Marketing, Getting Paid, and Writing Skills

Recently a friend emailed me with some thoughts on self-promotion, and I thought his insights (and my response) might be useful or at least interesting to you guys. Do you agree with him that talent is the least important correlate to success?

My friend: As I understand it, most writer’s groups are directed at improving writing skills. However, I think there are other equally important objectives that need to be addressed.
Working with businesses over the years, I repeatedly saw that it is not the business, lawyer, doctor, artist, etc. that is the best at what it does that becomes successful. It is the business which is best at marketing what it does. There is a correlation between competence and success, but it is a surprisingly weak one.
I think there are three tasks which a writer’s group should focus on:
1 marketing a “presence”as an author
2 getting paid
3 developing writing skills

For task number one, I think Stephen King said it clearly in his book, On Writing. . He submitted a piece to a publication which had previously rejected him and made the comment “people are much less likely to use phrases like ‘not for us’once you’ve had some success” I think there are websites, publications, etc. which will give a great deal of name recognition if they print one of your submissions. I think this task should focus on identifying those sites and how to best get published by them. I think this task should also focus on ways to develop your”brand” as an author.
For task number two, we would all like to create works of art for the sake of beauty, but eventually we need to get paid if we want to do it on a regular basis. For this task, I think we should focus on identifying publications and sites which pay for author’s submissions. In addition, if someone is willing to pay me for my work, I am going to give their opinion much more weight than anyone else’s. If I am in a writers group, how do I know if the advice I’m getting is sound? I know people who have written and taught writing for many years, but have no significant publications and no significant success as an author. Maybe it sounds harsh, but why should I listen to their advice? In addition, we can use such sites for experimentation. If we find an appropriate one, we could all submit a piece and see which ones get published. We could then use that as a format for future efforts.
for task number three, I don’t mean to belittle the importance of this task. Improvement of writing skills is important and requires a lot of effort. However, once a basic level of competence is achieved, marketing becomes as important as competence. And no matter how competent you become,any author appeals to only a limited audience. Honestly, how many people have read The Grapes of Wrath outside of being forced to in a classroom? I think HP Lovecraft is brilliant, but 9/10 people I introduce him to don’t like his work. However, let’s say that despite your best efforts, your writing only appeals to lowbrow audiences in the US. And worse, you are only able to attract 1% of the people in the US as readers. That’s 3.3 million people reading your work and buying your books. Game over. You win. Once you achieve a basic level of competence, the most important task for you becomes identifying your target market.

Me: As for marketing and the publishing industry in general, I can refer you to the books my agent recommended Get Known Before The Book Deal

I can also comment based on my experience (agented but not published)
my friends’ experience (published, and in one or two cases published often enough to make it an exclusive career) and from what I’ve read of the experiences of best-selling authors (although keep in mind their experiences are now about a decade out of date, and the industry has changed). Here are some thoughts:

Name recognition is definitely important. It’s the same old catch-22 that nobody will pay attention to you before someone pays attention to you. Many authors have made their careers by selling short stories to crappy magazines, then prestigious magazines, and then leveraging that success into a book deal. The caveat is that the skills that make a successful short-story writer do not necessarily make a successful novelist. Also, this career pathway is well known and competitive. Other authors have by-passed it by building a name for themselves with a blog (although that market has also become crowded).

One advantage I didn’t see you talk about is the advantage of working in a similar industry to publishing. Newspaper writers, professional bloggers, video-game designers, and other similar industries produce much more attractive candidates in the eyes of agents and publishers. For one thing, it’s because they are certifiably good writers, but for another, they already have a name and a fan-base. They probably also have contacts in the agenting/publishing world, or at least know how to conduct themselves.

Building this “platform” is a big part of being a modern author. I’d say it’s about half of the job if you’re published by a traditional big name publisher. If you’re published by an indie house or if you self-publish, the advertising/writing ratio is more like 80:20 (assuming you want to make enough money doing it to feed yourself and you aren’t already famous).

But one thing to keep in mind when talking about money: there isn’t much of it in writing. Graphed on a line from global successes like Steven King to the book of recopies and cat pictures your grandma published on Create Space, you get a perfect exponential curve, with a tiny fraction of sales going to (literally) millions of crappy hopeful books and the enormous majority of money focused on a handful of superstars.

What this means for me is that although I would love to build a mansion with the advance for my first novel, I can’t bank on that scenario. My career path is much more likely to be getting paid insultingly little to write for progressively better publishers until eventually (in perhaps a decade) I have made enough of a name for myself that I can support a family on writing alone and can quit my day job. If chasing money was a priority for me at all, I wouldn’t bother with writing. Teaching ESL is far more lucrative.

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