One of the most challenging things in this business is trying to figure out what to do next. And it’s something that happens to authors at all levels. There is no point in time where an author becomes immune to those questions.
Unless they’re number 1 in all the stores all the time. Maybe then it’s not an issue. But even then I think that author would wonder or doubt or question. “Do I keep writing what got me here? How long will I stay here if I do? What if I don’t enjoy it anymore? What if the readers don’t enjoy it anymore? What if I’m out of ideas?”
And when you’re not where you want to be, it becomes even trickier. You wonder, have I just not given it enough time? Or am I making a mistake here? Am I writing the wrong thing? Or do I need to improve my craft?
Back when I started publishing, the common advice for fiction writers was that it took three books for a series to take off. Some might take off before then but there were many, many authors saying that they suddenly saw a jump in sales at book three. So often authors were told to just keep writing until they had those three books out and then think about what to do next.
I’ve even seen the advice to not even try to advertise until those three books are out. (Advice I hate. If you’re going to do that, then hold all three books back and publish them close together.)
The last year or so that advice has shifted so that now people say that it takes four or five books in a series to take off.
The problem is sometimes you’re not actually hitting reader expectations and so no amount of books are going to get you there.
If you’re headed in the wrong direction, continuing down that path just makes it worse. Especially when writing in a series because most times the next book will sell less copies than the one before. (Unless the whole series suddenly takes off a la JK Rowling.)
The problem with the “wait three books or four or five” advice is that authors don’t stop to question the presentation or quality of their books when they really should.
A while ago on one of the author forums I saw an author tell another author something along the lines of, “I’m so glad to see how successful you are because it lets me know that if I keep going with this, I’ll be successful, too.”
But I looked at that author’s reviews because I was going to make a marketing suggestion to them (apply for a Bookbub because they had gorgeous covers) and I realized that in their case their problem was quality. There were consistent remarks in the reviews indicating that this particular author needed to stop publishing what they were publishing and probably take some craft classes or pay for an in depth critique.
(I should note here that there’s a difference between negative reviews that say “OMG, I read this book in a day and it was awesome but someone please get this person an editor” which actually indicates someone’s doing something right and should keep going and will probably do even better if they get that editor as long as the editor doesn’t destroy their voice, and “I had to quit halfway through because I got so sick and tired of the pages and pages of characters telling each other what had already happened” comment which indicates a craft issue.)
(By the way, this is not someone I know other than seeing them post online, so no one who knows me think this is about them. I actually try not to look at my friends’ books unless they tell me they’re doing really well for this reason. I even avoid the books of people who comment here regularly.)
I think it’s healthy to stop and think about what you’re seeing in your own books. Not what the general trend is, but what you’re seeing. What are your reviews? What are your sales? Are things trending up? Are they trending down? Do you get fan mail?
And I think, too, that sometimes even when you’re doing well it’s worth taking a risk and trying something new. I know more than one author who has moved away from their initial genre to much greater success in a new genre.
There’s value to picking a direction and going in it (if I had done so earlier today I’d be writing the next thing already instead of this blog post), but there’s also value to stopping and adjusting and reassessing, too…