How to Succeed as a Writer in 2015

Adriaen_Isenbrandt_BookAs the year begins, I — like many, many writers — contemplate what I can do to further my career. This applies whether we are traditionally published or self-published, or hybrids, partaking of both worlds. Publishers aren’t doing much in the way of promotion except for their biggest sellers, which leaves out most of us. More and more, traditionally published authors must do the same sorts of publicity as those who are going it alone. We are the ones to set up bookstore signings, place ads, plan blog hops, execute campaigns on social media, offer book giveaways, etc.

Success all boils down to having a product to sell, and in this case it’s the best books we can write. Tell a whopping good story in clear, accessible prose. But that’s not sufficient in itself. Many, many wonderful books fail to garner a readership (and many talented writers find themselves without a publisher because their sales are lousy). This is so unfair, I could weep.

The challenge is connecting those “best books” with readers who will adore them. We can’t count on readers wandering into a cozy local independent bookstore, where they will see our latest proudly displayed on the “New And Recommended” shelf. The internet is flooded with announcements and exhortations to Buy My Book! that readers have become deaf. Self-pimpage becomes not only monotonous but a turn-off. They make many potential buyers (like me) disinclined (to put it mildly) to even take a look at those books.

So if writing a fabulous story isn’t enough and relentlessly publicizing it on every social medium yet devised turns readers off, what else can we do? To answer this, I took a look at what factors do contribute to a writer’s success.

  • Write a book (or series) with lots of salacious sex, preferably kinky.
  • Write a YA series with kid wizards/dragons that’s turned into a movie series.
  • Write epic fantasy with tons of gore that’s turned into a television series.
  • Write a dystopic YA series that’s turned into a movie series.
  • Write many, quickly released Mary Sue paranormal romances.
  • Write an epic fantasy the like of which nobody has ever read before, preferably with movie contracts to come, although these need not occur in your own lifetime.
  • Write lots of horror movies that are turned into movies.
  • Write gritty police procedurals, with or without sexy medical examiners, that are turned into a television series.
  • Write a series with romance and vampires, YA or adult, that is turned into a television series.
  • Write tie-in novels to wildly successful movie/s.
  • Write anything Peter Jackson turns into a movie.
  • Is there a trend here? Genre fiction is a pretty small piece of the pie, although romance and mystery have their devoted followers, just as science fiction does. Kids read omnivorously across genre, but they read stories that grab them. Most of the preteen kids I know are avid readers, but they read print books, either from the library or school book fair, which pretty much eliminates them as an audience for self-published authors.

I had great hopes that the internet would transform how we find out about and buy books. In some ways, it has done so for the latter, although I am becoming increasingly leery of the power of a few enormous online ebook retailers to pressure publishers, writers being next in line. I once believed that social media, writers’ and reviewers’ blogs and the like, would make it easier for readers to connect with books they might not otherwise have discovered. As far as I can tell, this has mostly failed to live up to its promise. I suspect it’s because we are preaching to the choir. Folks who read our blogs or follow us on Twitter (etc.) already read in our genre (and know us by name or some other genre-community association). Today, the best I can hope is that we are still in a “shakedown” phase and that eventually, the internet will indeed become a medium that connects readers and books. Enterprises like Book View Cafe, a true writer’s cooperative publisher, also give me hope because it allows us to pool our skills and publish work that may not be glitzy but is very, very good. Take a look at our catalog and see what I mean.

It seems to me we have a choice: to chase “what sells big” (much of which is beyond our control); to flog self-promotion on the web (a recipe for frustration) or to admit that what we love to write may not be commercially successful on the scale of NYTimes Bestsellers. That’s the only option that offers me any degree of satisfaction, let alone sanity. There is no guarantee I will be content, and I almost certainly will not be rich, but if I go the way of imitating someone else’s vision or spending all my energy trying to get Hollywood interested, or writing Buy My Book! posts for hours every day, then I will make myself miserable and what I do write when I can write will be crap.

I continue in my belief that if I write from the heart — not only my fiction but my blog essays — then eventually my words will find a readership. Folks who like what I have to say will seek out my books. It probably doesn’t work that way, but you never know. At least I’ll be a success in being happy. And I’ll have the best readers I could ask for.

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How to Succeed as a Writer in 2015 — 10 Comments

  1. I know I live where it is rather upscale, but every child of employees in our office over the age of 6 has a Kindle Fire or a tablet. The avid readers of that age are addicted like the rest of us to …search…click…buy the next book in the series as soon as the last one is finished. Hooking them young means they will keep reading instead of, or at least in addition to, playing video games. Even better, there’s no nosy librarian standing over them telling them they are not old enough to read books in the adult section! For us grownups, I think the more that authors can piggyback off each other – you are not competition, you are actually referral sources – the more success you will have. You benefit from the new ease of using my disposable income to purchase a book. For the cost of a trip to the library, I can buy 3 or 4 books on my Kindle. As a result, I have not been in the library in 10 years. Book authors have reaped the direct benefit in additional book sales. I have more books on my Kindle than in my real world library, which means that I’ve purchased more books in the last 7 years than I did in the first 50. Book View Cafe and Good Reads and “Others are Reading on Amazon” and the like make it possible for those of us voraciously in search of the next author with at least 10 published books to satisfy our cravings!

  2. I get dismayed sometimes about how often writing advice neglects “write the best goddamned story you can” in favor of “write fast, write lots, write a series”. This results in a lot of “as good as” stories.

    One hears complaints about the “tsunami of crap” coming from the self-publishing movement, but it’s actually more a “mountain of meh“. The number of “Oh my god, I can’t believe even its own author thought this story was publishable” books is actually pretty small, but there are a ton of formulaic, imitative, uninspired stories out there. They may be “as good as” other books, but nothing stands out as an individual voice or viewpoint or inspiration from the author.

    (I encountered this same sort of thing reading the slushpile for several anthologies back in the 1990’s. Small amount of undeniably flawed stories, small amount of professional-level stories, and a big honkin’ pile of stories that, while adequately written and difficult to point to anything within as actively bad, lacked the spark or liveliness or distinctive voice to take it to a salable level.)

    Back in the early 1990’s, I spent about four years trying to sell movie scripts. Some of the scripts were pet projects, things I wrote for my own satisfaction. I also tried writing “commercial” scripts that followed standard formulas and plot points, thinking those were more likely to get my foot in the door. As it turned out, the commercial scripts went nowhere. It was the “for the love” scripts that, while I never got a sale, got me called out for a number meetings with production companies whose interest had been triggered.

    The lessons I took from that were: Don’t write like other people. Write with an individual voice. Write against cliche, write against formula, write against predictability. Strive for more than “adequate”, strive for more than “as good as”.

    I may not write much, or sell often, but I’m happier with what I’m writing. I’ve said elsewhere: I don’t want my writing to be a job; I already have one of those.

    As for self-marketing, I tell myself the stories themselves are the best marketing tool. Write a memorable story, and your name becomes memorable by association. (I’ll throw out Ken Liu’s name as someone who’s written enough non-series kick-ass stories that seeing his name is an automatic must-read for me.) Slow, perhaps, and definitely not a certain path to fame and fortune, but one I feel better about following.

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  4. Deborah – thanks for telling the truth. You’ve saved a bunch of us from writing the same post. Success, real monetary success, is illusive. Rather than chase such an illusive animal I’d rather tell great stories, let the chips fall where they may. Again, thank you.

  5. “At least I’ll be a success in being happy.”

    That is the #1 priority for me. If I don’t love what I do, then why am I doing it? The richest author in history says that she wrote totally for herself. And I think you can guess who she is.

    Thanks for this insightful and intuitive article.

  6. Enjoyed the blog and the comments. There’s great satisfaction in taking time and writing a good book on a subject you like and for a readership who identifies with the characters and story. Word of mouth is great advertising, and all of us have those readers who promote our books with enthusiasm. Bless them!

  7. It seems to me we have a choice: to chase “what sells big” (much of which is beyond our control); to flog self-promotion on the web (a recipe for frustration) or to admit that what we love to write may not be commercially successful on the scale of NYTimes Bestsellers. That’s the only option that offers me any degree of satisfaction, let alone sanity. There is no guarantee I will be content, and I almost certainly will not be rich, but if I go the way of imitating someone else’s vision or spending all my energy trying to get Hollywood interested, or writing Buy My Book! posts for hours every day, then I will make myself miserable and what I do write when I can write will be crap.

    Words to live by. Thanks for this post!

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