Being a Better Writer: The Expectation of Instant Success

I’ll lead with a fun fact: This post was originally going to be an OP-ED last week, until I was barely into writing it and already switching into “and here’s how this comes up in writing,” at which point I realized that this was becoming a Being a Better Writer post despite what I had originally presumed about it. So it shifted over to the Topic List, and today … Well, you can clear see.

All right, so we’re diving in without a preamble: What on Earth—or whatever world you happen to be reading this on—is this all about? Most of you reading the title are probably going to guess that it’s going to be addressing the creator, and be about “tempering expectations.” And it’s not. We’ll address that briefly, but instead this post is going to be coming from a slightly different direction: that of the public.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves just yet. Let’s start at the beginning. Or rather, what the public often sees as the beginning: The publishing of the first book.

The day an author’s first book is released is a big one. So much sweat and effort culminating in finally seeing a book nearing the hands of the public. It’s a relief to finally have all the editing done, all the little things that take place between finishing a draft and releasing a title out into the world complete and the book in the hands of readers at last …

Or, at least, in the hands of a few readers. Not long after an author’s first release, reality starts to set in. While the pride and good-feelings of releasing a book stay, most new authors learn very quickly that just because a book is out there doesn’t mean that they should go put a down-payment on a new house because the avalanche of money is about to start. Because truthfully, barring luck or an interested partner/publisher willing to spend millions of dollars in advertising to make it an up-front success (and that’s by no means guaranteed), most books are going to take time to generate momentum and traction, and for many, a slow and steady pace is going to be what you get.

Basically, success (aka making of the money that let’s you continue) in writing is going to be slow and steady. A writer will release their first book, and very likely see next to nothing from it. It might take several years just to break even. No matter how good or amazing that book is, it’s going to be one in a sea of millions. An author is going to have to market it, and work on new books, getting another book out, and another, and another, in order to make any footprint among those millions.

In other words … behold the meme:

Sorry guys. I couldn’t resist. Won’t do it again.

Point is, well, what the meme said: Releasing one book, or two, or three, even four, probably isn’t going to wipe away all your worries of money or pay off in the next few weeks. Writing just … doesn’t work that way.

But here’s where we switch into part two of this post: As the meme above says, “Always has.” Even under publishers.

See, originally this post cropped up based on a small discussion I had with a friend about the odd expectations in America of “instant success.” The short and sweet of it was that my friend posted of a commentary of how “odd” it was that so many of a “particular generation” (you probably don’t need to guess, but Carlin was pretty critical of them and nailed it) seemed to expect that life was just a series of “handed on a platter” moments. “Oh, you started an entry level job a week ago and you’re not an upper manager yet?” “You’re working one part-time job and don’t have a car or a house yet?” “You’re twenty-five and haven’t aren’t taking six-week vacations in your new RV? How lazy are you?”

Etc etc. Basically, it lead to me making a comment of the strange concept of “instant success” and how so many I could recall in my age group had been pushed by this generation to be an instant success or deemed automatic failures, and worse how many from my generation internalized this mindset they were hammered with, and now have serious self-esteem issues with it as a result.

How does this apply to writing? Well, getting back to “Always has,” let me tell you a little story about a small-time author you might have heard of named Stephen King.

Right, that King. You’ve heard of him now, when he’s regarded as one of the greatest American writers and is going down in history books next to Salinger and Vonnegut, but just like them … his success was not “instant.”

He had to work for it.

Actually, let’s note something with Salinger for a moment. Catcher in the Rye, which many perusing this site have probably read, came out to acclaim, but still took years to catch on after its release, and was a culmination of over a decade of Salinger writing short stories and the like (the war in the middle of things muddles it a bit).

But back to King. You know how many times King’s first published novel, Carrie, was rejected?

King submitted it to publishers when he was in his twenties. Repeatedly, Carrie was rejected. Again and again, from over 30 publishers (and as I’ve heard it, often multiple times from the same publisher). In fact, the rejection was so brutal that after one rejection King, who had been working on more books while the years continued on, actually threw the manuscript in the garbage and declared his intent to give up. His wife dug it out, lifted him back up, and encouraged him to keep sending it out.

He did, and eventually a publisher finally relented, and Carrie went on to be one of the most recognized and top-selling horror novels of all time.

You know what’s interesting about this story? I’ve seen people get angry at it. Say that it “can’t be true” because Carrie was a success and King is King and there’s no way the book wasn’t instantly recognized as the great work it was. The fact that he wasn’t infuriates them, probably because it confirms a truth they don’t want to admit.

I’ve also seen people try to find excuses as to why it wasn’t an instant success. I’ve seen many say that “Well, that’s because the first drafts he sent out sucked. They were trash. Those rejections, they claim, made King revise it and polish it up until it was “worthy.”

Except … everything I’ve ever heard from King in interviews says that this isn’t true. There were revisions made to the ending when it finally was chosen for publication, but that draft that was being sent out over and over again—while King himself was so destitute that he couldn’t even afford a phone—was what did get it accepted for publication.

Oh, and they only gave it a few thousand copies in its initial run. Another sticking point for people that believe it was “obviously greatness” from the get-go. Not millions, just a few thousand.

All right, let me move back and get to the point. Which is twofold.

The first thing I’m aiming at here is that making it as an author takes a lot of work and success. Look up almost any big-name author with wide love or regard for their work, and they made it on hard freaking work. Night jobs at hotels writing on their breaks for over a decade while trying to get a fantasy novel accepted. Random shifts at part-time jobs while trying to finish a third book in a trilogy. If “they” say that good artists should suffer for their work, then authors have that figured out pretty well.

But the second thing, and this is going to relate to those of you that publish, is that a vast chunk of the public by and large does not see it that way. Instead, they’re going to see it in a very binary fashion: Either your success is immediate, wealthy, and well-deserved … or you’re a failure and should stop.

Do not think I overexaggerate on that last bit. As recently as last year I’ve been lambasted by someone “just trying to help” saying that I should have quit when my first book didn’t make enough for me to quit having a job. Because this individual doesn’t know (and doesn’t want to, since it conflicts with their worldview) that most authors (what is it, over 80%?) have to work a second job to make ends meet. It’s the few and lucky that reach sustainability through a lot of hard work.

See, the public’s perception of “authors” and “success” is tainted. Not only do they not understand the decades of hard work some authors spend to reach the level when the public first “notices” them, but the perspective is further damaged by the “image” that publishers push of “LOOK AT THIS NEWLY DISCOVERED INCREDIBLE THING!!!” Something that’s driven entirely by advertising, and usually comes down to one of two actual realities:

  1. Said “new author” is only “new” to people that haven’t been following their stuff for years. A publisher is just making them the focus of an aggressive marketing push.
  2. The author is new, and the publisher is using the mystique of “instant success” as an advertising gimmick. This is almost always true of a “newcomer” that has lots and lots of personal friends inside the industry who can fast-track that first work to the front of the line.

Ultimately, the way the publishing industry operates combined with how the public tend to see “success” mean that if you’re planning on writing more than one book, you’d best be prepared to defend your decision when that first book hasn’t made you a millionaire yet. I still get contacted by “well-meaning” (right …) individuals, who despite not having read a single one of my books (why would they, they obviously weren’t instant hits) are all too willing to tell me how clearly I’m a “failure” and “why don’t you try one of these things because X successful author does it.”

Are you going to publish and keep publishing? Are you American? Well, whether you go trad or indie, this is going to happen to you. It may even come from family members. The mindset of “instant success or failure” runs deep, especially in the USA. It’s going to come at you, and from unexpected sources.

So then … what can you do?

First off, you can safely ignore anyone who insists that you should give up because you weren’t an instant success. Real success comes from hard work. The people telling you that you’re not wealthy already like X author and should quit? They possess zero knowledge of the hard work it took X author to reach that point.

Sands, at this point I’m actually ahead of some successful authors I know because at the same point in their careers they had zero income to show for it from their works, while I’ve at least got rent covered each month.

And yet, I was compared to those “instant successes” within weeks of releasing my first book and told that clearly, I wasn’t going to be a success at this based entirely on the amount of money I was making off that first book.

So yes, you’re going to face this kind of reaction from people. And you can safely discard it. Just not, smile, and in your head note that this person has no idea what they’re talking about. Like most armchair experts.

But there’s that other facet of it too. Don’t be the young writer who thinks that because their first book wasn’t _______ they should just give up. Because unless that book was one of the extremely lucky that happened to hit it big because the stars were in alignment with all the planets (AKA super rare, don’t count on it). the fact of the matter is that almost any “instant” success was manufactured, not born. Everything else?

The product of years of hard work. Decades, even.

But … there is a silver lining I want to touch on.

Yes, writing is a ton of work. Marketing is a ton of work. You’re not going to be an overnight sensation barring millions of dollars, connections, luck that would be better spent trying to win a lottery, or lots of hard hours spent working, working, working.

But there is an upside. And better yet, it’s an upside that’s getting better all the time.

See, fifty years ago if you reached a stopping point and quit writing, that was it. The advances would dry up. The royalties would, unless you were someone who’d already “made it,” slow down and then dry up as books fell off of shelf space for new titles.

Nowadays? That shelf space is virtual. The shelf is endless. And with so many authors going indie rather than Trad Pub (plus trad advance and royalties shrinking to nothing), they’re all pumping their work into a tail that’s far longer than it was fifty years ago.

Translation? If I were to stop writing books today (relax, this is hypthetical), I’d still be collecting a royalty check every month for years … probably decades unless I took my books down. They’d likely shrink a bit in response to there being nothing new and a smaller presence, but they’d exist.

Which makes writing these days almost like an investment. Like putting money into a stock and hoping it grows.

But like a stock, the value only expands if the right amount of work is put it. Stocks that blow up suddenly and are “too good to be true” usually are. If you want your “book stock” to be worth anything, well …

Do the stuff we always talk about here on BaBW. Work hard, release good books, market them, and keep at it. That’s the true path to success. No matter what the “instant success or get out” crowd says (and that none of them are an instant success but that never comes up).

Good luck. Now get writing.

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