One Thing

Most successful authors are known for one thing, not a variety of things.

Even if they publish many books, their name is identified with one thing. The one thing isn’t necessarily one book, but it might be.

Catherine Marshall, author of the classic novel Christy, actually published over two-dozen books. But she is remembered by most for one thing.

Stephen King, author of many bestsellers has an identity founded on one thing.

An “award-winning” author won that award for one thing. I suppose a lifetime achievement award would classify an author as “award-winning,” but they usually got the lifetime award for doing a really wonderful one thing and a large number of other things over time.

Some may feel being a successful author gives them creative latitude to write whatever they desire.  But any kind of public performance endeavor (like being an author) carries a very sharp double-edged sword.  A bestseller creates an expectation of a next thing and that next thing better not disappoint the readers of the bestseller. Readers want the one thing again.

Many authors dislike the idea of one thing because they want to be creative.

But successful authors embrace it.

A successful television series can “brand” an actor and they cannot break free of the character they portrayed no matter what else they do. There are a lot of TV actors who desired to be taken serious, but their success was playing a character being anything but serious and no matter how long they live, they will be branded with that success. That one thing.

Among other reasons, this is why some actors prefer film rather than television. They can develop more of a portfolio of roles and not be as limited. But give one mega-performance in a film? They are branded with the “one thing” to the audience, remembering them forever for one thing. (John Wayne, pictured above, was an actor in 84 Westerns in his career.)

Authors are more like television actors than film actors. Precious few can write and sell successfully across multiple categories.

Agents and publishers are generally not on the lookout for authors who can write fiction, non-fiction, YA, children’s, etc. Actually, authors who refuse to be categorized create a bit of a problem for everyone in the process.

Why one thing?

Because you want the largest possible group of people to recognize your work.

 If you fight the “one thing” in your writing career, you attempt to stitch together a following in social media or in other author platform building elements of multiple reader groups that have nothing in common. It will be frustrating if you are depending on your name alone as the brand.

If you are already famous, then maybe you can write across many categories. But you are probably already famous for one thing. So we are back to that.

There are exceptions, but precious few authors have ever been able to publish as widely as they like.  Creative people fight the one thing. Brand management by its very definition is the limiting of creativity to one memorable thing and creative people don’t like limits.

Indie publishing allows someone to write whatever they want, but just because you can publish without boundaries, doesn’t mean that you are exempt from the one thing principle.

Your success at something will affect your future far more than your creative desires or plans. If you are convinced that God opens doors and closes others, a successful book is an open door and identifies your one thing.

How can you be creative and do just one thing? Placing creative limits on your work is simply comparable to choosing what size canvas you use for a painting. It is not as painful as one might think.

So, what is my definition of the one thing?

Writing where you are most successful.

It might not be the type of writing that you love most, but it the type which bears the most fruit.

That is the one thing.

 

25 Responses to One Thing

  1. Avatar
    Jackie Layton July 21, 2015 at 3:55 am #

    Great post.

    As I’ve studied the craft of writing, I’ve tried to decide between two genres. I written both romance and romantic suspense. It sounds like I need to study past contest comments and decide which stories have gotten the best scores. And continue to pray for direction.

    Have a great day!

  2. Avatar
    Andrew Budek-Schmeisser July 21, 2015 at 6:08 am #

    An interesting case study is Leonard Nimoy, whose first memoir was called “I Am Not Spock”,

    A few years later, he wrote another one…”I Am Spock”.

    There’s a lesson there, in accepting the gifts with which one’s life has been graced.

  3. Avatar
    Joe Plemon July 21, 2015 at 6:08 am #

    I have yet to secure an agent for my fiction, but I recently had a publisher contact me, offering to edit, promote and publish a non-fiction book…if I will write it.

    Hmmm. Does God need to hit me over the head with a two by four? Maybe I’d better be thinking about this “one thing” business.

    Thanks, Dan, for the insights your post gives me.

  4. Avatar
    Peter DeHaan July 21, 2015 at 6:31 am #

    I used to follow several nonfiction writers who were best-selling authors, known for their one thing. Their second book was never as good as their first, offering little that was truly new. By their fourth or fifth book, I become bored, for they were merely repackaging content from their first couple of books. They rode their first best-selling book as far as they could and then faded away.

    Is there a middle ground, where a nonfiction author can hold onto the same audience and not bore them with repetition?

    • Dan Balow
      Dan Balow July 21, 2015 at 6:54 am #

      Over the long term, the “approach” or “style” of an author allows them to write multiple books. Their One Thing is not a topic, but the way they address a topic. David McCullough is a perfect example this. His style of biography is recognizable.

      Some authors have just one thing to say, but their success and publisher push them to write a second book, which, if they really only had one thing to say, disappoints readers.

      In the music world they are called one hit wonders.

      Repetition of success is true talent. Lots of people can hit a baseball once. Doing it consistently over 15 years is a different matter altogether. (Just to insert a sports analogy wherever I can)

      • Avatar
        Peter DeHaan July 22, 2015 at 3:36 am #

        Thanks for the expanded information, Dan. It is encouraging to know!

        (I’d hate to be constrained to essentially write the same book for the rest of my life!)

  5. Avatar
    JeanneTakenaka July 21, 2015 at 6:40 am #

    This makes a lot of sense. With branding, I’ve read over and over again that we need to focus on one thing. You mentioned this as you talked about the benefits of focusing on our one thing.

    As an unpublished writer, knowing my one thing—my one area/genre of focus—will make me stronger if/when I have the opportunity to become published. I’ve switched genres based on feedback and guidance from mentors. And, as you also mentioned, there’s a lot of flexibility for creativity within the said genre. I just need to learn to move within its structures.

    Great post, as always, Dan.

  6. Avatar
    jay Payleitner July 21, 2015 at 6:57 am #

    Umm . . . hey, Dan. Is it just possible that I may have inspired this post?

    • Dan Balow
      Dan Balow July 21, 2015 at 6:59 am #

      No, but you inspired a post I am working on for August 25.

      But now that I think about it…..hmmm.

  7. Avatar
    Andrew Budek-Schmeisser July 21, 2015 at 7:25 am #

    An interesting example of a writer who did cross a genre boundary is Richard Bach; his first three books, “Stranger To The Ground”, “Biplane”, and “Nothing By Chance” were beautifully written narratives of his experiences in flying, but they didn’t get much further than the aviation audience.

    And then came Jonathan Livingston Seagull, followed by “Illusions”, and a host of books that embraced a kind of New Age spirituality. i’m pretty sure he lost his original audience, but gained a far wider one.

    And Jonathan wasn’t a throwaway, cast-your-bread-upon-the-waters kind of thing. Thirty-odd publishers rejected it, and it took Eleanor Friede to get it launched….with little publicity.

    I would assume this story has two main points –

    1) Finding another voice can be done, but it takes a lot of determination
    2) Be willing to lose your core audience in the process.

    One question – it seems that today a new writer will be fairly well pigeonholed by his of her first published book or two…that an agent won’t want to propose a book that crosses genre, and that no publisher would take the risk anyway. Don’t know if I said that well, but is that the situation?

    • Dan Balow
      Dan Balow July 21, 2015 at 7:42 am #

      There are always exceptions to every rule. This is not an absolute, but when something is proven true by thousands upon thousands of authors and disproved by a few exceptions, the smart money is on whatever the “thousands” did to be successful.

      Publishers (and therefore agents) are looking for authors with spectacular sales history or new authors who write spectacularly.

      Connecting the principles of this post to that would indicate that an author should focus on developing their skill to the best of their ability and carry a “style” across whatever they write. Their style becomes their one thing.

  8. Avatar
    Vannetta Chapman July 21, 2015 at 7:42 am #

    My first 13 books, published with traditional publishers, were all Amish! I don’t see it as limiting. In my opinion, I can write the story I want to write (characters, plot, inspirational message) within whatever “package” the publisher wants. It’s the heart of the story that I get to choose.

    • Avatar
      Laura Christianson July 21, 2015 at 8:45 am #

      I like your perspective. Would you say your ONE THING is your message, rather than the genre?

  9. Avatar
    Jennie Bishop July 21, 2015 at 8:17 am #

    Wow, Dan, I get it. I know we talked about this before, and this article makes it so clear.

    I used to write church bulletin devotionals where a photo was given to me as a starting point and I had to pick a Scripture and short titled devotion about the picture. I challenged myself, for fun, to see how many different devotionals I could write about pictures of eggs. It was fun! I never ran out of ideas.

    Being limited by the “one thing” may draw a line around a writer that seems to constrain, but with the right attitude, it becomes an opportunity to go higher and deeper instead. I’m going to keep thinking about that in relation to my own “one thing.” 🙂 Thanks!

  10. Avatar
    Patrick July 21, 2015 at 9:12 am #

    “Precious few can write and sell successfully across multiple categories.” – See more at: http://www.stevelaube.com/one-thing/#comments

    But what if you can? What if you have the ability to do appropriate research and write convincingly in any genre you choose? Should we be limited to not writing what we want to write simply because we should be sticking to the genre that gave us sales in the first place?

    I have a feeling that if I stuck to a particular formula and wrote to meet some publisher’s ideas of what would sell instead of writing what I want to write, it probably wouldn’t do well. Because my heart wouldn’t be in it.

    I love this blog post, and to me, it’s very interesting. But I also love to mix it up, primarily, as you say, because I don’t want to be limited. I already sent a contemporary fiction proposal into this agency. But I have plans to write a historical western novel, a historical Victorian era novel, and I have two speculative Christian novels bouncing around in this thick skull of mine.

    Thank you for everything you guys do with the blogs and representing clients to the best of your abilities. You guys are a godsend in this business, spreading the love of God.

    • Dan Balow
      Dan Balow July 21, 2015 at 9:28 am #

      Just like an athlete cross-trains, authors should try some new things to exercise creativity. Some thing you write are for enjoyment and creative stretching.

      But if you want to be a successful author earning some semblance of a living, you will need to pick something to brand you.

      The one thing.

      What I am talking about today is how an author can be successful over the long term. Some things you should write and set aside, exhaling with a satisfied, “that was fun.”

      Then get to work writing your one thing with new energy.

  11. Avatar
    Patrick July 21, 2015 at 9:53 am #

    Thanks, Dan. Yeah, I get it. Don’t think that this wisdom is lost on me because I know all too well the benefits of branding an author. Thing is, I have this idea burning inside of me that won’t let up(a historical western) that is far different from the contemporary novel I just wrote. And I don’t think I will be able to concentrate on anything else until it is finally written. Thanks for the response!

  12. Avatar
    Sandy Faye Mauck July 21, 2015 at 10:42 am #

    Thinking on track and field here. A super high-jumper, a fabulous pole-vaulter, a lightning speed sprinter, etc.

    But THEN there is the decathlete!
    Train for all and see what comes.

    I also see Joshua Bell, a Louis Armstrong, and Kenny G.
    And there are those that can pick up nearly any instrument and learn it!

    We have to be who we are create to be, whether a perfectly detailed woodcrafter or a jack-of-all-trades.

  13. Avatar
    Linda Riggs Mayfield July 21, 2015 at 11:11 am #

    “Just like an athlete cross-trains, authors should try some new things to exercise creativity. Some thing you write are for enjoyment and creative stretching.” Wow. I have written two children’s picture books that were deemed worthy of publication; and YA historical and contemporary novels, and four adult contemporary and historical novels, none of which I have even attempted to publish…until now. The idea of putting all of those except “the one” on a shelf labeled “Written for enjoyment and creative stretching” is a bit deflating, but the idea of being able to focus and concentrate on being as good as I can possibly be, and having readers appreciate that effort for just ONE THING has its appeal, too. Thought provoking post! Thanks!

  14. Avatar
    m. rochellino July 21, 2015 at 11:44 am #

    Has anyone ever thought of using a different pen name for each different genre they write in, presto, no conflict or confusion to the reader. Of course this would mean they would be a “new” author more than once if they can handle that. Hopefully they would ultimately build loyal readers in each genre under each pen name. In the past I have been asked if I knew “me”. You might even be able to give yourself a good referral, lol.!

    Trad publishers and agents would treat you as a new author when in fact you may have sold hundreds of thousands of books in the past. It could be a humbling and character building exercise at the same time, not to mention a lot of fun. This may be partially why many trad publishers don’t like pen names. Just sayin…………

    O.K. lets hear it. Oh those fiction writers, where do they come up with this stuff!

  15. Avatar
    Nick Kording July 21, 2015 at 12:29 pm #

    I get this is the norm but I like writing both fiction and Christian living. If I’m put into the one thing, I’ll likely end up writing Christian living. So, with your post as the parameters, am I wasting my time writing fiction as well before I’m published in either genre?

    • Dan Balow
      Dan Balow July 21, 2015 at 1:09 pm #

      I don’t think you waste time writing, some writing is for publication and some is for expression.

      Authors can write whatever they want…but long-time successful authors are almost always branded by one thing.

      I also do not believe an author really develops their full ability by remaining diverse. Jack of all trades, master of none comes to mind.

      Again, this is an observation of authors who have been successful over a long period of time. One thing characterizes them.

  16. Avatar
    Beverly Brooks July 22, 2015 at 4:53 am #

    Makes sense and this message seems to be consistently presented from your agency. A clear path to find our identity as writers – the “one thing” that God gave us to put out there.

    I also enjoyed all the responses – thanks everyone!

  17. Avatar
    Joan Campbell July 22, 2015 at 12:16 pm #

    This is very thought-provoking for me, as I am wrestling with what to write once I’ve sent the last manuscript of my Fantasy trilogy to my publisher. I really do understand the point of writing to a genre, but I also relate to Patrick’s statement when he said his heart wouldn’t be in it if he had to keep writing the same kind of book. I think it touches on the duality of book publishing as both art and business. Art listens to the heart, business to the head. My heart and head are at war at the moment!

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  1. It’s Never One Thing - The Steve Laube Agency - May 3, 2016

    […] 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 […]

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