Disclaimer: As you may have guessed from the title, this post is humongous, so here’s the short version: Want to know how to succeed as an author? Write more, better books.
There. You can leave now. Go write a book. Get to work. But if you’ve got a few minutes to kill, proceed to the epicness below.
How to succeed as an author
It seems that as publishing continues to grow and evolve in our modern day, everyone is looking for (or selling) courses, books and services to help you shortcut your way to the top. The problem is compounded by the fact that what worked for Author A today might not work for Author B tomorrow. Let’s face it: growing your writing and authorness into a full-time or even decent part-time paycheck isn’t easy. There’s no straight, proven shot to success. Or is there?
Marketing strategies and tactics will continue to change and evolve, but as time goes on, I’m more convinced than ever that there’s really only one thing that matters. Are you ready? Lean in close and pretend you didn’t read the answer in the disclaimer.
Write more, better books.
I’ve just divided everyone reading this. Half of you are nodding your heads and the other half are probably ready to leave something in the comments about “getting discovered and increasing visibility” or something like that. I confess, I’ve hopped back and forth over that fence myself. But three months into my journey as a self-published author, I realized I was going to have to write A LOT of books (thanks to the Write. Publish. Repeat guys and Hugh Howey for this epiphany). The aforementioned sources made one thing clear: I couldn’t take another five/six years dabbling on my next manuscript if I was serious about making a living as an author.
Hugh Howey famously advocates sitting your rear in a chair and writing for ten years before you determine if this is for you or not. I see this as sort of a trial by fire. If you spend ten years writing books and making each of those books better, you can’t help but improve. And, if you spend ten years chasing this crazy dream, it’s a pretty safe bet to say you’ve got the willpower to spend the rest of your life producing. If you want to make sure you know what you’re getting into, check out this post by Howey: So you want to be a writer?
Don’t believe me? Let’s look at some numbers
What are successful authors doing: the study
Last month, Written Word Media released a study of over 19,000 authors. They wanted to know what separates the “emerging authors” making > $500/month from the “financially successful authors” making < $5000/month. I recommend checking out their full report but for our purposes here, I’m going to touch on just one of the three findings they published. What do you think it as?
That’s right. Financially successful authors write more.
One more time. FINANCIALLY SUCCESSFUL AUTHORS WRITE MORE.
How much more? Almost twice as many books on the financially successful authors’ backlist (an average of 13.75 vs. 7.4 with the emerging group) and almost twice as many hours spent per week writing (16 for emerging authors and 31 for the financially successful). Not only do they write more, but the successful authors have been doing it longer (greater than three years vs. emerging who were all less than three years). At the end of the day, production is king. Scratch that. Production is emperor. If you’ve only got an hour each day to work on your author business, I’d argue that you should squeeze out every last second of it writing. Not just any writing will do, though.
That’s not writing — that’s typing
Excuse the Truman Capote reference, but you can’t just spend years banging on a keyboard with no thought about upping the ante with your prose, your plotting, your characterization or anything else. You can’t just write MORE books you have to write more BETTER books.
Last week, I read a great post from James Clear about staying the course and being consistent in your efforts. He also touches on Malcolm Gladwell’s famous 10,00 hours rule with one important distinction.
As Clear points out in his article, hundreds of thousands of people have likely put in 10,000 hours of writing through email. What’s the difference between them and a brilliant novelist whose prose drops your jaw and transports you into his story? Clear calls it re-work: “Average employees write emails once. Elite novelists re-write chapters again and again,” he says.
Re-work in our case is rewriting and revising. Taking that pile of first draft crap and shining it until it’s a diamond. To quote Clear again: “A lot of people put in 10,000 hours. Very few people put in 10,000 hours of revision.”
A lot of authors write a couple of “meh” books. Very few authors consistently produce books year after year all the while improving their craft. More from Howey:
“You’ll revise it to perfection and delete the bad parts. The key is to have something down to work with. So learn to fail. Keep going. Ignore the sales of existing works. Ignore the bad reviews. Keep reading, writing, practicing, and daydreaming.”
This isn’t just for self-published authors, either. If you’re going the traditional route, you might have to crank out ten books before you even get one that is picked up by a publisher. Sitting around shopping that first book for years on end doesn’t really help your writing skill. Sure, that book might get a little better and you might improve a bit, but it’s nothing compared to completing the process all over again from start to finish. Kameron Hurley sums this up perfectly in a post on her site called Finish your Sh*t. Here’s an excerpt:
“I’m constantly aware of my own mortality, and I have so many, many stories left to write before I go. If you want to be the best at what you do, you have to keep learning, and keep leveling up. I’m never content to stay in one place.”
Staying in one place doesn’t just mean not writing. It can also mean writing at the same level over and over. You’ve got to push your boundaries. More BETTER books.
In a post called the Calculus of Grit (hat tip James Clear for including this reference in his article above), Venkatesh Rao talks about a theory he calls the Three Rs. They go as follows: reworking (in our case, revising), referencing, and releasing. We’ve already discussed reworking and, for the sake of time, I’m going to skip referencing and go straight into releasing. Here’s what Rao has to say about that:
“If the environment is so murky and chaotic that you cannot strategically figure out clever moves and timing, the next best thing you can do is just periodically release bits of your developing work in the form of gambles in the external world. I think there’s a justifiable leap of faith here: if your work admits significant reworking and internally-referencing, you’re probably on to something that is of value to others.
“If a post happens to say the right thing at the right time, it will go viral. If not, it won’t. All I need to do is to keep releasing. This realization incidentally, has changed my understanding of phenomena like iteration in lean startups and serial entrepreneurs who succeed on their fifth attempt. It’s mostly about averaging across risk/opportunity exposure events, in an environment that you cannot model well.”
This applies directly to writing books too. When it comes down to it, the publishing environment today is “murky and chaotic.” Realizing there are thousands of factors you have to figure into author success, producing a bigger, better catalog is the one thing you have within your control. Marketing and advertising will change and evolve but having lots of good writing available for readers is your ace in the hole if you’re shooting for full-time.
There’s a reason Hugh Howey and countless others didn’t find success until they had several books published. Keep on keeping on, writers. Keep writing more better books.