The Learning Curve: The Pitfalls of Writing and the Pursuit of Success
Over the past several years I have come to realize that writing with the aim of getting a book published and into print is no longer a journey of patience and persistence but a march along a footpath laden with land mines. This experience by a growing number of aspiring authors was no doubt a major factor in the explosion of eBook publishing—an explosion noticeably buoyed by low- or no-cost marketing via social media. The eBook and social media platforms have given thousands of aspiring authors the opportunity to fulfill their dreams. They have also generated a wider variety of books and even new genres. In all probability, independent or indie authors/publishers, still seen as a growing alternative to traditional publishing, will continue to produce exciting and very good books. However, in order to become successful, indie authors/publishers must work very hard to get their books before thousands of potential readers, particularly if they want to earn and keep a larger percentage of royalties. And yes, for some authors there remains the hope of discovery by an influential literary agent and landing a lucrative deal with a major publishing house.
The arrival of the eBook was in effect a gauntlet thrown down by ePublishers and the indie author—a development that for a time shook the traditional publishing world to its very foundation. With fewer restrictions on opportunities, new genres and sub-genres appeared and will almost certainly continue to do so, breaking new ground and sowing seed which the traditional publishing world will harvest, without of course having to invest in or risk exploration/failure. Trends started by indie authors/publishers will continue to push the publishing envelope. Genres like Climate Fiction (CLI-FI) and Mythopoeia are but a few examples of growing trends. Because of ePublishing aspiring authors no longer sit waiting for rejection letters to be deposited in their mailboxes (in some cases email inboxes), raising the proverbial question, “Will my stories ever be read and accepted?” These authors are venturing out in increasing numbers, standing on their own two feet. Unfortunately, they are finding that success remains, inescapably, part of a filtration process. Whether it be pitching to a literary agent, a traditional publisher with/without a literary agent or pitching to potential readers who now have a more extensive menu of books from which to choose, breaking into the system is still fraught with challenges.
Nevertheless, for the “committed writer” in pursuit of success beyond seeing his/her book(s) on the pages of online bookstores, going it alone is nothing short of a paradox. In other words, new and near unfettered opportunities for aspiring writers to join the ranks of “successful published authors” do not come without costs. The drive for success, frequently defined as rising sales numbers and book awards, garnered by the use of social media and paid marketing, can be time-consuming and expensive. Ironically, this drive presents what might be the penultimate if not the ultimate challenge—one that carries with it an equal, if not greater cost for the writer than time and money spent on branding and marketing. That challenge and often a source of frustration is the disruption of the creative process. While the optimal and often prescribed solution is “effective time management,” we all know that the uncontrollable challenges of everyday life can lay waste to the best of plans.
Adding to the bevy of pitfalls is the imperative of making your voice heard above an ever increasing number of social media users, many of whom are also writers, stealthily looking to tap into your followers and fans, while unwittingly creating what might be construed as a “mutual admiration society.” An ironic aspect of determining a writer’s potential for success is the use of eBook rankings by literary agents and publishers. This speaks volumes about the pragmatic, risk-averse tendencies of agents and publishers nowadays. Their philosophy/strategy is quite clear: “The cream will rise to the top.” While few if any writers expect to be catapulted upward and onward, I have discovered through my own toil that efforts to begin the climb toward the top are much more difficult than they appear, more difficult because an unfortunate result of that pursuit is a skewed relationship between marketing and productivity, with a larger percentage of time being devoted to the former, to the detriment of the latter.
While I too believe that marketing is important for branding and getting the word out about what I as a writer produce, I also believe that finding a balance between the two or achieving some ratio that will allow time to produce, with the aim of improving on each manuscript, is the way forward. Consequently, for me, success is staying true to what I write, developing my skills and growing readership a few dozen (well maybe a few hundred) readers at a time. Remember, individuals will always decide what they want to read, hence the importance and long-term viability of trend-setting by indie authors/publishers. Reaching potential readers, however, is increasingly becoming a much bigger challenge than indie authors/publishers may have expected. Therefore, in the end, how your success is defined is up to you, the writer. Where the future of publishing is concerned, these challenges and the characteristics of the publishing industry discussed above are why I believe the relationship between traditional publishers and indie authors/publishers will evolve from one that is antagonistic into one that is increasingly more symbiotic.
Clearly not all observers of the publishing industry share this view. In my discussions with fellow writers, quite a few have used my views on trend-setting, genre creation and rising stars in indie author/publishing to turn my assertion on its head. They argue instead that the relationship between traditional publishers and indie authors/publishers is becoming more parasitic, with large publishing houses reaping most of the benefits. I contend that the jury is still out on the issue; in the meantime, there are opportunities for growth on both sides, but the cost to authors will grow exponentially with the number of authors searching for success.
James North is a former U.S. Navy intelligence officer, consultant to the U.S. Government, political analyst and university lecturer. He holds a B.A., M.A. and Ph.D. in International Relations. He is the author of Deep Deception and The Last Chameleon, the first two books in his Vanguard political thriller series, published by Crooked Cat Publishing, Ltd. James lives in Europe and is currently working on the third book in the Vanguard series.
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