There’s No Magic Bullet

When I was finishing off Let’s Get Digital: How To Self-Publish, And Why You Should, I made a last-minute decision to include stories of thirty-three successful self-publishers in their own words. I thought there would be huge value in seeing how a bunch of diverse writers, across genres and at different stages in their careers, made a success of self-publishing.

Some readers skipped straight to that section, quickly scanning the entries, hoping to find commonalities in their approaches, some secret formula for success. Naturally, these readers were disappointed. Because there’s no magic bullet.

I enjoyed collating those stories because I get a kick out of reading these kinds of things myself. As soon as I hear of another indie making a splash, I do some digging to find out a little more about them. I like reading their backgrounds, their struggles, and how they think they pulled out of the pack.

Often they aren’t sure, and a couple of the contributors to my book were very forthright about that: they had no real idea why they started selling books in such quantities. Others attempt some kind of retrospective rationalization, and while they may be right in pinpointing some of the strategies that helped give their book a lift, a lot of it is just guesswork.

What I’m getting at is this: be wary of following someone else’s path. If one writer achieved success by making the first book in a series free, for example, there will be diminishing returns for every other writer who tries it. And the same goes for any other strategy or gimmick.

This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to learn from others. One of the huge plusses of self-publishing is the free and open flow of information between writers on sales numbers, pricing strategies, audience-building measures, and promotional efforts.

Instead of blindly trying to assess whether an ad spot on a reader’s site will bring a reasonable return, you can post on a forum and you will get a range of responses to help you make your decision.

It just means you should be suspicious of “one size fits all” solutions, and especially wary of anyone claiming to have found the secret formula for success. Even if what they are peddling works, it probably won’t work for you or your books.

If there is one common thread between the self-publishers who contributed to my book (and the rest who have achieved some level of success), it’s this: perseverance. They all worked extremely hard, and, even more importantly, they didn’t give up.

Only a tiny minority will ever have huge success with their first books. For most writers, even those at the top of the food chain, it required years of plugging away, honing their craft, and building their audience, reader-by-reader.

And if we are going to be brutally honest, luck plays a major part (and timing, which often involves a healthy dollop of good fortune). But you shouldn’t be downhearted by this; it’s not all a crapshoot.

While the odds of any given writer achieving success in this field are extremely long, and, to be realistic, hugely dependent on luck, there are things you can do to improve your chances. Write great books and more of them. Be active on social media, seeking out your readers (rather than exclusively interacting with other writers).

Make it easy for readers to communicate with you. Develop those connections and deepen them. And, for the love of all things holy, if a reader takes the time out of their busy day to send you an email, make the effort to send them a decent response, not just a bland “thank you”.

There are no guarantees in life, and that’s especially true in publishing. This is a tough game. Most writers quit. Hell, most don’t even finish that first book. Just by publishing something, you are way ahead of the game.

You have to keep plugging away, there are no shortcuts to success (none in your control at least). But the longer you keep at it, the more great stories you write and share with the world, the greater your chances are of achieving success.

Just make sure you have fun along the way, life is too long to spend time doing things you don’t enjoy.

If you are interested in reading the stories of the self-publishers who contributed to my book, the PDF is available as a free download on my blog. However, if you want to stop looking for magic bullets and start looking for your own path to success, I highly recommend Scott Nicholson’s book The Indie Journey: Secret’s To Writing Success. It’s the best book on the topic I’ve read, bar none.

10 replies
  1. avatar
    Jan Hurst-Nicholson (@just4kixbooks) says:

    David, you’re spot on with the advice about ‘perseverance’ and ‘honing your craft.’ (Roald Dahl said he sometimes did 14 drafts of his short stories until he was satisfied.) I can see a huge improvement in my writing from when I began 25 -30 years ago. Writers are learning all the time – which means you’re never really finished with a book! 🙂

    • avatar
      David Gaughran says:

      Yes, there is that! I’m in the middle of a nightmare edit which is becoming quite circular. Sometimes we need to know when to let go too (that’s not the case with me though, still needs a lot of work).

      Fourteen drafts is a lot – especially of a short story – I don’t think I’ve ever done that much. It really depends on the writer though. Harlan Ellison was famous for writing one-draft stories on a typewriter in bookstore windows, sticking the pages up as he was done for passers-by to read. He published all those stories too (without changes), many of them receiving major awards (I think one of them one the Hugo).

      I’m not particularly fast, but I’m definitely gaining speed as I gain experience. It’s less about daily output increasing and more about not writing myself into dead-ends, having to backtrack, or rewrite whole swathes of the story because it’s not working.

      But yeah, you never stop learning.

    • avatar
      David Gaughran says:

      There is a (possibly apocryphal) one-liner which is usually attributed to Gary Player or Arnold Palmer – both legendary golfers – in response to a spectator claiming they were lucky after holing directly from a bunker shot. They said: the more I practice the luckier I get.

  2. avatar
    Hazel Anaka says:

    What, at first blush, sounds like tough love is in fact just the truth as experienced by those who have gone before (me). What I love is the paragraph about how many writers quit. It’s easy to forget just how big a deal it is to finish and publish a book. Yeehaw.

    Thanks for the reminder. It helps keep things in perspective when the going gets tough especially for someone who considers herself a late adopter.

    • avatar
      David Gaughran says:

      This is why it’s so important to finish what you have started. One finished published short story is worth more than five half-finished novels. It can be tough to get a project over the finish line.

      It can be tough to start that second book, and keep at it. And the third.

      We all must be crazy.


Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. […] For a sneak preview, keep your eyes peeled for my regular column on – it should go live later today and I’ll update this post when it does. Until then, here’s the last one I wrote for them, which I forgot to link to before. It’s called There’s No Magic Bullet. […]

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