A man, lets call him Charles, self-published a book on Amazon. He contacted me because he knows I have constructed my life around writing. Like me, he doesn’t understand Snapchat and isn’t very good at Twitter. The word "blog" still turns his stomach. Presumably, because I published a book , am a bit younger than Charles, and perhaps because Charles thinks I’m hip with the young kids, he asked me how to “make it” as an author. This question took me by surprise because:
(a) I have in no way have “made it” as an author
(b) If “making it” as an author is the goal of writing, let’s all do the world a favor and keep our day jobs.
What follows is my response to Charles' question, in which I tried to elucidate the difference between “making it” as an author — something that as far as I can tell requires a lot of skill, a lot of practice, a lot of contacts, and a lot of luck — and “making it” as a writer, which to the surprise of many only requires one thing: a lot of writing.
At the end of the day , and if you want to “make it” as an author, uploading your debut novel to Amazon in hopes of recognition is like recording a song on Garage Band, putting it on YouTube, and hoping it will go viral. (Of course, when I say "debut novel" I assume you’ve been through so many edits and drafts that if you look at it again you’ll scream like a banshee and punch the wall). As a personal accomplishment, I think it’s awesome you’ve got something “out there.” You did it, by god(s). You should be proud. Think about the ratio of people who say they’re working on a book to those who actually accomplish it--it's small.
So now that you’ve joined the millions (is it billions yet?) of self-published authors on Amazon, it’s time to sit back, relax, and … keep writing. Because the only reason you should believe in success is because of your deeply felt conviction that you've written a good novel.
But here’s the thing about First Novels: I’m not saying they're usually bad, but in fact I am because they are. This is what happens with first novels ... just like with first kisses, first snowboard rides, and first attempts at traditional carbonara. But there are exceptions, and yours might be one of them. But here's the fundamental question to ask yourself: do you go on Amazon KDP and buy self-published works from first time authors who don’t use social media? Why not?
We aren’t literary geniuses and never will be, and we don’t deserve “to be read” simply because. I imagine you know this, but it always surprises me how many people do not: there is a major difference between writing a book and writing a book that is publishable.
In this day and age, and in order to “make it” as an author, my best estimates are either (1) you write an incredible novel, secure a small press or literary agent who loves it and subsequently finds a major publisher who also likes it or (2) you devote yourself to becoming your own brand, which includes an obscene amount of self-aggrandisement, witty writings for high-profile publications, a constant flow of interesting posts on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter (throw in SnapChat for good measure?), and the curation of a website that will most likely be powered by SquareSpace, where you can showcase your witty, entertaining blog posts to indubitable aplomb. If you follow Option #2, after a few years of perfecting the Instagram story and evolving hashtag culture, a literary agent might just contact you and ask about that book you’ve had laying around.
You said you can’t be bothered to do the social media thing, and for the most part I agree with you. I tweet occasionally and am using my former publisher’s platform again, but only as a place to gauge organic interest and upload a few chapters lest I feel like I’ve accomplished nothing. After almost eight years living in Paris and working part-time jobs so that I have sufficient time to write, I can confirm that I’m doomed to be a novelist. Finishing my latest manuscript has taken entirely too much energy and focus to worry about Tweeting to the right people, inventing hashtags, or gaining followers. I am a writer, which means I spend a lot of my time doubting myself, and I can't stand the idea of telling other people to like me, let alone love me. Option Number 2 — branding myself— just isn’t in the cards, which leaves me with the somewhat more reasonable challenge, I think, of writing a worthy novel.
So you say I've "made it," and I have, in some sense. I was incredibly fortunate to be the first published novelist at a crowd-driver publisher in San Francisco who said, “We’ve never done a novel before, but if you raise $10,000 in pre-orders in 3 months, let's talk. Inkshares, Charles, let me tell you: completing that campaign without any “online presence” was a doozy (I didn't even have Twitter when I started), but let me tell you: it wasn’t impossible. I contacted every person I had ever made a connection with in my life, and also met more than a few kind souls at public bus stops and local bars. But let's be real: I am proud of , sure, but I have a feeling the reason I’ve sold over 1,200 copies has less to do with my heretofore undiscovered literary genius and more to do with the fact that I benefitted from a marketing campaign that was intended to get Inkshares off the ground (it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for a completely unknown author to get a book tour and attend a major bookseller conference). Slim and The Beast
This is why for me, as far as my next step goes in “making it” as an author, I know it comes down to writing something remarkable. I am confident in my latest manuscript because if I don't believe in it, who will? But I know the odds are against me. And that's alright. I need to find a literary agent or a small press that believes in my work, which is why I’ve spent the past three years editing ferociously (I cut a total of 61,057 words from the first to the fourth draft, and that's not including the thousands of words I deleted before I could call it a "draft").
Do you believe in your work, or do you believe other people should believe in it? Those are two very different questions, and one of them is the wrong one.
It took me many, many years of serious, disciplined writing to actually write something I was proud of, and that’s really as good as it gets for me. There’s no guarantee I'll make a penny from the latest manuscript, ever, or that people will even like it. But as the ancient Bhagavad-Gita tells us, we don’t have a right to the fruits of our labor, only to the labor itself. I hate my first novel and wish I could change much about my second. My latest novel is finally at a point where I am at least willing to share it, but there are still moments when I feel like curling up into a ball and weeping because I don’t really know if I’ve used a semi-colon correctly.
So take a long, hard, honest look at your work. Ask yourself the question: “Is this is the best possible version of the book that I can muster?” If so, pat yourself on the back and take the plunge. Write a few query letters, see if anyone bites, and start writing the next novel. Be sure to share the work with others, listen to critical feedback (and digest it), get rejected (and understand the difference between someone rejecting your book and you as a person). R evise, rethink, get rejected again, and continue onwards. If you’re not writing every day, or at least thinking about writing every day, the math doesn’t add up: Malcolm Gladwell’s “10,000 Hours” idea may or may not be bullshit, but unless you’ve made writing an integral part of your lifestyle, it's fair to say you’re not well positioned to “make it" as an author.
Which brings us to my conclusion after eight years of serious writing: the only viable goal is to keep on keeping on. If writing hasn’t become an essential, life-giving, soul-soothing part of your life, don’t do it. Writing books is way too frustrating, time-consuming, financially ludicrous, and quite frankly depressing to be worth so much time wrapped up in imaginary worlds where our characters are our closest confidants, only to raise our head, realize no one cares, and still equate “success” with twinkling stars on Goodreads and a horde of followers. Don’t get me wrong: recognition is nice and validation is important. But I had that recognition for about three months in 2015, and I’m writing you an email from the same menial job that I had when I "made it," once again wondering how I’ll get a manuscript off the ground.
At the end of the day, public recognition and book sales can’t be the measure of success because both are too ephemeral and subjective to be able to count on. Authors that “make it” are invariably people who will trudge up the mountain regardless; and once they reached the peak they weren't surprised that there will always be taller mountains. Ta-Nehisi Coates gives some of the best writing advice I’ve ever come across: keep writing, if not every day, then every other day … but do it every day, dammit. You’re a writer. To fail as an author is human. To succeed as a writer is divine.