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May 29, 2012

Are You in This for the Long Haul?

Man climbing up a hill

It’s tempting to put all our effort into a big debut or breakout book.  It’s natural to want our work to make a big splash and gain attention.  We might think that if we break out, we’ll have it made.

But there’s a dark side to that approach, especially if our eyes are only on our debut book.  If we don’t succeed in making our debut huge, we might think we’ve failed right when we should be thinking about how we’ve just started our publishing journey.  We might give up before giving ourselves a chance.

On the other end of that possibility, if we do succeed—if we do start at the top—we might always worry about how there’s only one place to go from there.  Down.

Is a Big Debut Really a Good Thing?

The chances of having a huge debut are very low.  The chances of that success continuing release after release are close to nil or worse.  I can’t think of any authors who hit it big with their first book and continued to reach those numbers with their later efforts.  I’m sure there are a handful out there, but joining that single-digit number club isn’t a realistic goal when there are so many factors in that situation we can’t control.

However, when we decide we’re in this for the long haul, we stop chasing the mega-success we can’t control.  And we start focusing on the things we can control: our writing quality and our consistency of output.

The number of authors who started off modestly and then grew their readership from one release to the next is a much larger club.  Most mega-authors we can think of fall into this category.  That goal of growing our success from the ground up is within our grasp.  If we improve our writing and continue releasing new books, we have the opportunity to gain new readers each time.

What Does a Long-Haul Attitude Look Like?

A few months ago, I saw a quote from filmmaker Woody Allen that really resonated with me:

“I’ve managed to avoid over decades the hit-flop syndrome.  Most filmmakers work in that spectrum, and they have the pluses and minuses.  They get the delight and pleasure out of a great hit, and they love the awards, they love the parties, the premieres.  The box-office returns are heady for them, and they love it.  But when something doesn’t work, very often, they have trouble getting money for their next picture.

I’ve never had that problem.  I’ve never had their joys or their lows.  I’ve just sort of existed since 1968 making films kind of on a low flame, burning on a low flame.  And that’s fine, because the fun for me is to make the picture.”

That’s the attitude I want to have for my career.  My focus is on writing the best stories I can—and that’s where I get my joy.

Woody Allen has had big successes.  But that was never his focus, never his goal.  He didn’t dwell on those successes because he was always looking toward the next story.  Similarly, he didn’t dwell on his failures, on the years where people said he was a has-been, because he had a job to do: make the next film.  We can do the same.

What Does “Long Haul” Mean to You?

I certainly wouldn’t mind a big debut or a big breakout book, but that’s not my goal.  My goal is to keep my head down, work hard, improve my skills, and gain readers over time.  I’m okay with being patient.

Some people have wondered why I’m not yet published.  Why I haven’t jumped on the self-publishing opportunity to get my work out there.  I’m sure my career choices will continue to create questions about why I decided a, b, or c about an agent, contract, or publisher.

Here’s the thing.  We all have different goals.  We all envision different career paths for ourselves.  If I wanted a different path, yes, I could have been published by now.

But I’m not in this for the now, the immediate, the breakout.  I’m in this for the long haul.  And that attitude places me on a different path than some would assume. As long as I’m making progress along my path, I’m not frustrated.  This is also why I don’t get jealous of others’ success.  Their path is not my path.

The Dangers of Short-Term Thinking

We can apply this long-haul approach to not only to book publishing, but everything else as well.  Some obsess over their blog traffic numbers.  Or Twitter followers.  Or Facebook friends.

And some might need to focus on those things depending on their goals.  But too many worry about their social media numbers, sales numbers, or ranking numbers when it doesn’t really matter in the big picture of their goals.

As I mentioned above, focusing on the wrong things can make us give up before we really start.  And that would be a shame.

I know writers who have stopped making time for their writing because they’re frustrated or discouraged or what-have-you.  Some of them are great writers, and I hate to see them prematurely give up.

Others have gotten impatient and published their work too soon.  I see their potential for greatness, but they never gave themselves permission to take the time to do things right.

Self-published or traditionally published, giving up or pushing too fast, patience plays a much bigger role in our long-term success than we think.  Woody Allen’s goal?  Make one movie a year on a modest budget and avoid the hype.

The key to being in this career for the long haul is having goals one year, three years, five years, and ten years out.  The key is having the patience to realize we won’t reach all our goals this year.  And the key is being okay with that.  *smile*

Are you in this for the long haul?  What does that mean to you?  How do you maintain that attitude?  If you’re focused on the short term, why have you chosen that approach?  How has it helped you?

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Michele Shaw
Michele Shaw

I definitely feel the same as you, Jami. I keep my head down and keep writing while making the effort to get myself out there on sm, yet not to the detriment of my family or work. I’m a slow and steady wins the race kind of person, setting small goals and crossing each off as I work toward the larger ones.

Carradee

I have a business plan that takes me a few years out. That plan has goals for monetary earnings from passive income (royalties, etc.)

I’ve also done some fancy “prediction” math to guesstimate how many titles I’ll have to have available, minimum, to be able to expect to hit that goal. So that keeps the incentive on. *pats Numbers spreadsheet*

Now, if I hit my production goals and don’t earn as much as I think I should be, I’ll switch my focus onto non-fiction instead of fiction. 🙂

Kimberly Gould

Thank you for this post and reminding me that these hurdles are just that, bumps in a long road. I may feel like a flop, but that only leaves one possible direction, up. I’ll try to remember Woody and hope to be that author that everyone has heard of because she writes interesting books (even if they’ve never read one). Acclaim would be nice, but it isn’t necessary. Only hard work.

Thank you again. This post really nails some of my biggest downfalls.

Angela Quarles

Wow, I don’t think I’ve thought that far ahead 🙂 I believe I’m in it for the long haul, but I think that haul can include paths besides trad and self pub. I’m looking at small presses and e-pubs perhaps for the short term…

KarenG

Jami, I want to tweet this post a million times and shout it to the world. There is so much truth and wisdom in it. Yes yes yes to everything you said here. I thought of Stephen King whose debut novel, Carrie, was a huge hit, yet it didn’t stop him from continuing to write on, despite the fact that subsequent novels through his career have flopped.

Jan
Jan

Hi Jami,

To earn a living writing, I have heard much advice. Plan long term, a book a year for five years, and plan short term, daily writing goals. Ok, I can do that. Learn your craft and have some business sense. Plan time for yourself and family. Keep it all together by discipline, like deadlines.
Now I’m hearing that with the insatiable e readers we must produce two books a year, and, short story.

Jami, we fuss over one story going out the door, but two? It would be like living with twins. What do we do? Make a cookie cutter story plot, rinse and repeat? Or, are we artist and produce with the muse and have fun doing it, the rest of the stuff, well, you know life happens.

Melinda Collins

*This* is why I’ve loved Woody Allen for soooo long. He doesn’t care about hype or negativity. It gets in the way of his creativity, his focus, his ultimate goal.

Concentrating on blog #’s, Twitter followers, FB friends, and the rest, are distractions – AKA: subconscious procrastination. I say that because I just did a presentation – for the day job – based on the book, Eat That Frog!, which is all about keeping your goals in mind and realizing that you are never going to get everything done. You can only concentrate on what’s important today. And it’s the same for writers. We can’t always have stellar #’s in social media or book sales, but we can focus on what’s most important. And for me, that’s writing the stories that fill my soul and bring so much joy.

That being said, I think it’s good to also make short-term goals. Some tips I shared with my co-workers is that it’s okay to have long-term (1 month to 12 months) goals *and* short-term goals (weekly and daily): Short term: write 1000 fresh words into the WIP this week. Long term: Start drafting the next MS, begin the query process, get an agent, get a traditional publishing, etc., etc. But if none of that happens (apart from writing the next one)? Eh…it’s alright. At least I’m continuing to do what I love. 😉

Roxanne Skelly
Roxanne Skelly

So I happened to be at MISCON this weekend and happened to ask a publisher some questions related to this.

For brick & mortar bookstores, you’ve perhaps 3 months after they receive your books to show some sales before they pull them off the shelves. Gotta come out of the gate somewhat strong.

Fortunately, Amazon and e-publishing have allowed a slower build-up of sales, so there’s potential there for changing your publicity model.

Publishers, well, they really just want to make a profit. It’ll probably cost them 10-20k to publish an initial printing of 10k books, so they would really like to sell half of them to break even.

5k books in 3 months? Certainly possible if they get it into the hands of reviewers and such.

Even if you only sell 3k, they may still pick up a second book with the hope that you grow your readership. (Yah, you’ll only pocket maybe $1k from that, which works out to $2/hr if you’re productive. But hey, we write for love, not for 4)

E-pub, well, that’s a different story. You’ve much more than 3 months. You can spend years building up a readership. Takes the pressure off, but you really need to stick with it.

PW Creighton

Excellent insight Jami. It is really hard to keep focused on the large picture when you see those annoying (and misleading) Amazon sales rank numbers wildly fluctuating and see you have a dramatic decline for a few days. I’ve found I can stay on track by ignoring those stats and just pushing through. My goal is for the whole story to be told and that is certainly long-term.

Shelley Munro

Great post, Jami. I think that we as writers are guilty of measuring ourselves against our writer friends and other writers whose books we read. Writing isn’t something that can be compared because so many factors, including luck, come into the equation. There is no right or wrong way to journey through the writing frontier. Like pioneers, we must pick our own way through the terrain. Personally, slow and steady works for me. I write because I can’t not write, and I hope with each book I’m finding new readers and producing an even better product.

I think there must be so much pressure on authors who hit a home run straight out of the gate. While, I might envy them just a little bit, I’m happy doing something I love at my own pace.

Elaine
Elaine

Wonderful article and oh so true. I started writing in 1991 and sold my first book in 2003. But I knew what I wanted and thankfully had a wonderful support system of other writers who kept me focused.

Andrew Mocete

I think the key to lasting in the long haul is to enjoy the process of getting there and to never be satisfied.

I thought I’d be published by now, but I had more work to do and I’m really enjoying the path I’m on. It’s fun to learn this new stuff. It’s fun to take the lessons and experiment with them in my writing. It’s fun discovering my process. Eventually, I’ll have my book out, which will lead to a new goal.

Book two.

And not just any book two, a book two that outdoes my first one. Not in terms of sales or anything, (I hope each book builds on the last.) but my own increased expectation of quality. Because you know there will be parts of book one that I’ll want to do better for book two. And book three? Well, that one will make me want to rewrite book one.

Tahlia Newland

Good advice. Patience is so important and so is being realistic. I have different goals for different projects, a modest little offering for the Indie route and a major series I’m sticking with the trad approach for a while longer because I still do want the authentication that comes with that. The novella coming out soon should pave the way for the series whether it’s published through a trad publisher or not. So, yes I’m looking for the long term. Just getting an agent didn’t score me a publishing deal, so I have no illusions about how my novel will sell. It’s good enough for an agent, but clearly, it’s not mega buck stuff and that’s okay for me. I just do the best I can. What else can we do?

Julie Hedlund

My long-haul goal is to publish many, many books that inspire people and perhaps even change their lives in a positive way. A huge debut would be nice I guess, but only if it really helped me achieve the larger goal.

Great post!

Ruchita
Ruchita

Hi Jami, thanks for another great post. You really provoke thought. And I didn’t know you weren’t published, you write so well!
I love the words by Woody Allen that you quoted. Slow burn defines the writing passion aptly, it is a ‘burn’ but faced by ‘life’ and all other things it brings, it has to be kept on slow or you lose the focus. Two years back this happened to me. I focused too much on writing and ignored several relationships and had to pay the price. Now I’ve learnt a lesson and decided the writing process entails loads and loads of patience, with yourself and others. Sometimes I succeed in that, sometimes not, but I keep trying. I know to make my writing better I’ll have to devote it time and practice. And the fruit is the improvement that you can see in your writing, your characters, your story. Last week I wrote a scene and actually shed tears while writing it. That was a great day for me. Getting published is the final hurdle but for me writing something that touched me like that is a definite milestone. I can see I’m getting there, but I also see there are deficiencies I need to overcome. Yes, I’m in it for the long haul and I’m going to steadily work on the deficiencies till I reach my standard, and hopefully get published.

Nancy S. Thompson

I’m definitely in it for the long haul, but I keep my head down most of the time. I work on one book at a time, make it as perfect as I can. Yeah, I do a little blogging once a week. I set my tweets at the same pace. I work to gather followers, but not at the expense of the real work. What’s the point? I’m a do-one-thing-at-a-time-&-do-it-right kind of gal. That may be at a slower pace than most, but it’s the only way I can work. Otherwise, I get too distracted.

Another great post, Jami, as always!

Julie Glover

Awesome post, Jami. Upon returning from the DFW Writers’ Conference, I told my husband that I wanted to draw up a rough business plan (he’s more savvy in that area than I). What I have learned about publishing in the last year cemented where I want to go with my writing career, and I want to lay out long-term goals and then short-term markers to stay on track. I’ve been actually writing for over three years, but only in the last year or so have I had more definite plans of what this will look like as a career. I especially appreciate your thoughts of knowing what your own goals are.

Gene Lempp

I’m planned years out in most areas and my writing one started a couple of years ago – back when I will still blogless and lurking (hmm, that sounds odd, but I’m not there anymore either *smile*). Currently, I’m ahead of where I thought I would be but behind where I want to be, which is exactly where I should be.

Very true that every writer has to decide what they want and the path they want to take to reach it. Also that success can be just as deadly as failure when we aren’t prepared for it. I’m actually glad to be a slow builder, a slow flame. It is easier to adapt and find what works that way.

Great post, Jami 🙂

Suzanne Williams

I appreciate this advice. I have long felt that my not going with the flow of everyone else is perfectly ok. Everyone’s writing path is different from the next person.

Kristin Nador

Great post, Jami! There is so much pressure on writers to get it out there, get it out there, and with it being easier with self-pub, I think writers give in too soon when it’s okay to take our time to work our craft and write the best book possible.

Making a long term plan using a balance of knowing what the market requires, knowing ourselves and our own skill level in writing the best book possible and where we want that skill to take us over the long term seems like wisdom if we want to endure in this profession. Thanks for helping me think it through! 🙂

Roni Loren

Great post and I think it’s smart to be thinking that way. I think the best spot to be in is to have solid (not blockbuster) success with your first effort. If you go the traditional route and you’re expected to have a breakout book, then don’t, you often don’t get another contract because you didn’t earn out that big advance they gave you. Or maybe you are a hit for that book but then sales drop off for the next ones and eventually you’re not wanted anymore.

Yet if you got a smaller advance but then sell well (maybe less than that “failed” blockbuster above) but you earn out your advance, then you look like a success and the publisher gives you another contract allowing you to grow your fan base and build momentum.

So it’s finding a balance between having enough success to not look like a “failed” book but not so much that everyone is expecting you to hit the top of NYT every time. (Though I’ll take that NYT spot if the universe would like to bestow that one me, lol.)

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[…] dispels 10 writing myths. Jane Lebak advises listening to your writing instincts. Jami Gold asks: Are you in this for the long haul? And Barry Crowther echoes Jami by reminding us that Time is the key to […]

Renee Schuls-Jacobson

Such a great post. People think I’m cracked because I don’t know my stats at every given moment. Right now, I’m trying to produce the best product that I can. And, like you, I don’t get jealous of others’ successes. I am thrilled when I hear people have published! I’m hoping to finish this draft by August and then work on revisions. I’d like to query agents by the end of 2012. Looking forward to it.

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[…] I’m rounding it out with Jami Gold’s post Are You in This for the Long Haul? […]

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[…] once in a while, I come across an article about figuring out our goals as an author. Heck, I’ve written posts along those lines. As we learn more about the industry and grow as authors, our goals might […]

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