We All Have To Learn Our Own Lessons

The confluence of two events has me thinking about this at the moment.  One is the ongoing thread/argument over on a certain writing forum about how self-publishing is not a marathon.  And the other is a book I’m reading right now by Robin Hobb where a character is trying to keep someone from making the same mistake he made when he was that age.

And in both instances I’ve been thinking that sometimes people just have to be given space to learn for themselves and no amount of telling them to do things in a “better” way is going to change that.

I get the advice on that thread that if you don’t get great editing, great covers, and advertise properly then you can’t expect great sales even if your book is well-written.  It makes sense.  It makes perfect sense.


If you polish a turd it’s still a turd.  And no amount of “great editing” or awesome covers or blast after blast of expensive advertising will transform a dud of a book into a money-making powerhouse.

And when an author first starts out I don’t think they can really know or tell what is or isn’t going to sell.  (Or what is great editing or a great cover.)  Maybe some can.  I certainly could not.  I think I needed to publish stories, see how they did, and then sit back and ask myself whether that was because of the story or the cover or the price or the advertising.

(Which is why I don’t agree with the “just don’t publish until your ready” mantra either, because how the hell do you know?  At least sub to places or get outside eyes on your work or something before you trunk everything you write.)

So, I published and saw what happened and then adjusted and tried again.  And again.

I found for some that it was the story.  (If you don’t fit well into available categories then how do you reach your audience?)

For others it was the cover.  (Interestingly, it was rarely the price.  At 2.99 and 99 cents stories sold just as many copies.)

That’s how I had to learn.  Trial and error and experimentation.  My failures led me to learn something new, to broaden my perspective, to pay attention to things I hadn’t before.

And that story of mine that’s done so well?  Firmly targeted at exactly what I thought people wanted.  And the first week sales (with no promo) showed that.

And, yes, someone could consider it a mistake that I didn’t turn all my attention and energy to following up on that success immediately.


I think as an author you also have to learn what you can and can’t put up with.  It’s one thing to know that writing X will make you money.  It’s another to devote all your creative energies to it.  If you can find something that makes you money AND is what you want to write?  Happy days.

If you can’t?  Then you keep moving on and experimenting or you sell out and turn writing into any other thing you do for money.

I chose to keep experimenting.  And if at the end of the day I find that what I want to write and what will make money are two separate things, then, for me at least, my decision will be to go back to working some sort of day job that pays the bills and indulging my creative impulses for me and no one else.

I’m still not sure that I’ve found that sweet spot where I like what I’m writing enough that I can do it day in and day out for a long period of time, which means that I’m not actually ready for commercial success.  I would blow it if something I’ve written so far took off.

This is my cocoon stage right now.  Yeah, sure, I would like to see more sales because, hey, money.  But…

No.  Pushing too hard too soon can be damaging and overwhelming.

I think we each have to walk our own windy road to success (or not).

And that when someone does reach a certain level of success it can be very hard to look back and accept that they needed to walk the road they did to get to where they are.  It can be easy to assume that if they’d just done A, B, and C right from the start they could’ve saved themselves a lot of time and energy and so that’s what everyone who comes behind them should do.

I don’t think that’s true.

There’s something to be said for the value of the time it takes to reach that point.  You have no idea how much you pick up just by watching and observing over time and no amount of money or effort can make up for that.

(I think here of skydiving.  Some folks just dive right into the sport and do four hundred jumps their first year.  And that’s great for their personal skills and currency.  But they know far less about the overall sport than someone who’s done four hundred jumps over ten years assuming both are actively engaged in the sport that whole time.)

So, yeah.  It seems (and I know this probably wasn’t personally directed at me) that some people see with a certain amount of disgust my comments about how I would like to be selling better than I am.  And they look at my formatting or my covers or whatever and say, “Well, you don’t care enough to spend enough to make that happen.  It’s all your fault.”

So be it.

Honestly, I’m still playing around in the sandbox seeing what does and doesn’t work for me, honing my craft, figuring out what I can and can’t commit to in terms of subject matter and writing pace.  But that’s just me and that’s my path to wherever I’m going.  To each their own.

About M. H. Lee

M.H. Lee is a speculative fiction writer currently residing in Colorado whose stories are sometimes dark, sometimes funny, sometimes darkly funny, but hopefully always thought-provoking and entertaining.
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