As it's the Halloween season, I thought I’d dig deep into the dark dark souls of published authors and extract our top 5 fears… and offer some advice on how to deal with them. So go fill your skull goblet up with wine the colour of blood and lock your pet bat away so it doesn’t disturb your reading. We’re delving into the dark side of authors’ top fears…
Your publisher doesn’t offer you a new contract
I thought I’d ease us in, ha! In all seriousness, this has to be the biggest fear for traditionally-published authors. Obviously, if you have an offer from another publisher on the plate anyway, the blow is lessened somewhat. But if it comes as a surprise and you have nothing lined up, it can be really tough. So what to do? Don’t give up, that’s what! The fact you got a publishing deal in the first place is fantastic. Brush yourself down, take a break then consider your options. If you have a novel to sub, which other publishers can you or your agent approach? If it’s the novel your previous publisher rejected, don’t write it off. Remember those rejections you’re bound to have had before you struck that first publishing deal? And yet you still eventually ended up with your deal. This shows you responses are so subjective. Use any feedback from your previous publisher to revise the novel then get back on the submission wagon. Another important bit of advice? Don’t be rude to the publisher who has let you go. They will have their reasons. There may be opportunities in the future with them, or one of their staff who moves onto another publisher. Stay professional!
Halloween Hero: One bestselling author told me about a very difficult experience she had with a famous publishing house. Editorial changes were forced upon her which she disagreed with and because of this, the novel didn’t sell well, readers pointing out the very same issues the author had expressed concerns about to her editor. Her confidence was destroyed and she gave up writing for months but then one day, she was inspired to start a new novel. This novel attracted several offers from publishers and hit several bestseller lists. She’s now with a great publisher and is happier than she’s ever been.
Your sales suck
Very common horror story. It’s a tough market out there. To make matters worse, publishers aren't hugely transparent about what they mean by 'good sales'. Sure, it's hard to say as so many variants come into play but we all know there must be some indication according to genre and more. In fact, I'm currently doing an author survey about sales to try to get an idea. Feel free to fill it out here and keep an eye on this blog for when I post an article about the results.
So, what if your sales clearly suck? First, make sure your publisher is doing all they can to pick up those sales. Price reductions. Promotions like Bookbub and Kindle deals. There may be something that can be done. As I always say, don’t be afraid to ask your publisher what they’re doing to increase sales… or ask your agent to get on the case with them. Some publishers are willing to go the extra mile too, changing the covers and even titles of books (this is obviously easier with digital books). There are countless times when authors I know have done this and ended up getting a sudden lift in sales. If this doesn’t work, write the next novel. Often, there is no rhyme or reason to why one book won’t sell well. The more books your write, the more of a chance you have that one or more of them will hit the zeitgeist.
Halloween Hero: Me! Oh come on, surely I'm allowed to make myself a hero considering this is my article ;-) My first novel The Atlas of Us sold a decent amount but not quite enough to have it deemed a debut success. I was disappointed and started to wonder if the writing career I'd dreamed of would really last that long. I thought about giving up but instead, I focused all my energy on my next novel, My Sister's Secret. That went on to become my best-selling novel to date, even hitting the Kindle and Kobo number one spots!
Your sales are on a downward trajectory
The market is pretty naff at the moment so a lot of authors are seeing a year-on-year reduction in sales anyway. But if you’re just not seeing any improvement at all and your publishers and agent are scratching their heads about what’s going on, it might be time to try a different approach, whether that be a different genre and / or pen name. This is difficult to stomach for someone who just can’t see themselves writing any other genre but don’t dismiss the idea straight away. Take a break, spend some time ‘playing’ with genres. You might find it’s easier and more exciting than your thought.
Halloween Hero: A great example of someone changing genre with huge success is the lovely Carol Wyer, author of current Kindle top 10 bestseller The Birthday. After her comedies didn't sell so well, she came up with the idea for a thriller, something totally different to what she usually wrote. It paid off: her series went on to sell hundreds of thousands and she's inked up a new deal. However, she would always advise authors to stay flexible. Should the tide turn again and romantic comedies become more popular, she will be penning a few more!
You’re getting terrible reviews
I always tell people, the more books you sell, the worse your reviews will be. However, it still evens itself out and you’re not stupid, you can tell when readers just aren’t vibing with your novel, especially if its average rating is a lot less then your others. So what to do? If you're brave enough, then dive into those reviews and see what you can learn. I don’t mean the silly one and two stars. You’ll usually find a better indication in your three star reviews. If you have an agent, ask for their honest opinion. Ask your editor too. Tell them not to sugarcoat it. We all see things different with hindsight and they should be no different themselves. Read the novel back yourself if you have time. Can you see where it could have been improved? Use that knowledge to inform your next novel. As the saying goes, when life gives you lemons, make lemonade… don’t squirt that bitter lemon into your eye for the sake of your ego.
Halloween Hero: I spoke to an author at an event recently who told me after publishing three books with great reviews, her fourth got terrible reviews across the board. When she read the reviews, she realised the main reason was that readers felt they'd been missold... the cover and blurb suggested the novel was a thriller when really, it was more literary fiction. This information allowed the author to ensure her novel was packaged properly next time and her latest novel is getting fabulous reviews.
You have severe writer’s block
We all get writer's block, especially after we're experienced any of the scenarios above. I recommend taking a break to inspire yourself. Don’t just read other books but binge some Netflix, go to the cinema, visit some interesting places. No point staring at a blank screen. Then read some books about plotting and fine-tuning your craft. I find this often ignites some ideas in me. Obviously, you can’t then spend a year doing this especially if you have a deadline. There will come a point where you’ll need to get back to the desk. When this point comes, take a different approach. Do you usually just write organically (a ‘pantser’?) Have a go at planning. Usually a planner? Then write from the hip.
Halloween Hero: An author I know had the triple whammy of below average sales and reviews, then being dropped by their publisher. A very common occurrence, sadly. It completely knocked him for six and when he tried to write a new novel, it was impossible. He decided to put his laptop aside for a month and spent that month doing all the things I mentioned above. In the process, he came up with a completely new idea. That idea landed him a new deal with a great publisher.
Are you a traditionally-published author going through one of these horror stories right now? Then join the Savvy Authors’ Snug on Facebook so you don’t feel so alone. We share plenty of horror stories there, but also the wonderful outcomes too.
It’s Mental Health Awareness Week in the UK in the week I'm writing this (WB 14 May). Mental health plays a huge role in our lives as writers. After all, we explore our characters’ mental frames of mind and often, we can help restore the mental health of our readers by giving them something to escape into (something I’m exploring with my #BookBalm campaign).
But it’s also so relevant because many authors battle mental health issues. I recently shared a personal battle I had in this blog post.
It can seem like an enviable life doing what we do as traditionally-published authors. But it can be such an isolating and scary experience too. We fear talking about the insecurities and worries that plague us. There’s this sense you always need to be enthusiastic and excited and SUCCESSFUL as a writer.
But the truth is, we’re terrified we might not get another contract. We fear people will hate the novel we hold so dear to our hearts. What if we get writer’s block? What if we run out of ideas? What if our agent and / or editor hates our next idea? If book sales are disappointing, what does that mean for our career? If we're lucky enough to be full-time authors, how long will that last?
Sometimes it feels like the questions just won’t stop. There are ways to help ease the mental anguish. But obviously, some mental health issues go so deep, only professionals can help. Don't be scared of visiting you doctor and seeking help. I did as you'll see in the blog post I link to above. But for now, here are some tips that might help:
1. Make ‘honest’ author connections
It’s so easy to feel like crap when you’re seeing other authors shout from the rooftops about their successes. And why the hell shouldn’t they? They deserve it! Plus it's very likely they will have had their fair share of low points too. But not many of us talk about those low points meaning we don’t often read about them, which in turn makes us feel we're alone with those low points. It's a vicious cycle!
But there are places where people share the tough stuff. If you find it difficult seeing other authors’ success, it’s time to change the frequency. Seek out places where you can hear about honest author experiences so you know you’re not alone in your insecurities and what you perceive as ‘failures’. This can come in the form of listening to podcasts like the The Worried Writer podcast by author Sarah Painter where she shares advice and interviews to help authors overcome self doubt and fear. There's the Honest Authors' Show too that is run by two traditionally published authors. It gives a refreshingly honest (hence the name!) take on the traditionally-published author experience.
And then there are communities you can join. I’ve set up the Savvy Authors’ Snug on Facebook, for example, a closed group for traditionally-published authors who need a safe place to share their fears and struggles.
2. Aim for the long-term
This relates to my post about changing your mindset, and it’s relevant here too. By seeing our writing as being part of a long-term career, we have a much better chance of lessening the mental pain when we don’t reach those short-term goals we all obsess over. Things like obsessing about pre-orders and stalking the bestseller lists in launch week, for example.
Of course, the numbers are important. But if you see them as being part of a bigger picture - a strong and steady build towards a long-term author career - then it becomes a little less painful when they don't meet expectations. Instead, focus on your day-to-day work, the foundations you’re building for a strong career and the relationship you have with your readers (more on that below). The snowball effect rather than the overnight success.
And remember, the fact you got a publishing deal in the first place, selected by an editor at a publishing house to spend money on and nurture, means you’re already miles ahead of a million other writers.
3. Watch what you eat
I don’t mean go on a diet, screw that! What I do mean though is author life involves a LOT of sitting around and much chocolate eating (please don't tell me it's just me!). And this can be fine, in moderation. But if there’s one thing I’ve learnt in my 40 years on this planet, the relationship our minds have with our bodies is profound. If you eat better, then it will often make you feel better mentally. Here are some steps I try to take each day. Hands-up, I'm not perfect. I often slip up and stuff my gob with chocolate brownies. But I do try...
- I keep a large cup of water with me and take regular sips, refilling it when it's empty
- I have a fruit bowl nearby and try to eat at least two pieces of fruit as I work
- I try my best to prep several portions of food, meaning I'm not tempted to grab something unhealthy as I work.
- High sugar intake has been linked to poor mental health. This doesn't mean you need to cut it out totally. I personally think every author needs some sugar in their life. But just make sure it's the right kind of sugar and you have it in moderation day-by-day. I have some dark chocolate in my desk drawer for when I need a sweet fix. Dark chocolate is actually good for you in small doses, you know! Make some sugar-free cakes at the weekend and freeze them. A quick defrost in the microwave and you have a sweet treat without all that processed sugar.
- I don't beat myself up when I slip up and indulge. In fact, I allow myself indulgences when I reach a deadline or something good happens.
4. Move more
I’m not telling you to join a gym or sign up to a running club. Sure, do that if you want to. But what’s most important is to move. Writing is such a sedentary task! And exercise has a direct scientific link to lifting your mood. Here are some things I try my best to do:
- Walk the dog each morning
- I try to get up from my desk every 30 mins or so, often to make a cup of tea. I used to keep my tea-making stuff within reach so I didn’t have to move to get to it. But now I’ve moved it to the other side of the room. Okay, just a few steps but it means I'm moving!
- Walk around the garden at lunchtime
- Walk around when replying to emails or checking social media on my phone
- I like dancing so now wake half an hour earlier every Monday, Wednesday and Friday to do a dance workout. On Tuesday and Thursday, I try to do a quick 5-10 minute yoga stretch at my desk before I start work, so it doesn't feel too formal. Do a search on YouTube for free workouts and yoga sessions to suit you!
5. Focus on your readers
I don’t mean obsess about your reviews. As I’ve said so many times, I found the worst individual reviews I got were for my best-selling titles. The more you sell, the more bad reviews you’ll get. Go check out your favourite authors on GoodReads or Amazon, select their one and two star reviews… you’ll see what I mean!
No, what I mean is focusing on your connection with your fans. The readers who love your work. The ones who follow you on social media and email you. Create a ‘Happy File’ on your desktop of the loveliest emails and comments you get from readers. Damn it, print them out and plaster your walls with them!
Focus on interacting with your readers. They are so grateful when you do. And stop obsessing so much about what goes on in the publishing bubble that's filled with other authors, publishers and book bloggers. The most important bubble is the one you share with your readers and more often than not, it’s a lovely positive place to hang out in.
I hope this helps. Please share your own tips in the comments and I’ll add them to the article if you’d like me to!
‘Don’t give up your day job.’
It is a well-worn mantra among agents and editors. I’ve banged on about it myself at times. After all, there is some truth in it. It would be foolish to pack your job in on the assumption you’ll get rich quick with your writing.
However, what this mantra has done is make some authors think that writing should be for the love of it only, and money shouldn't even be a consideration. But if you love writing so much, then surely you want to be spending most of your time doing it? Many of us need a day job to pay the mortgage though. This means fitting writing in at weekends and evenings. The only way to change that is by making enough money through our writing to turn writing into a job... or at least reduce our day-job hours.
Some authors are lucky. They strike that six-figure deal quickly, or their books sell hundreds of thousands without them having to think too deeply about the business or marketing side. Others can happily hold down a full-time job while meeting increasingly demanding publishing schedules.
But this is rare.
Most of us are what the industry refers to as 'mid-list authors': we're in a contract with a publisher, but we can never guarantee we'll get a new contract. So there's always that fear hovering over our heads that this dream we've worked so hard for will be snatched from our hands. It can all feel a bit precarious. Most of all, we feel we can't control things. Our writing fate is in our publishers' hands.
But I disagree. I think there are ways you can take control as an author. And it starts with changing your mindset. The fact is, to have a chance of a long-term writing career, you must adopt some CEO attitude.
I can imagine some of you cringing right now.
Treating your writing like a business can feel disheartening for some creative types. We have this view of writing as a dreamy creative experience. We don’t want to sully it with talk of business and money.
But by changing my mindset, I've been able to continue earning enough money through my writing to live in that dreamy creative world all day, every day (that's before the four-year-old comes home from school and all hell breaks loose!).
So how can you start changing your mindset? Here are some tips:
1) Don't waste time
When my latest novel The Lost Sister winged its way to my editor, I took a break. But then I was back on it, working on my author brand. You need to do the same. Don't sit around doing nothing when you’re waiting on feedback from your editor and / or agent. Take a break and recharge for sure. But do not stagnate. Instead, make plans and take responsibility for your author brand. Engage with your readers. Plan a marketing strategy for the launch of your next book. Network. Check your finances.
2) Shrug off your Grateful Sap persona when liaising with your publisher
We're constantly told how difficult it is to get a book deal. So when that deal comes along, we're so grateful to the people who’ve taken a chance on us that we become blinkered to the fact this is essentially a business relationship. Editors love words, of course they do. They're our cheerleaders and our support. They can become our friends too so it often feels like they're so much more than just a business associate. But, at the end of the day, the books they edit need to make money for the company they work for. And remember, for every book sold, your publisher is taking a much larger percentage of net sales than you.
So don’t be so humbled by them taking a chance on you that you lose sight that this is essentially a business partnership. Approach any communication with your publishers knowing you are a crucial part of the process. You are creative and business partners. Ask them probing questions. Chase them if you don't get replies to emails.
3) Stop panicking you won't have time to write by adopting this mindset
Of course you will! For all this talk of thinking of this as a business, the most important thing you need to do is WRITE. Writing comes first. The more you write, the more you learn. And the more books you have published, the bigger the potential for making money out of them and getting that long-term full-time writing gig. Sounds pretty amazing, right?
Read it: Though Joanna Penn aims much of her advice at indie authors, I found two of her books very useful for changing my mindset: Business for Authors and The Successful Author Mindset.
Listen to it: I enjoyed listening to this podcast with Joanna. Definitely worth a listen when stacking the dishwasher!
1. Start listening to indie podcasts
I was happily living in my traditionally published bubble until I stumbled upon a podcast. It was the Worried Writer podcast. That led me to finding more podcasts, like The Creative Penn. It. Blew. My. Mind! From interviews with successful indie authors to guides from the people who helped them become successful, it shone a light on techniques they were using to sell more books. Techniques, I soon realised, which traditionally published authors should be using too. Now I listen to these podcasts all the time. And so should you. It doesn’t need to take up much time. I listen to them while exercising, tidying, walking the dog, clearing the garden… just make it part of your daily routine. For a full list, visit my resources page.
2. Check your social media stats
You want to make your social media posts as engaging as possible. And yes, there's a wealth of information out there to tell you how, just a simple Google search will give you realms of articles with tips. But nothing beats checking your stats to see what works and what doesn't among YOUR audience. I use the insights from my stats to see which posts are the most engaging. By engaging, I mean posts which encourage the most comments from your readers. These are the posts which will be shown most in Facebook timelines in particular going forward. See the Resources section to find out how to get these stats.
3. Engage with other authors
Other authors are invaluable. Not only are they a fantastic support but you can also share your readers! Does this thought alarm you? I remember when I first launched the Savvy Authors' Snug on Facebook, one of my friends said: ‘but why are you sharing information with your competitors?’ But I never see other authors as competition. The kind of readers we all want to attract hoover up books and have a passion for reading. They aren’t going to NOT buy your book because they’ve brought another author's books. So network online (see my resources section for a list of useful groups to join, and of course it goes without saying, you are welcome to request to join the Savvy Authors' Snug). Twitter is also a great tool for connecting with authors. Utilise the lists facility to engage with authors in your genre. And of course, connect with authors who are represented by your agent if you have one, or are published by your publisher too.
4. Sort out your web presence
No, I’m not talking about your website - though you should have a decent one (without spending a fortune). I’m talking about making sure your author pages on sites like Amazon and BookBub are up to date. Check out the resources section for a list. Also make sure your publisher and agent have an updated profile for you on their websites.
5. Change your mindset
This is so important, maybe the most important point on this list. ‘Don’t give up your day job’ is a well-worn mantra among agents and editors. I’ve banged on about it myself at times, after all, there is some truth in it. It would be foolish to pack your job in on the assumption you’ll get rich quick with your writing. But what this mantra has done is make some authors think that writing should be for the love of it, not the money. That we should be grateful to get a publishing deal. That we should continue to sign up to that 'poor artist' stereotype. If you want a long-term writing career, then you need to change your mindset. And ta-da! I have just the article for you...
It's time to start taking charge of your writing career. It'll be hard work. But by starting with these 5 important steps, you can get there!