Successful Authors Are Outliers, Not Statistics

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.

SF AfghanWhile 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.

backgroundWhich 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:

  1. Know the rule.
  2. Have a good reason for breaking the rule.
  3. 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.

IMG_0967*June 2011 blog of mine introducing the term hybrid author.

** And for fun, Cool Gus & Sassy Becca

About Bob Mayer

Bob Mayer is a NY Times Bestselling author, graduate of West Point, former Green Beret (including commanding an A-Team) and the feeder of two Yellow Labs, most famously Cool Gus. He's had over 60 books published including the #1 series Area 51, Atlantis and The Green Berets. Born in the Bronx, having traveled the world (usually not tourist spots), he now lives peacefully with his wife, and said labs, at Write on the River, TN.

Posted on December 10, 2013, in Write It forward and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 34 Comments.

  1. So do you think authors should start out with publishers and not start by going indie? I’m certainly guilty of publishing my first book.

    • I think they shouldn’t consider the first or second book to really earn much or do much– they are part of the learning curve.

      • I’ve come to realize it takes a while for most indie authors to develop a readership base. I wonder if the learning would be more effective going the traditional publishers route? I guess I’m never sure whether I’ve made the right choice and as an insecure writer of course I’m going to second guess myself.

  2. Great post. Success in this field is my no means assured but there are ways you can up the chances of at least making a living. And as you say some of it is timing and luck, but going to Amazon, BEA, etc. help with both.

    I like the example of Bill Gates who was in the right place at the right time, enabling him to get access to computers that few people could hope for. Right person/connection, right place, right time, PLUS a whole lot of work.

    I also like the 10,000 hour idea – it helps to keep things in perspective. 10,000 hours is full- time / 40 hours a week for 5 years (and that means 40 hours writing, not standing at the proverbial water cooler :-) ).

    It’s by no means a guarantee, but it’s in my control, and a milestone I can work towards. For 20 hours / week (which is how much writing I figure I do when I’m working full-time), that’s 10 years. I’m at the end of year 4 now…

    Thanks for another great post

  3. I think writers have to be honest and consider whether they are self-publishing because it’s “easier” than polishing their work and submitting to agents and editors and going through the harsh rejection process.

  4. Thanks for another great post, Bob. Working on getting more words on the page of this second novel and learning the rules, very well… then forward!
    Regards from NZ,

  5. Great perspective, Bob! I appreciate your use of the million-word tipping point (another Gladwellian term). Too often, authors receive a publishing contract for one book, and it never sells out its advance. Meanwhile, they haven’t written anything else because they’re busy worrying about becoming the next ‘big thing’.

    (I’m also excited because I can see my own million word mark approaching rapidly on the near-term horizon – yeah! I’m hopeful!)

    Personally, I’m excited that there’s always something new I can learn in my craft. In each new work, I attempt something I haven’t tried before to continue to stretch and grow. Otherwise, this would become a very boring slog! Switching genres, changing POVs, and other experiments can keep writing fresh and interesting.

    How can we as an industry of writers do a better job of encouraging our peers to keep writing? And how do we excite writers about the continuous expansion and improvement of craft in an environment where many people can’t afford to attend national or regional conferences?

    Thanks for the great insights you always provide!

    • I learn more every year. With every manuscript, I gain insights into the craft. I also spend my evenings with my wife watching a multitude of shows. We’re re-watching The Sopranos now, noting things we didn’t pick up the first time around. One big thing you see when you re-watch or re-read something is the foreshadowing. You don’t note it the first time because you don’t know what’s going to happen. But knowing what the end is, you see how it’s layered into the story.

  6. Gladwell’s book was a thinly veiled attempt to support his peer group’s (including his editor and publisher, I sure) social justice agenda. His examples were specious. While some of his observations were interesting (10,000 hours to success), they did not support his conclusions (give poor kids more access to computers). The fact that this book was published is further evidence that the book industry is an entertainment industry driven by sales, perceived sales potential, and internal human inefficiencies such as “cocktail party cred.”

    Huge parts of the marketplace have been abandoned by TradPub and Hollywood, but the indie scene has been unable to fill the voids. Amazon/Kindle/CreateSpace is an amazing tool to provide access, but the noise level is almost insurmountable. Are there any example of success on this path?

    • I mentioned some of the examples in the blog. I actually feel the four factors he says don’t stand alone, can stand alone. The #1 trait I see in every successful writer I know is a tremendous work ethic.

      • I concur that “smarts, ambition, hustle and hard work” matter, and matter a lot. It’s kind of circular, though. If I didn’t believe that, I wouldn’t be banging on the walls of this castle.

        The aphorism is true: The harder I work, the luckier I get. Of course, it’s also crucial to constantly re-evaluate where effort should be applied, to not fight the last war, and to stop beating a dead horse…

  7. Your post is very interesting and I am trying very hard not to find it incredibly depressing, but it does actually sum up what I’ve been wondering myself over the 4 years I’ve spent trying to publish and sell my own books.

    I write humorous speculative fiction, and I live in the UK. I am also a stay at home Mum. I can’t afford to waste my time doing something futile. It takes me two years to write each book as it is. So I didn’t even think about trad publishing – we have a strong tradition of quality fantasy here in Britain; and many quarters of our literary establishment enjoy an equally strong tradition of looking down upon it,

    From the beginning, it seemed to be much more sensible keep writing the books and take stock when I had a completed story arc in the public domain. That point is now approaching so I’m looking around, having a think and generally digesting what I and others have learned.

    It looks as if the bottom has fallen out of the ebook market. Like the dot com bubble, it has well and truly burst. My sales have never been anything to write home about but I have sold books, usually about 5 a month and until July this year, I’d sold two or more books every month since publishing my first book in September 2010.

    With two notable exceptions,I’ve sold a book on the UK and US Amazon every month since September 2010 when I released my ‘first’ book – the fourth one I’d written. This year, I sold nothing in July, August or September. I’ve done less touting for reviews and fewer blog interviews but that five books a month thing? It’s clear to me that’s not going to happen any more. Conversely, paperback sales of my books, such as they are, have remained steady. Which brings me to your point about connecting and networking.

    Networking face to face with real people is a very good plan, I think. I have always sold way more books out of my handbag than online. I also sell quite a few books face to face, by visiting book clubs, doing talks at my local library, etc.mostly afterwards when they want to buy copies to give to people.

    So for what it’s worth, the conclusion I have come to is that if I want to sell books online I might do better to try and establish a following offline first. Off line, if people want to know what I do, I’m allowed to tell them, if they ask what books I’ve written, I’m allowed to say. Off line, out there in the real world people still like authors. Here in Reality, if I go into a book shop, there are many people in there who will never have thought of writing a book. Online, I will only be allowed in one corner of the store where every single customer is another writer, trying to sell a book of their own.

    In short that, online marketing is a wasted effort for the newbie, being on line so people can find you, yes, but trying to actually sell anything? No.

    Do you think that’s the way it’s going to go, or am I being a mad maverick over this? Only I can’t help thinking that trying to get my book in to independent bookshops, volunteering to help them with any promotional events they run to sell it and getting to meet future readers face to face might be better use of my book marketing time.



    • I think you bring up something not many are talking about in the self-pub world: sales are down for almost everyone. Back in the gold rush days, two years ago, everyone was blogging and posting about their numbers. I see a distinct lack of that these days. Looking at various lists, both bestseller and Amazon lists, I see faster turnover. At one point I had 9 of the top 50 books on UK Amazon in science fiction and it stayed like that for several months. This past year I hit #1 but it lasted only a day.

      As far as doing what you propose: I think it’s a smart course. Everyone is so focused on the Internet, a lot of self-pub authors are ignoring bookstores because it’s not worth their time. But based on your numbers and what you seem capable of doing (most authors are introverts and hand-selling is incredibly hard for them) a business course that cuts against the grain might be the way to go.

      One thing I see is everyone trying to do the same thing. Adding their voices to the din of people writers, essentially trying to sell to other writers. That’s futile. We have to go where readers are and bookstores are certainly the place.

      I wish you all the best.

  8. So many good points in this one. Thank you!

  9. Bob, wish I could clone your ideas and your energy! As one successful writer said to me when I sold my first series, “welcome to the world of marketing!” Now the real hard work begins. I know it’s a combination of everything you do like casting a wide net, but it can be so overwhelming when you know marketing is not your talent. I do believe as a writer, you have to reach out to readers. Blogging & tweeting to the world of authors seems so futile to me. Keep your insights coming. Any pearls of wisdom or new ways to navigate are always welcome.

  10. Thanks for the delightful snark and the insights, Bob. I didn’t have the advantages of a backlist when I started publishing, but I had written at least a million words. And while I love my day job as a scientist, I have for the first time since writing made the same amount of money in royalties as my salary. So I’d add that quality, quantity and determination to his list of four. As for your rule breaking list, I do that with the networking aspect (not smart for any writer)

  11. Thanks for this. I always find your perspective more practical than most. I really appreciated your talk at RWA this year as well. Thanks for always sharing with those of us who get confused by the over-information deluge.

  12. A great post as usual. Thanks for continually giving us your time and insights. As an aspiring indie author, I find your posts are always sensible, well-thought out and based on facts. Thank you again.

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