“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specifically about traditional publishing (and the article was written in 2005, meaning that some of it is slightly outdated now), but what he has to say is also relevant to self-publishers.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.
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.
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.
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.