Publishing is hard. I get that but this is not an advice column. I am not giving you recommendations on how to run your career. I am not telling you how to live your life. I do have insights, rooted in my very subjective experience, into how I think the industry operates and what I think makes a book work from time to time. But I want to make it crystal clear from the outset why I don’t think this is advice.
All publishing advice is inherently contradictory.
The most common piece of writing advice given to new writers is to “show, don’t tell.” In my opinion, this advice is nonsense and is more harmful to writers than helpful. But, it’s also true. You need to show a character’s emotions rather than tell us how they feel. Showing the reader the symptoms and behaviors of grief is much more moving than saying “Greg was sad because his dog died.”
The problem with this advice is, inherently, stories are mostly telling. Mostly, you, the writer, are telling us, the reader, a bunch of information. If you show us every detail, then we’re bored out of our skulls and incapable of processing what’s important about your story. You have a responsibility to tell us what is happening.
Stories are all telling. It is also true that you need to show, not tell. See? It makes no sense. Do both at the same time if you want to succeed.
- Don’t write to the market. Also, you can’t sell urban fantasy.
- Write what you know. But you’re making stories up about imaginary people.
- Prologues are boring and bad. Except when they’re useful and engaging.
Any time I try to give someone generic advice it is immediately clear to me and to them that I’m full of shit. Because generic advice is horseshit. Every writer’s situation, every book’s problems, are so distinct, unique, and complex that it’s extremely hard to give advice that’s applicable across a broad enough spectrum to feel you’re doing more good than harm. Advice is a trap and if you catch me handing it out like candy, call me out for I have strayed from the path.
Optimization is madness.
A major category of advice boils down to strategies to maximize your income, or up your Goodreads rating, or work so efficiently that the words flow like a river down to the sea of readers who will in turn shower you with money. I see advice all the time that recommends very specific strategies for hacking algorithms or conning readers into paying attention. These are tactical plans laid out in detailed bullet pointed lists. Or powerpoint presentations given from a stage with one of those headset mics. Or whispered over watery cocktails in a hotel bar lounge.
The real secret is that there is no secret. There’s something that worked for someone that one time. There’s a strategy that was effective on a platform, at a particular time in the market, executed by someone with a specific audience. Sometimes someone’s whole career is based around it. It doesn’t make them wrong. It makes them biased because it worked for them. But that doesn’t mean it’s going to work for you or for anyone else.
And, more to the point, writing books is a creative process. You’re making art and while there are more profitable ways and less profitable ways of making art, worrying about the optimization breakpoints of that process strikes me as counter to the whole point.
A writer’s career is not an efficient way of extracting value from the marketplace. Which is not to say that it can’t be very lucrative. I wouldn’t be doing this if there weren’t monetary upsides. It’s just not a process that is given to optimization, especially through third party strategies.
So, here’s my advice:
If you want to succeed in commercial publishing, focus on your fundamentals. Write a good story. Assemble a team of people you trust. Put a good cover on your book. Make it so that people can easily give you money for it. And do it again. And again. And again.
That’s it. That’s all there is to it.