In the 1940s there was a series of movie comedy shorts by Joe McDoakes with the titles “So You Want to be a…” a detective, a salesman, a fireman. etc. He never addressed an author, maybe because it’s so easy.
So, you want to be an author? Just sit down and write. Webster defines an author as “a person who has written something.” Webster’s definition becomes even simpler with: “a person who starts something.” You don’t even have to finish it! There is no mention of length, or genre, or even quality, which introduces the next step in an increasingly difficult process.
You want your work to be well written? Then it will need revisions, and editing, and proofreading. When I first started writing, with a pencil and a yellow legal pad, my revisions consisted of erasing and crossing out. Or if it was really bad, I’d rip off the sheet of paper, ball it up, and start over. And that was usually more fun than the writing because I would suddenly become the player coming off the bench to take the winning shot in the championship basketball game. I’d take careful aim at the wastebasket in the corner of the room. Then, whenever I stopped writing, I’d pick up the pages from the floor.
So, you have the perfect story, and you are ready to be famous. Give it to a friend, and tell that friend you really do want to know if there is something wrong with it rather than to have your ego stroked by telling you how wonderful it is—that is, if you really do want to know what’s wrong with it, because there will be mistakes. As an author you cannot edit your own work because you cannot overcome your mind. Your mind knows what you meant, even if that is not what you wrote. Your mind fills in missing words and ignores double words words and punctuation errors. The main reason for negative reviews of books on Amazon is editing: “I liked the story, but you need an editor.”
Now that you have a good story that has been edited and proofread and is now in the best shape possible, what are you going to do with it? Will you put it in a drawer, save the file, or maybe have a few friends read it? That’s what I did for twenty years with my first book, Change of Address, after taking twenty years to write it. My parents read it… my friends read it… and they all loved it. They all said, “Why don’t you send this to a publisher?” And I would tell them about the hundreds of short mystery story submissions I had sent to magazines. A few had been accepted, but I had a shoebox full of rejection slips. I figured if it was that hard to get a short story accepted, submitting a novel just wasn’t worth the effort.
Then along came Amazon with their self-publishing platform. The good thing about Amazon is anyone can publish a book. The bad thing about Amazon is… anyone can publish a book. They have made publishing a book about as easy as clicking on the “submit” button. But Amazon has no filter for writing quality. A poorly-written book is accepted just as easily as a well-written book.
Yet authors still dream of having a real publisher’s logo on the spine of their books. I was lucky to have been in the right place at the right time and Change of Address was picked up by Calumet Editions, a publisher in Minnesota that takes pride in publishing well-written books. Despite the serendipity of the situation, they would not have accepted my book if it was not well-written.
When I sat down with Gary Lindberg, the founder of the company, he said he liked the book and would like to acquire it under one condition. He asked if I could write another, and then another. I had a detective and a story set in Chicago. “It would make a great mystery series,” he said. I fully agreed but had no idea if I could write another. And, with the time it took to write Change of Address, I figured he meant sooner than twenty years. I said I would give it a shot, and six months later Dark Alleys was ready for editing. That took another six months.
I was thrilled when I sent the file to Gary. His reply was, “That’s nice but have you started the next one? Because two books don’t make a series.” My balloon deflated… and I got started on the next one. With the publication of Harbor Nights and Missing Boy, there are now four books in the SERIES! and the fifth is underway.
I was then a published author with a real publisher. That’s pretty exciting. But there is one more step and another adjective to add to “published author”—successful. That’s a pretty subjective term and can be satisfied on many levels. But back to the author dream. Every author dreams of being a “best-selling” author, being able to make a living at writing, and even striking that pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. That is certainly possible, but it takes a lot of work these days, and none of it has to do with writing.
If you have a great idea for a business, let’s say selling widgets, and decide to rent a storefront and have a go at it, you will have a much greater chance at success if you are the only widget store in town. But if there are ten widget stores, you have to convince widget customers of why you are better than the rest. You have to make yourself stand out from the crowd.
Every month, there are 50,000 new books published on Amazon. When Calumet released and promoted Change of Address, it made it to #5 of over 100,000 books in Amazon’s Mystery category. That’s not bad, but there’s only one ranking that earns an author the “best-selling” title. Fifth is not the one.
Would I call my books successful? Certainly, at one level. How many people write and publish even one book, much less four? Receiving mail from strangers who loved my stories and having my books read in many countries is very rewarding. But there’s that pot at the end of the rainbow waiting for me to separate myself from the rest of the widget stores, and Calumet Editions works very hard at that. Mostly due to Gary’s efforts, I have over 100,000 Twitter followers (@rickpolad) and Calumet develops wonderful graphics to promote my books and sends out ninety tweets a day through my account. I work at least an hour a day supporting the Twitter effort. Then there are blogs, other social media outlets such as LinkedIn (Rick Polad) and Facebook (Spencer Manning Mysteries), my webpage (rickpolad.com), and making public appearances. Given all that, I have no time left to write.
Despite all this effort, I’ve been told by authors who have become successful at series writing, that success didn’t happen until their seventh or eighth book. So when I send the next book to Gary, I expect to hear, “That’s nice, but…”