Here’s a dirty little secret about publishing, whether you choose traditional, indie, or self-publishing: You need time in order to become successful. There, I said it. No matter how much people want to believe in the “overnight” success model, the truth is that you’re more likely to be hit by lightning. Even the books we think of as “overnight” phenomenons are usually anything but.
Harry Potter didn’t really hit mainstream success, especially in the US, until the fourth book. Twilight hit the big time somewhere around book two or three. John Green didn’t hit it big with his first book, either. The Fault in Our Stars was his fourth book. Yet we think of these books, and many other successful hits, as overnight wonders.
Sure, there are some true overnight hits. But not as many as the media would lead us to believe. It generally takes time for success to occur. This is especially true nowadays. Every year brings so many books that it’s impossible for any of them to really stand out. The cream doesn’t rise to the top immediately. Your book has to outperform and outlast the lesser competition and that takes time.
You need time for word of mouth to circulate and for reviews to pile up. You need to get more books in the pipeline, thus increasing your visibility. Social media platform building doesn’t happen in an instant, either. It takes months and years to build up a rapport with readers, to find your mojo and place in the online world, and to accumulate a number of followers that can move the sales needle and attract the interest of the media, agents, and larger publishers.
All you can do is work hard, produce more work, and put your name out there. Eventually, with time and persistence, success should happen.
But here’s the twist: No one is willing to give you that time. Just as with movies that are dead if they don’t make back their costs in the first weekend, or the football coach who’s fired after one crappy season, publishing wants instant success. They want that first book to hit big and if it doesn’t, they sometimes cut you loose, leaving you as damaged goods that no other publisher wants to touch.
You can mitigate this somewhat if you self-publish. Only you can quit on you in that case. But self-publishing has a lot of other pros and cons to consider. Some indie publishers are more patient than the larger houses. They can usually afford to be because they don’t have the overhead of a big house. Also, they likely haven’t invested as much in your book and so have less to lose. Still, though, they won’t wait indefinitely.
This leaves the author in a tight spot. You need time and more work in the pipeline, but your publisher doesn’t want to wait. They want results now, if not yesterday. And if your first book doesn’t take off, they won’t give you a chance at a second, leaving the “put out more work” part of the equation dangling.
So what’s an author to do? I wish I had some good advice. Unfortunately this is more of a “Be aware of this pitfall,” type of post rather than a “Let me solve your problem” post. There’s simply no way to avoid the issue of time. And there’s no way to avoid the impatience of publishers. Unless you do get lucky and hit it big out of the gate, you’re on your own and subject to an impatient publisher dropping you. Self-publishing is the only way to guarantee against getting dropped, but it still doesn’t change the fact that time is required for success.
The only advice I can offer is this: If possible, have several books ready for publication before you begin publishing or searching for a publisher. It doesn’t have to be a series, but at least have a few things to offer so you can seed the pipeline at regular intervals while you build your brand and write more books.
I wish I had done this. It would have solved the problem of trying to write while promoting, at least somewhat. As it is, I always feel like I’m in a game of catch up, trying to write more books while promoting the ones that are out. And all while trying to write fast enough to appease a publisher that wants the next book ASAP. Not to mention doing all of this while dealing with the rest of “life.” Having more books available at the outset would have made things a little more bearable.
Write a few books while you still have the luxury of time. Start building your platform, even if you think you have nothing to say or share. Once you publish, time becomes your enemy. When you’re unpublished, you can take as long as you want to write a book. You can make mistakes and cultivate your platform at a slower rate. But once you’re published, the clock starts ticking and every minute counts. You may need time for success, but no one is going to give it to you.
(Photo courtesy of FelixMittermeier)