The Business Rusch: Markers
So Jeff Bezos bought the Washington Post. The blogosphere is going crazy with opinions; the New York Times thinks the world has ended; and everyone has a comment. Except me.
I’ve been dealing with other issues. Dean and I are traveling, and so we’re consuming news differently. A few hours after I finish this (I hope), we will meet with a few other long-term professionals for a few days to discuss the changes in the industry, and what it means for us. I debated waiting until those meetings were over before writing this blog, but I decided against it.
Discussions like that often leave me confused and overwhelmed. Then I examine my notes, think for a while, and figure out where I stand, and what I want to do. It takes time to process, so I’ll give myself that time.
Which brings me back to Bezos. Because I was traveling when the Washington Post made the announcement, I had limited wireless time available to me. I subscribe to the Post, so I read its articles from beginning to end.
And in the announcement article, I found this:
[Bezos] told Fortune magazine last year, “The three big ideas at Amazon are long-term thinking, customer obsession, and willingness to invent.”
I stopped. I reread the sentence. I thought about it. Information comes to you when you seek it, and it comes in a variety of ways. I wasn’t reading about the Post or Bezos so much as I was getting a handle on a new way to approach something.
Let me explain.
Regular readers of this nonfiction blog know that I’ve been struggling for some time with figuring out a path in this new world of publishing. It’s very important for me to understand how something functions so that I can then figure out how to work (or not) within that system.
Right now, all of publishing—from fiction to nonfiction, from books to magazines, from newspapers to blogs—is going through a massive upheaval. Every time I think the upheaval has settled, something else disrupts the system in ways that then ripple to other parts of the system.
I’m flailing—rather publically—and consulting most of you (as well as other blog sites, and meetings with people active in the industry) to figure out exactly what’s going on. But as I said at the Advanced Master Class that we hosted in July, what is true today might not be true tomorrow.
And for someone who likes and tries to understand systems, that’s exceptionally disconcerting.
On Sunday, one of the writers at our weekly Sunday lunch for professionals asked, “How do you know when you’ve had a good day?” He was referring to the internal workings of a writer: how do you know if you’ve written enough words or putting in enough hours? It’s an excellent question, but it wasn’t the only one I heard. He had to clarify because I heard the question more globally: What markers show you that you’re a success?
That’s, in part, some of what I dealt with last week. The big dreams, the ones that we can get hooked into, the ones that may or may not be valid any longer as the disruptive systems continue to shake publishing. I talked specifically about one of my big dreams from way back, getting on the New York Times list, and how that dream has and hasn’t changed for me.
Back in the dark ages of publishing—you know, five or ten years ago—we knew what made for a good day. It was pretty easy to measure success.
Let’s talk writing first. Successful writers had contracts with publishers. Those contracts had deadlines. The writer needed to meet those deadlines. Working backwards from the deadline, the writer would then calculate how many words per day she had to write or how many hours she needed to put into her writing to hit that deadline either on time or early. If the writer had multiple deadlines, then she “juggled” them, and figured out how to get all of those projects done within the time alloted.
Pretty easy. A “good day” then, to answer the writer’s lunch question, was meeting or beating the quota, staying on target, and maintaining those deadlines. If you were really prolific, if you were really adept at handling the deadlines, then you also found time for short stories or articles and something the romance writers call “a book of the heart.”
“A book of the heart,” for those of you who don’t know, is a book not under deadline, a book a professional writer wrote not because she had pitched it to her editor or it was the next book in the series, but because the book just had to be written. On spec. Because the writer really needed to finish that book for herself. Hence, “book of the heart.”
Those of us who became professional writers in the last thirty years lived and breathed that system. Some writers fell by the wayside because they couldn’t handle the deadlines or—worse—they couldn’t get enough deadlines to pay the bills. (This problem increased in the last decade; publishers reduced the number of books they published, which then reduced the number of books needed, when then (of course) reduced the number of books under deadline.)
On the craft level, then, we writers knew what a good day meant, and a good day was always a success.
But there were other set markers of success for writers. Because traditional publishing had been stable for so very long—the last big disruption happened in the 1950s—the markers of success felt like they were etched in stone.
The differences in these markers came because of a writer’s particular bent and/or genre. Genre writers had different markers than mainstream writers and literary writers had other markers as well. Sometimes those markers went down to the craft level. No literary writer worth his salt would admit to a daily word quota, and would often claim that it would take years to write a book that might (in actual writing time) have taken a few weeks. (Hemingway was a master at this kind of manipulation.)
Romance writers wanted to sell a lot of books, the more the better, and some, like Nora Roberts, changed the culture inside publishing by convincing the publishers that writing several books per year was not only possible, but readers would buy those books.
Markers, though. They were standard enough that established writers could recite the markers on panels all over the country (all over the developed world, really). The writers would agree on those markers even if the writers had never met each other and never consulted with each other.
To give you a complete list would take this blog post and several others. But the traditional markers included:
•Selling your first short story/article
•Selling your first novel
•Hiring an agent
•Winning a major award
•Hitting a bestseller list
•Selling more than one novel
And on and on and on. But generally speaking, we writers could agree on the success markers. So could others in the industry. Dean received an invitation to submit a novel to a major editor after publishing a short story in a reknown magazine. I was on an award ballot for best new writer when the best agent in the field (at the time, and I later realized, only in theory) called and pitched himself to me. We all knew that those early markers meant the writer was going somewhere, and going to do something.
Now, those markers still exist, but they mean less. The disruption is total. Now, there are dozens of science fiction magazines instead of a few, so many in fact that the half dozen year’s best editors claim they can’t read everything printed. There are hundreds of literary magazines now, many which pay well. There’s a surfeit of awards in all the genres, so many the readers have no idea what they mean.
And then, the elephant in the room: Indie publishing. Does it mean more to have your short story up online and receive 1,000 downloads over several months than it does to have your short story out in a prestigious literary magazine with only 1,000 subscribers? I don’t know. No one does.
The markers are all different. And we writers have to set our own. The problem is that established writers have often used markers to propel ourselves forward and, frankly, to measure success. We tell ourselves that we’ve hit this list or we’ve won that award. We’ve been reviewed (favorably!) in the most prestigious journal in the land, and/or we’ve sold books for mid-six figures. We’ve got overseas publishers and movie options. We have deadlines, and more deadlines, and books coming out of several traditional publishing houses.
My last traditionally published novel just appeared—not because I couldn’t sell another; I’ve turned down some deals. But because I don’t want to sign those contracts any more. I don’t want to put up with what the Passive Guy called this week “the mental overhead and time drains involved in dealing with a traditional publisher.”
I like the changes. I like having control over my own career. But I also love the markers of traditionally published short fiction. The contracts are good and the editors wonderful, so I don’t (generally) have to worry about problems there. And I love working outside my own little box.
But those are personal markers. Now, if you have a group of writers on panels at conventions all over the country (the developed world?), the writers will disagree on what the markers for success are.
Does getting an agent mean you’re successful? I would say no, because agents can’t do much for writers any more, and in fact, can’t properly negotiate a complicated contract these days. But other writers who have published as many novels as I have and who have had long careers in traditional publishing would say yes, and might have a different—and informed—opinion as to why.
Now we would say that reasonable people disagree, but in the past, we would have agreed, because That Was How Things Were Done.
Does having 50,000 copies of your book in the hands of readers mean you’re successful? A resounding yes on all fronts, right? But what if that book was given away for free and no one got paid for those 50,000 downloads? Then would we agree? Probably not.
The markers are different, and the agreed-upon markers no longer exist because we can’t agree. The world has changed too radically.
And, as it had before, that change goes all the way down to the craft level. How does a writer measure a successful day when she sets her own deadlines? When every book is a book of the heart?
The projects no longer stack up neatly, organized by deadline, with a book of the heart squeezed in. You can’t backtrack from some publisher deadline to set word count or hours per day. Now, for every 5,000 words finished, there are 15,000 more demanding to be written, on dozens of projects, all of which should be finished now.
For those of us who had series-interruptus, not once, but half a dozen times, there are all of those unfinished storylines demanding to be finished. Because my entire backlist is working its way back into print, readers have just noticed that I was doing short story series too, and are now clamoring for more stories in those series. (Before, I linked them just for me, and published those stories in different anthologies.)
There’s a lot to finish, and a lot to write new, and more books of the heart to contemplate.
Setting a schedule helps, I’ve found, but doesn’t alleviate the problem, because the schedule feels artificial. There’s no editor on the other end waiting for the book. I could trade out this novel for that novel if the whim strikes.
The freedom is great, but with all of the other things to do, the freedom is only part of the story. So, a writer completes 3,000 words in one day, but doesn’t get to the cover she needs to upload the new novel, or the audio book she’s recording, or the copy edit she must review.
There’s more work than anyone can do—and, yes, it is, as Joe Konrath said in response to one of my blog posts two weeks ago, a “quality problem,” as in “oh, no! I spilled champagne on my cake!” but it’s still a problem. Defining these markers—which is different than defining goals—is hard.
When I was talking to Dean about this, I compared it to playing a game your whole life, and then one day, you march onto the field to realize everything has changed. There’s an entire set of new rules. The goal posts haven’t been moved; they’ve been removed. There’s a new system for keeping score, and it doesn’t quite feel right, even if it’s better. Even if it makes more sense.
And then we need to figure out how we fit in.
The things that have become important in the indie world were the things that I trained myself to ignore in the traditional one because I couldn’t control them. I couldn’t control how my books got distributed. I worked with a publisher and hoped they’d do a good job. The only way I could control how a book sold was to write the best damn book possible. I couldn’t tweak the cover or write a new blurb if the existing ones didn’t work. I couldn’t convince my publisher to release the books in other markets, even if I knew that those markets wanted the book. The book’s sales figures came in so late, usually two or three books down the road, as to be almost (not quite but almost) insignificant. The important number was the copies shipped.
Now, no one knows copies shipped. It’s not even an accurate term, because most copies aren’t shipped. They’re ordered and purchased outright. Sales figures are important, like they are in any business, and we can see them in real time. If I want a book in all the markets, I can do that.
I need to pay attention to those things, and I do, but I don’t know how to mark them. Again, that 50,000 sales question comes up, this time without any books selling for free. Is it better to sell 50,000 books in three weeks than in three years? Does it matter if the writer is writing other things? Do we celebrate one and just accept the other?
Impossible to know, and even more impossible for us all to agree on what’s important.
The framework for our craft is changing; the rules of the game have changed.
I’ve been casting about, searching for the rules, the framework that makes sense to me, markers that I can use the way I used the old markers. And on every level, from what makes a successful day’s work to what defines success in an industry gone haywire.
And then, I read that Bezos quote. Ignore what you think about Bezos for a moment—good, bad, indifferent—and look at the words.
He said that the three big ideas at Amazon were a focus on the future, customer obsession, and a willingness to invent.
I like those. They’re not small markers—like selling a short story. They’re large markers, the framework that you use to build the smaller markers. And they work along the way that my brain works.
Focus on the future: I love the way that the mainstream financial press can’t understand Amazon. Amazon doesn’t care about quarterly profits. They want to build a strong future, and they’re running the business in a very old-fashioned way, willing to take a short term loss for a long-term gain.
I’ve always run my writing business that way, and it’s often paid off. In the past fifteen years, as traditional publishers (who used to be owned by families and small corporations) got eaten by the large conglomerates, publishing went from focusing on the future and building to doing anything it could to make a bigger profit this quarter than it did last quarter. That meant that traditional publishing was no longer compatible with my work methods.
So as I reboot my career in this new world, I can focus on the future, and know that I will finish the various series (but not all at once), I will write books of the heart (and some of them are series novels), and I will occasionally surprise myself. There’s room for all of that, and all of the other things I must now do to run an indie writing career. If I keep my focus on the future, with the idea that I’m building, it’s easier to construct a framework.
Customer obsession. I look at this as focusing on the reader. Readers are the ultimate customer for writers. But I teach writers to kick everyone out of their office except themselves. So how can a writer focus on readers then?
Pretty simple. Make sure that readers can get everything you do. Make it available in all formats and in all the places in the world. Let the readers find you. And, again, this isn’t something that can be done overnight. It’ll take time—going back to that focus on the future. Finish the work, and make sure the customer can find it in the format that the customer prefers.
A willingness to invent: Readers are by nature risk-takers. They pick up books by writers they’ve never heard of; they try new genres. Readers like the same old thing until the day that they don’t.
So a writer who thinks focusing on the reader means trying to figure out what the reader wants and then giving it to them is a writer who will go stale. A reader doesn’t know what she wants until she reads it. And then she’ll do her best to introduce her friends to the same pleasure.
So in addition to finishing series, to writing books I’m known for, I need to continue to grow, to experiment, to try new things.
And it’s not just in the writing. It’s also in the delivery methods, in cover design, in all aspects of publishing.
Experiment. Invent. Try new things.
Those three sentences of Bezos’ gave me a framework, a solid one that will enable me to build the new structure, even in this changing world. Because if I remember those three things, I have something to hold onto, something to propel me forward from one project to the next, one idea to the next, one marker to the next.
And I can’t tell you how much I like that.
One of the markers I have every week is this blog. The blog forces me to keep up with the changes in publishing, and it provides me with a chance to interact with those of you who are also figuring out the changes. I appreciate all of the comments and all of the e-mails. The support means a lot.
This blog must remain self-sustaining, which is why I have a donate button on it. So please, if you have received anything of value from reading the blog, leave a tip on the way out.
“The Business Rusch: “Markers” copyright © 2013 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.
A really good article – and you are right it is all changing and only the individual author can come up with the markers that are good for them. I see this as a positive move. When your goals are determined by another (the industry) then it’s much more working toward “a boss’s expectation” where when you set your goals it’s much more “living your dream.”
I love all the new opportunities that are popping up these days: ebook self-publishing, Kickstarter, print-only deals. It’s all good and I love being a hybrid author and being able to be agile and adjust as needed.
In today’s business climate I think (a) being informed on what is happening and (b) being able to adjust are important things to consider.
Thanks for all that you do.
What a wonderfully thoughtful article, Kristine. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts with us. You’ve given me a lot to chew on.
I just watched a TED talk with Bezos about how the internet boom is less like the Gold Rush and more like the invention of electricity. I think we have a long way to go in the publishing industry, but I find it exciting that we’re at the beginning. There are no rules; everyone has the opportunity to carve out a niche for themselves and innovate. I think those principles—focus on the future, customer obsession, willingness to invent—can give everyone a solid foundation and future. Great post, Kristine!
I found this confusing and hopeful at the same time. But like you, the three focus ideals to settle on DO help me as well. To make my own deadlines, to work with an eye to the future, which for me is what counts, and to try to capture my own new stories in a way that I feel is inventive. Thank you! I was sent to your site by author Karen Nilsen. She follows you and shared this post with her writer friends…
Kris, I LOVE that Bezo’s quote and your take on its implementation for writers. I’m posting it near my computer. Thank you.
Again, a great post, Kris, thanks. I like how you think about the whole WP flap. Honestly, that whole thing made me think more about news as a commodity (yes, it always has been), and a couple FB friends and I got a little discussion going. If Amazon does what it always does and tries to tailor what you’re able to see as something you might be interested based on your past choices, I could see them doing that with news, too. People can already cherry-pick. What might happen if you could tailor news delivery so severely that only your point of view is supported?
It could happen. Search for a book on Victorian architecture once or twice, and Amazon thinks that’s all your’e interested in. It’s not such a leap to imagine that, instead of expanding your world view, such a model shrinks it.
But to the meat of what you’re saying: I’ve not taken the leap into indie yet. Right now, traditional publishing works for me. I like the structure of a deadline. It’s just the way I’m built. There are innumerable downsides, as there are to just about every situtation, of course. Regardless of how disciplined I might be in terms of how many pages I must write, I already have enough trouble keeping up with the extra demands of traditional publishing which I didn’t expect: the back and forth of edits and pass-throughs, copy-edits. Guest blogs. Accommodating overseas publishers and their campaigns. I love that fans can find me now, but I also answer every email or query I get, and that takes time.
OTOH, I’ve always set up artificial deadlines, regardless of contracts, and I’m disciplined. So the indie route might also make sense for me eventually. I’m just not quite there yet. All the things that tug your attention away from writing–covers and the like, stuff that you mentioned–I frankly worry that I wouldn’t get it done well. I like rules, too, and structure. So the flailing feeling that you’re talking about–boy, do I know–I could see myself feeling downright paralyzed. I’m a rules freak; tell me what I have to do to get an A. With the whole system is in flux, makes you want to crawl into a black hole and pull the event horizon after.
And I think here’s something, too: having grown up thinking that getting into traditional publishing was the goal, I know myself well enough to understand that I would look at not doing that as starting from scratch all over again and in a way different from picking yourself up after the book of the heart you’ve been writing is roundly rejected everywhere. I remember feeling devastated and freaked after leaving Star Trek–my first marker for success–for heaven’s sake. So far I’ve been lucky that all my books of the heart have made it out of the house. How long that will continue . . .? Who knows?
I’ve noticed something a little disturbing, though. The book I have coming out next February has yet to find an overseas home. The UK publisher, with whom I’ve done four books, passed. The acquisitions editor sent a very nice letter why; we’ve got enough of a relationship for that; we even know which teas we prefer, and I get to see pictures of her little boy. But I was devastated, really bummed–and this, in spite of the fact that they are a small house and hardly the only show in town.
Your post has made me realize something important. It was all that talk about markers. Before I got into traditional publishing, overseas markets . . . they weren’t a barometer of success for me. They weren’t even on my radar.
But. . . somehow or other, though, I’ve let traditional publishing make a marker of success FOR me: that is, getting an overseas publisher to take the book. I started thinking about all those overseas fans who won’t be able to get a copy of the book unless they order from The Book Depository or direct from the US publisher. I got totally bummed.
Which is nowadays patently silly. With indie publishing the way it is now, *I* can make the book available all by myself. It’s not like I don’t own the overseas rights.
Will I hang back a while and see what shakes out? Yes; I’ve had books come out in overseas markets a good year or two after the US pub date, and I do get fan mail about when a book of mine might be available in German or Turkish or Hindi. If the first book does well here, then an overseas publisher might be more inclined to take the risk.
Or they might not. I don’t know yet what marker I’d use to make me pull the trigger. I’m still on the fence. So we’ll see.
Anyway, as always…more food for thought. Thanks.
Another marvelous, insightful, and above all helpful essay, Kris. Thank you.
Based on my recent experience (and yours and Dean’s, too, I think), I would add one meta-marker to your list of three markers: Is my health good enough that I can achieve the other three markers.
It’s possible to be so obsessed with markers (or goals of any sort) that you neglect those things that are necessary to remain healthy in both mind and body. If you lose your health, you can be quite sure that you won’t achieve any of your markers.
And this is a useful marker. Too often, I hear wannabe writers brag about achieving anti-markers with regard to health: “I’ve been living on Jolt and Snickers.” “I made the deadline, but I’ve only slept 3 hours a night for a month.” “I haven’t played with my dog or my kids since I started this novel.” When people tell me these things, I know that they’re headed for failure by any measure you might choose.
Thank you for saying this, Gerald. I really needed to hear this as I’ve been a little too obsessive lately. Whew. Going to make time for exercise today. 😉
Jerry, so very true! Finding that balance between health and pursuing goals is very difficult. I know I’ve gone over toward the goal side in my academic/corporate life, and now I’m trying to regulate it in my FT writing life. Some days are more successful than others. Thanks for being a voice of reason on this.
The markers I see:
– Writing Story as seen through my unique voice, not a bland generic voice to please some nebulous audience.
– Writing as many words a day, every day, that is comfortable, within the limits of:
“There are only so many hours in the day.”
— I want time to read, watch DVDs, play music, draw, sleep(HA!), be creative, be alive. I’ve done the 8-hour daily job that actually tied up 12 hours of my life each day; that was mindless, soul destroying. I did my time, achieved the classic goal of a Dilbertian Lifer working toward the Day of Retirement. (I had to buy a year to retire early, eliminated my own job, all to get out before the crash. Score!)
A Story is written, published, bought by a total stranger, read, and that completes the only important marker I have for success.
The reader I focus on is myself as a reader. We’re all readers, so do what delights or terrifies or thrills the reader in you.
Terrific comment. You’re spot on, Ann. Yet I find myself forgetting this at times.
Awesome and just what I’ve been thinking, as I already deviate from my own “success formula” bestselling mysteries into psychological suspense, women’s fiction, and YA. Building my relationship with readers to the point that they trust me enough to buy anything I write is my goal. And, I’m a believer in the Zon and sticking with KDP Select in the face of your advice. It’s just so great to have only one place to have to track… and readers who want my books will jump through their Nook obstacles to get them. Shared on my platforms, you rock as always!
Not necessarily. I often completely skip authors who are Kindle-only. In this brave new world, why set up new artificial boundaries?
– Is the author too stupid to cover all the bases?
– Do they just not give a damn about their readers?
– Are they too lazy to prepare more than one format and click on 4 or 5 pages instead of 1 (Seriously? Like THAT’s the hard part after doing all the writing, editing, covers, publicity)?
– Are they really into monopolies?
– Do they have a shrine to Bezos in their office to which they make offerings in hopes of favor?
Why make it more difficult for readers to buy the work — wasn’t that the problem with the old methods? People pay for things when they’re easily paid for in the form they prefer. Otherwise, they ignore them or pirate them.
If no one ever wrote another book or story, there would still be way too many good stories for me to read in what’s left of my life. Why should I have to “jump through hoops” when so many things that are equally as good or even better are available without me having to jump?
The Nook is put out by the only brick and mortar book store chain still around. The Kobo has partnered with independent bookstores, which are a vibrant source of reader enthusiasm. iBooks works on all those iThings. Google Play works on all those GoogleThings.
I suggest that limiting yourself to one e-reader platform limits your success. Sure, if it’s your choice to sell fewer books and annoy readers, that’s fine — but don’t claim it’s sooo superior.
“- Do they have a shrine to Bezos in their office to which they make offerings in hopes of favor? ”
LOL Sally ! Corporate mentality. I don’t want to point a finger, because I respect him very much and admire him, but look at Joe Konrath’s career, for instance.
He worked like no other author for his publisher, Hyperion. When he was published by Thomas & Mercer, an Amazon imprint, he began to promote KDP Select. He likes to work for just one company. I do not judge him, it’s his right.
I suspect other authors choose just Amazon because they feel, or think Barnes & Noble and even Kobo and Apple are going hand on hand with big publishing (it will become less and less true with time).
And for others, yes, lazyness.
I agree on this point: I have an Amazon gift certificate and I still don’t want to buy any ebooks with it, though sorely tempted, because I hate the desktop readers that do .mobi. I’m willing to wait months to buy a book on Smashwords instead where I can get a PDF.
As a writer, I know it’s not hard at all. Once you’re set up on Smashwords, all you do is save your .doc with appropriate Smashwords Edition copyright page and resave as .rtf with appropriate Kindle Edition copyright page and upload both at the same time. It takes me about fifteen minutes to publish a book through both, send through Smashwords to all the platforms, and add an ISBN.
And I get a lot more money from Smashwords too.
In my experience, KDP Select authors are not stupid or lazy, and they do give a damn about their readers.
Generally speaking, stupid people don’t write books.
That goes doubly true for lazy people.
Self-publishing is not for the stupid or the lazy, no matter what platform they choose to publish on.
Your suggestion that those authors who enroll in KDP Select—including the commenter that you’re replying to—are stupid and lazy, is not very civil.
First of all, I’m a little aghast that someone would think a list ending with a shrine to Bezos wasn’t rhetorical and tongue in cheek. I’ll be sure to mark any further postings with a smiley face so the sarcasm isn’t lost.
I withdraw the stupid and lazy part. I still have no answer to the not caring about readers, loving monopolies, and possible Bezos shrines.
No one has ever given me a decent answer to why they only go with Amazon in perpetuity. I can see a limited-time exclusive, but forever? It may be simpler for the author-as-person (cf. Konrath, and long may his electrons sell), but it does not benefit the reader or the author-as-business.
Also, David, it’s “not very civil” to yell at someone while posting under their name, as you just did.
Alan Spade, thanks for recognizing sarcasm when you see it, and I hope your office shrine is to something else. 😉 I’m sorry Amazon forced you to publish your book as three books simply to get a decent wage out of it. You could get that sort of treatment from trad pub!
Liana, exactly. I really like the Smashwords model of giving the reader whatever format they desire. I’m happy to hear it pays the authors more as well. I’ll buy over there more now that I know that. (And “Night Bride” was lovely!)
Kris said: “Finish the work, and make sure the customer can find it in the format that the customer prefers.”
That’s all the customers want from authors. The new world of indie pub should mean more freedom and choices for both writers and readers, or else what’s the point?
I don’t know how the posting under your name thing happened. Weird.
Kris, reading this made me realize that I hung my legal career on the same sort of markers of success. Despite having had a good government law job and happy clients, I always felt like a failure. I hadn’t been on law review. I hadn’t graduated in the top 20% of my class. I hadn’t done a judicial clerkship. I wasn’t partner in a law firm. Blah, blah, blah. And it’s not like I consciously wanted any of those things, but I still let those markers define me.
The traditional publishing markers remind me of the legal markers in that they aren’t focused on providing a better experience for the client/reader, but on reinforcing and protecting the dominant paradigm –big law firm lawyers are inherently better and worth their exorbitant hourly fees, and the traditional publishing gatekeeper system automatically results in better books. Um, wrong and wrong.
As a budding author, I’m skipping the traditional publishing party and heading right for the brave new world. And, to give you some perspective in your ongoing quest to figure out the new rules of the game, I learned the most basic rules from reading this blog. First, books aren’t lettuce. There is no “sell by” date. Think long term. Second, the most effective way to market your books is write good ones and keep writing them. You can’t sell books if you don’t have inventory. Third, give up on perfectionism or you’ll make yourself crazy. Fourth, you can make a good steady living self-publishing if you write consistently, focus on your readers, learn the business and do the necessary hard work.
So, based on your very wise observations, my only marker for success will be: am I connecting well enough with readers to sell enough books so I can afford to keep writing?
Oh, Kris. I struggled a lot with what success meant after jumping into the indie publishing fray and getting some sales, but in addition to the jubilation of finally connecting with readers, I felt a lot of frustration after I realized that sales and money alone don’t motivate me. I get money from my day job. So what does motivate me? I wrote this blog (http://melissayuaninnes.wordpress.com/2010/03/07/writing-goals-est-2010/) and established my M.O., which was this: I want my writing to connect me with people, places, and things that excite me.
I write because I enjoy it and, to a certain extent, I need it. But in the end, I’m not looking at my bank account. I want to my writing to connect. And I want it to bring me adventures, which will inspire further writing.
When I was focused on my sales numbers and, to a lesser extent, my reviews, it made me miserable. Instead of celebrating my sales, I was constantly comparing my sales to the next writer’s sales, and my own. (“I sold X this week, but it was 20% off last week. Wah.”) And I realized that the indie world’s obsessions with sales numbers, the way they kept tweaking covers and blurbs and asking for reviews and crying about why they weren’t selling…well, it was an awful lot like how they used to tweak their cover letters and first three chapters and cry about how editors weren’t buying. I said out loud, “Writers like to worry” and shut down my laptop.
Meanwhile, reviews can make you less creative. I immediately thought of both writers and doctors when I read this, by Peter Gray: “In physically demanding tasks, like lifting heavy weights, and in tedious tasks, like counting beans, we do better when we are being evaluated than when we are not. But in tasks that require creativity, new insights, or learning, we do better when we are not being evaluated, so are not afraid of failure.” http://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/201304/the-enemies-invention
So I, at least, have made my peace with setting my own independent dreams and goals in this new world, and trying not to worry about sales and reviews. Thanks for sharing with us that you, too, are figuring it out for yourself. And thanks for the two major workshops in the past two months that help me develop my craft as well as my goals.
Melissa, I like your quote from Peter Gray. That is why I don’t seek input while writing a novel. I don’t want to be told I’m a failure while in the creative space. Of course, I don’t want it afterward either, but I can take it better then.
My success marker is pretty simple: “Can I pay the family bills.” Seems pretty straightforward to me. 🙂
Great post! This is very helpful. I have been ignoring all the WP hoopla so would not have seen this quote otherwise. I’ve been taking a short mental health break from writing (got new dog, new dog did not work out, can’t get another dog until my 17-year-old cats die, long story). I think I will put “long-term thinking, customer obsession, and willingness to invent” over my desk to remind me about the big picture when I’m swimming in book covers and formatting.
Fantastic, Kris. Thanks for keeping up your weekly work of unjumbling the thoughts a lot of us have in our heads. And thanks for highlighting that Bezos quote and applying it to our writing careers. Bingo.
Thanks overall for sharing your thoughts as you go. It really is like including all of us in your roundtable discussions. What a service.
Kris, you are hardly flailing, though it may feel like it to you. You’re asking the hard questions. The ones that need to be asked in this brave, new world. The ones that I see many other long-term writers hide from.
IMHO, humans as a whole have this tendency for group approval. It still exists even in this upheaval. The question becomes whose approval is most important to you.
The markers you pointed out above deal with publisher/editor/agent/fellow writer approval. Even the bestseller lists no longer reflect reader approval, with USA Today possibly the one exception.
As an indie, those old markers mean nothing to me. Readers have become my concern–within reason. First and foremost, I try to write stories that I would want to read. The types I couldn’t find in bookstores for decades because of the very consolidation that you mention. As long as readers are willing to pay for my stories, I consider myself a success.
Anyone who doesn’t think I’m a success because I sell hundreds instead of thousands per month? Well, that says more about them than it does me. (And yes, I only count SALES, not freebies in my totals.)
“Finish the work, and make sure the customer can find it in the format that the customer prefers.”
On the general principle, I certainly agree with you, but what if Amazon were giving only 20% of royalties ?
I publish on Kindle as I publish on other formats, but for example, I’ve chosen not to publish my trilogy as one ebook on Kindle, but as three different ebooks. Why ? Because I wouldn’t have sold it for 9,99 €, 12,49 € was my minimum price.
Neither would I have accepted to get only 35% of the ebook price on Amazon, by selling it at 12,49 € there.
So, I published the trilogy as one ebook on Kobo and Apple, but not on Amazon.
“A reader doesn’t know what she wants until she reads it.” Yes. And I would add : “An author doesn’t know (exactly) what she wants to write until she writes it.” My theory is I have to surprise myself in order to surprise others.
This is so helpful. I know I’ve been throwing spaghetti at the wall since I started indie publishing. Some of the noodles stuck the first time, but not the second. Some of them didn’t stick at all, but I heard over on another blog that they stuck better than if they’d been coated in super glue.
Developing a framework like you describe takes a lot of the guessing (and the mess on the wall) out of the equation. It puts your hands on the things you can control while brushing aside the things you cannot. I can totally dig that. 🙂
The markers I struggle with are letting readers into my office. I’m constantly trying to decide what I should write based on what I think readers want. (Must stop that madness.)
The other day-to-day marker that I worry over is word count. I’m always fiddling with how much I should write in a day. “If I write this many words I can complete this many books, yada, yada…” This might be another version of letting the reader into my office, since what I’m really calculating is how many titles I can have to offer in the shortest time possible. Then I forget I still need time to format, design, and publish those titles.
So much to do… It’s great! 😀
Brilliant, insightful, and absolutely fantastic post. Should be required reading for all career-authors.
You need to travel more .
Thanks so much for this.