Facing Down the Harsh Realities of Publishing


Why doesn’t Phil Ivey get to the final table every year in the World Series of Poker? In fact, why hasn’t he ever won the main event? Every observer of the game puts Ivey at the top of the charts in terms of all-around poker skill. He wins a lot of tournaments, but never the big one.

It’s because poker isn’t only about skill. You’ve got to get the cards. You can go all in with pocket aces only to see your opponent from Hoboken draw that third eight on the river.

So yeah, it’s a mixture of skill and luck. Which pretty much defines any endeavor in life.

Of course, stronger skills increase your odds of success. As one wag put it, “The harder I work, the luckier I get.”

In the writing world, especially now, you’ll hear a lot about luck and the “harsh reality” of publishing. Whether you’re self-pubbing, going with a traditional house (large, small or in between), or doing a mixture of both, the truth is it’s hard to break through to big numbers.

A few weeks ago the highly successful, and most generous indie author, Hugh Howey, wrote the following in regard to a post on Joe Konrath’s blog.

I think Joe comes as close as anyone to sorting it all out. Like me, he includes luck in his secret recipe, and he qualifies that with the hard work that magnifies luck. Let’s say luck, as an ingredient, accounts for 30% of the Breakout-Sauce. That’s enough to explain how some authors go nuts with a single book, or expensive books, or books with crappy cover art (like mine), or books with technical faults. It would also explain how someone with a dozen excellent titles isn’t taking off. How someone who does everything “right” doesn’t have success.

If that’s the reality of it, then what’s the answer? The same answer you’d give anyone starting a business. Do you really want to do this? Are you willing to pay the price? Can you live with risk and uncertainty? Can you look reality in the eye and make adjustments? Is this business enough of a passion that you’d do it even if you barely clear your bottom line (e.g., run an independent bookstore)?

Yes? You will keep writing? Even if things are not taking off? Okay. Then:

1. Keep your expectations low

The great world religions, and various schools of philosophy, teach that unhappiness comes primarily through expectations unfulfilled. Expectations can form images in your mind, such as seeing your ebook hit the Kindle Top 100 list, or some such. When it doesn’t happen, your brain orders a secretion of chemicals that make you feel like pig slop.

Set goals and have dreams, yes. But temper them with your mind telling you not to be dependent on them for your happiness or productivity. “If you can dream, and not make dreams your master . . .” Kipling wrote.


2. Keep your work ethic high

I believe I said this best in my post called “How to Make Money Self-Publishing Fiction.” Especially the part about constantly learning the craft. Get feedback. Read books and articles on writing. Keep learning. Try new things. Experiment with short form. Maybe you’ll find a new genre you like, and that readers like, too. At the very least, you’ll be exercising your skills. Dean Koontz was a middling writer for the first ten years of his career. But he was crazily prolific. And all along the way he taught himself about the craft. When he intentionally took a leap into deeper characterization (with Whispers) he shot up another level. And he’s had several leaps like that since.


3. Keep your joy hot

I also wrote about joy in your writing being a key to success. You see, it’s always a combination of things that betters your odds. Knowing how to free your voice is one of those things. It’s also more fun to write this way. You might as well have fun at this thing.


4. Keep your grumbling cool

I used to say that if you got a rejection from a publisher or agent, let it hurt for half an hour, then get back to your keyboard. Same if you self-publish. Your latest release mired in mud? Okay, grouse to somebody about it, or bay at the moon, but then get back to work on your next project.


5. Keep on writing for the rest of your life

If you love to write, why would you ever stop? If writing doesn’t make a living for you, do it because you love it, and do what you can of it. Keep your day job but find your “quota sweet spot” and stick to it.

Persistence plus production plus quality improvements all along the way. That’s been the formula for business success ever since Eli Whitney (did you know the cotton gin didn’t make him rich, but muskets did, years later? Well, now you do).

Let Hugh Howey, from the same comment I linked to above, have the last word:

Which leads to my point of this long-winded nonsense: Time has to be an ingredient. An important one. This revolution has barely gotten started. Good luck and bad luck require time to even them out. If you’ve done everything right, your works might take off in ten years. Who knows? We haven’t been at this long enough. I think it’s too early for any of us to say something isn’t working or that it won’t work. I just have to remember back to writing seven novels over three years and watching them sit between #335,204 and #1,302,490 in the Amazon store. I didn’t care. I just kept writing. I read about Amanda Hocking, and I thought: “Hellz yeah!” And I kept writing. I gave myself until I was 40 and I had twenty titles published before I worried about whether I sold enough to pay a bill. And even if that never happened, it was an excuse to publish twenty titles. I could always say that. No one could take it away from me. And anyway, I’d sold a handful of books and heard from people that they loved them. I remembered when that was just an idle dream.

So how is the reality of writing treating you? What do you intend to do about it? 

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37 thoughts on “Facing Down the Harsh Realities of Publishing

  1. Good post, Jim. But then, I come to expect that from you.

    I would say, though, that writing is unique among all artistic pursuits for one reason: it requires a substantial audience.

    If I write a song, it doesn’t have to hit #1 on Billboard. I can sing it to my wife and it can become “our song”, thereby taking on great significance and giving it real life and real meaning.

    If I paint a landscape, it doesn’t have to hang in the Louvre. It can hang in my living room, once again acquiring great significance and having a real life with real meaning.

    A novel, however, must be read by more than a few people in order to acquire any significance, in order to ratify the effort that went into producing it. Otherwise, it sits in my digital drawer or in the 300,000s of the Amazon rankings, utterly devoid of any significance, life, or meaning, and in no way commensurate with the effort it took to write it.

    As for the luck factor as mentioned in Hugh Howey’s quote, I would take issue. In fact, I went into detail about it in the latest post on my own site. It’s not what a lot of people want to hear, and I’m sure most would disagree, but I’m standing by it.

    http://mikedennisnoir.com/luck-no/3914/

  2. Great post, especially about keeping expectations ion check. Dream big, but don’t quit the day job.

    It was Thomas Jefferson who said, “I am a great believer in luck and find the harder I work, the more of it I have.”

    And to Mike’s comment above, I would only add, An author may want an audience for fulfillment, but I think you underestimate any other artists desire for recognition. Try being an actor without an audience.

    On the other hand, writing is the only creative endeavor I can think of you can do alone, with the door closed, sitting in your underwear while you create. Although I work in the kitchen so I keep my pants on. Don’t want to frighten the children.

  3. Excellent advice, Jim, as always. I’m a big believer in the luck factor–the right place at the right time part of the equation. Luck has certainly balanced out a number of authors whose skills may have come up short. I also agree with John’s comment. All artists in whatever art they choose wish or hope that what they create will endure.

    There is one question that few if any ask when discussing skill, luck and dreams: what if the artist just isn’t that good?

    • On the “good” issue, Joe, certainly there’s a continuum, maybe from “horrible” at one end to “almost there” at the other. Which requires the writer to get objective feedback and be brave enough to hear it. And then said writer can decide to keep working at it or take up something else.

  4. I’d say it’s been one punch in the gut after another. But either I’m too stupid or too passionate to stay down. I’ve tried to quit. Really…I have. Joined Writer’s Anonymous and everything (made it step 3–read a book without making notes in the margins), but it felt too much as if an appendage had been cut off. So I’ll keep plugging away and taking the punches. Eventually I’ll get a chance to hit back.

  5. Take golf. The pros are all good to great in varying degrees. But the great ones don’t always win. And sometimes the barely good, do. So luck, karma, whatever name you give it, does play a factor.

    But whatever you call it, remember it’s fickle. What starts out as a good day can turn on a nickle (sorry. Dr. Seuss was a big influence on me). Can’t rely on IT so work away at doing what you love to do until you feel it’s perfect…then share it.

    Great post. I’m printing this one.

  6. Perfect post as always. This year, as my consolation prize for having to miss Bouchercon, I entered NYC Midnight, an insane flash fiction contest.

    25 groups of 28 each are given a genre and set of nonsensical prompts and you have 48 hours to craft and sub a polished 1000 word tale. I got comedy/rain forest/water balloon (I know.) And I went to work. And, ya know what? My result was fun and funny.

    Ya know what? The judges only sort of agreed. I placed 11th in my group in the first heat. Turns out BBQing a clown in a dystopian reality show wasn’t their cup of tea. *shrug* Who knew?

    Scoring is brutal. Only the top 15 of 28 get points. 15 points for 1st, on down to 1 point for 15th. 16 through 28 get zero. All spelled out in the rules.

    When the scores dropped, the gnashing of teeth and wailing zipped round the world. “HOW DARE THEY GIVE ME ZERO!” Where’s my feedback! I DEMAND to know the judging criteria. This is screwy/capricious/random/unfair/stupid . . .

    Uh, I got 5 points because the judges thought that 10 stories were better than mine. Doesn’t make mine bad. Doesn’t make me bad.

    Advancement to the semi-finals is based on combined scores of the two heats. The top 5 combined scores from each group move on. The rest go home. Entries are due at midnight EST tonight. My odds of advancing are slim, but I am still swinging.

    My prompts are horror/tattoo parlor/high heels. My tale is of an immortal who does magic tattoos in exchange for the blood shed during the process. Stuff is cool until a harpy comes into the shop demanding he finish her magical ink. It needs finishing because every other artist has dropped dead. Maybe an immortal can get the job done. Mayhem ensues.

    Now, the three most subjective genres are what’s funny, what’s scary, and what’s sexy. We’ll see if I get it this time. If yes, I advance. If not, I’ll eat a cookie, sit out my pouting half hour and write something different. I will not be trying to put the blame of someone else’s work being judged better on someone else.

    Terri

  7. I’m amazed at how often your posts are right on for my current situation. Is it magic or are my issues that common.

    My writing group meets on Thursdays. We read my new short story, one I thought very clever (it involved cowboy ghosts). The group loved it. But I realized that it was trash. Same themes, same characters, same issues, all wrapped up in a new cellophane package.

    I think I need a short break. Maybe I’ll read “Whispers”.

  8. Deepak Chopra says luck is preparedness meeting opportunity. If we continue to learn, grow, prepare, then one day opportunity will knock, and maybe we’ll get lucky. ; )

  9. My writing reality:
    I’m attending a promising seminar in Mpls this week to help develop my skills.

    I look forward to meeting you and advancing my skills.

  10. Great motivating stuff. Along a similar line is the trajectory of one of my favourite thriller writer’s from my youth, Jack Higgins.

    Patterson’s early novels, written under his own name as well as under the pseudonyms James Graham, Martin Fallon, and Hugh Marlowe, are brisk, competent, but essentially forgettable thrillers that typically feature hardened, cynical heroes, ruthless villains, and dangerous locales. Patterson published thirty-five such novels (sometimes three or four a year) between 1959 and 1974, learning his craft.

    Now he started a few years younger than me, and wrote a lot faster than I do in his learning process. But the key is he kept going and with 15 years of sticking to it, got lucky and hit the jackpot.

    So I figure I’m in the same boat. Keep plugging away and one of these days the rainbow will land in front of me, and I’ll get the leprechaun’s question right this time, and end up with the pot’o’gold instead of the one-eyed, caffeine addicted, scruffulous, no milk she-goat.

    great lawn mower, that goat, will give her that

  11. Excellent post, James. We know this but we all need to be constantly reminded of it. I know I do. This business can beat you down if you let it. It is not for the faint of heart.

    4. Keep your grumbling cool…this is so very important. It’s akin to don’t burn your bridges. This is, even with the advent of self-publishing, a small community, and you don’t want to make enemies or get a rep as a diva or worse. If you leave an agent or editor, do it with grace. If you get a bad review, don’t contact the reviewer and tell them what an idiot she is. If you don’t get an award, don’t trash those who did. And don’t get sloshed in the conference bar and flap your lips. I keep going back to the advice Jan Burke gave me when I was starting out: Keep your mouth shut, your head down, and just write.

    And yeah…luck definitely factors in. 🙂

  12. In mulling over this post this morning with my wife, we came up with a pithier way of saying it:

    Dream big, but do the math.

    As my wife said, “I expect you to make us rich with this book, but I’m not borrowing money from the mob based on your future literary earnings.”

  13. Hi, great post, as always. I’m one of your biggest fans, have been for years, recommend your How-To books to every writer friend I know.

    I’m married to the World’s Biggest Realist, (husband), and yet he’s also my biggest proponent. My two nieces always wanted to be on “American Idol,” they’re into all those reality shows and are obsessed with becoming ‘stars,’ of having entourages and a lavish lifestyle. One day, we drove past the White Sox stadium, U.S. Cellular, and my husband said, “Take that stadium and multiply it times 100 and those are the odds of becoming the next Madonna or Katy Perry.”

    I remembered that – applied it to myself, regarding my odds of becoming the next Rowling, the next King or Patterson – or in the romance genre, the odds of becoming the next Susan Elizabeth Phillips, Laura Kinsale or Francine Rivers.

    The second I hear a fellow writer talk about her book signings someday and how she’ll be an Oprah pick, I know I’m dealing with someone who wants the fame and big money as much as anything. It’s good to have dreams, but not to be self-indulgent. Advances are a fraction of what they used to be, and YA seems to be the hotter genre. So, I keep my fingers moving on the keyboard, and stay realistic. I try to avoid whining and I’m happy for my fellow writers when they succeed. I’ve learned to handle rejections and setbacks as graciously as I can.

    An art teacher once told me, “Always know you’ve got a million or so competing for what you want. Art doesn’t happen in a vacuum, it happens within the context of its culture, and how receptive people are to the art.”

    When I look at the phenomenal success of “50 Shades,” I realize that it’s also about that – reception, that reaction – it’s about timing. “Shades” resonated with a lot of women’s fantasies, sort of a strange post-feminism take about dominance, etc. That it’s about readership as much as the story. There are times I wonder, can I appeal to that readership? My stuff is a hybrid, taking as much inspiration from “Gone Girl” or Elmore Leonard as much as the romance formula. My characters work for a living, they’re ordinary. They’re not rock stars or hockey players. So I’m never quite sure what will happen along this journey, only that I’ve got to keep plugging at it.

    The “luck” factor to me represents that context, that I can be a great craftsman, writer-wise, I can shape the greatest story, but if it doesn’t catch on fire (that’s the luck factor, the word-of-mouth) – then I’ve got to keep working hard, not give up, and stay as humble as I can. Pursue craftsman courses online, attend writer groups. Keep learning. Keep getting better.

  14. Perfect opener for me–my husband is a poker player and I am a writer. I have witnessed the role of luck in both arenas and it can be frustrating as hell to watch the newb at the table make that third eight on the river. For me, with writing, I make peace by acknowledging that luck plays a part in success and then “forgetting” it exists.

  15. On #4, I learned the following trick in my two old day jobs (university R&D): write that scathing letter or email in MS Word and then sit on it for a few days. After that period, maybe re-read it but don’t send it–it probably won’t do any good and usually does a lot of harm. Moreover, your skin gets tough over time, and that’s a good thing. (I try to follow the same policy now with reviews.)

  16. I tend to think that too many writers get caught up in writing to get published. I don’t think that should be the goal of writing. With the new ways to publish today, too many people are in a rush to get their work out to somebody and that results in poor quality and plain old bad writing. Everyone that I’ve encountered that has only one dream or goal of getting published often don’t make it there. They find that it’s just too hard. Publishing is a business. Writing is a passion. If you focus too much on the business you’ll miss the whole point of why you love to write.

  17. Thanks for the post. I totally agree that we should write for the joy of writing. If we write something we can be proud of then success in publishing is icing on the cake. For me, knowing that in January I’ll have a high quality final product that I didn’t skimp on in terms of time, design, editing, the works, all come together is enough to make me proud. Of course I hope it sells, I hope it takes off like wildfire, but our happiness as writers shouldn’t be dependent on that.

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