I've been part of the publishing world for quite a while now, and in that time I've read a lot of articles and blog posts with titles like "10 Tips for Great Writing" or "5 Things You NEED To Know To Be A Successful Writer". Something else I have learned, is that almost all of these list articles/posts simply vomit up the same stuff the last article did. I'm not a fan of word vomit. So, to begin, I've compiled what I call the "Duh List". This is a list of things every other list post will tell you about being a successful writer.
The Duh List
- Write (Duh)
- Read (Duh)
- Show, don't tell (Duh)
- Be original (Duh) (Also something all these lists need to keep in mind)
- Know your market (Duh)
Now comes my list. The five things I wish someone would have told me before I decided to publish my work and write with the intention of being read.
- The Industry is Punks: This statement is up to some interpretation, but the meat of it is this: the publishing industry is exactly that, an industry. Publishing is a business, writing is an art. You can't make the mistake of thinking just because a publishing house sells books that it cares about yours. It probably doesn't. Granted, there are plenty of companies, big and small, who will cherish you and your work, but that's not the probable outcome. No, what happens most is the publishers take what they think well sell (if that's you, congrats I guess) and then put it on shelves. They used to sell it themselves, but these days a lot of publishers leave that to you, the writer. You better hope that high school business class you took taught you the right stuff. In short, you may care deeply about your work, but the industry couldn't care less unless your name happens to be James Patterson. They'll rip your work to shreds, put it back together if they like it enough, toy with it, twist it around, then take almost all the money while spending surprisingly little.
- The Readers are Ruthless: Even though the publishing industry might not care all that much about you or your work, that's no guarantee the reading public will either. If Fitzgerald were alive and just beginning his writing career today in indie publishing, there's no way to know for sure if Gatsby would make it through it all and become popular. In truth, it would most likely never see more than a thousand readers. With publishing as full as it is now, there are thousands of writers all clamoring for the same tired eyes to glance their direction, and if those eyes don't like what they see, they'll tell you. It doesn't matter if the book they read is The Great Gatsby or if its one of those Dinosaur Erotica short stories (yeah, they exist), if they don't like for any reason they'll most likely let you know, most often via the hated 1-star review. To an indie, all it takes is one bad review to sink a book's potential. If I saw a book called The Great Gatsby on Amazon right now, with only a few reviews, most of them low, I'd skip over it and never think about it again. That's how the world is now. If it isn't attractive at first glance, people won't pick it up, and if they pick it up, read it, and found that you've wasted their time with a story they don't like, they get pissed. Once the unhappy readers get through with you, you'll beg for the rejection from agents again. All that being said, readers are the only reason books exist, and they are the writer's greatest asset. If they love your book they'll be the best thing that's ever happened to you. Readers will leave glowing 5-star reviews, talk about that great book they read the other day, and maybe even post about it on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, whatever. Readers are ruthless and passionate about books. If you don't make them happy, they'll make you hate you life. If you give them a book they love, they'll promote it any time they can to any ears that bother to listen. It's a scale that you have to try and tip in your favor.
- There's no Golden Ticket to Anything: Are you reader to hear THE THING that will make you the next bestseller? WELL HERE IT IS: Simmer down, cool your jets, take a breath, and realize that this isn't a chocolate factory. You're not here thanks to some golden slip you found in your favorite candy bar. There is no piece of paper you find one day that says "You're now a beloved bestselling author! Yay you!" That's not a thing, nor will it ever be. Maybe someday you'll get an awesome agent who lands you a nice, multi-book contract with a fat advance on the first go around (yeah right, but we're all allowed to dream), but even that's not the end. Like I said above, getting that contract is just the tip of the ice berg. You'd do well by yourself to take every penny of that advance you got and sink it into marketing that book, or however many you've got on the contract. If you only want to sit at home and get paid to write novels, you're dreaming of something that can never happen. No publisher is your golden ticket to fame, or even a stable life all on its own. No matter what, you've got work to put in, and lots of it, and not just typing away at your next book. Just like you can't expect to hit "publish" on a self-publishing website and sell a thousand copies by the next day, you can't expect to ink a piece of paper then live life on easy street. Even bestsellers have to work a little bit to stay bestsellers. Authors go on book tours, do signings, go to conventions, and build great social media fan bases just to keep themselves relevant to the readers and to keep their name fresh on people's minds and their books at the front of the stores and libraries. There is no ticket to success. Once you're on the train there you've got to put your work in, or they'll boot you off at the next station and chug along without you.
- Don't Love Your Work, but Don't Hate it Either: This one is tough even for me after all this time writing and publishing my work. I don't like what I write very much at all, but readers seem to, and that's all that matters. I don't hate my writing, if I did I wouldn't let it out to the world, but I don't love it either. Not loving it is a good things. The second you can't find anything wrong with something you've written is the day you take a huge losing hit in the publishing battle. You don't want to be the person who loves their work so much they want to be buried in a coffin made of its pages. Nobody likes that person, but more importantly, those people are the ones who land in the news for going on tirades when people don't like their work. You should enjoy what you write, but don't wrap yourself up in it so much that your skin becomes thin. This is the wrong business to be in if you can't handle critics. On the flip side, the person who hates their work often never realized their own potential. If you write everyday for all of your life and only ever shelf your work because you hate it, you'll never know what other eyes think of it. Like I said, I don't like my own writing all that much, but other people do. If you spend your life only hearing your own opinions on your writing, you'll never know if it's good or bad. Be kind to yourself, but don't stroke your ego when it isn't necessary. Your work should be cherished by you, even if you know a million ways it could be improved.
- Only You Know You: The final point I'm going to make here is a simple one, but important: Nobody can tell you what works for you, except you. I've spent this time making this list in hopes of helping someone out there understand what it takes to write and publish in this crazy world. For some, it might work, but others will look at it and call bullshit on it all. People will tell you all sorts of things, but free-thought is the best thing you can do. I once had someone tell me they didn't like my work because it was too fast-paced, while someone else told me that they didn't like it because it was a little too slow for them. That's life, especially in the publishing world. Contradictions are everywhere, people are pulling you in some directions while simultaneously pushing you in others. The most important thing is that you know what works for you. If you're an awkward public speaker, maybe giving a book talk isn't the best idea. If you're better with one-on-one talk with readers, perhaps a convention booth would do better. People can command you to do things all they want, but feel free to disregard what you know won't work for you. If you know what you do best in writing, publishing, and marketing, then you're ten steps ahead of all the people telling you what to do.