I get one or two emails or private messages a month on average asking some variation of this question, so I thought I might as well write a blog post about it. Then I can reply to those emails with a simple link. Firstly, if you’re one of those people who have written to me, especially recently, please believe this is not a passive-aggressive dig at you. This is the result of many examples over a long time. And it mystifies me that I get them. I mean, who the hell am I? I can only assume other writers do as well. What am I crapping on about? Well, the emails (and DMs, in-person queries, etc.) usually go something like this:
I’ve written these stories/books/what-have-you and they just don’t sell. No one is noticing my work. The secrets of publishing success are just out of reach. Please tell me what I need to do or who I need to talk to.
Or some variation of those themes.
You know, once I even saw someone bail up another writer during a room party at a con and say, “Just tell me! What do you know that people won’t tell me?”
I mean, that’s some serious conspiracy-driven loopiness and 99.9% pf people are not like that. (Also, do NOT do that, ever.) Most people are genuinely frustrated trying to break into this thankless industry, and I get that. Oh man, how I get that. I absolutely sympathise with the frustration. It’s easy to think there’s something you’re doing wrong, or some fundamental thing you’re not doing. You’re working your arse off in every other way, honing your craft, sending submissions, querying agents, self-publishing books with great editing and professional covers, but you’re not soaring on the wings of publishing success. It’s easy to think the problem lies in some secret formula people are keeping from you.
There is no secret. No one is withholding that vital key.
The simple fact is brutal, but true. Most don’t make it. The ones who do did one thing and one thing only: they didn’t quit.
It’s frustrating as hell when you see a new writer burst onto the scene with their first book or first stories and just go stratospheric. Suddenly everyone is talking about them, you see their book everywhere, they’re hitting the Best Of The Year lists and you’re sat there staring at your screen thinking, What the fuck, man?
We’ve all been there. Believe me when I say, those people are the serious outliers. And good for them! Amazing to get that lightning strike of luck right out of the gate. It almost never happens. You notice it on the rare occasion when it does.
For 99% of us, this gig is a marathon, not a sprint. It’s Sisyphus pushing his rock up the mountain, except your rock is a book and the mountain is what separates you from readers. For most people who are seeing great success, who frequently crop up on lists, who seem to be in every magazine or anthology, whose books always sell, well they’ve been busting their hump at this gig for years. They’ve been bloody-mindedly, relentlessly pushing their rock, refusing to quit.
Success in publishing is built from three things: talent, hard work, and luck. Anyone who denies any of those is deluded or lying to you. And you want to know the shittiest part of it? The most important one is luck. And that’s the only one you don’t control. The only one you can’t control. But you can work to improve your talent. The longer you do this, the better you’ll get. You can work hard. And the longer you do it, the smarter you’ll work too. And the beauty of those two things is this: the harder you work, the luckier you’ll get.
And now for another downer: luck is variable and often doesn’t last. But that’s okay. Because every little bit of luck helps. You know the parable of the crow and the water? It goes like this. The crow was thirsty as fuck (that’s you, thirsty for publishing success) and he found a glass with water in the bottom (that’s publishing). But the crow couldn’t reach the water. The crow, however, was smart. He put his birdy back into some hard work. He found a stone and dropped it into the glass. Then another, and another and another (that’s you working and not quitting). Slowly, as the stones filled the glass, the water level began to rise. Eventually the crow got a drink. That’s what publishing is like for most of us. And sometimes, the fucking glass cracks and all the water pisses out, and you have to go and find a new glass, and start over with the stones. Every once in a while, the glass randomly and inexplicably overflows and you nearly drown in it. You have no control over those things. All you control is finding the glasses and putting the rocks in.
I’ll move away from the analogy now for fear of over-stretching it!
Assuming you don’t get one of those early lightning strikes that lasts, you’ll be plugging away repeatedly and relentlessly, and you will, over time (oh, such a long time), start to generate a reputation, and a following. You’ll learn what resonates and what doesn’t. Every tiny success from one small bolt of luck could lead to another. You get a story in one place and an editor sees it and might invite to submit to another place. You get a book review in one place and it might lead a bunch of new readers to buy your book, and maybe even your back catalogue. Or those things might not happen and you have to keep going, feeling like nothing works, feeling like some secret is eluding you. It’s not. This is a bullshit industry and you need the hide of a rhino and the bull-headedness of a… fucking bull, I guess. And when it comes to the work, diversify. Short stories, novels, novellas, non-fiction. Spread your wings, get your work out there in a variety of ways to help build your skill and your reputation.
Get good, work hard, get lucky. That’s how it works. You have to be good and working hard in order to recognise the luck when it comes, and in order to grab hold of that luck and milk it for all it’s worth. You develop skills at these things the longer you’re at it. It sounds fucking awful, huh? It is. But it’s not all awful. If you’re still reading, that’s good. That means you’re not a quitter. So here’s a few tips on ways you can try to improve your luck and thereby find some success:
Improve your skill – we never stop learning.
Figure out what you like to write and zoom in on that. Some people try to write to market, and some can do that, but for most of us it’s superficial and lacks heart. People want to read your soul laid bare on the page. If you have passion for what you’re writing, people will respond to that authenticity.
I hate the concept of “author branding” but there is some merit to it. People need to know what to expect from you. That doesn’t mean you’re constrained to one genre or style, but find your voice and work with it. It will develop naturally over time, so let that happen. I’d like to think that by now people have an idea of what they’ll get from an Alan Baxter book. I try to both give them that and surprise them with each new release. Not easy, but nothing worthwhile is. That’s part of the work.
Learn the landscape. That means being across the publishers and publications out there. Understand who’s doing what and pay attention to any opportunities. Target your work well. And know the landscape changes frequently. And like I said above, work with novel and short story length stuff. It’ll improve your skills, improve your reach, and potentially improve your income in the short term too.
HELP OTHER PEOPLE! For all the truth of the fact that there are no secrets, people do help each other. If I see an opportunity, I’ll share it. If I see something that seems to suit particular people, I’ll let them know. If I see work being released by people whose work I’ve enjoyed in the past, I’ll share it. Not for any perceived reward but simply because a rising tide lifts all boats. And if you support and promote other people, they’ll get to know you and most likely support and promote you too. That’s you and them building your careers – we’re all in this together. We are allies, not competitors.
Go to cons, book launches, and other bookish events. In these Covid-times, this one is tricky. And for some people, the expense, the travel, the social anxieties, are all too real. But it does pay off. When you immerse yourself in the active culture of something you want to be a part of, you become a part of it. You hear about opportunities you might miss otherwise. You discover authors whose work resonates with you and you learn from it and them. People meet you and discover that you exist, and they hopefully also discover that you’re not a complete dickhead. This works best in person, but it’s true online as well. Some of the people I know best and respect most I’ve never actually met in meatspace.
Success in this business comes from people knowing about your work. No-one can read a book they don’t know exists. Most people won’t know you and your book exist, especially if all you do is yell about it from your small corner of the internet. Get involved with other people’s stuff, and then other people learn about you. Networking is key, online or in-person, and networking doesn’t mean wandering around asking what people can do for you. It means looking around to see what you can do for other people, even if that just means chatting like not a psychopath. Eventually it all comes around.
When you start to see some success, keep at it. And keep helping others. Success will rise and fall like a stormy sea. Things you never thought would take off go ballistic while the thing you love, the best thing you ever wrote, sinks without a trace. It might rise again later, or it might not. Keep going. The best marketing for your book is to write another book. The best salve for rejection is to submit again. Be part of the industry in whatever way you’re able, keep producing your best stuff, and keep working hard. The more stuff you put out there, the more chance you have of people discovering your work. When it comes right down to it, the only way to build a career is to have other people reading and talking about your stuff. And that doesn’t mean churning out as much egregious shit as you can. It means writing your best work and getting it out there in the best way you can, then rinse and repeat. Again and again and again.
Just by the way, this is all only my opinion on the subject, of course. I’ve talked with lots of people and most share this view, but I certainly can’t speak for all. I mean, the idea that I’m even successful is something else! I recognise that I’m in a position loads of people would kill for, but I don’t sell thousands of every release. I wish I did. I don’t make a full-time living at this. I’m constantly trying to increase my readership and I’m always on the hunt for that break-out book. But everything I’ve discussed above has got me this far, and I trust it’ll keep me going on a generally upwards trajectory. Out of all the stuff I’ve talked about, writing the best stuff I can and putting it out there is the most important part.
Stay productive, stay kind, and DO. NOT. QUIT.