James Stewart’s column in the New York Times, “Long Odds for Authors Newly Published” about J.K. Rowling aka Robert Galbraith’s book, Cuckoo’s Calling has left me pondering what writing is all about these days. In the article, Stewart discusses how Cuckoo’s Calling under the Galbraith name had to be shopped around at publishers and then, depending on who you talk to, sold somewhere between 1500-8500 books in all formats. Once the Rowling name came to light, the book sold 1.1 milliion at last count. Yes, 1.1 million.
So, when Galbraith was the author, the book didn’t have the visiblity or the street cred for larger numbers of readers to pick it up. Under the Rowling brand, the publisher had to scramble to get enough copies out in the world. I imagine for Rowling, writing under a pseudonym allowed her to break away from the expectations that probably contributed to the chilly reception her previous novel got with reviewers (which, by the way, still sold north of a million copies). But what does this phenomenon mean for the rest of us?
Writers have more avenues for our work than ever before and from where I stand, we also have more people who act like they somehow know what is the “right” thing for an aspiring author to do. I’m sure you’ve heard some of these:
1. Platform. You must have a platform!!
2. It’s all about social networking. You must have a social networking presence!
3. Self-publishing will be the final nail in your writing coffin.
4. Self-publishing is the path to readership and financial success.
5. Traditional publising is dead.
6. Traditional publishing is the path to readership and financial success.
I could go on. The thing that strikes me about all of those statements is that there’s a bit of truth in each and a lot of rubbish. We attend workshops and conferences, read blogs and books on writing, and debate with each other about the “right” path. Here’s where I am on the whole business of writing.
Occasionally someone comes along who creates the perfect storm: the right book in the market at the right time and the marketing prowess to make it known to hundreds of thousands of readers. However, most of the time, and I’m in the upper 90% zone here, most of the time authors create works of varying quality, struggle to reach a market and sell well under 500 books. It doesn’t matter if it’s self-published, small press or large traditional, there are some key things which seem to be important to reaching readers.
First, you have to have written a book people want to read. To compete with the big players in the market, the quality of the writing has to match or exceed what those writers are doing. I think it’s more difficult to reach that level of quality by self-publishing, but not impossible. Having a publisher doesn’t guarantee quailty either. In both cases, as authors, it’s our job to ensure the excellence of our work. To insist on it.
Second, you’ve got to have some marketing mojo behind you. Some authors know how to market their work and enjoy the business end of the book business as much or more so than the writing side. However, most of us, I’m guessing, don’t have the marketing skills and don’t enjoy the business. We just want to write. If you self-publish, you’re in the marketing driver’s seat. It’s up to you. If you go with a publisher, well, you’re probably in the marketing driver’s seat too, since traditional publishers don’t seem to be investing in new authors unless there’s a clear business imperative — i.e., there’s money to be made.
I’m sure there are many more points to be made about how to be successful in this business. But I’m left with the continued conviction that as artists, all writers can do is their very best work and put it out in the world to the best of their capabilities. Once in the marketplace, a novel takes on a life or death of its own.
I suppose the real question for any author is why? Why spend hours, days, months, years on a novel? A few possible answers:
- I want to make money with my work
- I want people to read my work
- I love the creative process itself
I have a feeling that at one level or another, we hold all three (and probably others) in mind. However, I think the most sustainable order for those three is:
Love the creative process — if you don’t love it, if it’s pain and struggle, you’ll have a difficult time doing this five, ten, twenty years or more down the line
Want people to read your work — after all, we’re story tellers. We’re the person sitting at the communal fire telling the stories that shape our lives
Want to be successful — however you define success — money, readers, movie deals, acclaim, awards
So let me add my piece of advice to the pile of advice we all hear every day. Here it is:
Do what you love.
Share what you do.
Define your own success.