How about both?
I can’t begin to tell you how many new authors start out with the well intentioned fantasy that they’re going to be the next Stephen King, Nora Roberts, Robert Jordan or [insert well-known author name here]. While I never say stuff like that can’t happen, I do say you shouldn’t count on it. One should not become a writer with the idea that being the next famous author is the absolute end goal or the ultimate reward (or that it absolutely will happen for you) because undoubtedly you’re going to find yourself disappointed. Possibly even so severely discouraged that you may put away the pen or laptop for a few years (if not completely).
I had some really high expectations of being a published author when I first started out. When I was in the early days of college I thought authors made good money and could afford nice country homes in New England. I thought that once you actually had a novel published, you were finally permanently out of the slush pile. I believed each new book would easier to write than the one before it. I thought publishers did all the marketing and I’d just have to show up to book signings. I thought people would buy my book just because it was there. I viewed my stories as pieces of profound artwork.
Looking back I was incredibly naive. But at the tender age of nineteen I had no idea that writing was a business either. Now, nineteen years later, I am listening to some new authors (at a forum I’m on) full of hopes and dreams that I find somewhat unrealistic, and I feel sad for them. While I don’t want to rain on their parade, it’s hard to watch the 2 x 4 of reality speeding toward someone’s head without saying anything. Most of them don’t see it coming.
More than once this week I’ve heard newly published small press and self-published authors talking about trying to get on Oprah. I’ve seen new authors who are bright eyed and hopeful looking at their first sales numbers in shock and dismay. I’ve watch authors cry because twenty people said they’d buy the book, but only two did. I’ve seen them lament about their work of art.
I’ve more than once heard new authors talk about writing as if it’s their ticket to financial freedom.
But writing is a business. Always has been. The reality is that most small press and self-published books (especially in fiction) will be lucky to sell two hundred copies, five hundred if the author is ambitious and markets the hell out of their work (as my friend Kim says). Well known authors with the big presses have the advantage and that advantage is in sheer numbers. Once you better understand how publishing works, you’ll better understand the numbers and why small press and self-pubbed folks have to work harder for each sale.
Writing is hard work. The work doesn’t stop after you’ve finished writing, found the publisher, and the book is out. Then it’s up to the author (regardless the size of your publisher – or if you self-publish) to get out there and spread the word. Now if you have numbers a certain number of your sales will come from people browsing bookstore shelves and randomly picking up your book. For the rest of those sales, people need to know the book exists and you have to tell them why they want to read it.
This is where a marketing plan comes into play. A lot goes into marketing. Certainly the packaging of the book (i.e. format, editing, and cover). Once the book has a package, then it becomes a product. Pricing is also a part of marketing. All of these things determine if readers are going to buy. If your book is good, readers are going to tell their friends. If your book wasn’t so good – eh, not so much word of mouth advertising. Without shelf space it could be a harder sale.
These are just a few things the new author would be wise to consider before making big plans to quit their day job, meet Oprah, and put a down payment on a house in rural Massachusetts.
Make realistic goals.
All of this especially applies to those who are small press or self-published.
-With a good marketing plan and by pimping books out of your trunk, don’t expect to sell more than 100 copies the first three months your book is out. If you do – great! If not, that’s NORMAL for small press and self-publishing. It doesn’t mean you suck.
-Expect additional sales will trickle in. (In the meantime, write the next damn book!)
-Not everyone who says they’re going to buy your book will. Or, they might have to wait until they can financially afford to buy your book. Many people will tell you they did buy it (thinking they’re sparing your feelings) just so you won’t keep bothering them about it.
-The likelihood of you getting on Oprah is small. However I don’t discourage you from trying. By all means, go for it. But if Oprah isn’t interested don’t get all depressed either. It was a long shot to begin with.
-If you have a day job, keep it for now until you are making the same or more with your writing.
-Don’t expect to become famous overnight. Some writers work years and years before their work is even noticed. After 13 years of work, I’ve only now become a bestselling small press non-fiction author. And quite frankly, the only person that probably means a whole lot to is me.
-Do expect that you will have to do your own marketing. Also expect you’ll be selling your books out of your trunk (at least until you gain an audience).
-Do aim high and submit your book(s) to the publisher(s) you are interested in. In that I mean – I know it’s tempting to settle for small press when you really want a large publisher, but I don’t necessarily think you should settle if you expect all publishers are created equal. Small press requires more author input and work and there are a lot of shoddy and shady small presses out there. Large press is harder to get into. And if you self-publish be prepared to deal with the stigma that often comes with self-publishing. You’re wearing a scarlet letter at that point. Remember that and you won’t be disappointed when the A list writers look down their nose at you and treat you like a hack.
I could write for hours about this topic but perhaps it’s time I close. Until next time…