You’re an Amazing Writer and I Hate You

fist-hate-writers

When my friend J.R. moved to Texas in order to take a new job as a pastor, he started tagging every related post on social media with the hashtag: #Texodus. I had the simultaneous reaction of absolutely loving that tag and hating myself for not being so fresh, clever, and inventive.

It’s as if all of the creativity in the world had been bottled up and shipped to Texas that week. Creativity had taken its own #Texodus…

And then the other day, author Jen Hatmaker shared that her family had just discovered this parody of hipster parenting on Pinterest, complete with a fictional child named Quinoa. Hatmaker mentioned on Facebook that she both loved it and hated it because it was so clever.

It was basically a transcript of my own thoughts… just with the implied southern drawl that I add to everyone from Texas on social media.

I love how author Anne Lamott writes with bracing honesty about both celebrating and lamenting the success of other authors. This isn’t just about the fear of fellow authors filling up the coveted spots at major publishers—though I’m sure there’s some fear of that too. This is about guilt and comparison and the fear that we’re never doing enough or never writing anything good enough. Fellow writers become our anecdotal evidence.

See! She’s publishing articles in those journals! I’ll never keep up with her!

He just wrote an amazing book for my favorite publisher. I can’t match that!

It’s also really easy to overestimate the success of other writers. Perhaps I see a writer publish a great book, and I’m filled with envy at his talent and notoriety, but he’s on the other end lamenting that the book hasn’t sold enough to earn back an advance and is looking at the writers above him who are getting bestseller stickers slapped on their books left and right.

And let’s not overlook this: it’s hard to sell books—especially if you want to do everything ethically. Some of my favorite books aren’t bestsellers, and some of the books I hate—I mean with a white, hot, passionate hate—are bestsellers that make someone’s list of amazeball books every year. So when you’re struggling as a commercial or indie author, it’s easy to start making comparisons and to start wondering if your book would do a bit better if you had half of the resources available to another author.

I can’t speak definitively on this, but as I try to sort out the state of my own soul with all of this book publishing envy, jealousy, and carefully controlled hatred, I think most of my restlessness is based on a low opinion of myself. I lack confidence most days in my own calling and in my own developing talent. I forget all of the times that I’ve felt God giving me a steady shove to keep at this writing thing.

Perhaps I even begin to envy the gifts or callings of others. I forget that I have my own style, stories, and messages to pass along, and so long as I’m offering them to others as a gift, I don’t have to worry about the success that others have.

That feels like the kind of cliché line a loser writer believes when he can’t measure up to “successful writers.” However, I always have to remind myself that someone will sell more books and achieve more success. Comparison is its own never ending punishment. You can only break out of it by writing out of a sense of conviction and always improving your work because you’ve been called to do your best as a service to others, not because you want to hit a bestseller list or ten.

As with most things, there’s a fine line here. Every writer needs to read in order to improve. I’ve flipped through memoirs and novels and marveled at how a particular author wove the various storylines and characters together. Those books challenged me to become a better writer.

However, if we aren’t rooted in God’s presence, calling, and strength, we’ll move from disappointment to envy to self-loathing over and over again.

We each have to sort out our own paths to peace and contentment within the callings God give us. What works for me may not work for everyone else. But I do know what has failed me over and over again. I know what other writers have shared with me.

The envy and jealousy that comes with comparing ourselves to others minimizes the work God is doing in and through us. God can work through us, but sometimes we have to turn our eyes away from what everyone else is doing so that we can say, “Speak Lord, your servant is listening.”

 

Two Things that Sell a Lot of Books: #2 A Trusted Name with an Extensive Platform

Whether you have a popular web site, a radio show, an informative newsletter, or professional credentials, selling a book requires a personal connection. Selling a lot of books requires this level of personal trust on a large scale.

While reviews, social media, and web sites are all part of extending a marketing platform, these pieces should not be confused with making very personal connections with readers. Twitter and blogs are great, but they have their limits.

The Kind of Connections Authors Need

From what I can tell, my greatest success in selling books has come from personally talking with readers whether through personal conversations, events, e-mail, or interaction on web sites.

When I have a chance to share my passion for my book, I have a much greater chance of convincing readers to spend their hard-earned money on it. However, reaching potential readers with your personal message and creating enough trust for them to spend money on your book requires a fairly significant number of connections with readers.

I personally would not endorse every method used by authors out there to sell books and some will be more difficult for new authors to use effectively, especially radio and television, but there are lots of ideas out there about building a platform that will help you speak directly with readers and develop a level of trust for you and your book from a monthly newsletter with valuable information to a niche-focused public event.

How to Connect with Readers

Building a platform begins with the question, “How can I effectively connect with readers interested in my topic?” Keep in mind, this isn’t the same as advertising, and posting to a web site is probably the least personal way to do this, making it generally less effective.

I’m building my e-mail newsletter, working on some videos, leading workshops with local community and arts organizations, and connecting with various podcasts, but the possibilities are endless. I’ve been encouraged to hear from a respected author and friend that he finds my newsletter very valuable, and many of those who attend my workshops give me positive feedback. It’s good to know I’m doing a few things right, even if there’s always a lot more to do.

The hardest part about building these connections with readers is starting small. You may begin with twenty newsletter subscribers and workshops with only five attendees. However, if you continue to make connections, to help people with your material, and to build on those relationships, you should be able to connect with enough readers who will not only trust you enough to buy your book, they may also recommend it to others.

Previously in this Series:

Two Things That Sell a Lot of Books: #1

Also in this series: Five Great Things That Don’t Sell a Lot of Books

Great Endorsements

A Great Forward

Great Reviews

Social Media

A Web Site

The Books We Should Write

With book sales slumping and publishers cutting back on their acquisitions, authors need to take a long, hard look at the kinds of books they write. No one wants to sell ideas that no one will either acquire or few will purchase. In addition, I would hope that writers want to write works that are enduring and helpful far beyond a mere moment in time.

My college had a quote by John Ruskin engraved on the library walls that read, “All books are divisible into two classes, the books of the hour, and the books of all time.” Writing a book for all time is a tall order that many writers will not be able to fill, but this strikes me as a noble goal. Can we write books that are relevant and practical for today that still touch on themes and ideas that can still transcend the moment?

These books for all time are the ones we want to buy because we’ll reread them. They have a powerful message, a compelling story, or a way of dealing with life that connects with readers.

Many books are written to address the matters we face here and now, and that can be a very good thing at times. However, I wonder if our book ideas are too limited to the short term. Have we focused on the present and the needs of a current niche so completely that we’re losing our ability to write works with enduring content?

When I think of my own field of religion, I’m often reminded of Dietrich Bonheoffer’s classic The Cost of Discipleship. He unmistakably speaks to the issues of his day and the state of the church in Germany. However, his message can be easily carried into other contexts, offering substantive concepts that require reading and rereading.

Bonheoffer’s work challenges readers well over sixty years after his death, offering weighty material that has endured the test of time. When I think of a book worth purchasing, I want something that will last, that demands rereading, and offers a story or message that leaves readers in deep consideration.

As for the ideas grounded in the present or more limited in scope, we still have a place for them. These could thrive in ebooks, blogs, magazines, and newspapers. While some of them may sell as traditionally published books, will the tremendous time and costs of the publishing process justify the ends when they could have a much wider distribution and hourly compensation as magazine or web stories?

Many nonfiction books could be broken into profitable articles that could very well gain a wider readership and build a platform, putting an author in to a better marketing position when writing a more enduring book.

There will always be books of the moment. However, before authors invest significant time into publishing a book that may bring in meager profits and attract a relatively small audience, they should consider options beyond publishing a book and books that may bring more long-term value.

When Does Self-Promotion on Social Media Go Too Far?

As a writer I’ve been regularly confronting the concept of self-promotion for a solid three years now. With online applications such as Twitter and Facebook many worry that we are not only falling into a nasty pattern of narcissism, but some businesses and sole-proprietor businesses will abuse their networks of family, friends, and acquaintances to make a buck.

I’d like to tackle this from the perspective of a writer. Writers face the tricky matter of essentially “selling” ourselves and our talents of weaving words together. Readers and publishers look for someone with name recognition, and so writers must think of ways they can “make a name for themselves.” If you’re familiar with the biblical story of the tower of Babel, you may recall that the attempt of humanity to do such a thing resulted in their language being garbled by God.

Such a prospect is not necessarily encouraging for writers—especially a Christian writer.

The only way I can see handling this delicate matter of self-promotion in a way that avoids the exploitation of friends, family, and acquaintances is the following:

  1. Only promote what may help them. If I’m hoping they’ll buy my book and I send updates and links their way to that end, then the book I write should be of value to them.
  2. Don’t bombard anyone. I try to only send a manageable number of updates about myself and my work via twitter and facebook. I don’t want anyone to become tired of my endless stream of self-promotion. Everyone has a different limit here, so be cautious.
  3. It’s not all business. Part of keeping in touch with friends and family is adding some color from your own life, sharing pictures and stories that may be funny, interesting, or unusual. Don’t stick to mere work concerns in social media.

I can’t say for sure if I’ve done this perfectly, but as a writer who has to walk this fine line, I find that friends and family generally want to know what I’m up to. Therefore, it’s my job to keep them in the loop without wearing them out with my updates.