Self-Publishing Success: Hopeful or Hopeless

Self-Publishing Success: Hopeful or Hopeless

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Writing and publishing a book seems a lot like having a baby. There is always a stranger who wants to tell you their awful story.  They had to use the paddles during my C-section.  Worse, you could be trapped in a corner for hours while a new mother shares all the tiny details of her child’s very routine birth,  measured out in breathy bursts (“and the baby CRIED when the doctor…”).  Like a baby, “delivering” a book  is hard, painful work, but worth it when the precious bundle is sitting in your arms (or on your bookshelf). Imagine how much harder it would be if a line of people stood right outside your hospital door waiting to tell you that, not only is the baby ugly, but she probably won’t amount to anything so maybe you should just admit that the situation is hopeless and give up now.

The topic of self-publishing seems to bring a similar line of people hell-bent on telling us just how spectacularly we are going to fail in ever getting decent book sales, let alone making a living doing what we love. Turn on any podcast and you will hear industry experts stating that the e-book “boom” has come and gone and sales are now winding down, while yet others say that the industry is changing to one driven by hybrid authors (traditionally and self-published) and success is possible if only one finds the magic formula of producing a great novel at the right time marketed just so and for the right price. As a newbie, I’m almost convinced that, for a reader to buy my book, they would practically have to live next door and follow the signs posted on my lawn “get e-book here!”

John Winters, a humorous and clearly talented writer, calls himself a self-publishing failure, equating self publishing with (gasp) masturbation, but “with less thrilling results.” The post is worth a giggle and found at http://www.salon.com/2013/04/02/im_a_self_publishing_failure/. Turn the figurative search-engine page and Patrick Barkham will tell you that you can be an e-book superstar, and “here’s how.”

Even my sometime idol, Mark Coker, founder of Smashwords has weighed in on the difficulties with the pitfalls of success as an indie author in this blog post http://blog.smashwords.com/2010/09/seven-secrets-to-ebook-publishing.html. I can easily forgive Mark. He gave self-publishers a platform, and like any good mentor who truly cares about writers, he wants to maximize our success and minimize our disappointment. Without visionaries like him, we wouldn’t have the luxury of asking the failure-success questions.

Successful authors like Amanda Hocking (http://www.theguardian.com/books/2012/jan/12/amanda-hocking-self-publishing) or Blake Crouch may seem like anomalies, but are they? Hocking says that she never expected much from her books. In fact, she doesn’t want all this rags-to-e-riches recognition based on how she sold her first books, but for the books themselves. Hocking designed her own covers and took the road that many traditional publishers are still trying to shame indies from taking: self publishing without an editor, an agent or a cover designer. Blake Crouch, another hybrid author success story is the opposite of self-made millionaire Hocking. While Hocking’s first e-novel, My Blood Approves, still sells for .99¢, Crouch, an author with an agent and traditional publishing contract, states (http://thenextweb.com/media/2011/03/07/the-economics-of-self-publishing-an-ebook/ – !u6mgy) that he can’t justify selling his novels for such a low price. Crouch, unlike Hocking, has used industry services such as cover designers to facilitate sales of his books.

While Hocking has recently gone the traditional publishing route—it’s tough to be a one woman business and still produce books—I believe her journey is more relevant than ever. The publishing industry is built on a rejection model that assumes cream will rise to the top. How many industry backed best sellers have you picked up but couldn’t finish because you kept falling asleep or couldn’t care less about the characters?

The industry is changing and it has to change. Jenny Trout’s excellent blog post, Our Exclusionary Attitudes Toward Self-Publishing Must Change ( http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jenny-trout/our-exclusionary-attitude_b_4602996.html ) is a brilliant perspective on attitudes toward self publishing.

Writing heavy hitter, Anne Rice, posted this response to Trout’s blog post on her Facebook page: “Our Exclusionary Attitudes Toward Self-Publishing Must Change” — by Jenny Trout. Excellent article and I agree with her all the way on this. Thanks to Jeffrey Brasher for the link. (By the way, I personally prize fiction as the creation of an individual soul. If I suspect a book has been re-written by a committee in a New York publishing house, or smoothed out and edited for popular consumption by in house editors, I don’t read it. If you read the article you’ll understand why I’m saying this.)”

Bear in mind that writers who fail may sell you on their failure, not because they want you to fail, too,  but because that is their experience and they may extrapolate it to the entire industry. Not all books are timely, well-written or what the consumer wants. Bryan Hutchinson makes excellent points about what makes a successful book—and it doesn’t have anything to do with a grammatically perfect, industry-approved style of writing. He shares the criteria for the books that sell at http://positivewriter.com/blogs-books-fail/.

At the beginning of my journey, I bought any and every book out there on the subject of self-publishing before I realized that, ironically, self-published books on self-publishing are sometimes written by people who don’t know anymore than I do. Taking writing advice about your writing future is like anything else in life: to be taken with a grain of salt,  because—until you write it—no one can tell you how successful your book will be. Advice that is worth the price you pay for How To books should focus on what you can do to improve your craft and promote and market your product (anyone else tired of the word platforms yet?) or what to avoid, such as sites that charge author-hopefuls for services rather than promoting their books and taking a fee from sales. One author-entrepreneur with a pay-it-forward attitude who demonstrates compelling fiction writing skills as well as balanced writing and publishing advice is Joanna Penn (aka J.F. Penn of http://www.thecreativepenn.com/). Penn is often one step ahead of the industry, taking the time to research and learn what is working, what isn’t, and where we should go as writers. Her book How to Market a Book is more than worth the price.

We’re not idiots. We know the path may be rocky or uphill at times, but it’s a complete waste of time to focus on what we can’t achieve.  Writing is hard enough. We don’t need to get sucked into the notion that we are failing before we start. The only thing we can control is the quality of our books, our attitude toward writing and publishing, and what we choose to carry as we travel this path.

As Emily Dickinson so eloquently said:

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –

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Own Your Writing Power

Own Your Writing Power

Young People - group of women and men - doing sport Spinning inSitting on my spinning bike this morning, listening to the instructor belt out advice on how to “get to the top” of the metaphorical hill, it struck me how much exercise and writing have in common.

As my face grew hot and sweat trickled into my eyes, I fought to stay where I was, to not bag it and head to the shower.  That nagging little voice that tries to protect me from failure  (but ultimately protects me from success) made the ride hard for the better part of twenty minutes.  Somewhere near the top of the “hill” I saw what was happening, how warped my thinking is about my power to live in a better body and be a successful writer.

In that moment of complete clarity, I placed my D’s (distractions, drama, difficult people) in my review mirror and told them to eat my figurative “dust.”  I replaced my old recorded  message with a new one:  All I have to do is stay on the bike for an hour.  I can do anything for an hour.  As I powered up my legs, and pushed to the finish, I pictured the problems and people shrinking behind me in that cloud of dust.  On the other side of the hill, I could see a slimmer, toned, and more vital future me; a me that was sitting at a table stacked high with my latest best seller.

Forty minutes later, I climbed off the bike, exhilarated.  I stayed on the bike for an hour!  Characters for a novel that I have kicked around but seem to not be able to pin down began to materialize.  I often get my best ideas in the garden, the shower or at the gym.  The problem is that I often leave them where I found them.  I moved to the weight machines and lifted, working hard to tone my muscles, layered as they are under excess winter fat.  As I lifted, I thought about the flexibility and strength of writing muscles and what we layer over them.

Becoming overweight is not an accident.  We turn our frustrations or lack of energy into powerlessness and give up.  We stop eating right and exercising.  We replace our vision of ourselves with that of a powerless, undeserving person.  As the pounds pile up, our reflection in the mirror seems to confirm our worst opinion of ourselves.  We do the same thing with our writing.  We don’t write because we fear we are not good enough to publish, or because our day jobs make us tired, our kids, pets and television need us more than we need to write.  We buy into the notion that it’s just too hard to publish; that we will never achieve recognition or success or be great writers.  Pretty soon, our writing muscles are flabby and buried under layers of negative self-talk, insecurity and detachment. Our writing image reflects exactly what we put into it.  The hope of having a successful writing career is often dashed by an industry that tells us we have little to no chance of ever being successful, and even if we are, we can’t give up our days jobs if we want to survive financially.

I say piffle to that idea!  I refuse to believe that writers are powerless because the writing “hill” is too challenging to navigate.  We have power.  We just don’t always recognize or own our power.  Amanda Hocking is a prime example of an unknown writer who became highly successful on her own through self-publishing thanks to visionaries like Smashwords founder, Mark Coker.  Coker created a platform (www.Smashwords.com) on which writers can build their careers through self-publishing one book at a time.  According to Wikipedia, Hocking worked a day job and wrote 17 novels in her spare time.  She averaged selling 9000 copies of her self-published e-books per day in 2011, earning $2,000,000 without the help of an agent or a traditional publisher.  The industry came calling after she became successful.

The publishing industry doesn’t have a crystal ball or a magic formula for which writers will or won’t succeed.  I may never wear a bikini, but that’s not why I spin or choose to eat in healthy way.  I do it because I owe it to myself to live an authentic life in a healthy body.  I write because writing is integral to who I am as a person.  Amanda Hocking clearly didn’t buy into the “never-going-to-be-a-success” idea either.  She owned her writing power and created her own opportunity for success by doing something that is within any writer’s power to do.  She stayed in the chair.  And we can do it, too.  Power up our writing legs and stay in the chair.   Even if it’s just for one hour.  We can do anything for an hour.  We can leave negativity, our sense of powerlessness and the notion that success is an élite club for  a select few in our review mirrors, eating our collective dust.

Why Are We Listening To The Naysayers?

Why Are We Listening To The Naysayers?

Dog On The Phone   When I was three years old, I had a temper tantrum.  I can just hear the “big deal” forming in your brain as you yawn and start looking for something more interesting to read.  Stick with me.  I do have a point.

The upshot of this tantrum is that, at three years of age, I knew with every fiber of my tiny being that I wanted to write stories.  Now!  And I wanted to write them in cursive.  Sure, I was precocious, but fully articulated stories with a beginning, middle and end written in cursive? Well, that would be genius territory.

I stood on tip-toe to reach the drawer that housed the pencils and paper, and when I couldn’t reach the drawer handle, I dragged a chair over, climbed up and pulled every pencil from the drawer and all the tablets I could hold.  Parked on the kitchen floor, sitting in a circle of pencils and paper, I scribbled for the better part of half an hour, shrieking when it didn’t make sense.  I rolled on the floor crying and pleading with my mother to tell me the secret that would make me a writer.  She tried to get me to form letters with crayons, patiently explaining that I needed to learn the alphabet first.  I threw the crayons across the room, screaming, “That’s for babies!”  Exhausted with my refusal to listen or play with other toys, she finally gave up and left me to howl out my frustration until I fell asleep, my face plastered to a tear-soaked tablet, the pencil clutched hard in my hand.

Years later, the details of this memory are less vivid,  but that white-hot burning desire to write is just as intense.  That urgent voice telling me to write was drowned out for while, lost in the din of naysayers that seemed to surround me; a husband who wanted me to earn as much money as possible before I die. Friends who were probably worried that I wasn’t good enough, discouraged me when I said I wanted to be a writer.  The message was the same from person-to-person.  “You’ll spend your whole life broke and hungry.”

I ignored what I knew in my gut.  I listened and added the weight of their fear about “never making it” to mine. I earned a master’s degree in a field that offered me a “secure, well-paying job” instead of pursuing the one thing in this life that has made me the happiest:  A writing career.  People were very impressed.  I was miserable.   After 17 years in that secure, well-paying job,  I hit a fork in the road and had to choose ethics or employment.  I chose ethics.

Rather than seeing myself as unemployed, I decided to see this as my second chance to do what I should have been doing all along.  And then the voices started again.  This time, not from well-meaning friends or relatives, but from the last place I expected:  Other writers.  Starting a new career, learning the plethora of rules of publishing, the guidelines, finding platforms and learning to market my work, not to mention mastering the learning curve that comes with self-publishing, is enough to freeze any newbie in her tracks.  It seems that everywhere I turn, there is some blog, podcast or article telling me to stop writing and give it up before I even get started.  We all know the drill.  We are but grains of rice in the vast publishing (and self-publishing) paddy. 

Traditional publishing may be loosening its iron-fisted grip on the industry with the advent of self-publishing, but the attitudes are pretty much the same.  People who should know better, who are fighting or have fought the same battle to be published as we new writers spend a great deal of energy discouraging us.  They not only make us feel small, but encourage us to think small as well.

What coach ever takes his team out to the field and proceeds to tell them all the ways they are going to fail?  How many games have you watched where the players stand around commiserating about the impossibility of winning before they start to play?  Coaches understand that the players mental state is as important as his or her level of skill.  That’s why they have cheerleaders.

As a hungry new writer, I listen to dozens of podcasts, looking for advice, encouragement and guidance.  It is surprising at how many podcast hosts or guests promote a “writing show” or offer “writing advice” but proceed to talk negatively about writing as a career.  The real purpose of these podcasts, it seems, is to promote the host/author’s book.  One author, when asked what advice he had for new writers, stated, “Don’t do it.  There are too many of us as it is.”

Using the podcast to promote a book is fine, but luring aspiring writers under the guise of offering useful information, and then discouraging them from pursuing a writing career is pure exploitation.  If a book is good, I’ll buy it.  If the podcast is helpful, I may even buy it whether it’s good or not.  Asking me to buy the book but to give up on writing because of the many pitfalls involved  is a questionable marketing tool.  I won’t be motivated to write or buy the author’s book.  I will probably be searching for the Xanax instead.

Though legitimate, high quality writing podcasts can fire me up to write, I don’t really need to look outside for inspiration or motivation.  I’ve always had it, even as a three-year old girl who knew exactly what she wanted to do: get her stories on paper in a way that made sense.  This is the secret to being a successful writer; listening to your heart, writing from that place, and putting the words on the paper in a way that makes sense.

Have you had an epiphany about your writing journey? If so, I’d love to hear about it.