A lot of book authors need to recognize that they can be their own worst enemy when it comes to their work. You often hear that old adage about how any lawyer who represents himself in court has a fool for a client. You also hear how doctors make the worst patients. Trust me, it’s no different when it comes to writers. You (the author) are the worst judge of your own work and its potential.
That doesn’t mean you should not trust your instincts, but it means you should be aware of certain realities about the publishing world as well as the biases we all lapse into when it comes to writing books. Here are the six lies you can sometimes inadvertently tell yourself:
1. “The book has been edited, and re-edited, and it is ready for publication!”
As long as you are the person editing it, no, it’s not ready. As long as your friend or colleague (no matter how skilled) is editing it for you, no, it’s not ready. As long as someone you’ve hired to edit it has done so, no -– even then -– it’s not ready. (That last one has rattled a few authors because of my unyielding belief that as long as you sign the checks, any editor is still not going to give the work the thorough hammering it needs. I realize this is debatable, but I stand by it.) The only person who can really edit the book is someone at the publishing house who knows that the book has to work for the marketplace, for the publisher, and for him or herself just as much as it has to work for you. Not to sound all Buddhist or anything, but the best editing is done with a near total detachment from the author.
2. “This book needs to be published right away to really catch the current trend in reading circles/society.”
Impatience has ruined many more promising books than most people realize. Authors often fall victim to this feeling that they must get their book out immediately. Don’t yield. Your writing has to be greater than any momentary trend or urge, not subject to it. Sure, publishers rush books into the marketplace all the time, and you will always see a direct correlation between how soon the book went to market and how poorly written it is. Quality takes time, and there’s no getting around that. When a book is rushed to market, it is often done so to cash in on something with a short shelf life. There’s nothing wrong with that just as long as you know that’s the case. If you value your art, then make peace with the fact that it will not be your best work when rushed. Some authors are fine with that, some authors realize too late. Just remember that quality writing doesn’t have a “crucial window” of time. Even the ancient Greeks argued that truth is universal –- both culturally and in terms of time (which is why we still revere them today). Trends come and go, skill and craftsmanship stays. You choose.
3. “There’s no other book out there like this.”
I have been told this by many authors over the years. I have yet to find one case where it was actually true. We are all individuals, and so it is only logical that we will see our own work as different from others, but the marketplace does not make such differentiations. I always tell writers not to tell me how their book is different, but how their book is compellingly different. One writer writes a book about using his method A to become more compassionate, and another one uses his method B in his book — also about how we can be more compassionate. And they both will insist that their approaches are unique. So maybe method B is different from method A, but the marketplace doesn’t care. Methods A and B are the same because they’re both how-to guides for the same thing. Neither one is compellingly different from the other – they are recipes for the same dish but just with different ingredients. Now, if I get a writer with a method X who says the best way to be compassionate is to break all the rules espoused by all other methods such as methods A or B or any others, that is compellingly different. Don’t think different, think compellingly different.
4. “I know this is a good work. All my friends and colleagues have praised it and feel strongly that it should be published.”
The old “friends and family” trap is a nasty one that lulls too many writers into a false sense of accomplishment. I hate to burst your bubble, but the fact that your friends and family love your work is not particularly impressive — even if they are telling the truth. It’s psychology 101 -– we surround ourselves with like-minded people who like us. Is it surprising then that the ideas you find interesting will be interesting to them as well? It is not. The problem is that we start thinking of our immediate circle as representative of the marketplace as a whole, and that is where it gets dangerous. That old Irish saying about how the world will always break your heart? This is how it happens -– when you think the world thinks like you do.
5. “Once people hear of and read the book, the word will spread.”
One of the toughest lessons learned by many authors is the one about how publishing is not a meritocracy and the “good stuff” does not, through sheer intellectual and social momentum, receive recognition and therefore drive further sales and notice. Thousands of books come out every week, and if someone doesn’t know to look for your book –- then they’re not going to. Books rarely build movements, movements build books. If people don’t know who you are or are not familiar with your work, they’re not going to look for your book. Oh, and that idea of sending it to John Stuart’s show as well as the New York Times and maybe O Magazine to set off the publicity rush? These and other media outlets receive about a hundred such books a day. Most are discarded unopened. They are not waiting for books to come to them, their producers and reviewers have already decided which books they’re going to feature.
6.” It will get carried in bookstores. And I can personally do readings in stores – maybe even a tour.”
If you’re famous, sure. Otherwise, no. The mathematical possibility of your book being carried in a bookstore is less than 1% at best. That’s not an exaggeration. Let’s look at one of the most popular book genres in the country: nonfiction business/economics (look at any bestseller list at any time if you don’t believe me). The number of business titles stocked ranges from less than 100 (smaller bookstores) to approximately 1,500 (superstores). Yet there are 250,000-plus business books in print that are fighting for that limited shelf space. Do the math, and while you’re doing it, recognize that is an example for just business books and nonfiction. For fiction, you’re looking at less than 0.001% chance of your book being carried in a store. Bookstore readings are great when it’s a known author who packs the house, but most bookstores are not going to bother with someone who isn’t famous. Why? Because at best maybe fifteen to twenty people will show up. And of them, maybe eight will buy books. It costs the bookstores more to pay their employees to be there for the reading than they will make from books sold from the reading.
So what’s the only way to not get caught up in these situations? Think of your book a the capstone, not as the introductory piece. Remember: books don’t build movements, movements build books. Write articles, blogs, pieces, often and everywhere, and build up your following. Learn from your readers and listen to their feedback to shape your writing and make it stronger. Look at the greater themes you’ve missed as well as any blind spots. Engage with others in your field and learn from them. Build a real readership of people across all spectrums who follow your pieces carefully.
Once you’ve done all that, write the book.