Selling your writing: on having success, or not

Here is a philosophical post for a lazy Saturday.

When you write, invariably, you get asked the question: are you successful? When people ask me, I’m never sure what to say. I sold my work to publishers and got into some good magazines. I guess that’s success. I never made much money doing that. I then bowed out of this industry and now sell enough books that we could live on it. But no one knows who I am, I’ve won no awards, have received no accolades in the traditional sense in recent years. But I’ve sold a lot more books and have hundreds of reviews. I guess I could call myself successful, but that’s really hard to say about yourself. I also know people who sell way better than I do. I know people who sell less who I consider more successful.

So what, really, is success?

Here are some thoughts.

First, define success

You will hear this line often from people who want to diffuse discussions about the subject. They say: not everyone wants to make millions and retire on a yacht in the Bahamas (looking at you, Hugh Howey). Some people just want to sell 50 books to people that are not their friends and family. Some people consider success the simple fact of having completed a book.

Really?
Really, really?

I would prefer to set the bar at least a little bit higher.

But how? Money? Awards?

Success is one of those things: you’ll know it when you see it. It’s not quantifiable by income. Some very successful writers especially in the trad world don’t make their living selling books.

Here are a few things I believe to be true about success:

There is always someone who is more successful than you

Seriously, this never gets old. As soon as you have shifted the bar, someone else will put it higher still. Compare-itis is a recipe for disaster for your personal mindset and productivity. Don’t forget all those people who are less successful. Look at them and feel happy about where you are.

When you’re doing well, acknowledge it

Nothing more annoying than a writer who’s doing pretty well whining about standards or sales levels that most people would find unattainable.

And enjoy it while it lasts

Everything that goes up must come down. Make hay while the sun shines.

There are a variety of cliches that deal with this very issue. Don’t forget that amazing sales never last, and bank for the leaner times in between releases.

This happens to everyone, and there is nothing wrong with you or your books when sales slow down. Just write the next book.

Most importantly: Check your expectations

If you go into a project as unknown entity, you realistically can’t expect a huge success story. Yes, it has happened, but here is my law about it: the more confident/cocky you act about the potential of success, the less likely it will become a reality.

Experienced creators know that they can make certain sales based on the size and engagement rate of their mailing list, but unexpected successes are pretty much that: unexpected.

If you go into a project with no reader base and/or no mailing list, the chances of a hit are very, very slim. Know that, acknowledge it, and keep plugging on.

The most important rule about success that I adhere to: in the public space, I don’t put myself forward as successful. I let other people do that. Or not. It’s not up to me to judge.

Writing success: There are no shortcuts

Let’s repeat that: there are no shortcuts to writing success.

You will often see people recommending that when you want to sell well, you have to copy what the bestsellers do.

Yes, you do, but there is a genuine way and a misguided way to go about it.

Misguided? Well…

Bestsellers have books with lots of reviews, so people will do all sorts of things to get lots of reviews. Make no mistake, it’s not a bad thing to give out copies to your fans to get a few reviews immediately when the book is published. But large-scale review-gathering? What’s the point? The successful books got those reviews because they sold a lot, not the other way around.

Bestsellers may have quotes from reviews in the description. Sure, if you have a quote that looks good, use it, but if you have to put “Amazon reviewer” in your quote, then it looks a bit silly, doesn’t it? Again, those quotes came about because people read the book. If you pay for quotes or reviews (Kirkus!) then you probably end up looking a bit desperate if the book doesn’t sell.

Bestsellers may have (emphasis on may) have made bestseller lists. While publishers have gamed these lists for many years, gaming by self-published writers has reached epic proportions, which is why the NYT bestseller list has combined some categories, making it harder to get on those lists.

But why would you want to, if you haven’t actually written books that have anywhere near earned their place? If readers go to a page of a touted whatever-list-bestselling author and all they can see there are books that don’t look in the slightest like they could have earned that listing, what are they going to think? It just devalues the list, if readers actually took notice in the first place.

So what does matter?

When you look at the pages of successful writers, you will see either of these things:

  • One or two books that sell an insane number of copies a month
  • Lots of books, most of which sell a decent number of copies each month

All of them sell books that people want to read. They get reviews because those readers love the books, and the writers occasionally make lists because people buy the books when they’re on special.

Goosing reviews or bestseller lists is putting the cart before the horse.

Write books first, work on your craft, produce material regularly. The rest will follow by itself. Yes, it’s likely to take a while.

You can toss any amount of money at tricks that will make you look better, but ultimately it is about the books. People are not dumb. Social proof comes about because people read the books, not the other way around. Therefore, make your books the best and spend your energy on doing that.

There are no shortcuts. You can’t buy long-term, viable success.

Sorry, probably not what you wanted to hear.

Why you should totally write about politics and be proud of it, too

This morning, the Twitterspere was all aflap about this piece of garbage:

The Top 7 reasons why posting politics kills your career

(please note that this post has been taken down by the site. They cited as reason that “it was acceptable to write about politics when the subject was academically well-researched”, and thus continued to completely mis-understand why this got so much vitriol on Twitter)

Writing about politics kills your writing career. Really?

Do these writers think that if you write any kind of fiction, you can write bland, faceless pap that does not touch on any political points?

Or maybe they confuddle “writing about politics” with “telling people how to vote”.

No, unless you’re a politician, you should probably stay away from the latter, at least in your fiction, and at least as narrator (your characters can totally tell people how to vote!), and maybe most of the time. Maybe. But… if you like politics, go kill the internet with it. We live in a free world.

So let’s just deconstruct this garbage article.

1. You’ll abandon your brand
So? My brand is fiction that cares about issues. It’s impossible to write about issues in society without touching on politics. Even if you wrote the most pappy of faceless pap, you’d still write about politics, by the sheer admission of avoiding politics. That’s politics, too. You know: don’t care, don’t vote, then complain your head off when you don’t like the results. Aren’t I glad voting in Australia is compulsory?

2. You could lose a reader
Yes, I could lose one. I could gain many more by being genuine and not talking rubbish faceless pap.
This is the problem with writers, or people in general: they want to be liked by everyone. This is impossible. It’s better to be hated by some and loved by others than for everyone to go “who the hell is that?”
Bullshit.

3. Productivity And Quality Will SUFFER from flame wars
Yes, it does.
But why every in the world does she assume that writing about politics automatically draws you into flame wars? Ultimately, whether you get involved in flame wars is up to you. If you’re too juvenile to control your impulses to always have to have the last word, fine, avoid the subject. But then avoid Twitter and Facebook, too, and your friends and family might just appreciate it if you did an anger management course.
Sorry, we’re not all impulse-driven angry people. We’re adults and can discuss issues in an adult way, and walk away from those who can’t. Nothing to do with writing about politics.

4. You Could Be Marketing!
Seriously. I got no words. What does she think marketing is? Tweeting BUY MY BOOK? Social issues get people emotionally involved. Emotion forges connections. Connections sell books.
End of. Never heard anything more stupid in my life.

5. It’s Not A Good Look On You. Or Anyone
Do you think I care? Actually, do you think I care about people who care that I get passionate about things… that I get passionate about that also happen to be political. Stuff like equal opportunities for all, education and the biggie, environmental politics? Do you really want me to scrub that off my writing and are you telling me that will make me look better?
What absolute ROT.

6. You’ll Demolish Your Career Opportunities
Feel free to do a bank-account-off. Show me yours, I’ll show you mine. End of argument.

7. You’re Not An Expert (Unless You Are)
I have no words. So now we are supposed to have degrees before we can comment? Holy crap-a-mole. What, so my degree is in agriculture and that means I can only comment on that? Does it mean I am not qualified to vote.
Seriously FFS, I have never heard anything more stupid.

The entire article is just made of stupid.

To repeat: writing about politics is not the same as trying to convince someone that your viewpoint is right.
Writing about politics involves showing the different viewpoints and showing characters with those viewpoints and why they think the way they do.
Writing about politics involves characters expressing their opinions.

Where do you think Ambassador would be without politics?
On one side we have the inclusionist groups that includes Cory and much, but not all, of gamra. Then you have the conservatives including Sigobert Danziger (who is very much into local aid) and later the Pretoria Cartel, who are about business.

And what about Shifting Reality, which is all about how minorities and the disenfranchised are treated. It’s also about minorities within minorities, for example the gay community within the Indonesian section, as well as the ultra-right hypertechs.

Even the Icefire/Moonfire series is full of politics. The whole plot of the second trilogy would fall down without the climate/science aspect.

But any opinions are voiced by the characters. You do not get to know (although you can probably guess) what I as author think, but some characters represent viewpoints I don’t agree with. These are not always evil characters (actually, they rarely are).

My fiction is FULL of politics. I’m proud of it.

Writing or Marketing?

If you poke around the internet, you will find posts by various wise writers exhorting you to spend x amount or proportion of your time marketing and the rest writing. Often it comes down to 80% writing and 20% marketing.

I think these sorts of enforced schedules miss a really important part of being a writer:

Marketing is not some evil thing that should be avoided at all cost, nor is it something that takes you away from writing, or something that needs to be rationed.

Marketing augments your writing. Marketing sells what you have already written, increasing the value obtained from your intellectual capital. Marketing can also help you decide what to write next: see what sells best, and then write more of that.

How much time do I spend doing either? However much is necessary. If I’m in the middle of an early draft of a book, I’ll spend next to no time marketing, but when I need to think about how plot threads fit together, I move to do more marketing, because most of it involves interacting with people and it takes your mind off thorny plotting problems, and that ironically helps you see the solutions that have been staring you in the face all the time.

Writing: the most important thing a new writer should do

This advice is often phrased as “mistakes made by new writers”. I don’t like the word “mistakes” and I like to express thoughts in positive advice that people can do something with.

So what is the most important thing writers should be doing?

WRITE

Well, duh, I can hear you say. But I see so many new writers not writing, and then lamenting that they haven’t sold anything and that they have no time.

You will never have any time if you don’t make the most important thing your number one priority.

In short: you will never be a writer if you don’t write.

You learn the craft by writing. Stop obsessing over writing rules or whether or not something is good enough. You learn through reading and writing, and when you’ve written, writing the next thing.

If you don’t write and finish your writing, you will never have anything to sell. The more things you have to sell, the more chance that you will actually, y’know, sell stuff.

Stop obsessing over things that are outside your control. For example reviews, if you’re self-published, or the tone and precise content of rejection letters if you’re trying the traditional route. STOP. OBSESSING. Obsessing isn’t getting any writing done.

Are your current works not doing as well as you’d hoped? Write something else.

Stop complaining. Shut up and WRITE!

Writing: writer’s block.

Listening to another podcast by Joanna Penn this morning. I found this one particularly inspiring. Both Joanna and Michaelbrent Collings, who was interviewed in the podcast, appear to have the attitude towards writing and publishing that I happen to share:

When you write a book, this adds to an inventory. It’s that inventory, or creative capital, as I have heard people call it, that earns you a consistent and growing income. It’s not about one bestseller. It’s not about a flash-in-the-pan success (although I wouldn’t say no to it). It’s about having a large backlist for people to buy in a genre that is popular.

Anyway, I also liked his opinion on writer’s block. I’m not even sure what it is supposed to be. I don’t think I have ever had writer’s block.

Is it not knowing what to write? There are solutions for that.

There are days when I work that I don’t add much to the manuscript, but instead I think about how I will move forward with the plot. That’s useful time, even if I don’t put words on the page.

Personally, I am not much for writing crap for the sake of writing, but it works for some to get ideas coming. If I don’t know what to write, I don’t write until I do have an idea what I want with a scene. But the thinking, the planning and the reading are still working on the manuscript.

I also find daily word counts counter-productive, because I tend to start looking at the wordcount rather than at the scenes that need to be written.

I’m a pantser.

I write a scene.
I edit the scene until at least it’s clear to me how it ends and what the characters want in that scene.
Then I think about what is logical for them to do next, with the overall planned story ending in mind.
Then I write the next scene.
I make sure that what the characters are doing makes sense, and I build from that to the next scene.

I guess writer’s block would happen where you lose connection with your characters’ motivations and underpinning aims and you’re just writing by wordcount or by instructions from an outline.

To me, it always helps to go back to why the characters were there and what makes sense for them to do next.

If you do that, you will always know what to write.

Writing advice: what I wish someone would have told me when I started

Starting as a writer can be very bewildering, and books, blogs, workshops and classes are full of advice. It can be really hard to figure out what is important. Here are some things I wished someone had told me in 2005.

1. DO finish your story. If you have no finished story, you have nothing. When you finish it, start another one. DON’T be precious about the first story. Most likely, it’s severely lacking in the genius department. That’s OK. Just finish it. Write another one.

2. DO learn craft and continue learning. Listen to people further up the slippery pole than you are, especially if they’re in a place where you would like to be.

3. DON’T, like, EVER, pay someone to publish your work. Money flows TO THE WRITER, except when you decide it doesn’t, like when you hire an editor for self-publishing, and when the boundaries of their service to you are clear.

4. DO learn “the rules”. Learn why they exist, and what the reason is behind them. Mostly, those reasons fall into two groups: 1. Reader engagement. You want your work to be vivid and pack an emotional punch, 2. Clarity. You want the reader to understand what you’ve written.

5. Then, after having done 4 for a year or so, DO forget about all those rules. Because they’re not rules, they are tools to help new writers understand. “Show, not tell” is about making your writing more vivid. “One POV character per scene” or “No head-hopping” is about clarity. “Don’t use the word ‘that'” is about not stuffing sentences with unnecessary words (except don’t get rid of the word “that” too often. You need it).

6. Having done 4. and 5., DON’T fall down the “must use interesting prose” rabbithole. Seriously, I’m still undoing the damage done to some of my earlier fiction by this BS. If someone remarks on your use of the word “was” or “that” or “something” or “and”, signs are that you’re probably doing something that’s repetitive. But getting rid of all of these offending terms does not make your writing as dynamic and varied as getting rid of half of them. This should be the most easy half. When you need to twist a sentence around to make it more “interesting”, you’ve lost the plot, and probably a good number of readers.

7. Talking about plot, DO learn about plot and character. This is MUCH more important than micro-editing your prose. Do I need to shout how much more important this is?

8. DO declare a work finished (even if you decide it’s no good) and move on. DON’T dwell on a single story. At this point, your career will be much better served by your writing another story.

9. DON’T shit on other writers, no matter how famous. Yup, Fifty Shades wasn’t my cuppa, nor was the Da Vinci Code, but those writers did something right. If you’re interested in learning, find out what it is, and stop whinging about their terrible prose. If anything, there is the proof that prose really doesn’t matter one iota as long as people can understand what’s being said. Besides, whinging makes you look like a dick.

10. DON’T take advice from someone who has a financial interest in the subject matter of their advice. Or at least don’t do so without extensive checking of that advice.

11. DO connect with other writers. Who you know is important. No, not for schmoozing, but for networking and finding out about opportunities. It is extremely unlikely that you will live close to any genre writers who are at the same career stage as you. You meet them online. This is what social media is for, and it can be very beneficial and very important.