Coming to Grips With Writing in the 21st Century

The other day I happened across a story about a 30-year-old man who earned $1.8 million last year by self-publishing five books. I saw the headline and knew, immediately, that there was some kind of new-media, digital-orgy hocus pocus behind all this. No way this guy was making that much money writing traditional books.

I figured maybe the books were about getting rich off of crypto currency or something. I also figured the author was not a writer by trade, and probably had no formal education or training as a writer. Well, I was wrong about the former, but right about the latter.

The author is not trained as a writer, and has no professional background as one. He’s a military veteran who spent eight years in the United States Army and then earned a degree in software engineering. He fell into writing books because he was bored, wanted to fill the time, and started reading about something called “LitRPG,” which is short for literary role-playing game.

According to the Business Insider article, LitRPG is “a new form of fantasy fiction” in which “the rules for acquiring magical powers are explicitly laid out. Characters must achieve a certain task, say killing a given number of demons, to acquire new capabilities, much as they would in a computer role-playing game, or in Dungeons & Dragons.”

The author – who I won’t mention here, because I’m sure he’s a nice guy – decided to give LitRPG a shot. He wrote and then completed a book called “Dungeon Born” in October 2016, and published it on Amazon without even hiring a copy editor or cover designer. The book caught the attention of some LitRPB group with 10,000 members. Unbeknownst to me, there’s a massive, passionate community of these folk. The book hit $5,000 in sales the month after it was published.

By the end of 2016, “Dungeon Born” had racked up more than $22,000 in sales, and a new career was born. The author self-published six books in 2019 and earned $1 million. He self-published five more in 2020 and earned $1.8 million. He has made the Amazon bestseller list. He plans to publish 10 books this year, and 12 in 2022, and he’ll probably earn five million bucks for all I know.

My first reaction to all this was as follows:

WTF?

But seriously: WTF?

This was the professional writer in me reacting. The writer who has spent four decades trying to hone and develop his craft. The writer who has a new novel coming out next month, at an age when hardly anyone has ever published a debut novel that actually went anywhere. A writer who has dreams of reaching a bestseller list, but has found it useful to ratchet down his expectations until they all but disappear from view.

Meanwhile, in Neverland, some young chap was banking millions off his books.

In the old days, I might have lashed out at a world where this kind of thing is even possible – an amateur making millions writing books about some trendy, 21st century, fantasmical role-playing shit, purchased by a bunch of fantasy freaks who probably think “William Shakespeare” is the name of a new clothing line. It reminded me of all the Gen Z social media influencers who are getting filthy rich on TikTok or Instagram, telling people what to buy or wear or hack or watch or download, even though their life experiences amount to staring at a fucking iPad all day.

But those were the old days, my friends. Nowadays, I am much more chill about this kind of thing. I simply reminded myself, again:

This is the world in 2021. This is how life works. This is modern-day publishing. Can a chap who never wrote for a living suddenly make millions off of a book about some kind of fantasy role-playing thingy? You’re damn right he can, LOL! Not just him, either, but plenty of others are making money off of it – because plenty of others are spending money on it. You can’t wish it away just because you’re getting long in the tooth, and the world no longer fits into your box.

I am not going to be one of those old geezers who rolls his eyes at the modern world, with all its highfalutin ways. I am not going to begrudge some 30-year-old the millions he is making off of something I don’t understand.

What I am going to do is assess the 20 years or so I have left to earn a living as a writer, and then assess what I have to do to meet the modern world’s expectations. I am going to come to grips with what it means to be a writer in the 21st century.

I have already made certain concessions. I know that I can’t write exactly what I want to write and earn a living off of it. For example, I am a lover of mid-20th century crime noir fiction, and that’s what I enjoy writing the most. There is still an audience for that, but it’s limited. It’s not like 60 years ago, when there were dozens of crime and mystery publishers demanding new product from starving writers. Today, there are maybe a handful of classic crime fiction publishers. If you’re going to write in that genre, you had either be very good at it, or you had better bring something fresh to the game.

My new novel, “Voodoo Hideaway’’ (click this link to order your copy!) is written as a classic crime noir novel – but with a mind-boggling twist! There’s a time travel element to make it appealing to the much bigger sci-fi market. The characters are also representative of modern society in terms of their ethnic and economic backgrounds, and their social mores.

I think it’s a pretty good book, with enough intrigue and entertainment value to appeal to readers. I’m happy with it. I submitted it and submitted it and after a couple years of rejections, I finally found a publisher willing to put it out there. It probably won’t sell as many copies as the books the 30-year-old wrote, but you gotta come to grips with that, too.

I have also embraced modern marketing strategies, because if you don’t put some kind of marketing/promotion behind your writing, you’re not going anywhere. I don’t care who you are: You have to put in the marketing effort. You need an internet presence, a social media presence. You need accounts on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and LinkedIn. I have all of those. I hate it sometimes, but I have come to grips with it. I post regularly. I try to sneak semi-clever, self-serving references in as often as possible. I am slowly building my base of followers. You could fit all of my followers into a two-bedroom apartment, but I’m giving it the old college try.

I don’t yet have TikTok or YouTube accounts. Maybe I will try those. I am not ruling it out, even though my particular skill sets do not fit easily with either platform.

You need a website, and you need to stay active on it. I write regularly for this website, knowing that certain blogs will only reach 20 or 30 people, and even the most popular ones will tap out at around 300. I figure that puts me around the lower 99th percentile in terms of blog traffic. Even so, I grind away, trying to post a blog at least once a week, whether the world demands it or not (it doesn’t). It keeps my content out there, and my writing muscles active. I won’t post this blog on my personal Facebook account, which is what I usually do. But honestly? Maybe three of my Facebook friends will give a crap about it. I’ve come to grips with that, too. But I will post it on my author’s Facebook account, where maybe eight people will give a crap about it.

You know how to get more social media followers and blog traffic? Become famous, that’s how. That’s the key. When nobody knows who you are, nobody outside of friends and family really care who you are. When everybody knows who you are, then suddenly everybody cares who you are. If I were famous, I wouldn’t be writing this blog. Since I’m not famous, this blog I am writing. When I do become famous, I will blog about the trials and tribulations of fame, or not blog at all, because I’m too busy being famous to spend my time blogging.

I say this only because you shouldn’t worry about your web traffic. Just keep doing what you’re doing, because it’s what you’re supposed to be doing. Don’t question. Just do.

You need paying gigs. I have a few of those writing and editing for financial websites and content mills. The work is steady, and while I am not getting rich off of it, I’m doing okay for a free-lancer.

You need to force yourself to write fiction (or poetry, etc.). I don’t write fiction as often as I should, but I still do it pretty regularly. I do it enough to submit to different publishers, websites and contests. My results are mixed, but I have managed to squeak in a few winners that either earned me some money or got published in books. That’s the kind of thing that keeps you coming back for more.

So: write, and submit. Don’t stop doing that. You can never publish if you don’t write and submit.

I am pretty certain I will never make a million dollars in a year off of my writing. I do hope my novel does well enough to earn a few thousand bucks (or more!). I hope it leads to future books. I hope I can still find other publishers willing to put my work out there.

I doubt I’ll ever tumble into anything like role-playing fantasy books, but I don’t rule it out, either.

Closing your mind and getting angry is the easiest way to not succeed as a writer, or anything else.

It’s a grind, navigating all the new rules. But if you want to write for a living in the Year 2021, it’s a grind you better learn to embrace.

4 Comments

  1. I listen to Seth Godin a lot (and read *some* of his “This is Marketing” book, which captures much of his philosophy), and his thing is to aim for those who want / need your work…the smallest viable audience. Do it generously, without expectations for big numbers, aiming for genuine impact in your readers’ lives rather than big numbers. I’m sure that’s what we all want…but it’s hard to bury your head in the sand and pretend numbers mean nothing to you… clearly they have an effect.

    Sure, adapt to what the market is like nowadays, but never be insincere in your writing. Except for the rare cases, I don’t think writing is a lucrative field…at least not the novel writing kind. But if you happen to get lucky on just one story, maybe that sets you up with the financial freedom to do what you want for the rest of your career.

    Maybe the whole superficial social media bubble will eventually burst, and people will go back to valuing substance over fake popularity contests…

    Anyway… interesting thoughts. And I look forward to seeing how your coming book does.

    If you aren’t already familiar with Seth Godin, maybe try him out. Could be very useful for the upcoming promotion. (And his book I mentioned earlier is a good place to start.)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for the tip and the input, Yacoob. I just googled Seth Godin and I will see what he has to say. I have to say: I’m pretty much flying blindly in all this. I know what I like to write, and where my strengths are, but I fear the market just isn’t there. As an older writer, I feel much more pressure to produce immediately. If I just write what I want to, for the sake of the art itself, it’s satisfying to me. But I also desire an audience, as most writers do. And really, that might not be the best way to approach it. You may be right: just be true to yourself.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for such an honest post – I agree you can get angry that someone made money off a genre you have no interest in (me either!) but that gets you nowhere. And I hope you get the chance to blog about the agonies of fame sometime!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for your input! I’ve pretty much come to a place in life where rolling my eyes at every little modern-day trend is too much work, and pointless anyway. Now, on to the agonies of fame for all of us!

      Like

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