Make writing your business

How to write books that sell, for profit and pleasure

Derek Murphy

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“When I write, I feel like an armless, legless man with a crayon in his mouth.” ― Kurt Vonnegut

Writing a book is not supposed to be easy. The good news is, it gets easier. The trick is to push through with the first one, then start the next. There are tons of resources available to authors wanting to write a book, but in my experience it always comes back to the actual process of getting the words done on paper, then revising and editing and organizing, that authors get stuck on.

You need to actually put your butt in the chair for 100+ hours and write paragraphs until the whole damn thing is finished. The first draft may be exciting and fun — until you figure out that the writing isn’t so great, and the book needs a lot of fixing and tweaking. This discovery can be quite a blow. Learn to expect it: the first draft is not going to be stellar. But you still need to get it down, so that you have some material to work with.

“You have made some notes, read some writing books, and done some research. Mostly what you’ve done is talk about writing a book. An idea for a book is not a book; it is a waste of time. There is no singular thing that makes someone a writer, but there is one thing that makes someone a joke—talking about writing a book without doing any work.” ―Pat Walsh, 78 Reasons Why Your Book May Never Be Published and 14 Reasons Why It Just Might

WHAT SHOULD I WRITE ABOUT?

I’m going to tell you something that you’re not going to like: not all books will be successful. Even a well-written book will only be as successful as the number of people interested in reading it.

I don’t believe in the “follow your passion” or “do what makes you happy” philosophy. I don’t believe you were put on this earth to write the one PERFECT book. In fact, I think that’s a terrifying belief, and most likely the root of your inability to get it done.

You’re probably a smart and capable person and there’s no end to the kinds of books you could write. But there is a huge difference in what kinds of books are likely to be successful.

Recently I was chatting with a friend of mine who plans to write a fantasy trilogy after he finishes his PhD. He’s been thinking about it for decades. It’s his one true passion. The trouble with writing is, the more you care about the book, the harder writing it will be. You’ll obsess and get frustrated and not be satisfied. You’ll revise and rewrite and add and remove. You may spend years on it.

It’s much easier to learn to write well if you begin by cutting your teeth on side projects that you don’t care as much about. That way you can make it a game and not take it so seriously. You can have more fun. Perhaps every author needs to give birth to his own true love before they are ready to move on to other projects; but something successful authors learn in retrospect is to consider what kind of books are actually selling.

If you like writing, and you want to make a living with it, deciding what kind of books to write will boost your chances of success by an amazing degree. How many copies a month would you like to sell? 100? 1,000? (In other words, if you’re profiting $1 per sale, would you rather make $100 or $1000 extra dollars a month?) That’s not an insignificant difference. If you write 10 books, the choice becomes: would you rather make $10,000 a month or $100,000 a month?

You can choose what kind of book to write, and some genres have 10X as many active readers. So it makes sense to try and write a book in a popular genre, rather than writing the book that you really want to write.

“Writing is like sex. First you do it for love, then you do it for your friends, and then you do it for money.” ― Virginia Woolf

“Isn’t that selling out!?” you cry in horror. But the truth is, publishing success is a numbers game. It’s about your own productivity (how many books) versus the available readership (people who like to read those kinds of books).

X #of Books x Yreaders = $$$

You want high numbers in both fields.
This will probably rub you the wrong way, so I’ll give you some extra reasons to adopt this thinking.

1. Your first book probably won’t be very good.
2. The book you care about most is the hardest to write.

I have a novel in me that I care about passionately. It’s everything I want to say in this life. I LOVE it, but the available readers are not huge, and even if it’s awesome, it probably won’t be a huge success. But because I care about it so much, I can’t finish it.

I’ve rewritten it several times, redone chapters, made up new characters… it’s an evolving, never-ending process. I even pitched it to agents and had some call me back, but then I realized how far it was from finished and backed out. I’ve learned a lot about writing from that (so-far) failed novel.

The more you care about the result, the less you’ll be able to finish it. I’m not suggesting your book idea isn’t amazing, simply that you should improve your writing skills first on projects you care less about, that you have less emotional dependency with. Save your Big Idea for after you’ve developed your writing skills, so that you can do the one that really matters to the best of your ability.

Writing is a skill that improves with practice; if you were a carpenter, you’d be proud of your very first table, even though the quality would most likely be poor. It doesn’t mean you’re a bad carpenter or that it’s a bad table. After 100 tables you’ll start getting really good at it, and your business will finally take off.

If you’ve already finished a novel — fine, put it out there and see how it goes. But even if it’s wonderful, it’s unlikely you’ll be very successful with only one book. You may need to write several books before people notice that first book — and then it’ll finally catch on. Those rules are true about 90% of the time.

In the history of literature, most great writers wrote books that didn’t do so well before writing something with more popular appeal. Stephen King wrote Carrie to get in on a wave of possession-horror books during the “Satanic Panic” of the 1970’s. Stephanie Meyer wrote an alien romance before turning to the more popular vampire genre with Twilight. Hugh Howey was working on other projects before putting out the first segment of Wool — connecting with the wildly popular dystopian genre. Suzanne Collins wrote the Underground Chronicles before beginning the Hunger Games. Cormac McCarthy was already famous before beginning The Road to cash in on the post-apocalyptic genre. My point is that, even established authors turn to more popular genres to make a bigger impact and sell more books. Huge global successes are in a very tight group of popular genres.

The question shouldn’t be “What do you want to write?” but “Would you rather sell 100 copies or 100,000 copies?” If you are writing in a less popular genre, don’t be surprised when you have much lower sales and face more difficulty in connecting with readers and marketing your book. It’s not you; it’s only that you’ve written something without considering how many people out there will want to buy it.

“The big trinity of publishing: mystery, thrillers and romance. If you can combine all three, then it’s a winner’s trifecta and you’ll be rich beyond your dreams.” ― Dermot Davis, Brain: The Man Who Wrote the Book That Changed the World

I spent my 20’s writing books I wanted to write and marketing my surrealist oil paintings, but it was always an uphill battle. Then I realized it was ultimately selfish to create whatever I wanted and expect others to buy it. Now I believe in making things of value to other people by doing things I enjoy anyway, like writing.

You can make a lot of money writing. But you have to produce quickly, and you have to publish often, and you can’t waste years trying to finish your one perfect book. If it’s really important to you, leave it for a few years, write 10 bad books first instead (you’ll learn a lot in the process), start earning some passive income, and then return to it when you have the talent and resources available to do it really well.

Personally, I like making money. I find my life is much happier and more enjoyable when I don’t have to worry about income all the time. Most authors will never make enough money from their books to quit their jobs; which means they’ll never really have the free time to devote themselves to writing. I follow one such author on Facebook, and it’s really sad to see how, even though he’s built a big platform and had some successful books, he has trouble paying bills and keeping up with his mortgage. Sometimes he sounds a little desperate, asking for donations from his fans to keep his head above the water.

I have another friend who outsources book production to his team in the Philippines. They do the research, write the books, edit them and do the design. He has hundreds of little books on niche topics. They aren’t anything amazing, but he makes over $10,000 a month.

If you want to write for the “Art” of it and keep financial concerns completely separate, that’s your choice. You may have deep-seated beliefs about creativity that aren’t easy to amend. I’m not telling you those beliefs are wrong, just that they’re inconvenient if you hope to be successful and sell a lot of books.

Maybe you’re retired and live in a big house, and making money doesn’t matter to you… but money is also an easy measurement to measure the success of a book. No money means nobody is reading it, nobody is sharing or reviewing it, it’s not making an impact.

Why spend so much time creating something that doesn’t matter to anybody? I’m not saying you should “sell out” — but if you’re going to spend the time writing something, consider the target market and design a product that they will buy.

“I have to declare in all candor that no one interested in being published in our time can afford to be so naive as to believe that a book will make it merely because it’s good.” ― Richard Curtis, Notting Hill

“Publishing is a business and writing is an art. The two have to be crammed together despite the clearly different motivations behind them.”
― Michelle M. Pillow, Dragon Lords

THERE’S NO “I” IN AUTHOR

If you’re publishing a book, you’re already in the entertainment business. You need to write for other people if you are expecting them to like it and pay for it. Chris McCullen, author of A Detailed Guide to Self-Publishing on Amazon, has an article called “There’s no “I” in author” where he says,

“As an author, I write primarily for you, not for myself. There are many forms of writing where I can write primarily for myself. If I wish to write only for myself, I would keep a private journal or diary. If you wish to have others read your writing, then don’t write just for yourself. Putting little or no effort into editing and formatting is selfish. Making a concerted effort to improve these benefits your potential audience (some of whom may screen your Look Inside for this). Not bothering to learn the basic rules of writing and punctuation (or finding an editor who does) is selfish. Learning the rules, and then only breaking them when you have good reason for it, is something your audience desires. Writing without first researching the expectations of a genre is selfish. Learning these expectations and understanding the reasons for them helps you write a book that fits an audience.”

Unless you’re a fan of Ayn Rand (I am, incidentally), most people will shy away from accepting the label of selfishness. And although most of us also refuse to participate in genuine Buddhist/Christian selflessness — absolute charity and good works with no personal possession, authority or gain — we still collectively appreciate the idea of selflessness as a moral height towards which to aspire.

We hold these vague moral contingencies with relative absolutism… until we get into the sphere of creativity. The “Follow Your Passion” ideology demands we ignore others and create only for our true self. It mono-maniacally vetoes any indication of compromise; if you think about the end users, the consumers, the market, the money — you’ve already sold out and all your work, and your core self as well — is automatically deemed trivial, empty, shallow and worthless.

Here’s just one popular quote (out of hundreds) to illustrate what I mean:

“Better to write for yourself and have no public, than to write for the public and have no self.” ― Cyril Connolly

Artists and creators love quotes like these. They give you permission to do whatever you want and not give a crap about anyone else. Freeing yourself from inhibition or fears about what other people will think is necessary to get started; but creating things for yourself and hoping they will become successful is like buying a lottery ticket. It might work out, but it probably won’t. Why does it have to be so black and white? Why can’t I write for myself and the public (I’m a very capable person, after all).

It may seem like I’m preaching, or that this stuff “doesn’t matter.” But the truth is, the number of readers for the genre you decide to write in will have an enormous impact on your sales, so don’t take it lightly.

“It’s not actually about writing what you want as an indie. If you want success, you have to focus on your readers, and if you want faster success, you should keep satisfying that core group of readers as that will bring you organic growth through word of mouth.” ― Steena Holmes, The Memory Child

For more insights on why “Follow your Passion” is bad advice, make sure to read Cal Newport’s So Good They Can’t Ignore You and Todd Henry’s Die Empty.

***This article is an excerpt from my book, Write, Format, Publish, Promote.***

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Derek Murphy

I rent castles and chase kittens into dark alleys. PhD in in esoteric literature, creativity alchemist for authors, finish your best work @ www.creativindie.com