Please note that this series is written in fun. If you don’t like hints of sarcasm and hyperbole don’t read this series. If you find the title offensive, don’t read this series. However, if you understand that this is a great time to be a writer of fiction and feel like a lone happy person in a tsunami of fear, read on.
In a previous post I described how many writers have been brainwashed into thinking that the pace in which they produce their work matters. Today I’ll talk about a different type of pace: Sales! Many writers have been brainwashed into thinking that fast sales mean a book is good, while slow sales mean a books bad. So:
Crazy Lesson #4
Artists create and sell at their own pace. Writers believe they have to write slow, but sell fast.
Velocity is a publishing buzz word and a critical component in the traditional publishing model, which has to deal with limited shelf space in brick and mortar stores. Velocity sales equal books that sell fast within the first several weeks. Selling fast means a book has a chance to hit a bestseller’s list (which focuses on the short term life of a book, not the long term), or helps convince a book store to keep a particular title stocked. In traditional publishing, fast sales have been translated to mean that a book is alive and worthy of attention and support; slows sales mean that a book will be pulled from the shelves and remaindered or destroyed and, worst yet, the author is dropped if they produce too many slow selling books.
In traditional publishing, books are looked at as perishable products like milk and yogurt, with sell by dates. This thinking forced authors to believe that their books could spoil if they didn’t sell at a certain pace.
Gone are the days when an author could grow their audience and skill. Gone are stories of authors like Jack Higgins who wrote twenty-some books before hitting it big with The Eagle Has Landed or Nora Roberts who wrote nearly 60 romance novels over 10 years before hitting the New York Times list.
No, in traditional publishing books are considered produce (explained brilliantly by Dean Wesley Smith in his post Books Are No Longer Produce ). This model suits publishers who deal in volume, but it’s not good for authors. This limiting viewpoint is to the detriment of new voices. Without a backlist, authors can’t build word of mouth, or gain new skills. Readers are forced to go to used bookstores to find authors they’ve liked who’ve strangely disappeared or who write quirky books that don’t fit the mainstream.
In his (out of print) book How to Write Bestselling Fiction Dean Koontz aptly said, “Unimaginative editors and publishers think that every bestselling author must spring up in full bloom, smashing onto the bestseller list his first time out.”
And if an author doesn’t hit it big after several—say two—books? “Many editors say ‘He just doesn’t have what it takes.’”
Suddenly, that author has a big L on their chest (for loser, limited talent, you chose) and editors and agents label them that for the rest of their career, not understanding that writers can grow and improve, if given the chance. To be fair, most people in entertainment like quick labels (thinking takes too much effort). Think of the brilliant minds who labeled Katherine Hepburn ‘box office poison’ or called Jon Cryer of Two and Half Men fame ‘a series killer’ (but that’s another post).
What the traditional publishing industry has never understood is that: Books don’t die.
Enter the beauty of indie publishing where authors can create without the pressure of trying to sell lots of books within six weeks.
Unfortunately, most writers don’t see this and many indie publishers are putting this pressure on themselves. I see authors checking their rankings nearly every hour, spending lots of time and sometimes enormous amounts of money promoting one book instead of writing others. Some indie publishers price their products as cheaply as possible so that they can reach a large number of readers (done strategically this is a great business model or if you’re a discounter publisher more power to you. But if you’re pricing your work cheaply just because you’re desperate, I don’t see ‘long term writing career’ in your future).
I know it’s hard being a turtle in a world filled with hares. Most people know the statement ‘Slow and steady wins the race’ but few believe it. I want you to take a deep breath and know that this statement is true. As people race past you don’t despair, your time will come and you’ll hit the finish line.
Remember books don’t die. I’m not saying that selling fast is bad. However, confusing fast sales with quality is dangerous thinking. Why? Because…
Speed Thinking Kills Hopes. Especially with new authors who want instant gratification. They put something up and expect it to sell 25,000 copies in three weeks and then get depressed when it doesn’t.
Speed Thinking Kills Creativity. People who focus on sales start to worry about trends. Trying to cash in on someone else’s success is just sad. Readers don’t need imitators, they need storytellers.
Speed Thinking Kills Productivity. Too much time and effort spent marketing one project takes away from creating others.
Speed Thinking Kills Camaraderie. When writers start worrying about lists, they enter a competitive mode because there are limited slots on a list.
Again, there are those authors who are meant to sell fast. They’ll always sell fast and I applaud them. They are doing their job and making people happy. This post, however, is for most authors who may not sell fast until the fifth book or tenth book or sixtieth. Keep writing and stop worrying about what you cannot control. I’ve seen authors spend thousands of dollars marketing their work and still not sell well. That doesn’t necessarily mean the book is bad, it may not have been found by the right audience yet.
Visual artists don’t throw a canvas away just because it didn’t sell fast. They wait for the right buyer while they work on other projects. My mother has a painting from forty years ago. It didn’t sell then (too radical for its time), but I bet she could find a buyer now. In the seventies she started creating greeting cards depicting portraits of children. Four decades later she can still sell them, if she wanted to. Quality lingers.
How to Regain Your Sanity:
Remember everything has a season
Writing a book and then worrying about how fast it sells, is like planting a seed then standing over it with a stop watching shouting “Grow dammit, grow!” If it doesn’t grow at the speed you want it to, you may panic and overwater it or recklessly pull it up and throw it out because you think it’s useless, when it just needed more time to take root. As a writer, each book, story, essay is like a planted seed. Leave it and plant others. You never know which one will bloom first. You may never have a prize winning pumpkin, but if you plant enough seeds, one day you’ll have an amazing harvest.
Books are always new
I recently read a book that was printed in 1978 and loved it. It was new to me. Each book will be new to a reader who’s never experienced it before. Think of all the children who’ve never read Madeline or Anne of Green Gables. It doesn’t matter when the book was printed. If The Great Gatsby hadn’t been reprinted who would have heard of this story? Or Their Eyes Were Watching God? There are a host of books that regained new life when someone read them and championed them. The stories didn’t change, their readers did. Remember books don’t die. Their stories remain fresh to new eyes. So don’t worry when a book sells slowly, just hope that it will continue to create pleasure, educate or entertain.
Readers take their time
I love to read, but there are so many books that I will not get to this year or next. There will be gems published this year that I won’t get to until perhaps five to ten years from now. I hope they’ll still be available for sale because I like to discover and read new authors at my own pace not a pace dictated by publishers.
A fast rise can mean a fast fall
This doesn’t always happen, but sometimes it does. Many authors who shoot to the top with their debut novel have this awful event called Second Book Syndrome. In this state the author becomes paralyzed by the success of their first book and feels pressured to match it with their next book. I’m always saddened when I hear about authors who suffer this fate. I think it happens because they’re no longer writing from a pure state of joy, but instead they’re thinking about things outside of their control such as “Will this book be as good as the last?” “What will readers think?” and so on. That kind of thinking is deadly to creativity.
A slow build allows an author to try different skills, hone their strengths and cover their weaknesses. They can grow into their role as a working writer, instead of being branded the author of one particular book and not given the chance to branch out.
Times are changing
As a fiction writer you’re in a world full of choices. You can write for the big publishers, the small publishers, the digital publishers, micropublishers, and/or self-publish. You can write under different names. You can have one half of your career worry about fast sales (i.e. traditional where you have to sell within six months) while your other half slowly builds an audience (indie publishing where your title may not even start hitting traction until after six months).
Inventory trumps speed
One of the most beautiful compliments a reader can say to an author is “What’s next?” If an author only has one or two books for sale readers will go elsewhere. Now if you don’t want to have a long writing career then go ahead and depend on luck and focus on one book hitting it big. But if you want to be a working writer, remember that your job is to create as much inventory as possible so that you can confidently answer the question “What’s next?” over and over again. Like a dandelion, spread your seeds in many places. People will stumble upon you.
One of your books may take off like a rocket, but you’ll be too busy to care.
© 2011 Dara Girard