I’ve traditionally published nine books with major publishers (with more forthcoming), and I’m often asked by aspiring writers, “What can I do to make sure my book is a success?”
There’s certainly a lot an author can do, especially in this Internet Age. But will it necessarily make your book a success?
That’s a whole other question.
The fact is, whether or not a book is a success is mostly beyond the author’s control. I know you’re never supposed to say things like this — if Americans agree on anything, it’s that we’re all responsible for our own destinies.
And I believe this … in everything except when it comes to book publishing.
Here are the things that happen to all new traditionally published books, and the amount of control the author of the book has over them:
(1) In-house enthusiasm. Your editor plays a role here, but it’s mostly organic. You have no control here (although being a jerk can make things much, much worse).
(2) Publisher promotional efforts. Unless you’re a big name and a lead title, it’s all about the same. Some people will get a few ads, a dedicated website, or a small tour, but I can’t believe this makes or breaks a book. You have no control here either.
(3) Reviews and awards/the reception of librarians, industry bigmouths, etc. Assuming you’ve written the best book you possibly can: yup, you have no control (although meeting these people at conferences doesn’t hurt, and — again — being a jerk really, really does).
(4) Bookstore awareness/enthusiasm. You have a little tiny bit of control here, at least with the independents or local stores, in getting them aware of your book. With the chains, you have no control whatsoever. Even the manager at the local chain has almost no control. (This is one of the many reasons we should all hate the chains! Or “chain.” There’s only one now, isn’t there?)
(5) Reader awareness/enthusiasm. This is where the author can make a difference, a big one. But this is undercut if bookstores don’t stock you. So for your control to kick in, other things that you have no control over must be in synch. These days, you’re always available as an e-book, which is no small thing. But in the end, you have some control … and you don’t.
(6) Zeitgeist issues/karmic balance/pure random f**king chance. You have less than no control. And if you try to control destiny, you’ll end up with some screwy, ironic reverse ending, like a Steinbeck novel, or an episode of Star Trek.
Every book has its audience; a book release is simply finding out exactly how big that audience really is.
This all sounds scary and ominous, I know, but it’s really not (that much). But being a published writer means accepting that, yup, a lot of it is completely out of your control. People who write those self-help books saying the opposite, that you just have to “believe” and it will come true?
Basically, they’re idiots. And understanding this can save you a lot of heartache in the long run.
So does all this mean I’m advocating eschewing traditional publishing and turning to independent e-publishing? It definitely has its advantages (as I blog about here).
But go back and look at the above list of six items. If you’re traditionally published, that means you at least have a random chance that the first four items will go your way. But if you’re self-publishing, you have no chance for those first four items whatsoever. All you have are the last two items — and the only one you control is the fifth. That’s worth remembering.
Incidentally, does all this make me sound bitter? I hope not. I’ve been advised to never blog bitter, and I’m really not bitter about any of this, not anymore.
In fact, what I’ve come to accept is that the “breaking out” of a book or any art project is basically … magic. It can’t ever be explained or controlled — and it often acts contrary to what we thought were the established laws of nature.
It either happens … or it doesn’t. When it doesn’t happen, it’s disappointing.
But when it does happen? It’s wonderful!
Check out my new website here.