I’ve seen some posts recently about how to game the system at Amazon and other web sites and become a fairly successful author. At first I read these ideas as sacrificing quality at the cost of getting more “product” out there faster, but I think that I’m understanding that the question is more about how much quality one is willing to accept. The author in particular had eschewed an editor and gone for self-editing, while throwing together his own covers.
But the whole thing made me question what it is that I want out of this: am I looking for a business, or am I aspiring to something different? Not that I say different, not more. I’ve talked about how I want some sort of lasting fame, but getting down to brass tracks – practically – not a pie-in-the-sky possibility of fame or prestige – what is my ultimate aim? Do I want to be the guy cranking out 80 stories in 8 months so that I can subsist on those works? Putting out robotic prose that sells but never quite satisfies me?
It reminds me of a conversation that I once had with a creative writing professor in college. Her one desire for her work was to make good money. She said she respected me for having an artistic approach and being one of those “artsy types”, but that we had fundamentally different goals for our fiction. Now, aside from feeling honored to be put on the same level as someone who was teaching me creative writing, that’s stuck with me over the years.
Yes, a book is a product. I know that. I get it. I’m not unrealistic about it. But at the same time, I think it’s okay to have “higher” aspirations for your story, to say something about the human condition.
This brings me to the meat of today’s topic: how to cope with the fact that I may never be that best-selling. In fact, I most likely will never be that author, given the odds. It’s definitely something with which I’m slowly coming to terms. So here’s how I plan to deal with it.
- Set a goal. As J.A. Konrath pointed out, there’s a difference between dreams and goals in this context: “I’ve always stated that is important to set reasonable goals in your career, and to separate goals (things within your power) from dreams (things that require a “yes” or “no” from someone else in order to happen.)” So, in that context, do I want to sell a million books? Do I want to make $30,000 a month? Or do I just want to see my name on the cover of a book. Of course, it’s often suggested to start with smaller goals – that way you have something that’s more attainable and keep the larger things in reserve. It keeps you from walking around with high hopes that get dashed when you encounter the first sign of reality. So for right now, I’m setting my goal to sell 25 books a month. That’s fairly modest, but having just started out, it would be a realistic level of success. That way I don’t feel I have to pressure myself to top the first book and make my next work something other than what it needs to be.
- Write what I enjoy. Yes, you hear this a lot, yes I’ve beaten the drum about this one over and over. It’s just that important. I recently saw an interview with Nicholas Sparks, and I couldn’t help but be amazed at how miserable he sounds with his lot in life. Sure, he’s selling a lot of books and living the kind of life we all dream of, but he’s writing stuff that he seems to detest. He describes his own process as downright painful, seemingly having to drag every single word out while at the same time seemingly looking down on people who write what they enjoy. The cognitive dissonance was staggering. I can’t help but feel that he’s doing it wrong if he’s so miserable. I mean, yeah, we all have our days where the words are torture, but if his overall process is torture, what’s keeping him following it, other than money? There’s obviously no joy in it for him. I can answer, without a doubt, that I wouldn’t be willing to accept a life like that. I mean, I already do this with my everyday job as a technical writer. I can’t imagine transforming my fiction writing life into the same thing. That’s why I think it’s so important to write what you enjoy, because at the end of the day, you can at least be engaged and enjoy it, even if some days it feels like you’re trying to squeeze blood from a stone.
- Realize that money doesn’t always define success. Our society does tend to look at a given effort and want to know the numbers. I can understand that on some level, in fact. Even I have a tendency to ask how many followers or viewers I have and what that indicates about what I’m writing. Frankly, it shouldn’t indicate a whole lot. As I said, I need to set goals that mean the most to me. Success means hitting those goals. In my case, success is tied to that 25 book goal (a number, of course), but I’ve also defined it in relation to the connections that I make with people. What is the quality of the friendships that I’ve built within the community? How have I affected a reader’s life? Money may come and go, but those connections will always be a part of my life, shaping me as a person. I’ve written before that I regard writing for myself as something of a spiritual practice, which means that this is sort of communing with other writers. It probably sounds very touchy-feely, but it’s just how I view things.
Overall, I just don’t get the obsession with naming “winners” and “losers”. For me, people who complain about how everyone wants to get a ribbon, to be a winner, kind of misses the point. When you break people down into those two categories, you lose a lot of the nuances that occur in human relationships. It seems a symptom of that number thinking that we could stand to lose.
In the end, if I’ve worked to achieve those goals and do something meaningful in my life. At the end of my life, I want to be able to look myself in the mirror and say “at least I tried.” I think that’s something that we all need to acknowledge within ourselves.