Saturday, October 14, 2006

Publishing Myths

Let's get provocative.

Some many newbie writers come into the publishing biz with preconceptions of how it works.

Strangely, these myths persist even with seasoned writers.

Keep in mind that there is no right and wrong/black and white in publishing. No one knows for sure what works, how to become successful, or the magic formula to hit the bestseller list. There's a lot of bravado, a lot of big ideas, and a lot of finger pointing. What works for one writer or book may not work for another.

That said, I've noticed that a lot of writers repeat the same mantras over and over again (this writer included) so let's look at some of them.

Myth #1: My Publisher Does Nothing for My Book. Authors lament their lack of advertising or reviews or tours. They're quick to blame their publishers for the lack of publicity-and ultimately sales.

Chances are your publisher does a lot of things that you aren't even aware of. That's because publishers don't keep authors in the loop. Why? Consider that people in the publishing biz treat it like any nine to five job. They don't have the same emotionally vested interest in your book as you do. Plus, publishers have dealt with many writers in the past, and can easily classify writers as "needy, clueless, and egomaniacal" which a lot of writers are. The stereotype fits.

So you may not know about the ARCS printed and sent to bookstores and reviewers. You may not know about all the trade shows your publisher attends, pimping their catalog (with your book in it.) You may not know anything about coop deals, or the sales meetings, or the marketing meetings, or the brainstorming sessions that were devoted entirely to you.

No publisher wants to lose money on a book. Just because you believe your publisher is doing nothing, doesn't mean they are. Hell, if they got you on the shelf at a few bookstores, that alone takes a monumental effort.

Myth #2: All I Have to Do is Write a Great Book. Don't get me wrong--you DO have to write a great book. But a great book doesn't mean the world will embrace it, or even be able to find it among the 200,000 released every year.

Writers believe that they have very little control over their sales. They do, however, have control over writing the book. So it's an easy defense mechanism (to protect one's own sanity) to believe that focusing on the writing and not the business stuff can lead to success.

It can. And has, many times. But there are more good books that aren't successful than vice versa.

Publishers truly believe that ALL the books they publish are great. And every book ever traditionally published is someone's favorite book. Greatness is subjective. You can have the greatest book in the world, but that doesn't mean people are going to buy it, or even realize it exists.

Once you're a writer, you become the CEO of your own business. The more you understand how the business works, the more you can and should do to succeed.

Does that mean you should be doing promotion at the expense of writing time? No. Writing should always come first. But (unfortunately) your book's best spokesperson is you. Ignore that at your own peril.

Myth #3: It's My Publisher's Job to Sell My Book. I really dislike the 'us against them' mentality that many authors have. I understand that many of them have reached this conclusion legitimately. Publishers can screw authors. They can kill books, and even careers. But to think that the publisher is some evil empire bent on exploiting your hard work and then counting their money and laughing while you fail--well, that's silly.

Publishers want to make money. They believe they have somewhat of an idea who to do that. Sometimes they're correct. Often they aren't. But in no case is your book more important to your publisher than it is to you.

It's your name on the spine. And here is an IRREFUTABLE FACT: The more you self-promote, the more books you'll sell.

A certain number will sell without you doing anything. Sometimes that number is large enough to make the book successful. The writer will take credit for writing a good book, the publisher will take credit for the brilliant promotional campaign they created, and perhaps both (or neither) is correct.

But you will sell more books if you're out there, promoting.

Myth #4: Self-Promotion Will Make Me Successful. There is no evidence to say that investing a great deal of time in promotional will lead to success (any more than writing a good book will lead to success.) I know several writers who are tireless in their promotional efforts. Some of them are bestsellers. Some of them aren't, and there's no guarantee their efforts will ever pay off.

Many self-promotional efforts are pointless, because the writer doesn't know what they're doing. And even the successful efforts rarely yield a response large enough to justify the time and money used.

It's true that the more you self promote, the more books you'll sell. But it may not be enough to attain stardom (or even stay afloat.)

Myth #5: Hard Work Leads to Success. Successful people all mention "struggle" and "overcoming odds" and "80 hour work weeks" and "living for the job" when explaining to others their journey to the top.

I don't deny that they worked hard. But I know that many people who work very hard don't ever succeed.

It's a basic fact of human nature that we seek cause and effect. Wisdom is simply learning from experience--doing things and judging their results. But wisdom isn't foolproof, and it is always subjective.

Luck plays a huge part in all of our lives. But not many people attribute success to luck, because luck is something beyond their control. To believe that how talented you are, or how hard you work, has nothing to do with how well you will do in life, can make you feel powerless and paranoid.

So we cling to the things we have control over, and then attribute our successes to those things.

Myth #6: My Agent, Editor, Publisher, Peers Know What They're Doing. Actually, nobody knows what they're doing. Everyone in this biz has ideas that seem to be working, strategies that they follow, but deep down all of the people you go to for advice are just as insecure and clueless as you are.

Question everything, including yourself. Learn as much as you can. Your opinions should be based on your experience, not anyone else's experience.

Observe. Listen. Experiment. Be flexible, and always open to new ideas. And keep chugging away.

Myth #7: I'll Be Happy When... When I finish my book. When I sell my first short story. When I sell my tenth article. When I land an agent. When I sell a novel. When I sign a three book deal. When I make 100k a book. When I have ten books in print. When I hit the NYT bestseller list. When I hit #1 on the NYT bestseller list. When I stay #1 for ten weeks on the NYT bestseller list. When I sell the movie rights. When the movie is made. When the movie wins best picture. When I win the Pulitzer. And so on.

I don't know if you'll ever be successful. I don't know if I'll ever be successful. I'm not even sure what the definition of 'success' is, because it's changed a dozen times for me in the past few years.

Another trait of humans is to never be satisfied. Once satisfaction happens, there are no more goals to achieve, which really cuts into productivity.

I've been happy many times in my career, but the happiness never lasts. Once goals are met, they're replaced by others. I don't think it's possible to reach a point where you can be at peace with this business. All you can do is try your best, celebrate successes no matter how small, learn from failures, roll with the punches, and save your money for the day when you no longer have a career.

Myth #8: This Business Sucks. Publishing, as a business model, is wasteful and ineffective. It's hard to break into. It's harder to stay in than break in. It's hardest of all to be successful. There is so much out of your control, and no guarantees. The odds are against you, and everyone working in the biz will tell you how difficult it is, and they're right.

It's also the greatest career in the world.