Recently I heard about a wonderfully successful and deservedly so writer friend of mine who got regularly asked both privately and in person for her “secret” to success, even to the extent where she was offered money to divulge it. While there are surface issues of basic politeness that such people need to address, it got me thinking about why beginning writers tend to have such a desperate craving for a supposed miracle potion that will magic them on the way to literary success. After all, how many times have you heard of someone running up to a banking executive, grabbing him by the lapels and demanding to know his “secret”? No, neither have I.
I quite clearly remember being 17 and having a book physically torn out of my hands during a free period in the Sixth Form common room, along with a “stop wasting your time reading” admonishment. The culprit, a kind of mate at the time, is now as far as I know an engineer. He probably builds bridges or whatnot and is probably a lot wealthier than me. I also remember floundering my way through woodwork class while another kid who sucked at English created the most beautiful chairs and tables in half the time it took me to make a jewelry box with a drawer that didn’t shut properly.
People are all different, and some people are better at certain skills than others. People good at maths tend to do well in banking jobs, people good at crafts tend to do more hands-on work, while people good at writing often end up as journalists or writers.
Someone who wants to be a banking executive will look at the CEO he wants to emulate, figure out where he went to university, what he studied, where he first worked, which positions he held and how he gradually made his way up the corporate ladder. The wannabe bestselling writer will look at a real bestselling writer, get all gooey-eyed and start jumping up and down in frustration.
Anyone who writes stories tends be a lot more emotionally charged than someone who draws plans for building projects or analyses chemical reactions. I know this is a gross generalization, but it makes sense that someone who regularly wears their heart on their sleeve in their fiction will view real life in the same way, with a romantic, heroic notion than success is based on luck, unexpected fortune, or pure chance, because of course, these are the kind of plot devices that drive their fiction.
Repeat the mantra - “writing is art, bookselling is business”. Do it ten times. Every day. Then realise that if you’re going to be successful you’re going to have to learn to wear two different hats, the one that writes the stories and the one that ships them.
There are seemingly a lot of “overnight” (read ten years of trying) successes in self-publishing, but that’s only because they’re the ones that stand out. There are countless thousands of writers under the radar for every one who achieves great success, but here’s the key - you don’t need to sell thousands of copies per day to be successful. Just ten copies a day will add up. Trust me.
When I started out in self-publishing just over two years ago I felt like I was standing at the bottom of a mountain. EVERYONE seemed to be doing better than me, and I felt like I was forever playing catch up.
What you have to learn is that the writing mountain is climbed in the same way as every other mountain, one step at a time. While there might be the odd helicopter that will pick you up and fly you to the top they are few and far between, so get your best hiking boots on and start walking. It’s the only sure why to get to the top.
Remember, this is not a race. Self-publishing isn’t going anywhere, and while every day there are new writers starting out there are also those who are giving up, and there will always been room in the market for good writing. You have to separate your heart (the writing) from your head (the business side), give each equal weight and don’t let one encroach on the other. Write the best books you can with your heart, then shift them over to your head to prepare them and shop them for sale. Rinse and repeat. Work on building up YOUR brand and YOUR backlist, and don’t go chasing after other people’s success, because that’s just what it is - someone else’s path to the top. Work on following your own.
That is all.
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April 1st 2014