Years ago, my wife and I were having dinner with friends and we were talking about things we’d like to master some day. Something came up to which one of us said, “But that kind of accomplishment would take a really long time. I’d turn 40 before that could ever happen.”
Our friend said, “Yeah, but if you’re lucky, you’ll turn 40 anyway, so you might as well pursue it.”
Talk about an epiphany that has stayed with us since.
Some time after that, I was at the Northern California Publishers and Authors (NCPA) conference, and one of the speakers, whose name I forget but who was quite accomplished in the world of books, said, “Don’t judge a writing career until you have at least ten books out.”
At the time, I had two books out. They were doing well, but it seemed that I was a very long way from being able to quit my day job. But I always remembered what he said.
Ten books. Whoa. It would take a long time to write ten books. Probably ten years. But, hey, ten years were going to go by anyway, right?
After my 4th book came out, I started to get the sense that if I quit my job and threw myself at writing full time - no, Double time, Triple time! - I might be able to sell enough books to earn my living from writing.
I talked it over with my wife, who was, as always, incredibly supportive. She said, “Go for it!”
So I quit my job and began working on writing All the time. No weekends off, no vacations, no skiing, no play. It was a ridiculous schedule. Seven days a week. Three hundred sixty-five days a year. If I wasn’t writing, I was giving talks at service clubs, libraries, schools, writer’s groups, and book clubs. I exhibited my books at countless art festivals, the State Fair, street fairs, any library that would have me. I did signings at several dozens of bookstores. I joined every author group from Reno to the Bay Area and went to their meetings. I purchased booth space at the L.A. Times Book Festival, the Tucson Festival of Books, the Sonoma County Book Festival, the Carson City Library Book Festival. I hustled books at every venue I could find from the Reno Rib Roast to the San Diego Harvest Festival. It was expensive, but I scrimped wherever possible. When I was on the road, I never once ate at a restaurant, saving money instead by eating grocery food. More times than I can count, lunch was a peanut butter sandwich while I was driving from one event to another.
If you visit the Events Page on my website and scroll down you’ll find hundreds of events where I’ve done my song and dance. And I didn’t even start that events page until something like 2008.
I entered contests and won awards. I submitted my books to reviewers and got reviews from all across the country. Over the next four or five years, I had maybe four or five complete days off.
What happened as a result of this effort?
My books sold more every year. The news spread. People move around the country and carry their books around with them. Every day I got more emails, and they came from farther afield. Florida, New York, Japan, Australia, Germany. Soldiers in Afghanistan wrote me.
A publishing company in France wrote and bought the French rights to one of my books.
And every year after I quit my job, I came out with a new book. I’m not a fast writer. I identify with the tortoise. I'm slow, but I never missed my annual deadline.
In 2012, I came out with my 10th book. I was finally there, ready to “judge” my writing career.
What was my conclusion?
The man at the NCPA conference was correct. Writers shouldn’t judge their career until they have ten books. My sales tracked a steady upward arc with each additional book. By the time my 10th book came out, I was all grins every time I looked at my sales.
Was I finally able to earn a good living because I wrote ten books? Well, the correct statement would be that I was finally able to earn a good living by the time I’d written ten books. Yes, ten books makes a huge difference in the eyes of readers looking for a new author. But in the process of writing ten books - the focus, the motivation, the drive to get it done - one learns a thousand things about this business. By the time you’ve written ten books, you’ll know better how to write stories, how to publish stories, and how to connect to readers.
In sum, ten books is critical to a career. But it’s not just writing ten books. It’s all the other stuff that comes with it.
Of course, you’re thinking that there are some writers who strike it big with their first book. True. But they are one percent of one percent of one percent. The vast majority of successful writers have a bunch of books on their backlist.
Readers tend to be impressed by writers even if they have only written one book. But if a reader is looking for a new author and they find two whose books seem equally intriguing, they’ll often choose the author with more books. Why? Partly, because more books creates the subliminal impression that the author is more invested in the process and may possibly be a more sophisticated storyteller. But mostly, because readers want to know there are more books to read if they end up liking the author.
So the message is… writers WRITE. One page a day gets you a book a year. Nearly anyone can do that. Yes, of course there is lots of rewriting to be done. Nevertheless, ten years from now, your bookshelf could feature a stack of books with your name on them. The time is going to go by either way.
If you dream of being a writer, don’t ever think about just writing one book. That would be like dreaming of opening a restaurant and serving just one entree. It could possibly be done, but the success rate is almost non-existent.
Get in it for the long term. Think multiple books. At least ten.