The advent of the e-book and the dawn of the self-publishing revolution has provided tremendous opportunity for those of us who, for whatever reason, have been repeatedly rejected by agents and traditional publishers, or those of us who just didn't feel like giving those fuckers eighty-something percent of the money coming in for our hard work.
But it's a double-edged sword. Since the barriers came crashing down, the competition is fierce. Any fuckwit with internet access (and there are plenty of those) can slap a shitty cover on their word diarrhea and set it adrift in the shit sea, hoping it randomly sails right into Money Harbor.
The challenge we self-published authors face is to suck less than the competition in a variety of areas. And the chances are good, if you're reading this, that you suck more intensely than Samuel L. Jackson enjoying a tasty beverage.
Let's take a look at some of the ways you probably suck.
1. You're not being honest with yourself about how much your book sucks.
Writing a book is hard, lonely work. It takes a long time, and (unless you're stupid or delusional) you realize that all of this work you're putting in doesn't have a very good chance, statistically, of bringing in the kind of cash you need to justify your decision to turn down your cousin Ronnie's offer to cut you in on his planned soft porn empire.
At some point along your writing journey, especially after you've crapped out a first draft and dived headlong into the excruciating task of revising, you might have heard a little devil whisper in your ear, "Hey buddy. You've worked really hard on this. It's good enough. Hell, it's better than most of the rest of that shit out there. It's about time you got your reward. You've earned it."
And that's where he's wrong. You haven't earned shit.
This isn't a punch-the-clock factory job. You get paid when you produce a product that people value over their own money and time, and nobody owes you either one of those things.
Think about how ludicrous it seems from a certain perspective, the level of narcissism involved in asking total strangers to pay money for you to tell them a story.
If a stranger came up to you on the street and asked if you wanted him to tell you a story, you'd say "Fuck no!" (in your mind at least). You're on your way somewhere. You've got shit to do.
And suppose that same stranger followed you on your way and persisted, saying, "Come on, man. It's a pretty good story, and it'll only set you back five bucks." There's only one proper response to that.
"Are you fucking kidding me? Get out of my life, you crazy asshole!"
How do you know when you've worked hard enough to earn money by writing? When that money shows up in your bank account, that's when you've earned it.
Maybe the devil on your shoulder was right about your book being better than most of the other shit out there. That's not a high target to shoot for. Is it better than 99% of the shit out there? Then you might have something to spare a passing glance at.
You need a second set of eyes, and that little fucker on your shoulder doesn't count.
Call it an editor, a beta-reader, whatever. People who care more about technical terms will have more specific definitions for what those roles are, but I'm just talking about a person who gives more of a shit about the success of your book than they do about you personally. Someone who will tell you the hard truths you need to hear in order to face up to how badly your book sucks right now, and give you useful, practical guidance on the long, arduous path of making it suck less.
My own beta-reader/editor/whatever is Joan, and she's awesome. I would not be where I am today without her patience and guidance. I had a few duds before finding her, and here are the most important things I've learned to look for when seeking out that second set of eyes.
1. He or she is just a straight up better writer than you, or at least has strength in areas you suck in.
When I sent Joan the first draft of Critical Failures, I was going for a Douglas Adams Third Person Omniscient point of view. The first thing she told me was that I don't know how to do Third Person Omniscient, that I was using it as an excuse to randomly hop from one character's head to another for no reason. It was lazy writing. I hemmed and hawed for a couple of email exchanges, but ultimately ended up rewriting the whole goddamn book in a more George R. R. Martin Third Person Limited style, and was forced to admit she was right.
2. He or she has no vested interest in making you feel good about yourself.
Brutal (but constructive) honesty is what you need. It seems ironic, but those who care most about you are the most likely to encourage you down the path to Suckville.
Telling someone how much they suck is not conventionally recognized as a way to maintain close personal relationships, especially when the person doing the sucking has an ego big enough to expect people to pay them for their words.
What you need is a reader who doesn't give a shit about your relationship, and who can accurately predict the shitstorm of merciless reviews you're likely to get if you publish your pile of suck in the state that it's in.
3. He or she shares your vision.
I don't want to say that this is the most important, but it's definitely a big one. You can send your work out to ten random strangers, and get ten contradictory critiques. Not everyone knows what they're talking about, and some people might not be part of your target audience. Before you start second-guessing your work, you want to make sure the person advising you truly understands what you're going for.
I had this one beta reader, before I stumbled upon Joan, who read Critical Failures from start to finish, and said what it needed was magical swords and dragons and saving empires and shit. This was an easy guy to dismiss, as he was talking about an entirely different book than what I'd written. Mine is a fantasy story about a group of asshole losers who get stuck in a fantasy world, and spend most of that book just trying to survive. They aren't heroes. This is the first book in what will hopefully be a long series. I have a vision. This guy didn't understand it. Next.
Of course, it's also important to make sure that you aren't dismissing legitimate critiques as "They just don't get me."
2. You suck at reaching your target audience.
You can write the greatest work of literature the world has ever known, but it won't mean shit until the world actually knows about it. Too many great artists have passed before their work was even widely known, much less respected. John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces comes to mind. This poor bastard killed himself eleven years before his mother eventually badgered an established writer to take a look at his manuscript. It went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Good, smart comedy is so rare a commodity. Who knows what other gems Toole might have produced in this golden age of self-publishing?
Think about what happens to a society that rejects good comedy. Skynet and the Matrix high five and give us exactly what we deserve.
Toole didn't have the options that you have today. Today's world is much smaller, yet more populated, than Toole's world was. You have more options to reach wider audiences than your predecessors ever had.
Not only do you have the wider acceptance of self-publishing in your corner. You're connected to the whole world via the internet. You've got a blog. You've got Facebook. You've got Twitter. You've got all that other shit that I don't know how to use. It's easier now than it's ever been at any time in history to let the world know about the product you want them to buy.
Of course, that also means it's that much easier for everyone else as well. And as you might expect, most people suck terribly at this.
Are you part of the massive cyclone of self-published authors who tweet each other's book ads reciprocally on Twitter? Do you think that's an effective way to sell books? Click on any one of those tweeted links at random. Take a look at that book's Amazon ranking. It'll probably be six digits long, which may lead you to believe that spamming your shit on Twitter is not an effective way to sell books.
But it can be.
Once again, it all comes down to sucking less than your competition. And holy shit, do those people suck. You're a goddamn writer. If you can't think of anything more creative to say than "Check out my book", then fuck you.
Twitter is a great place to reach a shit-ton of potential customers, but you've got a fraction of a second to stand out in a crowd of tweets that are scrolling past some bored asshole's computer screen. If you can make them stop scrolling for a second, you might just get a click.
Likewise, an author's Facebook page is an all too often squandered resource.
If you're a not-so-successful self-published author, the chances are good that you've exchanged "likes" with others of your ilk to make yourself appear more popular than you are. I'm not judging you for that. I've done it too. I regularly see Facebook status updates on my feed from authors who I don't give a shit about. And the content of those updates doesn't often make me any more inclined to give a shit about them.
Your Facebook author page is a place where you want to post content that appeals to your fans (provided you have some fans) or content that inspires people to share, and hopefully draw in new fans. If all you've got to offer is book links and shitty memes about being a writer, then you're wasting your time.
Your blog is where you really want to shine. Where Twitter tweets and Facebook updates are temporary by nature, soon lost in the ether and forgotten, your blog posts are something you hope people will continue to revisit. There are plenty of reasons to maintain a high-quality blog, but I posted about that a couple of weeks ago.
Your blog, along with your books on the Amazon Top 100 Category lists and recommendations, are the best shot you've got at getting your books in front of the eyes of people who don't yet know you exist.
3. You Suck at Being a Writer.
If you're anything like I was at the beginning of my writing journey, you might not have even written a word yet. And that sucks.
I took a few creative writing courses in college. My professor was Tom DeHaven. I had such a man crush on this guy. In all of my years of schooling, I've never enjoyed a class by another teacher as much as I enjoyed my least enjoyable class of his. He made me feel like I could make it as a writer. I put more effort into the stories I wrote for his classes than I put into the rest of my college classes combined. Somehow, I managed to graduate.
And then I didn't write a goddamn word for the next ten years.
I moved to South Korea and started teaching English. Writing a book was always something that I'd get around to someday, when I had more time. Getting married and having kids meant that I had even less time and more responsibility.
Being a writer means that you take time away from other things in your life, and you use that to tap out words which, over many lonely and frustrating hours, turn into a story.
If you aren't writing, you're not a writer. That's what the "r" at the end of the word means.
Sucking at being a writer isn't the same thing as sucking at writing. When you start out, you'll no doubt suck at that as well. And that's why it's crucial to keep at it. You've got to write out all the suck before you get to the good stuff.
You might have some great stories in you, just like a fat guy has abdominal muscles. But it's going to take a lot of work, time, and discipline before anyone will have the desire or ability to see either of those things.
Everything I've talked about in this post, from writing a good book, to building a fan base, to writing your way through enough sucky shit that you're ready to start writing that first good book, takes a long time. Make the time. Suck less.