I always wanted to be a writer. Not a journalist, not a laureate, just a guy who wrote the types of stories that people enjoyed reading. I remember, as a child, the feeling of awe I experienced looking at all those mysterious symbols on the pages of the book my mother from. I remember sitting in front of ab old Royal typewriter, staring at those green keys, pressing them, wishing I could spell more than the few words I had mastered. And I remember that red wide-ruled notebook where I penned my first stories. On those pages, I discovered how hard the words fought me. How they so often eluded my desire to turn the ideas in my head into words on the page.
I believed then that the writing was the hardest part of the journey until…
…I discovered an institution called The Publishing Industry.
I learned that being a writer was something anyone could be but being an author was something one had to apply for like any job. Except seldom do applicant receives an interview. Most efforts rebutted with a machined letter whose content amounted to little more than “thanks but no thanks” — if one was so fortunate as even to receive that.
The chance to interview for the position of author required more than just a story to sell. You had to be first and foremost a good query writer. A master of short letters that contained minimum detail and maximum effect. It had to use just the right words. Words that might act as a force field against the circular file. Sentences with the power of a tractor beam and capable of drawing the manuscript from the “unsolicited” pile. The words had to cast a magical spell that worked against the dark arts of those mysterious beings called Agents. And mostly…
…You needed a day job.
Then, several years ago, the walls of Mordor were breached, and the gates were laid open to the world of publishing. Self-publishing had returned from its 19th-century slumber. The opportunity to be an author was just a short journey from desk to the world.
…Blind to the ambitions of others, unaware that I rode upon a sea of hundreds of thousands of fellow self-published authors, naive to the trials beyond the horizon, I packed my words into my first book and sailed to the shores of publication.
I arrived at a busy port.
The enchanted land of publishing opportunities rumbled and shook in chaos. A street carnival filled with the commotion of the masses selling their goods and services. I stood amongst it all with the novel in hand. The once steady weight of those 300 pages felt inconsequential. Hope and pride replaced with uncertainty.
There, before those crowded streets, everyone had a novel. Many had more. Some carried stacks of them. And they all seemed better informed as if the chaos made perfect sense as if there were some underlying order and reason I did not recognize. They appeared to know people that I should know. They looked to be going somewhere important. The seemed to do critical things that I did not understand.
So I looked for the signs to follow, the directions that might guide my journey, the rules that would explain the mess, and found…
…There were too many to count and that none diminished the chaos and all added to it.
The signs were without order. Signs that read: “This Way to Success” pointed in several directions. Long lists of things to do and things not to do filled the walls. As I read them, I discovered many of these list items contradicted one another. The menus overflowed with training, products, and services I should buy. I was uncertain if I had the money to buy all or any of them. I had no idea which I should buy first.
I decided to ask the strangers who looked friendliest for assistance.
“Excuse me. Where should I place my dystopian novel?” I asked one friendly looking chap.
“Well, you can put it in that pile,” he said and pointed towards a mountain of books.
“Wait,” a woman instructed. “What kind of dystopian novel?”
“Kind?” I asked.
“Yes. You know sci-fi, Urban Fantasy, Young Adult? Oh please don’t tell me it has anything to do with zombies. That was so last year.”
“Oh yeah. There was a big run on the zombie-thing after World War Z. No readers left for that stuff,” She told me.
“Did they all become infected?” I asked.
“They’ve moved on.” The man stated
“No idea. Doesn’t matter—self-publishing is all garbage anyway,” the man stated.
“Then, umm, why are you here?”
“Because he’s a troll. Don’t listen to him,” the women warned and took my arm. “Look all you need to do is get some reviews. Four stars are best. Five sounds like you’re writing them yourself.”
“So it’s better to have a good book than a great book?”
“Oh no you need a great book, but nobody believes a 5-star is a great book. 4-stars are much more realistic.”
“Okay, so how do I get reviews?”
“Goodreads” “ A blog,” they said at the same time.
“What’s a blog?”
“Oh you are new,” the woman said and laughed. “It’s like an on-line journal. You write stuff and get followers.”
“I write stories on my blog?”
“Oh hell no. No one wants to read that. You have to write stuff people want to read.” The man piped in.
I looked down at my novel and whispered, “I thought I had.”
“It’s easy.” The woman continued. “Just write interesting stuff and then people will be interested in reading your book.”
“And then they’ll write reviews?”
“No. Probably not. But that is why you should also go on Goodreads.”
“So at Goodreads, I can ask people to read and review my work?”
“Sure if you want to be shunned.” The man said. “The first rule of Self-publishing is: Never talk about your book.”
“So why am I going there again?”
“It’s what authors do; that’s why.” The woman said and looked at me the way one might address a naive child.
“I thought authors wrote stories.”
“They do, but that’s the easy part. If you want to just write stories, then go home and write them. If you want to sell them, you come here and learn how to be a marketing professional.” The man told me.
“But don’t marketing professionals promote products.”
“But I can’t promote my book?”
“No. You have to promote you. Forget the book. Look everyone writes books. Write all you want. In fact, ten bad ones are better than one good one. Just remember you have to promote You.”
“He’s right.” The woman added. “The secret is to meet new people. Make connections. Gain insights.”
I looked around. “Like those folks over there?” I asked and pointed to a group of people who had formed a circle around another.
“Oh no, you don’t want any of that.” She said and showed me a nervous smile.
“Why? They look like they are offering her advice.”
“Actually they are eviscerating her. They didn’t like her book.” The man said.
“Was it a bad story?”
“Not really but she had three typos in it.” He explained as if such a thing was on-par with homicide.
“And stay away from those guys,” the woman said. She pointed to a group of well-dressed professional individuals. They looked like the type of people familiar to me from my day job.
“Vanity Press and Marketing Services, that’s why.”
“Wouldn’t those services be helpful?”
“No. They cost too much money. Besides, if you want real credibility you have to get reviews. Winning a contest would be helpful. Put your money into that kind of stuff.” The man stated.
“Where do I find a contest?”
“Oh, they’re all over the place. Can’t swing a dead cat without hitting one.”
“How do you enter?”
“Well, you need to write a short synopsis of your book. Sell them on why it's great, why people would be interested. You have to pay to enter most, but that’s the business.”
“So…I have to write a query letter… like to an agent.”
“For some of them, yeah.”
“And that will help?”
“No, but it can’t hurt.”
“Anything else I should do?”
“Sure. Plenty. But it’s best if you just pick up the manual on secrets to successful self-publishing.”
“Lots of them,” the woman said with pride. ”But hey don’t look so forlorn. You just need to have a good bag of tricks.”
“Tricks?” I felt like Bones from Star Trek. I wanted to argue, “Damn it, Jim, I’m a writer, not a magician.”
Instead, I said, “Maybe I can just get the short list of things to do.”
“Here take mine.” She offered.
get a blog, get a website, write interesting posts, enter contests, get reviews, aim for 4 star reviews, talk to people but not about your book, don’t argue with readers, watch out for trolls, make certain you have a good cover, hire an editor, hire a book designer, join groups, give away books, pick the correct pricing strategy, don’t talk about your book, create a newsletter, pay for reviews but don’t tell anyone, get a beta-reader, hire a developmental editor, write several books, do book signings, don’t waste your time doing book signings, use the correct meta tags, write a great blurb, get on Facebook, don’t waste your time on Facebook, get on Twitter, use Instagram, buy an Ad, don’t buy Ads they don’t work, try everything, it's all based on hard work, it’s all about getting lucky.
It was exhausting. It still is.
But I want to be an author.
And now and then I get a nice review. I don’t sweat the five-stars. I don’t think they have helped or hurt my sales. And I’ve found that writing a blog is perhaps more fun than writing novels. And I won a couple of contests. They didn’t earn me any landslides in sales, but the affirmation was nice.
It turned out the writing journey wasn’t what I thought it would be. More difficult in ways I never imagined. More fun than I ever thought it might be too. On this journey, I’ve learned a lot. I’m still learning. I’ve also met some incredible people, and I discovered that other authors aren’t the competition — the right ones are kindred spirits. I found there are people who support authors through editing, book covers, and blogging and that they actually care. I discovered that amongst the petty, troll-like creatures there are far more kind-hearted, friendly, and helpful readers and authors. I discovered that writing may be a solitary thing, but that there is a large supportive community just beyond the keyboard.
For a writer, the journey doesn’t end at the shores of publication. That is the point where it begins. The reality of the business is far more bizarre than any fiction I could create…
…But that’s what keeps me interested.
I like this strange land I travel in. I like the partners who travel it with me. But most importantly, I discovered that somewhere along the road it stopped being about the destination and became an interesting journey of experience. And I am far better and far wiser for it.