5 Author Lessons That Come With Experience
by Dan Parsons
The publishing industry evolves rapidly and so do writers, both as creatives and businesspeople. Just a few years ago, for example, Kindle Direct Publishing was still young and almost everyone was trying to get a traditional deal. New writers believed that “real” authors got Big Five contracts and that every book they wrote required a certain time investment to be worth reading. It was measured in months.
Articles circulated the media discussing how Jacqueline Wilson never worked a day job after her initial advance. How Stephen King’s Carrie created a publisher bidding war. How J K Rowling rose from the breadline and changed a generation with a simple story about a boy-wizard. Inexperienced writers were blinded by the romantic idea that platform, connections and wordcount targets were of little concern. That art was the main contributing factor to an author’s success.
However, as self-publishing revolutionised the industry, writers uncovered a series of reality-checks that, while less romantic, were far more empowering: the merits of an author platform; how you can write and publish as fast as you want; that a career can be built gradually. Priorities shifted. Sceptics made U-turns. Suddenly self-publishing was also a good option and those who learned to charm the retailer algorithms were king. Things changed and they continue to do so even today, but there’s no need to worry.
If you’re a disenchanted new writer, overwhelmed, confused, and scrambling to stay on top of trends, then keep reading, because the key to sticking it in publishing comes with experience and perspective. Here is a list of five universal certainties that remain unchanged among the shifting landscape. Together, they will keep you calm and give you the wisdom of a seasoned writer.
1. YOU CAN WRITE BESTSELLERS AT ANY SPEED
A prevalent myth that never seems to die among those who aren’t familiar with publishing is that books should take a long time to write if you want them to be good. Not only is this idea untrue but the opposite can often be more accurate. Yes, some megahits like Game of Thrones and The Lord of the Rings were written slowly, but many more were pumped out in just weeks.
James Patterson and Nora Roberts, for example, are two of the world’s bestselling authors, both of whom release more than 10 books a year, with each title shifting millions of copies. Both have legions of fans and have seen their work adapted by Hollywood. Ian Fleming also took around six weeks to write each of his James Bond novels. Slow-cooked books can become hits but, in an industry increasingly directed by algorithms that reward frequent releases, books written at the speed of sound often reach more readers.
Slow writers sell. Fast writers sell, too. There’s no secret sauce when it comes to writing speed. The only constant among all successful writers is that they don’t stop. As long as you keep going, you still have a chance at hitting the jackpot.
2. YOUR DEBUT WON’T DEFINE YOUR CAREER
“My book is my baby.” This cliché spouts from the mouth of almost every new writer at some point. And, indeed, it does feel that way… for book one. That’s why many new authors protect their work like angry mothers, battling with editors and arguing with readers who “don’t understand” their miracle child.
It’s only deeper into their career that they realise their mistake. Firstly, books aren’t children; they’re products that need to be edited and packaged in a way that aligns with reader expectations. In most cases, being too original will only hinder their selling potential because it makes them harder to categorise. Editors’ recommendations, though sometimes frustrating, generally reflect this reality. Secondly, you see your debut differently when you are several books into your career. Having developed a stronger grasp on style and pacing, you see weaknesses in that first novel and acknowledge your later books are better.
Knowing all this, however, shouldn’t discourage you if you’re about to release book one. Gone are the days when authors get blacklisted as unpublishable if their first book doesn’t sell because you can always self-publish. So rather than defending your “baby” or panicking that you could do better if you delayed your launch until you know more, you’re far better off just publishing and moving onto the next title. After all, every release makes you a better writer. Keep going, safe in the knowledge that you’re boosting your career as you hone your ability.
3. THE MID-LIST IS AWESOME
It’s easy to assume, if you’re unfamiliar with the industry, that writing is an all-or-nothing game. Media companies show stratospheric success stories and the woes of writing in poverty. Yet, the middle ground generally goes unacknowledged, which leaves out a massive portion of the author population. In reality, thousands live enriched lives making three, four, or even five figures a month from their books.
The anonymity of not being a household name doesn’t ruin their chances of long-term success or leave them sliding down the charts with every book. Actually, many use online marketing methods to run sustainable operations that grow every year, making a living from their favourite pastime while enjoying a low profile. Make no mistake, there’s no need to stress yourself out over the prospect of living a feast-or-famine lifestyle as an author. You can make a good living in the mid-list, now more than ever.
4. LAUNCHES AREN’T EVERYTHING
It’s easy to overhype the importance of a book launch when you’re caught up in the hysteria of your first. Every time you check your sales is a thrill-ride, every promotion a gamble. However, you needn’t be discouraged if you don’t start with strong numbers. Once upon a time, physical bookstore chains used to order several thousand hardback copies of a new book on a sale-or-return basis. If they didn’t sell them all in six months then they returned them to the publisher and scuppered the author’s chances of getting restocked. But that’s no longer the case.
Due to infinite shelf space on sites like Amazon, Apple Books and Kobo, you no longer have a time-sensitive sales window. If you sell nothing in six months, it doesn’t matter. Readers can still find and buy your book a year, two years or even a decade after publication. And you can boost it into the charts at any time with a concentrated effort. That’s why many experienced writers now run relaxed launches, doing little more than pre-scheduling a few newsletter swaps and running an ad campaign. Remember, copyright lasts for the entire lifetime of the author, plus 70 years. As long as you don’t sell your rights, each of your books can keep making you money for your whole career, regardless of whether they are a hit on day one.
5. MORE BOOKS MAKE ADVERTISING EASIER
I get it. Some authors generate an impressive income from a single book and you want to be a unicorn. But many don’t do that, no matter how much time and money they sink into marketing. In general, advertising one book is not the best use of your time. Many authors wait until they have at least three in the same series. That way, they can either give away the first one to build a mailing list or they can sell it at a reduced rate as a gateway to more expensive sequels.
Lowering the value of your first book in a series might seem disheartening after you’ve put in so much work but the benefits of such a strategy are almost always worth it. For a start, you will likely entice more readers to your brand and build a fanbase faster than you would if you tried to sell it at full price. Not only that, you can also afford to run ads at a slight loss using this strategy because those who buy your first book for 99 cents will often grab book two and three at full price. The more books you have, the more of a loss you can afford and the more money you will make in the long term as readers work through your backlist.
Hopefully, these lessons have eased your stress levels if you’re a new, struggling author. Rest assured that most writers see their incomes rise and stabilise as their careers mature. The dream of overnight superstardom is possible but the reality is oftentimes far more incremental. Adopting a long-term perspective from the outset will help you to keep a level head and ensure that you eventually get to where you want to be.
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