02 April 2014 by Published in: Uncategorized 30 comments

Last week I covered the top 8 most insidious falsehoods I’ve heard about being a self-pubbed author. This week I continue my rant and tackle a few more:

9) We are artists, above the vagaries of commerce and filthy lucre. Sure we are. Until we want to make money by selling our work. At that point we’re in the book selling business, which is a commercial enterprise involving the production and sale of books. In the case of self-publishers, of books we have written. Our author selves may well be artists, but if you want to avoid being a starving one you need to develop the skills of a publisher, not an author. They are different. You need both.

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NEWS: My co-authored novel w/ the one and only Clive Cussler, The Eye of Heaven, is now available for pre-order!

NEWS: This is kind of fun. My deal with Amazon Crossing has issued forth a German edition of King of Swords!

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At the risk of being obvious, if you want to make good decisions for your book selling business, ask yourself the questions you’re grappling with as though you were deciding on selling and packaging other people’s books. That removes you as the author from your publishing business decisions. Which is as it should be. If you wouldn’t sink a grand into packaging someone else’s book on making bass lures out of Coke cans, you probably shouldn’t be doing it for your own, either. Or put really simply, if something looks like dead money, don’t waste your, or your readers’, time, regardless of who wrote it.

If you don’t want to, or can’t, develop those skills, start querying agents, because you won’t have a good self-publishing experience. Uploading your screed on Amazon does not a viable self-publisher make, any more than printing a thousand books and having them in your garage will make you a successful traditional publisher.

10) Your muse cannot be forced to dance. Of course it can. If you were a writer on 24 or CSI or SNL you’d be expected to perform every week or you’d be out of a job. Most who work hard enough to get those gigs don’t want to lose ’em, so they perform. Whether they feel like it or not. Whether they’re particularly inspired or not. The notion that you need to wait for your muse to decide to infuse you with story is fine if your books sell 10 million and you can afford to wait 4 or 5 years between each one. If that’s not you, you need to develop two things: a work ethic, and a system to inspire yourself.

One technique I use is to ask myself how I can make this book, or this chapter, the best I’ve ever written. You get completely different answers depending upon what questions you ask yourself. “How can I consistently write 5K a day and enjoy it?” will get you a different answer than “How am I ever going to do this?” If you’re stuck, ask better questions.

11) Everyone’s got a book in them. Maybe, but that doesn’t mean it’s a good one. Given that most people are by definition average, most people’s books will also be average, which is to say, mediocre or middling. Yours too. If you want to be above average, you need an edge. Talent helps. But working hard to develop your grasp of craft will result in a far better result than relying on talent alone. Which means if you want to be a writer people are willing to pay to read (be they agents/publishers, or readers), you need to learn the basics of your craft: grammar, spelling, story structure, vocabulary. Far too many sit down and start writing believing they’ve been blessed with unique properties that will enable them to write books people want to read without having done much, or any, of the work to become competent at what they’re doing. Guess what the odds are that turns out well? The same as everyone else’s. Or actually, far worse, because even if 99% of all books fail to find an audience, that includes a boatload of competently executed books. If you don’t know how to write, your odds are way worse than that blended average.

If you want to make your book exceptional, expect to have to work at becoming an exceptional story teller and writer. In my experience that doesn’t happen by clicking your heels together and wishing it were so. It requires effort. A lot of it. Which means you need to study how to write a good book and learn about things like echoes (repeated words), how to vary sentence structure, how to avoid things like head hopping, etc. etc. – unless you have a miraculous gift that’s one in ten million. In other words, expect to have to spend time learning your craft.

I get told I’m a big meanie for saying this. But if I were a piano teacher, I wouldn’t be considered mean if I told students they needed to spend a lot of time and energy getting good enough to be paid to perform. If I were teaching ballet and I told aspiring ballerinas they could expect to spend years before they’d be even close to competent, I wouldn’t be labeled mean. If I taught cooking, I wouldn’t be a buzz kill if I told aspirants they’d need to spend years learning the ropes. Even if you wanted to do something as workmanlike as being a cosmetologist or a plumber you’d expect to spend a while learning which end of the scissors or wrench to hold, and yet many hopeful authors’ plan amounts to, “I’ll just write a book and see how it does.” Or worse yet, “I’ll write a book and it should do well, on account of how special I am.” Here’s the newsflash: nothing worth doing’s ever easy. This, especially. If you think this is going to be easy, you came to the wrong dance.

12) I’m too busy to read. Who’s got the time? This one kills me. How in the hell do you expect to be a good writer if you don’t read a lot of good books? Intuition? Divine guidance? Magic? It’s like saying you plan to be a movie director, but don’t have time to watch and study films. Then how do you know anything about that which you are planning to do? Look, I understand we’re living in an instant gratification world where, if we can imagine it, we feel entitled to it, but that isn’t how this works. In order to master something, you need to do a lot of it (practice) and you need to model successful examples (reading/studying writing). Reading a lot is how you do the latter. There’s no way your writing’s going to be very good if you don’t read a lot. Sorry. Make time for it or find some other pipe dream where you don’t have to work to master it.

13) So-and-so hit big without marketing/with their first book/is illiterate/sucks. Sure. Anything at all’s possible, and you could be the one in a gazillion. But the odds are better that you won’t wake up tomorrow, or will be killed by a crocodile or a falling coconut. Or paralyzed on the way to work. Singling out the exceptions that defy explanation is a fun game, but it’s not particularly useful unless you can reproduce that success, which you won’t be able to do. Because you aren’t them, in the same time, place, market, with the identical set of circumstances, experiences or contacts. Sorry. You aren’t. So pointing to no-talent hacks whose books sold big, while amusing, doesn’t mean your business plan should amount to “be a no-talent hack, too.” Pointing to books that defy all odds and are breakouts is a great pastime, but if it doesn’t enable you to predict the next breakout, it’s useless. Whenever I hear a variation of this, I shake my head because I know I’m hearing a rationalization for failure.

14) I don’t have time/energy/money/whatever to do this right. Fair enough. Nobody’s holding a gun to your head. But as I’m fond of saying, don’t expect full-time rewards from part-time effort. Figure out what the average part-time, unskilled or marginally skilled job pays, and that’s what your expectation should be based upon if you haven’t invested a ton of time mastering your craft (the skilled part) and can only allocate a few hours here and there (the part-time bit) executing.

This one always pisses people off. “But that’s not necessarily true!” If not, why, exactly, not? In what world does putting in time “whenever you can” translate into a successful career at anything (and please don’t point to #13 – some outlier who was a lightning strike)? That’s not to run down those who don’t write full time. I can completely sympathize. For years I wrote whenever I could, practicing, learning my craft, while I did other things. But I didn’t expect to make full time money at it. I didn’t think it was good enough for people to pay to read. I may be many things, but delusional in that regard isn’t one of them. My expectations were reasonable: I expected to get better over time, and maybe get good enough to write for a living, or at least to be proud of what I generated as being worth readers’ money.

That’s just on the writing side. If you intend to query, you better make damned sure your work is frigging brilliant or you’ll spend forever getting rejected. You can spend years getting that one book just right, so that approach can accommodate a part-time schedule. But if you want to be a vocational self-publisher, you also have the full-time job of being the publisher in addition to being the writer. That’s a ton of responsibility and two full-time jobs you’ll be doing only part-time. So what’s your expectation?

I think the biggest killer in this business is having unreasonable expectations. They’re a recipe for disappointment. So many seem to believe that they can put something up on Amazon, after having practiced little or not at all learning their craft, and having invested nothing in editing, packaging, etc., and yet somehow do well. It’s akin to announcing oneself to be a master chef, after having spent a lifetime microwaving TV dinners and dining on fast food, and expecting folks to line up for your culinary masterpieces when you have little idea how to boil water. Not even in the movies does this turn out well. Be honest with yourself. Figure out what it will take to achieve your dreams, and then get ready for some serious sacrifice and work. Maybe you’ll get lucky and be the next EL James, but odds say not so much. Get clear on what a reasonable expectation is, then devise a plan to achieve it.

15) I’m good. I can self-edit. Why throw money away? I can’t tell you how often I hear this one. Usually from novices who grossly overestimate their own competence. Their logic goes, hey, I know how to write, so I’m qualified to edit my own stuff. No, darlin’, you special snowflake, you aren’t. For instance, you might understand the basics of grammar, and then use the same word six times in three sentences while approving stilted dialogue that sounds idiotic and wooden. Or you may simply not know you’re getting half of it wrong, in which case you’ll also fail to see your deficiencies on the editing pass. Or you may be blind to lazy habits like repeating yourself every few pages, or belaboring plot points, or you might have pacing or plotting issues, or myriad other sins you don’t know are problems. To put it into perspective, in many of the arts, coaching is ongoing, be it music, or dance, or acting. But for some reason, many beginning authors believe it’s unnecessary, to their career’s detriment.

It’s possible you’ve been an editor for a decade or three, in which case you can ignore this (although even the editors I know who write use editors for their work). If not, read on.

Worse of all, and this probably isn’t you if you read my blog regularly, are the authors who say “but I don’t have the money to hire an editor.” Ah. But you have a cell phone and cable TV and manage to fork enough into your pie hole to pack on a few extra. So it’s not that you don’t have it, it’s that you either are unwilling to sacrifice and save it, or won’t. To me that’s disdainful of your readers, and is a recipe for disaster, and speaks volume about your commitment to turning out a good product.

I can honestly say that 99+% of serious authors I’ve met appreciate and understand why professional editing matters. Those that argue against it invariably are trying to figure out how to produce the cheapest product, not a quality one. And they will also be the loudest to howl over all the “unfair” and “mean” reviews as their sales stall to nothing. I’ve gotten to the point where I rarely try to argue this anymore. If you think you’re the exception and possess the editing chops of someone with decades of germane experience, or your girlfriend or buddy or second cousin says they can edit your work and you believe that’s equivalent to hiring a seasoned pro, and saving those few hundred bucks are representative of your approach to this highly competitive business, knock yourself out.

That’s my slice of reality from the ink trenches this week. If you disagree, or think I’m a party pooper, that’s your right. I get paid exactly the same for being right as being wrong on this blog. It’s your career, not mine, and I’m just trying to share what I’ve learned along the way. Take it all for what it’s worth.

 

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Comments

  1. Laura Taylor
    Thu 03rd Apr 2014 at 12:52 am

    Truths well stated!
    Thank you.
    LT

    Reply
  2. Thu 03rd Apr 2014 at 10:19 am

    I actually enjoy the marketing side of self-publishing. I think it’s fun. Maybe because of my years in retail and having to hit certain sales numbers/track promotions. Dunno.

    They call you a big meanie? That’s not very nice.

    Reply
  3. Thu 03rd Apr 2014 at 12:31 pm

    You have a knack for telling me the stuff I don’t want to hear, but probably need to. Hard work doesn’t bother me, but I always used to claim that paying for editors was cheating. In other words, I’m a tightwad. Funny I can pony up $1500 for a conference, though. I’d wager I’d get a better return on that if I sent it to an editor. Thanks for taking the time to share with us.

    Reply
    • Russell Blake  –  Thu 03rd Apr 2014 at 5:05 pm

      A good editor polishes the work and teaches you to be a better writer, so it’s only cheating in the sense that taking advanced study courses is cheating…

      Reply
      • Bridget McKenna  –  Thu 17th Apr 2014 at 1:28 pm

        As an editor frequently reading about how unnecessary many writers think my work is, I really appreciated the way you linked editing to coaching. The prevailing meme among anti-editor writers seems to be “Editors try to change your voice!” or “Editors can ruin your story.” Well, no, good editors are like good coaches–they call out what you’re not doing well and help you make what you do best even better.

        Reply
  4. andy holloman
    Thu 03rd Apr 2014 at 3:11 pm

    <<>>> bravo maestro

    Reply
  5. andy holloman
    Thu 03rd Apr 2014 at 3:16 pm

    …hey rb, i forgot to add, i like your analogies to other professions….can you imagine someone sitting down in front of a piano for a few hours one day and then deciding they are going to be billy joel in 12 months….it takes work + (practice x 10 x 10 x10 x10)

    Reply
    • Russell Blake  –  Thu 03rd Apr 2014 at 5:04 pm

      Yup. Insane. And yet, well, there you have it…

      Reply
  6. cinisajoy
    Thu 03rd Apr 2014 at 3:56 pm

    Wonderful post. But then I am coming to expect that from you.

    Reply
    • Russell Blake  –  Thu 03rd Apr 2014 at 5:03 pm

      I blush…

      Reply
  7. Thu 03rd Apr 2014 at 5:21 pm

    As always, wonderful post. “If you think this is going to be easy, you came to the wrong dance.” Amen.

    Reply
  8. Jack Rourk
    Thu 03rd Apr 2014 at 5:28 pm

    As is usual Russell you are absolutely on the money. I find it both funny and sad that some fools think they can get good results with half-a$$ efforts and will refute your common sense. Gotta laugh. More myth-busters coming?

    Reply
    • Russell Blake  –  Thu 03rd Apr 2014 at 6:14 pm

      Submit your myths now! We can make it a weekly event!

      Reply
  9. Old Git
    Thu 03rd Apr 2014 at 6:15 pm

    Another good series of observations ~ firm but fair fare for the feckless out there.

    Reply
  10. Thu 03rd Apr 2014 at 9:56 pm

    Just found myths 1 & 2 quite by accident. Love ’em. I’m a journalist of 36 years experience, with one self-published book, two YA novels and a handful of guide and cookbooks under my belt. Can honestly say every word here is honest to goodness gold. Well done and well said. Nice to read some straightforward advice with all the sugar-coating …

    Reply
    • Russell Blake  –  Fri 04th Apr 2014 at 5:21 pm

      Trust me, there’s a segment of the indie population that frigging hates this message, and me for bearing it.

      Reply
  11. Thu 03rd Apr 2014 at 11:46 pm

    Good, well worded warnings and the advice is unassailable. Thanks.

    Reply
  12. Peter Spenser
    Fri 04th Apr 2014 at 7:53 pm

    Speaking of self-editing: I believe that you mean “pastime” (“a way of spending spare time pleasantly”) instead of “pass time.”

    Reply
    • Russell Blake  –  Fri 04th Apr 2014 at 8:43 pm

      Thanks. I’m typing with one hand, so it’s entirely possible I’ve flubbed others as well.

      Although it reinforces my point. Maybe there’s hope for a hit yet…

      Reply
  13. Jamie L. Blair
    Fri 04th Apr 2014 at 10:02 pm

    [slow clap]

    Very well said. As a writer and avid reader, it’s almost offensive when indie authors take obvious shortcuts. If they want to be taken seriously, they have to take themselves seriously first.

    Reply
    • Russell Blake  –  Fri 04th Apr 2014 at 10:34 pm

      I find it contemptuous. I’ve said so on popular message boards and been lambasted for doing so. But my view is that just because you can upload something on Amazon for free, doesn’t mean you should without putting in all the quality control measures you would if you were a trad publisher. I put my work through two editors and a proofreader. I do that because I want my work to be viewed as having value. It makes me crazy when authors, usually newbies, act like saving several hundred bucks to hire a pro editor is an impossible hurdle they shouldn’t have to face – like it’s a divine right or an entitlement to publish, and the thought that it may require they invest in their business is noxious. In what other industry do business owners think it’s reasonable to start a company with no experience, no acumen, and no start-up costs? It’s a kind of madness, IMO, and is a weird version of entitlement thinking, like a lottery ticket absent the cost of the ticket. It actually reminds me of the singers who upload a vid to Youtube of themselves singing in their PJs, and expect that the demand for their special brand of talent will cause a rush of folks who want to purchase their wares. Sure, you get 500K hopefuls doing so, you will see a few success stories, but it’s foolishness to propose that it’s a good business strategy.

      I get tons of flack from a certain segment that think it’s elitist to propose basic quality control measures by qualified professionals. Elitist because the authors presume that they shouldn’t have to invest a dime in their business. I don’t get it. At all.

      Reply
  14. Mon 07th Apr 2014 at 6:07 am

    So much great information. I find I’m checking in on your blog nearly daily just to make sure I stay up on your thoughts — at least the ones you’re willing to share!! Thanks!

    Reply
  15. Wed 09th Apr 2014 at 2:25 pm

    Your brand of slap in the face candor is just the shock we indie writers need in this business, myself included. It’s easy to delude ourselves and say, “I can cut that corner” or, as you point out, “That guy got rich half-assing it and having no real talent, so I might too.” It’s so easy to make excuses for ourselves. And even reading advice online or hearing people speak politely on the subject can glance right off of the nice comfy vaneer of dried BS we layer on ourselves.

    But when you state the facts of the matter like a drill instructor the way you always do, it knocks that crusty glaze off of us. It’s literally like a slap in the face saying, “Hey @$$hole, I’m talking to you! Stop nodding along like you know everything and pay attention!”

    So thanks for that. 🙂

    Reply
    • Russell Blake  –  Wed 09th Apr 2014 at 3:05 pm

      I just get so tired of all the happy horseshit that’s routinely shoveled on the web. A weird self-reinforcing loop of BS and high hopes. I never trusted it when I started out, suspected most of it was wrong, and have become convinced that 90% of those claiming to know much, or anything, in fact don’t. So I don’t try to be kind or gentle. Rather, I try to impart common sense and basic skills that will enable those who follow in the same footsteps to duplicate my results, or at least have a better shot at it. Not everybody likes my style or my message.

      They can bite me.

      Reply
  16. Nancy Bristow
    Thu 10th Apr 2014 at 10:36 am

    I do love your candor, Russell Blake. 🙂

    Reply
    • Russell Blake  –  Thu 10th Apr 2014 at 12:50 pm

      Who put the can in…never mind…

      Reply
  17. Daniel Gage
    Thu 10th Apr 2014 at 4:04 pm

    As an aspiring/dreaming writer, I hang on every word people like you and Hugh have to say.

    Keep it coming. I’m fairly certain without posts like this I wouldn’t be almost done with my fourth book. And I’m certain there are others like me.

    Reply
  18. Sun 13th Apr 2014 at 8:18 pm

    Russell,

    Who are your editors?

    Reply
    • Russell Blake  –  Sun 13th Apr 2014 at 8:58 pm

      Email me and I’ll gladly provide you with their contact info. Dorothy Zemach does first pass, and David Van Dyke does second. Both are quite good.

      Reply
  19. Fri 02nd May 2014 at 9:43 pm

    These are the best posts on the indie business I’ve read, and I’ve been reading for a few years now. Thanks, dude.

    BTW, it should be #16, not #1 (grin)

    Reply

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