There is a book entitled The Self Made Myth, by Brian Miller and Like Lapham. It debunks the myth that business success is the effort of heroic individuals working hard, with no outside help (or luck). Many years ago I read an issue of Forbes special edition (e.g. not part of their regular magazine). It focused on how the strong successes of some startups boils down to luck, pure and simple.
I am, of course, simplifying the content of both of these sources, but the core of it is true. This doesn’t obviate the need for good writing, editing, artwork, and marketing. What it means is even with all of that as a foundation, you still need some luck to make it modestly well–never mind superstar–in sales.
I bring this up because so many authors who have self published, or are ready to submit to an agent or press, have the expectation that they will do well if they work hard. This myth is further propagated by the few writers who do well and by the many books those writers sell on how to market and be successful. All their advice has some truth, but don’t be fooled. There is no magic formula.
I guarantee that there is no magic formula and that plenty of people follow all the advice in those books and get nowhere. Sure, you can sometimes manufacture success, but only rarely, not consistently. Witness the struggle that publishers go through. Self-published authors often decry the business savvy of publishers, thinking it’s so obvious why their profits are low. They point to the things they don’t like about publishers and assume that if that was changed, the publisher would become successful. Part of that ridicule, and I have seen this on countless blog posts, is “well, I thought that publishers were supposed to be great a picking out winners, that’s why they reject so many manuscripts [including the author of the diatribe’s work]. They deserve they failure. They need to drop the prices, go with (insert various new Amazon program that the blogger is a fan of) and then they would see what it is all about!” Well, I have already destroyed much of that argument in the past ($200 million in sales for indie books spread across 1 million titles…do the math). No, publishers are not predicting individual books, they are like stock analysts, or portfolio managers. They are looking at the fundamentals and putting those that they like in a basket of books and hoping that the return on investment for that BASKET is positive. Sort of like a mutual fund. They do this because they CAN’T predict individual books. No one can (including the recent computer program that was touted a few months ago). As an individual, your odds are low. Period.
Another metaphor, rather than stocks, is a casino. The house wins on statistics and aggregation, not on betting that a single player will win or lose. The person who wins the jackpot on roulette, or blackjack (the self-published author) says “See, I made it big. I have a system. You can use it too and win.” But, in the end, with all the players, the house wins. Not because they are brilliant, but because they understand how to set the odds so that over all they win. Publishers don’t pick winners, they pick a pool of writers that have a slightly better chance of winning.
If the odds are basically against you, why write? Some of you know the answer. You have to–it’s in your DNA. But others, who are carving out precious time to write and have too much to do already, and have a wide variety of interests why should you write? I will twist the concept of a craft book on writing, Unless It Moves The Human Heart by Roger Rosenblatt. If you write and self-publish, or go with any sized publisher, you should be excited when you touch ONE human heart. If your writing moves one person, its worth it.
I mean, of course, someone you might not touch otherwise. You could write and pass it to your friends and family (and most writers do), but the beauty of a book is you might touch someone across the globe, or someone years from now.
So, I encourage all those who submit books to New Libri (our press) or any other press to do so, but don’t expect riches. Expect to touch one person and you will be fulfilled. Those who think that a publisher will solve the “getting it out there in more hands” type of issue aren’t being realistic. If you get accepted by an agent or a publisher, it means you touched them enough to think there is a chance you will sell, but only as part of their portfolio. The success is that you touched someone, not the money you may, or may not, receive.