A few inconvenient truths

Optimism is a wonderful thing, something writers need not just to succeed, but to avoid acting upon the inevitable suicidal thoughts. Still, this optimism has to be be tempered with reality.

Here are a few things to think about as you launch yourself into the deep and turbulent waters of book publishing.

1. Great writing is overrated. Maybe there was a time when publishers bought books because of their marvelous and imaginative prose, but not any more. Now, they want to know if your book will sell — and if they don’t think it will, they don’t care how well it’s written. A book about a particular species of octopus, even if the writing is worthy of Hemingway, will probably not find a general publisher.

And that extends to readers. While they do expect a certain amount of literacy in what they read, great writing is subtle, and most readers wouldn’t recognize it if it bit them. What they do recognize is when a story line leaves them cold, or characters aren’t believable, or facts are left out.

Which is not to say that you shouldn’t strive to be the best writer you can be. Just understand that much of that will probably be for your own satisfaction.

Here’s how I look at it — since only a tiny percentage of us are going to be great writers, that’s good news. The bar may be set lower than you think.

2. Not everyone is going to like, or be interested in, your book. This may seem self-evident, but too many writers predicate their marketing on the idea that they can somehow please everybody. You can’t, because people are different. I would never pick up a book on physics, my wife avoids anything to do with sports. If you’re lucky, you might potentially connect — in theory, at least — with 50 percent of the reading public, far less for a specialized non-fiction book.

3. Readers tend to stick with writers they know. We all have our personal “clubs,” and just like most of us wind up ordering familiar food in a restaurant, so we tend to return to authors who have earned our trust. It is a world of too many books, too little time, and thus we are reluctant to invest that precious time in a writer who is unknown to us.

4. Because of that, you may remain an Amazon click away from your real audience. Imagine yourself as a door-to-door salesman. You can be pitching the greatest product ever invented, but it won’t help if no one opens their front door to you. Similarly, the 50 five-star reviews you may have earned on Amazon or Barnes & Noble or Goodreads don’t mean a thing if no one ever sees them.

5. Therefore, if you’re an unknown author, there is no logical reason why someone would pick your book off the shelf at Barnes & Noble or click on it on Amazon.

Does this mean we should all just give up? Of course not. But it’s important to realize that your book sales will be in direct proportion to the work you put into marketing.

And there are other factors, of course. Don’t go cheap. Get a bank loan if you have to, but don’t put a book out there with an amateurish cover and a plethora of typos. I’m not a writing snob, but I know that if I pick up a book, crack it open to the middle, and see a glaring grammatical mistake, that’s it. Game over.

If I learned nothing else after 40 years in journalism and the publication of several books, it’s this — nobody can adequately proof their own work. You think you can, but you can’t. The reason is, your mind plays tricks on you. Because you know how a passage is supposed to read in your head, that’s what you see on the page, even if it’s not quite that way.

A particular trap with novels is inadvertently changing things as you go along.   With non-fiction, facts are facts — or, at least the information you present usually remains consistent. On the other hand, if you call a peripheral character “Bill” in Chapter Three of a novel, then inadvertently switch his name to “Tom” four months later in Chapter 25, chances are you’ll never catch it. But a reader will (“Who the hell is Tom?”)

Going back to marketing, though, you have to ask yourself the hard question: Who is going to read my book? If it’s a local history of Louisville, KY, no matter how well written, you’re probably better off self-publishing, because no one in Omaha or San Diego is likely to pick that book off the shelf, any more than you would be likely to read a book on Omaha or San Diego. Why would you?

There is a lot to be said for self-publishing, though. Once you bite the bullet and pay for the book’s publication, you get to keep all the money from its sales (minus the fee paid to retailers, of course).  You can give away books to whom you want, either for personal or business reasons. You get a better sense of how your book is selling, instead of having to wait for quarterly reports (and checks) from a publisher. These days, you can even hook up with a national distributor after self-publishing, if you like (just don’t ask Barnes & Noble to host a book signing)..

These are some of the things we can talk about in subsequent posts. Just so you know, I’m not coming at this from the lofty perspective of a best-selling author. My first novel, “The Kudzu Kid,” which I think is wonderful (don’t we all), currently ranks something like 2,300,000 on the Amazon sales list. So I’m slogging along on this journey just like the rest of you, and whatever I learn, I’ll share.

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Recently retired after 35 years with the News & Advance newspaper in Lynchburg, VA, now re-inventing myself as a novelist/nonfiction writer and writing coach in Lake George, NY.

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