Friday, August 27, 2021

10 Myths About Being an Author I'd Like to Bust

When it comes to my authorial career (or lack thereof), this past year has been a tremendous learning experience. I'm sorry to say it's largely been an experience in finding out what doesn't work. But, like any good scientist*, I was open to possibilities and decided I would at least try some things to see if they made any positive difference. The lack of desired results was a highly informative result in itself. I can now definitively say I know what I don't want to do as an author, and I can also pass this information along to other authors, indie and otherwise, to prevent them from learning certain things the hard way.

*I am not a professional scientist, just a huge nerd.

You can read my series of long-winded essays over this past year to get a feel for what I've been trying to figure out and the sorts of trouble I got myself into. Suffice to say here that trying to follow "advice", "best practices", etc. for authors, which I gleaned from books, online articles, and personal correspondence with other well-meaning authors, not only did not get me an increase in sales, but plunged me into a bout of horrendous stress-related health issues. My life lacked joy and fulfillment, ironically as I was striving to find joy and fulfillment in my work. It felt like the harder I tried to get my career to where I thought it should be in order to have a meaningful life, the worse things got and the more meaningless my life felt.

Finally I came to the point where I had to admit to myself that all of this just was not working at all. I unloaded 95% of what I had accumulated in my fruitless quest to advance my career, and immediately found myself happier and less stressed. And I vowed to do things as a writer my way and listen to what God and my body were telling me, rather than listen to a million voices on the Internet who don't know me, don't particularly care about my overall well-being, and are imperfect humans who can just be plain incorrect.

As a disclaimer--if you actually enjoy doing any of the below-mentioned items, and/or find that they are really helping you in what you want out of your career, that's awesome. I'm really happy for you. But these are all things that just gave me an immense amount of stress and health issues, so I firmly believe they are not a "must" for every author, and do not even guarantee more readers/sales/whatever. Every author, every artist reserves the right to create and share their work in a way that is healthy for them. It's not worth making more money off your work if most of those funds are going toward medical bills for problems caused by overstress in the pursuit of making more money. Make sense?

Okay, let's dive on in.

Myth #1: Authors need to actively promote their work

Just because you wrote a thing - or even published a thing - doesn't mean you now need to run around telling the whole world about it. Especially if you are not the type of person who is naturally inclined to do that (see Myth #8). In fact, promoting your work doesn't even guarantee more people will read it. I engaged in extensive promotional efforts for a time, and learned several important things, viz.:

- Advertising is a huge waste of money. I poured so much money into advertising that I never got back in sales. I've seen articles that claim you need to spend a certain minimum amount of money on an ad campaign in order to have it reach enough consumers to break even--but that amount was far out of my budget, and of course there's no guarantee about sales.

- Promoting is a huge waste of time and energy. Promotional efforts were totally exhausting and draining for my introverted self, and saw very little increase in sales or interest. To be more accurate, I got maybe a couple dozen people who seemed mildly interested in an upcoming book, a handful who said they were excited for it, and maybe 1 or 2 of those people who actually bought it. The $4 in book sales was laughably not worth the days and weeks I burned myself out chatting, connecting, posting, and social-media-ing.

- Hiring someone else to do it for you is a huge waste of money. Professional marketers either get paid a set monthly fee, or receive a cut of sales profits. Most marketers do the former, which makes it really tough on authors who don't have a big budget to begin with. When I looked into hiring a marketer, I discovered that they ask for hundreds or even thousands of dollars a month. If I was making enough to afford that, why would I even need to hire a marketer?! I also looked into marketers who were willing to work for a cut of sales, and I got some responses that were very dismissive because I'm an indie author who doesn't write on-trend. Nobody wanted to work for me because I couldn't pay them well to begin with, despite the whole point being that I needed their help getting to a point where I could pay them well. Thanks.

My advice? Let your fans promote your work for you. They're going to be sincere, and people always appreciate sincerity. It's totally free. And it doesn't make you look desperate for people to read your books.

And despite what some people may claim, unless you really need the money from book sales, there is no fundamental requirement for anything you wrote to achieve a certain number of sales. That doesn't add any intrinsic value to a book. There have been many mediocre books that have sold explosively due to marketing factors, and many true gems of fiction that remain relatively obscure.

The most important part is that you wrote it, and it's out there for people to discover and enjoy when they're ready for it. You already put enough work in. You don't owe anything else to the public. Which leads me to...

Myth #2: Authors need to be entertainment figures

The 21st century is an interesting era, with a society full of instant gratification and the constant search for entertainment. Society craves the new, the attention-grabbing, the exciting. Life is fast-paced, and so is the rate at which we absorb information. We expect unread posts to pop up every time we refresh social media feeds. We want to be fed information in a constant, ceaseless stream.

Which is fine and all, but just think for a few seconds about how much work that takes for the people doing the posting. Social media influencers make social media their job, what they devote most of their day to doing. Practically any company nowadays with more than two employees has someone partially or totally devoted to social media. The administrator of NASA is not the one creating all those Instagram posts on NASA's myriad accounts for its various sub-departments and space missions--they have a whole team of social media specialists handling each account. To be current, relevant, and timely on social media and other media is pretty much a full-time effort.

The problem with this is twofold:

a) This leaves authors with less time and energy to write (and live their lives). Every hour they spend on Twitter is one less hour they worked on a manuscript. Every evening going through Goodreads forums is one less evening they spent with their family. Social media can be a huge time sink--you don't have to be addicted to it, you just have to think it's getting your career somewhere, to justify putting inordinate amounts of time and effort into it. I don't know about you, but I don't ever want to get to the point where it takes me longer to write books because I'm putting more of myself into social media than into actual writing.

b) Many authors may not actually want to be entertainment figures or have the temperament for it. And when you don't want to do something, and it's not something that comes naturally to you, you are going to be terrible at it and hate it (see: me playing the piano). It's like that one episode of My Little Pony where introverted, quiet Fluttershy was trying to do Pinkie Pie's job of being a party animal, and failing horribly because it was the complete antithesis of her personality.

I suspect I speak for a lot of authors when I say that writing allows me to contribute indirectly to people's lives and that's healthier for me. Socializing drains me. Writing something uplifting and helpful, and publishing it for others to gain something from, is very fulfilling and even energizing for me.

And if authors really need to be entertainers to get people to read their books, why do people still read books by dead authors? I don't expect J. R. R. Tolkien to post on Facebook, but that doesn't detract at all from my love of Lord of the Rings. I think the whole "entertainment" thing is a horrible scam.

The history of entertainment has shown that when people stop focusing on the integrity of what they're producing, and start becoming people-pleasers, they suffer. Their art suffers. And despite them thinking they're doing their audience a service, they're actually failing their audience because they are slowly destroying themselves and their work. 

And the scary thing is, many people just don't care. They don't stop to think that maybe they shouldn't have demanded so much. They just think "oh, that's sad" and then move on to the next interesting news story.

The public isn't going to take care of you, authors. You have to take care of yourself. Defend yourself from the insidious trap of turning yourself into an entertainer and letting other people control your life and your health. You already did something really big by writing a book (or multiple books). Don't let anyone fool you into thinking you owe them anything more.

Myth #3: Authors need email newsletters

I've heard so much playing up of newsletters. I read articles that pretty much said newsletters were like, the single most important thing you can ever do as an author, and your entire readership hinges on the existence of a newsletter (and of course you have to make sure it's as entertaining as possible).

Here's my experience with having a newsletter. I started one in January. I reached out to as many people as possible, letting them know I had a newsletter and directing them to the sign-up page. (I must add here that I never, ever added anyone's email address to the mailing list unsolicited.)

I quit doing the newsletter in May. I had a grand total of 10 people on my mailing list at that point. Most of whom I knew personally.

I quit the newsletter because I found it just wasn't doing anything for me, and it didn't seem to be doing anything for anyone on the mailing list. It didn't increase sales. It didn't increase event attendance. It didn't generate excitement for upcoming releases. And, I think in those five months, only one person ever mentioned reading the newsletter to me. 

It became evident to me that the very real time and effort I put into every lovingly crafted newsletter was pretty much going to waste. It was not making enough of an impact. And while I'm willing to chalk some of that up to me just not being very good at writing newsletters, which is possible, the fact of the matter is that it was just proving to be more stress than it was worth. As discussed above, I was jumping through hoops to try to please an audience who just didn't care.

You want to hear a terrible secret? I don't even like newsletters. I don't like having a cluttered inbox. Does anyone? There are myriad other ways to keep up with my work: this website, my Amazon author profile, Facebook, Instagram, and Goodreads. If you care enough to want to know if I've released a new book, you can go to any of those places and instantly find out. With much less effort on my part.

So no. You don't need a newsletter. It's not the end of the world if you don't have a newsletter. If you don't even enjoy writing newsletters in the first place, save yourself the trouble.

Myth #4: Authors need to network

I'm not saying you shouldn't ever tell anyone about your books. But when you find yourself trying way too hard to get all of your fingers into all of the social pies (if that metaphor makes any sense at all), you start to feel really stretched thin. 

You're only one person. You can't personally connect with 7 billion other human beings. Nor should you be expected to. Everyone has their own personal limits on how large of a social circle is too large, but you should not feel ashamed if even the idea of belonging to five different Goodreads groups sounds overwhelming.

It's said in media business that "it's not what you know, it's who you know". I'd like to extend that idea to "it's not just who you know, but trusting that you know enough of them". It always feels awesome to find someone who is really enthusiastic about your books. And I know from experience that just one person who really loves your books can be instrumental in spreading the word. But I also believe that you shouldn't have to destroy your health peddling your books to millions of people before you find the right ones. In fact, I've also learned that God and gut feelings have much, much more to do with finding the right people to connect with than the sheer statistics of how many people you can get in contact with.

A good analogy is friendship. Sure, you could indiscriminately become friends with absolutely everyone in order to find those good, close, lifelong friends-who-are-like-family. But that's going to lead to a lot of emotional exhaustion, wasted time and effort, non-reciprocation, and overall awkwardness. If you listen to your inner voice, you'll discover that you have a sense for which people make you feel good to be around, and which people you just want to stay away from. It's the same thing with business relationships.

Myth #5: Authors need to participate in writing groups

Can writing groups be helpful? Sure. Are they for everyone? Not at all. I have had way too many awkward, miserable experiences with writing groups to ever want to be part of one again. I write solo, and I like it that way. 

I need critique, but that's what editors are for. Hearing praise for my work in writing groups is nice, but it usually feels cancelled out by a) critique that isn't helpful and b) people just being rude and awkward.

I'm not going to name names, but a while back I tried attending a local writing group, and after just one meeting I was done. I unexpectedly had to babysit my niece just as the Zoom call started, and while everyone was casually chatting pre-meeting, I was asked to mute my microphone because I was trying to entertain my niece. (I know that's not the worst thing in the world to have happen, but it still bothered me. It would have been nice if they'd at least tried a little harder to try to get to know me.) 

Then, I tried to share an excerpt from something I was working on, and they told me to speak slower and louder. I was already feeling nervous about reading my work aloud, but having to change my speaking style completely messed up my delivery cadence, and I ended up sounding like 90's-era text-to-speech software, which made me feel really embarrassed and self-conscious. (Can I just add that I really appreciate that the BBC let Sir Patrick Moore speak as quickly as he wanted?)

Also, someone in the group pushed one of my writing-pet-peeve buttons by suggesting that I dumb down the science a little, which is not how I roll. (I actually write sci-fi with the intention of getting readers to go out and research the real science involved.) I came away from that group with zero helpful feedback, and lots and lots of embarrassment and feeling like the other group members thought I was an idiot.

The last straw came when another author decided to share his work, and immediately made it obvious that it was not something I was comfortable listening to. I left that Zoom call faster than a proton in a particle accelerator.

So, if you're an author feeling hesitant about joining a writing group, I'm here to tell you: listen to that gut feeling. If you're truly feeling like you don't want to do something despite everyone else telling you it's necessary, it probably shouldn't be done.

Myth #6: Authors need to follow current writing trends

Dissecting the interplay of art, entertainment, and media could be a whole essay - nay, a whole book - in itself. But I would like to point out that even if you're writing mainly to make money, just following trends will not guarantee that your book will sell. 

Aside from that, let's say you're not writing for the money, because I'm not, and I'm writing this post for other authors who treat their books as art-for-art's-sake. Your unique writing voice is a precious treasure, authors, and it does not deserve to be deformed by the capricious whims of a society that never actually knows what it wants or what's good for it.

I've come across a lot of writing "advice" over the past year, and I've come to realize that probably 75% of it is actually just personal opinion masquerading as solid literary knowhow. Everyone has things they do and don't like in prose and plot, but I think it becomes a problem when you try to project your opinions onto the rest of the literary world, and present yourself as an authority on a very subjective topic.

If you come across some writing advice that just doesn't settle well with you, here are some questions you can ask yourself:

- Does this advice seem to be generally accepted - both across the writing community and through time - or does it appear to be recent in origin, stem from a single or a small group of people, and/or have conflicting opinions?

- Is this advice something that I have also noticed as problematic as a reader? Or is it something that I never noticed before in reading and never took issue with, and still don't take issue with even after hearing this particular person's grievances with it? For example, I once read an article that claimed authors should never give a character's eye color. As a reader, I have never had any issue with authors telling me a character's eye color. I have never heard of anyone else having an issue with it, either. I could safely disregard this "advice" as just someone's opinion that had no bearing on my work.

- Is this advice genre-specific? Does it seem like it should only apply to one genre, but may not necessarily hold true for other genres and/or aims of the author? I've been told multiple times that I don't inject a lot of emoting into my prose. That's true. But I also just usually don't care to dwell much on characters' emotions. I write science fiction and fantasy adventure, not psychological drama or romance. Emotion just isn't as important of a player in my genres of choice. 

And, well, when I'm writing stuff like giant robot dogfights or fossils getting reanimated, I'm not going to kill the pacing by suddenly talking about how all the characters are feeling about this. It's not something that particularly concerns me. I think readers are intelligent enough to be able to intuit how characters generally react to situations--unless something in their reaction is different from the norm, in which case I do feel the need to indicate that. 

As a reader, I get bored with fiction that spends too much time dwelling on characters' emotional reactions, when there's a bunch of cool stuff happening outside of their heads that I would much rather be reading about. And I know that if I feel that way, other readers do too, so I'm writing for them. 

Again, you just can't please everyone with your writing, so why try? It's so much more fulfilling to just write what you like and trust that there are other people out there who will like it, too.

And you know what else? When you write what you like, your passion and enthusiasm shines through in your work. It's infectious. People can tell that you truly love what you wrote, and it makes an overall better work.

True classic literature has always broken molds and bucked trends. It's the stuff that sometimes starts slow, but once it catches on, it sells and keeps selling. And better yet, it touches millions of lives and has the potential to make the world a better place with its fresh ideas, unsullied by the inanity of doing something that's already been done. You owe it to your audience not to follow trends. You owe it to your work itself.

Myth #7: Authors need reviews and need to read them

I know I've already mentioned this before, but I've actually stopped reading reviews of my books. Because I've realized that I actually don't care what people think of them. 

My books are are solid on a technical level, I know I did the best I could with each one, so what is someone's critical feedback going to do to help me? I'm not going to change a book because someone doesn't like it. I like it, there are plenty of other people who like it, and if it's not to someone else's tastes, that's on them, not me.

I used to think I needed to read reviews - especially critical reviews - to find out what I was doing wrong. But you know what? Reviews just aren't the right place for that, especially subjective reviews on places like Amazon and personal blogs. They're going to be highly opinionated, which means that anything the reviewer didn't like about the book is also opinion, and thus likely to not be of any technical use to the author.

And really, if you have one or two good editors (I like having both a content editor and a proofreader), by the time a manuscript gets through them, it's going to be pretty polished and you'll have the major issues (and most of the minor ones) ironed out. It's okay to trust that you published a good book.

And once you have that confidence, you'll find that reader opinions just don't matter as much as they used to. Do I enjoy hearing from fans that they liked a book? Of course. But they can communicate that to me over social media. I don't need to trawl through a bunch of critical reviews just to read praise.

The other big reason why we're often told to get a bunch of reviews on our books is because it's been demonstrated that books with more reviews are more likely to sell well. I believe in this idea, because to me it's pretty obvious that more random strangers are willing to plunk down a whopping $2.99 for a novel if it looks like someone else besides the author's mom enjoyed it, you know?

But, that being said, if you're not desperate to sell more books, why bother getting more reviews? And it's also been shown that readers respond better to reviews that look sincere and well-thought-out, whatever the number. There have been several occasions when I've been asked by an author to read and review their book(s), and I've learned from experience that I don't enjoy giving a book an honestly critical review. I don't like making other people's books look bad, even if it's my honest opinion. But I'm also not going to mislead prospective readers into thinking I liked the book better than I did, because that wouldn't be fair to them. There have been times when I've withheld from writing a review altogether, because my opinion would not be conducive to getting the book more sales.

So, reviews aren't all they're cracked up to be, and they're certainly not worth worrying about. Just do what you love. What other people think of it is none of your business or responsibility.

Myth #8: Authors need to stop being so introverted

Let me tell you something: I'm a natural introvert. I always have been.

Let me tell you something else: Many of my most stressful social experiences have been when I have tried to make myself more extraverted. If you are also an introvert, I am validating your own very stressful social experiences where you have tried to be something you are not, and you fail miserably while screaming internally the whole time (see: the above Fluttershy example).

While introversion has been enjoying a general de-stigmatization lately, strangely the whole idea that it's okay to be introverted has not seemed to catch on in the business-heavy literary community. It's an ironic fact that most authors are introverts, and yet they are constantly being told to open up more, connect more, and socialize more, because it's "good for business".

Well, I've previously proven that it's not necessarily good for business. And it's definitely bad for your mental health. It's not healthy to constantly feel the stress and strain of constantly acting in a way that is the polar opposite of your core personality. When you go into a social situation, you should not come out of it feeling completely beaten down and spent because of how much social energy you expended trying to be extraverted, with the vague hope that perhaps your psychological sacrifice will gain you a few new book sales.

It's okay to be an introverted author and let your books and their fans do the talking for you. You need that peace, quiet, and solitude to keep your thoughts in order and keep creating your literary masterpieces (and to be happy and healthy). 

And in social situations, you don't have to get in people's faces and grab their attention in order to inform them about your books, if that's not what you enjoy doing. There are other ways to get the information out. Maybe you have a close friend or family member who's always gushing about your books, and they can be the conversation starter who gets other people interested in you. Maybe you're okay with small talk with people you already know, and when they ask what you've been up to, you can casually let drop that your new book just came out. There are all sorts of strategies for every personality.

You have to do what's comfortable for you and what works for you. Whether or not you see more sales out of it is actually out of your hands--but you can definitely control your mental health and happiness.

Myth #9: Authors need to be open and vulnerable with their readers

Whoa, no, big red stop sign here. I've seen a trend arise on the Internet lately, especially with public web figures such as bloggers, YouTubers, and, yes, authors who are active on social media. This trend is to treat the public like a close, trusted friend. Someone you tell everything to, spill all your feelings to, share your insecurities with. It's like the world is your inner circle.

Except, think for a minute about why you don't do that in real life. Not everyone is safe to have in your inner circle. Not everyone is safe to open up to. Some people are crazy. Some people are users. Some people are hackers. Some people are just plain mean.

The rule of thumb "if you wouldn't do it in a real-life social situation, don't do it online" definitely applies here. When you write those soul-filled posts about your surgery or your grandma passing away or your engagement, you are putting that emotionally sensitive information out there for absolutely anyone and everyone to a) read, b) comment on, and c) potentially use against you. It's just not safe and it's not smart. 

In addition, speaking as a reader, when an author shares sensitive information with me, I actually just feel really awkward. I'm not their close friend, I'm not their therapist, I'm just someone who enjoys their books. That's as far as our relationship goes, and if I cared to change that, I'd start emailing them personally or something. I really don't enjoy getting other people's vulnerability thrown at me unsolicited. Actually, when an author does that, that's the point at which I unfollow them on social media, unsubscribe from their newsletter, etc. Because no matter how much I like their writing, as a person they're making me uncomfortable by sharing too much about themselves, and I'm not okay with that.

So to quote Gandalf, when it comes to thinking you need to open up to the public about your very private inner life: keep it secret, keep it safe.

Myth #10: Authors need to share their lives with the public

This one is along the same lines as #9, but a little more inane. I'm fed up with the idea that authors basically need to become lifestyle bloggers. If you enjoy sharing with the public stuff like your kitchen makeover, your pets' Halloween costumes, and what you had for breakfast, that's fine. But is it requisite to be an author? No. Will it help your books sell? No.

Because, let me tell you, I've learned from social media experience that if you have an engaging social media page, you'll get plenty of followers for that page. But people who think your posts are entertaining are not necessarily people who want to read your books. The majority of them are satisfied just having your posts pop up on their news feed - for free - and don't feel any obligation to make the effort to, ugh, pay actual money for something you created. (And, of course, if you do five dozen posts going into extreme detail about every aspect of your upcoming novel, it's like they read the novel without actually reading it... think about it.)

Does the public knowing all the particulars of your everyday life actually say anything about your writing--you know, the thing you're trying to get them to focus on? Does your perfectly photographed oatmeal have any bearing whatsoever on how well you write combat scenes? Do your twelve sunset pictures you took while walking the dog say anything about your skill in character development? And does that funny Star Wars meme actually garner your latest novel more votes for that shiny literary award?

Being an entertaining social media figure and a good author are not mutually inclusive. And a startling percentage of people who follow you on social media are not at all interested in your books, just in your social media. If you're the sort of person who finds social media engagement draining and exhausting, then it's really just a huge waste of your time with very little to show for it.

And again, as with #9, the more personal information you share with people, the more you increase the risk of it falling into the wrong hands. I'm not even just talking about identity theft and such--if you don't have an incredibly thick skin, it's downright harmful to sit and read a bunch of trollish comments directed toward you on a daily basis. "If you wouldn't do it in a real-life social situation, don't do it online," remember? Do you willingly, regularly put yourself in real-life social situations where crowds of random antisocial strangers make fun of you and shout hurtful things at you? If you do, what's wrong with you? And if you don't, why is it okay to put yourself in this same situation online? I firmly believe that the less people know about you, the better. Your life is none of their business and bad things happen when you make it their business. 

Besides, it's not about you. It's about your work. You want to focus your audience's attention on your work. Because you're certainly not getting any money out of them paying attention to you, and neither is it doing wonders for your mental health.

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So there it is, my big long essay-rant about everything I find wrong with what the writing community is telling authors to do these days. Maybe none of it is applicable to you and your situation, maybe some of it is. The bottom line is: be true to yourself and be true to your work. It's not worth being anything less. Your work will suffer and you'll regret it.

Oh, and the Internet is a terrifying place where anybody can say anything they want. Tread lightly. Watch who and what you trust. Keep yourself safe.

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