Managing expectations: Hope for success, prepare for failure, keep working

career indie author

career indie author introduction

If you’ve never run a business before, if this is your first book you’ve published, if you’ve read enough success stories and heard come-ons from book marketers that promise a steady income or best-seller status, we need to talk about expectations.

Writing is fun. Creating a story is a blast. Putting words down on paper that make you laugh or cry is a great way to spend your time.

Selling them can break your heart.

Your books are like your kids. When both leave the house, they’re largely on their own. You can still step in from time to time and give them a boost, but how they’ll do will be largely out of your control.

Books can fail, just like your children.

Hang around a closed Facebook group or a bar at Bouchercon and you’ll hear the stories. “I’ve tried everything, but my books aren’t selling.” “New covers, new editing, nothing, I don’t know what to do next.” “Should I change genres? What’s hot now?”

In the meantime, there are parts of this business that are not so much fun. Recordkeeping is a chore. Remembering to keep receipts and write down your expenses is a pain. Doing your taxes? If you’re not hiring someone else to do them, it can be torture.

Then there’s the work on the manuscripts to polish them, check for typos and word usage, and if you write non-fiction, double-checking the facts and keeping the bibliography straight.

You’re not going to be an immediate success.

You might not be an intermediate success.

S.J. Pajonas

Ask S.J. Pajonas. After three years in the business, she had plans for a blockbuster fourth year. She would have more books coming out, and the audience she had built during her first three years should return. She had more than 2,000 subscribers to her newsletter. She got the hang of Facebook advertising. She had made a mistake going with Amazon exclusively the previous year and vowed to correct that this year. Surely year four will validate all of her decisions.


Japonophiles should definitely check out her free books.

A year later, and in her annual roundup she confessed, “I’m treading water and it’s exhausting.” She discovered the people on her list were interested only in free books, or that many of them never read the books they received. She launched a book in a new genre (women’s fiction) that, despite her ad spend, sold one copy.

That’s one copy for the year.

Pajonas plans to continue writing, but on a part-time schedule.

Nor is she alone in her frustration. Regularly, on the bulletin boards and members-only Facebook groups, authors reveal that their books aren’t selling as well as they think they should. They’re asking “what am I doing wrong?” and “how can I do better?”.

It can be hard to tell sometimes. I know of a writer who planned to launch her thriller series over several months, only to see a dismal return for her efforts. She was an experienced writer, her books had great covers, she had lined up some excellent publicity. It should have worked.

Except I noticed that she didn’t have a website. She had bought the name and threw up a WordPress installation, but she had left it in its original configuration.

Did it hurt her? I suspect it did. Her name is easy to remember and google. Without the blog, a search for her name brought up her Amazon author’s page, alongside a family dentist, an obituary, a shrink in Burbank, Calif., and a list of profiles sharing her name on Facebook. Not much social credibility, there.

But even if writer takes the right writing and editing courses, attends conferences, and buys books and videos on internet marketing and advertising, it can still go wrong. That’s because the one thing they cannot buy is that “X” factor, that leap of imagination, that determines if readers will respond to your work like the Next Big Thing or the next big miss.

The competition for writers wanting to break in is tough. A “good enough” book published under an established name can still be enjoyed. A bad book might still be excused. But the first, second, third book by an unknown? It needs something more to break through.

I think Steve Martin said it best:

I say the goal is not to be good — it’s to be great. The idea is to have the audience leave, and say, “You’ve got to see this.” You have to work backwards from that result.

steve martin

And look good with an arrow through your head. That helps, too.

What can you do about it? Apart from taking Martin’s lesson to heart and really think about what you’re doing, probably keep on doing what you’re doing. Educate yourself about the business. Get advice on the best practices. Launch campaigns with a defined goal and deadline and look at the results, then change a factor and try again. Protect your writing time and your creativity. Feed it with great books and other media. Give yourself time to dream and imagine, and find the courage to follow through. Have faith that you will find your audience, at least until you decide that you’d rather be doing anything else than writing.

But most of all, find the fun and satisfaction from bringing something into this world that wasn’t here before.

Take a look at these quotes about writing, both positive and negative. Maybe one of them will reflect how you feel:

David Lynch: “You better love your work and the doing. Because what comes after, there’s no guarantees. Sometimes, you get the frosting on the cake. Sometime, you don’t. But if you love the doing and you believe in what you do, it’s OK.”

John Grisham: “I don’t know if I could ever take pleasure in writing. I’ve never been able to enjoy the process. Everything about being a writer is fun, except the actual work of it. When I’m at the computer, I’m sweating. And writing is lonely. Nobody can help you.”

Stephen King: “I did it for the buzz. I did it for the pure joy of the thing. And if you can do it for joy, you can do it forever.”

Erica Jong: “I think that the joy of writing a novel is the self-exploration that emerges and also that wonderful feeling of playing God with the characters. When I sit down at my writing desk, time seems to vanish.”

Annie Dillard: “Putting a book together is interesting and exhilarating. It is sufficiently difficult and complex that it engages all your intelligence. It is life at its most free. Your freedom as a writer is not freedom of expression in the sense of wild blurting; you may not let rip. It is life at its most free, if you are fortunate enough to be able to try it, because you select your materials, invent your task, and pace yourself. … The obverse of this freedom, of course, is that your work is so meaningless, so fully for yourself alone, and so worthless to the world, that no one except you cares whether you do it well, or ever.”

Jean Rhys: “When I was excited about life, I didn’t want to write at all. I’ve never written when I was happy. I didn’t want to. But I’ve never had a long period of being happy.”

Neil Gaiman: “When writing a novel, that’s pretty much entirely what life turns into: “House burned down. Car stolen. Cat exploded. Did 1,500 easy words, so all in all it was a pretty good day.”

Peter de Vries: “I love being a writer. What I can’t stand is the paperwork.”