Every so often I come across an article about the publishing business that makes me want to stand up and shout, “Yes! At last someone tells it like it really is!” That’s the reaction I had when I recently came across a piece published in the December ’08 issue of Romance Writers Report. “The Tao of Publishing — Why Publishing is Making You Crazy and What You Can Do About it” was written by literary agent Steven Axelrod and writer Julie Anne Long. I know many people don’t receive Romance Writers Report (you automatically get it if you belong to Romance Writers of America) so you may not have access to the article. I wish I could post it here in its entirety, but that would be copyright infringement. So I’ll just try to summarize it — and tell you why I think it’s such a brilliant piece of analysis.
UPDATE: the article is now posted online here.
The article cites a study by a sociology professor who discovered that because humans need to connect socially with each other, we are sometimes attracted to things simply because other people like them. “We need common experiences — indeed we seek them out… One consequence of this is that if we really like things simply because other people like them, predicting which cultural products will succeed commercially (and which will fail) becomes impossible.” Regardless of the actual quality of the product, people tend to like what other people like. Popularity leads to even bigger popularity. “This means that if one object happens to be slightly more popular than another at just the right point, it will tend to become more popular still.”
Which explains why “some wonderful books failed to find an audience and why some second-rate books succeeded.”
And this can drive publishing professionals crazy, because no matter how good a book may be, no matter how much effort a publisher puts behind that book, it can still fail. Success involves many random factors that are completely out of our control.
“Too many times I”ve seen authors undertake expensive and time-consuming promotions that come to naught,” Axelrod writes. “Their justification for doing it is, well, author X did this and she hit the New York Times list. But as we now know, the odds are even that random factors were at play. We have no way of knowing if the promotion really did contribute to author X’s success or if it had nothing to do with author X’s success at all.”
Axelrod goes on to say: “I believe that the overwhelming majority of highly successful writers were anything but. It took these writers years to succeed, and when it happened, it was frequently under a different name or in a different genre from where they started. Believe in yourself, but remember that randomness plays a large role in your career as well.”
What he says is absolutely true of my own career. I was no overnight success. I started off writing in the romance genre, but after nine books, I could see that my career was stuck at a plateau. All my manuscripts were being published, and I had no problems landing contracts, but I’d never be able to send my kids to college on the income. Only after I switched genres and started writing thrillers did I hit the bestseller lists.
Even then, the randomness of the industry flummoxed me. The books I considered my best (and the ones the critics liked as well) weren’t the ones with the strongest sales. Over the years, I’ve watched my sales seesaw, and I can’t explain why some books did well, and others didn’t. Occasionally the explanation seemed obvious. LIFE SUPPORT, for instance, was published the same week that UPS went on strike, and it took weeks for the books to arrive in the stores — by which time LIFE SUPPORT was already considered an “old” release, and never got its full co-op displays. A pretty rational explanation for why it didn’t hit the hardcover bestseller list, right? Its poor sales seemed to be a logical consequence of an unfortunate — and unpredictable– event.
So how do I explain the success of THE SURGEON? It went on sale just before September 11, 2001. In the aftermath of that national trauma, my book tour was canceled, bookstore traffic went dead, and everyone predicted that the sales of high-tension thriller novels would suffer. The public will instead want sweet romance novels, pop psychologists predicted. No one will want to read stories with bloody crimes.
Yet THE SURGEON went on to garner stronger sales than any of my previous titles. Even with the power of world events working against it.
I’ve watched the sales patterns of twelve of my thrillers now. Some of the releases have had full-court media campaigns, with full-page NYT ads. Most of the time I went on book tour. Occasionally, I didn’t. Some books were well-reviewed; some were not. Some books had long pre-pub times, others were rushed into production. Some books gave me a gut feeling that “this one’s going to be huge.” Others didn’t. Was I able to predict which ones would be more successful?
Nope. I couldn’t. And I’ve given up trying to.
In the article, Julie Long writes: “Going through the machinations of trying to predict or control our success does make us feel as though we’re getting somewhere, and gives us that critical illusion of control. (But) the harder we try to make sense of things, the further from the truth we’ll actually get. And again, that way lies craziness.”
Oh, how well do I understand that craziness. I’ve flogged myself with thoughts of, “if only the book had been released a week earlier! If only we’d gone for a blue instead of an orange cover! If only I’d hired an outside publicist! If only, if only, if only…” I’ve tried to explain my bad sales and good sales in terms of marketing strategies I can control. But I’ve come to understand that Action X does not necessarily lead to Result X. All I can do is write the best book I’m capable of and trust my publisher to do its job right.
After that, the book either sinks or swims. And there’s not a hell of a lot I can do to change it.
As Julie Anne Long writes, “We all want to know what works, and do that. The truth is, we can’t ever know for certain what works… Self-promotion, in fact, is another one of those things that make us feel like we can actively control or influence our success. In many ways, it’s more of a ritual than anything that can really impact the velocity of our career growth.”
That ritual can end up obsessing us and taking away precious time away from our writing. It makes us check our Amazon rankings far too often. It compels us to sign every copy of our book in every store within a 500-mile radius. It makes us accept speaking engagements we don’t really feel like agreeing to. It ends up controlling our lives, and draining the joy that made us take up writing in the first place.
It’s taken me over two decades to mellow and adopt the more zenlike attitude that this article advocates. If I’d read it ten years ago, I wouldn’t have been ready to accept the advice. But since then, I’ve come to understand it on my own. And I recognize its wisdom.
I hope others will, too.