Cautionary Notes for Aspiring Writers

by Richard Taylor : 2017-04-21

The Short Version

For many years I wanted to be a writer. If you do too, there are lots of people who will tell you that you can be if you keep trying. Most of those people are either fooling themselves or hoping to make money by selling you services.

I failed to become a writer. I'm not telling you not to try. I'm telling you that if you do try you are very unlikely to succeed. It's not an easy thing to hear. But it is true.

If the notes here can help someone, in some way, then maybe my time wasn't all wasted.

The Beginning

My first novel was written in 2002. I'd been in my dream job for about 7 years and the novelty was wearing off, as long-term projects lost momentum and the pressure to think of something completely new increased.

Writing is hard. Until that point in my life, completing something that was hard was the hard part. Everything else just followed on. Didn't it?

It seems naive now. But I really thought that after completing my novel, and being happy with it, finding a publisher was a matter of time. I didn't think it would be easy. In fact I gave myself a year to do it.

After about six months I was almost completely disillusioned. I'd started reading up on getting published and finally realised that it wasn't just hard to get published, it was, statistically, highly unlikely.

Persistence is Useless

[to misquote Douglas Adams]

You can spend the rest of your life trying to get your first novel published. Or you can move on with the second. Those two things are not mutually exclusive. So I set about doing both.

My plan for Eddie Shore was for a series of pairs of books: in the first of each pair his life would take a down-turn, and in the second things would pick up. The paired books would be set over a few days or weeks, but the gap between each pair would be ten years.

So I needed to get on with book 2... then book 3 could wait until after 2011.

Writing the second novel was fun. Maybe more so than the first. But my efforts on finding a publisher (or an agent) were getting nowhere. I stuck at it.

Today when I see #amwriting is trending on Twitter I feel sad. I imagine thousands of aspiring writers struggling to finish their great work, all hoping that it will be discovered. For nearly all of them, it wont.

One for Sorrow, Two for Joy

With two completed novels you might think you have a better chance of getting them published. After all, you have shown that you are not a one-trick pony. You have the makings of a series!

I think it was at this point that I got my first vaguely positive comment from an agent. He said that he liked my first novel (based on the first few chapters), but it was too short to be commercial.

Too short? At 55,000 words it was longer than plenty of the published novels on my shelves. But the fashion at that point was for doorstops of 75,000 - 100,000 words.

Was this correct, or was he just trying to reject my book politely?

I was tempted to combine my two novels into one. Psychologically this was a hard thing to do. In my mind I had written two novels. They were distinct to me.

Anyway, I bit the bullet and tried it. Two became one.

Postcards from the Ed

One of the oddest things that happened when I was trying to get ESatM published, was a postcard I received from a niche publisher. In response to my submission the card basically said "We don't publish that kind of book. So don't send us stuff. You idiot."

Not in those exact words. There was a reference to their submission guidelines, with the assertion that I obviously hadn't read them.

Of course, I had read the guidelines. And in fact I had referred to them in my covering letter... along with the reasons why I thought my novel was a fit for their catalogue.

But then the publisher probably didn't even skim my letter. He was probably just clearing his desk on a Friday afternoon by sending out Get Lost postcards to the last dozen submissions that remained ... so he could get a fresh start the following Monday.

At least I got a reply on that occassion. About half the publishers I approached never replied at all...

Free Today, Free Tomorrow

By 2006 I had a new job and ideas for 2 completely new novels. My plan for Eddie Shore was still to write another part set in 2011... so he could wait a few more years. I wanted to move on with something else.

But in my heart of hearts I knew ESatM and ES4J weren't going to get published. I'd stopped sending them out to publishers. Self-publishing seemed the only way, but lots of people were saying don't go there - self-pub was still considered vanity publishing at the time.

I did it anyway. Going with Lulu, who seemed the best... they even allowed you to get listed on Amazon. But that's not such a big deal when you are one of thousands of unknown authors all vying for attention.

In the first few months I only had single-digit sales. And in the six months after that, nothing.

The whole getting published thing was getting me down. I wanted to move on. So I decided to put the first novel(s) to bed. I put them on my website as free downloads; with a link to the print copies if people wanted to go delux.

Did I really think anyone would buy the print books, just because I made the downloads free? Yes, I did, for a while. Did people download the book? Yes... I think - there were hundreds of downloads, possibly all from search engines and web-crawlers. Did I make any sales? Two.

Giving away my book for free was an act of closure. A final recognition that I was never going to get any financial reward for all the work I'd put in. I moved on.


Did anyone really buy many books from Lulu?

I did once. I bought "King of the Kindness Room" and "Elmore and Hen" by Andrew James Stevenson. Admittedly in the hope that the author would buy my book in return... but he didn't. No problem. They are actually both really good. And no longer available on Lulu!

In the 10 years that my books were available on Lulu, I sold 14 copies. And that might include the 6 copies that I bought myself for family.

At that rate it would take 61 years to make back what I paid for ISBNs.

Easier Said Than Done

It is one thing to say you have moved on, another thing to believe it, and something else to actually have done it.

Having written 20-30K words on my third novel (The Square Triangles) I really wasn't happy with it. Was it the ghost of Eddie Shore haunting me? Maybe. All those rejections hurt; and you don't ever forget them, really, do you?

My problem wasn't writer's block. It was something of the opposite. I thought I had two strong ideas for books and went with the strongest. But as TST developed I found myself thinking about the other idea and wondering if I should have done that first.

Several times I paused TST and worked on the other idea (still untitled). Each time I convinced myself that TST was the book to write first and went back to it.

In the middle of this confusion I discovered that Amazon had started letting authors publish directly for the Kindle on their site. Could this be a final chance for my earlier novels? Surely some people would be prepared to pay a minimal price for them.

So I did it. Proving that I hadn't moved on I made Kindle versions of ESatM and ES4J. Pricing both at the lowest mark, $0.99, in the hope that a few adventurous souls might give it a go.

Did they? Well, I can tell you that according to Amazon my two Kindle books have sold, between them, in the first 5 years... exactly zero copies.

[update May 2018: I have now sold a handful of copies of both books and get a tiny trickle of royalties (pennies per year) from Kindle Unlimited]

[update July 2019: Amazon banned one of my books because it noticed that the same text had been on my own website. Rather than battle to explain that I had not plagiarised myself, for a few pennies, I pulled all my books from the Kindle]

[update October 2023: Despite closing my account 4 years ago I have started receiving royalty payments from Amazon again. They are just a few pennies per month. I don't know what for as I have no account and no books for sale on Amazon]

Amazon wins; Readers win; Authors lose

In the early 21st century, not getting your book on Amazon meant that no-one was going to see it. If no-one saw it, no-one bought it and your career as a writer was going nowhere.

Then everyone and their grandmother got on the internet. Quite quickly everyone was on Amazon, or at least available from their site indirectly. Now no-one was going to see your book because there were just zillions of books on Amazon / the internet.

When everyone can get published on-line it is a bloodbath for authors. Sure a few make a lot of money. But most authors make very little. And many authors make nothing at all.

I bet that if you look at all the books that first became available in 2014, the average number of sales will be less than 10 copies a year. In fact I wouldn't be surprised if the median were less than 10 copies too. Why? Because there are now thousands and thousands of books published every year that no-one ever buys (apart from the authors themselves).

Who wins here? Well, Amazon are still doing OK because they still sell plenty of the hits. Readers are doing OK because they have a big choice of books to buy. Readers also do OK because they can get hold of classic and out-of-print books for nothing.

My friend has had a Kindle for a couple of years and says she hasn't bought a single book... she reads classics for free... and there are enough to last her a lifetime.

Authors have produced a massive over supply of books. There are just too many. And most of them are rubbish. Finding the odd gem will get harder and harder.

Harder because, at the moment, there are too many fake reviews and marketing hype behind books that are blessed by big players. Hopefully one day there will be a way for people to get genuine reviews from impartial readers ... but I'm not holding my breath.

The End

When 2011 came and went I had another dilemma. I still wasn't happy with The Square Triangles. Should I put it on hold and write book 3 of the Eddie Shore series? It was supposed to be set in 2011... so I was tempted. But no-one was interested in Eddie's story, despite 10 years of trying to promote it.

What to do? On the one hand was the book I needed to finish but couldn't (TST) and on the other was a book I knew I could finish but no-one wanted (ES3).

I thought I'd settled it when a friend revealed that he had been commissioned to write a non-fiction book. He thought it was going to be tough to do in a year. We challenged each other. Hoping that we could push each other to make progress. I decided to finish TST.

A revelation helped. The main male character (Wyn) in TST just wasn't right; he didn't fit with the female lead (Elspeth) and the children (Nuala and Selwyn) in the way I wanted. But there were aspects of the male lead in my shelved hard sci-fi novel that I really liked... so why not parachute that guy into Wyn's shoes?

It made sense. Why hadn't I thought of that before?

Maybe if I'd thought of it earlier it would have made a difference. But after an initially exciting period of two or three months I had lost all my momentum again. Writing wasn't much fun. No-one was interested in what I was doing.

One day I just had a moment of clarity. Why are you making yourself unhappy?

It seemed a fair question. There wasn't a good answer. It seemed pretty obvious that I would be happier if I just stopped writing. So I did.

In for a Penny, In for a Penny

Of course, you can't just stop writing. Not for ever. Once I took the pressure off myself to complete anything, I was free to do whatever I liked. For a while I really didn't write anything at all. I read a lot instead; and watched a lot of films (movies).

Then I wrote some poems, book reviews, film reviews. Not for any reason, other than because I wanted to.