Let’s say you’ve been bitten by the Writing Bug and you want to be the next J. K. Rowling or Stephen King. You bought a writing program, took a couple of classes – or even majored in English or Creative Writing – and you’ve attended a writer’s conference or two. Or three. Those things can be addictive. You’ve joined a writers group. Your mom loves your stories although she wishes they were less violent or didn’t have so much smut in them. So now you are ready to take the literary world by storm. You are on a high like you’ve never experienced before.
I’m about to burst your bubble. Are you ready for the facts about your chosen career?
Rather than take the literary world by storm, you’re more likely to run into a very unpleasant drought. Here are five realities of being a writer.
- Book publishing is about sales, not about how great a writer you are. Getting a publisher or agent won’t guarantee you a best seller.
I read a depressing article about actress Sophie Turner, who plays Sansa Stark on the hit HBO series Game Of Thrones. She was auditioning for a new role and it was between her and a woman she described as a much better actress. Turner got the part, not because she was a better fit for the role but because she had a much stronger social media presence. She has thousands of followers on Twitter whereas this unknown woman couldn’t match that. Turner’s fame could help bring in an audience – and that translates to sales and big box office. So although she was not the better actress – and the other woman likely would have been a much better fit – the studio went with Turner because she had pull.
You may be the most talented writer in the world, but if you don’t have a following, it will be harder for you to make your way in the writing world than it is for George R. R. Martin to not kill his characters. Agents and especially big publishers are reluctant today to take on unknown talent. They are in the business of making money and they don’t like to take risks. That’s why you see so many Harry Potter knock offs. That’s why 50 Shades of Grey became so famous. Yes, that should piss you off. The writing in 50 Shades is atrocious, but E. L. James had a built-in following when she wrote her Twilight fanfic Master of the Universe. That alone made an agent’s job easier. In order to make it big-time as a writer you already need to have made the big-time as a writer. It’s the ultimate Catch-22. An agent and big publisher will help such a writer make bigger time. That said, there is no guarantee landing an agent will result in a best seller. The average U.S. book is now selling less than 250 copies per year and less than 3,000 copies over its lifetime.
- You need a good editor and a good cover artist.
There is an old saying that goes, “you can’t judge a book by its cover.”
Whoever said that has never published a book. The cover matters. The cover is the first thing a potential reader sees when looking for a new book to read. If it looks like a 3 year old pasted clip art all over your dust jacket, that will sink your book. If you are not a master of Photoshop, it is vital you pay an expert to create a kick-ass cover for your book. No, you are not an exception. Put up the cash for a good book cover artist. Look at the covers that person has designed. Choose someone who has won awards. Know your book inside-out so you know what to stress to the artist when creating your book cover. Look at book covers in your chosen genre to see what they may have in common. Common styles, common themes. You don’t want heaving bosoms or oiled male bodies on a horror novel cover. You don’t want blood and guts on a romance novel cover. Know your readers, and give them what they want. Catch your reader’s attention and make him or her grab your book. That’s what the cover does. It catches the reader’s attention and leads to a sale. Make that cover count.
One big mistake many self-published writers make is that they do not hire an editor to edit their works. They think since they aced English 101 they don’t need to spend roughly one hundred (or more) dollars for a professional editor. Take my word for it – you do. One of the biggest gripes readers have outside ugly covers is poorly edited books. If your book is full of misspellings and grammatical errors, you won’t sell another book. Pony up the cash for a good editor. Get referrals from writer friends online or talk to people in a local writers group for recommendations. A good editor will save your life and that person will come in handy for future books. Look into asking writer friends to be a beta reader for your book. Beta readers are not substitutes for good editors, but it’s a great idea to have a second or third pair of eyes look at your work. Do an exchange – you’ll beta read a book for them if they beta read yours. The key is to get outside opinions to improve your book. After a long period of time you could write entire passages in Greek and you wouldn’t notice since you’re too close to your own book. Get an editor. It’s an investment in your future.
- Promotions don’t guarantee sales. In fact, most of your promo work is for naught. Sell your persona, not your book.
Face it. You must engage your audience to promote your books. That sentence probably scared the piss out of you because if you are like many writers you are a social klutz. Writers are often insecure, awkward and anti-social – and that’s on a good day. You must carry on conversations with potential readers on social media like Facebook and Twitter. And by “engage your audience” I do not mean spam everyone within earshot with book promo. That is a huge way to turn off people. No one will buy your books if you dup book spam in their mail boxes. Instead, talk to them like they are right there in the room with you. Treat them like people and not potential sales. Give people something worth seeing and reading. Keep in mind that due to Facebook’s algorithm, you are really reaching about only 1 or 2% of the people on your friend’s list. Make your posts clever and worthwhile so people will talk to you.
- Your friends and family may not support your endeavors and when they do they may expect free books from you.
Your Catholic family may take umbrage to you writing erotic dinosaur porn. Don’t look for praise and acceptance there. Look to other writers who write erotic dinosaur porn. Even if you write something as innocuous as romance, there will be critics and those critics may be your friends and family. They may expect you to give it up and get a “real” job. They may treat your writing work as a hobby and not take you seriously. Let them. Find others in writers groups and online in places like Facebook and Twitter who support your chosen field. Do you write fantasy? Find other fantasy writers and make connections. The same applies to all other genres. If you do have support from your friends and family, more power to you and consider yourself fortunate.
On the other hand, when you do get support, some friends and relatives may expect you to give your books to them for free. Don’t do it no matter how much pressure you feel. They are not entitled to a freebie just because you share the cranberry sauce at Thanksgiving every year. A truly supportive friend or family member will buy your book from you. Now, if you want to give your book away for free, be my guest. I’m talking about those who expect a freebie from you and have a hissy fit if you refuse. Don’t feel guilty for wanting to make money from your books. Grandma likely can afford a couple of bucks for a paperback or Kindle version. Just don’t tell her about the dino porn.
- You probably won’t make much money.
Chances are, you won’t make millions. You may have already accepted that realistic scenario but also realize you likely won’t make enough money in quarterly royalties to buy gas for your beat up old Honda. Most publishers, especially indie publishers, do not offer an advance against royalties. For the most part, you are on your own. According to an article at Publishing Perspectives, “a survey [of over 9,000 writers in the 2014 Digital Book World and Writer’s Digest Author Survey] revealed that 54% of “traditionally-published” authors (and nearly 80% of self-published authors) earn less than $1,000 a year.” Let that sink in.
Now that I have thoroughly depressed you, here is some good news.
While according to that survey most traditionally-published writers barely break even, nearly half are able to earn enough money to satisfy themselves and even live off their earnings. Self-publishing is a much harder route to take, but a 20% success rate is rather high considering the hurdles you must pass in order to publish your own books.
If your family and friends don’t support you, find people who do. Join a local writers group. Not only will you gain much needed valuable support and criticism, you will make new friends. Turn yourself into a social butterfly on Facebook, Twitter, and the like. Engage your audience. Post items designed to get a response such as asking people what they are reading at the moment or ask what books influenced them the most when they were children. Ask their opinions of current movies, TV, and music. Are you a fan of Game Of Thrones or Preacher? Let everyone know and find other fans. Just don’t bring up spoilers without warning (don’t do it at all) or you will make enemies. Talk about stuff other than your books. Nothing turns off potential readers more than a Facebook page full of nothing but book promo. Screaming “Buy My Book!” guarantees no one will touch it.
While many of your books may bomb, you may be surprised to find one or two you didn’t expected to be a hit take off. Take full advantage of that. Write another book in the same genre (or write a series) and get the new book out there as soon as possible. Then, offer the hit book for a sale price temporarily as a promotion for the new book. You’ll draw in new readers that way. Try to write one or two books per year if you can. The more works you have out there, the more you’ll be in the minds of readers and authors alike.
Create a newsletter and send it out no more than once per month. Get to the point in it and keep it brief. Readers like updates from their favorite writers.
While you will likely not be the next George R. R. Martin, there are ways to be happy as a writer. Relish the positive reviews and fan letters. Don’t respond to negative comments or reviews. That’s unprofessional. Don’t let rejections get you down. Everyone gets them. Even J. K. Rowling was rejected numerous times before her Harry Potter series found a home. Have a realistic view of the writing world and you won’t let yourself down.