Before this global emergency I regularly attended author’s conferences, seminars and workshops aimed at creative writers and author-entrepreneurs.
These events were great places to mingle with like-minded people, to learn “tricks of the trade” and to get oneself rejuvenated and revitalized. I always returned home “from conference” feeling recommitted, re-engaged and reawakened.
At many of these events, they set up a table (in a lobby) where budding authors might place a new book along with promotional materials such as bookmarks, pens, and business cards. After taking out my book, and placing it tidily on the table, I would usually find a seat nearby where I could observe what happened. The idea would be that someone might pick-up my book, make promising facial expressions, perhaps smile & nod at a humorous page, at which point I would walk over to the table, tell them I am the author and say, “If you like that book, you can take it. Here, take a bookmark as well.”
Of course, 99.9% of people — who payed any heed to the author table — would never pick up my book. They wouldn’t even glance at the cover as they scanned the table with fevered eyes. So I’d nod sagely to those people who sat to my left and right… and then the penny would drop! The people sitting nearby were all the other author-entrepreneurs at the event — they were the other business creatives who, like me — watched the table too. They wanted to see if anyone picked up their book!
Such reasoning therefore meant that the people at the table (the few who intently ignored my book) must have been scanning for some “other” kind of material. I guess they searched for books that might have had the same distinctive qualities as their own (theoretical) project. Or these people (bless them) were “at conference” for their first ever time, or they had strayed into a wild & mysterious world by mistake, or they were looking to collect free pens and bookmarks, or they were hucksters looking for Nest-Egg Seniors (read on to find out more).
At one of the last major independent author conferences that I attended in 2019, the illustrious keynote speaker began an inspirational speech with four words: “What do you want?”
She gazed at the seated delegates with an inquiring and (I thought) slightly judgmental eye, and then she asked:
- Do you want to be famous for your work?
- Do you want your book to be on a bestseller list?
- Do you want to be an award-winning author?
- Do you want your book to make you rich?
- Do you want a publishing contract?
- Do you want to see your book on shelves in high street bookstores?
- Do you want writing to be an enjoyable and fascinating hobby?
- Do you want to write reminiscences or fairy stories for your grandchildren?
- Do you want to tell people you are an author?
But then she delivered the bad news: these expectations are not compatible with each other. She implied that if you attend these events thinking the expert moderators & speakers will put you on a path to all these accomplishments, you’re gonna be deeply disappointed.
Just choose one. That’s what she said. Choose one from that list. She stressed that if you choose one path and one deliverable expectation, you will (probably) be successful.
I have been attending these events for ten years. Three or four a year. During that time I have figured-out what kind of person attends such things. Here are the characters I have observed:
Strugglers. These are people like me (author-entrepreneurs & business-creatives) who come to events seeking advice, new angles, fresh opportunities, and ways to engage with like-minded souls. I call us the “strugglers” because, clearly, if we were triple-crown, blockbuster-spewing, author-achievers, we wouldn’t still be galumphing around the land booking ourselves into workshops, lecture-sessions, seminars and assorted symposia!
Newbies. You have to start somewhere. Everyone has to attend their first conference. All authors have to write their first book
Dabblers. These tend to go to every conference but never really properly & seriously start upon their much-promised writing project (more importantly, they never actually finish it) — they just dabble. When you interact with these characters, they will always tell you they have a great idea for a book! But it’s a great idea that rarely comes to fruition.
Wizards. These are the astonishingly skilled wonder workers who are a) presenting at the conference b) invited by one of the illustrious speakers or, c) reconnoitering before a speaking engagement they’ve been booked for
Disorientated. I don’t mean to be rude, but why did these guys come? They look constantly confused & vague; and of course they are totally baffled by the buzzwords and jargon
Nest-Egg Seniors. These are the kindly gentlefolk who merely want to write memories/fairy stories for their grandchildren. I have heard lines such as: “All I want to do is write a book of fairy poems for my grand-daughter” a hundred times. These characters usually yell this sort of thing during a lecture on search engine optimization or international ISBN registration. Of course, there will be clever hucksters in the audience watching & waiting for these guys. Because Nest-Egg Seniors are the preferred victims of the various vanity presses and “full service” publishing houses whose representatives are forever circling these events like rapacious buzzards, waiting for their next meal. To be perfectly honest — getting these guys connected is an irrefutable relief for everyone. Those people from the vanity presses will take a stained manuscript from a Nest-Egg Senior and they’ll give it a makeover, and then print a dozen-or-so copies and deliver them to the pleased and appreciative customer. The “customer” in this case is the author, of course, (not readership) — and she or he might think they’ve gotten away lightly if they only gave up a mere few thousand pounds (or dollars) for the service. But be sure of this: everyone is happy. The “customer” can say with pride that she/he published a book. The grand-child can put said book on a shelf (and never read it) and the vanity publisher will be able to pay another month’s mortgage. Furthermore, it’s the last time we will see that face “at conference.”
From the beginning of my author journey I decided (perhaps foolishly) that with regards to “pro–authoring” I would do “everything” myself. This admirable D-I-Y ethic is fine. But it takes time (a lot of time) and gargantuan amounts of effort to master the several dozen skills you need to get into author-entrepreneurship and have “skin in the game.” You need a barrow-load of sanctimonious pugnacity too!
I guess right now (after ten years… and yes, I admit I am a slow-learner) I am at that stage the psychologists call “conscious incompetence” on a four step path to complete competence. (In other words I’m at stage two.) After ten years! I guess it’s why the keynote speaker asked the attendees: “What do you want?” She was right to ask this, because I know (now) that you can’t have everything. Most of my last ten years have been misspent! I admit it.
Thinking deeply about her words, I realize my earliest aspirations i.e. to be rich and successful were almost as pie in the sky as my general inclination to make writing an enjoyable hobby. You can’t have both. You can’t have it all! Writing can’t be an enjoyable hobby if you want to make money from it. Contrariwise, you can’t “treat” author-entrepreneurship like a part-time hobby. It’s all or nothing. Neither can you get onto bestseller lists and also get awards. Same with getting your book into bookshops: Many of my author friends make six-figure incomes selling their books, but you won’t find their novels on the shelves of major stores!
Only one in a million will tick-off the entire authoring wish-list. In England, right now, there is a game show host (I won’t tell you his name, he’s a nice guy and to be frank I don’t want to give him any more publicity than he already gets) — but I want to explain that he wrote a book during the down-time that the 2020 lock-down afforded him. Then he published it. The public service broadcasting corporation that employs him (a strictly non-commercial broadcaster, by the way) will never miss any opportunity to advertise & promote this guy’s book. He is a frequent guest on various news and entertainment shows, where he (of course) plugs his book. And when he’s off-screen (which rarely happens, because he’s on three times a night) his TV celeb-pals plug his book for him. Unsurprisingly, his book got onto the best-seller list and now he’s revered and applauded as a credible author as well as being a TV quiz show host. And all that happened in one year. Yes, you might be able to spot sour grapes, but I’m just trying to be rational: if you want to check-off all the expectations on the authoring wish list (above) you’ll need to be on television three times a day, every day. And you’ll need a truck-load of television professionals to help you.
What are your author expectations? Lets go through them one-at-a-time:
Want to be famous for your work?
Write three-book (or 5-book) serials. Write for market. Write a lot. Aim to write three books a year (minimum) — you’ll probably need to write five a year to be sure of success. Write fast. Write speculative fiction. Focus on building fan bases. Have a huge (really huge) presence on social media to spread your word.
Want your book to be on a best-seller list?
One of my books got into “a” best-seller list for a couple of weeks. That novel sold only 700 copies to make the list I’m talking about. It was later off the list. But what I want to emphasize here is that there are several lists. There are sub-groups of lists. And the sub-groups of those lists have their own lists. Some sub-lists even have their own divisions. Not all lists are the same. Your book can be in a popular coffee-house list, but not in the Times newspaper list. It can be chosen by one chat-show host for their list, but ignored by another chat-show host. The trick is to write “to niche.” Specialize. Go deep. This is the complete opposite of wanting to be famous for your work. Here, the aim is to go for the opposite of mainstreaming. Your novel doesn’t have to be avant-garde, but it must appeal to a narrow audience. A very narrow audience. I know it sounds counter-intuitive but what you’re aiming for here is limited appeal. Then you’ll get onto the lists. And you’ll stay at the top.
Want to be a prizewinner?
Write a great book, get it edited professionally, and spend money on a great cover. (You should probably do this for all the author expectations, actually, but hey-ho.) Now here’s the big difference between you and everyone else; don’t worry about niches or the main stream. Spend all of your time submitting your work to writing & literature competitions (there are several hundred, so it will take as long as you have.) Eventually, eventually, you’ll win something. Trust in yourself.
Want books to make you wealthy?
There are several schemes and ‘formulas’ that will help you achieve this goal. Many books and courses will guide you through the process (some are snake oil, so get advice before you shell out wads of money). But understand that you will have to put in lots of time and you will need to get-to-grips with the ins-and-outs of Amazon ads. You’ll also need capital to play with. It’s a bit like stocks & shares. Don’t gamble time and money unless you can afford to lose it! I know indie authors who spend a thousand dollars a month on advertising. But they are achieving book sales worth in excess of six figures! Of course, you will never find these authors on the shelves of your local bookstore. And you don’t see their names on best-seller lists. They don’t win prizes. You won’t know them. But they are prosperous and they live elegant lifestyles. You can be like them if you choose this path.
Want a publishing deal?
Write a great book and get it edited properly & professionally. Get the Writers & Artists Yearbook (or similar) and compile a list of literary agents who will accept submissions from people like you with books like yours. Now begin the laborious route into published authorship. Send off your cover letters. It will take time, commitment, and these days you’ll have to show an agent that you have a proven & ready-made audience (so you will require a thriving and popular presence on social media). Beware: publishing services are not the same! These are just vanity publishers by another name… you’ll know them because they’ll come to you (rather than you jumping through hoops to get their attention.) If anyone comes to you with an offer to publish your book, they are probably phony. Just saying it how it is.
Want to see your book on shelves in the high-street?
This can be done, but while you’re attempting to do this you’ll not make money from sales, nor will you be a prizewinner or get onto best seller lists. I haven’t time to go into the complexities & semantics right now (but please recognize you’ll be putting a lot of effort into reaching this goal with few results). I am fairly certain you’ll need to get yourself published via Ingram Spark (or a similar aggregator or publishing company that sells books to retail stores). Ingram Spark have excellent guides that will help guide you through this convoluted processes. But why? Why do you want to do this? Are you sure it’s not just toilet table love?
Want writing to be a pleasant and fascinating pastime?
Erm? If so, don’t get into the rat race that competitive authorship becomes. Instead, join a local creative writing group, spend time at great writing weekends with your new friends once restrictions have eased (some writers retreats are really nice). Meet pleasant people. Enjoy writing as a recreational pursuit. Who knows, you might even get a short-story or poem printed in a little anthology or a privately-produced collection. It will be very nice. I am envious. But if you decide to follow one of the other results-oriented categories I’ve already mentioned, your nice little hobby will become a frenzied & uncontrollable burden. Please don’t step into the combative world of free enterprise authorship and all the focus, strain, and fatigue it brings. Don’t be tempted!
Want to write reminiscences for grandchildren?
If so, find yourself a really good full service self-publishing company. Someone who you’d like to work with for a year or more. Someone who offers excellent authoring services. Your manuscript will be taken from you and turned into a book that you can put on your shelf. And they will print some more books for your friends and your family. Of course, this will cost you a few thousand. But if this is all you need, it is probably the smartest route to take and it will be the least painful (in the long run). But if you go down this route (and why shouldn’t you?) please remember you won’t become a best-seller, nor will you easily be able to take your book into a high street bookstore, or become rich from it (sorry).
Want to tell people you are an author?
When I tell people I am an author, they almost always ask a question: “Have you written anything I’ve heard of?”
Approximately 675 million printed books are sold in the US each year and 190.9 million printed books are sold in the UK. That’s not even e-books. E-books and audiobooks generate billions more in global revenue. For example, Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited (e-books) paid out more than quarter of a billion dollars to indie authors in 2019 (figures from selfpublishingadvice.org.) So how can anyone have heard of you? You are a grain of sand on a very shingly beach!
I remember my first ever book. It was exciting. I waited a few weeks for a publisher to pick it up, or to be selected for a Booker Prize, or to be offered a deal for a feature film. But then I understood the truth. My book had disappeared into the nebulous cosmos of book space. Yes, you can see it… if you use a long-range telescope… you can make out a faint glimmer at the far ends of the antholoxia (the literary universe) — but my book is hardly what you’d call a bright star in the bookish firmament.
Sometimes people ask “Can I get your book in the high street?” And of course the answer is “Yes” — because, yes, you can. But they didn’t really mean it like that, did they? When they compiled the question in their mind, they didn’t actually mean: “If I go into a shop with your ISBN number, would I be able to order your book?” What they really wanted to say was “Can I see your book on display in the Barnes & Noble (or Waterstones) window?” If that’s what drives you (who am I to disagree?) then you need to go down the Ingram Spark route, as I’ve already suggested. But, be clear, if you want to tell people you are an author, anticipate disappointment. Meanwhile, while you’re worrying about this angle, all the other authors will be busy selling their books in batches, working their way to award-winning glory, sending inquiry letters to agents, working on ad campaigns, and preparing their books to maximize sales or just get their stories read by friends and family.
What are your author expectations? Choose one path. Stick to it.
Agree? Disagree? Comments on twitter @neilmach
Words: @neilmach 2021 ©