5 Things Writers Should Know Right Now

Rachelle Gardner

Blogger: Rachelle Gardner

As everyone in publishing deals with a rapidly changing environment, replete with opportunities as well as disappointments, it’s easy to lose sight of the overarching truths that can serve to keep us centered. I think it’s important to go back to basics every now and then so that we can better focus on what’s important. Here are a few points that come to my mind:

1. NOT everything is changing.

Most aspects of publishing are in the midst of transition — the form and format of books, the way books are sold, the way books are marketed, the way readers discover books. What isn’t changing is the need for authors to continue writing the best books they can. People are still reading, so the pipeline still needs to be fed, regardless of what the pipeline looks like. Keep writing!

2. There’s NO single correct way to approach your writing career.

From self-publishing to traditional to everything in between, you have choices when it comes to publishing. There are some very loud voices out there on the Internet trying to convince you that their way is best. But these are personal and individualized decisions, and what works for someone else isn’t necessarily what will work for you. There’s not a “right” way, there’s only your way, which you might only find through experimentation and risk. (See Jane Friedman’s handy and detailed infographic in which she categorizes your choices into 5 Key Book Publishing Paths.)

3. You’ve got to pay attention to your influences.

You need to be able to make informed, wise decisions about your publishing career, so you have the responsibility to surround yourself with varied perspectives and points of view. Strive to get a balanced mix of opinions so you’re prepared to make the best choices. Anything you read on the Internet or hear from a friend could be dead-on, or dead-wrong, or anything in between. Be discerning, and be wary of exposing yourself to only a single kind of influence.

4. You must participate in promoting your work.

Whether you self-publish, go traditional or whichever path you choose, you’ll need to take an active role in publicizing your books or you’ll have a hard time selling any. This is a new reality that is not going away. You cannot get away from it. The truth is simple: There is art, and there is commerce. If you wish to mix the two, you MUST take part in the “commerce” aspect.

5. “Nobody knows anything.”

This is a phrase coined decades ago by famous screenwriter William Goldman, capturing the idea that we can’t predict the future. When a studio plunks down millions of dollars to make a movie, or an author writes and publishes a book, there is no guarantee that it will sell. This has always been true, and it will always be true. When trying to produce bestselling books, we can write the book that calls us; we can look to the past and see what has previously been successful; we can pay attention to what’s going on in our culture; we can examine politics, the economy and the news; and we can trust our instincts. When we have created a product in which we believe, then we can do our best to advertise, publicize and market it to the target audience.

Even with all of that, there are no guarantees. Some books will be bestsellers and some will languish. Some authors will be able to make a living from their writing and some won’t. You can learn from the experiences of successful authors, but you can’t necessarily replicate their success. Your path is your own, it probably won’t be fair and often won’t seem to make sense, but it’s all yours.

It’s your turn. What do you think of these truths? And what are some things you would add to this list of things authors should be keeping in mind?

 

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63 Responses

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  1. Dan Erickson says:

    I love the quote “Nobody knows anything.” That gives me hope. I’ve always been one to be on the cutting edge, experiment. I refuse to follow many of the trends in writing, blogging, and marketing because I want to be real, not plastic. Knowing that things always change is exactly what I like to hear. I’ll take uncertainty over certainly any day.

  2. Cheryl Barlow says:

    Hi Rachelle,
    Thanks for your usual fabulous advice. I’m just getting my head around the whole publicity thing. It’s a bit confusing as to what to do for the best, when you’re unpublished. For instance, having a website. I’ve completed my first book, and writing my second, while submitting to agents.
    Thanks again
    Cheryl 🙂

    • I hear you, Cheryl. When you sign up to be a writer, you don’t expect to have to be a publicist too! But when I think about it, I realize that every “dream” job has its downsides, the part we don’t really like doing, but the upsides make it all worth it.

      • Cheryl Barlow says:

        Thanks Rachelle,
        You’ve put everything into perspective.
        I’m sure I speak for every new writer out there, when I tell you how valuable it is to us, that you are prepared to go out of your way to help.
        I love your posts. You have so much patience 🙂

  3. This is the second time in as many days that I’ve read about influences and the importance of surrounding yourself with trusted perspectives (I listened to Michael Hyatt’s blog on this topic yesterday). That is great advice in a shifting marketplace. Those advisors can be a trusted constant when everything else feels as though it’s in flux.
    Thanks for another great post!

  4. Heather says:

    Nobody knows anything. It’s true. I will remember that as I write the story I want to read.

  5. P. J. Lee says:

    Rachel, may I say that to reduce Goldman’s phrase down to a bland “we can’t predict the future” is to diminish it.

    Goldman was distilling a particularly distressing characteristic of film as a business: that repeating a previously successful approach did not produce anything like the same result. Replicability is something that businesses require for survival — they want to keep doing the same thing over and over, getting marginally better at it all the time. Businesses had succeeded at making this work even in cases of extreme complexity, by painstakingly identifying, measuring and controlling every variable. This could not be done in the film industry, because of such key unmeasurables as the chemistry between lead actors or the tides in the capability of a bipolar director. And many, many others.

    (Since Goldman wrote that more than 25 years ago, the situation has changed somewhat: major studios have indeed found some predictability in the repetition of franchise blockbusters. Not to claim that it will last.)

    More important is this consideration: it is the very mystery of unmeasurable components in creativity, imagination and human drama that make it worth doing. E. L. Doctorow said “I write to find out what I think.” For an artist, the unpredictability is exactly why he or she is there in the first place.

    Clearly some writers do prefer predictability — genre writers with recurring protagonists, for example. Lee Child would tell you that the world is really very predictable, and so would the publishers that pay him his advance.

    • Larry says:

      I wonder if that realization of his helped inspire one of the better-known lines in The Princess Bride ? 🙂

    • You are absolutely right. In other places I’ve written blog posts of several hundred words applying Goldman’s phrase to publishing. This was a case where I only had a couple of sentences to explain what I mean. But thanks for your clarification.

  6. Steve says:

    Thank you, Rachelle. As the publishing industry changes and evolves I can’t help but feel excited. As an aspiring writer, I see so many opportunities in front of me, whereas those opportunities did not exist in the past, even as recently as 10-15 years ago. At the core of the issue is your advice to keep writing. Thank you for cheering on those of us who are working toward our publishing goals!

  7. Loved this post, Rachelle. Thanks for this perspective. Number 2 is very important in a world where everyone has an opinion about how to get published and be successful.

    One thing I would add is that authors are responsible for their success. Though authors and agents and publishers are partners, the ultimate drive must come from within.

  8. Rachelle, I couldn’t agree more. One point about #4 — promoting your work — you call it a “new reality,” and I agree it is more critical than ever before, but it really has ALWAYS been true. Authors of the 19th century went on speaking tours to promote their books; how ironic that this is still practiced!

  9. All very true. I’d like to expand on #2, and add another, if I may.

    An allegory that I have used for ‘one size doesn’t fit all’ is golf. Sam Snead was a slender six-footer, with a lovely, graceful swing that was the stuff of textbook and legend. His follow-through looked posed for a magazine cover. He was wildly successful, and deservedly so.

    Arnold Palmer was a broad strong bollard of a man, muscle-bound from military service. The only swing he could manufacture was an abrupt slashing attack at the ball, finishing off-balance, flailing for his feet.

    Arnie was successful, too…and which name is more familiar to you?

    I’d like to add that there IS Good Enough. Every writer strives for perfection, but the magnum opus held back for want of its Spotless Lamb becomes as if it never was.

    Send it out the door in the best shape you can, and then turn to, and give your literary child all the help you can.

    Life’s more like a tennis match than a sculpture. You’ve only got so long to hit the ball, and there’ll be another one along shortly.

  10. Larry says:

    Very useful advice!

    The advice from Mr. Goldman, rings true today: as the traditional industry continues to sink, it’s surprising that the people who don’t know anything are still in charge, much less getting paid! 🙂

  11. Donna Pyle says:

    Item #3 could be a post all by itself. A great point! Personally, those whom I allow to influence me are either people I know or have been connected with through social media long enough to trust the consistency and truth in their words. Thanks for a solid, much-needed post, Rachelle.

  12. Jan Cline says:

    I love this list. I think we might add perspective to the list. The writers I know and mentor seem to have trouble keeping a healthy perspective on the craft of writing and the business of publishing. The ups and downs can throw you if you aren’t grounded in dedication to what you do and relationships within the writing world. Confidence and determination are fragile without that healthy perspective.

  13. JLOakley says:

    I think #2 and #4 are useful. I’m looking at my writing life/ path as hybrid author. I’m trad pubbed with personal essays and magazine/journal articles, self-pubbed with a novel and still pitching some of my fiction because I think they are a good fit for trad. I’ve jumped into marketing because I wanted my novel to be noticed and it has, with awards and book club selections. Marketing IS the reality here to stay.

  14. Find what works for you.
    There’s no one RIGHT way to write a book.
    All the advice you get is just that…advice. Not rules.
    The longer I write the more styles I discover. The more I find unusual habits and methods that work for who ever is using them.
    Take advice but don’t be ruled by it.

  15. lisa says:

    I was so uncomfortable with number 4, even the concept of starting a blog. Now, with a year under my belt I see it in a whole different way.

    It’s not uncomfortable to promote and ask for help, with a blog and social media you are really able to reciprocate. If you are reciprocating it’s really an easy exchange. Also, if you are giving valuable content to others and interacting there are strong friendships there that make promotion and sharing work natural.

  16. Mary Chris says:

    “There’s not a “right” way, there’s only your way, which you might only find through experimentation and risk.”
    This is so, so true! I was just talking with another writer this week about the importance of blocking all the “noise” about the industry and really deciding where your heart is, and what is uniquely right for you.
    I would also add patience to the list. When you are risking and experimenting, it is key to give things time, so that you can really evaluate them honestly. Things like marketing and nurturing a following are “slow burn” not a wildfire.

  17. Good points, Rachelle. May I add something to numbers 2 and 5? “Don’t listen to every voice you hear.”

    It’s possible to drive yourself crazy, reading articles and blog posts by various members of the writing community and trying to “do it” the way they do. I know, I’ve been down that road. It’s necessary to weigh everything you hear, see, and read…then do what seems right. Otherwise, you may find yourself like the man who jumped on his horse and rode off in all directions at once.

    Thanks for the advice.

  18. Lenore Buth says:

    Another great column, Rachelle. I especially like, “Anything you read on the Internet or hear from a friend could be dead-on, or dead-wrong, or anything in between.

    So true! So many voices on all sides are chanting, “Do it MY way and you’ll be a hit.”
    They can’t all be right.

    Thanks for restoring balance with your discerning voice.

  19. I think it is overwhelming when something new comes up as far as how to market you book or promote your platform. We think we need to ADD something big to the long list of what we are already doing, much like adding one more ball to what we are juggling. But, I think there are ways that we can streamline what we do so we can spend less time marketing and more time writing!
    Thanks for the post!

  20. Andrea Cox says:

    Thanks, Rachelle! These five things are helpful to know as I’m writing and preparing for my future, whatever that may be.

    I think one thing that could be added to the list is disappointments will happen along the way. Rejection letters, dips in sales, etc. The thing to do about it is to keep after it and keep praying. God has a plan, and the disappointments we face along the way can help us find the right path He’s pointing us toward.

    Blessings,
    Andrea

  21. Jeanne T says:

    This is another great post, Rachelle. I’d agree with you on all five points. I think one foundational thought you conveyed in #! was that, even with all the other changes in the publishing industry, the demand for great stories will always be there. Whether it’s printed in hard copy or ebook, readers will always look for writing that draws them in.

    And, as has already been mentioned, being aware of who influences me is crucial as I trek this writing journey. Having knowledgeable mentors and friends who understand this journey and encourage me on the dark days will lead me in good directions.

  22. For a Christian writer, and a non-Christian writer as well, we need to remember that our value is not determined by our professional achievements. So many people get hung up on climbing the ladder to success that they forget that somebody else built that ladder. We must remember that we’re not made to climb alone and that it’s who is on the journey with us who will be there at the end when the books fade away.

  23. Great insights, Rachelle. Thanks for sharing. It’s so easy to become overwhelmed with all the changes. I try to remember that, in the end, people still love well-written novels. Right now, the focus is on becoming a better author.

  24. Great post, Rachelle.

  25. Peter DeHaan says:

    Change equals opportunity!

  26. Yvonne Brown says:

    Thanks for the down to earth advice and perspective! Very refreshing!

  27. If I may add my own quote, SOMEWHAT related to #5. “It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit.” (Harry S Truman)

    I may write the book. But the agent then refines and sells it. The editors polish it. The publisher (somewhat) promotes it. The public BUYS it.

    The list goes on.

  28. Stella K says:

    Great post, Rachelle. My Greek background urges me to point out that it was philosopher Socrates who first said: “I know one thing, that I know nothing.” And this universal truth pretty much sums up your point 5 above. If I could add a point 6 to the list, it would be “Prepare to be amazed”. As a writer (and a lawyer) I’ve witnessed some pretty unexpected and amazing events recently that made me realise the need to be prepared to be amazed. Cataclysmic events have taken place all over the world these past few years. Events, than an amazed writer can chew over and use them to write great stories. Ones, that people can relate to or sympathize with. The world is changing rapidly. Inevitably, all aspects of our lives follow suit; when we open our eyes, our hearts and our minds to all the possibilities out there and allow ourselves to take in the overwhelming developments in the writing world but even further, in everything happening around us, we have much to gain. An important pre-requisite is keeping a positive perspective. After all, isn’t it wonderful to be amazed?

  29. Great post, as usual.

    #5 resonates with me. I had never heard this important quote:

    “Nobody knows anything.”

    The point is, there are many so-called book experts on the Internet and Facebook claiming that they know so much about writing and marketing books. Fact is, they don’t.

    For example, three years ago there were a lot of these self-proclaimed book experts saying, “Print is dead.”

    Really? I am so glad that I didn’t listen to them.

    Three years later, the print editions of two of my best-selling books are selling better than they have ever sold before. In fact, these two books will earn me over $100,000 this year.

    Also you say,

    “Even with all of that, there are no guarantees.”

    So true.

    As Clint Eastwood said,

    “If you want a guarantee, buy a toaster.”

    In short, I am succesful at what I do because I don’t listen to the so-called experts. Sure, I experience a lot of failure. But the way to double one’s success rate is to double one’s failure rate.

    Ernie J. Zelinski
    International Best-Selling Author
    “Helping Adventurous Souls Live Prosperous and Free”
    Author of the Bestseller “How to Retire Happy, Wild, and Free”
    (Over 175,000 copies sold and published in 9 languages)
    and the International Bestseller “The Joy of Not Working’
    (Over 250,000 copies sold and published in 17 languages)

  30. your posts are always so concise and valuable — thanks — this one is definitely a keeper

  31. Rachelle’s words call us to re-envision our motivations for writing. Most of us likely have multiple motives that are not easily discerned because of the complex nature of our lives. The better we discern our desires though, the more capable writers we will be, because our pathways will be crystal clear before us. Thank you.

  32. Mare says:

    All true. There’s no ONE way to publishing. I would add that the weak will poop out. 🙂 No one else will be as passionate about your work as you will be, so if you aren’t committed to it, it will fizzle. Promotion is the part I hate myself, but I’m working on it!
    from The Dugout

  33. Jon says:

    Nice post Rachelle. I’d also add that whilst the whole “traditional vs. self-publish” debate can seem overwhelming and demoralising to first-time writers, it actually means there are a whole lot more options now than there ever have been before. Options mean more decisions, but they also provide unprecedented opportunities to reach readers with your words.

  34. benzeknees says:

    I think the publicity part scares me the most – putting myself out there for people to judge to my face. This is why I write – alone – so I don’t have to be judged by anyone. Of course, people are going to judge me, they will either buy what I put out or not & critics will have an opinion, but I can deal with my reactions to what they say in private. I would hate to face a writer criticizing my work to my face.

  35. Thanks Rachel – always good info – but as an aspiring author – I must admit I am still in the woods about what approach to take for SMILE NEIGHBOR! a book for my Jersey Shore neighbors who are still trying to recover from SANDY:-) I want to connect & strenthen neighbors to form strong neighborhood associations for future support efforts.

  36. Thank you for publishing this, Rachelle! The attached link to Jane Friedman’s chart was terrific! According to her definitions, I’m a “hybrid” author. I’m publishing my first novel in February in partnership with Koehler Books. I’m DIY publishing the bible studies I’ve been writing for years. I’ll begin selling them from my own website this summer. I’ve been published through traditional means. I’m figuring this out as I go, listening, reading, and assessing. I do not have an agent. It’s a bit like the Wild West! But the freedom of so many options is invigorating! If we write good material and strong books, people will read them.

  37. Lee J Tyler says:

    Love this post; so evergeen and true. Number 3 applies to the vagaries of publishing from writing to market and beyond. I also see it as very wise advise for life in general. Thanks for the needed words, Rachelle.

  38. donnie and doodle says:

    William Goldman may be the best screen writer this country has ever produced. Just think of all the screen plays he wrote that never got made into movies.
    Google him to see his list of credits.

  39. Neil Larkins says:

    Thanks, Rachelle, for this great post. It has reminded me once more that in order to be a successful, pulished author I must see myself as much a professional as a creator, innovator or whatever other hat I wear. In many ways this is the way I thought many years ago when I got into my first and most successful profession: floor-covering installation. Starting out as a helper I’d only thought of it as another job. Once I became the installer fully responsible for how the job came out, I began to think professionally by learning everything I could about the trade and being the best I could – even before I made much money at it. I was still able to impart craft and innovation (it was often necessary!)to my work. And the more I looked at myself as a professional the better I became.

  40. Jodi M says:

    This is very timely for me – a friend from my writing group is just breaking into the publishing world and has a million questions about everything. The thing is that most of her questions are ones that don’t have any hard and fast answers. We keep telling her that in this world it’s important to use good judgement and trust that it will take her where she needs to go!

  41. [email protected] says:

    Thank you, Rachel, for a great post. As you say, much is changing, but the need to write good stories well doesn’t change. If a writer wants to be read, then his/her writing has to be worth reading, no matter the genre, no matter how published.
    As an indie published author, I find the marketing/publicity side of things hard work, but quite fun too. I started writing a blog a few months ago and thoroughly enjoy it. It has put me into the blogosphere and I love reading blogs like yours. They remind me why I am doing what I’m doing in this field: to build a platform for what I love doing even more…writing novels.
    Christine
    cicampbellblog.wordpress.com

  42. Very interesting. it’s hard not to be scared by all the changes, but comforting to do the need for authors still remains.

  43. W J Wirth says:

    Good ideas have always been a dime a dozen. Converting a good idea into a revenue stream – there’s the challenge.

  44. June Bourgo says:

    Nothing is gained without change. Nothing is learned without experiences which are brought on by change. I consider myself a successful human being and grateful that I can dedicate my time to my writing regardless of how “successful” my career is. I agree with Jennifer Major above, don’t get caught up in defining yourself by your professional achievements.

    But I do believe the author has to take responsiblity whether self-publishing or partnering with agents and publishers. And yes the drive must come from within.

    Thanks Rachelle for another thought provoking post.

  45. Had to share this post on twitter and facebook, you put the issues so succinctly. I both own an e-book publishing company plus am professionally published (with other publishers) and I sure don’t know what will happen next in this publishing world, only that it will happen fast and the main thing is to write as well as you can.

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  47. Richard Hunting says:

    I thank you for reminding us of the basics, so often forgotten or overlooked.