11 January 2015 by Published in: Uncategorized 55 comments

One of the things I’ve always had a hard time buying into is the nearly religious zealotry with which some authors approach the business of self-publishing and content creation. I mean, I’m all for enthusiasm and passion, but I’m talking more the kind of creepy zeal that those moon-faced people who come to your door to tell you about their evangelical beliefs tend to have.

People. Writing is a craft. One that requires passion and skill if you’re going to do it right. It is not the search for the holy grail. It is not the answer to all questions. It is not a pursuit wherein blind, all-consuming faith is going to help you much.

I remember back in the day I had friends who played music. They would spend every spare hour after school noodling on their guitars, working to get better, to hone their chops. Quite a few were convinced that if they only really, totally, seriously lived the rock life (be it punk, or whatever), that was what was required to make them the genuine article. Some turned to drugs, aping their favorite idols because so-and-so did heroin or whatnot. Just about all of them wound up not making any money playing music, and some destroyed their lives, while still others sacrificed theirs as casualties to erroneous beliefs.

I’ve been warning for some time that it’s going to get harder to make any real money at self-publishing. I think I first warned of it around April, 2013, and have continued since then, because, well, the world’s moving fast, things are constantly changing, and there are mega-corporations filled with very smart people whose job is to sell books to the same people to whom you are trying to sell books.

It is very hard to build a readership. It’s also very hard to write anything worthy of commanding a readership. These two things are unlikely to change. What they are likely to do is become even more difficult as we move through 2015 toward 2016. That’s just the way it is.

Self-publishing is not the cure to your financial woes. It is not a get rich quick scheme. It’s not easy, or all that fun, a lot of the time. It’s the business of marketing and selling books.

Content creation for your publishing company, AKA writing, can and should be joyful and immersive and enrapturing. It should satisfy some inner part of you that needs to create. It is extremely unlikely to make you any serious money, and is quite likely to cost you a bunch over time, as do all hobbies. Back to my musician friends; they had to buy guitars and amps, strings, picks, pay for rehearsal space, pay for ads, pay for stage clothes, and on and on. They did not expect to make money unless they knocked one out of the park: got a record deal, and were lucky enough to have a hit or two. But it was still worth it to them, because it was their passionate pursuit.

But I also remember the ones who didn’t seem to get that, who’d convinced themselves that if they pushed all the chips onto the table, put it all on the line, they’d have an edge over those who didn’t. You know what? Maybe in terms of motivation they did, but not in terms of improving their odds. They were still terrible odds. They are today. They will be tomorrow. That’s just the game. Don’t like it? Don’t play.

What brought this all back to me was a long discussion I had with an aspiring writer on a plane the other day. This woman, who shall remain nameless, was convinced she could do it. I drilled down and asked her what preparation she’d done – how much time she’d spent honing her craft, learning how to write a decent story versus a crappy one, feeding her head by reading great books, etc. etc. Turns out not nearly as much time as she’d spent wishing she was Nora Roberts.

I explained in the most gentle terms that she should write with joy and abandon, really enjoy the process at every level, because she and a million other aspirants were all hoping to get the same reward, but that there were only so many treats available in the real world, and that the journey, the process of writing something good, was the critical thing. Because the odds of anyone – me, my buddies, the most capable and erudite people I’ve ever met or heard of, even Nora Roberts – getting to the point where they were making any kind of real money from their writing, were astronomical.

The conversation didn’t go well after that. It was a bumpy flight. I’m not expecting a Christmas card from her.

My point is that if you’re a writer, it’s okay if you believe it’s your true calling, but in my experience, those who narrow their odds of making it nearly universally invest massive time and effort becoming good at what they do, and as well as being lucky, work tirelessly to drag the frigging world to their door so they can catch a break. The becoming good part generally takes a lot of hard work and time – and there are no shortcuts. Everyone starts off believing their special snowflake creations are interesting because they wrote them. Becoming a decent writer is partially disabusing yourself of that conceit and knuckling down for a long, arduous task.

It’s not for everyone. And if you’re writing because you hope to be Nora Roberts? Hate to break it to you. Every author who breaks big does so in a unique set of circumstances that are unlikely to ever repeat themselves. The market, the timing, the other entrants, the zeitgeist, fads, the shifting sands of public tastes, and on and on. There will never be another Colleen Hoover or H.M. Ward or Amanda Hocking or Hugh Howey, or, yes, another Nora Roberts. There will absolutely be new breakout hits. But you won’t improve your odds by trying to be one of the other breakout hits. Your only shot, in my opinion, is to become extremely good at creating content that your audience feels it can’t get anywhere else but from you, and then communicating to that audience that you’ve got it.

Note that to create compelling work, first you need to have a command of language, an ability to evoke – to tell a story. Then you have to have a story that’s of interest. Then you need to execute: to put it down on paper, to work it, massage it, cut it to pieces, be your own harshest critic, demand more out of your bleeding fingers than the universe has any right to expect. Once it’s worth reading, you then have to figure out who might give two shits, and then learn out how to communicate to them. It’s the same whether you plan on querying agents or publishers, or go direct to readers. You need to be immediately clear on your value proposition, because everyone’s time is extremely valuable. After all, it’s the only time they’ll ever get.

Even if you do all these things correctly, you’re still only one fish in one of the most massive schools in the ocean. Luck will come into play. So will your ability to execute efficiently at every level. And even so, your chances are anywhere from abysmal to worse than that.

Write because you love to write. Get good at it. Be the most interesting person you know, and write about that, if the bug bites you. Learn to observe, to soak in detail, to roll possible descriptions around in your mind like a wine connoisseur with a prized reserve bottling. Even if the chances are slim you’ll make money at it.

Why do it then?

Because you only have a certain amount of time on the planet, and because writing, and being really good at it, is one way to find meaning, to bring order to the chaotic, to create something from nothing. It’s as close to being a god as you can get. It should complete you in a way that nothing else does, but not because you do or don’t make any money at it.

As with all creative pursuits, do so because you love it, not because you hope to take your interest in gardening and have it make you a fortune as a farmer or horticulturist. If it does, then brilliant, but if it doesn’t, the pride in a job well done has to be reward enough, or go find something else to do that gives you that charge. Because part of your job on the planet is to figure out what does, and then do it.

In this case, no evangelical belief required. Just love for the craft, and a pragmatic understanding of why you should write in the first place.

If you’re one of the fortunate few, and luck comes a calling, that will serve you better than anything I can think of.

That and an uncle who works at Random House.

But I digress.



  1. Sun 11th Jan 2015 at 7:15 pm

    Fantastic post. I especially connected with your ‘bringing order to chaos’ point. Yes! Yes! Sharing now.

    Thanks you Mr. Blake.

    • Russell Blake  –  Mon 12th Jan 2015 at 12:48 am

      My pleasure, Meghan!

  2. Sun 11th Jan 2015 at 8:34 pm

    Great post. As a former musician, it particularly rings true. In writing, I’ve found a joy so fulfilling it cannot be eclipsed by any darkness, whether it be failure or discouragement. Nothing feels forced doing what you love, and for me, I’m lucky enough that that includes the business side of writing.

    It’s going to be an interesting year.

    • Russell Blake  –  Mon 12th Jan 2015 at 12:48 am

      Every successful writer I know would rather be doing nothing else, whether rich or not so much. Like so many of the arts, it’s rare to find fulfillment and financial reward, so when you do, kinda hard to bitch. Glad you’re loving what you’re doing. No other way to go through life, IMO.

      • Sever Bronny  –  Mon 12th Jan 2015 at 5:24 pm

        Amen to that! I look forward to applying your lessons this year (I printed out your mega checklist kboards post–it’s now at the front of my binder).


  3. Sun 11th Jan 2015 at 11:09 pm

    The image that depicts writers as people who sit around wondering, then just writing down whatever’s on their minds, is what leads so many people to think they’ve got what it takes. After all, everyone thinks they have a great story idea. They just have to write it down, right?

    Entertainment is a competitive job. Doesn’t matter if you want to play football, act, write, whatever. Almost everyone would rather be getting paid to play. If you don’t scrape for every advantage, you have no right to expect to be at the top of the heap.

    • Russell Blake  –  Mon 12th Jan 2015 at 12:46 am


  4. Jan
    Sun 11th Jan 2015 at 11:32 pm

    Excellent post, Russell Blake! It’s worth pinning to the mirror of any author who thinks going indie is a short cut to easy street but for those who need a pick-me-up it’s an encouragement to keep going.

    Yes, writing is work, man, a lot of work. An idea, a post-it note, or even an outline, does not a novel make. It’s writing word by word, sentence by sentence, scene by scene, chapter by chapter. I know because I just finished revising a novel to send to my editor, and I can tell you, I worked like a dog for two months to get it done! But when it’s done, it’s sweet!

    And now, no rest for the weary. On to the next manuscript. Happy new year, Mr. Blake!

    • Russell Blake  –  Mon 12th Jan 2015 at 12:46 am

      Nothing worth doing is ever easy. And happy NY to you as well!

  5. Mon 12th Jan 2015 at 12:08 am

    Bracing reality and with more than just a little bit of truth. But I do think it should be added that Indie Publishing has for the first time allowed more writers to make money–anywhere from a dinner out every once in a while to the equivalent of a minimum wage job or for hundreds perhaps a low-to-mid five figure income, enough to support themselves and write full time. That should be the realistic but still hard-to-attain goal if you put in the massive time and effort needed.

    • Russell Blake  –  Mon 12th Jan 2015 at 12:45 am

      No question, Robert. But the odds are still, well, less than worth banking on. It’s always been a tough row to hoe. It’s a little better now, but there are a lot more aspirants, too. So while better, still not something a prudent man would consider even close to a lock.

  6. Mon 12th Jan 2015 at 2:02 am

    Hi Russell,
    I bookmarked your wise words to share with the new writers who contact me about what they can do to become a writer.
    I’ve been addicted to story telling my whole life. It’s the publishing part that is fairly new.
    I’m blessed in that I’m building new readers every day, and loving what I do.
    Have a great new year.

    • Russell Blake  –  Mon 12th Jan 2015 at 10:14 am

      And you as well!

  7. Mon 12th Jan 2015 at 3:37 am

    Thank you Russell,I couldn’t have said it better. I’m one of those who writes for the love of it. Four books out now, followers on my Facebook page and viewers of my website. I am content. And no I don’t have an Uncle at Random House.

    • Russell Blake  –  Mon 12th Jan 2015 at 10:14 am

      Bummer bout the uncle. Hachette would also be okay.

  8. Mon 12th Jan 2015 at 3:47 am

    Good points, indeed, but there has to be a sense of invincibility, too. If you go into anything thinking you might not make it but you’re going to give it the old college try, you’re running into a self-fulfilling prophecy: you won’t make it, because you’re not mentally prepared to make it. You’re prepared to probably fail. Proper mental toughness is stressed in the military as essential to survival in combat. Ask me how I know this. I’ll tell you instead that a cousin of mine never would have survived SEAL training without believing he could do it when other guys were washing out all around him; in fact, quitting was encouraged. Ring the bell, loser.

    It was the same mantra: everybody tries, only one or two make it. My cousin made the SEAL team.

    The one who makes it is the one who looks at everybody else and says, you poor suckers.

    • Russell Blake  –  Mon 12th Jan 2015 at 10:13 am

      Right, but the ones who don’t make it also look at everybody else and say, you poor suckers. They also believe they’re bulletproof and immortal. Mental toughness takes you only so far, and then the numbers are the numbers, and to be unaware of them is not a sense of invincibility, it’s delusion.

      We all love the stories of the one percent. My story, working 12 hour days seven days a week, putting out a novel on average every five weeks, etc. etc. is an inspiring one, I think. I happen to believe my approach best narrows the odds to the least terrible they can be. But they are still terrible. And, like the good little engine, thinking I’m the one that can, is only good for controlling my focus and motivation – it does nothing to change the entropic world around me.

      If you believe you can, you’re right. But only to a point. When there are 100 people standing in a room, and only two slots, 98% will fail to make it regardless of what they think or feel. Absolutely, the 2 who succeed require that attitude, that eye of the tiger made so popular in modern culture by films wherein belief equates to accomplishment. But the 98% can, and often do, also have that, and the numbers are still what the numbers are. Don’t believe me? Go watch any audition for an art, where a thousand hopefuls, most extremely good, compete for a few slots. That’s the arts. It’s how it works. The olympics are a case in point. Everyone there is as good as it gets and had to sacrifice, to believe they’re the one. Yet only one gold gets handed out per event. I’m saying if you can’t handle that, do something else. And if being that accomplished isn’t sufficient reward in and of itself, you’re best advised finding a pursuit where it will be.

      And I know. In our new landscape there aren’t a fixed amount of slots. Only there are. There are now more slots, and they vary in payout, but the slots aren’t infinite. The Top 100 list is still only 100 slots, every day, every year. Now, being even in the Top 1000 is a nice living, for which I’m grateful. But unless the audience grows exponentially, it’s simply impossible for everyone to be able to do well, or even for most to do well. An inconvenient and uncomfortable truth, but a truth nonetheless.

      • Brian Drake  –  Mon 12th Jan 2015 at 1:59 pm

        I don’t think we didagree on too much, but it’s my idea that dwelling too much on the negative isn’t healthy. Odds are you’ll get wiped out in an intersection making a milk run. We do it anyeay without thinking. Reality in all its forms is all around yet we go on, and I’m probably making your point again. Even with your audition example, there is always another chance. It’s only a one time opportunity if you quit on the first let-down.

        • gabby  –  Mon 12th Jan 2015 at 2:13 pm

          “It’s only a one time opportunity if you quit on the first let-down.”
          so true πŸ™‚

          One nice thing also is now there are actually a 100 slots EVERY single day… it’s the best time in the world to be a writer. (If I can just take Russel’s advice and not worry about those slots while I’m writing!! lol)

        • Russell Blake  –  Mon 12th Jan 2015 at 3:53 pm

          Agreed. I’m a big booster of, “If you think you can’t, you’re right.” I’m all about the positives, but I also don’t kid myself about the negatives. Which is why my advice is not to bank on landing one of those 100 slots any given day. If it happens, super, but if that’s why you’re writing, if that’s your motivation, in my opinion you’re setting yourself up for a big letdown. Confusing the joy of mastering a craft and creating content you’re proud of, and the ability to then market and sell that content, is a massive problem. I believe you need to divorce the two – create content you believe is marketable (assuming you want a chance to sell it) using the tools you’ve mastered (craft), but don’t be too surprised if your belief in your ability to sell it doesn’t really come into play that much.

          In other words, your belief in your ability to master the craft and create engaging content is fine. Your belief that you can package, market, and sell content? Not all that important, other than as motivation. You either will be able to, or you won’t. But on the creation side, we agree.

  9. Mon 12th Jan 2015 at 7:50 am

    “Because you only have a certain amount of time on the planet, and because writing, and being really good at it, is one way to find meaning, to bring order to the chaotic, to create something from nothing. It’s as close to being a god as you can get.”

    That was brilliant. I’m not sure I’ll tell anyone that I’m a god anytime soon, but now I’ll be thinking it. πŸ˜‰

  10. gabby
    Mon 12th Jan 2015 at 10:10 am

    Thank you- this really resonates.

    How do you deal with the other side? Not the “I’m the next Nora Roberts” but the crippling self-doubt that you shouldn’t even try because it will just be crap …because it won’t be the next ‘Nora Roberts’…?

    I’ve found the inner critic has stifled all the joy I had in writing. I have so much pressure to make it perfect/to be a success. I’ve thought about releasing crap under a pseudonym to dispel the feeling that the world will end if I publish something that isn’t Hemingway-level or etc. (but even those attempts ends up stirring the nosy critic inside).

    Would you be willing to post on how you get over yourself and write? I sit down and the world starts closing in; it’s miserable. I can’t force a sentence out. I go months (and much more) without writing at all.

    But the stories- I really want to share them. I think there are readers out there who would enjoy the worlds I’ve created, if I could just get more of them out of my head. …and if there was any way it could be fun again.

    How did you find/keep faith in yourself? How do you write when you want it to be a career but you don’t want it to feel like a miserable job with the most over-bearing, nitpicky manager you could imagine?

    • Russell Blake  –  Mon 12th Jan 2015 at 10:30 am

      Probably the only thing I can control is my focus. So I work hard to control it. I ask myself good questions. “How can I make this the best thing I’ve ever written and enjoy writing it” gets me to a different mental place than one with negative assumptions and mantras. To make something fun, it’s like anything else: you have to ask yourself the very simple question, “How can I make this awesome and have fun doing it?” And demand an answer. I think that, and visualizing the good, the amazing end result you can and will produce, gets you over the natural belief you’re an imposter.

      If you sit down and the world closes in, it’s because you are asking yourself questions that bring the walls in. You’re conditioning yourself for failure, if that makes any sense. You have to condition yourself to enjoy the process so much that the end result, the quality, is a given. To switch off the editor in your head while you create prose that brings you joy. Worry about making it perfect after you get it on paper.

      Part of the problem may be that you want it to be a career, rather than want to be astoundingly good at it and do it joyfully. Wanting a career basically means you want to be able to successfully sell the content you create. That has precious little to do with content creation, it has to do with wanting to be a successful content merchant.

      It’s why I make the distinction between the content creation part, and the selling of the content, be it to trad pub or readers.

      Enjoy and celebrate the content creation part, because the odds say that’s all you’ll have. Few successfully sell the content. If you can’t handle that truth, or if its veracity depresses you or makes the content creation seem pointless, you shouldn’t be doing this. It’s the content creation that should bring the joy and be its own reward.

      So to summarize, ask better questions, control your focus, and understand that the pressure to make it perfect/be a success is an entirely artificial construct you’re imposing on yourself, and is an unrealistic one.

      If it’s any consolation, I’m living proof that most prose that’s successful is far from perfect. If anything, most of the most successful prose is not all that great. The best is usually not the most popular, just as the most popular isn’t the best. Just crack open any of the Top 100 successes at any given point and see that truth in action.

      • gabby  –  Mon 12th Jan 2015 at 12:12 pm

        wow- I love this.

        As a kid, writing was fun and easy and not Capital “I” important, beyond how much fun it all was. It used to be a way to escape the real world. Now I keep bringing the real world pressures into my writing time.

        I haven’t been able to get back there, ever since I decided I wanted to actually sell the content.

        <> This is key for me and you’ve provided such great advice for how to put that into practice and actually get back to the right mindset, the one that actually made me want to do this in the first place.

        Thank you so much for this. I will definitely be reading and re-reading this.

        • gabby  –  Mon 12th Jan 2015 at 12:14 pm

          oops, above that was- “writing is not selling” is key for me πŸ™‚ I didn’t know that would happen with those symbols

        • Russell Blake  –  Mon 12th Jan 2015 at 3:47 pm

          I’m happy it resonated with you. If we create our own reality, which much of the time we do (or at least how we perceive reality), then perception is everything. Try asking the right kinds of questions, discover the joy in telling a story and turning a phrase, and worry about the selling part once the content creation is done. Creation requires different skills and a different mindset than selling content. Don’t let one stymie the other. Good luck. It can be done. And if it were easy, everyone would be doing it…

          • gabby  –  Wed 21st Jan 2015 at 9:42 am

            Russell, I got to say thanks again.

            I wrote 9,828 (!!) words Sat, around 7K Sun, another 6K on Mon (cause I had the day off).

            I mean, seriously ?? … I picked a new project and decided I’m going to just have fun writing this. Who cares if anyone else likes it or if everything is perfect? Seriously huge difference.

            My productivity started tapering off Sun/Mon because my critic started saying, ‘Wait, that’s not good enough.’ But I think I’m finding tricks to get around it and switch my focus back to, ‘but am I having fun? … Yes! So let’s keep moving forward and shut up already… That part comes later’ πŸ™‚

            Thank you so much for your advice. It really clicked for me.

  11. Mon 12th Jan 2015 at 1:08 pm

    Another great post, Russell. I met with a small group of indies at last year’s ACFW conference. One woman stated several times that she “had to get out of her current job.” I knew right away she wasn’t going to do well as an indie. Joyce Meyer (one of those evangelicals) says “You’ll never be happy where you’re goin’ until you’re happy where you’re at.” If a writer is experiencing joy in the act of writing and learning how to write, then he will never get to where he wants to be, let alone be happy if, by some miracle, he gets there. Most of the indies I know have been studying and working for a decade or more. Some of us longer than we care to admit. But we work hard because we love the hard work, not because we want the fame and all that comes with it.

    • Madison  –  Mon 12th Jan 2015 at 9:06 pm

      I call it an American Idol Factor. The show often presents stories of contestants who are single parents, waiters, first generation Americans ( sometimes it’s all rolled up in one person) simply trying to build a better life for their families; the background highlighted before the audience at home even hears one note from the contestant. In other words, creative pursuits become a way out of the mundane low paying jobs.

      I will admit I do use it as my escape hatch at times when people question me about a very non prestigious day job.
      “I’m writing on a side” is a battle cry when I converse with those who I came to believe pay only lip service to the notion that all jobs are needed and deserving respect from the public.

  12. Mon 12th Jan 2015 at 5:20 pm

    Oh sweetie… There is no discussing or dissuading a true believer. You poor dear.
    I would really like to have been sitting next to you! It would have been so much fun!

    • Russell Blake  –  Mon 12th Jan 2015 at 5:49 pm

      “You sound like you really want to be an author.”
      “Oh, yeah. I mean, I could totally do it, you know?”
      “What books have you read that lit that fire? That made you fall in love with craft and want to use language to sculpt new landscapes from nothing?”
      “You mean besides 50 Shades?”

      • Madison  –  Mon 12th Jan 2015 at 7:08 pm

        “50 Shades…” might actually have to do something with #amwriting phenomena: almost universally bemoaned for the bad language/poor metaphors etc. , the book still became popular, earning the author fame/fortune. What better encouragement than to see someone so …hmm, ordinary succeeding despite flaws! Hey, my writing style is almost as bad as of EL James, Stephenie Meyer etc etc), ergo…
        Combined with other corresponding factors such as a rise in the number of ‘The Year I Did Not Eat Cheese” memoirs or a popularity of The Secret , no wonder more and more people grab their tablets and type away ( or at least “… wish and hope and pray…”, trying to shape themselves into a “From a cubicle(d) Dilbert into Elizabeth Gilbert’ story.

        • Russell Blake  –  Mon 12th Jan 2015 at 7:18 pm

          Oh, I get it. I totally get it.

          “Mick Jagger has a four note range and just runs around like a f#cktard and he’s famous! I have a four note range and can do the same!”

          There will always be people who want to believe they can succeed because they’re, like, them, absent all the years of application and work developing a handle on craft, and also absent critical puzzle pieces like being a TV producer for 20 years (as is EL James’ hubby) with all the contacts and savvy that would imply. It’s called a pipe dream. We all have them. I just tend to look at that and go, er, you do realize it’s a bit harder than banging out an illiterate few pages and laying back watching the money roll in, right? Then again, I’m a big party pooper.

        • gabby  –  Mon 12th Jan 2015 at 7:34 pm

          I hear you guys. But… I dunno. I always find, as a reader, that I don’t even notice the prose. For me, I’m always: ‘am I swept into the story, are the characters acting believably, is the story moving forward or am I trapped in boring for pages on end?

          which is I think why so many books become mega sellers even though the prose is so questionable. It succeeded because the reader got swept into the story and connected with the characters. The critics gnash their teeth but the reader buys it and tells everyone else they know.

          So for me, my trouble comes with not how the sentence reads, more the indecision of which choice to make in the next scene. And the ending… ugh. I have two works now stalled at not wanting the ending to be 1) boring or 2) too easy. And I think, “well I’ll just start the next story- maybe this one will be easier.”

          And of course the trap, ‘but wait, will it sell a gazillion copies? ‘is it interesting enough to get me where i want to be fast enough. I know they should stay separate- it’s my big struggle.

          • Russell Blake  –  Mon 12th Jan 2015 at 8:36 pm

            Right, but well-crafted stories sweep you away. So it’s possible to write compelling, interesting stories with magical prose and not have them be overwrought, boring exercises in creative writing.

            I’d frame it thus: Listen to the Top 40 any given week. Most of the music’s lame, will be forgotten within moments, and is, at best, mildly catchy. It’s been like that forever. And yet those are the most popular songs in the country.

            People look for reasons why marginal crap sells well. The truth is that nobody knows. They can contrive post hoc explanations, but they can’t predict the next one. My personal theory is that there are two factors at work with popular commercial fiction: 1) Right place, right time. Something just catches. Be it a maudlin romance redrawn as racy or with vampires thrown into it or whatnot, or a whodunnit that’s barely readable, the fickle public simply likes what it likes. I call it the Pet Rock syndrome. We see it all the time with crap TV shows that break out even though they’re unwatchable. Honey Boo Boo is an example. As are most reality shows. They completely suck, and yet they are popular. 2) The fad effect. This is driven by the class of reader who only reads what everyone else is reading. This reader maybe buys one or two books a year, and it’s always what everyone else is buzzing about. Think The Da Vinci Code, the Dragon Tattoo books, 50 Shades, The Hunger Games, Harry Potter, and on and on. The actual merit of the writing doesn’t matter. It might be wonderful, it might be middling to barely readable, it might be crap. It hits critical mass.

            The frustration trad pubs have (as do record companies, as do film studios) is that they are unable to figure out what will be a breakout for either reason. The second is easier to predict once it begins breaking out – the trad pubs know how to take it from shifting copies to going mega. They put their backs into it. The first is unpredictable. Completely baffles everyone. They can point to reasons after the fact, but they can’t use that supposed acumen to predict anything, thus I don’t believe those reasons are anything but descriptions of what’s in the rear view mirror.

            Gladwell describes the fad element in The Tipping Point. Shit just happens and something goes huge. Like lumberjack beards on geeky baristas. One day they’re everywhere. They may be stupid as shit, but they are. In retrospect everyone shakes their head and wonders what they hell they were thinking. That explains most of the fashion from the 80s and 90s. As well as the last forty years of American presidents.

            I simply accept that my career probably won’t include a mega bestseller. But it can and fortunately has included some nice singles and doubles, which combined with my prolific nature, has made for a nice living. Perhaps I will write the next To Kill A Mockingbird or The Firm, but my career doesn’t count on it. Mine counts on delivering entertaining reads, written at a better than fourth grade level, and that there will be discerning readers who want that experience for some time to come. Many less discriminating readers won’t much like my work, and that’s fine. They aren’t my target. Can’t be all things to all people. I write what I love to write, and that fortunately happens to be what I read, as well as what my audience loves to read. We all win. But I was writing it before I knew it would sell, and I was doing so with single minded intensity and meaning it, because of the satisfaction of a job well done, and because I cared, not because it might sell, but because I have learned that anything worth doing with my time should be done 110% – it’s the only time on the planet I get, so why would I want to clutter it with anything I’m just phoning in?

          • Madison  –  Mon 12th Jan 2015 at 8:40 pm

            I am painfully aware that an effortless style is often ( if not always) a result of mindful prolonged practice; the end product of superior flow and readability only makes the act of writing appear equally easy. To paraphrase Dolly Parton, it takes many a first draft to look like you’ve just scrabbled something insightful/ enjoyable/profound/bankable on a digital napkin of a blog.

            As a matter of fact, it IS a sign of a good writer if a reader concentrates solely on a story/ message rather noticing the specific styling ( one exception: hate reading Jonathan Franzen). My name is Madison and I did enjoy the Da Vinci Code πŸ˜‰

          • Russell Blake  –  Mon 12th Jan 2015 at 9:00 pm

            Oh, I did too. Moreso on the second read.

            In ballet, in gymnastics, in art, in literature, in music, the end goal is aesthetics, and most often that means making the tough look easy. It’s almost always harder than it looks. However, just as a mediocre or worse writer can have a compelling story to tell, so too can a mediocre singer have a hit, a mediocre painter have massive success, and on and on and on. It’s one of the frustrations of artists that technical skill doesn’t necessarily translate into success.

            But that’s not an argument to chuck the skill, either, because lack of technical skill further reduces your already terrible odds. Look, the odds of anyone hitting big are awful. Let’s just accept that. So then, why write? Why not do something else with better odds? Because we want to. Because it satisfies some inner craving. If we’re going to do something with poor odds of making money, my recommendation is don’t do anything you aren’t absolutely in love with. Better to go find something else, where you feel that way. Your time is valuable. Don’t waste it chasing lottery tickets. Spend it at pursuits you would pay to do, because you probably will pay to do them. If you’d pay to write, okay then. Now we’re talking. If you wouldn’t? What the hell are you thinking spending your time doing it?

          • gabby  –  Mon 12th Jan 2015 at 9:17 pm

            I agree with you on that. The best writers make it look easy: the better your prose, the easier the sale. Writing is revision.

            I just mean, sometimes I hear so much vitriol about the prose… But it isn’t completely about the quality of the writing but the quality of the story. I feel like sometimes writers get so jealous about it. The prose, for me, is only important when it’s really bad/unreadable. I’m not reading to learn good sentence structure; I’m reading to escape my boring life.

            Octavia Butler… Harry Potter… Ender’s Game… Dune… The Hunger Games… the pages just flew by. The story clicked with me. The author disappeared. It was readable. I could care less about the prose or the grade-level of the prose.

            I mean LOTR- classic fantasy. I can’t get into it.
            Dune- classic sci fi- one of my favorite stories.

            It’s you write something-> how big is your pool of readers/niche? Bonus: if it clicks on some other level- then sometimes it jumps the original group and grabs mass/broader appeal.

            For me LOTR is an example of everyone jumping on the bandwagon… but obviously that’s NOT true… somehow it clicked for a lot of people. But looking from the outside, it’s a big, unsolvable mystery.

      • Julia Barrett  –  Tue 13th Jan 2015 at 11:06 pm

        Ack! I thought 50 Shades had crawled under a rock. I’ve always believed that in order to write, or to be a writer, a person must have an entire library floating around in her head. Or his head.
        Did you order a drink? I would have ordered several.

        • Russell Blake  –  Wed 14th Jan 2015 at 3:38 am

          There was no surfeit of boozes on that flight, for which I’m grateful.

          Apparently now, in the same manner one can declare having seen ghosts, or Jesus, or heard the voice of the void singing to you, one can declare oneself to be an author, because for the nominal price of whatever, some how-to book told you it was easily achievable.

          And so it is. A million are authors. Fine. I have no issue with that. I’m not an author because I want or expect anything but confusion. I’m an author because I can imagine nothing better to do with my life than be one, and because I’ve fallen deeply in love with the sound of my own voice, which all authors must in order to create. Of course it’s a love/hate relationship, because the same inspiration that assures you you’re unstoppable upon first blush inevitably turns into hard frigging work on second and third draft, but on balance, it’s worth it.

          Would it be worth it if I weren’t selling books? That’s a tough one to answer honestly. I wrote for a decade and chucked it all as unworthy. Why then, when I was writing, did I bother? I think the answer lies within ourselves. Because I had a voice, and even if nobody cared, it was a voice, and I wanted to exercise it. Not because I wanted to make a career of this. I have no patience for the trad process. I’m not cut out for it. It wants the author to be the subject, and it, the ruler. I don’t do well with that, because of my nature, and I already made my money so it wasn’t my ticket out of anything. It was more my ticket in. Into the mind of the reader.

          And if it was worthy, the voice distinctive and resonant, then perhaps they’d pay for the next round.

          All of which is a long way of saying that I’m probably an attention whore, but I also believe the struggle to better oneself is the whole point to the exercise, bettering oneself meaning not just craft, but powers of observation, and self-awareness. You can’t really tell a great story if you aren’t self-aware, because there’s truth lacking in the telling. That part of you, that ego-centric narrator, rings false if you aren’t fully immersed in the telling, and discovering truths about yourself right along with the reader as you go. It’s one of the problems I have with mainstream offerings: they seek to blunt the voice and homogenize it so as to be more palatable.

          My response? Fuck you and your palatable. When did interesting take a back seat to palatable? Like I said, I’m not a great team player.

          I ordered several drinks. And wished for nothing but more…

          • Julia Barrett  –  Wed 14th Jan 2015 at 4:39 pm

            We are most definitely brothers by another mother. Or sisters. Or something.
            I began my life writing – didn’t make much money and as a single mom with no financial support, had to get another degree – Nursing. Made mucho dinero as a nurse. And got married and had two more kids and continued to make mucho dinero as a nurse but I also began to write full time. So two jobs, but I couldn’t help it. I’ve been a writer since I was three years old.
            Totally in my blood.
            I can’t say it’s so much my voice I love as my stories and my characters. They are real to me. I hear them speak. No, I’m not crazy. My mother had me tested.
            Sometimes I read something I wrote ten years ago and it blows me away. I wrote that? How? How did I do that? And that’s what I love about it. They are just like my children. I shape them and send them out into the world and watch in wonder at the ways they are not me, at the many ways they surpass me.
            It’s kind of like rapture. Make sense? I understand St. Teresa of Avila– the way she floated while praying. But again, I’m not crazy. My mother had me tested. πŸ˜‰

  13. Mon 12th Jan 2015 at 5:42 pm

    I guess I write because I enjoy:
    1) creating something cool
    2) having people read it and getting some kind of validation from that (back slaps, money)
    3) I enjoy the challenge that it is hard to succeed without being beyond my grasp, and that success is a worthwhile thing.
    4) I heard a guy made a million dollars writing… πŸ™‚

    • Russell Blake  –  Mon 12th Jan 2015 at 5:51 pm

      Give me his number. I need to find out how he did it.

  14. Mon 12th Jan 2015 at 6:17 pm

    Another articulate and timely post. Every point was well said. I think some “green” writers forget that writing is as much artistry as it is a business. Painters don’t paint to earn millions; they do so because they love to paint–and they spend countless hours perfecting the craft. Looking forward to more insightful posts from you in 2015, Russell. Cheers. xx

  15. Mon 12th Jan 2015 at 6:33 pm

    Whenever men try to talk to me on the plane I break out the “Je ne parle pas Anglais,” line. Works every time. Watch, now I’ll jinx myself and the guy will know French, and I won’t be able to understand him. πŸ™‚

    That said, I do get people telling me they’re thinking of writing a book when they find out I’ve written a few. My reply is always, “Cool. You should do it.” In that sense I’m kind of lame and don’t bother to inform them how hard of a business it is. I figure they will learn if they actually finish the book.

    • Russell Blake  –  Mon 12th Jan 2015 at 7:13 pm

      Le sigh…

  16. Tue 13th Jan 2015 at 1:27 pm

    Words of wisdom indeed, Mr. Blake, and also a great lesson that I learned early on. I had a writing teacher in high school tell me these same things and, while I still did dream of being a “famous” writer, I focused on writing stories for myself. There definitely has to be a joy that is experienced as you write, otherwise what’s the point?

    I wrote stories back before there were eReaders, and not much has changed as far as craft goes. You get a spark of an idea, you develop it over time, and then you write it down. Once it’s finished, that’s a real accomplishment from an artistic point of view. A painter doesn’t necessarily set out with a sale in mind. They begin with an image they want to share with the world – anyone who will give it a look. It’s the same with writing books. The sales, readers, and reviews are all extra icing on the cake (and if it pays the bills, then congratulations!).

    It’s a hard message to hear, but it’s absolutely true.

    • Russell Blake  –  Wed 14th Jan 2015 at 3:39 am

      The essentials never change. We tell a story. Over time, we tell another. Eventually we get decent at it. The rest is unpredictable.

  17. Thu 15th Jan 2015 at 1:21 pm

    I made a spreadsheet and tallied my 2014 sales right before I read this article. I published two titles in January 2014…and those books brought in ~800 USD. After subtracting promotion fees and production costs I am waaaay in the red on those books. A neutral observer would make a comment about the day job and my prospects of quitting it.

    Along the way I had promoters not fulfill on deliveries, an audiobook narrator that flaked out and failed to deliver when he had some issues with ACX quality control and no pixies sprinkled magic “break out novel” dust on my books.

    Am I going to throw in the towel? No. Around October I knuckled down and wrote a novel outside of genre and series I started in (this was a mistake) then wrote the next book in the series I started in January before editing was done on the previous book. Hey, focus and hard work equals results. Shocking.

    I see a difficult row to hoe in 2015 and beyond. So I will keep writing quality stories I’d find entertaining, put together a reasonable website and get a mailing list going (yes, should have done this last January).

    My goal is eight new titles in 2015. At some point, readers will notice.

    No use whining like a kid with a skinned knee, just get to work. Or break down and exploit the underserved billionaire panda shifter erotica market.

    • Franklin Kendrick  –  Thu 15th Jan 2015 at 1:35 pm

      @Richard Fox, it’s definitely a ton of work. It looks easy at the start, but agreed that hard work is necessary and will eventually get some sort of results. The more books with your name on it, the more people will see it and hopefully be tempted to give one of them a shot. What a bummer to hear about the audiobook issues. I’ve been a believer in “If you want something done, do it yourself,” and that generally applies to my books. Not sure if it will work as far as audio goes, but narrating it yourself is always an option. I’m going to give it a shot, myself, and see what my test listeners think.

      I had to chuckle at your last comment. It seems that if only we could all write erotica, we’d be making a lot more money! They’re all shifters, and surprisingly, all billionaires. Wish I could find me one of those to support my writing habits…

      Best of luck with your writing goals!

  18. Sat 17th Jan 2015 at 12:17 pm

    Russell, this was one of your most evocative articles yet – and you have written many such. It seems to have touched nerves that had either been numbed by optimism or shoved into the netherworld of pessimism.
    Whatever the particular emotion, I think we all can take a good slice of realism from it.

    Now, if I could only produce books that the world wanted to read (and, of course, buy)…At least, I’ll never stop trying.

    And for that, I’ll beg you to continue your between-the-lines amusing, sometimes in-your-face, but always appreciated diatribes.

  19. Sat 17th Jan 2015 at 5:52 pm

    Great post, Russell. A healthy dose of realism that’s rarely seen these days.

    I am a bit unclear on one thing though. Should we buy your shit?

  20. Kirk Alex
    Mon 19th Jan 2015 at 5:47 am

    Another amazing post, Russell. It just blows my mind how often you manage to nail it. RE: writing. Loving it & putting your heart & soul into each and every novel is a must––but even then there is no guarantee that we’ll get anywhere.
    So damn true.
    Kirk Alex,
    Author of Lustmord: Anatomy of a Serial Butcher
    & many others

  21. Jen
    Tue 27th Jan 2015 at 11:21 am


    Really enjoyed JET and glad to see you partnering with Cussler. Kudos.

    I like your trick of asking β€œHow can I make this awesome and have fun doing it?”

    I hear what you’re saying with your argument. It reminds me of the plight of basketball hopefuls. Anyway, I would love to kick around thoughts on where this market is moving and how much the middle of the writer’s income distribution is growing, but then I’d have to give up time writing or reading. And no one knows what it really is right now let alone what it will be in a few years.

    I’d say if anyone wants to write, go for it and enjoy. If you want to make an income from it, go for it with all your might and still make sure you’re squeezing joy out of the process..BUT don’t go into massive debt for it or sabotage your other income sources.



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