Expectations Can Kill You

I’m reading a very interesting book right now called Late Bloomers by Rich Karlgaard. It essentially makes the argument that not everyone is wired to be immediately successful nor are they wired to be successful following the standard path of high achievement in high school, elite university education, and then wonderful high-powered career.

Ironically, because of my first career and my elite university education I don’t really fall into the “we” he talks about throughout the book. But as someone who stepped off that path the idea behind the book attracted me and I think it’s a good read and will probably recommend it to all of my friends with kids because I’ve been firmly convinced for a couple decades now that expecting your kids to attend college and become a doctor, lawyer, engineer, investment banker, etc. is very unhealthy for kids that don’t fit that path.

While the book is interesting and worth a read I’ve been thinking in broader terms about the argument it’s making and applying that to writing. Because I think we have that same unhealthy mindset in self-publishing. Or at least we did when I started out.

There was this expectation that you’d publish a book and it would just sell as if by magic and then you’d publish a couple more and you’d be killing it and able to quit your job and make six figures no problem. And behind that was this idea that if you failed to do that you were somehow flawed or lesser and just didn’t get it. You didn’t have what it takes to be successful.

There are authors who disprove that theory–Annie Bellet being one of them who has spoken about it publicly. She struggled for years before it finally all clicked and came together and she found tremendous success.

But yet there’s still this expectation hanging around of immediate sales and reviews and praise that makes any author who doesn’t find that kind of success feel like a failure.

And there’s a certain scorn that gets voiced at times by some of the authors who’ve made it. Like, “Oh, if only they knew…I mean, can’t they see what they’re doing wrong? That cover. And that blurb. And, oh, don’t get me started on the writing. Who doesn’t know the difference between reign and rein?”

Those two attitudes combined make it really hard to push through and persevere for those who don’t hit right away.

Not only are you struggling with your failure to meet your own expectations but then you’re also faced with this niggling feeling that people out there are looking down their noses at your pathetic attempts to make it. And with self-publishing you tend to be failing in public unless you use pen names and don’t tell anyone about them.

So you either toil in darkness and alone or you trip and fall on your face in front of the crowd. Neither option is fun.

The irony is that an author can actually be doing pretty well for where they are. They can be on the right path and headed in the right direction. Maybe they just need more books out there. Or a better understanding of marketing. Or just more realistic expectations.

But the problem is that no one likes to publicly talk about their failures and struggles, so it’s really hard to see that. Which means to succeed if it doesn’t happen immediately you have to have this gut level belief in yourself that basically defies everything everyone around you thinks.

That is not easy.

I’ll give a personal example here.

I had a Bookbub on my YA fantasy novel a few days ago.

It bombed. By Bookbub standards it was horrible. They said to expect 2,200 sales and I had about 1,000. Not even half of the expected average.

It really hurt to have it perform so poorly. Because I should’ve been able to hit the average, right? I mean, come on. At least close? I looked at the book and thought there was something wrong with it. I thought to myself that maybe I just can’t write fantasy even though it’s my first love. Maybe what I want to write just isn’t what people want to read. I had some dark moments of the soul.

But here’s the thing.

That promotion, which cost me $700, is already profitable after four days. I brought in a thousand new readers to that series. I made it into the top 100 authors in teen fantasy on Amazon for two days.

It was actually a really good promotion. If I hadn’t had that stupid average number to set my expectations, I would’ve been thrilled with how it turned out.

So if you get into one of those dark places where you’re wondering what you’re doing and why you suck so much when everyone else is doing so well, step back.

Ask yourself how realistic these expectations you’re trying to meet really are. As the book I’m reading mentions, reframe your situation.

Look at the positive reviews. Look at the sales. Look at the fan mail.

Or look at what you’ve learned. Look at what you now know about your writing or the market. Give yourself a pat on the back for taking one step closer to your goal. And remember that not everyone succeeds the first time out even if that’s what it can look like sometimes.

There’s Still Time…

KKR made a brief comment on her May reading list post that dovetailed nicely with a comment I’d made recently in a writer’s group about releases and that also fits with my current reading list.

Basically, the comment was about how people don’t always read a book when it’s released, they read it when they find out about it.

That can be years after a book was written and published, assuming it’s still available to be read in some way, shape, or form.

For example, I’m currently reading the entire J.D. Robb In Death series. I’m about halfway through. The first book in that series was published decades ago. But for me it’s a new series that I’m racing my way through. My mom happened to mention it for the umpteenth time (she buys the new releases as soon as they come out in hard cover) and I said, “Oh, let me try it. I’ll borrow the first one from you next time I see you.” Twenty-some books later I’m still enjoying it.

I had the same thing happen with Robin Hobb. I didn’t start reading her until she’d published three trilogies in that story world.

Which is why I sometimes find the self-publisher and trade publishing focus on strong launches so interesting. I get it. The odds of having a book that stands the test of time and gets word of mouth referrals are higher the better a book launches, especially with Amazon’s built-in bias for rewarding success with more success.

But there are so many books that have done well later as people started to read them and recommend them to one another.

I always think of Senlin Ascends by Josiah Bancroft as a perfect example of this sort of thing. That series didn’t do well until he submitted it to the SPFBO. One of the fifty best fantasy novels I’ve read, but it was languishing in triple-digit ratings for a couple years before it got its break.

That doesn’t mean every book that doesn’t sell well right away is some work of genius, of course. Odds are more often on the side of a book not being that great. But if you have faith in what you wrote, don’t give up just because you weren’t instantly amazingly successful. Keep working it. You never know.

(I say with hope as I have two Bookbubs on two separate series coming up this month…)