Successful Authors Are Outliers, Not Statistics
Posted by Bob Mayer
Digital Book World has put out another survey about authors, indie authors, hybrid authors*, hobbits, wizards and drones.
While I applaud the effort, I find a lot of the data about authors essentially skewed, especially when it comes to those of us who make our living writing. Especially for those of us who’ve made our living writing for more than a year or two, ie those who’ve made a career writing. Which is about as rare as a hobbit in an orc bar. Unless it’s being served for dinner.
While I’m not a fan of Malcom Gladwell’s public condemnation of Amazon while still selling his books there (also Scott Turow), I accept that they are both highly paid indentured servants to their publishers who have no control over whether their books are sold at Amazon. Gladwell wrote a book introducing a concept called Outliers, which looks at the factors that lead to high levels of success (see, I link to the book on Amazon—please donate all sales to charity, Mr. Gladwell). I submit that any person who can make a decent career as a writer of fiction (ie a professional bullshitter) has achieved a high level of success in the world of publishing. It’s something I learned in Special Forces, who are almost all outliers.
So how are successful authors outliers?
Gladwell: “the biggest misconception about success is that we do it solely on our smarts, ambition, hustle and hard work.”
I do think we need all four; and while I know writers who’ve come from nothing and pushed all four to the extreme and have become successful, there are certainly other factors that Mr. Gladwell explains.
At Cool Gus one of our mottoes is: the best promotion is a good book, better promotion is more good books. Gladwell has a term called “Accumulative advantage”. He uses the example that most elite Canadian hockey players were born earlier in the year. What’s the connection? Since leagues are done by year, a kid born in January has almost a year of experience and growth over a kid born in December. Thus the earlier birth players seem to be the best. Thus they are treated as better—it’s a case where the rich get richer.
In publishing this means those of us who came out of traditional publishing with rights to some or all of our backlist have had a huge advantage. Mike Shatzkin told me my case was so rare, there’s no point in having me speak to others about it, because I’d be talking to an empty room with the same experience. Every time Jen Talty and I discuss the future of Cool Gus it comes down to one thing: more and better content. Also, those of us with backlist have fans. We’re not starting out cold.
The other thing we have is experience which leads us to a key rule of Gladwell’s that many aspiring authors need to keep in mind: the 10,000 hour rule. He uses the example of the Beatles who, early in their career, performed live over 1,200 times in Hamburg, adding up, with rehearsals, to the magical 10,000 hours. In writing, we often talk about writing a million words before expecting success. How many indie authors slapping up one or two manuscripts have anywhere near the time at the keyboard to really learn the craft? I estimate, after 57 manuscripts (and a bunch of stuff cut), I’ve passed at least 6 million words written in 25 years. My fingers hurt.
I know very, very few traditionally published authors whose first manuscript was accepted for publication. But how many indie authors are not publishing their first manuscript?
Connections. Gladwell: “No one—not rock stars, not professional athletes, not software billionaires, and not even geniuses—ever makes it alone”. A classic example here might be the nepotism that affects traditional publishing. Seriously, just because someone is the daughter or son of a bestselling author that makes them a bestseller? Yep. That’s a reality.
But I look at this a bit differently. I often say that one of the greatest mistakes I made in traditional publishing was not networking. I naively thought I could just write and everyone else would do their jobs and everything would work out great. Not.
One of the biggest things Jen Talty and I do at Cool Gus is network. This past year we went to Seattle and visited Amazon, dodging the pulse cannons of the Death Star and the attack drones hovering overhead. In January we’re stopping by Audible ACX and saying “hi”. We go to BEA and other industry events. Like most things, you often feel like you aren’t achieving much when you come out of such events, but in the long run they pay big dividends. This is a people business.
Strangely, at many of these events, I see the same people: Bella Andre, Hugh Howey, Barbara Freethy, Marie Force and others who are successful in the indie world. Which came first? The chicken or the success?
We hooked up with Jennifer Probst (is hook up the right term? Well it’s Probst, sure it is) at the New Jersey Romance Writers conference two years ago and will be launching her Posse series in 2014. Honestly, the major reason we’re doing any conferences in 2014 is to search for just a couple of outliers who see the advantages of partnering with Cool Gus.
So while we have these studies that want to shove writers underneath the curve of some statistical graph, the reality is that those who make their livings as writers very rarely fit under that curve. You want to be an outlier.
Which leads me to something we also believe in at Cool Gus: you can’t stay inside the curve or it will eventually crush you.
Which leads me to a piece of advice I learned in Special Forces and apply in publishing: The Three Rules of Rule Breaking which are explained in Write It Forward:
- Know the rule.
- Have a good reason for breaking the rule.
- Accept the consequences for breaking the rule.
Which leads me to getting back to writing, working on Nightstalkers 4 now (3, Nightstalkers Rift, is coming at the end of February). Scout is back and badder than ever along with Moms, Nada, Roland and the whole crew. Nothing but good times ahead.
*June 2011 blog of mine introducing the term hybrid author.
** And for fun, Cool Gus & Sassy Becca