FOMO is the “fear of losing out”. In the era of social media, advertising, and ease of getting information in front of you, it is easy to FEEL that there is too much you have to do to make it in this world and that the publishing world is changing too fast to stay on top of it. With every new idea, advice, even a post like this one, many writers think they are doing something wrong. If they could only spend more time, more money, learn faster they would be more successful. Don’t let FOMO kill your creativity, and therefore kill your career.
Just remember, there are a lot of people who make their money off of that fear. There are people who base their income on “helping” you be fearful and then giving you an expensive way to alleviate that fear–all without guarantees that their prescription will meet your expectations. It is true that investing in marketing will help push your book up in the rankings and get you more sales. However, there is no guarantee that it will get you enough more sales to pay for that advertising. And there is definitely no guarantee that it will stay in that ranking. The minute you stop spending money, it will start to fall. The reality is that building a career as an author is a long term investment and not a one book or two book or three book happening.
As most small businesses will tell you, it takes time to build a loyal customer base and to outlast the competition to start making money. I don’t know what the rule is now, but back when I learned about new business startups the rule was three years until you started to break even and actually make a profit. In my experience, it is five to eight books before you actually start seeing traction–assuming that you have been continually building up a fan base and doing at least the basics of marketing. Then you have a CHANCE of starting to make money that is more than $2K-$3K per year.
I can already feel a number of readers shaking their head and thinking: “That’s not going to happen to me. My book is better. My book is special. I’m Young (or older and wiser) and I know if I just work harder it will happen.”
Then it doesn’t. Whiplash, depression, wondering if they should give up hits all at once. They did everything right, but it hasn’t moved the income needle much at all. This a part of the process of realizing what a writing career is all about. In the previous post on “Why Should I Write If No One Will Read It?” I talked about the number one thing you can do is to decide WHY you really are writing. Authors lose sight of this when they start down the career path and the comparison of income path. If you lose that reason, you will give up because money is not the ONLY reason to write. For more people it will never meet your expectations.
My Personal Whiplash Story – Unreal Expectations
I know when I wrote my first novel–after more than 20 years of selling short stories to magazines and anthologies–I had big expectations. I had expectations of a really nice advance (meaning $15K-$20K which was what some of my friends were getting back in the early 2000s and told me I would have no problem getting that). I had expectations of finding a publisher who loved me and would nurture me through a series and into a career, like a couple of my friends who had started writing in the 1980s and 1990s. I started writing my first novel when I was 50 years old, so I thought I was really good about setting expectations, gathering data, find out the “real” scoop on what would happen.
Of course, I had dreams of being an outlier, getting a movie deal, and becoming that author everyone knew by name. I didn’t bank on making that dream, but I still held it in my heart so I’d be ready if it did happen. 🙂
I think this expectation of making it big is normal and even necessary for some people to survive that writing/learning/publishing/rejection process. Let’s face it. Who would take a year or more to write a novel or nonfiction book, get feedback, work on it again and again. Then go through rejections to get an agent or a publisher. Or who would do all that and then invest money and time and energy in learning the self-publishing process and NOT believe their book was special?
You have to believe your book is special or important or needed to keep going and keep trying. It is that belief in your book that propels most people through their first book, and all the hard learning. The whiplash happens when you realize that process is harder than you think, the income is lower than you were led to believe, the way the industry works is not based only on the merit of the book, but on so many other factors that weigh a lot heavier than the merit. I’ve seen it again and again–for myself as well as others.
I think this is an artists dilemma. Artists/Authors believe that books are defined by the number of people who buy them. Therefore, if only a few buy them the book is worthless and dreams are smashed. But this is not always true. Many painters were not popular in their time. Many writers faced the same situation. Sales do not equate merit or value. Sales are a direct outcome of messaging (true or false) and investment in reaching the right target audience.
A Special Note for Academics Who Did Well in Nonfiction – A case of two datasets of experience that were not correlated
I fell into this author trap because my first foray into writing books was in Academia. It was at a time in my career when I was well-known in my field (online learning) and there weren’t very many people who had expertise in it. I had publishers asking me to write a book. I didn’t have to seek them out. I didn’t have to find an agent. I just had to write about my research and what I’d learned. I wrote four books that way. I didn’t have to market at all because the market was to colleges and universities; and the publisher had a good network for selling there. I was on the leading edge and paperback and hardback books were the primary way to sell. In fact, my publisher didn’t believe ebooks were coming–in spite of the fact I was writing about online learning–so I negotiated a 50% deal on those ebooks. You’d never get that today.
It was so easy for me to publish my nonfiction with a major publisher, I thought that writing a novel would be similar. I didn’t think publishers would come to me. After all, it’s not like I had an MFA or an English degree. But I wasn’t unknown in fiction. I’d been selling short stories to magazines and anthologies for two decades.
I was so wrong. Writing novels and marketing novels is completely different. My background meant nothing. Maybe it helped me get more requests from agents or editors for the full manuscript, but it did not help them take a chance on it if they didn’t like it. After 61 rejections over a four year period, I finally landed a good agent at Writer’s House back in 2006.
Once You’re “In” It Still Isn’t A Guarantee
My agent sent out the manuscript and pitch and also got rejections, until it finally landed with a good editor at NAL four months later. It was then another two months just to get the contract worked out. The advance was small, but I wasn’t worried. I knew my first book had other books behind it. I knew I could build it and the series would slowly gain fans from one book to the next. My editor left NAL to go somewhere else before I even got my first edit letter. The editor who took over her list didn’t love it. She had her own list and only kept a few of the previous editors list. So, they paid a kill fee and that was that.
Did my book suddenly go from a good book liked by a good agent at a good company to something without merit? No. There are so many things that go into liking, selecting, working on a book at a publisher. A lot of it has nothing to do with merit. It has everything to do with taste, what’s already on the list, how many other projects that person has, and if they like it enough to put it ahead of something else they also like.
In the meantime, my agent had landed a huge debut book sold at auction for nearly a million dollars, including movie rights, and that took all of her attention. She had no time to try my book again, nor many other people’s books who had her as an agent. We parted ways and I went back to the rounds again. I did finally publish a different book with a small press, without an agent in 2011 (9 years after starting the rounds). I simultaneously published a different book and different genre independently the same year.
My indie novel made three times more in the first year than my small press novel did. Is it because I worked harder for the indie novel? Actually, no. I worked harder for the small press novel because I didn’t really want to be an indie author. The reason I made more money is simply down to getting more of the gross coming back to me. My small press novel gave me 25% on ebooks and 6% on paperback. My indie novel gave me an average of 60% on ebook and 20-40% on paperback depending on the retailer. Even with that difference, I did NOT make anywhere near the $15K advance I had started off expecting. I didn’t make anywhere near that in royalties that first year on both books combined. In fact, I made only $4,500.
Does this mean they weren’t good enough? I don’t think so. In subsequent years, on the indie book as I wrote more in the series, it made more money. The small press book languished as they were off to work on the next big thing and had given up on investing anything more in my book. But I’m still not making my goal of $50-$60K per year on books. I thought I was being reasonable expecting that after five years. I didn’t know that media book sales. I had to small of a sample size to base that on.
Did I ever invest in advertising? Yes, I did some. At one time I was investing $300-$500 per month. It did drive sales and rankings up and I could break even. But it never drove it up enough to move me into the next tier. And once advertising stopped, things fell precipitously. Would $1K per month or $5K per month made a difference? I’m sure it would. I know people who spend that and are consistent bestsellers. But I don’t have that kind of money to invest.
The Truth About Pay-to-Play
It’s not what anyone wants to hear, but it is reality. Publishers are facing this reality as well. They are spending more in marketing than before, but they are also picking and choosing where to spend it–in books/people that are a “sure” deal in their eyes. People with a track record. People with a platform. People who by personality or book topic meet the perceived zeitgeist.
This has been true even before the ebook era and all of the ease of bringing a book to the market. But the competition is definitely more. And publishers are more concentrated in big media companies than ever before. Also, for authors, it more pronounced now because of the ease of getting in front of people through social media and emails and offers. It appears that every book has something amazing to say about it–it’s an award winner, it has over 100 or 1,000 reviews, it has a movie option, etc. And authors believe they are doing something wrong.
Of course, there are hundreds of people/companies who prey on that fear and are happy to “help” for a price. They will run ads for you. They will get you reviews. They will look for movie options. A few are legitimate. They tend to cost $5K+ to employ. A lot are legitimate but have no guarantees because they know that most people won’t move to the next level.
FOMO Pushes You To Do Everything and You End Up Doing Nothing
All this media grabbing an authors attention makes it FEEL more important to pay attention all the time. It FEELS that there is constantly something new, something more you need to do, some reason you need to stop writing and learn about this new thing or you won’t ever succeed. Almost daily I have authors writing me and asking, what do you know about this company? What do you know about that company? Is it true they can do X? Even people here do the same. 98% of the time my response is: “It’s highly unlikely. Have they ever helped someone? Sure. Does that mean it will happen for you in the same way? Probably not.” The reality is there is no easy button. An author career, just like any small business, is built over years not over one book or two books or three books. Yes there are outliers that make it to the list on the first book. Maybe it will be you. Someone has to make it. Don’t bank on it.
Don’t fall into FOMO. If you are a writer, the most important thing you can do is write. The second most important thing is to set your expectations to reality instead of dreams. Don’t give up your dreams, just don’t base your value on a dream. Base your value on what you can control. Be flexible about timelines to success. I thought I was quite conservative giving myself five years to get to $60K per year in my writing. It turns out that was not conservative at all. I didn’t have realistic data to set my expectations. In fact the number of writers making $60K per year just off their books is staggeringly small.
When it comes to all the things that are not writing, my rule of thumb is learn at least one new thing each year. If you can learn two or three that’s great, but set a goal for one. Don’t stop writing in order to take yet another class. I now way too many writers who take a class every month looking for the thing that will push their book over the top. The thing that will push your book is another book, and another. As you learn each one new thing about the business side of writing, ask yourself what can you do with that and still feel balanced in your ability to create and your need to be a business person.
If you learn about social media brand building and marketing, there are five or six major platforms and at least a dozen others. Don’t do it all at once. Choose one or two that you actually like, or at least can tolerate. Build on those. Better to have one you like and don’t feel dread every time you get post than five that you procrastinate because you hate it so much. If you truly hate social media, you get hives thinking about it, then don’t do it. Pick some other way to build your relationships with fans. Perhaps rely on building an email list instead. Keep fans informed by regular newsletters.
Perhaps you are better talking to people in person or via webinars or live shared platforms. Then concentrate on that and do it well.
Every authors career is unique. Comparing yourself to someone else does absolutely no good for you or your mental health. You are not that person. Even if you write in the same genre, you are not that person. You do not have their same temperament. You do not have their same background. You do not have their same voice. You do not have their tolerance for X (social media, public speaking, spending a thousand dollars every month). Your book may be just as good, but you are not that person.
Your career is based on who you are and what you love, what’s important to you. Once you know that, you will know what you are able and willing to do to move up. The answer may be nothing. The answer may be you only want to write. That is a legitimate answer. Just set your expectations for what that means. The answer may be that you are never going to write another book but you will do everything in your power to make this one a bestseller. Okay, that is possible too if you can afford to pay for it. It will probably cost about $20K to get your book on a bestseller list (probably not NYT, but maybe USA Today, or maybe just the Amazon bestseller list). It can be made to happen with enough money.
Most people are in the middle. They want to make more money than they are, but they don’t want to or aren’t able to expend $20K to make it happen. What is your balance?