Thanks to Randy Ingermanson’s Advanced Fiction Writing E-Zine for this great article that applies to so much more than book marketing…
Anyone will tell you marketing is hard. Your odds of writing a best-seller are tiny. In any given year, more than a million books get published. A handful of those, sometimes as many as ten, will sell more than a million copies. Most books sell far fewer copies.
It’s very hard to predict all the books that’ll be the big winners, because every year, a few blockbuster books come out of nowhere. But some of the winners are very easy to predict. Certain authors write best-sellers time after time. Any book by Stephen King or Nora Roberts is going to do very well.
What this means is that the real trick is not to predict which BOOKS will be big winners. It’s to predict which AUTHORS will be big winners.
There are hundreds of thousands of authors. Only a few hundred of them are very successful. So the odds of being very successful, even if you get published, are about one in a thousand.
Only a few thousand writers earn their living as a writer. So the odds of earning a living as a writer, once you get published, are about one in a hundred.
And let’s remember that not all writers get published, although indie publishing makes it a lot easer than it used to be. To get indie-published, you have to at least finish your book, and not all writers do that. To get traditionally published, you also have to run a long gauntlet of rejection by agents and editors, and very few writers do that.
How can you improve your odds? I came across an idea recently that I think has some merit. I was reading Scott Adams’s book How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big.
Adams is the creator of the blockbuster comic strip Dilbert. He’s made a huge success as a cartoonist and he’s also made a success as an author and public speaker. But he’s failed at a lot of other things, which he details in his book.
Why did he succeed with Dilbert? You can read his book if you want his opinion on that. Luck is involved, but luck is not the only factor. Many people will tell you that you make your own luck. What surprised me is that Adams offers a plausible explanation of how to increase your luck.
In chapter 20 of his book, one of the section headings is titled “The Success Formula: Every Skill You Acquire Doubles Your Odds of Success.”
That caught my attention. Could that possibly be true? If so, then why? Is that automatically true about any skill, or are certain skills better than others?
Let’s start with the brute fact that your odds of success are very low. Why should that be? It isn’t just that there are a lot of authors out there. There are also a lot of plumbers out there, and a lot of dentists, and a lot of accountants. I’d be willing to bet that more than one in a hundred plumbers earn a living as a plumber. Ditto for dentists and accountants.
If you’re an author, there are a number of things you need to do, and their effects MULTIPLY each other.
That’s the key thing—the multiplication.
In January of last year, I wrote an article in this e-zine on my “Success Equation.” It goes like this:
Success = (Target Audience Size) x Quality x Discoverability x Production
So if you doubled your target audience size, doubled your quality, doubled your discoverability, and doubled your production, you’d earn 16 times as much money.
And discoverability is itself the product of several factors.
So the reason your odds against success are long is because you need to be good in each of these success factors. If any of them is zero, then your results are zero.
Assuming my Success Equation is true, then by changing any one factor, you could double your odds of success.
So what Scott Adams claims could conceivably be true: By adding a new skill, you double your odds of success. And the reason it could be true is that your success is the result of multiplying a number of factors.
Scott lists 13 skills that he considers critical for success. My thinking is that those are all fine skills to have, but not all of them matter for success as an author. (They might be very important in some other career.) Here are his 13 skills, as listed in chapter 21 of his book:
- Public speaking
- Business writing
- Overcoming shyness
- Second language
- Proper grammar
- Proper voice technique
He makes a case for each of these. My opinion is that some of these are highly useful to the novelist and some are irrelevant. I can’t see that golf matters at all to the novelist, for example. Or having a second language. Those are invaluable for certain career paths, but novelists get a pass on those.
After thinking a bit, I’ve come up with my own list of essential novelist skills, based on Scott’s list, with some additions and some deletions:
- Fiction writing craft
- Accounting/business thinking
If your marketing strategy depends on public speaking, then you can add that to your list. But you can do very well as a novelist without ever giving a speech or going on radio or TV or doing a book-signing at a bookstore, so I don’t consider it essential.
There are 8 items on my list above, and let’s pretend that you tackled each skill in turn and improved just enough to double your odds of success. After doing that for all 8 skills, your overall odds would increase by a factor of 256.
If your skills were “typical” before, then that would boost you up into the ranks of authors earning a living as a writer. You’d need more of a boost if you wanted to reach the super-achieving authors.
Yes, in theory all this sounds great, but is it really practical? Could you really get twice as effective by learning technology better, or persuasion, or life-management?
A writer on a modern computer can type a lot faster than a writer on an old manual typewriter. But I’ve noticed that most writers don’t use their tools nearly as effectively as they could. Many writers don’t use Microsoft Word effectively. There are any number of software tools that could make a writer more effective. Very few writers come anywhere close to their potential in using technology.
As for persuasion, I’ve also noticed that writing ad copy is an area where most writers are weak. One good course on copywriting could boost your effectiveness by a factor of ten.
And as for life-management, my observation is that most writers are overwhelmed by life. It’s certainly something I’ve struggled with. Modern life is massively more complicated than it was even twenty years ago, much less a thousand years ago. We aren’t evolved to handle modern life. If we don’t study how it’s done, we’re almost certain to be overwhelmed.
Here’s the thing. You don’t have to become world-class in order to double your effectiveness at most of these skills. For most of them, one good course or book would be enough. If you’re “typical” in a given skill, then you’re at the 50th percentile, which means half of all people are better at the skill and half are worse. One good course would get you ahead of most of those people. If you got to the 90th percentile, then you’d be ahead of 9 out of every 10 people.
Let’s suppose you work hard at each of the critical skills and you reach the 90thpercentile in each one. You won’t be amazing at any one thing, but you’ll be amazing as an overall writer. Because success is the multiplication of all those skills.
Remember that you have natural talents and abilities, and you also have natural weaknesses. Everybody does. There are some skills you may never be able to do even as well as the average person. There are some skills you might have the talent to become world champion at. The key thing to remember is that you can almost always improve in any skill, so the question is which skills will give you the most bang for the buck.
How good would you rate yourself at the 8 critical skills I listed above? And how good would you rate your favorite famous author at those skills?
Which skill are you weakest in? (This is probably due to some natural weakness in you, which means you could never be world-class in this skill. But it’s entirely possibly you could get better if you worked at it.) Is your weakness in that skill causing you serious problems in your life? Is there a book you could read or a course you could take that would boost your skills in that? Is there somebody you could hire to help make up your deficit? What value would you get from hiring out that skill? How does that compare to the cost?
Which skill are you strongest in? (This is probably due to some natural talent you have, which means you might possibly be able to reach world-class status in that one skill.) If you made that skill a key part of your strategy and worked hard, could you become amazing in that one area? How hard would you have to work? Would you love working hard on that skill? Would it make a difference in your life?
Balance is critical here. You only have so much time, energy, and money, so you can’t do everything at once. The key questions to ask about any skill are:
- How much is it worth to improve in that skill?
- What would it cost you in time, energy, and money?