Somewhat of a follow-up to last week’s post on the future being a complex mix of everything rather than one magic solution, today we will focus on authors and what it takes to make a successful writing career.
Like everything else in life, it is never one thing. Success is always a result of a variety of things that came together to make it work.
The same is true for something considered less-than-successful. It’s always a combination of things that contributed to a disappointing result.
Last year, I wrote about an author’s focus in their work, dealing specifically with what you write about. “One Thing.” The “one-thing” approach to writing is different than our topic today.
Think of all the things in life where people feel “if only” one thing changed, everything else would fall into line.
Everyone had access to excellent and affordable housing
No GMO foods
…and so on.
Authors fall into the “magic solution” trap as well. Any time they start a sentence with “If only” in reference to some element of their book, they are thinking if one thing changed, everything else would improve or instantly transform a disappointment into a success.
A better cover, different interior, a different title, a better editing job, more and better marketing from the publisher, better SEO, and so on.
Maybe the above list was exactly what was needed to be successful. But notice how I listed six things? It is never one thing that makes or breaks anything. It’s a combination of everything.
Oh, and by the way, the quality of writing has something to do with it as well, but there are some wonderfully written books that do not sell and some less-than-perfect books that sell very well, so even the issue of writing quality proves that it is never one thing.
It might be a combination of dozens of factors that cause a book to succeed or not, but the most important factor is not something you can control.
Readers liked it.
They are a slippery group. Like wet bars of soap. We never know what they want or need, because they never know what they want or need. They know it when they see it but can’t describe it ahead of time, so don’t think research is the key to success.
No author researched their way to a best seller. Research looks for the “causal” factor that creates the tipping point. What is frustrating about the “magic cause” is in reality, it just happens. It can’t be planned, bottled and repeated.
Years ago, a Christian book exploded in sales. The propelling factor (magic cause) was a famous Christian singer who held up the book at a concert.
It couldn’t be planned or repeated. And it wasn’t.
When Oprah Winfrey was in her prime, publishers fell all over themselves trying to get an official endorsement. Over a sixteen-year period, over three million books were published in the U.S. and Oprah picked 72 for her endorsement. Doesn’t seem to be a reasonable marketing strategy to me.
All this speaks to the fact that book publishing is an art form and not a science. Scientific pursuits uncover factors that can be controlled and repeated.
Publishing is not completely immune to a scientific approach, but very smart publishing people who do everything right still fail to achieve perfect success because of the issue I mentioned about the reader. Often, they are happy with a 50% success rate.
The reader either liked something or they didn’t. It’s enough to drive you crazy.
If only we could publish books and not have our plans for success hinged on the whim of a reader.
Over the years I’ve heard any number of people joke their business would be a lot of fun if it weren’t for customers. Everyone laughs, but also know how messy it can be, even for a successful business.
So go ahead. Try to figure out the magic formula or the magic pill to publishing success, realizing the greatest factor in that success is not under your control.
Thank you Dan for another realistic post.
I think the challenge of most writers, especially the category of beginning writers like me is that we believe a great book or extensive marketing makes a great publishing success. So, we throw all that we have into writing a beautiful story or doing an intense marketing. At the end of the day, it becomes a matter of frustration.
As a best selling author aptly says, “it comes down to one person – the reader.” Recently, I read a romance suspense and I was practically yelling “this should be a best seller.” Far from it!
The writing journey is like the process involved in producing stainless steel. The right percentage of carbon must be refined with iron to get the steel, before being electroplated with an exact amount of chromium to make it stainless. It looks simple on the surface (just as publishing appears), but a majority of metallurgists would gladly give anything to be on the other side of the story. Countless of experiments and fails is a miniature of their agony. But we don’t know that, we just need the finished product to suit our needs. And so does the reader.
I discovered a great strategy to try out my book premise with potential readers. Believe it or not, Facebook and attending networking events, and telling anyone interested in knowing what my book is about. Smiles, likes, comments, and because my work is about the spiritual factor, a huge ease that overcomes them.
Linda Riggs Mayfield
Dan, Wow–this was so timely! Thank you!!!
Portions ranging from five chapters to the whole text of my most recent yet-unpublished historical novel have been read and praised by the retired senior editor of a major publisher, a current imprint editor, and a well-known literary agent, but put aside by a non-fiction free-lance editor friend after ten pages due to her opinion that there was a boring lack of action. After multiple messing-with-it sessions in response to that criticism, last night I finally asked my husband to read those first five chapters. He did it immediately. He thinks it still took me awhile to get to the action, but that I need to stop changing things based on input from one person who minded my developing character and context first. After all, other very knowledgeable “READERS LIKED IT.”
My dear husband also asked me if I realized how much of myself shows through in the book. Yup, ‘sure do. Do you suppose he’ll recognize anyone else’s personality quirks later in the book? ;-D You know the old saying, “Write what you know.”
I hear you, Linda! Sounds like you were heading into analysis paralysis. It can be a demoralizing trap.
When I got feedback from one contest judge who gave me a very high score and said my entry was the best she/he’d read while another judge gave it a C-, I just had to laugh at how wide the opinions ranged on the same work. I’ve developed my writing style based on all I’ve learned through books on writing craft, feedback from contests, and what I’ve learned at this and other writing blogs, but I refuse to follow every dictate for how to write “well” for today’s market. The great literature we still read and love and buy is in a more thoughtful, less action-adventure style, and I want a greater depth to what I read than is available just looking through the eyes of one character at the action. I’ve developed my own hybrid style with lots of “show” but also “tell” where it adds depth, and my beta readers all like it. Still, they are not writing professionals, and you are so fortunate to have feedback from so many of those. I wish I had someone who knew the writing craft who would read and give me knowledgeable feedback to guide me.
My husband is my chief advisor on whether my men speak and act like real men would. He’s also the model for some of the best characteristics of two of my heroes. What would we do without them?
You just eliminated all my excuses for not writing a best-seller, and I can’t blame it on the publisher any longer. 🙂
I learned that the physics of our dimensions, the structure of our multiverse depends on a set of measurements. (I think 20 different numbers) If we change any one (ie. The speed of light) by the least degree of a measurement (to the nth degree) the whole structure implodes, explodes AND loses enough integrity to disappear.
Is publishing like that too?
Sheri Dean Parmelee
Steve, thanks for the words of wisdom! I remember reading a well-known Christian book series where the two authors kept writing “he said” and “she said.” I wondered how that many “saids” could possibly be written…..and the books were a huge commercial success. I wanted to send them a Thesaurus, but they are the ones who were sitting pretty, so it seemed rather presumptuous on my part to say anything, so I haven’t …until now. Thanks for letting me vent!
This resonated with me on a number of levels! I feel rather ill informed about the mechanics of the publishing world and am trying to learn as much as possible before sending out queries. It’s feeing to know that everyone feels a bit out of the loop and that much of the success in this arena is based on chance (or Divine intervention). Thanks for the encouragement!