Books · Publishing · Self-publishing

A Brutal Truth

“The mind of a writer can be a truly terrifying thing: isolated, neurotic, caffeine-addled, crippled by procrastination and consumed by feelings of panic, self-loathing and soul-crushing inadequacy. And that’s on a good day.” – Robert De Niro

If you’re a writer – or aspire to be – I recommend you read this article, “The Truth about Publishing”, by author Ian Irvine. Irvine was writing specifically about traditional publishing (and the article was written in 2005, meaning that some of it is slightly outdated now), but what he has to say is also relevant to self-publishers. Whichever path you take, or aspire to take, much of Irvine’s article will probably apply to you.

Image credit: Adam121 | Dreamstime Stock Photos
Image credit: Adam121 | Dreamstime Stock Photos

Irvine advises writers to have low expectations because, frankly, most authors don’t enjoy anything like the success they think they deserve. The truly successful can be placed into two basic categories: those who are, in effect, the lottery winners of the literary world, and those who work incredibly, impossibly hard. (Depressingly, hard work alone is no guarantee of success; there are plenty of authors who work incredibly, impossibly hard and still don’t achieve much in the way of success. And a degree of hard work is, of course, unavoidable, at least if you want to be reasonably good at what you do.)

On the surface, of course, and to the untrained eye, everything in the literary garden may look rosy. There are more books being published now than at any other time in history. Agents and publishers insist that they’re always looking for well-written fiction and interesting new voices. Self-publishing is becoming an increasingly viable option. However, look more closely, and you’ll see a rather different picture. Despite the explosion in the numbers of books being published, sales figures generally hover somewhere between “static” and “slowing”. Supply, in essence, outstrips demand by a very considerable margin.

Want to be traditionally published? Good luck, but the odds are against you. If you want a sustained, successful career with a trade publisher, your chances are smaller still.

Want to self-publish? Good luck, but the odds are still against you, albeit in some rather different ways. Getting your work “out there” won’t necessarily represent a huge problem, but just about everything else will. People say that self-publishing is easy. They’re wrong. Self-publishing badly is depressingly easy; self-publishing well can be surprisingly hard.

Image credit: Daniel Gilbey | Dreamstime Stock Photos.
Image credit: Daniel Gilbey | Dreamstime Stock Photos.

Sometimes people are inspired by stories of overnight successes. What they don’t always realise is that, behind every overnight success, lie years of hard work and obscurity. What they realise even less is that, for every author who achieves that level of success, there’ll be hundreds, if not thousands, who’ll remain in perpetual obscurity. And, sadly, talent has little to do with it. I don’t think I’m being unduly insulting when I say that Fifty Shades of Grey was not exactly a literary masterpiece, but plenty of people bought it, and loved it. If this proves just one thing, it’s that a lot of it comes down to pure luck – and luck, by its very nature, is completely random.

No formula for success exists. If it did, we’d all be using it. Nobody really knows what’s going to work and what isn’t. What worked for one person might not work for you. The industry is also notoriously fickle and changeable (this is certainly the case for self-publishing; I’m told that it’s much the same in traditional publishing). The outlook two years ago is not the same as the outlook today. What’s it all going to look like two years from now? I don’t know. If anyone says they do know, they’re probably lying (or deluded).

Even once you’re safely published, and regardless of the route you’ve taken to get there, your problems are only just beginning. Hundreds of books are published every week. That’s true whether you’re talking about traditionally-published or self-published books; if you add the figures together, the total is staggeringly high. The chances of your book being noticed are slight, to say the least. Even without all those other books, you’d still be competing against a plethora of entertainment choices: films, TV and music that are available pretty much on demand, computer games, the internet. Even the most committed readers, faced with this overabundance of goodies, could be forgiven for getting a bit distracted. And much of this entertainment, by the way, is free. So your average reader faces a choice: does he spend a few pounds of his hard-earned cash on your book, or does he watch another YouTube documentary at no cost?

Marketing and PR are key here. If you’re a self-publisher, you’ll be familiar with the concept that this is your responsibility, whether you like it or not. If you’re traditionally published (and unless you’re already a bestseller, or famous), you’ll probably still be expected to take on the lion’s share of the marketing. This, despite the fact that you’ll probably know absolutely nothing about the dark arts of promotion (and you can be sure that you’ll get the blame if your sales are anaemic). What to do, then? Spamming is out of the question, unless you want to irritate people. Advertising might help, but it has to be consistent and conducted on a large scale before it begins to take effect. Big advertising campaigns by big companies succeed because they are huge, and sustained. Your small-scale promotional efforts will probably yield only small results.

Image credit: Phil Date | Dreamstime Stock Photos
Image credit: Phil Date | Dreamstime Stock Photos

Twitter, Facebook, blogging . . . they may sell some books. They probably won’t sell many. Logging onto Twitter is like being caught outside in the mother of all blizzards. The snow’s falling so thick and fast that discerning individual snowflakes (i.e. tweets) is virtually impossible. People can visit your blog, website, or Facebook page – repeatedly – and still never feel even remotely tempted to read your book.

Word-of-mouth is generally accepted as being the most effective marketing. The problem is that nobody knows how to generate that elusive word-of-mouth, not least because it’s incredibly rare. Most readers just don’t feel that passionately about that many books. Reviews, too, probably don’t make much difference, at least on an individual basis. A glowing review won’t necessarily have readers clamouring to read your book, just as a stinking one won’t necessarily deter them. (And, of course, you will certainly get stinking reviews sooner or later. It doesn’t matter if you’ve written the great novel of the 21st century, someone’s going to hate it.)

Trends are unpredictable. Futuristic YA werewolf romance may be all the rage this year, but it probably won’t be for much longer. And nobody – absolutely nobody – knows what the next big thing will be. When publishers talk about market trends, they’re really talking about guesswork and making predictions based on observed past events, which can be a notoriously unreliable activity.

The truth is that just about everything’s guesswork. If there were one sure-fire way to get that agent or publisher interested, there wouldn’t be so many disappointed authors sighing over the latest rejection slip. If there were one promotional or marketing strategy that invariably worked, we’d all be using it.

The truth is, simply, that it’s hard. As in, horrifically, stupendously, scream-inducingly hard. Writing is like lining up to be kicked in the teeth. Repeatedly. For the rest of your life. (I know, I know – there are exceptions. You might be one of them. If you are, you have my permission to print out this post, hunt me down, and force me to eat it.)

Put off? If you are, it’s probably best that you should be. If you don’t love something enough to love it despite all its problems and failings, you don’t love it enough to devote your life to it. Life, as they say, is way too short.

Not put off? You’re clearly insane. (Let it be said, writing is perhaps unique amongst career paths – I use the term loosely – in that insanity does not necessarily constitute a major obstacle.) You love what you’re doing so much that, ultimately, none of this stuff can really faze you that much. Your love is quite blind, you poor deluded fool.

And it’s the kind of love that will, with luck and hard work, lead you to write some amazingly good books. You can be proud of yourself, my friend. It’s truly an epic love.


11 thoughts on “A Brutal Truth

  1. Well, before being off to read that article you recommended, Mari, I’d just like to say that you do stand out as being a writer of such quality that you certainly deserve to succeed. Perhaps you should devote some of that energy you mention to building a time machine, and m ay yet find out that in a hundred years’ time, ‘Mari Biella’s name is quoted with awe.

  2. Thought-provoking, as always, Mari. May I add a thought of my own? Writing needn’t be torment at all if one doesn’t get caught up in the whole publishing conundrum. Merely writing for the joy of it and the entertainment of those who express an interest cuts out the angst at one stroke.

    1. Hello Paul, and thanks for commenting. You’re right about that – very often I have considered whether I wouldn’t be happier just writing for my own pleasure and forgetting about publication entirely. It would certainly make life a lot easier! However … I can’t help but feel that sometimes, if in far fewer cases than we often think, publication is not just an optional extra, but almost a necessity. Your novel ‘Mayflies’ comes to mind here. I’ve read it, and I loved it; however, if I hadn’t met you online, I’d probably never have had the chance. It’s the kind of novel, I think, that really should be ‘out there’. It’s the kind of novel I’d really like to have had the opportunity to read, whether I’d met you or not. Of course, the real sadness is that getting it out there, and getting it noticed, is tricky, and I wouldn’t blame anyone who opted to steer clear of it all!

  3. I oscillate between the sheer joy of writing, and the despair that publication is almost a waste of time… Almost. As you said in your discussion with Paul, there are many books that I would have missed reading if everyone decided only to write for themselves. I like knowing that even if only one person finds, reads, and enjoys my books, I was able to give that gift to someone.


    1. Hi Aniko, and thanks for the comment. I like your attitude, and I’m sure that many people in due course will indeed find, read, and enjoy your books! The sheer joy of writing is indeed the most important thing, and it comes across clearly in your own writing. You’re doing something that you love, and that’s no small victory!

      I’m not sure that publication is almost a waste of time, to be honest. I’ve found the experience very enriching, on the whole – not in a financial sense, but in terms of the people I’ve met, the feedback I’ve received, and the sheer satisfaction of the whole thing. When I wrote this post, I was thinking primarily of the people – they do still exist – who think of writing primarily as a business venture. Most of them, if not all, are in for a nasty shock…

  4. Hi, Mari, first I want to thank you for the harsh review pointing editing mistakes. I received a positive review from Kindle Review stating about minor mistakes and after this second feedback I hired a second editor. Still hard to find a good one.
    Now, about your post – why such a negativity? The universe responses to our thoughts, desires and emotions. If you think “publishers are evil, Amazon is evil, everyone is evil” this is not good attitude for you. Of course everyone can have their one opinions. But what I read and see are quite a lot indies making 5 figures and they are not named Hugh, Bella or H.M (they make millions). Publishing has never been so lucrative and so difficult at the same time. As they say “it was the best of times to be a writer, it was the worst of times to be writer” (I hope I wrote it correct, if not please correct me). I ‘ll urge you to start reading Nick’s blog: He is also British and he also dislikes’ Amazon’s exclusivity (who doesn’t?) so you two have something in common. He isn’t a self-publishing rock star like Hugh but he makes a very good living (5 figures). However, you can reach readers too – your crime novel has good reviews and if you can get a BookBub ad and lower the price to free for a certain time, you’ll get a thousands of downloads, guaranteed. Of course,you have to pay a few bucks.
    I disagree that marketing is everything – see A. G. Riddle – he wrote what people wanted to read. There are no rules, just one thing for certain – it is the best of times to be a writer because Geography and Gate Keepers are No Longer our Masters. Period.
    A quote from Joanna Penn (also British): “Writing is about you, publishing is about the book and marketing is about the readers”.
    I do hope you get some inspiration after this long comment I wrote.

    1. Hello Antara, and thanks for the comment. I don’t think my review was harsh, by any means – I stated that I liked the story, but that there were a few problems with how that story had been written (from my own personal point of view, of course). However, this isn’t really the place to talk about it, as I’m sure that nobody else would have a clue what we’re talking about! 🙂 If you want to discuss it further, please feel free to email me.

      Likewise, I don’t think my post is unduly negative. I actually think I’m being pretty realistic. I don’t think that publishers, Amazon or anyone else is ‘evil’ – my thinking really is not that simplistic, I assure you! However, they’re not necessarily ‘good’ either. Sure, there are successful self-publishers (successful from a financial point of view, which is not the point of view that interests me most). However, I don’t think you can see success as something that is certain to happen just because you do certain things. I think that for every success you mention, there are probably hundreds who have been disappointed – and again, that’s not being negative, just realistic. I’ve known some writers who are incredibly talented, work incredibly hard, and do everything that self-publishers are advised to do in terms of marketing themselves and their work, and they still don’t get very far.

      I absolutely agree with you when you say that marketing isn’t everything – nowhere in my post did I suggest that it was. I actually said that most of it comes down to pure chance, which I think is probably true.

      It’s great that you’re so positive, Antara. And I really, truly hope that you don’t end up being disappointed. However, I think it’s in your interests to realise that your success is not guaranteed, and to look reality straight in the face here. As my mother used to say, ‘You can climb up a downward-bound escalator; it’s just that it’s very, very hard.’ That said, I wish you nothing but luck, and truly hope that you succeed in climbing that escalator!

  5. AS you said there are no rules for success but do your friends write in series, do they advertise on BookBub, do they build an email list? If they do all this correctly, chances are they are making a living. However, according to Hindu school of thought there are 3 things that nobody can change and two of that are whether one is rich or not and one’s professions. When people complained that Stephen King was writing horror, he said to them “Why do you think I have a choice?” The same here. Make no mistake, I know it’s hard and it’s getting harder. Not hundreds of books are being published each week – thousands! Actually 10 k books. I know the data but there is a way if it is in your karma. I am regular on Kboards and frequently somebody posts a thread like “About to Give Up” or anything like that. Other times someone is very successful and they don’t know even how which backs up the theory of karma. I interview an indie author and I think you’ll like the review:
    About the review I meant harsh in connection to editing. I admire your honesty and wrote a blog post How to Get reviews and included a link to your blog, sorry for the misunderstanding.

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