Friday, January 17, 2014

The Secret to my Success


Every so often I get an email from someone, generally a newish writer, asking if I would share some of the secrets on how I got to be where I am right now.

It’s only fair to point out that “where I am right now” is one of the leading writers in a very small sub-genre of romance. It’s not like I’ve hit the NYT Bestseller list, although I guess I probably earn as much or more as some NYT Bestsellers.

How much did I earn last year? It looks like I grossed -- grossed -- around $300Kish. Let me repeat again, GROSSED. That’s not how much I took home at the end of the year -- success doesn’t come cheap and I have invested heavily in my so-called success. One example: over 20K on producing audio books this year (and because I'm self-employed, I  pay 40% in taxes).

How did I do it?

 

Well, to begin with, some of my success is unique to me. I have been writing professionally over twenty years and it shows. It better show after twenty years! My first professional publication credit was at age 16.  Over the years I have developed what is called “a voice.” Fortunately enough readers enjoy reading that voice.

As you can imagine, publishing has changed a lot since I began way back when. In fact, there are times I feel that everything I once knew for a certainty in publishing is now…wrong. Or at least outdated.

For example: How often to publish. In the old days it was a series book every couple of years. Then every year. I remember having a minor panic attack when -- nearly a decade ago -- a bookseller told me I needed a new series book out every nine months. And now? Now series books are launched anywhere from every three to six months.

I’ll be honest. I struggle with that.

 

But anyway, the secret of my success.

Part of my success is I landed in a relatively small but promising sub-genre before the glut. I got here before the rush. That’s simply timing. I didn’t plan that. I was just writing what I loved to write. I arrived early and I arrived with a small, already established readership. Not a fan fiction-sized readership, I admit, but a loyal readership. Also, being an outsider helped. I was a novelty. I came from gay fiction and mainstream publishing. I had the advantage of being something new.

Again, this is all luck. I didn’t plan it.

Two things I did consciously do. I worked hard to build a quality backlist. And I interacted constantly and consistently with readers. I treated readers like I would want to be treated if I was brave enough to contact my favorite writers.

That’s basically how I got where I am. Luck and hard work. The luck was in the timing. The hard work was in the consistent and sustained effort to build a quality backlist and lasting relationships with readers.

I’m not sure if that’s helpful to new writers or not because luck can’t be managed and the hard work I put in seven years ago is irrelevant given current publishing conditions. Every author I know is now interacting feverishly with readers and breaking her or his back to push out a book every two months. Still, these two things remain the cornerstone of any successful modern writing career.

 

What advice would I give a new and aspiring writer in this genre?

 

1 - Write the best possible book you have in you. Publish every three months. In the short term, quantity counts. In the long term, quality. If you want your writing career to last more than a decade, take the time to write quality stories. Write them as fast as you can without sacrificing quality. You need about four “big” releases a year. More than that and you’re probably cutting corners somewhere. (I should probably qualify that a "big" release doesn't refer to word count. It refers to how much promo effort you're going to give to it.)

 

2 - Take advantage of every promotional opportunity that comes your way (and stop whining about how you’re a writer not a marketer -- no flipping kidding! -- NONE of us enjoy the promotion part of it, so get over yourself and act like a grown-up professional). No matter how small, no matter how insignificant, take every promo op that comes your way. And look for additional opportunities. Hunt them down. When you start out, you have to work your butt off to get known.

 

3 - Be realistic.  This sounds silly, but having realistic expectations will save wear and tear on your nerves and keep your creativity and productivity high. Nothing kills creativity like depression. And by “realistic” I mean PATIENT. I mean INFORMED. Know thy industry. I cannot help noticing a pattern whereby a relatively newish writer puts out a book that gets nice, enthusiastic reviews, hits the Amazon bestseller list and believes she’s arrived. Alternatively, a newish writer puts out a book and doesn’t get great reviews (or any reviews) and doesn’t hit the bestseller list and thinks her career is over.

Sorry. It doesn’t work like that. For most of us, success is the result of cumulative and sustained effort over a long period of time. As in YEARS.

 

4 - Keep honing your craft. Nobody likes to hear this, but if you’ve been professionally published for less than ten years, you still don’t know what the hell you’re doing. Honestly. We’re all still learning our craft. I’m still learning my craft. I look back at stuff I wrote ten years ago, and I wince. I hope I keep wincing. I hope ten years from now I’m wincing at what I’m writing today. As humans we’re always, always learning and growing, right? All through our lives? Well, ideally that’s happening with our art as well. We should keep getting better. (Up until the point we get old and fall apart, but let’s not think about that.)

 

There are other bits of advice, of course: pick the right publishing partners, hit your deadlines, read, be courteous, invest in your success, think out of the box, stay informed, create good Karma for yourself, etc.

 

If I had to give you one single piece of good advice -- it’s the same piece of advice that writers have been handing out to each other since the dawn of the printing press: always write the best book you possibly can at this particular place and time. I'm not saying this guarantees success, but if nothing else, there is satisfaction in knowing you always gave your best to everything you did.

 

  

 

 

35 comments:

  1. Thanks very much for this post, Josh, which is full of sound common sense. I was thinking the other day that Shakespeare must have been under much the same kind of pressure to keep producing quality plays - but at least he didn't have to update his website!

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  2. I think this is great advice no matter what field you're in. Always strive to do your best and be better. Thank you, Josh. You are so free with your time and knowledge, it's no wonder you are a leader in your genre.

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    1. Thank you, M. You're right too, this is the same advice I used to give myself back when I had the day job.

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  3. As a reader, I agree that it is essential for an author to write the best book he can, first and foremost. No amount of marketing will help if the book isn't good enough - it just means more people will be disappointed. (And as I write that so I think of *the* book which seems to contradict that, given that it was so poorly written, but I suppose that's the exception proving the rule.) I wonder if it would be ideal, if possible, for a new author to have the first three books, ideally in a series, ready before publishing the first?

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    1. I think sometimes writers forget that just because someone manages to score with a crap book doesn't mean that's the usual scenario or that it's applicable to their own situation.

      And the other problem is even if you're the writer with that big hit that defied gravity, unless you earned enough to finance the rest of your writing career, you could very well end up as a one hit wonder.

      Readers only give you so many chances.

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  4. Great advice, Josh, and the fact that you've offered it shows you practice what you preach. You're so generous with your readers and with other writers, and all aspiring writers should read everything you've written on the subject before putting a word to paper.

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    1. Thank you, Denise! That's a great compliment. :-)

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  5. As a voracious reader I hear "4 books a year" and I get excited. However, as both a reader and a writer I have to say that I would much prefer less books and better quality over more books and bad quality. There are way too many people putting out multiple ebooks a year with characters that aren't fully realized and plots that start off well and then leave you disappointed. The emphasis should always be on quality, and not quantity and in my opinion 4 books a year is still probably too many for most writers.

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    1. Keep in mind, I didn't say publish four novels. :-) A very reasonable output might be a novel, a novella, and two short stories.

      Writing an excellent short story -- and pricing appropriately -- is a perfectly viable publishing choice.

      And that work schedule is not only reasonable, it's very beneficial for writers to try different forms of fiction.

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    2. Short stories and novellas mixed with a full book makes much more sense, thank you for clarifying. :)

      Oh and also, I forgot to add that we also don't want our favourite writers burning out!

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    3. Yes! I know from first hand experience -- but also from hearing so many other writers talk -- what a real danger burn out is.

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  6. Great advice regardless of field, thank you, Josh. Trying to be/being realistic and patient are definitely in the 'crucial' category. Difficult but helpful in the long run. That and doing one's best, always.

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    1. I don't think humans are born patient. :-) I think it's a skill we struggle to acquire.

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  7. Thanks Josh! A helpful and timely reminder.

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  8. As a reader, I agree, more than about four published works a year and the quality seems to suffer for it. It also makes it really difficult to keep up with the releases. There are a few really prolific writers whose writing has become a bit hit and miss for me and because it's so inconsistent and so prolific, I've given up trying to keep up with them. I mean, I will still buy their books...eventually...when I've had a chance to weed through them all and pick the ones that seem to get the best reviews from people I know have similar tastes. Some kind of consistency in quality is important and something my favourite authors, such as yourself, Josh, have definitely achieved.

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    1. Flooding the market when there weren't so many writers in the genre probably worked better. I am guessing it isn't the effective strategy it once was for the very reason you suggest -- readers can only buy so many books. And they like to try other writers now and then. AND it's hard to keep quality consistent if you're cranking something out every five minutes.

      One thing I neglected to mention is that how I built that large backlist was I have several half or nearly completed stories when I first started writing in this genre. That was a definite advantage. Had I tried to write 14 stories from scratch in one year? That wouldn't have gone so well.

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  9. Thanks for this, Josh. I'm a reader and not a writer, but I still found this post fascinating and, at least in one area, applicable to other vocations...always do the very best job/work that you're capable of doing at that particular time. You may not get rich or even recognized for your hard work, but you know that you did your personal best. That knowledge can build self-confidence and can go a long way. :-)

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    1. Personally, there is nothing more comforting to me than remembering that all I can do is my best. It may not please everyone, but you have to live with yourself, and knowing you did the best you could is the best insurance against those dead of night doubts and fears.

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  10. Josh,
    As a reader who loves your work and a writer who's read both editions of Man, Oh Man, I am again, constantly, amazed at your generosity to our subgenre and new writers. Thank you so very much for the best advice I've received, and hours and hours of reading pleasure (because I read your books multiple times). Continued success to you always!

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    1. Thank you very much, Lisa! That's very kind.

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  11. Josh, I too am so amazed with how generous you are not only to your readers but those starting out as newbie writers. You mention luck and hard work as key factors, all true but I also believe in God given talent which I think you've been blessed with. It is just something about the way you tell a story; captivate the reader from beginning to end. Thank You for your dedication to your craft~

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    1. Oh. Thank you! That's a lovely thing to say. I think we are all born with certain aptitudes, and I was lucky enough to be born with a writer brain. And more lucky in that my aptitude and interest was encouraged and nurtured by the people around me, including my teachers.

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  12. Megan Whalen Turner puts out a book every 2 - 3 years, if not longer. I'll wait. Each one of her books has been worth it, there are other authors and, because they are good, they can be reread and enjoyed anew each time.

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    1. I'm not familiar with Turner, but yes, I think it's up to the writer how much he or she wants to work -- and how they define success. Some authors define success as finally getting into print. Some by how much money they earn. Others by winning awards or getting to write full time, etc. I define it as being able to control my own publishing career -- and thereby my life (as much as anyone can control life).

      "Wait" is an interesting term. It's more that we hope readers will *remember* with so many other distractions and books to fill their time. No reader remains in stasis between our releases, and that's the danger as perceived by publishers and authors.

      And it's probably a legitimate concern. We all have cycles of attention and interest, and even devoted readers move on, forget us, find new enthusiasms and interests. This doesn't mean we won't be rediscovered at some point. (Or so we hope!)

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  13. Thank you. I'm not a writer of novels (yet), but this is some timely advice that is beneficial to every wordsmith.

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  14. Josh, this is my assessment of your continued success:

    1. God-given talent
    2. Hard work
    3. Timing
    4. Always behaving like a gentleman
    5. A truly generous nature

    And the rest of us are the beneficiaries. :-)

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    1. Aww. Well, thank you, Susan. I do think good manners are a very useful tool for any professional. I'm always bemused by people who believe you have to be a bitch or a bastard to get ahead. That's putting way too much emphasis on personality. Just act like a professional, and you've got the personality thing mostly covered. ;-)

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  15. Thank you for being so open about your income. I'm definitely not in this for the money, but as you said, success means having control of one's life. That's very important to me. I also want to be an equal contributor in my marriage. Grossing $300k is more than I ever could have earned in my old cubicle career, so it's a very encouraging number and gives me something to strive toward. I wanna be like Josh Lanyon when I grow up! :)

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    1. Thanks, Jay. I earned a pretty good salary as a corporate overlord, so for a long time just equaling that salary was a huge goal. Now I have surpassed it. Of course we are in a very precarious business, so I take nothing for granted. It could all go away, and if -- when -- it does I just hope I've saved enough to see me through the roughest waters. :-)

      I need to earn a living and this is my greatest skill, so it makes sense that I try and earn my living this way. But am I in it for the money? No. I write because I have to -- for my own sanity.

      But I *publish* to sell books. It's an important difference. If I couldn't make a living at this, I would not put myself through the hell of publishing. That's a fact.

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