The Long Haul

Many authors have heard me say this before, but I'm going to keep saying it because a lot of y’all need to hear it:

Publishing has changed dramatically between the start of the “indie revolution” and now, which for many indie authors means big changes between the time they published their first and second, or second and third, novels.

Publishing isn’t static any more. Technically it never was, but it used to change more slowly. As with everything else rooted in technology, the speed at which publishing evolves now seems faster all the time.

For one thing, back in the old traditional days, the pool of books a reader had to choose from used to stay about the same size from year to year because old books were pulled as new books were released.

But now books can stay in print – and on virtual bookshelves – indefinitely.

That means new books aren't just competing against other new books for readers' time and money, they're competing against every book ever written, and they're doing it in an environment where no one ever stops talking or vying for our attention. (It's not just books, obviously. This has also become true for the way we're exposed to music, television, and movies, but book people are naturally word people so they're especially verbal about it.)

The other thing to bear in mind is that the success of any artistic endeavor, be it a film, novel, painting, or music, is unpredictable. People ascribe success in the arts to all kinds of things, but the truth is nobody really understands why some movies/books/etc. strike a chord with the masses and some don't. It's probably a combination of things, not the least of which are luck and timing. (If you want to understand the truth of this, I recommend The Drunkard’s Walk, by Leonard Mlodinow.)

Which is why the key these days is endurance.

You have to be in it for the long haul before you're going to see results. It used to be that traditional publishing weeded out the writers who weren't serious. Getting an agent or publisher to take you on was such a long, discouraging process that a lot of writers gave up before they got published – you had to really want it to constantly let yourself in for that kind of rejection. POD has changed that, but it hasn't changed the patience needed to see results.

Even now, far too many authors publish a book without having the first idea how publishing works, what their options are, and what expectations are reasonable, so when they don’t become J.K. Rowling after their first novel has been available on Amazon for two whole months, they’re surprised, even crushed.

But realistically, authors still need to play the long game. Instead of waiting and trying and trying and waiting for an agent to say yes, now you're waiting and trying and trying and waiting for the reading public to first become aware of your existence, then say yes.

This isn’t meant to be discouraging – quite the opposite. If you’re serious and passionate about being an author, and you’re willing to do the work, I truly believe you can succeed. But as with anything worthwhile in life, it’s not going to be easy.

You need to accept these truths:

  1. You’re going to lose money for a while.

How long depends on so many factors I wouldn’t dare hazard a guess, but we’re talking years, not months. Nobody ever said self-publishing was cheap. This is not an inexpensive hobby. You need good cover design, good interior design, good marketing tools, a good online presence, and above all, you need a good book – and that means good storytelling and good editing.

Please, please, please hire a professional editor, for all love.

  1. The world is going to be underwhelmed.

Readers and book bloggers may squee about a new book from Gillian Flynn, but unless you’ve already published a successful series, be prepared for pretty much nobody outside your friends and family to care that you have a book on Amazon or Smashwords or Wattpad. THAT’S OKAY. You’ve laid the first paving stone for your journey as an author. Stay inspired and motivated by talking to other authors. Find a Facebook group, check out the #WritingCommunity on Twitter, or – yikes! – join a group in person.

  1. You’re in the middle of the bell curve. Embrace it.

Though every author I’ve ever worked with has claimed they don’t expect to be enormously successful, deep down nearly all of them harbor a secret belief that they’ll be the next overnight success as soon as they're "discovered." Odds are, that's just not gonna happen and again, THAT'S OKAY. If you want to succeed, you need to get over all your romantic notions of what being a writer is, because what being a writer really amounts to is the same as being anything else: you show up and do the work, day in and day out, and don't expect the rest of the world to applaud you as the best thing since sliced bread just for doing your job.

  1. Keep going.

Just because you’re highly unlikely to be an overnight success doesn’t mean you’re not going to be successful, but you have to keep writing and publishing and letting readers know you have a growing body of work. And just because it’s highly unlikely you’ll be as big as Rowling or Flynn or King doesn’t mean you can’t be a good writer who sells books and has thousands of dedicated readers eagerly awaiting your next opus.

I know it takes an enormous amount of emotional energy to keep putting yourself out there without seeing the payoff, but lack of results early in your career is just part of the process. Keep moving. Promote yourself but don’t be salesy. Talk to other writers and book bloggers. Learn and grow and evolve.

The only way to guarantee you won’t succeed is to give up.