A Word of Advice on the Matter of Getting Indie Publishing Advice

I use to sell Kirby vacuum cleaners. And I was pretty good at it (I won five vacations). But I never sold the big numbers like some of the other guys in our organization. I could sell 10-15 machines a month, but I never hit the coveted 30 sales a month mark (I had a high month of 20 sales). In the beginning, I was motivated by the success around me. My distributor was a high school drop out who now had his own business. The divisional supervisor was a former high school teacher who left teaching and was now a millionaire. The president at the time had been a gas station attendant before joining Kirby decades ago and now was worth millions of dollars.

When I would ask for advice on how to sell more vacuums, I always got the same advice. Do more demos. “If you want to sell 30 a month, you need to do a minimum of 90 demos.” The one-out-of-three sales ratio was burnt into our brains by everyone who was considered successful in the company. It was just a matter of hard work and simple math. You just had to want it bad enough to do the work.

But over time, I realized I couldn’t do that many demos a month. A demo took anywhere from 1 to 2 hours. Accounting for driving time between demos, time knocking on doors to try to get demos, or time on the phone telemarketing to set up demos; ou couldn’t DO more than two or three demos in an eight hour day. So you start working ten hour days. And then twelve hour days. And you start working on Saturdays. And then you start working on Sundays. Because the people around you who are successful are telling you that is how they did it and that is what you have to do if you want to be successful like them.

But after months of that, I was exhausted. I’d work 12 hour days, go home and do laundry and clean and cook dinner. I missed family gatherings and my relationship with my then-boyfriend suffered because I had no energy to do anything. Bills didn’t get paid not because I didn’t have the money. They didn’t get paid because I would forget to put the checks in the mail because I would get home at 9 PM after a 12 hour day and crash in bed.

Then one day, it hit me. I was at a pro-club (what they called the vacations you earned for sales volume). It was at an awards dinner and I’m sitting around talking to everyone when I had the epiphany. All of these men giving me advice on how to sell more vacuums had a huge advantage that I didn’t have: they all had stay-at-home wives.

Have you ever read Judy Brady’s essay I Want a Wife? I don’t know if people truly understand the significance of this realization. These men didn’t go home at the end of the day and cook and clean and worry about getting the checks in the mail. They didn’t worry about doing the laundry. Many of them didn’t worry about setting up their own demos, because their wives would serve as their personal assistants for them. They would go to their first demo, go home for lunch with their wives (who often already had another demo set up for them), then go to their next demo. Maybe do a little cold calling, and then go home for dinner with the family before going back out for one more demo.

While they did demos on the weekend, their wives were handling the grocery shopping and the errand-running and all of that, so when they came home they could relax and spend the rest of the day with the family. The advice these men gave was based on a premise that I had a wife to do all of the stuff that I was doing myself. In short, their advice was useless because I could never follow it the way they intended.

What does any of this have to do with publishing?

There are lots of gurus out there offering lots of advice. Some of it is considered “gospel” by the masses. Lots of it is simply accepted at face value. But in the vast majority of cases, the advice being offered is based on an assumption that may not actually apply to you. Whether it is Dean Wesley Smith (who I actually often agree with) to Joe Konrath (who I often don’t agree with) or any of the big indie advice blogs, in almost all cases they have the equivalent of the stay-at-home wife in their corner.

They all got their start in trade publishing.

Some of them dismiss this advantage. Some of them swear their publishers did less than nothing for them. But this is an advantage. These authors benefited from the marketing muscle of a trade publisher. They had a publisher who footed the bill for the production of their first books (or are still footing the bill for the production of several of their books). They had a publisher who was pushing their book into brick and mortar stores for them. They had a publisher that was sending out review copies, and able to obtain reviews, in major publications for them. Their brands were established with the benefit of a publisher doing the heavy lifting.

This isn’t to say the authors don’t deserve the credit for their own success. They do. They filled the needs of the demographic they wrote for and built their fan bases. But they did it with help. They had a “wife,” so to speak, who took care of the mundane things for them so they could focus on the important work. Their platforms have foundations built with the help of trade publishers. It may have been a dysfunctional marriage in some ways, but it was a marriage from which they built their brands.

This means that their advice may be impractical for you. It means what they claim to be important my not even apply to you. It means that there will be times that what they recommend is not even possible for you to do. It means you will not be able to duplicate their success, no matter how hard you try to follow their blueprint.

And it means you should be totally OK with that.

Once I had my epiphany, I felt like a weight had been lifted off of my shoulders. I stopped chasing the “30 sales = success” goal. I realized I was already successful. I could work a balanced work week and still sell enough machines to qualify for a free vacation a couple of times a year. I didn’t make as much money as the guys selling 30 a month, but I didn’t need to use their paychecks to measure my success. I could measure success on my terms. I could balance my professional success with my private happiness.

I eventually left direct sales, because while I had grown comfortable with my level of success, those around me increasingly felt that anyone not striving for their definition of success was failing. If you weren’t increasing your sales, you were “coasting” or “being lazy.” And this is the real point of the story, because there is a similar mentality seeping into most of the advice columns and how-to books marketed to new indie authors. Very often, the people offering advice do so based on their own definitions of success and what they think you should want. And that may be very different from where you really are and where you want to be.

So my advice on listening to advice is simply to consider everything through the lens of your own goals and needs, and not the goals and needs of those giving the advice. Consider everything in terms of what you practically CAN do, not what people insist you SHOULD do. Don’t get caught up in trying to emulate the “rock stars” in the industry or chasing their success. Define success in your own terms. Then borrow from others what fits, throw out what doesn’t, and don’t let other people tell you that your success is actually failure.

Leave a Reply