Yesterday I was on a panel put on by one of my favorite local independent bookstores, One More Page Books. The title of the panel was, “CHALLENGES & CHANGES IN WRITING & PUBLISHING FICTION.” As someone who is really keeping my finger on the pulse of publishing, I know full well about all the changes and the associated challenges (and opportunities) in our current publishing landscape. But what struck me the most, while listening to people on the panel is just how much has stayed the same.
What am I referring to?
- There are few overnight successes. The advent of digital publishing has led many to be believe that they can write a book, hit publish, and BAM! success will rain down upon them. But the truth is most authors work for years, sometimes decades before they “make it.” For myself, my first published book, The Crown Conspiracy was the fourteenth book I wrote. Malcom Gladwell says that it takes 10,000 hours at a particular task to become a master, and Stephen King says the first 1,000,000 words should be considered “practice.” I think those numbers are just about right (with regards to my own writing at least). Publishing isn’t a career to go into for quick rewards. It takes a great deal of time. There is a reason seasoned writers refer to it as a marathon and not a sprint.
- The field is crowded. I’m always hearing about how things are different now because there are so many books being released, but was there ever a time when the number of titles released didn’t outpace the reading public’s ability to consume them? Yes, nowadays more books are being released than ever before, but most will fade into oblivion without anyone even knowing they exist. So these trees are falling in the forest all the time, but there is no one to hear them fall. Don’t let the numbers freak you out. The reality is there is always room for another good book and the competition is pretty much what it has always been…your new book is a needle in a very big haystack.
- If you can’t write a “good book” nothing else matters. Of course the definition of “good book” is one that will be highly debated. Let me tell you the definition I’m using in this case. A “good book” is one that when the reader is done they simply have to tell everyone they know to read it. It is a book they buy as gifts for others, that they talk about online, and that they evangelize. To put it another way, a “good book” is one that generates positive word-of-mouth buzz and generally will have high ratings in reviews. Without word of mouth, you’re constantly selling books one at a time, and you’ll never be successful that way. What you need is an army of readers who are doing that for you.
- One book does not a writing career make. To me the magic number is three, and until you get that third book out, your time is best spent writing more. Going back to the previous bullet if all you have is one book, then it’s really hard to move the kind of numbers required for a decent income. But if you have multiple books, then turning on a reader to your work is going to have a good chance of getting repeat buys and it is through these repeat buys (either through more books or gift giving) that your income increases. This is another reason why you have to write a “good book.” You need to get additional revenue by having them coming back for more. If you can only get them to try you once, you’ll again be fighting for every sale and will ultimately fail.
While it’s easy to be concerned with all the changes: ebooks, self-publishing, hybrid authorship, MatchBook, Oyster, Scribd, Entitle, BabbleCube and on and on, keep in mind that you have to put the cart before the horse. Concentrate on writing the best damn book you can…then do it again…then repeat often. If you can’t do this, you have no chance regardless of what path you choose. Let’s master the basics then move on to what’s needed at the next level.