Nancy: On Book Clubs, Best-Selling Fiction, and Career Advice You Might Need to Ignore

Over the past 10 or so years, I’ve tried to get on the book club train three different times. Each time, I left the group after only one meeting. That choice wasn’t because I took issue with the people (they are readers, and therefore inherently lovely😊), their passion for the books, or even the wine. It was because I, as a writer, read so differently than non-writers that I was looking for things in a book discussion that the other members wouldn’t find interesting. Ergo, I had nothing to bring to the book club party (other than the wine, which is important! but not really the point).

The real problem I and many other writers have in joining book clubs is that we’re not looking for book discussions at all. We’re looking for book dissections. Writing craft deep-dives. Story geek deconstructions.

That’s why I’m so glad I agreed to join an online book club with one of my writing tribes. We are all long-time writers, with multiple years and manuscripts-worth of experience. Most of us either are or are in training to become book coaches who work with other writers on a regular and ongoing basis. That training has given us a common language and shared tools we use to evaluate writing. Last week, we had a one-hour online video chat to discuss our first group book, Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens. Our discussion was wonky and geeky and made my little writer heart sing with joy.

Interestingly, though, when I found myself thinking about the book and our discussion in the days that followed, it was usually in the context of current writing career advice and “truths”, how Delia Owens ignored (intentionally or otherwise) much of it, and how none of it is applicable if it isn’t relevant to you and your process.

Most readers and some pre-published authors don’t realize just how much of the current fiction market is driven by e-publishing generally, and self- (indie-)publishing specifically. In many ways, this new book ecosystem has been a boon for readers and writers alike. Some of the authors who have thrived in this environment have been very generous with their help and advice to the rest of us. I’m a huge proponent of learning from other people’s successes and failures, and I’m thankful to those who are so willing to share. And I think many, many authors will benefit from following the advice as closely as they can.

But writing is a tough business. More of us will fail at it than will succeed. Some advice is stale by the time it even reaches us. And believing there is only One True Path to Writing Success will break the hearts of those who follow all the advice but can’t make it work, or who just can’t fit their writing process or career path into the prescribed mold. If this applies to you or some writer you love, I have some thoughts about how now-bestselling author Delia Owens’s success refutes much of today’s writing career wisdom.

Be Young

To be clear, this is not advice I have ever seen touted by bestselling authors and book marketers. Many of them are actually older than I am, and I am officially old as dirt. No, this discouraging message is brought to us courtesy of our youth-centric culture. We’ve been told that if we’re not a success by x age (whatever x might be, and x gets younger every year!), we will never be a success.

Enter Delia Owens, debut novelist at age 70. You read that correctly. Seven-oh. And she is far from the only person past US retirement age who is selling reams of books. And the older we get, the more of life we’ve observed, the more interesting people we’ve met, and the better stories we have to tell.

Write Fast

Learn to write fast. Set daily word count goals in the thousands. Finish a book every month. Write a book in a week. Sadly, these are all pieces of advice most novelists writing in 2019 have heard multiple times. I think Delia Owens missed that memo (which was probably a tweet). She spent 10 years writing Where the Crawdads Sing. If you finish your next manuscript in less than 10 years, you can bask in the joy of knowing you’ve written a book faster than a NY Times bestseller.

Publish Faster

Related to the write fast rule, publishing faster means putting out a new book as frequently as possible. Books over 30 days old are past their prime. Amazon algorithms have increasingly steeper drop-off cliffs at 30, 60, and 90 days. You have to release new books within tight timelines to train those mysterious, hocus-pocus-y algorithms to love your books to keep up their visibility. While traditional publishing works MUCH more slowly than indie publishing, even trad publishers push authors to release at least a book a year. Having a new book ready for publication every 6-9 months is often their stated goal.

Because WtCS came out in August of 2018, market expectations would be for a new Owens book to be released this summer. But, turns out, she is still working on that next book. Even if it’s close to finished now, and she has given no indication it is, the long-lead time of publishing would mean 2-3 years between her first book and her second.

Rule Social Media

You know all the social media sites authors are expected to frequent: Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest, Bookbub, Goodreads, plus a hundred others I’m too old to know. These sites are not to be used just for drive-by shoutouts about our books. They are where we should share more about ourselves, our writing process, our future projects, our pets. It’s where we are supposed to curate our best lives so readers will love us for more than just our books.

Delia Owens does not appear to have either a Twitter or a Pinterest account. She does not follow anyone on Bookbub and hasn’t reviewed any books (other than her own, somehow?) on Goodreads. Her FB and IG accounts have exactly the same content, every post mentions her book, and most have a picture of it. This is not the way an author is expected to manage social media! Yet her millions of readers seem not to care.

Build a Newsletter List

Author newsletters have been around for a long time. More than 10 years ago, before the indie-publishing explosion, I had a book come out with a small press. That publisher encouraged all their authors to “build a list.” All my author friends were discussing the best book-related giveaways to drive new subscribers to sign up for their lists. With book retailers constantly evolving, large social media platforms arbitrarily changing their rules, and print publishers doing less and less to support their authors, conventional wisdom is to establish a direct line of communication with your readers. Hence, the newsletter. If Delia Owens has followed this piece of advice, I can’t find evidence of it. There is no mention of a newsletter in her book, and no link to one on her website.

None of these pieces of writing career advice is necessarily wrong or intentionally harmful (except, perhaps, youth worship, but that’s endemic in our society). I follow many of these suggestions with varying degrees of success. But if these “rules” don’t apply to you, overwhelm and depress you, or interfere with your own creative process, f#@k ’em. Follow your own path. Make your own rules. Like Delia Owens, you  might find your own way to selling millions of books and ranking on the New York Times Bestseller List for ten months (and counting).

I highly recommend Where the Crawdads Sing for so many reasons, including the masterfully layered story- and timeline, beautifully evocative language, and seamless melding of multiple genres. If you want to learn more about the book, visit the publisher’s book page. To watch the author discuss this debut novel, check out this interview with Delia Owens

13 thoughts on “Nancy: On Book Clubs, Best-Selling Fiction, and Career Advice You Might Need to Ignore

  1. The success of Delia Owens definitely shows that there are many roads to Oz. Take heart, travelers! Thanks for pointing me to this book, Nancy. I’ve heard of it, of course, but have yet to check it out. But I have to love an auther who published her first book of age 70.

    • Because we were seven authors discussing the book, and the youngest amongst us was probably 40-ish, we all were heartened by how many years we have left to become bestsellers :-). Of course, that is not the be-all, end-all of life or of writing, but fun to think about!

  2. Many, many roads to Oz, yep. People have different aims and desires. It seems to me that Delia Owens’ book is like that fabulous meal you have at a fancy restaurant while on vacation or otherwise. It’s not going to be something you find every day.

    Other writers are aiming more at something daily — something satisfying and wholesome, but it’s never going to be “WOW! This is the best lasagna I’ve ever had!” They are aiming at, “This is good lasagna, it freezes well, and all I have to do is pop it into the oven.” For those people, writing fast is a boon, and setting up social media and other marketing to remind people, “Hey! This is good lasagna and it heats up like a dream!” is going to be important.

    Oh well, I’m sure the food analogy falls apart at some point. I’d like to be a very, very good snack, or maybe a tapas.

    At any rate, knowing I’m not a failure pre-70 is so valuable! (-: I still have some time to get my act together!!

    • Was it dinnertime when you posted this? Now I want lasagna for dinner tonight and don’t have time to make it.🤣

      I agree, not all stories need to be a gastronomical wonders. And I don’t want them to be! I want a wide variety of options, different stories for different moods, times of day, times of life. And I tack closer to the authors trying to do all those things on my list (except being young, because…you know…ships sailing and all that). But I spend a lot of time in writers’ spaces and see so many pulling their hair out, trying to fit into that mold when it just isn’t how their writer brain or stories work. I want them to take heart and find their own path to getting their stories out into the world!

      • LOL, I think it was mid-afternoon — the time when you need to start planning what to pick up after work.

        I agree totally about people not having to fit a mold. Neil Gaiman has said on Twitter a couple of times in the last few months that whenever he pursued money, it never worked out, but when he followed his heart, it often was wildly successful.

        (-: Of course, none of us are Neil Gaiman. But . . . who is to say that Nancy Yeager or Michaeline Duskova can’t follow their hearts and write what they like?

        • It’s so funny that you mention writing from the heart, because I just re-watched “Strictly Ballroom” (lord, if you haven’t watched that movie you should!) and Fran talks about dancing from the heart. And of course, when they do that, all is well. Thanks for the reminder, Michaeline!

  3. Thanks for a great post.

    My daughter and I share books we’ve liked and then discuss them. My husband asks why we re-read books when we already know the ending. I loved her answer-“The first time I read a book, I enjoy the story. If it’s good, I read it again to see how the author did it.”
    Thanks, I love all the 8L posts!

    • I love your daughter’s analysis. I do the same thing. Each time (I listen, because I’m a big audio book fan), I’m honing in on something different. And it’s always something different. This last time listening to Arabella by Georgette Heyer, I was focusing on how Heyer creates character and personality through dialogue, particularly when she introduces us to Lord Fleetwood and Mr. Beaumaris. She’s remarkably plot-light…I mean, she has moments where the plot trucks along, but for the most part, it’s more of a trickle. Even the last “scene” (if you count a scene in this regard as a single place where action is happening) in The Unknown Ajax builds for chapters and chapters. I never tire of listening to it.

      We’re so hard-pressed (conditioned!) to Get to the Freaking Monkey, and in some genres I think one needs to (UF, perhaps; action/adventure; SFF to a certain extent; thriller perhaps, although there is the whole building of tension, etc.) but I also think the slow, revelatory nature of a good dialogue, particularly to build character, can be a wonderful thing.

    • Isn’t it great to have a built-in book club with your daughter?

      My daughter and I also share books, and I’m so impressed with how story-savvy she is, although she claims she would never in a million years want to be a professional writer. She often catches more details than I do on the first read-through, and she is a hella fast reader. I’m pretty fast, but by the time she was nine (!), I was reading over her shoulder and couldn’t keep up.

  4. The biggest reason I’ve decided to pursue indie pub instead of traditional is because my life doesn’t let me fit into that mold of “one book a year (or more),” a rabid social media presence, etc. Maybe someday it will, but with two small kids, it doesn’t. I need the flexibility to set my writing/pub schedule on my terms. I do not care for social media. For me, it’s a drag. I have to force myself to do it. Heck, I haven’t put out a newsletter since last November! I’m definitely not doing writing on anyone’s terms but my own (even if I do hate my own terms sometimes).

    • I actually enjoy sending out my newsletter, especially when I ask a question that engenders interaction through FB or email. Frex, in my last issue, I took the title poll to them for the story formerly known as *Three Husbands and a Lover*, and my readers had opinions! And I’m excited to set up a private FB group for them (and a separate one for my launch team), where I can pop in and out a few times a week and blather about whatever weirdness is on my mind. So, less curated, perhaps, than my public pages. But it took a long time to find the balance of where and how to interact (and it’s an ongoing process!).

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