Author Topic: Overnight success: It only took me 17 years...  (Read 6153 times)  

Offline Sonya Bateman

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Overnight success: It only took me 17 years...
« on: March 14, 2016, 07:05:46 am »
...so here's my attempt to help you not wait that long. :)

Hi. I'm Sonya. Most of you don't know me, because -- as my tag line to the left states -- I'm largely invisible on message boards. It's been that way since before The Forum That Shall Not Be Named. And I promised myself that I would never, ever write this post. I don't feel comfortable offering writing advice, because I don't believe there is One True Path to Success (because heck, I've followed just about every other Path To Success offered by other writers, and failed every time).

Having said that, I'm writing this post now because I know there are so many other writers out there who've been in this game for years and years, who've tried all the Path(s) To Success and angsted tremendously when Success failed to materialize on the horizon, just like me. So I wanted to tell you guys, the ones who've "quit" writing so many times that their closest friends and SOs know darned well they will never, ever quit, no matter how many times they threaten to, even if they actually mean it this time and every time -- the ones who keep saying this, but just can't quit, because writing is everything -- that there is hope.

Look at me. I made it after seventeen years of failing. It might not last, but I'm here now. And no matter what happens down the road, I'll always have this moment in the sun.

PART I: How I got here

Yes, this post has parts. It's long. It's kind of sad and pathetic. You might want to just skip to the end right now. :)

I've been an extremely avid reader for as long as I can remember. Growing up, I read everything I could get my hands on. Besides my family, books are the best things in my life. But it didn't occur to me to actually write a book until the summer of 1999, while I was getting an associates degree in Office Technology (because "glorified secretary" was the best I thought I could do). I don't remember exactly why, but I'd made up my mind: I was going to write a book. A romance. Because I loved reading romance.

I wrote the whole thing in a single-subject spiral bound notebook. In three weeks. Keep in mind, this was back in the Dark Ages. The Internet was new (I had dial-up and was using the "free month of AOL" CDs they sent everyone in the mail, and contacting AOL to complain about the service at the end of every month -- and then they'd give me another month free). Amazon was just a cool new website for buying books -- Kindle was still many, many years away.

I managed to figure out that in order to make my book "real," I needed an "agent." So I typed it up and printed out a bunch of copies (at the copy shop, because doing that on a home printer was totally out of the question), and started doing all the wrong things. Like mailing out unsolicited copies of the book.

Needless to say, I did not get an agent. But by then I was determined. I was going to be An Author, with lots of readers. I was going to make people feel the way I did about reading the latest Stephen King, the way Bastien felt in The Neverending Story. I wanted people to love my books.

So I wrote another romance. I queried the right way, and I got exactly one agent to request a full. He replied, after reading the whole book (so I presumed) that it was a great premise but the writing did not deliver, or something to that effect. And I decided romance was the problem, so I switched to writing thrillers.

Long story short... I wrote book after book after book. The thrillers didn't get me an agent, but they got me into "self-publishing" via a vanity press, which I had no idea what it was or why it was a bad idea. I paid a lot of money to fail that way. Then I went through a whole bunch of small presses, some fledgling POD and ebook publishers (lots of excitement but a handful of sales... one of the "publishers" was just one woman who subsequently went crazy and shut down. For a while I was convinced my thriller series had driven her there...).

Meanwhile I was writing more stuff. Other thrillers, other romances. Then, since I'd loved fantasy forever and ever, I decided why not try that. I wasn't familiar with the term "urban fantasy" but it had been my "favorite" genre anyway (Labyrinth, The Crow -- these are my favorite movies of all time). I wrote a book that I didn't know was urban fantasy and started querying agents again.

This time I got one. An agent at a big-name, well respected agency known for representing fiction (Jim Butcher is among their clientele). And my agent shopped the urban fantasy I was so excited about to editors far and wide. I was sure I'd made it and I would have loads of happy readers any day now. But no editor wanted to buy the book. It wasn't "genre" enough.

So I wrote another urban fantasy, sure that this time it would work. After fifteen months of shopping it, my agent got me a two-book deal with Simon & Schuster. Yay! So exciting!

They dropped me after the first book failed to become a mega bestseller. They published the second book, as per the contract, with absolutely zero fanfare, and it sunk like a stone. I was so very disillusioned after the sure-fire guarantee commercial publishing contract failed to make me a success, that I couldn't finish writing a book for years.

Let's fast-forward now through many years of failing at self-publishing. Most recently before now, I did a series of romance novellas and started making extremely low four-figure months, somewhat consistently, and thought at last, I have found success! But even that sank lower and lower, and subsequent releases failed to deliver the somewhat middling performance of the earlier books. Still, this showed me that I *could* do it. I just had to do it *right*. With the right books.

And then -- our house was foreclosed on. We had to move suddenly, into an apartment, after escaping apartment life for what we thought was forever. And I decided... I absolutely love urban fantasy, and that's what I'm writing. Even if it flops hard. Because life is too short, and I just lost my house, and I had to give my cats away and that broke my heart, and screw everything. I'm writing fantasy and that's it.

I had this idea for a series that I'd started and scrapped dozens of times -- wrong main character, wrong setting, wrong plot. After the huge, disruptive move, I finally came up with the right elements for that story.

And the first Gideon Black book came out of all that. This time I followed all the self-publishing standards for success: Great cover, blurb, keywords... and story. Or so I'd like to think. Now, with book 2 in the series out, both books are ranking sub-1000 and I'm literally making more money than I ever have in my life, ever, after working an endless stream of part-time, low-skill, minimum-wage, and barely-professional jobs while trying to make a go of "this writing thing."

PART II: My advice

Here's what I did to make these books successful:

-Spent a lot of time learning how to write. Read, read, read, and write, write, write. Craft is absolutely an essential ingredient. There's so much focus on the self-pub industry on cover, blurbs, genre tropes, keywords, and marketing. These things are important. But the writing HAS to come first.

-Got an amazingly awesome cover (shout-out to Lou Harper!). Seriously, I think cover is the second most important thing next to the story. Do not skimp on the cover. Invest in it. It's crucial.

-Really worked the hell out of writing a blurb that would get "OMG I have to read this now" reactions. Posted it here on Kboards and asked for feedback before publishing (thank you, everyone who gave me "OMG I have to read this now" reactions, and also advice on how to tweak it -- you have my eternal gratitude :) )

-Launched at 99 cents and promoted the debut price with BargainBooksy, BKnights, and Facebook ads (which I have no idea how effective they were/are... if I were you, I'd figure out how to track conversions on FB ads. I'm sure there's a way to do it.)

And that is all I did. All the rest was Amazon algorithms, and a good dose of luck.

Basically, I just want this post to reinforce that you do not need to go crazy trying all the marketing, all the tricks, all the endless revisions and relaunches and huge crazy promotion schedules (also, I would like to note here that if a book/series is not working, in most cases, all the changes in the world are not going to make it work. I have three or four floundering series that prove it. With the way Amazon works, only something brand new is going to kickstart things. Keep writing new things. When you have something that takes off, THEN you'll be able to get some more love for your older stuff. And of course, YMMV here because I know jump-starting older stuff has occasionally worked for some folks).

Love what you're doing and write awesome books. And give your awesome books their very best chance with great covers, blurbs, and keywords, and *judicious* marketing (i.e. marketing that's been proven to work). Repeat until you're successful.

Here's hoping it does not take you as long as it took me. :)

ETA: Series. I need to add that. Good writing, cover, blurbs, keywords, marketing, and write in a series. The often-repeated advice is usually the best... so follow that. :)
« Last Edit: March 14, 2016, 10:12:50 am by Sonya Bateman »
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    Offline CM Raymond

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    Re: Overnight success: It only took me 17 years...
    « Reply #1 on: March 14, 2016, 07:09:31 am »
    Thanks for sharing your story and advice, Sonya!!

    Amazing. ;D

    Offline smikeo

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    Re: Overnight success: It only took me 17 years...
    « Reply #2 on: March 14, 2016, 07:12:03 am »
    Congratulations on your success, those are incredible ranks! And thanks for the uplifting tips :)

    Offline angela65

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    Re: Overnight success: It only took me 17 years...
    « Reply #3 on: March 14, 2016, 07:15:53 am »
    Thanks for taking the time to make such an insightful post. I'm glad it worked out for you in the end. Gives me hope.

    Offline Chinese Writer

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    Re: Overnight success: It only took me 17 years...
    « Reply #4 on: March 14, 2016, 07:18:49 am »
    Thank you for sharing. I hope you'll move back to a house soon. Sorry about the cats.

    Offline Sonya Bateman

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    Re: Overnight success: It only took me 17 years...
    « Reply #5 on: March 14, 2016, 07:25:47 am »
    Thanks, guys. I'm already second-guessing posting this -- I feel like it's all a bunch of drivel that doesn't matter to anyone but me.

    This is why I suck on message boards...
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    Offline CM Raymond

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    Re: Overnight success: It only took me 17 years...
    « Reply #6 on: March 14, 2016, 07:28:04 am »
    Thanks, guys. I'm already second-guessing posting this -- I feel like it's all a bunch of drivel that doesn't matter to anyone but me.

    This is why I suck on message boards...

    I totally get this! I've decided to become more actively involved, and each time I post I feel the same.

    And totally not drivel!

    Offline Sonya Bateman

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    Re: Overnight success: It only took me 17 years...
    « Reply #7 on: March 14, 2016, 07:29:24 am »
    I totally get this! I've decided to become more actively involved, and each time I post I feel the same.

    And totally not drivel!

    I think it's the writer's curse or something. :D
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    Offline Talbot

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    Re: Overnight success: It only took me 17 years...
    « Reply #8 on: March 14, 2016, 07:34:46 am »
    Thanks, guys. I'm already second-guessing posting this -- I feel like it's all a bunch of drivel that doesn't matter to anyone but me.

    No, it matters to anyone that's been struggling for years. It's hugely inspiring, thanks!

    Offline David J Normoyle

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    Re: Overnight success: It only took me 17 years...
    « Reply #9 on: March 14, 2016, 07:52:46 am »
    Thanks, guys. I'm already second-guessing posting this -- I feel like it's all a bunch of drivel that doesn't matter to anyone but me.

    This is why I suck on message boards...

    Seventeen years to become an overnight success mightn't appeal to the get rich quick crowd, but it resonates with some of us toiling away for years with no sign of reward. What I got from the post is that as long as the writing keeps improving, and one keeps up to date with the business side, then success will likely come. Just maybe not today.


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    Offline Zaitsev

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    Re: Overnight success: It only took me 17 years...
    « Reply #10 on: March 14, 2016, 07:58:57 am »
    Thanks, guys. I'm already second-guessing posting this -- I feel like it's all a bunch of drivel that doesn't matter to anyone but me.

    This is why I suck on message boards...

    No -- this is great -- really. Thank you so much. It really helps.

    Offline Lisa Grace

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    Re: Overnight success: It only took me 17 years...
    « Reply #11 on: March 14, 2016, 08:00:35 am »
    Thanks for posting. Your writing life and experiences are an encouragement to many. (((Hugs)))
     
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    Offline Sonya Bateman

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    Re: Overnight success: It only took me 17 years...
    « Reply #12 on: March 14, 2016, 08:08:32 am »
    Thank you, everyone. I'm glad it's somewhat helpful... it's definitely meant to be encouraging (as I sit here listening to my upstairs neighbors throw bowling balls down the stairs, or whatever they're doing... I swear, this place! :) )
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    Offline David Crosby

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    Re: Overnight success: It only took me 17 years...
    « Reply #13 on: March 14, 2016, 08:09:26 am »
    I've been feeling down after a luke-warm reception on Amazon to a mystery novel that the few readers seem to REALLY like. Your post was exactly what I needed to keep me going. Thanks for an inspiring story!
    David Crosby

    Offline Usedtoposthere

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    Re: Overnight success: It only took me 17 years...
    « Reply #14 on: March 14, 2016, 08:21:35 am »
    I think you're absolutely spot on, and that was an awesome post! And CONGRATULATIONS on the success!!!!

    Offline MKK

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    Re: Overnight success: It only took me 17 years...
    « Reply #15 on: March 14, 2016, 08:28:09 am »
    I appreciate the post (and that you posted it). Maybe it was your avatar but after reading the post, I went and listened to some Bowie. And now I'm ready to write some more.  Good luck with the rest of the series - and thanks again.

    Offline KeraEmory

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    Re: Overnight success: It only took me 17 years...
    « Reply #16 on: March 14, 2016, 08:39:19 am »
    Thank you.

    Offline J.J. Fitch

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    Re: Overnight success: It only took me 17 years...
    « Reply #17 on: March 14, 2016, 09:02:15 am »
    Thanks, guys. I'm already second-guessing posting this -- I feel like it's all a bunch of drivel that doesn't matter to anyone but me.

    This is why I suck on message boards...
    `

    Oh, please don't second-guess this post.  It's great inspiration for us just starting out as well!  Thank you for your advice!

    Offline Gentleman Zombie

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    Re: Overnight success: It only took me 17 years...
    « Reply #18 on: March 14, 2016, 09:04:39 am »
    What a great post!!!!

    Congratulations and I love UF. So I'm off to read your book!!!

    Offline Not any more

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    Re: Overnight success: It only took me 17 years...
    « Reply #19 on: March 14, 2016, 09:08:32 am »
    Here's what I did to make these books successful:

    -Spent a lot of time learning how to write. Read, read, read, and write, write, write. Craft is absolutely an essential ingredient. There's so much focus on the self-pub industry on cover, blurbs, genre tropes, keywords, and marketing. These things are important. But the writing HAS to come first.
    It's nice to see this. The number one thing I keep telling myself is that when I finally write something GOOD, the rest will take care of itself. Congratulations!
    This post remains on KBoards over my objections.

    Offline Sonya Bateman

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    Re: Overnight success: It only took me 17 years...
    « Reply #20 on: March 14, 2016, 09:19:41 am »
    Thanks so much, all! I need to reply to everyone... but I wanted to make a note about this:

    It's nice to see this. The number one thing I keep telling myself is that when I finally write something GOOD, the rest will take care of itself. Congratulations!

    I think it's also important to remember the reverse -- that if a book doesn't take off, that doesn't mean it's not good. I believed this for years and successfully managed to convince myself that I couldn't write at all, and that must be why I'm not seeing any results. Because all that stuff about "write a great story and the readers will come" had to be a lie.

    It's not -- but it's only part of the truth. The truth is, you need all of those things at once. You need a good book AND great cover, great blurb, the right keywords, a decent (doesn't have to be huge, only effective) marketing push. On a newly released book.

    This one took off because of algorithms, and you need all those things to catch the algorithms. But (I like to think) it has been sticking because people enjoy the story. So what you need is that one book with all of those things. A bit of luck is the wild card here, too -- it's very helpful if you catch on with a genre, trope, character type, cover style, or some thing (who knows what that thing is) that happens to be popular at the moment. I'm still not sure what my "thing" is, but I'm betting it's there.

    Anyway -- just wanted to reinforce that. Sales don't necessarily reflect whether you're good or not. And it's important to really know for yourself if you're good, whether that means getting second (third, fourth, infinity) opinions and listening to feedback (which, you have to figure out how to be selective) or going through those stages that most every writer does -- 1. I'm awesome! 2. I was so wrong, I suck... 3. Hey, this isn't half bad... 4. Well, this might actually be a good story (now how can I get better?).

    Always strive to get better. :)
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    Offline Not any more

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    Re: Overnight success: It only took me 17 years...
    « Reply #21 on: March 14, 2016, 09:29:15 am »
    Thanks so much, all! I need to reply to everyone... but I wanted to make a note about this:

    I think it's also important to remember the reverse -- that if a book doesn't take off, that doesn't mean it's not good. I believed this for years and successfully managed to convince myself that I couldn't write at all, and that must be why I'm not seeing any results. Because all that stuff about "write a great story and the readers will come" had to be a lie.
    I make some money, get good reviews, and people say I write well. But the books have flaws, and when I go back and read them long after they're published, I can see them. I try to learn from that, and as you said, from reading the books of those who are successful. Each book gets better. Giving up never really occurred to me. I'm rather dense like that. ;)
    This post remains on KBoards over my objections.

    Offline Dom

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    Re: Overnight success: It only took me 17 years...
    « Reply #22 on: March 14, 2016, 09:38:04 am »
    Wow,  Sonya,  that's dedication. Great post!

    The focus on improving craft definitely gets lost a lot. All the advice to READ READ READ is not just to see what's out there, but also to continually learn craft.

    Your books are doing absolutely amazing. I have a feeling success will stick around this time.

    Offline juliatheswede

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    Re: Overnight success: It only took me 17 years...
    « Reply #23 on: March 14, 2016, 09:43:35 am »
    Thanks so much for posting this, Sonya. It made my day better:) Congratulations on your success!! If anyone deserves it, you do after working so incredibly hard.

    Offline Matthew Stott

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    Re: Overnight success: It only took me 17 years...
    « Reply #24 on: March 14, 2016, 09:45:33 am »
    Good stuff! Looks like you worked hard to get to the position you're now enjoying.
     
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