As a precocious young teen, I hoped someday to publish a novel or some kind of book ... at least one, anyway. As I grew older, gradually less consumed with self, the desire to gaze at a book with my name on it stocked by the local bookstore continued to grow, even though the reality of ever realizing that dream grew dimmer with each passing year.
In 1990, a fellow missionary/educator who lived down the block from us in Taichung asked me to help him format his non-fiction book. Watching that book go from a Word docfile, then printed out via a laser printer and finally holding the first edition of that 300+ page paperback in my hands a few months later rekindled in me that desire to become a publish author.
As summarized in a previous blogpost, Betrovia, my first novel/book, was uploaded two years ago this month. Since then, the other two books of the trilogy as well as a handful of related (and unrelated) short stories are now for sale.
Even as a self-absorbed teenager, did the thought of supporting myself via writing ever cross my mind? I would have to think it did. But what about now? With three novels in paperback and ebook editions? Might I be wishing to somehow support myself and my family by becoming a full-time writer?
One of my nieces who has been writing professionally since high school announced via her Facebook page a few months ago that because of her novels selling so well, she was able to submit her resignation at her traditional job and therefore become a "stay-at-home" mother and writer. Bully for her, I say!
But might it matter what she writes? Of course it does! She is probably grossing nearly 2 grand a month selling "erotic romance" novels. That's right, my niece writes "mommy porn," fiction that, if ever converted into movies, would be rated X.
What about my stuff? The trilogy and the short fiction? They would have to be rated G for "family-friendly," "family-centered" even. (One of my readers who lives close to the MFA in Freeburg said that I needed to even "spice up the action" a bit!) And that was my overt intention as I wrote them. Growing up, I thought about the "kind" of fiction I would write and I even considered writing something "controversial." But as I've matured in my Christian faith, I've relied on the leading of the Holy Spirit in writing stuff that is hopefully is insightful, involving, interesting and, of course, in line with Scripture. I've yearned to create fiction that doesn't pander to the baser regions of the human psyche, fiction that should be "good food" for the soul (like those Chicken Soup books?) compared to "junk food."
One problem with writing and publishing "good food" fiction is that it's akin to planning and preparing healthy meals: many people prefer "junk" compared to the "healthy" stuff. And when it comes to how people spend their "disposable" income, much of it is spent on "mommy porn" instead of "wholesome" literature. Then there's those who attest to the "Supersize me" mentality as they download megabytes of erotic-lit from Amazon.com, etc.
All in all, I like writing the kind of fiction that my grandmother would love ... even if it's not selling like I wish it would! But there are days when I struggle with "Am I just wasting my time?"
Read on to see what the fine people who frequent The Writers' Cafe say about this topic!
"I know this journey I started a few years ago isn't a race and doesn't have a finish line, but it seems more and more I am struggling to shake off that feeling that I'm just wasting a lot of time. Oddly, I never feel that way when I'm actually writing; it is all the other work involved in trying to get visibility. As a writer, maybe it is time to rethink what my goals are."
"I spend far too much time worrying about my (lack of) visibility and wondering if I'm doing enough. Invariably the answer is 'no' which sends me into a whirl of time wasting searching for promotion tools/ sites and all that business. I keep coming back to advice I read on here.
'Write, write some more, then write again.' It's simple but the right advice I think. At least until your fingers are covered in callouses and hurt like hell from typing."
"Most of the time I alternate between 'I'm so terrible and awful and everything I do is bad!'"
"Maybe you could try changing your blurb and your cover art. That's what I have learned to do when a book appears to be stalling. What do you have to lose?"
"You always should consider the options. Are you wasting time? Well, what else would you do with your time? Write a symphony? Build a better mousetrap? Complete your tea cozy collection? Worse yet, take up quilting? Stop listening to your inner schoolmaster! Whatever you do - always remember that life is made for farting around. (I think it was Vonnegut who said that first.) I write because it's fun. I like to make money so that I can have more time to write. That's the sole purpose. I want to make my life comfortable enough to allow me to continue writing. It ain't no sin if it gives you a grin."
"And don't believe me..... a good number of readers out there (who can be potential customers) take this point pretty seriously. Sometimes a buck is the diff between sales and no sales. Also consider a campaign on Facebook as well as blitzing Twitter. You need to keep thumping the media to remind people the books are available (even world famous McDonalds is on the air every week pushing product). And really... drop the price a dollar and see if your sales don't improve a bit. (But that's just my opinion)."
"I gave up writing guest blogs because it was a massive waste of time. Now I spent most of my time writing with a little bit maintaining my social presence while advertising on paid sites."
"Ditto for me. I wasn't a fan of social media, and I used up too many creative juices trying to keep up with blogging/twitter/facebook. That sucked time from writing that I just couldn't make back, so I just do the marketing when I see a slow down and get back to the ol' keyboard."
"With all the amazon algo changes, you need ten novels (NOVELS) to make a living from this. I think the best course of action would be to release at least FOUR novels per year, minimum. Not just one. By Dec I will have released nine novels since January. Do I expect a fortune? No, but certainly it will be something to live on. Small chunks at a time. One novel per year is not going to do it."
"I think it’s substantially a waste of time for most people, including me. I have been traditionally published several times. Trad publishing has always been a ridiculous lottery; if you were with a major house (hence in book stores and getting basic press etc) you were in a lottery of a few hundred per genre per season, talent aside. Indie publishing means there are literally hundreds of thousands of books, many with great covers, in your lottery, talent aside. And the indie/ebook cake is still considerably smaller. So now you have to pay $$$ to Bookbub to advertise that your book is FREE and hope against hope that it’ll be one of the few that actually makes back significantly more that the ad cost. Then you wring your hands and hope that the reviews you get will help ‘build your platform’. Then you get a fresh cover and tweak your blurb. Then it’s suddenly next year and you’re still dreaming that somehow you’re gonna break through. And on it goes, fuelled by stories of Hugh and other outliers. Just as happens in trad publishing, but with the difference that at least you have an advance, and editor and some sense of achievement/purpose/possibility... It’s the Klondike over again; and we all remember who made most money there, right? Hey, I think I’ll sell pick axes/write a book about how successful ebook publishing."
"Is going to the movies a waste of time? Reading a good book? Listening to music? If you're getting some kind of enjoyment out of it, it's not a waste. If the other stuff - the marketing/promoting - is what's grinding you to a pulp, then take a break from it and just focus on getting the next book out there instead of promoting the current one. Then, after your batteries are recharged, then attack the other stuff again."
"I used to think writing a good book was what you had to do, but it's a lot more like a big strategy game, and the book is only a tiny piece."
"Indie publishing is not for the faint of heart. We are our own publishers doing all the things that publishers do (sometimes better and sometimes worse). It is not a gold mine. And despite what a lot of articles say, very rarely do they start printing money for you the moment you upload your book to KDP. Indie publishing is hard. In my experience, you should plan on two years before you start turning the sorts of profits you can live on. There are a lot of people that it is not right for. But for some, who get their kicks from entrepreneurial adventures and enjoy being their own boss, it can be a hoot. It's just like running any other small business, only rather than running a bakery or a department store, we're peddling our own books. Some people like to hire a baker to make the perfect cake, some people like to do it themselves. No right or wrong. Just what experience you want. "
"Can I make a suggestion for a likely way to break the unhappy cycle you describe?
1. Write a series in an at least semi-popular genre
2. Make sure the packaging (including price) is attractive and as genre-clear as possible
3. Publish a new title in your series every three months
4. Use LibraryThing and Goodreads giveaways to gain the required amount of reviews for step 5
5. Feature the first book of your series with BookBub
6. Build a mailing list to give each new release a ranking boost right out of the gate
If you complete all six steps and don't see a decent and consistent amount of sales by this time next year, I'd be very surprised."
"With all due respect, I think I have some better advice for breaking the unhappy cycle:
1) Write whatever the hell you feel like and don't even worry if other people will like it or not.
2) Get some friends to proofread it, make a decent cover in photoshop/gimp, put it up for sale and forget about it.
3) Without spending any time or money on ads or giveaways, go back to step 1 and repeat.
Focus on the stuff that you love--the stuff that makes you want to write. Dive in with zero expectations, so that you'll always be pleased when something good happens. Experiment to find other aspects of the business that you love. You may really enjoy making covers, or producing a well-formatted ebook. For the stuff you don't love that you can't escape doing, find a friend who does and exchange services ('I'll make your cover if you help me with my blurb'). Don't be afraid to try new things. Over time, you'll find that at least some of your books are starting to find readers. Some of those readers will become fans, and start pestering you about when your next book is going to come out. If you keep writing and publishing, you'll find your monthly royalty checks growing from two figures to three figures, and from three to four. Eventually, you'll have to start worrying about crappy stuff like taxes, accounting, business structure, etc. Or maybe you'll end up loving that stuff, who knows? But if you focus on the present and on doing the stuff that you love RIGHT NOW, while being patient about the future, you'll wake up one day and realize 'Whoa, I think I'm actually going to make it.' Is that irrepressible optimism? Perhaps. But that's more or less how it's happened for me. And if I had to go back, I wouldn't do it any other way."
"I spent the bulk of the past 3 years working on my backlist titles and getting them online. I feel sick about the writing time I lost during that time period, and yet that was important too. maybe. not sure if I should have worked to get ALL titles up, but it's done. I still feeling guilty about every second I'm spending doing anything other than writing, even brushing my teeth. I feel that I have so much catching up to do. I'm not a multi-tasker, so I have to either be in writing mode for months at a time, or promoting, designing, formatting, uploading mode. It's almost impossible for me to do both."
"Setting a goal of selling X isn't realistic, because there are not that many things you can do to make people want to buy your books. True, you can boost visibility and run promotions, tweak covers and blurbs, social media till you're blue in the face, but you can't make people buy em. That's the lottery element. If setting a goal of producing the best work you can at a reasonable clip is being discussed, that's a different matter. Improving your craft daily? Achievable. Writing stories you find moving and which you'd want to read yourself? Sure. But sales goals are really expressions of how you hope the entropic universe will react to your work, and you can't do much beyond writing great work, spending 25% of your time marketing and 75% writing, and making judicious use of your 25% marketing time. Writing is a really crummy lottery. It always has been. The odds of making real money at it have always been long. But now, the odds for a decent writer who crafts decent stories and is fairly savvy in marketing them have dramatically improved - they still aren't great, but they're better than they've ever been, judging by the sales numbers we see here every month. And miracles can happen. But basing a career on a lightning strike is a poor strategy. I think I started writing well when I discarded the notion that I'd really ever make more than beer money at it, and focused on the craft and the story, and went from 80% marketing time to 20% or so marketing time. And I got lucky - I found an audience, and they keep telling friends, and their friends tell their friends, and so on. I think that's how it works. But it all starts at crafting stories people want to buy - stories that they can't get from anyone else, told in ways that are unique to your voice. Books aren't fungible. A War & Peace is not equivalent to the latest Locke. Vomiting out dross is not a good formula, and getting caught up in all the sales talk, while interesting, has little to do with crafting stories that capture readers' imaginations and make them want more. I believe that in the end, it always comes down to the writing and the story. If you are satisfied with that, then the rest is noise. And if you think you're going to do this and make a bunch of dough, you're delusional. Some will, but the overwhelming majority won't. So I'd advise that you figure out why you write, and if it's to make money, take a hard look at the true odds of doing so. They're slim. Better than ever, but still slim. I always say write because you love it. If you want to go into the book selling business, that's a business, and expect to fail unless you do everything exactly right - because most start-up businesses fail. Even if you do everything right, most businesses still fail. That's fact. Could be timing, could be bad luck, could be the universe hates you, but they fail. The book selling business is a highly competitive one that's saturated. The odds aren't good of succeeding at it. That's the buzz kill part. Then again, every day we're seeing people making a living at this - people who weren't doing so just a few years ago. That's the optimism part. I would never tell people why they should do anything, but there are worse things to fail at than honing a craft you're passionate about and that gives you enjoyment. If you can sell a few, hey, that's gravy."
"Careful, I'll start quoting Nietzsche and Kierkegaard, and then we'll delve into the depths of Nihilism and Solipsism. The observer gives the meaning. Good luck finding objective meaning in artistical pursuits. Really, it shouldn't be us answering your question of whether you're wasting your time. You should be asking yourself? For myself, though, if I publish a book, and someone reads it an enjoys it, mission accomplished."