Thursday, 16 February 2017


Shepherd Mead's book, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (1952) was a howling success. It inspired a record-breaking Broadway musical and a film, both of which were also highly successful. That's ironical. Why? Because Mead and Co. were writing satire. They were pulling the plug on a whole succession of perfectly serious success manuals that were published during the previous half century and which offered the secret of achieving the American Dream. The whole point of the send-ups was that there is no secret. But, do you know what? Even after the humorous exposé, hucksters went on writing success manuals and they're still at it - taking money from people desperate to make their fortunes and ready to believe that, by learning the rules that appear to have worked for some of the world's billionaires, they, too, can join the club. Most of us can see this pipe dream factory for what it is but there will always be enough gullible folk around ready to fill the pockets of the how-to merchants.
     And there are some of these merchants operating in the book bizz. They can do so because there are thousands of wannabe authors out there who have the necessary drive to produce a readable manuscript and believe that, by applying the right formula, they can turn it into a best-seller (by the way, that word 'best-seller' has to be one of the more meaningless and overworked terms in modern parlance).
     At this point, someone might object, 'But, Derek, that's exactly what you're doing - telling other people how to be successful'. Absolutely not; I can't and won't say 'Do this, this and this and you'll become a successful writer. All I can do is pass on some of the things I've discovered over the last 50 years about how the book bizz works. And I'm not making any charge for my advice!
     There are two aspects of an author's life - the creative and the commercial and the how-to merchants are operative in both. There are those who produce how-to-write books and courses. As I remarked in the first of these little articles, you can't be taught to become a writer. Writing is in the genes. Either you are a writer or you aren't. If you are, you will put pen to paper or finger to keypad whether or not anyone else ever reads a single word you have written. You may spend time and money on writing courses, learning about plot-creation, character-delineation, evocative description skills but you still won't be an author, any more than I can be an artist by learning about perspective, composition and colour-combination. I can say this with some authority because there was a time when, for my sins, I spent a couple of years as a creative writing tutor. You can learn techniques. You can discover how to express yourself better but there is no rule that states, 'If you can write well enough you will be a successful author'. There are people who write well who are not successful and there are successful people who do not write well.
     The other success merchants claim to be able to teach you how to sell your work effectively, 'Forget quality,' they say. 'It's all about marketing. We can show you how to find customers.' The advent of social media has given an enormous boost to this market sector. The promoters will produce, for a fee, a package of 'foolproof' techniques for blogging, tweeting, facebooking, youtubing. All you have to do is fill twenty-five hours a day with online activity and best-sellerdom is assured. If you follow the pattern and still don't succeed their get-out tactic is to tell you you're not working hard enough. Useless to tell them, 'I'm a writer not a salesman'.
     What, then, to do with these get-rich-quick merchants? My advice is to ignore them. That does not mean not attending creative writing courses. It doesn't mean turning your back on social media. It does mean making those things work for you. You set the agenda. You choose how to make the best use of your time and energy. Writing is a highly individualistic profession and there are numerous ways to become the best writer you can be and reach the readers who will enjoy your work. Make your own contacts. Follow the trends of your own choosing. Be ready to learn from those who know about the book bizz but always be your own person. Whether that will lead you to financial success neither I nor anyone else can foretell, but, hopefully, it will help you feel fulfilled - and you can't put a price on that.
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