Every Friday, I answer a reader’s question about writing, editing, or the writing process. I’m happy to take submissions via comments or email, so if you have a question you’d like me to answer, send it in!
This week’s question:
I have read a lot of marketing advice about selling books, and everything I read tells me to build an author platform for the best exposure. I think that sounds like a good idea, but every time I look around to get ideas, I see all of these authors publishing books and it makes me really discouraged. I feel like there’s no way to compete with all of these other people who are writing and have these huge websites and people hanging on their every word. I get in this funk and then I don’t write for months. Then eventually I get over it and start writing again, until I think about what comes next and get overwhelmed and stop. I’ve been in this pattern for two years, and I wonder if you have any advice.
Carlie, I know exactly how you feel. It’s really intimidating to look out over the giant sea of the internet and see all of the amazing things that other people are doing. It’s natural to wonder how you can possibly make your voice heard. But don’t let the impression that everyone else is a successful, published author stop you from writing–it’s not true.
First, not everyone is publishing a book. In 2011, about 347,000 books were released via traditional publishers, according to Bowker, and 1,223,955 ISBN numbers were purchased. If we assume that ISBN purchases correlate 1 to 1 to book releases, about 1.2 million books were published in the US across all platforms in 2011. As of October 1, 2012, there are approximately 315 million people in the US. Of those people, 67% are between the ages of 15-64, a total of 211 million people. For our general estimation, let’s assume this is the cross-section of the US population that is most likely to produce a published book.
Finally, for the sake of argument, let’s assume that each ISBN number purchased was assigned to a book with a different author (which is obviously not going to be the case). This gives us an estimated 1.2 million authors out of 211 million potential authors, which means 0.57% of the US population has published a book last year. Out of 10,000 random adults, only fifty seven of them have produced a book and brought it to market in any given year…and only fifteen of those ten thousand people have published a book via traditional avenues. I don’t know about you, but I would hardly say that’s everyone.
Second, it’s really easy to compare ourselves to what we see on the internet, but people’s real lives are very different from what they present to you online. The internet is full of people making themselves look as appealing as they possibly can. While there are people (and authors) out there living the big life for sure, you have to remember that every person you see trying to sell a book is putting their best foot forward. You have to take everything you see on the internet with a grain of salt.
Plus, our problems, shortcomings, and struggles seem a lot worse to us than other people’s problems because they’re our problems. (Even science agrees.) It’s really easy for us to see all the shortcomings and frustrations of our own life, but even the people that are our closest friends don’t share every doubt and insecurity they have with us. And the people whose websites you’re looking at most certainly don’t expose their deepest fears to the world-at-large. (Unless that’s their thing, and even if it is you’re still not getting the full picture.)
Comparing your life to what you see people doing on the internet is like comparing the commercial version of a Big Mac to the burger you actually get in the box. If you go to McDonald’s expecting to get the burger you see in the ad, you’re going to be sorely disappointed. But that shiny-looking burger ISN’T ACTUALLY REAL. Comparing your sad-looking burger to that ideal burger is a lie! Everyone’s Big Mac looks pretty sad when you open the box and give it a good, hard look.
Finally, finding the motivation to continue producing original content is hard, but you ultimately have to trust that you have something to say that is worth listening to. I’m not going to get on the “everyone is a unique snowflake” soapbox, but you have had experiences and have perceptions that are different from the people around you. One of the greatest things about fiction is that it gives us the opportunity to get into someone else’s head–and you have the ability to offer that experience to someone else just by virtue of not being that person.
And while you can encourage yourself to develop thoughts that are worth listening to by participating mindfully in the world and while you can focus on your own work to avoid being influenced, you’re still different by default. Plus, I don’t know about you, but I have found that experiencing others’ differences through writing is very interesting, but I am often moved the most by the stories that speak across space, time, and circumstance to the sameness in us all.
So. Go forth and write. (And send me your questions!)