Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about my career as a writer. Not my career as a freelance writer for mags and newspapers and the odd bit of copywriting – that (so far) is going great. I love it. It pays the bills. It’s interesting. I get to chat to a lot of cool people and work from home and eat things like this for lunch.
No. I’ve been thinking more about my career as an author, as a writer of books. For as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to write a book (I think most writers do), and when I finally got a book deal, I assumed I would be the author I always wanted to be. I assumed people would read my books. I assumed people would know my name. I assumed I would be famous (in book publishing, anyway. Not like, Beyonce-level famous). Mainly I assumed that once I got this book deal, the hard work was over. I was on my way. Fame and riches and never having to write another magazine article about the importance of sleep (which, truly, is very important) were so close. I would be a full-time author, working on books and having them turned into TV shows and movies and audiobooks and so on.
The thing is, that it doesn’t really work like that. Because the truth about writing is that almost nobody is successful.
People ask me all the time how my books are doing. They are well-intentioned and genuinely interested in my career. It’s nice. But the question also grips me with panic, because the truth is, if I answer honestly, I am sure I will see the person staring back at me with an expression of disappointment and confusion. You do all that work to sell that many books? Are you crazy? I can see this happening, and so I don’t say anything concrete. I am like a politician dodging a sex scandal. I say something vague and non-committal like, “You know, it’s doing well. But they don’t give you numbers for a while, so it’s hard to say exactly.” Most people seem content with this limited response and then I try to steer the conversation towards something else (at the moment, all I can talk about is The People vs OJ Simpson, which is now on Netflix and is amazing and you should all watch it).
Because like me, most people think that authors are a successful lot.
And yep, there are some super-successful authors out there, men and women whose debut books get made into award-winning movies, whose books earn them literally millions of dollars, who are interviewed by equally famous writers and put on the covers of magazines and, yes, get to quit their day jobs. These authors exist. But not many of them exist in Australia.
It’s a dirty little secret among writers (at least the ones I know) that we do it for the love, and not the money or the accolades or even the number of readers – we do it because we love writing and it is something we have to do. Not that we don’t want money or accolades or millions of readers – we really, really do!! – but we know that these things do not come easily. We know that for most writers, they only come after years and years and years of hard work.
The hard work isn’t necessarily writing the books. The hard work is selling the books – and this is what I didn’t understand when I signed that book deal. Because signing the deal is such a small part of the battle. Signing the deal is like going on a great first date – it’s fun and everyone is getting along, but the road ahead is long (but you either ignore that or don’t know it yet, and so you just keep thinking of how great it all is right now).
Selling books is hard. For the most part, it is up to you, the author. While publishers are great and have money and can hook you up with PR and marketing, ultimately, they will always have to move on to the next book. And so it is mainly up to you to get out there and sell those books.
It’s like running a business, and if you don’t think of that way, you’re doomed. Sometimes (rarely) authors will become international sensations despite (or maybe because of) their anonymity and reclusiveness (eg Elena Ferrante). Most of the time, authors hit the big time (or even just the middle time!) by constantly putting their faces out there, organising events, personally going into bookstores unannounced and signing books (even though this is mortifying the first time and continues to be mortifying every time thereafter), paying for their own launches, buying copies of their own books to send to influencers (in the hope that they might tweet or ‘gram a photo of said book), retweeting every mention of their books, keeping up a constant social media presence, appearing for free at schools and libraries, and yep, writing newsletters just like this.
I write all of this not to complain, but to be honest and transparent. Being an author is a hard slog, it really is. It is constantly doing your own PR, even if you hate doing your own PR (I really, really hate doing my own PR). It is asking everyone you know favours even if you hate asking people for favours (incidentally, I also hate asking people for favours). It is literally hand-selling books and being over the moon when you head to an event three hours from your house and you sell 40 books.
My books have done OK in the grand scheme of things. They have not been made into an HBO miniseries starring literally all of my favourite actresses, but they have sold in decent numbers. Many books published in Australia sell less than 500 copies. A bestseller, here, is a book that’s sold 10,000 copies. In relative terms, my books have sold pretty decently. I have made money from them (not a lot, but some). My first book was translated into German, my second book will be made into an audiobook later this year. I am proud of them. I still get a kick every time I see them on a bookstore shelf, or on someone’s Instagram feed. But I know now that writing a book is only a small part of the work of an author. It’s possibly not even the most important part.
I don’t write any of this to discourage you from being a writer. Being a writer is fantastically fun and engaging and will fulfil you in ways you never dreamed were possible. But it’s only part of the deal. And I wish someone had told me that, so now I’m telling you. If you want to be a writer, you have to be a good writer, of course – but you also have to be hungry AF and competitive and determined to succeed. You have to want it more than anyone and you have to get out of your comfort zone to sell. You have to know that you are the person who cares most about your book in the entire world, so if you want it to do well, that burden lies mainly on your shoulders. So work those shoulders. Work ’em real good.
With all this in mind, here are my top five tips to start thinking of your career as an author as a business. And yep, I know I totally Rachel Maddow-ed y’all and buried the lede, but thanks for reading along with me. Time for a wine, right?
1. Get comfortable with talking about your book. Have an elevator pitch ready, because people will ask you about it and you’ll look ridiculous if you say something like, “Um, it’s about this man, and this woman, and… um…” Get an elevator pitch and rehearse it, just as you would if you ran a business.
2. Ask for favours. This is hard and I still hate it, but it works. Ask people to read your book and post a review on Goodreads. If you know someone in the media, ask if they can get a copy to someone influential. They can say no. That’s OK. But you’ve got to ask.
3. Stand up for yourself. Your publisher will sometimes make decisions you don’t like. Some of those decisions are necessary, but if you have a strong opinion, it’s OK to voice that. You know your book better than anyone.
4. Get a social media presence and for the love of dogs, USE IT. If you don’t know where to start, the Australian Writers Centre has a great short online course that I found very helpful.
5. Get an agent. A good one. One who will stuck up for you when it all gets a bit much. One who will explain things to you that you don’t understand because you are a writer, not a publishing professional. One who believes in you and your books and wants to see you succeed. Businesses are only as good as the people within them, so surround yourself with good people. An agent who believes in you and your work is the first step.
Check out more on Lauren Sams’ writing, including her two books She’s Having Her Baby and Crazy, Busy Guilty here.