Many factors will determine whether you ever become the author of a published book. Some are in your control, and some are not. Education, market forces, communication skills, economic stability sufficient to allow for intellectual life – the list of what impacts you is probably endless.
But there are 3 essential qualities I’ve observed in the 12+ years I’ve been involved in publishing. Whatever else may play a role in your success, you probably won’t make it without these three things. And no, TALENT is not one of them.
Sidebar: Talent is fascinating and complicated. Human beings enter the world with unique proclivities and inclinations. Your brain has preferences, and no doubt they partly depend on what it can do easily. Talent can be a necessary prerequisite in some instances, but it’s one that rarely stands alone. Most things aren’t achievable by sheer giftedness.
In my view, success for an author consists in being both published and read. Your book must arrive in the world and proliferate. It must become a known voice in at least one niche of the human experience. If no one reads your published book, it is a tree that fell in the forest and made no sound.
Thus, you must be effective to be successful. Sounds obvious, doesn’t it? But people forget. In the age of drive-by likes and headline scrolling, you can’t measure impact simply by publication. That’s where these 3 essential qualities come in.
Effective writers, who become successful authors, have 3 qualities in common: perception, coachability, and endurance.
The first decision you make as an author is what you want to say. This initial step must draw on a well-developed perception of your fellow humans. The beginning of any good book, fiction or nonfiction, is an accurate reading of felt needs. You may believe people need to read about a given topic or perspective, but it frankly doesn’t matter what you think. It matters what your prospective readers think. If you want actual communication to occur, you need to grasp THEIR opinion of what they WILL read.
Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not suggesting you go out and pander to the most commercially viable self-interest you can find.
I’m suggesting you put down your ideology, your experience, and your aggravation and place yourself as much as possible in other people’s shoes. Watch and listen without judging. Try to quiet everything but your powers of observation. What hurts them? Why does it hurt? What brings them joy? Why? What do they feel they are missing? Where do they go looking for it?
Let a little time pass. Did you observe a momentary trend, washed away by the next big thing? Or have you seen something real, something you can work with?
At this point, your perception turns inward. It’s essential to apply that same clear-sightedness to yourself. What do you have to offer in response to the needs you have perceived? Can you help? It’s going to take more than good will, and it’s going to take more than talent. What solution to their need can you truly identify and communicate?
Be realistic with yourself. No one author can write every book. Maybe research will make you capable. Maybe it won’t. We can be most fruitful when we play to our strengths. Do you have a strength you can polish and develop to meet their need? Yes? Then get started! No? Let that idea go. Turn your perception outward again. Keep looking for a genuine need that you are uniquely qualified to fill, a meaningful story you are equipped to tell.
Congratulations! You applied your perception effectively, found a need, got down to business, and produced a manuscript. You survived the adventure of convincing a publisher to contract your book. The hard part is behind you, right?
A contract is a huge accomplishment! Toast your victory, call your friends, sleep all day Saturday, and revel in your awesomeness.
And then, sit down and buckle up.
Relinquish the rosy dream that what you submitted to the publisher was ready for publication.
It was not.
No, yours wasn’t either.
What you submit to a publisher is your writing pushed absolutely as far as you can push it without their editorial help.
Read that again.
You need an editor. You need the next dimension, the person who won’t mentally fill in what you meant to say, the fabled blue penciler whose professional career thrives on her ability to show you every hole you couldn’t see in your writing and support your dogged efforts to reconstruct that book without those holes.
Do not argue that the holes aren’t there. Do not decide you are a better writer than the editor. Do not get married to that paragraph in the third chapter she says must go.
Is the editor always right? No. Is the editor usually right? Yes. Is that the point? Not really.
The editor is a trained linguist and skillful communicator who will bring your good writing to excellence. The editor is also the publisher’s front line. The publisher expects the editorial staff to guide authors to produce books worthy of their platform and appealing to their market. The editor’s pleasure in working with you will strongly impact their interest in your next submission. But more importantly, your open mind and collaborative spirit will drastically improve your writing and the subsequent success of your book.
You don’t even need me to write this section, do you? It’s obvious. All the perception and coachability in the world won’t save you if you don’t have endurance.
You need the patience and motivation to stay the course, to keep on observing, writing, rewriting, listening, polishing. You need to keep caring about your topic or story and your readers all the way to the end. You need to fuel your endurance with the love that started you on this journey. Endurance is your commitment to that bright, quixotic, recurring ITCH God created in you that makes you write.
Take a break. Let the writing cool for a bit. Drink tea. Race beetles on the deck rail. Enter a racquetball tournament. Watch the 1966-1967 Russian version of War and Peace. All 7 hours of it.
And then, get back to your writing, to your revision, to the last round of changes your editor wanted. Get back to finishing your book. Be true to the blessed opportunity you’ve been given to say something worth saying, to say it well, and to those who are waiting for something lifegiving shining through your words.