Recently, literary fiction author Ted Heller wrote an article for Salon called “The future is no fun: Self-publishing is the worst.” In it, he describes his misadventures in self-publishing his latest novel, specifically the difficulty he’s had promoting it.
I am not going to go into detail about all the points I disagree with. (For one thing, there’s already a dog pile of disgruntled authors about twenty deep, tearing the article apart.) However, one of his paragraphs in particular did cause me some concern:
Now, I happen to know a few people at magazines and newspapers; I’ve had novels published and I have an agent. But what is this experience like for Jane and John Q. Self-Publishing Author way out there in South Podunk, who don’t know anybody at all and who have zero connections? My heart goes out to them….I really don’t know how those other people — the 99 Percent of Writerdom — can do this. Where do they find the time and the stomach?
Mr. Heller is far from alone in his sentiments. If you’ve gone to a writer’s chapter meeting, there’s always at least one writer who is complaining bitterly to anyone who is unfortunate enough to be trapped next to him. To him, there is no hope, no chance for success, no sense in trying.
The truly insidious thing is, spend any time with Bitter Guy, and pretty soon you’re feeling anxious and crappy, and wondering if there’s any point to it all.
How to find the “the stomach” for publishing.
There are three elements that can help prevent the pain, despair, and hopelessness that seem to be associated with getting published (traditionally or on your own.)
Element 1: Attitude
In the Olympic games, everyone is talented. Everyone trains hard. Everyone does the work. What separates the gold medalists from the silver medalists is simply the mental game.
– Shannon Miller, Olympic gold medalist, gymnastics
It can seem very simplistic, almost insulting, to say “it’s all in your attitude.”
Like Pollyanna, it can come off as a bromide: buck up, little camper! Sometimes it just rains to make you appreciate the sunshine!
And if you’re already in a bad mood, somebody telling you to “turn that frown upside down” just makes you want to, say, punch that somebody in the throat.
(Perhaps that’s just me.)
Nobody I know dismisses Olympic athletes as “Pollyannas.” They’re not “thinking positive” because it’s cross-stitched on a sampler somewhere. They “think positive” because, frankly, they can’t afford to do otherwise.
To compete — not even to win, just to get in the game — they have to push themselves past what their competitors are doing. That means going beyond technique, and skill. It means developing, actively choosing, their attitudes. It means recognizing that moods aren’t facts.
They’re not going to let someone else’s bad experience turn into their reality. You don’t have to, either.
How to adjust your attitude.
If you’re feeling horribly negative and hopeless, here are the best ways I’ve found to turn things around:
1. Have a coping strategy.
First off, a simple fact.
Shit is going to happen.
You’re going to get reamed by a harsh review, get a truly stupid and painful rejection, have a royalty statement that would need a ladder to reach abysmal. You’re never going to come up with an absolutely foolproof plan to avoid pain — in fact, it’s energy-draining to try.
Instead, what you need is an “in case of shit happening, break glass” emergency plan.
First, just notice you’re in the downward spiral of pain, and acknowledge it. “I feel horrible about this (rejection letter/crappy review/whatever.)”
Then, take steps to stop the spin. In woo-woo terms, this is called “changing your energy” and there are a million different ways to do it. It can be a stockpile of movies you can watch, showcasing people beating the odds. (I’m a big fan of Moneyball and Sliding Doors.) Or a bunch of funny Youtube videos. A playlist of music that energizes you. Take a walk around the block. Take a bubble bath. Beat the hell out of a punching bag.
I’d have a list of ten convenient options in case of publishing pain and panic, and I’d have them readily available. When it hits, the last thing you’re going to want to do is spend the energy to hunt down comfort. Make it as easy as possible.
2. Have a support network.
I have said it before, I’ll say it again: we all write alone, but nobody succeeds that way.
Sometimes, you just need to vent a little with people who “get it.” Jump on a writers loop, or have a cup of tea (or bottle of wine) with sympathetic writer friends.
Tell them what happened (try to keep it brief — there will be a temptation to turn it into a tale of summer blockbuster proportions.) Let them tell you that reviewer ought to be burned at the stake, that the editor who passed on you is an idiot, that your sales numbers will bounce back.
If you’re truly lucky, you’ll have friends who bolster you and who call you on your crap if you start wallowing. A balance is important.
Don’t know where to find these people? Savvy Authors, Writer Unboxed, Absolute Write, NaNoWriMo… those are just off the top of my head. Start getting connected. Take a class. Join a forum. Take baby steps, but the sooner you get a network in place, the stronger your attitude will be.
Element 2: Expectations.
This is closely related to attitude, since I’ve noticed that attitude (and pain and suffering) is usually tied to an expectation not being realized. (As the saying goes, “an expectation is a premeditated resentment.”)
Please note: this does not mean that you abandon goals. It does mean that you adjust your expectations.
One way to approach this is to only set goals for things you can control. You can’t control signing with an agent or an editor. You can control how often you write, and what you write. You can’t control how many reviews you get. You can control how many review requests you send out.
Base goals on facts.
If I set a yearly goal of outselling Nora Roberts, Stephen King and J.K. Rowling — combined — and I haven’t completed a novel, what is the likelihood that I’m going to be triumphant come December?
This is reductive, but it illustrates what happened with Mr. Heller. His sense of dejection comes after seven weeks of emails. The Salon piece posted two days after his launch date. (As of this writing, it was ranked at 33k on Amazon. For those who don’t know, that’s pretty decent.)
It does beg the question: what response did he expect? And when?
To give a sense of perspective: for my Urban Fantasy release, my publicist and I sent out 167 review queries and guest blog requests to date. Out of that, I’ve gotten about 32 reviews… about a 19% response rate. That’s over several months, and for a genre title, which is a much easier “sell” as far as getting reviews and guest spots.
I am all for ambition. It’s a good source of motivation. But if you set your expectations unrealistically, without any foundation in fact or any sort of tests, then you’re setting yourself up for failure.
Which isn’t going to help your attitude.
Which leads us to the next element.
Element 3: Research
A way to ground your expectations, and consequently bolster your attitude, is research.
If you don’t know how much a typical book in your genre sells, do some Googling. Ask other authors, in writers’ groups, forums, Kindleboards, what have you. If you’re looking to sign up with a traditional publisher, find out how much typical advances are, or how well similar books are (approximately) selling — the ones closer to you, not the blockbusters. You can also ask your publisher point blank “what would you consider a successful yearly sales number for this title?” (I have done this tons of times.)
If you’re self-publishing, the numbers are actually more easily available, since a lot of authors are sharing their data. Look at the time frame, as well as the number of books sold or dollars made. Even a rough ballpark estimate can help root you in reality.
But research is important beyond creating realistic expectations. It should be what drives you to improve. Part of what I feel may have gone wrong for Mr. Heller is how he approached the endeavor.
His bio “sells” his book — by pointing out that he’s publishing the book himself. “I’ve got no publisher, no publicist, no marketing department, no regional sales manager. It’s just me.” (That’s verbatim from his Amazon author page — he doesn’t have a website, apparently.)
That’s his pitch. That’s his sales hook. He does include a brief book blurb after, but this is his lead.
If you’re a fan of Heller’s, then perhaps this will goad you to pick it up. If you’re new to his work, it may not be the most effective way to pique a reader’s interest, especially in today’s self-pub free for all.
If you set even a realistic goal for, say, a self-published book, and then don’t really understand any of the mechanics that would help make the book a success — the promotion, the foundation, how to write a sales blurb, how to qualify your review targets, as well as how to create a better cover and how to get a print version of your book if you want it… then even if you’ve got a modest to ridiculously low goal, odds are good you’ll still be hosed. Because in that case, failure is the Universe’s way of saying: do your homework.
Problems of lack of preparation can be avoided by research. You want to temper it — it’s easy to fall down a rabbit hole of perfectionism, where researching replaces action — but at the same time, if you’re going to self-publish, there is a slew of information and notes from trailblazers. In an age of Google, there’s no shortage of data.
Not sure what information is right? Test, measure, track. Lather. Rinse. Repeat.
Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.
As I mentioned: shit’s going to happen. You are going to hurt. There really is no avoiding it.
But the fact that you accept it creates the solution.
You can have a coping strategy in place, a group of friends nearby. You can armor yourself with preparation, cushion the blow with adjusted expectations.
When it does hit, you’ll know that you don’t have to let it encompass your world. You’re not going to pretend it’s not happening, but you’re not going to let it rule you.
With some forethought and a little emotional elbow grease, you can downgrade your pain from “fiery hell” to “really frustrating.” You can shift from “I am never going to write again” clothes-rending martyrdom to “man, today sucked” irritation that dissolves into writing your next novel a few days later.
It’s not easy, but it’s worth it. I promise.