Last night, I had a great 3+ hour phone conversation and it prompted a whole chain of thought. The person raised a question that someone had asked them, about whether or not they were having fun.
Think about it. Here you are, someone who’s dreamed of being published, of walking into bookstores and seeing your book on the shelves, and it’s about to happen. All the papers have been signed, the book’s been delivered, handed back with big red marks all over it, fixed, sent back (repeat however many times it takes to make it perfect), a cover’s been designed, the ISBN numbers are registered, copyright is in place and there’s a delivery date.
You’re going to see your dream come true. But you’re so busy worrying about extraneous stuff that you never stop to enjoy the moment.
I’ve talked about that before, about the feeling that I never actually celebrated my success this year. There is a legitimate whirlwind of activity that comes after you sign a deal. There’s an enormous learning curve. I used to naively think you wrote a book, you sold it, and it went to the stores. The end. Cue audience laughter, right?
The truth is, if you listen to everyone out there, you can get to the point where you feel you can never do enough to market yourself, you start setting mental targets on how much you have to sell, you start worrying about what you’ll do to gain a PR advantage so that your book does well.
Last summer, I attended Harrogate Crime Festival. As much fun as I had at Bouchercon, Harrogate is still the best. There is no “us” and “them” with a line that divides the multi-million bestselling authors from the fans. There is no high-pressure sales agenda that goes with attending. People hang out in the bar. You have fun. You meet people. You remember people. If you get four business cards given to you, that’s a lot.
You go home, having been nothing more than a name, a reader of books, and email authors to say it was nice to meet them, and they email you back. Not an agent or other appointed person. They actually reply and say, “It was great to meet you…” and ask what you thought about the events.
Like they actually care. And like they actually have time for people.
That was my first experience with authors at a festival, and it’s always going to stick with me. I came home with positive impressions of people I’d hung out with.
People who also happened to write books.
When I went back this year the two special guests of honour were George Pelecanos and Ian Rankin. You know what it was that struck me about both of them?
They both had lower sales with their early work. Neither made an instant splash on even the national stage, never mind global. They struggled.
Both of them have talked about personal issues fueling the writing. What I remember George talking about was getting a bit angry. About writing a different kind of book, really tapping into the emotion, the frustration.
And the result was having a publisher who said this was the book they’d been waiting for him to write.
They got behind him because he’d shown them something with his work.
Not with his innovative marketing idea. Not with his gimmick costume or fancy paraphernalia. Not because he invested every cent of his advance in self-promotion.
They got behind him because of the writing.
Now, the reality is, the world of publishing is a bit different today. I’m not disputing that.
But when I started working on Suspicious Circumstances my dream was to be an author. Not a ferocious promoter. Not an innovative marketer.
All I know is that, for me, somewhere along the line external pressures to promote-promote-promote started to override everything else. And what might surprise people is that it didn’t come from my publisher. I didn’t get emails every day telling me to do more-more-more.
When I talked to this friend last night, it galvanized my conviction that had been growing over the past few months. The realization that I was killing my own dream by losing focus.
That might sound like an odd thing to say, because I’m still getting published. It’s just that over time, through both subtle and obvious pressure to do all the things all the others were doing, on some level the dream was no longer to be published but to be published with a certain amount of sales, positive reviews, etc etc etc.
Are you having fun?
I never thought being an author was like climbing a corporate ladder, yet that’s how it seems, from a certain perspective.
What I find really interesting is that my favourite authors – Rankin, McDermid, Billingham, Lippman, Kernick, MacBride etc. – aren’t heavy-duty self-promoters. They never have been.
They let the writing be the focus and let their work be what made the difference. Other than Stuart, all of them have built up a readership over 5+ books. It took time.
Do I want to still be writing books ten years from now? Yes. Do I want to be selling well enough to still be published? Yes. Would I complain if I sold really well? No. Of course not.
But I’m going to make a point of remembering to do some things that are fun.
I’m going to remember to have a good time, and enjoy the ride.
The truth is, you never know how long you’ll have in this business. You might have one book, you might have four, you might have fourty.
And the one thing I do not want to think, looking back years from now, is that when I was realizing a dream I’d had since childhood that I was so consumed by other pressures that I never stopped to enjoy the moment.
Remember that. Whatever your dream is, when it’s starting to happen enjoy it. Cherish it. And don’t let people – however well-meaning and well-intentioned – rob you of that joy.
Marketing doesn’t have to be an all-consuming evil, and for you it doesn’t even have to be the marketing that’s the problem. You might be a natural at marketing – for you it might be other things. Standing in front of people, reading your work.
Whatever it is for you that sucks the life out of you, try to put it in a box and keep it from contaminating everything else. Do your best with it when you need to, and then let it go.
The only thing you can change by worrying is your level of enjoyment. Well, and possibly the dosage of your ulcer medication.
Wherever you are right now, you only get to be there once, whether it’s approaching the release of your debut novel or celebrating the 20th anniversary of the birth of your series. Promise yourself you’ll take a few minutes to enjoy it.
Have some fun.