I’m asked questions every day or two by aspiring authors, people who are in this publishing game but are as yet unsatisfied with their results. I’ll attempt to give my views here, perhaps it will help.
If you’re happy with a sale or two a week, then fine, most of us can achieve that easily. I envy these people in a way, they aren’t looking to make a living, they’re only out to perform their art, share it with the world, and let the chips fall as they may.
In my case, now that I’ve been somewhat successful, I’m accustomed to reaching bestseller charts with every book, and I naturally want to continue to do so. For me writing isn’t just self-actualization anymore. I have bills to pay with my work. This places me into the category of a professional writer.
The route to becoming a successful, professional author is much rougher. If you want to be someone who is visible on the bestseller charts, who has a number of titles with good honest reviews and who makes enough money to live off your writing…well, that requires a combination of three things: luck, talent and hard work. Of the three, the only one that is under your control is the part about the hard work. That’s the one to concentrate on.
What do I mean by “hard work”? Let me start by explaining that this is an unforgiving game. In fact, it is a desperately difficult game, with literally hundreds of thousands of competing players who are just as determined to win as you are. I visualize it as a pyramid of struggling forms, a pyramid comprised entirely of the fallen bodies of past combatants who’ve given up and succumbed. Those books still in the fight are working their way up or tumbling down. There can only be one book at the top, which invariably has a circle of masters around its feet, each of which is trying to pull the leader down—and let us not forget about the thousands at the bottom of the hill, staring up with envy and greed…
In my own case, I’m sure I had a modicum of talent and luck in the mix, but hard work was definitely the primary contributor to my success. Anyone who thinks I got lucky should open their desk drawer. Do you have around a thousand rejection letters stashed in there? Have you written at least ten books without gaining a dime? Have you taken scads of college writing courses, read a dozen books on writing cover to cover repeatedly, and studied every author in your genre of choice, outlining their works? If not, you have yet to meet my standard of “hard work”.
Bowker, the dispenser of ISBNs, recently released staggering figures on the numbers of self-published books reaching the foot of our mountain every day. The year 2012 saw a 59% increase over 2011…that’s 391,000 new ISBNs cut for self-publishers last year alone. Since 2007, the number has increased a shocking 422 percent. There is no sign that this trend is slowing down. The mountain is growing, ever faster, while the space at the top is not.
How does one win in such a mosh-pit of books? How does your work rise to the top? Many believe it should do so naturally without aid if the work is strong enough. This is simply not true. I’m convinced there are good reads way down there in that heap, forgotten and abandoned. Maybe they had a blank cover, or a description with two misspellings, or a title no one could comprehend. Any mistake like that will dash your hopes. As an independent author, you possess all the power and all the responsibility with regard to your success. You must train yourself to be an expert on covers, blurbs, and marketing techniques, as well as the various sales site search systems and more. Writing a good book is no longer enough.
If this sounds like more effort than it’s worth, you’re probably right. It’s time to move on—immediately. It doesn’t get any better, not even once you’ve managed to master the basics.
I remember watching a show called “Kung Fu” as a kid. The star was an unfortunate fellow named David Carradine. He played a Shaolin priest. As a youth he sported a shaved-bald head and was tasked with sweeping ancient stones with primitive witchy brooms. One of a hundred lowly sweepers, they were all taught the martial arts with one thumping, pain-filled grunt at a time. By the end of the opening credit montage, he was rewarded as an adult by the gift of agonizing self-mutilation. Branded with a tiger and dragon image on either forearm, he was finally allowed to exit the monastery and enter the real world—which turned out to be chockfull of vicious hooligans.
That’s how I view the modern publishing world. Success requires vast effort, and as a final reward, we’re all doomed to be branded with unfair one -star reviews.
All complaining aside however, I do love the life, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Welcome to the foot of my mountain pilgrim and fare thee well.
Ah, the fulltime Indie-Writer Cycle...it's always the same. You lay your egg, raise it into a fine bird, dress it up and send it off into the cruel world. You're full of worry that it will tank or get slammed...but you always dare to hope.
Wickedly slow during those first few days, it begins to catch on and rises up and up. Finally, briefly, you start to feel good.
Then it begins to hover, still floating. You entertain fantasies it will break through or stay up there for longer than the usual 2 weeks. A few good reviews come in, and it pushes up a little higher still. Now it's at the peak, but you dare indulge yet more fantasies: This book will be different. This book will hang on forever!
It begins to drop about a month in. At first, you don't believe it. Maybe it teases you, jumping back up the charts for a day or two. But inevitably, the evil system does its work. Like a movie at the local theater, after a month your book is old news. Age sinks in its teeth, and the vampire begins to feed. Your best customers have long ago come and gone. Every day it falls earthward. You don't even want to look at the rank anymore, it's too upsetting. The readers are still coming in, but the main crowd has moved on. They're all talking about some pretty, cheap little package elsewhere--not your tired two-month-old fossil.
At last, you admit the ride is over, and you have to remind yourself it's not such a bad way to live.
Time for a new book...
Seen here on MSNBC, Dr. Mike Maden, a friend of mine since college, is a Drone expert
There’s probably no better authority on the planet than B.V. Larson when it comes to showing writers how to turn from Indie to Pro so I can’t imagine why he’s asked me to give it a throw. My guess? B.V.’s probably outlining Star Force book #9. He’s smart like that. Despite my inferior credentials on the subject, I’ll give it a shot.
This month, my very first published novel, DRONE, is being released by G.P. Putnam’s Sons, an imprint of one of the oldest and largest publishing conglomerates in the world (Penguin-Random House merged earlier this year.) I would be a lying fool if I didn’t confess that I’m the luckiest guy in the world. I happened to write the right book at the right time but I also happened to bump into the right agent who knew the right editor at Putnam at exactly the right time. So “luck” or whatever you want to call it is certainly part of this journey.
But please notice one little word in my confession: “write.” If I hadn’t written the book in the first place, and committed to the rewriting process (with the world’s greatest editor showing me the ropes along the way) and if I hadn’t committed to a two book deal, then I would’ve missed the boat. No amount of luck would’ve changed that. Bromide alert: “Luck is when preparation meets opportunity.” I know you’ve head that before, but it’s worth repeating. Often.
Richard Bach, the novelist, once wrote: "A professional writer is an amateur who didn't quit." I can’t say it any better than that. But I can summarize it: “A Pro writer writes.” As far as Indie writers go, I can also add, “Indie writers write.” The trick to turning from Indie to Pro? Write! But prolixity is no virtue, so let me summarize even further:
I’m not being cute, I swear. It’s really just as simple—and impossible—as that. You write and write and write until your writing gets good enough that somebody in the Indie world wants to read it. If enough people read it and buy it, then guess what? They want MORE. That’s good the good news. The bad news? Your readers can read faster than you can write (unless you’re B.V. Larson, of course).
So a great Indie writer writes a lot because she or he must write a series of books if they hope to make a living at it, and if they make a good enough living at it, i.e., sell a gazillion books, then the traditional publishers will come and find them. Honestly. Publishers don’t have time to develop talent. Instead, the publishers reward proven talent. They’re always looking for talented writers. The big publishers are designed to do one thing: make a profit by selling lots of books, and writers who write books that lots of other people want to read are writers who write ALL THE TIME and those are the people that publishers are looking for.
I hope that’s you. I really do. There are always more readers than there are books and there are neverenough great books. Please write them. I’ll read them, and so will millions of others.
Here’s a dirty little trade secret: there aren’t many people who want to work this hard. It’s not strictly a matter of talent. It’s a matter of character. Discipline, focus, drive, perseverance. Every day. Until you drop.
B.V. Larson hosts this blog site. Count the number of books he’s written just this year. (And count the average number of stars he garners in his starred reviews.) He’s the perfect incarnation of what I’m talking about. He writes well and he writes a lot and he never stops writing and he’s published in paper now, too, because of that. And also audio books. (Action figures can’t be far behind.) What B.V. probably hasn’t told you—and this is really going to grate your cheese—is that in addition to being a prolific novelist he has a regular full-time job.
So there go all of our excuses.
I once heard the writing guru Karl Iglesias say to an audience of wannabe writers at a screenwriting conference, “Why are you here? You should be home writing.” It felt like a dope slap. He was right. I was pretending to be a writer at a writer’s conference rather than actually writing.
I took his advice. I didn’t go back the next year. Instead, I wrote.
Writers write. They don’t talk about it, they don’t study it, they don’t listen to podcasts about it. They write. (Maybe after they’re done writing for the day they might tap into those resources, but turn that formula around and you will never become an accomplished writer.)
To his credit, Mr. Iglesias also said: “You must learn how to write, but nobody can teach you.” Puzzle on that one for a while, and you’ll understand what he was talking about—you only learn to write by writing.
Let me summarize the very best wisdom I’ve culled over the years from the greatest in the business (Hemingway, King, etc.):
The first draft is always…poopy. So write the first draft as fast as you can.
That means that all writing is really re-writing.
Keep re-writing until it’s as good as you can get it.
Start all over again on your sequel.
Rinse, repeat. Forever.
I’ll add one more nugget of received wisdom. You can’t write all the time. So read. The best writers are the best readers. If you want to be successful like B.V. Larson, read his books and learn from him. Reading books is the cheapest writing apprenticeship on the planet, and enjoyable, too. And if you enjoy military techno-thrillers featuring drones there happens to be a new one available today everywhere books are sold.
Thanks for reading, and keep on writing!
To connect, start here: Mikemaden.com
I don’t often post what amounts to a “blog-entry” but the last few weeks have been very eventful. In July I did an interview at Lab126, a growing facility in Cupertino where Amazon invents new kindles. About 800 engineers showed up to meet me, and I told them what it was like to be a kindle-author. They’d never had the chance to see their device through the eyes of a writer. I was impressed when the audience was asked for a show of hands: “who has been with working here for less than a year?” Most of the crowd raised their hands. The growth has been stunning, demonstrating Amazon’s commitment to the kindle. I let slip that I had an Ipad in my backpack, and they threatened to call security (jokingly).
Another prophetic moment came when they asked what I would like to see in a new kindle, and I listed “good sound, a bigger screen and 4G service”. Little did I know at that point these features were all to be displayed some six weeks later, when I was invited to be on hand at the official unveiling of the new kindle line-up.
The press conference kicking off the new kindles was a whirlwind event for me. Amazon invited me to fly down to Santa Monica, a ritzy beach town near Los Angeles, to witness the announcement of the new kindle line for 2012. As always, the Amazon people made the best of hosts, and really wished to honor their writers. They paid for everything, and made sure it was first-class. They made a point of telling me that unlike traditional publishers, they viewed the book industry as consisting of Writers and Readers. Everyone else was a middle-man, and must justify the role they were attempting to play. Amazon clearly would like to be the sole entity between Readers and Writers, and so far they are doing an excellent job of it. There is no service they aren’t interested in performing eventually.
(Authors Tina Folsom and Sarah Burleton, checking out the Paperwhite Kindles)
(Hugh Howley, author of Wool)
The purpose of the press conference (other than two nights of drinking, gabbing and dining with a dozen important people from Amazon and about 20 authors) was to announce the new kindle line-up. I had the opportunity to fiddle with them all first hand, and I was duly impressed. The top of the line unit, shipping on November 20th, caught my full attention. I’ve been looking for a new tablet with 4G, and I’ve been less than thrilled with the new Ipad. I don’t like the weight, shorter battery life, high monthly charges and the fact that it heats up under heavy use. The top of the line Kindle seems to do the job for about half the price.
(Authors: Ray Bean, B. V. Larson and Barry Eisler)
Final Note for trivia freaks: where does the name “Lab126” come from? Notice the Amazon logo. There is an arc drawn between the A and the Z…the first letter in the alphabet and the last. The 1 therefore stands for “A”, while the 26 stands for “Z”. It verges on a cool illuminati conspiracy theory, but I swear that’s what they told me!
© 2018 BVLarson.