Monday, July 18, 2011

How Can an Author Succeed?

A reader of this blog recently asked me to address the question, “What is it that separates the 1% from the 99%, how does an author by choice, cross over that line?” It was too interesting of a question to pass up, but it’s one that doesn’t have an easy answer. Another way of wording the question is “What’s the magic fairy dust that gets authors published?” I think if someone knew what the magic fairy dust was, they would’ve bottled it up a long time ago and they would be selling it on eBay. But look around; there are people more qualified to answer the question than me who have some good suggestions on what an author needs to do to get published—write better, read agent blogs, attend conferences, write better query letters—but most of the people who do those things still aren’t published. By all means, do those things, but there has to be something more if we’re going to be intentional about crossing the line into the 1%. And what of the self-published authors? That’s actually where this question started and self-publishing authors face the same problem. One author out of a hundred (or so) makes money from self-publishing and the rest are just happy to get their words out there.

The One Thing All Successful Authors Do That Unsuccessful Authors Don’t

Authors are a diverse breed. Some write fiction. Some write non-fiction. Some write both. Some write romances. Some write mysteries. Some write memoirs. Some write how to books. Some write textbooks. It’s hard to believe that we can find anything that authors who are successful are doing that applies across the board that all unsuccessful authors are failing to do, but I believe there is one thing—call it magic fairy dust, if you will.

That one thing is that successful authors give their readers something of value. Let me repeat that so the words will settle in your brain. Successful authors give their readers something of value. It almost sounds too easy. If successful authors give their readers something and unsuccessful authors give readers nothing, then why don’t we all just start giving stuff away? Readers will flock to our blogs and book-signings to get the stuff we’re giving away and we’ll make millions from book sales. Right? I’m afraid not. If that’s what you’re thinking, you’re missing the boat. Ask the authors who’ve tried that. What you’ll find is that freebies isn’t the answer. Successful authors give their readers something of value.

Something of Value

I can’t help but think of “the pearl of great price” that Jesus spoke of (Matthew 13:45, 46). Jesus was talking about the kingdom of heaven, but that story fascinates me because the man valued that pearl so much that he was willing to sell all he had to obtain that pearl. It’s doubtful we’ll ever write a book that someone would value so much that he would “sell all he had”, but to a lesser degree we are asking the reader to give up something in order to purchase and read our books. It’s not just the $14.95 or whatever the price of the book is. The time the read invests in reading the book is worth far more. Successful authors write books that give their readers something the readers value more than the money and time.

But it’s not one thing that we can just package and place in every book. I purchased the Kindle version of Code Complete the other day. I paid $24.53. Some Kindle fans will be shocked at that. “You paid more than $9.99 for a Kindle book?!” Yes, and I’m glad I did. While many of the people who read this post will find little value in Code Complete, it is tremendously valuable to anyone who attempts to write computer software.

That also explains why you may see many successful books that you can’t understand why anyone would buy them. Or why you look at the best seller lists and can’t find anything to read. What you value and why someone else values may be very different.

Finding What the Reader Values

Some people read a novel because they want to escape into that imaginary world. Some people will read that same novel because they want something they can discuss with their friends. Some people will read a non-fiction book because they want to learn from the author. Some people will read the same book because they disagree with the premise and want to write about it. But in each case, the reader values the book.

To cross from the 99% into the 1%, you must find what the reader values and give it to him. That doesn’t mean we have to satisfy every reader, such as the guy who wants to disagree with us. But at the same time, it doesn’t mean we should aim to please only ourselves. A better approach is to think of yourself as a bridge builder. Once you make it across the river, ask yourself what would be beneficial to someone who is just now approaching the river. Ask yourself what bridge you could build. In other words, ask yourself what you could say to a person to help them get from where you once were to where you are now with less difficulty than you had. That is a thing of great value.

Placing It in Front of a Publisher

Publishers and agents value a book that readers value, but just because you’ve written a book that readers value doesn’t mean publishers are going to jump for it. Every letter an agent receives talks about how valuable the author’s book is. Most of these authors don’t know what they’re talking about. Most of these authors have written a book no one wants and they’re just trying to convince the publisher otherwise. The cream will eventually float to the top, but you can help it along by writing a query letter that highlights the things people will value about your book.


Though it’s not always what you might expect, every successful author gives the reader something of value. Unsuccessful authors think they are giving the reader something of value, but the reader disagrees. So, if you want to be intentional about becoming successful as a writer, focus your attention on the value you can provide the reader. Don’t write the book you want to write but write the book that will help the reader enough that the reader is glad he invested time and money in it.