Good Writing Isn’t Enough

There’s a discussion on one of the writing forums right now about how many books are actually published on Amazon right now and how many authors those represent. And in that discussion someone mentioned that they knew an author who had published two brilliant novels and that those two novels hadn’t sold a single copy.

(My first reaction was, “You their friend who thought their book was brilliant didn’t even buy a copy? Or recommend it to anyone who bought a copy? Why not?” But I digress.)

That comment started me thinking, though, that oftentimes with a writing career, whether it’s on the trade publishing or self-publishing side, it’s very often not just about the writing. Yes, the writing needs to be there. You need to be able to write at a sufficient level to sell your book(s).

But oftentimes the difference between success and failure is in all the other choices you make. I had a friend who a few years back had two publisher offers for their debut novel. They were trying to decide which publisher to go with, but at that time there was really no visible difference between the two. The advances were the same, the royalty payouts were the same, and both were small presses.

Turns out one of the two didn’t do such a great job of paying their authors and that issue blew up right around when my friend’s book was being published. So choosing Publisher A meant a smooth first publication experience whereas choosing Publisher B meant having that book published while authors were vocally advocating for readers to boycott the publisher.

Some trade published authors were caught up in a Barnes & Noble dispute a few years back that meant their books never landed on the shelves of any B&N throughout the country. Others were caught up in the Amazon dispute that happened a few years back where entire publisher catalogs weren’t listed on Amazon.

Pick the wrong publisher, agent, or editor and your book publishing experience will be completely different from someone else’s. Happen to have your book published in the midst of drama and same thing.

On the self-publishing side it’s picking KU or not KU. It’s putting a book in audio or not putting it in audio. It’s publishing in print or not. It’s using that new distributor or not. It’s trying that new ad platform or not. It’s publishing one book now versus three at once two years from now. It’s pricing high versus pricing low. It’s trying permafree or not. It’s having a mailing list or not.

Any one of those choices can sink an author or make their career. And it’s not always clear which choice is the right one to make at any given point in time. You can take the exact same book, make very different choices, and have completely different outcomes.

Considering that author mentioned above who wrote two great books and sold no copies, think what advertising could have done for those books. (Assuming they had adequate covers.) Or think what asking friends and family to give it that initial boost could have done. (Yes, yes, I know that can screw up also-boughts so is not ideal, but if the alternative is no sales at all? Better to get a few sales IMO.) Maybe that was an author who should’ve continued to slog it out in the trade-publishing trenches.

It’s hard to say, but you have to think that there was another outcome for that author had they just tried something different.

We all makes our choices. Some of them the wrong ones. Some of them fatal ones–for that book or that pen name. (And some of them the exact right ones.)

A good enough book is just the beginning. (Which considering how hard that can be to master is a bit disconcerting, but there you have it.)

Perception vs. Reality in Fiction

If you’re going to write fiction at some point in time you’re going to have to tackle the accuracy conundrum. And I call it a conundrum because oftentimes it’s not actually about what’s true, it’s about what readers perceive to be the truth.

For example, someone recently posted a rant about medieval novels that include breakfast in them. I didn’t actually read their link, because I didn’t care, but the implication was that people who mention breakfast in novels set in medieval times are just money-grubbing hacks who don’t appreciate true historical accuracy.

As a reader of fantasy for thirty-plus years I don’t care if my novels mention breakfast. At all. I want a fun, action-packed story where the character confronts danger and overcomes it. Preferably with some good friends or a stalwart animal companion to keep them company. And, honestly, the less accurate terms there are, the better. I don’t want to have to keep a dictionary of medieval armor at hand while I’m reading.

That’s me.

For other readers, one little misused word ruins the experience and shows you as the hack you are. “How dare you call that a dirk? A dirk was a short dagger used in the Scottish Highlands and didn’t come into use until the 1600s and clearly your story (although it involves dragons and flying horses) is set in the 1400s because of the way you described the village.”

(And now queue someone coming along to correct that example, because that was pulled from a five-second review of Merriam Webster and Wikipedia and a true scholar would see at least three errors in what I just said about dirks.)

The best approach of course would be to be 100% accurate in all of your information and descriptions but to do so in a way that doesn’t alienate readers who aren’t highly knowledgeable about your subject.

That’s not going to happen, though. There will be times when being 100% accurate means that only a small group of your readers thinks you actually got it right. Because common misperception is so wide-spread that most people have wrong information on that subject.

And there will be times when what you said is true but that one reader will miss what makes it true. Or where what you said is technically true but not commonly true and that one reader will want to point out to you your failures.

I would recommend learning and taking to heart this phrase when those moments occur: “Not my reader.”

If you’re highly accurate and people say it’s impossible to read your novels without a dictionary at hand, they’re not your reader. Those people who love completely accurate novels are.

If you’re a little loose with the facts and someone complains that it’s not possible for that to have happened in Chapter 6 because of x, y, and z, they’re not your reader. Those people who value action over accuracy are.

Find your happy place and stick to it. And when you get that review or that email that mentions the flaws in your book, just repeat “not my reader” and go read the reviews or comments from the people who did love your book.