What follows are only rough estimates: precise figures will vary from author to author, genre to genre, circumstance to circumstance. But rough guides can be useful.
Many writers are bewildered when the first work that they manage to get out there makes no sales. Whether self-published or not, it is by far the most common experience that an initial book, even if it is quite well-written, will scarcely get noticed — and that’s even in those cases when it has the might of a publishing company behind it.
Experience suggests that it takes many, many works — usually short stories, spread far and wide and accepted over a long period of time (say, a year or two) — before a reading public begins to appear or ‘coalesce’ around an author. Further experience suggests that it takes some years of consistent production before sales begin to occur spontaneously. I’d put this at around a million words.
If the average novel is around 80,000 words, then, simply looking at quantity alone, it might take ten novels or more before an author develops enough ‘gravitational force’ to begun to draw in readers. As I have written elsewhere, essentially, cutting through all the waffle, the basic question confronted by any serious writer when it comes to establishing a viable career is the same question that confronts anyone who is producing a reasonable product and wants to make money from it, and that question is this:
‘How can one get quality to add up to viability?’
You write a good story — or make a good pizza, or put together a good package of insurance, or build a good house — and you want to be able to make a living from what you do. So how can you turn your quality product into a viable amount of cash over a period of time?
There’s a key formula:
‘Quality plus quantity adds up to viability.’
Generating one high quality book only rarely leads to a sufficient amount of cash. Harper Lee is the exception that always comes to mind; there are one or two others. But generally speaking, an author needs several books out there if he or she wishes to make a viable amount of money from writing. I suggest ten books, largely because ten seems a reasonable number of books to carve out a niche market with, but also based on experience: after I had ten books in the marketplace, sales began to occur randomly and spontaneously, without any specific ‘marketing’ activity on my part.
But quantity of a high quality product alone doesn’t guarantee viability. One also needs to locate one’s particular audience. No point wasting time and energy trying to sell pizzas to people who don’t like Italian food, or private insurance to people already comfortably covered by the NHS, or a house to someone happily living in a mansion. Wrong audience — though you’d be amazed at the amount of time and energy poured out by writers trying to sell their books to the wrong people. You get a glimpse of this from the ‘spam’ that arrives in your inbox or on your newsfeed.
Earlier in this series, we have done considerable work to establish who your own audience is likely to be. Locating those people already ‘warm’ to what you have to offer is essential to your long term success.
This is where the concept of ‘positioning’ comes into play. Positioning refers to the place that a brand (a name, term, design, symbol or any other feature that identifies one seller's good or service as distinct from those of other sellers) occupies in the minds of the customers and how it is distinguished from the products of competitors. To gain a position in the marketplace as a writer, one needs to emphasise the distinguishing features of one’s work (what it is, what it does and how, etc.) It’s one of the most powerful marketing concepts. The book Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind by Al Ries and Jack Trout is the ‘Bible’ of this subject. Positioning in relation to a work of fiction is about the place an author’s work occupies in the mind of its target audience.
This is best exemplified by beginning with your own experience as a consumer or reader. If you’re looking for, say, a good detective thriller, you might go browsing on the internet. What do you find? A HUGE amount of advertising — such that, often, seekers for any kind of product are overwhelmed. Human beings have a natural tendency to discard all information that does not immediately find a convenient slot in their minds. In other words, when you go looking for a good detective thriller, that part of your mind to do with looking for detective thrillers is already occupied by what you consider to be a ‘good detective thriller’. Perhaps you’re an Agatha Christie fan — so, in looking for a detective thriller, at least partly you are influenced by that fact. You are looking for a book similar to a Christie book, even if partly on an unconscious level.
If you’re looking for a High Fantasy, that position is already occupied in the marketplace by Tolkien and a few others: horror by King and friends; science fiction by a few well-known science fiction writers, and so on. Your book is like a little minnow swimming in a sea already full of other fish — fish which are already keeping people quite happy.
But you can start to position your own work in relation to those who already occupy similar territory.
Let’s say you write science fantasy — a narrow genre for the purposes of this argument. Masters of that field already are names like Ursula K. Le Guin or Edgar Rice Burroughs. Where does your writing stand in relation to theirs?
I know we’ve done a lot of work on establishing what makes your work unique, different, special — but in the readers’ minds, the broad genre is already dominated by key well-known names. You won’t get a look-in while those names are in the forefront, and you don’t have the power to shift them from their pedestals. You can expend a lot of energy trying to do just that — which is what many authors try to do — or you can use the fact that they exist to gain yourself some leverage.
Are you ‘the thinking man’s Edgar Rice Burroughs’?
Or maybe you’re ‘the action fan’s Le Guin’?
Perhaps you write romances. Could it be true to say that your work is like ‘Mills & Boon for the 21st Century’? Or are you ‘Jane Austen with tights’?
The trick is to take what makes your work unique and position it alongside something that the readers are already highly familiar with. Star Wars was known as ‘The Lord of the Rings in space’ for a while. You get the idea: similarity and difference, difference and similarity. It’s the way the human mind works.
Give it some thought. We'll develop this further soon.