The Incontrovertible Truth

Some years ago, I was working as a consultant for an Irish organisation called Coillte who managed the forests in Southern Ireland.

There can’t be many better places to work than Ireland when you’re being paid by the hour and not by results. But more of that sort of thing another time.

A very old, very senior, member of the organisation was retiring and I was not so much invited to his leaving do as found myself in the right pub at the right time. A long evening of celebration ensued which culminated in the great man being given a rousing send-off into retirement. A member of the audience asked this venerable chap for the one thing he had learnt that he could pass on to those taking up his mantle.

He paused, thought for a moment, then said: ‘The one thing I’ve learnt over the last sixty years is that when it comes to pub toilets incoming traffic has priority.’

Wise words and an example of an incontrovertible truth.

I’ve thought about what my contribution might be in similar circumstances. I offer it to you now so that you don’t have to wait for the retirement party, or even bother to attend.

Here it is:

In order to be a writer all you have to do is to write


There you are, a bit obvious isn’t it? Yet it’s something that I’ve only recently understood. There are a lot of accompaniments to the writing process that I’ve tended to get snagged on in the past. One of these is the nagging thought that what I write has to be good. For most of my life this single misconception has effectively prevented me from doing what I love most.

So, write.

Don’t judge what you’ve written. That’s not a writer’s job, we pass that task on to our readers. Even if a reader should find what I’ve written isn’t to their taste then, hey nonny no, that’s completely up to them. I have to resist the temptation to explain to them why they are wrong and point out all the aspects of my work that they should be enjoying. That’s futile. It’s like extolling the virtues of apple juice to a beer drinker and expecting them to change their preferences. Or arguing that tea is somehow intrinsically better than coffee.

Quite honestly, if someone does me the courtesy of reading something I’ve written then I’m not only happy I feel privileged. Whatever they might think of it.

Writing is not a competitive sport.

My advice is to write down your story from start to finish. Try to make sure that it is as easily understood as you can manage. Know that finishing the whole thing is vitally important before any form of revision should be attempted, including spelling mistakes.

When you’ve finished, put your story in a drawer, virtual or real, then write another story. Leave it there as long as you can manage. Some of my stories have been in there for fifty years and I’m still not inclined to drag them out. One year is a good target if you can manage it. After that length of time the story will either have breathed its last or be raring to go.

It matters not a jot how long, or short, the story is. Some stories can be told in a few words, others require more. Don’t get hung up on word count. This is a mistake that I’m still making but a little less often these days.

I could go on, as many of you know, but I’ll leave today’s message as uncomplicated as I can manage.

And remember the pub toilets protocol at all times, you’ll be glad of it one day.

photo credit: Spice Island Inn Toilets via photopin (license)

How many books will I sell?

People ask me this question quite often. How many books can I expect to sell when I self-publish?

My answer is:

Not many.

Or, maybe some.

Quite a lot, if you’re lucky.

Actually, I have no idea.

Some books sell and some don’t. You will only find out if you try. Few authors actually make money from the sales of their books. Bear that in mind at all times.

What I’m saying, or rather beating you over the head with, is my advice not to base your publishing decisions on some sort of business model. You know the sort of thing. If I sell 200 books per month at £2.99 and get 70% from Amazon that will give me £5000 a year. So I need to write 10 books then I need never worry about money ever again. Yay!

I’ve tried this and, believe me, it doesn’t work.

Books don’t sell themselves. Promotion costs time and money and doesn’t guarantee sales. Think of your own buying habits. Do you buy a book written by someone you’ve never heard of just because it pops up in your Twitter feed? No, neither does anyone else.

Publishing is a lottery, that’s a fact. Unless you’re an established author or a celebrity, there’s no guarantee of sales. That’s why conventional publishers are so picky these days. If they can’t deliver a good return on their investment they’re soon going to be out of a job.

If you self-publish there are lots of things you can do to promote your book but there’s no guarantee of success. And it has very little to do with the merits of your offering. It has more to do with the quality of your cover and the first few words.

My advice is to accept that whatever you spend on publishing your book, and spend you will have to, bear in mind these priorities. Cover. Opening paragraph. Blurb (book description).

Promotion can get your book noticed but once you’ve attracted someone to your website or Amazon listing what they see is going to have to impress them mightily for them to part with their hard earned cash. What’s not going to get their custom is seeing something that in any way looks inferior to the professionally produced books they are used to buying. Your book has to look at least as good as they do and maybe even better if you’re going to get a sale.

And this means you are going to have to spend some money.

Which brings me back to the question. Even if you spend money on editing, cover design, production and distribution there’s no guarantee you’ll ever get any of it back.

What you will have is a product that stands a chance, that’s all.

photo credit: iamos via photopin cc