Monday, January 31, 2011

How Writing Careers Are Like Snowflakes

And no, it’s not because they melt away into nothingness two seconds after hitting the ground. Don’t even let such a negative thought taint your mind!

It’s because no two are ever exactly alike. Pretty simple, huh? But one of the hardest concepts for us authors to grasp. Hell, even publishing professionals have a hard time accepting it, although they are aware of it more than the individual author since they have access to data for all their books.

Someone on Twitter last week (and I can’t for the life of me remember who it was—if it was you, let me know so I can properly credit you!) linked to this year old post by Christina Dodd. The whole post is definitely worth reading, a twenty year’s veteran’s look at the biz, but this nugget in particular really struck me:

9. From my vantage point, everyone in publishing is doing better than I am. From everyone else’s vantage point, I’m doing better than they are. The truth is somewhere in between — and an author who’s published is not going to get any sympathy at all from an unpublished author who’s written for ten years, finished three manuscripts and has twenty-five rejection letters. Believe me. I know. I was that author.

The fear of failure nips at our heels no matter what stage of our career we're in. It is so, so easy to sit from the outside looking in and be certain--absolutely certain--that Author A is a raging success and has it all and their books are selling like hotcakes. But the truth is rarely that simple. The really hilarious thing is I’ve had people say that of me, and I can never hold back a snort of wild disbelief. (See previous paragraph.)

A couple of weekends ago I attended ALA. While there I became convinced of two things.

1. Twitter does help buzz books. I can’t tell you how many times I heard people standing in lines for arcs saying, I heard about this book on Twitter. (Which will be the subject of a future post)

2. A big web presence or Twitter following does not guarantee actual book sales. Standing in line for free ARCs is a very different thing from plunking down cold hard cash for the book

I cannot tell you how many people I’ve talked to over the last month or heard talking on blogs, bemoaning their lack of sales, and yet these people DO have really big followings. These are people who are worried about earning out their advances, whose sales are far below expectations, or who are worried about their next contract. Every single one of them has what I consider to be a pretty healthy--if not downright BIG--web presence.

Which proves precisely what I’ve suspected all along: Big blog/Twitter followings propel a teensy percentage of people to publishing success, but no more and perhaps even less than a greatly written book, an award nomination, or the full force of the publisher’s marketing department behind the book.

It is ONE way in a myriad of ways to achieve success.

And the important thing to remember is that no one really, truly understands how one book becomes a success and the other one does not. Sure, there are certain things that must be in place: good storytelling (notice I did not say brilliant writing), publisher support, usually co-op of some kind, but not always. But any given publisher can have two books that should by all intents and purposes appeal to the same audience, and yet the marketing efforts that work so spectacularly on one, fail to have any effect on the other.

Even with Penguin’s big bestsellers, each book had slightly different ways it was marketed to its audience: NIGHTSHADE had an extensive and elaborate interactive Facebook presence and ACROSS THE UNIVERSE had a first chapter sent out through PW. Different approaches for different books.

This is especially important to keep in mind as you keep hearing that the midlist is dead. You’ll hear that on Twitter, in blog posts, at conferences. (Go here for a most excellent description of midlist. Actually take the time to read the whole series. It is the best, most comprehensive explanation I have ever read of the publishing business and the pressures it faces.)

The truth is, a majority of books that become successful do so in their own unique and individual way. This year’s Newberry Awards are a HUGE illustration of that. Most of those books were sleeper books that did not get a significant push from their publisher. Indeed, true midlist books, all.

Some get a surprising number of starred reviews, causing the publisher to take a second look at its vision of the book, some gather huge in-house support and enthusiasm as the book moves through editing and production, and that in-house enthusiasm helps propel the book. Others get state list nominations, or actual award recognition. Or the Junior Library Guild gets behind it. Others build more slowly over time with great word of mouth from teacher to teacher or kid to kid. Sometimes a big chain falls in love with a book and their enthusiasm helps propel the book. Or it gets picked up through the book clubs or book fairs. Or Target takes a buy in.

Or any combination therein.

And a lot of those things don’t even happen the first year out. In fact, looking at my own books, when any of those things have happened to one of them, it happened after it had been out for a year.

And absolutely NONE of them happened because of my online activity.

What has happened from my being online is that I’ve met a lot of great, like-minded people, connected with my readers (although 90% of this has been through the contact page at my author website or the Theodosia blog—not social media.) I have also been tapped for blog tours and guest blogs, book giveaways, and interviews. All of those have helped, but I’d be HUGELY surprised, I mean gobsmacked, if I sold more than 300 books through my online involvement. (Part of this might be because I write middle grade and my end reader is not actually online in a big way. I am going to be really curious to see how this differs—if at all—when my YA comes out.)

So as introverts, we need to really pay attention to the fact that there are SO MANY different paths to success. We need to question the pressure we’re feeling to be online and involved in social media and understand who is pressuring us and why. If it is just because other people are doing it and think you should do it, too, or it’s because Online Guru #43 says you should, then ppfffft. Ignore that. If it’s because your publisher is pressuring you, well that’s a little different. Perhaps a heart to heart conversation with your editor is in order so you can understand precisely what they are hoping your social media presence to achieve, then you can see if there is another way to achieve that.

If you look at the authors who seem to have hugely influenced their sales through their online presence (at least as best as we can tell, although some of them are very open about it) they are most often extraverts. If they ARE introverts, they are very enthusiastic, expressive, gregarious, and energetic introverts.

And maybe you’re not. And you know what? That’s okay because there are lots of different ways your book can find its way to success. Your career is like a snowflake. It will be uniquely yours and have its own sets of ups and downs, highs and lows, discouragement and reward. The best thing you can do for yourself personally, and your career, is find a way to not only accept that, but savor it.

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And now, for the winner of last week's contest! The winning number is 15! Kenda, that's YOU. Please email me and I will get the SIGNED copy of Sarah Stevenson's THE LATTE REBELLION out to you!


jama said...

Thanks so much for this wonderful post, Robin!

Irene Latham said...

Robin, thank you for this reminder post. I think it's important as authors to figure out what we're after. Not every snowflake's number one measure of success is book sales. Of course that is ONE measure. But far more important to me is CONNECTING with those readers who do plunk down the money. I don't need to be famous on twitter or in any other way. But those people with whom I'm having this conversation through my book? I want to be available to them. I want to make it easy for them to keep in touch with me. The snowflake analogy is so apt because it's really up to us as individuals to create the picture of a career that we most desire. So much is beyond our control. But so much is also within our control. Here's to everyone making the best choices for themselves regarding degree of online involvement!

Angela said...

What a thoughtful post, we're all like snowflakes. Thanks for the informative information about media marketing.

Alex Beecroft said...

This is wonderfully timely, thank you! I've been doing some thinking this morning about what I want to do with my writing life now, and massive amounts of social media is not part of it.

I quite enjoy Twitter, but blogging really not so much, so I think I will take a leaf out of your book and post once weekly, hang out with friends and chat on Twitter, and claw back the rest of the time for writing and/or life.

Thank you again!

Heather Hellmann said...

Great post! It's interesting to see how publishing companies go about advertising their books.

liz michalski said...


Thank you for this. It is so reassuring to hear someone else voice the thoughts that have been buzzing round my head lately. Just because someone says something worked for them doesn't necessarily mean it will work for me!

Anonymous said...

That makes me feel a little better about my terror of socializing in any way, shape, or form. :) Thank you.

Tess said...

I needed to hear...erm, read...this today. thanks, I think you are right.

Mike Jung said...

A very useful, insightful and relevant post, as per usual. Thanks Robin!

Carin Bramsen said...

Thank you for these thoughtful words amid the roil of internet self-promo advice. It really is a challenge figuring out how to fit promotion into one's own life, and tempting to try to second-guess the market. As the ever-quotable Mr. Gumby would say, "My brain hurts!" I am delighted to have found this site. What a resource!

Anonymous said...

You, Robin, are a very special snowflake. (I mean that as a compliment, incidentally.) Thanks for this thoughtful post. I know for a fact that I have plunked down good money for books I've read about on blogs and on Twitter. I'm more likely to do so for a book that someone who is NOT the author is recommending/pimping/cheering about, however. So it's other people's blogs that influence me most, not the author's.

Audrey said...

Chiming in with thanks. This whole post fell into the I-think-I-knew-that-but-somehow-I-still-really-needed-to-hear-it school of learning.

I especially liked reading that your books found some good news beyond the one-year-out mark.

Thanks again--

Laura Maylene said...

Thank you for confirming what I have always believed -- that I am a unique and beautiful flower (or snowflake).


While I do blog regularly, I don't have a twitter account (gasp!) and my facebook page is mostly for personal stuff, not marketing my writing. While I often feel pressure to get with the times, twitter-wise, it's nice to see a reminder like this that there are indeed many paths.

Lisa Schroeder said...

Yay for snowflakes!!!

Very well said, and I agree.

I also agree wholeheartedly with what my wise friend Kelly says.

Sherrie Petersen said...

What a great post! I think for MG books, an online presence reaches a few of the gatekeepers, but not the kids. Social media can be fun and help us connect with great people, but it seems to me that old fashioned marketing and hand-selling (from friends or booksellers) does the most to promote any book.

Jennifer R. Hubbard said...

*sings* "I gotta be me ..."

Constant Writer said...

Thanks for the perspective! It's easy to lose sight of the facts when it seems everyone else is doing better than you are. Success is a tricky thing to understand, and you really did a great job of explaining some of the finer points of that realm when it comes to the publishing world. Thanks again!

R.L. LaFevers said...

So glad the post resonated with so many of you! And welcome to all you new visitors. Lovely to have you!

Thank you, Kelly, for both the compliment and the clarification. (Because special really can go either way. ) And I absolutely agree that having OTHERS raving about books enthusiastically is a huge source of book recommendations!

(And once again I find myself wishing blogger had a individual comment reply button. It would make life SO much easier!)

And Jen, thanks for the ear worm. I've had "I gotta be me" stuck in my head all evening! Ack.

Anne E.G. Nydam said...

I find this post a little bittersweet. On the one hand, it's a good reminder that there are multiple routes to success and I may find one that works for me and my books and my readers. On the other hand, online presence is one of the few things I, a self-published author, can actually do for myself. If that doesn't work... Sigh.

Anne E.G. Nydam said...

P.S. I guess I should acknowledge that I've never done Twitter and can't imagine why I would ever want to! So I clearly wasn't going to go the whole extrovert on-line presence in any case! lol

Kimberley Griffiths Little said...

Fabulous, wonderful, right-on post as always, Robin.

Since I couldn't keep up with blogging, website, Facebook and Twitter, I dropped the Twitter because my MG readers are not on there. They're not really on FB either, but my family and friends and online writer buddies are, although I'm scarce there sometimes, too. ;-)

Like you, I may change my mind when my YA comes out next year, too, but I've found that connecting with parents and teachers and kid-librarians has produced more results and sales and speaking engagements than anything online.

I also decided a long time ago that starred reviews and awards and lists are the way to get name recognition and higher sales, but it's something WE CAN'T CONTROL AT ALL. It's all fairy dust. But it has been satisfying in the 7 months since book release that even though my professional reviews were mixed, the blogger world and on Goodreads the reviews have been downright stunningly wonderful. And I'm in the Book Fairs now - SO EXCITED about that so there's still hope my publisher won't drop me! LOL! But once again, that's a venue that isn't online.

I love the snowflake analogy! Great comments, everyone, too. I love reading them.

Yat-Yee said...

This is a good reminder, thank you. It does seem, some days, as if all the successes had been taken.

Loretta Ellsworth said...

I just discovered this site and a wonderful site it is! Thank you for the great analogy and encouraging words.