What’s changed… what hasn’t.
Allow me to narrow the lens of that title to focus on what writers of fiction — not David Baldacci or Dan Brown, not Nora Roberts or Jodi Picoult… rather, writers like you and me and everything above, below and in between, published and self–published, bestselling authors and widely published authors you’ve never heard of and a massive community of ambitious writers looking to see their name on a book cover — need to understand:
Everything is different. Massively different, than it was ten years ago.
And yet, the one single thing that counts most hasn’t changed a bit. Not even a little.
I won’t talk down to you and assume you don’t already know what’s different. You do. For many of you, that is precisely the problem.
Nor will I quote verified statistics or even trends from the mouths of industry experts. Instead I shall begin with the words of one writer, which have lingered in my mind and brought me to this point of sharing this cautionary tale.
Because if you think or speak the same thought and belief, you are not dealing in the real world, the new world of publishing as it sits today, and how it will look relative to the one single thing that will not change as this chaos continues to evolve, which it will.
As you may know, all of the four basic levels of my story coaching work use a Questionnaire, in response to which the author lays out their story plan. And in so doing, exposes their fluency and competencies within the realm of fiction writing craft.
Sometimes the problem is the story, and sometimes it is the writer.
This, in the same way that some airplane crashes are because of the airplane, and some are because of pilot error. The analogy breaks down because we do not allow untrained, unvetted pilots into cockpits… yet anyone can write a book simply by typing out a few hundred pages of “story.”
More apt – sticking with that analogy to show you how absurd the reality of this is – this is what happens when new pilots who have skipped ground school – they decided to try to fly because, heck, they’ve taken a lot of trips back in coach and, well, it just doesn’t seem all that hard – suddenly find themselves in the left seat of an airliner full of people who have paid to come along.
That’s the goal here, after all. We write stories to sell those stories. Which means you are in a commercial venue, it is no longer a hobby when you charge someone to read your story, even if you only charge them 99 cents.
What those pilots (and writers) know, every bit as much as what they think they need to know, or not – if you don’t know what you don’t know, you can’t seek out that specific knowledge, which surely isn’t going to suddenly dawn on you one day as you ponder a blank screen – determine the outcome.
One of those Questionnaires ends with this question:
What do you believe will distinguish your story in a crowded marketplace, setting it apart from and above the competition to attract the attention of agents, editors and readers?
It’s an important question. Critical, in fact. And yet, one that very few new writers think to ask of themselves. Because they have been conned into believing they can write about anything – anything at all – and that someone will pay you 99 cents or more to read it.
Here is an answer representative of too many writers:
Not sure how to answer this because I self-publish, I won’t be seeking agents.
To not understand the question, or how it relates to you, because you self-publish… that’s absolutely terrifying.
Let me bottom-line this for you.
If you are an author seeking to self-publish, and you believe that your story has a lower bar than that set by agents and editors… if you believe that you can skip all this craft nonsense and just tell the story your way, damn it…
… if that’s you…
… then you are delusional. Naive. Clueless. You are doomed to failure and heartbreak.
Is that clear enough? Can I say it any other way?
This is precisely what is WRONG with self-publishing today. As well as what is different than ten years ago. Ten years ago there was a vetting system in place that kept stories that were, in fact, reaching for or simply achieving a lower bar out of the marketplace. It was called a “rejection slip,” and while hurtful and often unfair, it did police the marketplace for fiction to an almost complete extent.
Today, you can publish anything. And then you can promote anything, using all the usual social media venues, using really schnazzy book cover design and grandiose promotional copy.
More bottom line: that same bar set by agents and editors is the EXACT SAME bar that exists for successful self-published books. Then and now. It is no lower and no higher for self-published books.
Which is good news and bad news.
The good news is also what’s different today. If your book is indeed as good as what’s being published today – better put, as good as what would have been published ten years ago… because today, more than ever, really fine books and authors are being thrown under the bus at an astounding level — then you have a shot in the digital market. It’s a smaller shot, and the upside is much more limited than in the old days (10,000 copies of a self-published book is a home run; 10,000 copies of a traditionally published book is a stinker).
Check me on this. Find a bestseller list, a long one like the USA Today roster, from ten years ago. Now look up those authors on Amazon.com, and you’ll find a head-turner of a realization: many of them are self-publishing. Or out of the business entirely.
Know this, though: they are not self-publishing because Hal at the writing conference stood up and announced he’s done with all those stuffy agents and is going straight to market, “and hey, it’s a way higher royalty, too!”
Rather, it’s because traditional publishing is shrinking.
Actually, its dying.
Publishers lose money on new authors and mid-list titles, so they’re avoiding them and sticking to brand name authors who will soon be writing from a rest home. Check today’s bestseller lists and you’ll see hardly any new break-in authors among them, it’ll be the same old names, book after book.
And so the legend and myth of the break out self-published author was born. And among them are titles that indeed do sell in the millions — very very few, though — yet you read them and you say, “whoa, this isn’t all that great, I could totally write something that good.”
Thing is – and this, too, is something that hasn’t changed – that was true ten years ago, as well. It’s true today among those still-present A-list names on the lists. Some of them are totally mediocre. Many are terrific. And the really good ones… they reached the very bar that so-many self-published titles do not.
This isn’t popular thinking among self-publishing enthusiasts. But the numbers don’t lie: there are few, by orders of magnitude, “bestsellers” in this niche, and the number of copies sold that constitute success are dramatically lower.
Then again, there really is a way to see your name on a book cover, and there’s still a shot at finding an audience if the gods of social media nod in your direction.
So nothing in that regard has changed.
You absolutely cannot look at breakout self-published bestsellers and rationalize that the bar there is any lower, either than before or compared to today’s traditional publishers.
It isn’t. But because there are fewer slots for truly quality stories, many of those end up succeeding in the self-published market precisely because they are stellar in every way.
Which validates the whole thing after all. It’s a matter of scale. And, relative to this post, the core criteria on either side of the proposition hasn’t changed a bit.
The bar hasn’t lowered. To assume you don’t need to impress an agent, and thus, don’t need an answer to the aforementioned question, is pure and sad self-delusion.
Here’s what else is true today.
Those breakout, legendary self-published titles you are trying to learn from? They are, by far, from the romance and fantasy genres. And why is that? Because there are, by orders of magnitude, more writers crowding into those niches with the self-publishing intention, and thus they are paying attention to the very social media venues where those titles are visible.
Which leads to this: writers buying books by other writers in their genre. Not purely because they love to read, but because they want to see what all the noise is about.
I have nearly 2000 Facebook friends. I’d say 1940 of them are romance authors (who are among my Storyfix and writing book consumers). I get about 20 “new book” Facebook announcements a day.
Yes – here’s something within this example that hasn’t changed – publicity is still everything. Buzz begets buzz.
And yet, more than ever before, both traditional and self-published authors find themselves completely on their own to generate said buzz. Using the very same social media venues.
Which – hold on to your chair – for the most part don’t work all that well.
So, putting on my cynic hat, you can attribute success online to a different skill set than writing a crackling good story — the ability to self promote.
But when it comes to a breakout hit… something more than you needs to happen on the promotional front. Your only contribution to that will be the quality of the book you’ve written.
Facebook and Goodreads are websites clogged with other writers, not avid readers. And because buzz does occur – almost always because of that high bar… the same bar you rejected as, “well, I don’t need an agent anymore, so what the heck, all criteria and standards are moot” …
… you find that nothing at all has actually changed. Other than the amount of mediocrity crowding the digital marketplace, the vast bulk of which will sell literally dozens of copies at best.
The best promotion is not self-promotion.
Rather, it is a killer book review from a credible source.
If you’re self-publishing, it is almost impossible to get your novel reviewed in the traditional press. There are a few websites that review online titles, but they are lightly attended, and again, have a huge preponderance of writers among their readership.
Getting your book reviewed on Amazon… now you’re back in the self-promotion loop… good luck with that. Quality is what matters, and – especially at first – you need to grind out those reviews, one happy reader at a time.
The golden ring of self-publishing is the same golden ring of ten years ago: you must reach the readers, through reviews or word-of-mouth buzz.
Quality remains the criteria for buzz.
Which means that bar, the one you might be trying to ignore, is still there.
Even then, though, the world is different. I know this from personal experience. My first four books were published by Penguin-Putnam, and they received national reviews and bookstore distribution. One was a minor bestseller, one a Publishers Weekly “Best of…” honoree, and all have garnered really solid reviews, including a starred review from PW.
You’d think buzz would follow. It hasn’t.
My last two novels – which are all better stories because they are better written – have been published by a smaller press. But even with that level of quality (check my blurbs, year-end list, awards and reviews if you think this is just me spouting off), without traditional distribution and promotion beyond the reach of the self-published author, they have sold only a fraction of the first four.
This, despite my swing at Goodreads and Twitter and Facebook and those 1940 romance authors who could not care less about my fiction.
So no, I haven’t broken that code.
Confused? Frustrated? Me, too.
What hasn’t changed, and won’t, is the other stuff I write about. Here, and in my three writing books (the third will be published by Writers Digest in August, 2015).
It’s craft. The definitions, criteria, benchmarks, examples, exceptions, rationalizations, variations on a theme and physics of which… they’re exactly the same as they’ve ever been.
Craft is the ante-in to the game, no matter which version of it you are playing. Anything less and you’re kidding yourself.
So don’t kid yourself. The work we must do, whether self-published or on contract for Random House, begins on the page, which doesn’t care about the other stuff, even if you do.
Let me know if you’re broken the promotional code, I’ll let you tell your story here on Storyfix. But I’ll bet you the publishers advance you didn’t get that it is the quality of your execution that made it happen, that started you down that path.
And in that I find hope. I hope you do, as well. It’s all we have that is eternal, universal and dependable as the ante-in to the publishing lottery itself.
May the odds be with you. Luck still matters, but craft matters more.
If you’d like to see what else is there on those Questionnaires – including the definitions, criteria, benchmarks and criteria that set the bar for your answers, click HERE for my Story Coaching page to find the level that’s right for you at this time.