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Most Writers Are Unsuccessful: A Pep Talk

Self-publisher Dylan Hearn has a very honest, but fairly depressing, post up on his site that’s gone pretty viral because it speaks to so many: 5 self-publishing truths few authors talk about:

1 You need talent to succeed but it’s no guarantee
The days of being able to publish an average story with an OK cover and finding success are over. There are many, many talented writers out there producing fantastic books who are struggling to find an audience. I know so many brilliant authors struggling to get themselves heard. An excellent story, professionally edited, well presented and with an enticing blurb is the bare minimum entry criteria, and just because you meet it, it doesn’t mean you will be successful.

2 After your initial launch, you book will either take off or bomb – probably the latter
If you have worked very hard and prepped enough people, your book will sell a number of copies on launch. This number will not be as large as you expect as of the people you prepped, some will buy immediately, some when they are ready – no matter how often you’ve explained the importance of a good launch – and some will forget. Repeatedly. If you are lucky – and you have selected your categories wisely – your book will chart making it visible to millions of readers. It’s at this point your book could take off. If so, congratulations, enjoy the ride. More realistically your book will gradually slip down the charts and disappear from view. From then on in, expect sales of only a handful of copies per month, if that.

3 You are unlikely to sell thousands of books in your first year
I’ve yet to find the source of this statistic but it’s said the average ebook sells 100 copies. Not at launch, not in the first year, but over its whole lifetime. Now within that total sample you will get million sellers and zero sellers and your book could be anywhere on this spectrum but the reality is, despite excellent reviews and lots of promotion, your book will probably just tick along at best. Unless you manage to gain a promotion slot on a service like BookBub – especially difficult these days since the big publishing houses have started using their service – or you manage to generate great word of mouth – even more difficult, your sales won’t return to that initial launch peak for a long time, if at all.

It’s true. Even Dylan Hearn, whose post has been widely shared, is not seeing a huge uptick in sales of his books (I don’t mean to pile on, but it drives home the point). Basically, he’s doing everything right, like many other authors, and nothing’s really taking off.

The thing is, this is the case for traditionally published writers as well. Check out this graph:

Explore the careers of some of the world’s most successful authors. Click image to open interactive version (via Blinkbox Books).

There are some inaccuracies in there – such as Kerouac actually published On the Road in his thirties – but the point still stands. Maybe it’s not entirely heartening for those over 65, but for a great many writers starting out self-publishing, this should be eye-opening. It takes writers many books, and many years, to finally break through.

Maybe this isn’t a pep talk so much as a dose of reality. If you’re not successful, you’re not alone. But that doesn’t mean you won’t be successful, it just means it could take a while, even decades. This is what it takes to be a writer, not just writing a book and hitting publish, but writing books over a lifetime.

There are many self-publishers out there who talk about giving it up. To be perfectly honest, I’ve been one of them. The idea of doing all that work and getting little back is no doubt depressing. Saying the work is the most important thing or “If I just reach one reader it will be all worthwhile” doesn’t quite cut it. Writing is a conversation and talking to yourself is, well, kind of crazy. There are also bills to pay. Once you’ve reached that one superfan, you’re going to want to repeat that experience, whoever you are.

They say the best thing for book marketing is to keep writing. Honestly, writing more shouldn’t even about marketing, but because it’s something you love, no matter the odds. Though half (or more) of a self-publisher’s time is swept up in marketing, this doesn’t mean it’s equally important. The writing is the most important thing, or else there’d be nothing to market. Your fifth book might be the one that sells all the others. The current one that’s not selling is not a measurement of who you are as a writer, any more than JK Rowling’s early rejections were a measure of hers.

In the age of the self-published slushpile, it’s sales that measure success, rather than mounting rejection slips from agents or editors. In the old days, you’d submit the book to people in the industry. If there weren’t any takers, you’d put the book in a drawer and move on. Self-publishing is similar. Just because it’s published does not give the book greater weight than a manuscript. It may feel that way, but the entire nature of publishing has changed. There’s a finer line between a manuscript and a published book.

If the readers have spoken, there’s not a huge amount to do about it. You don’t need to give up on a book entirely, but stop giving it all your energy and write another one. It’s as good a catharsis as book sales.

And if you’re still struggling to put words on a page, just take Neil Gaiman’s advice on being a writer:

On the top of a distant mountain there grows a tree with silver leaves. Once every year, at dawn on April 30th, this tree blossoms, with five flowers, and over the next hour each blossom becomes a berry, first a green berry, then black, then golden.

At the moment the five berries become golden, five white crows, who have been waiting on the mountain, and which you will have mistaken for snow, will swoop down on the tree, greedily stripping it of all its berries, and will fly off, laughing.

You must catch, with your bare hands, the smallest of the crows, and you must force it to give up the berry (the crows do not swallow the berries. They carry them far across the ocean, to an enchanter’s garden, to drop, one by one, into the mouth of his daughter, who will wake from her enchanted sleep only when a thousand such berries have been fed to her). When you have obtained the golden berry, you must place it under your tongue, and return directly to your home.

For the next week, you must speak to no-one, not even your loved ones or a highway patrol officer stopping you for speeding. Say nothing. Do not sleep. Let the berry sit beneath your tongue.

At midnight on the seventh day you must go to the highest place in your town (it is common to climb on roofs for this step) and, with the berry safely beneath your tongue, recite the whole of Fox in Socks. Do not let the berry slip from your tongue. Do not miss out any of the poem, or skip any of the bits of the Muddle Puddle Tweetle Poodle Beetle Noodle Bottle Paddle Battle.

Then, and only then, can you swallow the berry. You must return home as quickly as you can, for you have only half an hour at most before you fall into a deep sleep.

When you wake in the morning, you will be able to get your thoughts and ideas down onto the paper, and you will be a writer.

Simple really.

  • Dylan Hearn

    Ouch, talk about sticking the knife in! ;-)

    Many thanks for sharing this piece. I’ve been a little overwhelmed by the response to what was meant as a response to some of the wilder claims about self-publishing riches on offer to my small but loyal readership. Yes, sadly, it hasn’t as yet led to a sale uptick, but I’ve been more fortunate than most – at least in UK sales.

    Before anyone picks up on the 100 copies sold stat, I’ve already been taken to task about this on The Passive Guy site. It was a figure that had been often quoted but I’ve since found came from a discredited source. Please ignore the number but the principle – most people’s ebooks do not sell in large quantities – is still true, especially debut novels.

    Other than that, I completely agree with what Henry has written. Self-publishing is a long game and the best way of increasing your chances of success is to keep at it. Build your audience one reader at a time.

    Thanks once again for sharing.