cajole – that won’t do you any good. Be  your own motivation. Don’t rely on others. Develop a relentless drive to succeed at this, don’t take no for an answer, and build a self-perpetuating engine of achievement and determination. Make yourself essential and relevant. Don’t have an attitude, just focus on backing your mouth with product that delivers. Or have an attitude. Whatever. In the end it won’t matter. The important part is to recognize that your job, should you decide to take it, is to be one of the exceptions, and that to do so is damned hard.

Now that you want to put your head in the oven, let’s look at the positives. Right now, your odds of making decent money, even good money, are better than at any time in the history of publishing. More authors are making five and six figures self-publishing than ever. It’s happening every minute. It’s not an illusion. Every day new names appear on the bestseller lists, but perhaps more importantly, every day more authors are appearing with four, six, ten books in the #1000-#15,000 ranks, which collectively, add up to a nice living. It can be done. And you can do it. Someone has to. Why not you?

I counsel tough love. My inner dialogue isn’t particularly fluffy or fun. I’m hard-nosed as they come when I put my business hat on. I don’t bullshit myself into performance. I sit down, get clear on how hard it is to do whatever I’m thinking about doing, determine what I’ll need to do to succeed, ask myself honestly whether I’m willing to do what it takes, and if so, I spend some serious time researching how to devise a plan that will make me the exception. I’ve done that in a number of different fields. It works more often that it doesn’t. It’s not a magic bullet, but it narrows your odds.

Can you do this part time and make it? Sure you can. So can someone who starts any business part time. Just recognize that your odds of making it are lower than if you did it full time. Duh. Put in 80 hours a week, you might get better results than 10. Big surprise. Can you put in 10 or 20 and still do well? Sure. Again, anything’s possible. But you have to be unable to grasp basic business concepts if you think your odds will be the same. If they were, nobody would put in the 80. They’d all put in the 10, because their odds are identical. Figure it out.

Self-publishing is two jobs, not one. It’s the job of being an author, and hopefully a constantly improving one who’s concerned with mastering an essentially un-masterable craft, and it’s the job of being a publisher, which is a production, marketing and distribution engine. Two separate jobs. Both requiring an investment in time and energy.

I get a lot of emails. I talk to a lot of authors who are making decent to great money at self-publishing. They all work their asses off. Every. Single. One. They all publish regularly, are hyper-aware of the changing landscape of the marketplace, invest money in their business, and are constantly trying to improve their product. And they all love what they do, and are passionate about it. They’d be doing it if they were making a tenth what they make. Because it’s what they do.

What’s my point? That self-publishing is both exciting in its possibilities and daunting in its requirements. And that very few businesses succeed, whether it’s a new shoe shop, or a convenience store, or a restaurant, or a software start-up…or a publishing company. But it’s more possible now to succeed than at any point in the past. I’m living proof. Authors like Bella Andre (who I’ll be featuring this month on an Author Spotlight), Holly Ward, Melissa Foster, Barbara Freethy, Courtney Milan, Hugh Howey, LT Ryan, CJ Lyons, Jay Allen, Saxon Andrew, Joe Nobody, BV Larson, Colleen Hoover, and on and on and on, are doing it every day, and making bank. They’re all exceptions. Every single one. Not one chose the same path. Not one did exactly the same thing. They all made their own way, in their own way.

The good news is there’s plenty of room for more. The question is not whether there will be more, the question is whether you will be one of them, and what your plan is to get there.

Now I’m going back to writing my next one. JET – Ops Files is in the bag and will release in a week, and it’s a barn burner of a prequel to the JET series. My co-authored action/adventure novel with Clive Cussler is already in the top 1000 as a pre-order, five months before release. Sales are good, more readers seem to like me than hate me, and I’m enjoying the hell out of writing for a living. It doesn’t get any better than that.




  1. Thu 17th Apr 2014 at 1:11 am

    Nice one, Russell. Nailed it, as always. The scary thing is, I really can imagine you up on the roof with the sword and tequila…

    • Russell Blake  –  Thu 17th Apr 2014 at 10:37 am

      I’m pretty sure the news cams have a good image of me. But the downdraft from the damned helicopters is distracting. Never my finest hour.

  2. Thu 17th Apr 2014 at 1:39 am

    I’m with Alan on this. I came away with write well, don’t have big money expectations, and you on the roof with the sword.

  3. Thu 17th Apr 2014 at 2:05 am

    Think you’ve got it about right Russell. With 38 books on KDP I’m still not quite making a living…. but it’s fun. Wouldn’t know what else to do with my time. Nice of you to point out the reality of the publishing game. After 30 years of owning a small publishing operation in Australia I gave up on it….. became too difficult and competitive. I wouldn’t own a publishing company these days even if my life depended on it. Life’s too precious. Specially if you get drunk on tequila on a roof. I’ll stick to skydiving. it’s safer!

  4. Thu 17th Apr 2014 at 2:26 am

    My favorite yet. Once I realized that luck played a bigger role in all of this than anything else, I felt much better. I’ve never been lucky, this shouldn’t be much different, so why not do it because I enjoy it and let that be enough? I’ve been letting that sink in lately, and i think in the end, I might find some balance. I love your honesty and your straightforwardness. Big puppy kisses to you.

  5. cinisajoy
    Thu 17th Apr 2014 at 11:42 am

    Great post as always. Now where can I find that video?

  6. Thu 17th Apr 2014 at 4:20 pm

    Well said, Russell Blake! Absolutely agree that most businesses fail, and so the publishing business is no different. IIRC statistically, most businesses don’t survive past the fourth year. I agree it’s important to remember, as you wrote: “And above all, be extremely realistic about everything.”

    Thanks again for the sobering reminder. To that end, I need to stop genre-hopping and just focus on what I think I write best. So easy for me to nod in agreement to what you said but so hard to not be distracted by shiny genres: “Pick a genre you love and that’s large enough to support you, stick to it, write a lot of seriously good books, focus on improving your grasp of craft…”

  7. Traci
    Thu 17th Apr 2014 at 4:43 pm

    I for one never truly realized how close we all were to having you making rude gestures with your man thong, and am so thankful that you managed to help us all avoid that ugly fate.

    And I’m also incredibly grateful that you don’t mince words or sugar coat the truth and that eventually, it got through my thick skull.

    Anywho, book 8 is with the proofers and I’m 2000 words into book 9. Here’s to being the next Gemma Halliday!

    • Russell Blake  –  Thu 17th Apr 2014 at 5:41 pm

      Awesome. And my hunch is you’re getting better with each one, which is part of the process (hopefully), improving the odds of actually having a breakout at some point. Nice!

  8. Thu 17th Apr 2014 at 6:53 pm

    Not to be contrary, but I find these posts pretty inspirational, even with the no nonsense pragmatism. If I wanted pie-in-the-sky advice, I’d listen to someone else.

  9. Thu 17th Apr 2014 at 8:47 pm

    I’m a newbie to your site and really enjoyed your post. I quit making comments about the business of writing (other than here obviously) because I just got tired of saying things like, “But we’re capitalists.” or “This is a business with winners and losers.” I would get hammered by other authors because I didn’t get the ‘art’ component of writing.

    • Russell Blake  –  Thu 17th Apr 2014 at 10:27 pm

      Writing is art, or craft, depending upon who you talk to. But the business of selling books is anything but. I make a clear distinction between book selling and writing. I encourage others to do the same, as it’s worked nicely for me, and by thinking of it in that way (writing as the art of creation, book selling as the creation of a product for sale) I’ve been able to ensure that I invest time and money appropriately. If I’m shopping a MS to trad publishing, there’s no investment but my time. But if I want to sell my book to readers, I’m now in the publishing game, and that’s a business just like any other, concerned with crass commercial issues like profit, loss, etc. They are two separate things, and if folks hammer you it’s because they don’t share that worldview, or are confounding the two.

      Writing certainly can be art. Selling books? That’s one step up from being a rug merchant, or one step down, depending upon your perspective.

      • james F. Coyle  –  Fri 18th Apr 2014 at 12:29 am

        Absolutely correct! Writing and selling are two different entities. No connection. Like chalk and cheese. If you want to write because it fulfils an inner need…. go ahead. But if you want to write to make money …. write in a popular genre. Give the public want THEY want…. not what satisfies you. Big difference. Take a look at the genres that are selling. Action, Historical Fiction, The Walking dead survival stuff, etc. Marketing popular stuff is vastly easier and more responsive than writing for a small niche market. Writing is a creative skill. Marketing is a business skill which is not naturally inherent…. it has to be learnt. Different critters. It’s a numbers game. The more potential buyers you have for a specific category the better your chances are of making money. Keep writing. If one of your books eventually makes big time you’ll be darn glad you have 10 of them published rather than just 2 because the top seller will drag the others up with it. More money!

  10. Amber Dane
    Thu 17th Apr 2014 at 9:48 pm

    Thanks for sharing this. I know I need to be more self-confident in what I can do. Appreciate the post, Russell!

  11. Bethany B.
    Fri 18th Apr 2014 at 2:51 am

    Great post! I wish that more authors would read this and internalize the meaning. When I was editing, I had a number of authors that never seemed to match up their expectations and the market. Then they expected that I, as the editor, would make it work. *blink-blink* I’ll get right on that.

    I’m a realist if I’m anything, and it’s served me well in my own writing. It’s advice like this that only proved what I already knew. Being an author was never a sure thing and getting ahead was going to take a lot of work if my writing ever started to take off. Now I work harder than I did when I was 20 and had 3 jobs. But it’s all for me and it’s all worth it.

    Looking forward to seeing what else you have.

    • Russell Blake  –  Sat 19th Apr 2014 at 6:01 pm

      It’s definitely the longest hours I’ve ever clocked. But I’m enjoying the ride, and thank God, readers seem to enjoy the scribbling. Can’t ask for much more than that.

  12. Fri 18th Apr 2014 at 6:36 am

    Russell, another very perceptive and entertaining article. I don’t share your view that it’s entirely luck; am more of a believer in the Gary Player quip “the harder I practice….the luckier I get.”
    I have now written and published 4 books in the past 6 months and applied some of the excellent recommendations that you shared both personally and through your web letters. Sales are sloooow but the reviews are good so despite the commercial maths not being very exciting continue to work on the next book.
    For what it’s worth my belief in life has always been built around the approach of GOWI (Get On With It). Unless one puts oneself in danger of being successful nothing is going to happen. Invariably in business generally one has to “kiss a lot of frogs” (metaphorically speaking before anyone rushes out and starts snogging the wildlife) before one finds one’s prince/cess.
    There’s a great expression used in Scotland when out fishing for salmon “dry lines catch nae fish” – it’s a truism for many facets of life and at least in my opinion worth bearing in mind when it comes to self publishing books.
    I very much doubt that your involvement in the Cussler project is anything more than a just reward for all the hard work that you have put into your craft over the years.

    • Russell Blake  –  Fri 18th Apr 2014 at 11:32 am

      Well, you’ll note that I say that following my path, which involves about 95% hard work, greatly improves one’s odds. However, there is an element of the random to all of it, not just in writing, but in everything. As I’ve said before, you go to the market, the person ahead of you is hit by a drunk driver, not you. That’s luck. Bad luck for the driver ahead of you, good luck for you. People hate that there’s random, uncontrollable luck to the equation, but all of life has some of that. Still, you can narrow the long odds considerably by creating a hospitable environment for luck to come in and spend some time, and that generally involves a lot of blood, sweat and beers.

    • James F. Coyle  –  Fri 18th Apr 2014 at 7:45 pm

      Interesting thing about luck…… when I owned my Oz publishing company I published a lot of authors. Several of them were extremely “lucky” and got brilliant results. Strange thing was 3 of them I remember were inherently lucky. Everything they touched turned to gold. Years later when I formed the Australian Mindpower Research Foundation the first thing we researched was luck. Came out with a couple of world firsts. We concluded that luck was your personal psychokinetic resonance with your environment. And secondly…. and most importantly…….. luck was entirely 100% controlled by your subconscious mind. We found that luck could be enhanced…… particularly by producing bursts of Theta waves…. which tend to set off psychokinetic effects. (The Russian researchers proved this). When under severe stress with a compelling emotional yearning luck often happens. Either good or bad, depending entirely on the individual’s emotional belief system. That is…. a positive or negative thinker. But whatever, your mind controls your luck. We proved this conclusively in a gambling environment. Way back in time I was on the point of bankruptcy. The bank had just bounced one of my cheques for a lousy $3. I was desperate…. about a week before going bankrupt. Out of the blue something happened and 3 days later I had $40,000 in my bank account. Luck! Yes. Created by a positive emotional expectancy. Believe in yourself. Constantly visualize that satisfactory outcome. It may take a while……. but your subconscious eventually gets the message and it works.
      End of sermon…….

  13. Old Git
    Fri 18th Apr 2014 at 5:58 pm

    Just a disclaimer here:

    When I made those prison menus I was afraid that if I spelled everything perfectly: A) The residents wouldn’t understand it, and B) They would gang-rape me in the showers because I was a spelling-bee sissy.

    It’s obvious to even the most challenged inmate that “Eel and Fries” is more likely to be Egg and Fries” – especially in institutions that are far inland.

    One has to write to one’s audience.

  14. Fri 25th Apr 2014 at 12:14 pm

    You’re dead on. I do the right things and I’ve sold a few hundred books. (I don’t keep track.) I write because I enjoy it. I do it instead of watching TV. 90 minutes a day produces 2 books a year. It’s lots of fun. If it makes $ some day, it’s a bonus. I have a few readers that like my books and that’s cool with me.

    My advice to new authors, who aren’t afraid of clowns, is to make writing a secondary occupation, unless you’re fond of dumpster diving…



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