Don't Give Up: Writing for the Long Tail

by Ron Vitale

 Photo by    jjpacres .

Photo by jjpacres.

I made a decision back in 2010 that changed my life. I made a commitment to write a novel and publish it. I had written my first fantasy novel back when I was 16 years old and for the longest time I floundered. I struggled to get the book published, wrote a second book (a sequel to the first) that still sits on my virtual shelf as well as a good number of short stories. All the time I kept listening to the critics around me: You can't earn a living being a fiction writer. (Dean Wesley Smith takes a nice sledgehammer to that urban myth and debunks it with flare. Be sure to check his article out.)

I am writing this article to help you--all the writers out there who have been beaten down and been told that you can't make it, you'll never sell enough to make a living and that you should frankly never even try and just give up. I've felt that way many, many times in my life and I have had long stretches of time in which I stopped writing. Thankfully, that's not the case any longer. I am currently in the middle of writing the third book in my Cinderella's Secret Diaries series and I wanted to share what I've learned about writing.

Don't Give Up

I went to college as an English major, hoping to become a novelist. I'd write fantasy books and might even teach on the side and make a good living. That was my dream when I was 15 years old. I was the first person in my immediate family to go to college and had no idea what I was doing. I didn't get much help from my guidance counselor in high school and nearly didn't get to college. I had been accepted into a scholar program my senior year of high school and started taking classes at Holy Family University. I loved it. I applied to La Salle University, was accepted, but was short $1500. I couldn't get any funds from my mom (she barely had any money of her own) and as we lived with my grandparents they had no money to lend me either.

I remember holding my roster in my hand and seeing the classes I would be taking in the fall and then telling La Salle that I had to withdraw. Those were dark days for me. I was 17 years old, had graduated 6th in my class of 350+ but didn't have enough money to go to college. Since I had attended Holy Family and had credits there, I was able to get into that school and started in the fall of 1988. I knew nothing about college, loans and finances and had no one to teach me. I struggled along trying to figure the whole mess out and made some dumb financial choices along the way. During this time, I had my first novel ready to go and instead of writing the next one I allowed people to sway me.

I share all of this with you so that you can see that you are not alone: My family told me I was nuts for wanting to be a writer. My teachers told me that there was no money in it and that I had better have a backup plan. I had no mentors, no one to fall back on for support and so I listened to those around me. I gave up. I graduated top of my class with English Literature/French degrees and went on to get my Master of Arts in English Literature at Villanova University.

By the mid- '90s, I had two B.A.s and a M.A. and was nearly $30,000 in debt. Then reality hit me. I needed a job and fast. Through a friend, I found a job in medical publishing (which barely paid me more than what I was making in retail part-time) and worked my way up through the ranks. But all this time, I wasn't writing novels as I had dreamed. I wrote a good number of short stories, thinking that I'd sell some of my work that way, but failed. The short story market was imploding and many print magazines were going out of business. It was a dark time.

Invest in Yourself

In the late '90s, I decided to rewrite the novel I had started back when I was 16 and then shop it around again. Nothing ever materialized. And here is the secret to my utter failure: Instead of shrugging the rejection off and writing my next book, I allowed the rejection to settle around me like a prison. I had put all of my hopes and dreams into the one book I had written. I listened to other writers who warned me not to write a sequel and so I wasted away years.

By this time, I had started to advance in my professional career, the internet exploded and I found good work at my day job. Yet my writing hopes and dreams just fell flat. I attend a few writing conferences, joined a few critique groups, but in the end I found that what helped me the most was simply sitting down and writing: The more I wrote, the better I became and the more fulfilled I was. I wrote the sequel to my first book but never did anything with that book. Time passed and I forgot the secret of a happy writing life. I became lost in work, marriage, having children and filling my time up with everything but writing.

But all wasn't lost. I began teaching myself how to blog and podcast. I learned skills that would help me at my day job but also help fulfill the creative part of me that desperately wanted to be a writer. In 2007, I learned of Podiobooks and decided to take my Jovian Gate Chronicles science fiction short stories and bundle them up into an audiobook format. I recorded, edited and produced all the creation of the audiobooks myself. I made lots of mistakes, rushed the reading of the works, but I did produce a solid piece of work. And then a light bulb went off inside: I realized that I not only could learn new skills, but that I had found a way to bridge the gap between the new world of publishing and the old. Little did I know that traditional publishing would change so drastically in such a short amount of time.

My staying up late to learn how to podcast and blog helped me tremendously. It not only helped me with my creative works, but it also served me well on the day job as I was able to bring podcasting to the organization that I worked. The time I invested in learning new skills was well worth the effort. Unfortunately, I didn't see that at the time.

Take the Big Leap of Faith

After releasing my short story book on podiobooks, I then self-publishing my first novel, Dorothea's Song, through Lulu.com and then created an audiobook for that as well. In 2008, self-publishing started to explode and I had a decision to make: Keep trying to work in a shrinking market of traditional publishing or take a risk and become an indie writer.

When I sat down and really thought about it, I realized that I could keep failing and never get my books published or I could self-publish and get them out there. They would succeed or fail on their own. My work had essentially sat in a drawer for 20 years and had never been read by the public. If I self-published my work on Amazon, not only would the world have a chance to read my books, but I could also maintain control of my copyright and rights for the books.

And so on August 21, 2011, I took a leap of faith. I published Cinderella's Secret Diary: Lost on Amazon and had the print version become available on Createspace.com. I have sold more than 500 copies of that book on Amazon and have given away more than 11,000 Kindle versions. I've published the sequel, Stolen: Cinderella's Secret Diaries, as well as Dorothea's Song and The Jovian Gate Chronicles. I've been extremely open about my self-publishing journey. If you want to read how much money I've made so far, read on.

Is it all worth it? Well, it depends on how you look at it: When you look at my sales, you'll not see a lot of money. The truth is that I spent as much as I made on writing. I couldn't live off of my work. That's the hard facts for 2011-2013. I can't sugarcoat those numbers.

Writing Is a Business

If I would have started reading Kristin Kathryn Rusch's business blog posts earlier, I suspect that I would have made better writing decisions earlier on in my career. Writing is a business. And with any business, you need to invest time, money and effort. When I write, I need to become better at my craft. The only way I can do that is by writing more and learning. I sometimes get lost down memory lane and wonder: What would have happened if I had started writing books at 16 and had never given up? How much better would my books be today? And how many books would I have written by now?

Still, it's not worth the worry. I have written 5 books: Three are published on Amazon and two are in draft form. I am working. I've recently made a decision that I want to share with you. It's simple and might seem pretty straightforward but for me it was an eye opening experience:

I have decided to invest in myself by learning, reading and writing as much as I can to help me become a better writer. I am then going to write as many books as I can (until I die). And I am going to publish those books and broaden my reach by expanding the platforms and the countries where I can sell my books. And finally, I am going to learn about copyright and how I can license my works. These are my writing goals.

What I didn't understand when I was young is that writing is a business. I wanted to desperately to reach readers and to have someone pick up my books and fall in love with them because they could identify with the pain and suffering and the immense joy that my characters lived. I wanted that connection desperately but I did not have any sense of how to get there in the real world. Now I know.

I need to write. I need to read. I need to learn new skills (social media, blogging, podcasting, marketing, finances and copyright law).

It's that simple. I have decided that I'm in this for the long haul. For those of you familiar with the long tail in statistics, that is my goal. I am not doing the splash in the pan, but am working toward building my body of works out over time. With working full-time and raising a family, it's going to take me time, but I've learned a few tricks along the way:

  • Set a schedule for when to write.
  • Stick to that schedule.
  • Read, read, and read some more.
  • Publish your books and move on.

I subscribe to the Writing Your Novel One Day at a Time approach. It might be slow, but it works for me. All of this is hard work. Make no mistake about it. You will need to sacrifice sleep, watching TV, family time--something will have to give in your life (unless you have a pile of cash and no day job and you can just sit back and write). Many of us aren't in situations like that. We have full-time jobs and families. But this does not mean that your dreams have to be put on hold. It might go slower than what you had hoped, but steady and sure can get you to your goal. Don't give up. Work hard and I wish you success and happy writing!

"Don't Give Up: Writing for the Long Tail" copyright © 2013 by Ron Vitale.


Ron Vitale is the author of the dark fantasy series Cinderella's Secret Diaries who hopes that his children will grow up to find their own voices and not allow others to dictate who and what they can be. Follow me on Twitter @ronvitale.