Friday, 25 September 2015

Why the rules for success don't work for authors

As promised, the unicorn has graced us with a reply to those rules for success I posted earlier this month. This is what my beautiful and spiritual muse has to say about writing fiction...

1. There are no rules.
If you look at the career paths of the authors in the top ten lists, you'll see many different paths all leading to the same place. Following a set rules is not too hard (unless you're a unicorn, anyway), and the thousands of authors who never appear in the top ten lists didn't one day suddenly decide to break every single writing rule and ruin their careers. The truth is there is no best-selling career formula, just as there is no best-selling book formula. So stop worrying!

2. Whose success are we talking about, anyway?
Those top ten lists are almost always about book sales: higher sales figures equals more successful. The unicorn understands that this is the way the human world works, and the only real measure of a book's success in the marketplace is how many copies it sells. But what we're really talking about here is the bookseller's success, and (to a lesser extent) the publisher's success. Higher sales should mean more profits for the bookseller, publisher and their shareholders - though not necessarily for the author. Watch those contracts!

3. Luck
This is about the only writing rule that makes any sense to a unicorn. We call it magic. You could try praying to the deity of your choice, or casting the runes, or writing only in purple ink on Wednesdays when it's raining, or (if you must) obeying a random set of rules some blogger tells you is the only way to be successful because that's the way they did it. All of these things will have an equal effect on your author career... i.e. none at all (unless you're lucky).

4. Ambition... but for what?
We've mentioned ambition, ego, drive, determination and other such admirable traits that will eventually get you to the top in any other career. The assumption here is that all authors want to be popular and appear in the top ten lists. Maybe some (many?) do, but aside from the fact you probably won't have to worry about paying the bills if you have a big hit, being very popular can actually hold back a creative career because you can be sure publishers will want "more of the same, only different" and be very reluctant to let you try anything else. Even if you are not a household name, you might be afraid to try something else in case it ruins your career.

Aside from sales figures, there are as many ways for an author to measure success as there are individual authors. Writing the perfect story, hearing from a reader saying your book has changed their life. continuing to write over a long career even if you never make a top ten list or win a prize, paying the bills, making a living, publishing a book you've spent your entire life writing... whatever your current ambition, it is an equally valid creative ambition as to be a number one best-selling author. Ask yourself why you really write books.

5. The numbers don't add up!
Even if your measure of success is purely financial, impressive sales do not automatically mean impressive royalties. For example, my royalty on a high-volume book club sale made via. a publisher has been as little as 2p per copy. You need to sell an awful lot of books at 2p royalty to pay a mortgage... at the other extreme, the 70% royalty from an indie-published ebook selling at the same price as a discounted book can bring in £2 or more for the author. Do the math: 100 sales at a 2p royalty brings in just £2 for the author, whereas a single sale at a £2 royalty will do the same, making it just as good financially for the author to sell a modest 100 copies of an ebook, as it is to sell 10,000 high discount copies of a print book via. a publisher (£200 profit in each case). Neither of these will pay the average mortgage either, but it shows how misleading sales figures are as a measure of a book's success. The unicorn wonders why, after the collapse of the Net Book Agreement, publishers don't treat books like movies and calculate the gross? Then those top ten lists might make more sense for everyone.

So the unicorn's advice is to stop worrying about other people's rules and concentrate on the writing. If you must have rules, make your own. If all else fails, find yourself a unicorn. Then you can always escape in the enchanted mists when things get crazy out there...

Friday, 18 September 2015

Rules for success as an author - the cynical version

You didn't think the unicorn would leave you with the party line, did you? Now that I've had a chance to read through all the literature I picked up at the CWIG conference, here is a cynical version of the rules in my last post. Brace yourselves, male authors...

1. Be born a boy - or use initials so nobody knows you're a girl.
According to an independent study on what kids are reading in British schools in 2015, seven of the top ten most popular children's authors are men, with only three women on the list:
Jeff Kinney
Roald Dahl
Roderick Hunt
David Walliams
Francesca Simon
Suzanne Collins
Julia Donaldson
Michael Morpurgo
Martin Waddell
with John Boyne, Michael Rosen, David McKee, Eric Carle, John Green and Dr Seuss all tying for last place at the top table (which sounds like a fun game of musical chairs!)
Interestingly, J K Rowling is not in the overall top ten list, although she featured on it in 2013 and 2014. Also, all three of the women on the 2015 list are writing under their full names so maybe the initials trick is not necessary any more?

2. Write about a boy hero - or if you must have a heroine, give her a decent weapon and fighting skills so she could be a boy in disguise.

my young heroine
Rhianna Pendragon
Well, it's a fact. Girls will happily read books about boys, but boys are less likely to want to be seen reading books about girls. So if you are looking for big-time sales, then why cut out half your readership by alienating the boys? I haven't read all the male authors' books, but out of the female authors on the above list Francesca Simon is there because of Horrid Henry, Julia Donaldson with the Gruffalo, and only Suzanne Collins with a heroine - Katniss Everdeen, a modern day gladiator fighting to the death in the Hunger Games. (Clearly though this trick does not always work, since the sword-wielding heroine of my Pendragon Legacy series failed to catapult me into the top ten.)

3. Luck
Can't get away from this one! Obviously there are many excellent male authors who write about boy heroes and still do not make the best-seller lists... or maybe they just don't know the secret handshake?

4. Ego
I'm probably on dangerous ground here, but part of ambition is having the self confidence and self belief that you have the required talent and hard work will get you there in the end. Do male authors naturally have more of this? There must be some reason that they feature so prominently on best-seller lists and prize lists, when as far as I am aware the vast majority of children's authors are women. I am not sure this is confined to publishing, though, and suggests the measurements we are using for success tend to favour men over women.

5. A wife
This links back to the time issue in my last post. All those irritating and frankly boring domestic duties can seriously interfere with a creative career, and any major disaster can stop you writing stone dead if you haven't got a wife to remember to buy the food, pay the bills, do the laundry, take the children to school... yes, I know some men can do all these things and are brilliant at them, but it's a rare man who will let their dedicated female writer disappear into her shed to write, keep the children out of her way, deal with all the distractions and have a meal on the table when she's hungry. Or maybe it's a rare woman who can disappear into her shed and leave all this stuff to her man without feeling guilty?

Thankfully, unicorns don't have to worry about such things. Next time (if I can persuade him to reply after being so cynical on his blog) the unicorn will give you his third alternative to these rules.

Sunday, 6 September 2015

Rules for success as an author

Some tips from the 2015 Society of Authors Children's Writers and Illustrators Group conference.

1. Talent
You need to be able to write. Obviously. Many people have the basic talent to write a book.

2. Work
You need to work at your writing to make it even better. Fewer people are willing to put in the necessary amount of work.

3. Luck
You (and your book) need luck. I think this means during the publishing process rather than the writing process, although life can interrupt your writing. Luck is something the writer cannot control, so even fewer people have this one. Or maybe you just need to avoid the bad luck? I've heard people say "you create your own luck", which I actually think means working on the other rules (see 1 and 2 above) so you're in the right place at the right time when the luck comes along... if you don't write the book, then how can you possibly be lucky?

4. Ambition
You need to be hungry for success. Most authors are hungry (some are starving) to publish their first book, but how many authors keep that initial drive to succeed through the decades and countless books? Early success can take the edge off hunger (you have achieved your original goal so what next?), as can repeated failure (you've worked at 1 and 2 until you are blue all over and 3 just never seems to happen for you so what's the use?) I believe even fewer people retain long-term ambition than have short-term luck.

5. Time
Writing takes time, and it takes a lot of it. If you have a demanding family or a second job or a glamorous jet-setting lifestyle, you probably don't have enough time for all of the above. Very few authors are in a position to give 100% of their time to their writing career.

6. Success
You need ALL of these things to succeed as an author in the long term.

With thanks to:
Philip Pullman, author (rules 1, 2, 3 and 6)
Caroline Walsh, literary agent (rule 4)
The unicorn (rule 5).
All comments are the unicorn's own.

Do you have any personal rules for success as an author?


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