Over the years I’ve been asked countless times by wannabe authors for my advice on how to get published, and more importantly, how to become a successful author.
To the former I used to offer long-winded explanations of how to write a query letter to an agent, how to prepare a manuscript, how to pitch editors, etc. Now, of course, all you have to do is steer your Internet browser over to amazon.com. The latter question is harder to answer. An answer also depends on your definition of success. I’m published, which many of you may consider as achieving success.
But I’ve been a published author for more than 25 years and I still haven’t quit my day job. In that time, though, I’ve learned a few things that will likely kill your chances of becoming a successful author, and one factor that has made both talented and awful writers wildly successful.
I believe in giving back, and I’ve played a part in helping a lot of other writers get published and reach a least some level of success. But there comes a time for brutal honesty. I’m not getting any younger, and while I still offer encouragement and help to peers and newcomers alike, my patience isn’t what it used to be. Here are five reasons you’ll never make it.
1. You have a tin ear for language. You got Cs or worse in English classes in school, and you construct sentences like they came in a box from IKEA with no instructions. I watch shows like “American Idol” on television and wonder, do the people who audition really not know how awful they sound? Don’t they record themselves and play it back before embarrassing themselves on national TV?
I can’t tell you how many times people have asked me if I’d be willing to take a look at their writing as if I have some magic elixir that will get their books sold at auction among three of the Big Five publishers for a seven-figure advance, only to learn that what they’ve written is suitable for lighting fires in woodstoves.
Read your own stuff. Not just with your eyes. Read it aloud. Compare it to your favorite authors. Read their prose aloud. Now, do you think you’re as good as Michael Connelly, James Lee Burke, Jeff Parker, Gregg Hurwitz, or Harlan Coben? How about Gillian Flynn, Lisa Unger, Megan Abbott, Allison Brennan, Alafair Burke or JT Ellison? Really?
2. You’re not ready. You’ve written a book, an entire book, so you know how much sweat and blood ends up on those pages. You know how hard it is to create a page-turning plot that suspends disbelief and hangs together until the very end. You realize that good metaphors and similes aren’t low-hanging fruit on the language tree, that you have to stretch or even climb into the highest branches to find the right one.
Maybe you’ve written two books, even three. But you’re still not ready. Or the book you’re working on isn’t ready. It needs trimming, polishing, reworking. It’s not ready for publication and you’re not ready for primetime. Professional athletes say it takes 10,000 repetitions of a move or kick or pass or shot before it’s ingrained in muscle memory. And though Malcolm Gladwell debunks the 10,000-hour rule for other endeavors, the point is that you have to practice any craft a lot before you become good at it let alone an expert or professional.
Don’t publish a book on Amazon just because you can. Make sure it’s the best work it can be. Otherwise, you’re just cluttering up space that could be devoted to my books or books of authors I’d like to read.
3. Poor research. This is one of my pet peeves. Primarily because knowledge is now literally at our fingertips. When I started writing, I had to a) visit libraries to look up information or speak to research librarians; b) interview experts in various fields to find out how things work; and c) visit locations to capture the true feel of a place. Now the Internet provides answers to virtually everything, and Google Street View lets me walk down almost any boulevard in the world.
I recently read an entry in a prestigious awards competition, and was impressed by the setting, the voice, the characters, the plot and theme of the book. But three-quarters of the way through the book the author made a mistake that even a novice should not have made. Five pages later, I found another mistake that was just as egregious. Everything this author had done to win me over was undone within five pages.
Know what you’re talking about. Do your homework. Don’t be lazy.
4. Lack of editing. The best writers are made better by good editors. Once upon a time in New York, publishers hired editors who actually edited books and turned good writers into household names like Hemingway, Steinbeck, Fitzgerald, Mailer, Bellow… Just because word processors and digital publishing have made it easy to broadcast your writing to the world doesn’t mean that the world is ready for messy, unedited drivel.
Hire a good editor to help you with plotting, pacing, and trimming the fat out of your novel. Go through two or three drafts with that editor. Then hire a good copy editor to make sure you’ve found all the typos in your manuscript along with correct spellings (especially of trademarked products), tense agreement, and a host of other nit-picky things that copy editors are extraordinarily good at finding. They’re worth far more than you’ll pay them.
5. Bad cover design. You know the old saying, “You can’t judge a book by it’s cover”? It’s a load of crap. People do it every day. Nothing will convince people of your lack of writing talent faster than an amateurish cover thrown together with no sense of design or style. Better adages for the aspiring author are: "You’ve got to look money to make money," and "Dress the part." You see those books in Barnes & Noble? Or in the airport newsstand? Or on the shelves at Walmart? Or your local indie bookstore? The ones with the covers that stop you in your tracks and scream “READ ME!”? The cover of your book should look so good.
Hire a graphic designer. Preferably one who has worked on book covers before. One who understands what your book is about and can capture its essence with smart choices of graphics, colors and title fonts.
And the one reason you might succeed? Luck. Sheer serendipity. Marketing savvy, your ability to work social media, your understanding of SEO, the number of conferences you attend, or the miles you travel to do bookstore signings are nothing compared to being in the right place at the right time.
Ask any successful author how they became successful, and beyond the usual, “hard work and perseverance” spiel, most probably have no clue, and many will freely admit it was largely due to luck.
So, unless you have a leprechaun in the family, if you’re guilty of any of the career-killers described above, please DON’T put your book up on Amazon or on Kobo or whatever. You’re just creating more noise on the Internet the rest of us have to break through to reach readers.
Michael W. Sherer is the author of Night Tide, the second novel in the Blake Sanders thriller series. The first in the Seattle-based series, Night Blind, was nominated for an ITW Thriller Award in 2013. His other books include the award-winning Emerson Ward mystery series, the stand-alone suspense novel, Island Life, and the Tess Barrett YA thriller series.
He and his family now reside in the Seattle area. Please visit him at www.michaelwsherer.com or you can follow him on Facebook at www.facebook.com/thrillerauthor and on Twitter @MysteryNovelist.
What Aymen said. :-)ReplyDelete
Also, I try to be more encouraging and helpful to aspiring authors, as it takes years of practice and perseverance to get good at the craft.
Aymen, certainly one has to put oneself in a position to take advantage of opportunity when it knocks, but luck plays a huge part in success. Ask Theresa Ragan how she sold a half-million copies of her books and she can tell you all the things she did, but can't point to any one and say "That one worked."ReplyDelete
Stephen White, NYT bestselling thriller author from Boulder, Colo., said when his first or second book was being published in paperback, the lead title in the month his book was to come out wasn't ready. In an editorial meeting, after discussing about it for quite some time with no resolution, editors went on to other subjects. As they broke for lunch, one asked what they should do about the lead title. Another said, "What about White's book?" Eager to get to lunch, they all agreed without further discussion. They did a 450,000-copy first print run.
Would White have been successful without that lucky moment? Probably. But it happened a lot sooner and with far greater impact on his career through serendipity.Yes, he positioned himself well--he'd written a good book--but his selection as a lead title, given his novice track record, was pure luck.
Ask J.A. Konrath or Barry Eisler about the lotteries of legacy publishing and indie publishing. They're a little different, but both men would agree that luck plays a large role in success in this or any other industry. The fact is that bad books published by legacy publishers and independently have also done well. I don't think anyone would mistake John Locke's books for great writing or his covers for great art, but the guy has sold a couple million copies of his books. So, the dynamics of the marketplace don't always weed out the chaff. Sometimes, it turns out, the masses like the chaff. Think "50 Shades of Gray." Godawful writing, bad covers, but the subject matter titillated millions. Go figure.
And Jodie, as gruff as this post may sound, I still encourage and help authors, too, at least those who are willing to put in the time and the effort it takes to get good. This post is really aimed at those who think that simply because they can publish a book on Kindle it should sell a million copies and make them famous. To those I say, lead (if you're good enough), follow, or get out of the way.
Excellent article Michael. Sometimes, I think the writers' courses and conferences are too soft on aspiring authors. I certainly agree about using an editor, cover design, and luck. And the readers of the world can be grateful for Harry Potter, although one wonders where JK Rowling would have been if The Casual Vacancy had been her first novel.ReplyDelete
All excellent points, Michael, if somewhat harsh.ReplyDelete
We all learn in stages. Can you remember how you felt when you first began writing? A secret part of me knew I was the Next Big Discovery.
Within a week or two of seriously writing, and joining my first writers' organization, I submitted my first few chapters to a contest, and waited for The Call. It only took another week or so for me to learn enough to know I had an awful lot to learn.
There's a time for brutal honesty, but it should come from a loving place and not one of exasperation. Encouragement, with guidance, is often much more effective in the long run. I, for one, should not have the power to discourage anyone from following their dream.
Well said, Peg! I totally agree with you! Why discourage new writers when with guidance and work they can produce some wonderful books for all of us to enjoy!Delete
I agree with Aymen, Jodie, and Peg! This was a tad harsh and not at all encouraging to young authors. I'm pretty sure they won't be seeking you out for advice and support, Michael. And who is to judge what books become successful and which ones flop? You just pointed out it takes some luck. So, why would you discourage what you consider to be rif-raf? Is it because you know it's your competition? I think we can all agree that 50 Shades of Gray is not exactly well-written, and wouldn't we all love to be her? And then there's James Patterson....ReplyDelete
Michael, you may have to turn back your Dale Carnegie certificate for your brutal honesty. Although your five factors that will set up failure are accurate, and I agree that being in the right place at the right time is sometimes--maybe even often--the key to success, I go back to Pasteur's quote: chance favors the prepared mind. In my mind, the writer who continues to learn the craft, keeps improving, and hammers at every closed door until one opens still stands the best chance of success. All that having been said, thanks for taking the time and effort to share your thoughts with us.ReplyDelete
Hi Michael. I agree with the points you made and I truly respect the fact that you offer support and encouragement to new authors.ReplyDelete
The book that an author puts out needs to be the best it can be in terms of quality of writing, editing, proofreading, cover design, and formatting. It needs investment, in time and money, and should not be rushed.
But I also agree with what others have said here. An author doesn't start out being perfect at this game. Should that stop him from publishing that first novel? I don't think so. An author who's serious about this career path will continue to learn the craft and improve as a writer. The only way to acquire that knowledge is through the experience of publishing. Like you said though, that first novel needs to be that author's very best. But I would add the caveat "very best at that point in time." That author's best should be on a different level with subsequent books.
Yes, KDP has made it easier for people to hit the publish button. Gaining visibility has become harder. I can't see that situation changing. But I believe the cream will eventually rise :) (might take many years and many books under the belt)
As for the luck factor, I believe in that as well.
While most of you think my advice is harsh, I think it's the best advice any author can get. In each case, while I present a potential career-killer, I also posit ways to improve or avoid the pitfall.ReplyDelete
Writers who truly want to make authorship a career will have already heeded most of this advice. This is aimed at those who think that the ability to publish has put stardom within reach without being willing to put in the work it takes to excel at their craft.
In individual cases, I can be as encouraging to novice writers as the best of you. But, yes, I hope this post discourages all those who don't take this business seriously. After 25 years, nine published novels and several unpublished books, I'm still not the writer I hope to be, so I agree that we publish the best books we can at the time. And certainly my most recent novel is better than my first, but I made sure my first was the best it could be and better than a lot of what I was reading.
Talent and perseverance or not, though, luck plays a huge role in who's ultimately successful.
Perhaps I should have reversed the manner in which these ideas were presented, the way this writer did:ReplyDelete
I have read books written by all of the authors above. Their willingness to share is my reward. I know how they all are working to improve their craft and they still take time to post their ideas about their craft on social media. An education available to all, "Aspiring", authors looking to learn. Thank you to all for taking the time to talk to us.ReplyDelete