10 years ago, only one book out of every ten would succeed. And by succeed, I don’t mean bestseller. These books would earn out the advance for the author and probably get in a little more on the royalty, they would earn the publisher a small profit (yeah, not the kind of profit traditional publishing bashers say publishers make), but good enough to commission another book by the author. Occasionally, one of these “success stories” would break out and become a bestselling A-Lister. All in all, 7 or 8 out of every 10 published authors would fail. Today, with the ubiquitous self-publishing model, the number is higher it’s probably 97 or 98 out of hundred.
Yes. Only 2 or 3 out of every hundred novelists will see success. Not Patterson kind of success but “I can quit my day job” kind of success.
I am considering for this post , four lines of thought that lead to failure.
These assumptions have nothing to do with the art or craft of writing. Insipid writing, silly plot, cardboard characters are rarely the only reason for failure. If they were, then quite a few of today’s best-selling authors would be working nights at the local diner. Every year there is at least one crappy book that becomes an overnight success, we have all read those books and wondered, “What the hell!”
Failing as a novelist goes beyond writing a bad book. Way beyond. It is more about not having the attitude of a career writer. I am not talking about “gut feeling” and “outlook” or other sappy stuff, I am talking about tangibles.
Here’s why you fail as a novelist, it’s because you ASSUME:
- I don’t need brand-building
Readers buy authors. There are fans of Dan Brown, and Mark Giminez, I am yet to come across a fan of Random House. Publishers will market your book, but they can’t market you without you stepping in.
So what is brand building for an author?
A. You establish credibility by writing more and more books. This is the best and most sustainable way of brand building. You deliver on your brand promise, every time. Agatha Christie’s brand promise was “an ingenious plot” and she delivered on that. Every time.
What’s your promise?
When a reader picks up your book, what can he be sure of getting?
B. This is more roundabout but quicker than the previous option. It works well for some genres. If you are writing police procedures, then a blog on CSI or forensic pathology will establish your knowledge and peg you as a writer who is serious about research. It builds your credibility, it builds your brand. It’s more work, but the dividends are rich.
Conventional and cautious wisdom will tell you that brands are not easy to build and only top selling authors have brand value. A closer look will reveal the opposite: only authors who have a brand value become top selling authors. Look at any bestselling author today and you will find a brand, a promise that keeps readers coming back for more.
Think of Enid Blyton, Agatha Christie, Tom Clancy, Nora Roberts, Danielle Steel, Harlan Coben , Sophie Kinsella, each one has made a small promise to the reader, and they are going to keep it.
- I am a star, I don’t need to engage with my fans
If you do manage to get to the point where you have more than one fan who is not a friend or a family member or someone you donated a kidney to, rejoice.
Very few authors get fans. Crazed devotees who will (for whatever reasons) wait eagerly for the next book and buy it the first chance they get are rare to come by. If you reach there, hang on to it and don’t let go.
Let’s get to a simple example: Pottermore.
This Harry Potter companion site is for fans and J K Rowling adds free content to it every so often, a Thanksgiving gift of 1500 words here, a Christmas bonanza of a back story there and we are all glued. This, mind you, for an insanely popular series that needs no hard selling.
If J K Rowling needs to continuously engage with fans, you need to do it too.
You need to make it easy for a fan to know more about you, your next project, and your writing plans. You need to have a website, a Facebook page, a Twitter account, a blog, the whole shebang. This is not just brand building, it’s brand engagement.
A word of caution: Engagement is not about selling.
One of the easiest ways to become a failed novelist is to write one book and then beat it into the heads of all around you. The only message some authors share is about their book and how it’s on sale or it’s free today or it’s at a never before price of 99 cents. It’s not doughnuts, the “Hot Now” sign does not work.
Using social media with the sole aim of brazenly promoting your book is not engagement, it’s harassment. Sharing interesting things is the key, share solid pieces written by others on Facebook, Google+, and other sites. Create some value for your fans.
True, it seems for the most part to be a time-waster, but it’s not. It yields good results. Most importantly, it tells your loyal reader that you care enough to be around.
- I can always go back to my day job
Imagine you start out on your career as a lawyer, banker, teacher, whatever, and go about it with this thought in your mind: “I can always go back to my parent’s basement.”
No one does that. Yet a majority of aspiring authors create these elaborate safety nets and then don’t even take the plunge. This is the kind that secretly hopes they can slink away into the night if their book is a dud.
You want to be a writer, then burn bridges.
Go all in. You don’t have to give up your day job but put yourself out there. Don’t shy away from working doggedly at that goal, no matter the smirks and eye-rolls. Behave like someone who is in it for the long run, not someone who is embarrassed by the possibility of failure.
One of the clear signs of cold feet I see is with authors writing one book. They wait for it to be a success and then and only then they brew that coffee and sit down for the next novel. There are many examples of authors who have written just one book, don’t let that fool you. The more books you write the greater the chances of someone coming across one of them, the more books you write, the more seriousness you show. As a bonus, your writing improves by leaps and bounds.
- I know it all
I am appalled every year by the number of people who think, they know all there is to know. They criticize writing courses, they ridicule writer groups (OK, I will grant that one) and they feel, they have arrived in every which way. They brush away every piece of writing insight as either a fluke or utter nonsense. They have it all figured out.
Look at successful professionals in any field, they hone their craft, continuously. Unfortunately, it’s hard to find authors who actively improve their skills. The problem lies in thinking writing to be creative, hence unteachable. It is a creative field, but with a majority of the work that is craft, not art. Constructing sentences is craft, using one word instead of another is also craft, these are things that are technical and can be learnt and improved upon.
I have even come across writers who have quit reading. They cite reasons like “the quality of published work is so poor”, or that “I would rather spend that time writing (but they rarely do),” or the ever popular “reading destroys my creative thinking I want to be free from suggestion.”
The “Know it all” manifests itself in more devastating forms like,
A. I Can Do it All
I write my books, I edit them, I proofread, I design the cover, I market my books, and yes you guessed it ….I am the only one who reads my books.
Writing and editing aren’t as similar as you’d think, the skills are very different. Besides, you should never self-edit. Make no mistake hard-selling and constant promoting aren’t skills most writers are born with. It’s two different personalities and most often needs two different people. Get help, professional help. It’s your career and your dreams at stake, nothing less than perfect will do.
B. I am Always Right.
These authors have created the literary equivalent of the emperor’s new clothes: you don’t see it! That’s because you are stupid.
They abuse critics, lash out at reviewers, and pretty much talk down to everyone they can. There was a recent (late 2014) case on Goodreads where a reader posted a 1 star review and the author went on a bloody tirade about how stupid she was to have missed the point. He wove conspiracy theories about how she was out to harm him and all that he stood for. It was a crusade really, and frankly quite (unintentionally) entertaining. All the poor girl had said was she found the book wordy and that it went around in circles without saying much. The author responded with more than 2000 words of defence!
The good news is that these are assumptions, and therefore all you have to do is not make them. Also rarely does a novelist have all four problems, hence it’s easily doable.
Here’s to success, Happy Writing!