Sunday, June 14, 2015

Being An Author: The Hardest Part vs. The Most Important Part

One of the most common questions I get is, “What is the most important part of being an author?” Another is, “What is the hardest part of being an author?”

Good questions. The answers are totally different.

Back in the early 1990s, Michael Pietsch gave a talk at the Squaw Valley Community of Writers, a major writers’ conference. For those of you who are interested, I recommend it. I went and learned a lot. At the time, Pietsch was Editor-in-Chief at Little Brown (think James Patterson, Michael Connelly). Now, he is Publisher at Hachette, Little Brown’s parent company. Talking about the consolidation in the publishing business, which was getting to full steam right about then, Pietsch said that while a good book was important to publishers, an author’s platform was much more important. He explained that, in considering what books to publish, the focus of New York publishers was deciding which authors had a chance of selling 25,000 copies in hardcover. The main driver of what helps an author sell books is how well that author is known. Does he or she have a syndicated newspaper column that will help sell books? A radio show? Is she the CEO of a big company with lots of employees who might buy her book? Is her aunt a producer on Oprah? Is she a celebrity? Famous or infamous? Is he or she - sorry to say it - beautiful and charming and articulate on the fly? (Those qualities that draw lots of attention in a TV-focused world.)

The measures of platform helped to explain the rumors that Saul Bellow, who’d won the Nobel Prize for Literature and was arguably America’s greatest living writer, had a new novel he couldn’t get published while Paris Hilton could get a book deal well into six figures. Bellow was a wonderful writer but not someone that many people remember as being prime guest material for, say, Jimmy Fallon’s gig.

It all gets down to how big is your impact on the vast pool of readers.

By comparison, a good book, while important, was not as critical as platform. That was true in the early 90s, and it’s still true today. Which brings me to the focus of this piece.

The hardest thing about being an author is not the same as the most important thing. (Note that this all presupposes that the author believes that an audience is critical to the equation.)

The hardest part of being an author is writing a good book. The most important part is figuring out how to get that book in front of readers. Mr. Bellow nailed the hardest part. Ms. Hilton nailed the most important part.

Let’s revisit what makes a good book (focusing, for these purposes, on fiction). You need a gripping story, told with authority and flair. You need to find the magic that gets your reader to suspend their disbelief such that, even though they know your book is fiction, they “buy” into it and get as involved as if the story were true. You need characters that readers connect with, characters that we love or hate, cheer or hiss, worry about or hope will die. You need to have a rising plot curve that makes it difficult for readers to put down the book. You need all the subtleties of clear and lively writing. You need to have an unerring ear for the way people talk as well as the ability to describe action and emotion so that the reader is never distracted by the writing. You need to have mastered all the mechanics of prose, point of view, dialogue, action, and the dreaded exposition. You need to understand and employ foreshadowing for every critical scene in your novel. You need your writing to be intelligent. You may even need the subject of your novel to be educational for the reader who is looking to learn something from every book they read. Last, you need to imbue your writing with that undefinable characteristic of stickiness such that the reader will stay with your book and, when finished, will buy your other books.

This book writing stuff is easy if all you’re trying to do is get 350 pages of stuff down. But if you want an audience larger than your mother and your best bud, it is really quite hard. Think of the books you’ve read - or started to read - that just don’t do it for you. The author went through all the motions and tried very hard, but the book didn’t grab you. If you are the writer, this is a daunting task. Writing a good book is the hardest part of being an author.

But it ain’t the most important part.

Once you have some good books, you will badly want to find readers. I’ve heard of a few authors who wrote dozens novels without finding an audience. Apparently, they were sufficiently satisfied with the joys of writing stories. But they are rare. You should expect to publish more than one book before you find much of an audience. But after several books, most of us will start to develop a strong urge to see other campers enjoying the bonfire we’ve carefully built.

So how does one pursue this “most important” part of being an author?

You identify the people you know or sort of know and you reach out to them with mail and email and social media posts and tweets and Facebook posts and a blog and whatever else you can think of. You figure out how to get the media talking or writing about your book. You participate in blog tours and online discussions. You join author circles where each author promotes every other author’s book. You plan as many “events” as you possibly can, giving talks, participating in panel discussions, making presentations at service clubs, going to libraries and bookstores. In short, you make appearances of any kind where you can introduce your book. Then you introduce it! “Hi there. I’m here today introducing my new book. It’s about .... I think it’s good, and I’m proud of it, and I’d love to have you give it a try!”

Is this easy? No. It’s very hard. Especially for introverts who make up 95% of serious writers. (Because authors by definition need to spend most of their time alone, writing and thinking. The extroverted, life-of-the-party, office gadfly rarely makes a good writer because social interaction and writing are mutually exclusive.)

Jane Austen, drawn by her sister Cassandra.
Austen was likely an introvert. If she were alive today,
she probably would have a very hard time getting
published because she had no platform.

Hard as working your platform is, it’s the most important part of finding an audience for your books. You have to get tough and get to it. When you succeed at earning a living from writing, you’ll be ecstatic, because making up stories is the best job in the world.


  1. Thank you for this, Todd. You have nailed it perfectly. Even as I read through the first half, I started to get excited at the thought of applying all of this afresh to my next novel. And then as I read the second half, I felt myself sinking back into my shell at the thought of having to "get out there" and expose myself and my novels to the world. I'm definitely in the Jane Austen 95% camp, but I need to put on my Big-Girl pants and grow a thicker skin because I do want to find that ever-elusive audience and continue making up stories for the rest of my life - preferably full time. You're right - it really is the best thing in the world!

    1. Thanks for writing, Susan. I believe you'll find that getting out there is easier than you think. Yes, you have to spend some time outside of your comfort zone, but it's not as bad as making cold calls. If you choose your venues so that you can display your books and some information about them, you will find that people will stop and talk to you.Then all you need to do is be friendly and answer their questions. You will have a "role" to play, which is much easier than "winging it" and trying to introduce yourself to strangers.
      I wish you the best!