Monday, January 31, 2011

How Writing Careers Are Like Snowflakes

I am feeling a big need to have one hub for all my online activity--probably because I am getting older and finding it harder to keep track of everything. With that in mind, I'm going to start cross-posting from my other blogs/websites here...

How Writing Careers Are Like Snowflakes
(cross-posted from Shrinking Violets)

And no, it’s not because they melt away into nothingness two seconds after hitting the ground. Don’t even let such a negative thought taint your mind!

It’s because no two are ever exactly alike. Pretty simple, huh? But one of the hardest concepts for us authors to grasp. Hell, even publishing professionals have a hard time accepting it, although they are aware of it more than the individual author since they have access to data for all their books.

Someone on Twitter last week (and I can’t for the life of me remember who it was—if it was you, let me know so I can properly credit you!) linked to this year old post by Christina Dodd. The whole post is definitely worth reading, a twenty year’s veteran’s look at the biz, but this nugget in particular really struck me:

9. From my vantage point, everyone in publishing is doing better than I am. From everyone else’s vantage point, I’m doing better than they are. The truth is somewhere in between — and an author who’s published is not going to get any sympathy at all from an unpublished author who’s written for ten years, finished three manuscripts and has twenty-five rejection letters. Believe me. I know. I was that author.

The fear of failure nips at our heels no matter what stage of our career we're in. It is so, so easy to sit from the outside looking in and be certain--absolutely certain--that Author A is a raging success and has it all and their books are selling like hotcakes. But the truth is rarely that simple. The really hilarious thing is I’ve had people say that of me, and I can never hold back a snort of wild disbelief. (See previous paragraph.)

A couple of weekends ago I attended ALA. While there I became convinced of two things.

1. Twitter does help buzz books. I can’t tell you how many times I heard people standing in lines for arcs saying, I heard about this book on Twitter. (Which will be the subject of a future post)

2. A big web presence or Twitter following does not guarantee actual book sales. Standing in line for free ARCs is a very different thing from plunking down cold hard cash for the book

I cannot tell you how many people I’ve talked to over the last month or heard talking on blogs, bemoaning their lack of sales, and yet these people DO have really big followings. These are people who are worried about earning out their advances, whose sales are far below expectations, or who are worried about their next contract. Every single one of them has what I consider to be a pretty healthy--if not downright BIG--web presence.

Which proves precisely what I’ve suspected all along: Big blog/Twitter followings propel a teensy percentage of people to publishing success, but no more and perhaps even less than a greatly written book, an award nomination, or the full force of the publisher’s marketing department behind the book.

It is ONE way in a myriad of ways to achieve success.

And the important thing to remember is that no one really, truly understands how one book becomes a success and the other one does not. Sure, there are certain things that must be in place: good storytelling (notice I did not say brilliant writing), publisher support, usually co-op of some kind, but not always. But any given publisher can have two books that should by all intents and purposes appeal to the same audience, and yet the marketing efforts that work so spectacularly on one, fail to have any effect on the other.

Even with Penguin’s big bestsellers, each book had slightly different ways it was marketed to its audience: NIGHTSHADE had an extensive and elaborate interactive Facebook presence and ACROSS THE UNIVERSE had a first chapter sent out through PW. Different approaches for different books.

This is especially important to keep in mind as you keep hearing that the midlist is dead. You’ll hear that on Twitter, in blog posts, at conferences. (Go here for a most excellent description of midlist. Actually take the time to read the whole series. It is the best, most comprehensive explanation I have ever read of the publishing business and the pressures it faces.)

The truth is, a majority of books that become successful do so in their own unique and individual way. This year’s Newberry Awards are a HUGE illustration of that. Most of those books were sleeper books that did not get a significant push from their publisher. Indeed, true midlist books, all.

Some get a surprising number of starred reviews, causing the publisher to take a second look at its vision of the book, some gather huge in-house support and enthusiasm as the book moves through editing and production, and that in-house enthusiasm helps propel the book. Others get state list nominations, or actual award recognition. Or the Junior Library Guild gets behind it. Others build more slowly over time with great word of mouth from teacher to teacher or kid to kid. Sometimes a big chain falls in love with a book and their enthusiasm helps propel the book. Or it gets picked up through the book clubs or book fairs. Or Target takes a buy in.

Or any combination therein.

And a lot of those things don’t even happen the first year out. In fact, looking at my own books, when any of those things have happened to one of them, it happened after it had been out for a year.

And absolutely NONE of them happened because of my online activity.

What has happened from my being online is that I’ve met a lot of great, like-minded people, connected with my readers (although 90% of this has been through the contact page at my author website or the Theodosia blog—not social media.) I have also been tapped for blog tours and guest blogs, book giveaways, and interviews. All of those have helped, but I’d be HUGELY surprised, I mean gobsmacked, if I sold more than 300 books through my online involvement. (Part of this might be because I write middle grade and my end reader is not actually online in a big way. I am going to be really curious to see how this differs—if at all—when my YA comes out.)

So as introverts, we need to really pay attention to the fact that there are SO MANY different paths to success. We need to question the pressure we’re feeling to be online and involved in social media and understand who is pressuring us and why. If it is just because other people are doing it and think you should do it, too, or it’s because Online Guru #43 says you should, then ppfffft. Ignore that. If it’s because your publisher is pressuring you, well that’s a little different. Perhaps a heart to heart conversation with your editor is in order so you can understand precisely what they are hoping your social media presence to achieve, then you can see if there is another way to achieve that.

If you look at the authors who seem to have hugely influenced their sales through their online presence (at least as best as we can tell, although some of them are very open about it) they are most often extraverts. If they ARE introverts, they are very enthusiastic, expressive, gregarious, and energetic introverts.

And maybe you’re not. And you know what? That’s okay because there are lots of different ways your book can find its way to success. Your career is like a snowflake. It will be uniquely yours and have its own sets of ups and downs, highs and lows, discouragement and reward. The best thing you can do for yourself personally, and your career, is find a way to not only accept that, but savor it.

[crossposted from Shrinking Violets}


Kiki Hamilton said...

So well said, Robin! Sometimes it's nice to have those ideas reinforced. I've come to the same conclusion myself, even though I don't have a book out yet. Yes, a big publisher push behind a book makes a difference (money talks) but in the end I really think it comes down to writing a story that readers will love and spread the word about.

It's so easy to fall into the trap of competing and comparing and trying to keep up with all the blog tours etc. but in the end you'll just drive yourself crazy. Better to write the next great story that's dying to come out - which is why we started writing in the first place! :-)

Mae said...

Yes, most definitely, from the POV of the eleven-year-old who enjoys NaNoWriMo and the website (I do love roleplays), and dreams of finishing and publishing a book by age (Oops- leaving in that mistake for character- I'm now twelve!) thirteen, you're very awesome. (Grr. My keyboard is a bit sticky due to the cup of tea with honey I spilled.)

How do I think most promotion will come? Simple. I have fans already. Fans and friends. People who read the first drafts- which were awful- and thought they were awesome. People who're certain it will be published.

'Cheerleaders', in the words of Laini Taylor (I saw you on her blog!), are my fans.