A couple of weeks ago I did a post about Authors and TIme. Peter M. Ball, an Australian author, was kind enough to post a lengthy response to it. I asked him if he would do a guest blog about expectations authors have and he said yes! Please enjoy.
BE IN IT FOR THE LONG HAUL
People make some weird assumptions when it comes to building a writing career. Partially this is because we’re uncomfortable talking about writing as a business, what with our cultural rhetoric treating creativity as a gift that should never be commercialized, and partially this is because the only “successful writers” most beginners hear about are the highly successful outliers like JK Rowling, Stephen King, or EL James.
Writers don’t make the news unless they’re best-sellers, so it’s kinda like trying to figure out how to start a restaurant when the only examples you have to follow are celebrity chefs and thinking well, first step, I need to get my own TV show…
I’ve spent the last four years working fora non-profit writers center in Australia, talking to writers at every level of experience. I get to talk to professional writers – people who make their living at this strange business of producing words – pretty regularly, asking them how they do what they do.
What I’ve learned after four years of conversation is this: most of us, when we’re starting out, think about writing and money the wrong way. Essentially, we want to treat it like a job, with everything a job entails. We want to have a boss – be it a publisher or an agent – and we want to get a regular paycheck immediately.
Basically, we think of “getting published” like we’ve landed a sweet new job, and because we think this way, we make all sorts of mistakes.
YOU’RE THE BOSS, NOT THE EMPLOYEE
When you talk to experienced writers – people who have actually made their living doing this – they’ve got the mindset that what they’ve been doing is building a small business. They’re building something, piece by piece, but they’re in charge of making decisions.
Expecting to have a writing career after your first book or two is rather like kicking off a career as a plumber, say, say, and expecting to break even after the first two jobs. It takes time to build up a client base (or, in a writer’s case, a regular readership), and at the end of the day you end up doing it by word of mouth.
Here’s the good news for writers: you’re going to make a loss some years, particularly early on, but your books and stories will always have the potential to earn you money. I’ve had people ask about reprint rights for stories I wrote five or six years ago, and while it took hours of sweat and effort to earn the cash for that first short story sale, getting the payment for the reprint takes about as much effort as typing “heck yeah” into an email and signing a contract.
It’s hard to wrap your head around it in the early stages of your career, but long-term your back catalogue is the biggest asset you’ve got. Every book you write is an advertisement for the other books you’ve written, and every new fan you make is suddenly looking at your previous work like a kid in a candy store.
IT TAKES TIME TO FIND YOUR READERS
And it sure as hell takes more than one or two books. In traditional publishing terms, the number where you’re assumed to have a readership hovers between five and ten books (assuming you write in the same genre and build a following there). In indie publishing terms, the number tends to be a bit higher – I’ve got a friend who just quit his day job to publish who noticed things started picking up when he hit twenty-three books or so (my experience in indie game publishing, way back when, seems to support this).
If you’re jumping around in a lot of different genres, multiply those numbers out.
A few years back, Goodreads did a report on how people found the books they were reading. Their data suggested that we need between six and twelve points of contact with a book before we make the decision to buy it, depending on how trusted the source is. A point of contact could be anything – a review, a friend mentioning they’ve read it, passing someone reading the book on a train, etc.
Obviously, not all points of contact are created equally. Trusted reviewers/book bloggers/friends opinions obviously will hold more sway than seeing your novel title mentioned in a short story bio, just as a recommendation from your best friend with similar reading taste will mean much more than someone mentioning your book in a random tweet.
The upside is that once you’ve got a reader, you’re pretty much golden – the same data suggested that 96% of people find books by following authors they’re already reading, while 79% learn about books from friends offline, and 64% via Goodreads recommendations from friends (naturally, they’re happy to promote that).
All of which is a long way of saying “writing is a long term gig.” The rewards come later – often much later – but they are there.
Peter M. Ball writes SF and Fantasy novellas, runs the Australian Writer’s Marketplace for Queensland Writers Centre, and convenes the bi-yearly GenreCon writing conference in Brisbane, Australia.