I meet a lot of people who want to be writers.
I also meet a lot of people who’ve written a few things and would like to see them published.
And, I meet writers who’ve actually published a few things, but feel lost on how to get anyone to read their work or, more importantly, how to make money from their books.
For the next few articles I’ll be blogging about these things, moving from the general to the specific.
First, the big, usually unspoken question that haunts many, many authors: Am I a real writer?
I’ve never met a writer at any stage of their career that wasn’t haunted by self-doubt. If you’ve never written a novel, you wonder how you can possibly call yourself a writer when you haven’t produced a finished manuscript. You can’t finish the novel unless you write it, but how can you write it if you aren’t a real writer?
Or, you’ve written your novel. Maybe even a few novels. No one outside your circle of friends has read them. You polish and polish, but never feel like the book you’ve written is good enough to get sent out to a publisher. A real writer would already have their manuscript in the mail, right? (And, yes, I know that “in the mail” is something of an archaic phrase. When I started in this business you still sent paper manuscripts via postage.)
So, maybe you’ve actually hit the “send” button and submitted your manuscript to publishers, only to get silence and form letters in return. Sure, you’ve strung together 80,000 words in a more or less coherent fashion. But does that really make you a writer? If you’re not good enough to interest an editor maybe you’re not good enough, period. You’ve seen horrible, unoriginal, poorly written books make it into bookstores. What are you lacking? Why are these hacks selling books and getting reviews on Amazon while you’re watching the pages of your calendar fly away, movie style, as each unpublished year brings you and your work closer to oblivion.
Then, success! You’ve published a book! And nobody reads it. You have three friends who review it on Amazon, your sales ranking is a seven digit number, and now, finally, you have the evidence to prove what you’ve always secretly suspected: You’re no good at this. If you were any good at all, word of mouth and positive reviews would have driven you to at least moderate success. The silence that greets your book is the final nail in the coffin of your dream of being a writer. You suck at this. Time to give up.
But, wait! You’ve actually had a few people buy your book. You’ve got reviews from total strangers on Amazon. Some were glowing, some were harsh. You’re a real writer! But, wow, you’re not selling nearly enough books to be a real, real writer. You can’t break the top 10,000 on Amazon. Your name has never been on a New York Times bestseller list. For that matter, you’ve never been reviewed in any publication you actually read. No daytime TV shows have invited you on. NPR hasn’t booked you for Fresh Air. Oprah’s people aren't speaking to your people, if you have people. When you tell people you’re a writer you confront again and again the reality that they’ve never heard of you or your book.
Then: Success! You actually do creep onto a bestseller list. You’ve been interviewed by newspapers! You’ve talked about your book on the radio! Your book is popular! For maybe two months. Then it’s forgotten, swept aside by the deluge of new books demanding space and attention. To keep feeling like a writer, you need a new book, but what if your last book was your best book? What if lightning is never going to strike again? Good thing you didn’t quit your day job. Sure, you’re a writer, but you just don’t have what it takes to make a career out of it. Maybe you think your work is good, but you don’t have the type of personality that you need to promote yourself aggressively. You don’t have time to keep up with all the social media platforms. And you wrote your first book because you believed in it. Now you think you can maybe make a little money writing a sequel, but is it right to do it just for the money? Doesn’t that make you a hack instead of a real writer?
I promise you that the most successful writer you’ve ever heard of was haunted by these same self-doubts. Success only raises the bar. I’ve met plenty of authors who had one giant bestseller twenty years ago. They’ve put out a dozen other books since then, but it’s still that one book that everyone talks about. All their hard work and experience have never duplicated that first beloved hit, even though, by their own judgment, some of their later books were better written. Maybe it wasn’t talent or hard work or superior quality that made that early book break out. Maybe it was just luck, the right book at the right time, and the same level of success might never come again.
Self-doubt is an author’s most valuable asset. If you ever vanquished it, you would have no need to ever learn anything new. You would have no reason to work harder to improve your writing, and no reason to work on any of the other skills you need to be a professional writer, the marketing, the accounting, the networking, and the never-ending struggle to keep abreast of a publishing world in constant turmoil.
The key is that this self-doubt needs to be matched with an almost equal measure of self-confidence, even arrogance. You have to believe that your words and your stories are important. You have to be able to read your own books and think, wow, I love this author! I can’t wait to read more by them! You have to be eager to encounter the potential reader who’s never heard of you and who couldn’t care less about your book and explain why your book is worth their time and energy.
Now some hard truth. The odds of making a really good living as a fiction writer are kind of low. All art is difficult to make a living at, in some ways because we undervalue art, but also because it’s not truly a rare commodity. The month you’re ready to release your book to the world, 10,000 other writers are going to take their shot as well. It’s hard to rise above the noise of so many voices crying for attention at once. On the plus side, the sheer number of books in this world can be taken as a reassurance. People write books all the time. You can too. This ain’t rocket surgery. It’s daydreaming, typing, and a tiny measure of organizational skills. I promise you can write all the books you’d like.
But if you are doing it to make money, sorry. Your odds of making a living that can provide you not just food, clothing, and shelter, but also healthcare and retirement funds are fairly low. But not everyone who can play guitar is going to wind up a Nashville superstar. They can still play songs they enjoy playing. And the fact that there are a million other people with guitars who can play just as well or better is no reason to put the guitar in the closet. The same is true with writing. I’ve written some books that have sold well. I’ve written others that might has well have been printed in invisible ink given how few people read them. In the end, though, the true measure of a novelist is this: Are you writing books you enjoy reading? If you are, you’re a writer. You are your most important audience.
And if you still hold out hope of making some money, I’ll let you in on the secret. That can be done as well, but it’s not guaranteed and it’s not easy. Still, the good news about those 10,000 other writers who released their first book the same day you did is that 9,900 aren’t going to write a second book. An even smaller number is going to write their tenth book. With patience, persistence, hard work and, yes, a bit of luck, you can beat the odds and make a reasonable income from writing.
In future posts, I’ll provide more specifics, and a path to slog toward success. Until then, go write something!