Wednesday, September 14, 2016

If You Write One Story, It May Be Bad. Write A Hundred, The Odds Are In Your Favor

I am a fan of Edgar Rice Burroughs. While his work is very much a product of its time, everything from Tarzan to John Carter affected my tastes as a reader and writer, in addition to sending ripples through pop culture for more than a century to come. There is also an oft-repeated quote of his that I paraphrased for the title of this post. That sentiment is something authors should keep in mind, both when it comes to creating work, and in terms of making money as a professional.

Maybe Edgar was onto something...
To change the wording without the sentiment, if you write one story, it may not catch on. If you write a hundred of them, though, then you have a much bigger chance of being seen, and followed, by an audience.

Everything You Write Is A Spin On The Wheel

We like to believe that only objectively good books succeed. That the reading public supports books that have good messages, or that tell heartfelt stories with skill and gravitas. That there is a kind of cosmic justice to who gets fat checks, and who gets goose eggs. However, anyone who's ever seen a bestseller list has likely noticed that trashy, know-nothing books that exist purely for base entertainment succeed fairly often. More often than so-called "good" books, in fact.

There's a simple reason for this. Because the market does not reward talent, skill, or quality. The market rewards whoever the mob decides should be rewarded. Maybe that's the pioneer in science fiction, who wrote an insightful book about the nature of prejudice, and the complications that lead us to fight one another. Maybe it's the erotic fan fiction that, somehow, made it to press.

The mob is a fickle beast, at best.
Complain about the system all you want, if you're going to be an author, this is the arena you have to fight in. You need to win the crowd to your side. Maybe you do that in your first fight, getting everyone on their feet clamoring for more. It's possible. Not likely, but possible.

If you want to be a contender, though, you need numbers on your side. As I said in You Need Quantity AND Quality to Make a Living as an Author, the most successful authors out there are the ones with big libraries. Part of that is because when a reader discovers you, and they like a book you wrote, they're going to want more. So the bigger your library is, the more content there is for your fans to consume, and share with their friends.

More importantly, though, every book is another bullet you can fire at the bulls-eye. Maybe your first book barely nicked the edge of the target, and you didn't get more than a few reads and reviews. Your second book was closer, because you happened to hit a genre that was big right then, and you got some promotion from fellow authors and book reviewers you've worked with over the years. It isn't until you're fifth book that you hit dead center, and suddenly everyone's wondering who this hot, "new" author is that just put out this hugely well-received book.

It's All About Luck (And The Odds)

Authors need a lot of things to succeed. They need good ideas, skill, editors to help them, beta readers to point out problems, and the dedication to keep going book after book. Authors need to be able to look at the long-term goals of their careers, and to take advantage of short-term opportunities to make sales, make friends, and broaden their networks. But what authors need most of all is luck. Stupid, blind, clueless, impossible-to-predict luck.

Like the kind you get from this ancient die.
We like to believe that we're pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps (typewriter ribbons? Does anyone still use those?), but most of our success is because we finally got the right opportunity at the right time.

For example, say you're at a convention party, and you're just chatting with someone about books. You talk about your own complete-but-unpublished novel, and your companion is immediately interested. Unbeknownst to you, they're an editor for a big-name publisher, and they want to see how well your book would fit in the catalog. Maybe you wrote a guest post for a small publisher, and a popular podcaster saw it, and wants to have you on the show to promote your work. It could even be something as simple as writing the right story, in the right genre, at the right time, making sure that you quickly rise to a position of prominence in your niche, and get noticed by even more readers than you'd ever intended.

Even professional gamblers can be dealt a shitty hand. The question is are you willing to pony up for the next round, or are you going to go home with empty pockets?

As always, thanks for stopping in to check out this week's Business of Writing post. If you'd like to help keep this blog going, then why not stop by The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page, and leave a few bread crumbs in my jar? All it takes is $1 a month to get yourself some sweet swag! Lastly, if you haven't followed me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter yet, well, there's no time like the present.


  1. "We like to believe that we're pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps (typewriter ribbons? Does anyone still use those?)"

    Me! Great article as always!

  2. Sad, but true, Neal. In the murky pantheon of American entertainment, creativity has no real place alongside profits – which explains why “Transformers” and “Batman” keep being rehashed. It also explains why I don’t go to the movies anymore. The dumbing down of America is pretty much complete, so we can now await “The End.”