If you are writing a book and plan to show it to the world, you’re embracing a process where there will be an endless array of forces outside of your control.
It’s impossible for any one person to predict how successful a book will be prior to publication. There isn’t a formula for marketing a book to make it a surefire success. Zeitgeists shift rapidly. Sometimes serendipity strikes and a book catches fire, but most of the time books sell a few copies and all but disappear into the vast ocean of content.
Here are the only pieces you can control: you can write the best book you can, pitch it as best you can, market it as best you can, and conduct yourself as professionally as you can throughout the process.
That’s it. The rest is up to the gods.
It’s dangerous to bind your happiness as a writer and as a person to outcomes like finding an agent, building a sustainable writing career, finding traditional publication, or hitting a bestseller list. You can do every single thing correctly to the best of your ability and still fall short of one or all those goals. That’s just how the artistic cookie crumbles.
It’s really difficult to accept, let alone embrace, the uncertainty inherent in the publishing process. We want to believe that if we are good, diligent, talented writers, and we tick all the right boxes, we can have everything we want. And if it didn’t go according to plan, surely we just messed up somewhere along the way.
It’s just not like that. Because of all the uncertainty, you’ll drive yourself mad if you get too wedded to certain outcomes, especially ones that are vanishingly rare. You have to enjoy the process.
That means trying to decouple process and outcomes. Try to put yourself in a position where your measures of external success (finding an agent, making a profit self-publishing, hitting a bestseller list) are a bonus rather than your barometer for whether it was worth it entirely.
When you’re writing, shut out the “am I crazies” and enjoy the experience of writing. When you’re pitching, enjoy the suspense and real world feedback. If you reach publication, enjoy the feeling that your creation is out in the world.
Do the best you can. And let whatever comes your way from the world be something you can appreciate because you kept your expectations in check.
Easier said than done, I know. There’s a privilege in not depending on a return on investment when it takes so much time and energy to write a book.
But I’ve been there and I’m trying my best to live this philosophy. I still have no idea what’s going to happen with my most recent novel, but I’m feeling very sanguine about it. It will do what it does, whether that means disappearing into a drawer or becoming a runaway bestseller.
The sense of satisfaction I got from that novel was in writing and finishing it. Anything beyond that… we’ll just have to see.
Need help with your book? I’m available for manuscript edits, query critiques, and coaching!
For my best advice, check out my online classes, my guide to writing a novel and my guide to publishing a book.
And if you like this post: subscribe to my newsletter!
Art: Leonardo da Cutro and Ruy Lopez play chess at the Spanish Court by Luigi Mussini
Great reminder, Nathan. I also take comfort that I’m not alone in this. This is just part of being a human living life. Our ancestors would work planting crops, building homes, breeding animals, only for a storm or a disease to wipe out all their effort. These days, we have technology to remove most of the uncertainty in our lives, but not everything! And awesome — how boring life would be if it worked like a vending machine.
Neil Larkins says
Agree with you 100 percent, Nathan. As Shakespeare said, The play’s the thing. With us, we happy band of writers, the book’s the thing. That’s it and that’s been my philosophy from the start. I just want to get the damned thing out there and know I’ve done the best I could. As my now deceased wife used to say, in a hundred years, isn’t anyone going to care.
Great advice, though incredibly difficult to do in practice. I get so wrapped up in the “Will this even matter?” question that it starts screwing with my motivation. It’s hard to find the will to finish when you’ve convinced yourself no one will ever read it. As much as I find personal fulfillment in the act of writing, I also want readers, dammit!
Trying trying trying! Sometimes still crying. Sometimes cursing those gods.