A Perspective On Early Success in Publishing

I was talking to a friend who was becoming frustrated by all these authors who seem to have only one or two books out and their books are selling like crazy. Or friends of hers [whose] debut books are getting these really big deals with major publishers. And she’s feeling down about it.

So I wanted to talk about this topic because I know a lot of my fellow writers feel this way, and I’ve felt like this too before. I’m not immune to the frustration.

So here we go:

[Publetariat Editor’s Note: strong language after the jump]

You do not know another author’s history. You don’t know how many books they wrote before they published one. You also don’t know a debut author is really a debut author. They may have 50 titles out under other pen names. Whether readers know it or not, and they have the finances from other books to help them launch this one. They have more contacts to help them promote their book. They know what works and doesn’t work for them to get the exposure they need. They know their pricing strategy. They are bringing a LOT to the table that they’ve learned from their previous pen name incarnations.

Most people who “hit big” have put in the time. They have their million words under their belt. They’ve practiced. They’ve learned their craft. In short, they have earned their success.

However, some people will inexplicably hit big with the first book they ever wrote. It may even have a ton of typos. You may think it sucks. But for whatever inexplicable reason it seems to sell like gangbusters.

Everybody thinks they want to be this person. But unless you are E.L. James and become literally rich over a few books, and movies are gonna get made, you do not want “early success” as an author.

One of the worst things that can happen to your career is to sell the shit out of book 1. I know that sounds crazy to you, but let me explain why.

The general public is fickle, they are forgetful, and they have a constant barrage of “bright shiny” in front of them 24/7. (Which explains the other two things.)

If you have one book out, readers who love you right now may or may not even remember you when book 2 comes out.

Early success, unless it is epic is rarely a great thing. And if it’s epic… and you had early success before you put in your million words or 10,000 hours for mastery, then the pressure of continuing to please your readers on book 2 or 3 is something I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy. Unless YOU feel you’ve reached some level of mastery/competence, it’s going to be hell writing all those other books with so many eyes on you waiting.

Margaret Mitchell never wrote another book after Gone With The Wind because she said she “couldn’t top the damn thing.”

Now you know why there are so many “one hit wonders”.

So… what do you want? What do you really want? Here is the best possible scenario in my personal opinion. Your mileage may vary, this is just how *I* see the world:

You write a ton of books, each getting better and stronger than the last. You build a consistent and loyal fan base. Your 20th or 25th book hits BIG.

And then?

All your new slobbering fans have 19-24 other books to read. They will not forget you. You can actually retain those readers.

How many readers do you think you retain if you hit big with book one or two and it takes you 8 months or a year to get the next book out? You can’t write fast enough to keep their attention. Trust me.

Not in the Twitter age.

Think about it.

I speak as someone who had a little bit of “too early success”, but not enough to tip me over into the super safe nearly famous zone.

It makes it more difficult when things slow down a little and you have to start building that net underneath you of backlist.

In fact, today it occurred to me… if I don’t count my short story and I don’t count individual novellas but instead just count the omnibus since it’s “book 1″, I only really have 5 titles out for Zoe. And only 6 for Kitty.

I have a LOT of work ahead of me. Because when I do write that book that mass quantities of people slobber over and miss meals and bathroom breaks for… I want them to have PLENTY of other books by me to read… so I can retain them as a fan for life.

I’m in this for the long haul, and I’m in it to win it. But it’s a marathon, not a sprint.


This is a reprint from The Weblog of Zoe Winters.

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