The Shadow of Doubt: Three Steps to Face not being a Best-Seller

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.

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  1. Having a complete stranger read my book and write a nice review that praises it but also indicates that she “got” it, is a compliment. Not a benchmark or a prize. I simply wish more people would do that. It doesn’t really feel any different than when I saw the huge poster of my daughter’s wedding day in the store window with the ribbon and citation attached that it won a prize and knowing everyone walking by would admire it. And none of them would know she was my daughter. They were just enjoying seeing it. I worked as an editor at one point in my life, and I know all the rules about commas, and conflict, and voice, and person, and I have a tendency to ignore that when I write. But the characters I create have to come from those words. And some people might have trouble with that. Also, a lot of success, especially as an author, is the old saw about being in the right place at the right time. I am pretty sure the someone in that right place at that right time is not always the right someone.

    And why is cognitive dissonance “word of the week”?

    I enjoyed reading your blog today. The right words at the right time for me.

    • I hope one day to at least know what it’s like to have a stranger read my work and “get it”. I think that would definitely be a big boost. I really like what you’ve said here, though. Seeing work stand on its own, rather than as a function of who you are in relation to people that you already know. I mean, it’s great when old friends congratulate me on getting my work out, but making a connection with a completely unknown person via only the story you tell…that’s something pretty special.

      Don’t know about the cognitive dissonance thing, I’ve been using it for years…but it could be that it’s on the rise 😉

      Anyway thanks for the comment and welcome to the site!

  2. Good post–I’ve realized lately that all I want is for people to read my book–yes, a little money would be nice but that isn’t the real goal for me…I can’t imagine writing without loving the subject…and this thing about writing what you know, to me is just bogus…I’ve learned more from the research I’ve done for my books than from all my years in school…

    • I agree with you on writing what you know. For me, that only really applies to emotional timbre. I may be able to catch the ear of, for example, a teenage girl, and be able to communicate an authentic voice (having known quite a few in my time), but on some level if I can’t relate to her life experiences then it’s a whole lot more difficult to accurately convey her emotional states. I say this having written my first novel with a twenty-something lesbian as the protagonist and my second book a thirty-something black woman, of course, but I share some important emotional experiences with those characters all the same.

  3. The nicest thing about deciding to go indie is that I *can* write what I enjoy. I won’t be told to add a romance where one doesn’t belong. I won’t be told to make the protagonist younger. If I write a novel that is a success, I won’t be forced to write a sequel to capitalize on it. I won’t be told that I have to write at a faster pace than I’m comfortable with, churning out inferior product.

    Yeah, maybe writing faster, writing sequels, and contriving romances would be good business decisions, but I don’t want to turn writing into a grind. I already have a day job.

    • Exactly! My “genre” was never very popular, and I’m not sure it even fully exists, at least, not yet. It’s sort of just my thing that kinda sorta fits into the urban fantasy box. And I’m okay with that – indie allows me to pursue that.

  4. I agree with Virginia. That has been the greatest reward so far. Success takes time. I don’t think we have to sacrifice quality and I don’t think we should. I think we can find success by doing what is right for ourselves.

    And I agree with you, Jonathan, I write to get out of doing what makes me miserable. So, I’m going to write what I love. Maybe it’ll take longer to build and audience and get to where we want to go. But we go where we decide. It’s brilliant.

  5. Ties in with the blog post I am working on for the day which started with an article in the Harvard Review of Business about praise. We crave it, but want it to match our inner sense of what is praise worthy. I love every sign someone has read my posts. I will thrill if some eventually find my novel worthy of a word or two of praise, but the journey is part of staying strong and living life as fully as one can at 74. I will be adding this post to my blog today. Thank you and may all of you have the great good fortune to love what you do, but also get some feedback that thrills your heart. Stay strong.

  6. I wrote a blog recently on how brave it is to publish anything, to put it up for public perusal because some will hate it as inevitably as some will love it. I’m having to come to terms with that polarisation now. For me, the measure of success is when somebody ‘gets’ what I write and enjoys the journey. At the end of the day, we write for ourselves (I do, anyway) but we publish because we want to share our stories and the reward is ‘’.

    • In my blog (plug) just the other day I remarked that a certain review was even more appreciated because the person “got” what I was saying. And I have a tendency to say it kind of obtusely it seems. Y’know, all the publishing and promoting, and threads take up so much time, but today I wrote a huge bunch of before story for my fourth novel. It was great.

  7. Great post, Jonathan. I have thought many of the same things, as have most authors, I am sure. I think my original dreams (bestsellers shooting out of my *ss, a pair of yachts, one for each hemisphere) have certainly changed with age, market realities, and the sting of jading realism. I have pretty much settled on what I *need*: enough money to pay the mortgage so I have the financial freedom to write full time. I would think that to be the minimal goal of every serious writer (“serious” being defined as someone who does it more than for simple hobby-ish purposes). Sometimes that goal seems attainable, but I grow more and more afraid that it is the “80 stories in 8 months” scenario that will be the only means by which to arrive at that place. ツ

  8. Thank you. This was a timely post for me. Having my book accurately reflect that place in my being that gave birth to it in the first place is more important than rushing a sequel to market.

  9. Wow. I really needed to read this post today, Jonathan. Thank you for writing it. Sometimes as writers it is hard to continue to write when success is measured by money. I’m finally starting to see a little bit of the green but it has been a long time coming and reading what you said about Sparks scares me a little because I don’t want to become that author. Often I’ve written for the market but it was the books that I wrote from the heart that were the most enjoyable and gave me the most satisfaction. That was true for my readers too. The one book that agents and editors told me would never sell is the one book that I get the most response from and no, it isn’t a best seller but for every person that reads it, they sure do make me think it is. We need to remember that while writing is a business, we should enjoy it at the same time. Those books that move us are the books we should write. The audience will come. 🙂 P.S. Loved the video! My daughter is in the high school band and they have a fun routine to that song! Hysterical! Made me smile!

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