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Are You a Writer or a Storyteller?

12 August 2011

Kris Rusch provides more thoughtful takes on life as an indie and taking the long view of your career.


What I did do when I heard that Amanda Hocking’s books were selling well was download a free sample to see why. And I discovered that she has major storytelling chops.  Critics loathe folks who can tell stories but whose prose isn’t English-major perfect. Once Hocking got her deal with St. Martins, the literary critics all downloaded a copy of her e-books then came out guns blazing, calling St. Martins stupid for buying such a seriously bad writer.

As usual, the major literary critics—the same folks who dismiss James Patterson and Nora Roberts as hacks—fail to understand what readers read for. We don’t read for beautiful language (well, some of us do some of the time.) We read to be entertained. We read to get lost in a good story. We read to forget about the plunge in the Dow and the European Debt Crisis and the war in Afghanistan and the Somali famine. We read so that we can relax after a long day of searching for a job, or trying to figure out which bill to pay, or taking care of our ill parents.  We read to go somewhere else.

Hocking takes us there. So does Patterson. So does Nora Roberts. Some do it with better prose than others. But they all take us out of our lives for the time we’re inside the book.

The writers who, year after year, continue to sell books through indie publishing or traditional publishing tell great stories. Bottom line: those writers aren’t really writers. They’re storytellers.

. . . .

So when an established writer with a dozen books out there only has one or two indie e-books up, and that writer bitches that her indie books aren’t selling very well, I tend to discount it. Because that long-term writer is basing her information on next to nothing. And with the problems in e-book royalty reporting through traditional publishers (see my post on that here), traditionally published writers don’t know what their numbers are on their traditionally published e-books either.

What bothers me the most about those faces and bitter comments that the long-term established writers make is this: it smacks of professional jealousy.  I wrote quite a bit about jealousy in the Freelancer’s Survival Guide, but the relevant post is here. Professional jealousy is an extremely destructive emotion.  It serves an excuse for the jealous person to avoid learning something new or taking a hard look at herself and figuring out what she’s doing wrong.  It can devolve into something much uglier than that, which I explore in that earlier post.

Generally speaking, what is the established writer missing when she compares herself with the new writer? A ton of information, for one thing.

. . . .

The other thing the newer writers tend to ignore is time. Yeah, you can goose your sales by getting on Amazon or B&N bestseller lists with the help of friends on the Kindle boards or in various writing circles. But the key is long-term sales.

I knew that this whole e-book thing was going to work when the only two things I had up as an e-book—and on only one site—sold fifteen copies each in February of 2010.  Those two things had terrible covers and had no promotion at all.  That’s about a book per day—and those two items, with better covers, surrounded by all my other e-books, sell better than that now.

But I would have been encouraged by five sales that month or even three. The fact that someone had found the books surprised and pleased me. The fact that that same someone invested some hard-earned dollars into my books really pleased me.

I don’t look at the short term. Honestly, anyone can goose the sales of their books artificially with the right kind of promotion. The key isn’t selling 100 copies in the month of June. The key is watching slowly growing sales figures over the course of a year. Sure, you might have one sale in January on a single title— and that’s counting all e-book sites. But by July, you might have five, and by the following January, fifteen.  Over the course of a decade, you’ll make quite a bit of money on that book, especially if you have other books out there under that same name.

. . . .

So if you have the track record, if you’ve been selling books for years traditionally, then you know you can tell a story. That’s half the battle.

Stop watching your e-book numbers and get more of your backlist published. And for god’s sake stop being jealous of all the other writers with sales figures higher than yours. There will always be writers who sell better than you do. And there will be writers who sell worse.

Do your job and write the next book. Make sure your fans have a way to find that book—whether indie-published or through a traditional publisher.  And once you’ve done that, do it all over again.

Stop comparing yourself to others.  That way lies madness.

The best thing you can do is write, publish, and repeat.  Over and over and over again.

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Kristine Kathryn Rusch, Self-Publishing

7 Comments to “Are You a Writer or a Storyteller?”

  1. I love beautiful writing. There are a few writers I read just because of their writing. Very few. I far prefer great storytellers. Storytelling trumps writing skill. There are a writers I love who don’t write well at all. What they lack in skill they make up for in enthusiasm. A lot of them, if they can hang in there long enough turn into really good writers. Early John Grisham crossed my eyeballs with his strange constructions and quirks. Later John Grisham is up there (in craft) with the best of them. Dean Koontz is another. He got better–a whole lot better.

    Sometimes I just can’t get past the writing to get to the good stuff. Some bad writing is like chewing sandpaper. Some is downright cynical. When a writer is established with a formula that works, but they don’t get better, I don’t read those. It doesn’t matter to me if others do.

    Here’s the thing, re jealousy and competitiveness. What writers need to keep in mind is that reading is an acquired taste. Like all acquired tastes, once is never enough. The reader finishes Amanda Hocking’s latest, thinks, “Wow, that was fun,” and goes in search of another book. That book might be mine. Mega-bestsellers are every writer’s friend. Especially if they reach a younger audience and turn them into lifelong readers.

    By the way, to the critics (and green-eyed monsters). Take another look at Hocking’s stories. It’s not that her writing is bad, it’s that it’s raw. It has the exuberance of a Labrador puppy, all over the place and just as compelling. When I read her stuff, my first thought was, if this girl gets hooked up with a good editor, she’s going to make her critics eat dirt.

    Kris is right about getting your work out there. Storytelling is some kind of magic fairy dust dark elves and midnight shoemaker thing going on inside the brain. The act of writing, however, is skill and craft. Any writer who wants to get better is going to get better. When I first started paying attention to self-publishing I thought it would destroy writers by allowing them to publish before they were ready and then they’d be ignored or savaged and they’d quit before they learned to get good. I’ve changed my mind. I think self-pubbing is a great training ground. I keep finding raw talent worth encouraging. Hell, publishers don’t bother training writers these days. So let the readers do it and writers can pick up a few bucks along the way.

    • Very nice analysis, JW.

    • I love Kris and I love JW. I will read a great story – the writing doesn’t have to be perfect. But flat out lousy writing can distract me from a great story. This is why, if Amanda Hocking can improve her skills and continue her wonderful story-telling, I will enjoy reading her books more. I say this without malice.

  2. That subject line is a false dichotomy! The Writer category is not mutually exclusive to the Storyteller category. Further, I submit that eliminating distracting errors and egregiously awkward prose — note I say “awkward” and not “incorrect” — makes good stories better.

    The jealousy point is a different one, and true, of course… But see how an awkward phrase distracted from what you meant?

    • You’re probably correct, Beth, although I think one of Kris’ points is you should make certain you always tell a good story.

      • Oh, indeed — but I just hate the false dichotomy.

        I hate it more because it has such roots; it seems like many “literary” fans/imprints are all about being “literary” and stars help you if you want to write something with plot! *gasp, shudder* When, in actual fact, it’s quite possible to write with big words, elegant descriptions, and mood and theme and all that — and tell an interesting story, too, that does not have a “downer” ending.

        Meanwhile, I’m recalling a series that I was puttering along with, for two books, and the typos and awkward sentences basically made me extremely price-sensitive. And the third book was a buck more than I was going to pay for more typos-and-awkward, relative to the entertainment I was getting. Maybe the most fantastic story in the world would pull through the bad grammar! But barring being the most fantastic story? Decent writing can only help a story.

  3. On Amanda Hocking: in total agreement that she’s a great storyteller. She completely sucked me in to the Trylle trilogy – and then the entire thing fell apart when she “went against formula” and had the girl end up with the wrong guy. I think my severe emotional reaction is testament to her very strong storytelling abilities – I just think she dropped the ball in the final quarter. And that a good editor wouldn’t have let her do it. But it soured me so much (as a romance reader/writer) that I don’t know that I’ll ever read her again. I don’t like when the happily ever afters turn out wrong.

    I love it when KKR and DWS post. They’re always so insightful.

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