The five realities of writing, for writers

I’ve been kicking around in the writing and publishing industry for over thirty years. And while the whole thing has been turned on its head, of late, with the e-book revolution, that hasn’t really changed the fundamentals.

Yes, this IS my typewriter. What's it doing on the Wellington Writers Walk? Er - introductions...
Yes, this IS my typewriter. What’s it doing on the Wellington Writers Walk? Er – introductions…

Which are…

  1. Commercial publishing is cut-throat, especially so when it’s churning over or in downturn. That’s why a lot of ‘mid-selling’ authors – the ones who don’t always hit the best-seller lists, but who keep a publisher’s lists going – have been ditched of late by the big houses.
  2. No matter how experienced you are as a writer, how well known, how many lunches you’ve been taken out to by your publisher, you’re still only as good the sales of your last book.
  3. Good books may not sell. Bad books may sell well. It’s a lottery. Sometimes it can be down to something as simple as the book not being distributed in time for release-week promotions (it’s happened to me more than once). Sometimes it can be because of a couple of bad initial reviews (it’s happened to me – a couple of leading military historians ganged up to destroy one of my books and managed to noticeably damage its sales).
  4. The e-book revolution hasn’t changed things – it’s still a lottery. A much harder one because now anybody can publish, so anybody (well, everybody…) does. The old barrier was the agent-publisher system, which filtered out most of the sub-standard stuff. Now the barrier is discovery – the good stuff gets lost in the sub-standard ‘noise’. One of the side effects, too, is that books turn over far faster. A print title that might have been sold and back-listed for two or three years now disappears in a year. Or less.
  5. The way to make a small fortune from writing is to start with a large one.

I don’t think things are going to change much either. The e-book revolution and its sibling, on-demand printing, has changed the way all of us publish. Even for commercial publishers, books that wouldn’t have been economic in the old days have become so. But that problem of being ‘heard’ amidst the ‘noise’ is a tough one. That’s because the general scale of the market hasn’t changed. It’s the same book-buying audience as always. And, like it or not, the scale of the book-buying market is TINY. Don’t be fooled by best-seller lists or sales figures or the multi-millions that household-name authors rake in.

It’s still a tiny market by comparison with the number of people who buy things (cars, clothes, food, washing machines…). That’s the reality of it folks. My answer? Well, writing might be a challenge in all sorts of ways, not least financial – but never forget to have fun with it.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2016


8 thoughts on “The five realities of writing, for writers

  1. You’ve described the situation well. From my relatively limited experience it seems the best combination for the indie author is decent writing + brilliant marketing + luck. Genre fiction seems to lend itself better to this than literary fiction, which depends on the filtering you mentioned, along with the awards and prizes that are part of traditional publishing.

    1. I agree. I suspect luck is the largest factor! Marketing certainly makes a difference but I think only after the momentum has built – on my own experience it’s possible to market the stuffing out of a book and have it still tank, yet other books of mine have had nary a mention in the media and taken off anyway – I had one, I recall, that shifted over 10,000 in pre-sales to the book trade, here in New Zealand, before the public even knew of it. That was in 2004. It’s still in print, in second edition, which is still selling despite having had zero publicity.

      That calculation is harder today with the self-pub/Amazon world. I’m just reading “The Martian”, months after everybody else of course – and it’s totally brilliant. The guy self-pubbed and it took off from there, apparently. I’m prepared to bet that there are plenty of other novels out there that are as good – but which have been swamped without trace in the 4,000,000-plus back catalogue of Amazon Kindle. That elusive luck factor again.

      1. It’s magic! 🙂 When a phenomenon is not thoroughly understood, there’s always room for irrational hope (and its frequent sad consequence — disappointment). I read The Martian a few months ago and also found it a great read. No idea how much promotion the author did while it was just another self-pubbed book.

  2. I agree, mostly, with Audrey… but as for genre fiction – depends which genre I think. Marketing is a huge challenge for most introverted writers, but one it seems must be learned.
    Talking about which – I need to go find out what change ‘broke’ my sign-up list.
    Keep writing Matthew, I enjoy your posts, although I tend to read them in batches. 🙂

    1. Thanks. Yes, I think genres come and go – and the problem for writers is that by the time one becomes obviously popular, it’s too late to exploit the surge by writing something. I agree, marketing is an incredible challenge for introverts, which is awkward because to be an introvert is part of a writers’ job description. Oh to be an extrovert! (I did know a publisher/editor who was, and who also led the charge to market his publisher’s books with an energetic joy that got more intense the more people he saw – however, every time I met him I ended up drained flat in about 10 minutes…)

  3. I have never claimed to be a professional writer. I try to do my best and admittedly that not always produces the result I was looking for. I think a lot of people who read my stuff know this and I get a lot of support and encouragement (thank you by the way fro your support, Matthew). The biggest problem I have had to deal with is there are a lot of “keyboard geniuses” out there who aggressively attack what I have written for the sake of it. Don’t get me wrong; I am not offended by criticism or corrections. Today I was contacted by someone regarding an error I made in a previous post and very politely provided pointed me in the right direction. I need that in order to make sure my work is as accurate as possible. What gets me are the trolls who attack my work just for the sake of it or because they don’t like the subject matter. It really knocks me down and Facebook was the biggest source of this. I used to read comments in groups where my posts have been shared and saw what some people were saying which was totally unfair. Now I only read comments written by people who directly follow my site since if someone takes the time to do so then I believe they deserve their say in the content.

    Take care my friend

    All the best

    – Tony

    1. Keep up the good work and don’t let the trolls get you down! You have a great blog and you’re doing a great job with it! There’s a world of difference between people who constructively receive something and helpfully point out issues that will improve it – and those who use what they regard as an ‘error’ to blanket-deny the worth of the author. On my experience I’ve found military history, and matters military in general, particularly prone to the latter here in New Zealand; I guess it’s likely to be similar in the UK, though as I understand it not so intense. Just the other day I was having lunch with a friend of mine who’s recently retired back to NZ after a stint as a senior lecturer at Sandhurst, lamenting the total lack of collegiality here in New Zealand – and missing his regular morning-tea chats with like-minded military historians back at the RMC.

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