Why “Waiting to see it complete” kills careers

I belong to a group of writers who all had our debut novels (traditionally) published in 2019. NONE of us have had massive success. ALL of us–some from small publishers, like me, others from Big 5 houses like Tor Books–are basically still languishing in obscurity.

Now, I haven’t read ALL of the books written by this group, but I’ve read a few and sampled many, and they are NOT bad books. Some of them are fantastic. But so many things matter in a writing career that have nothing at all to do with the writer.

One writer lost his editor when she left the publisher, and the new editor declined the third book of the trilogy the former editor had championed–sales weren’t horrible, but they weren’t stellar, either. Another writer’s sales weren’t quite big enough for the publisher’s comfort, so while books 2 and 3 came out, the audiobooks were canceled, and the publisher doesn’t seem interested in more books from this author. Another published the first two books in his trilogy, but the third was declined due to poor sales on the first two–the publisher wasn’t making enough on the series to justify the third book’s cost.

This is why word-of-mouth is important. It’s also why the attitude of “I’ll wait to buy a series until it’s finished” is harmful to authors. I get it, you’re afraid George R.R. Martin won’t ever finish A Song of Ice and Fire, or Patrick Rothfuss won’t finish his series. But if you hold off on buying a new series that intrigues you because you want to make sure it’s complete first, then the odds are that that author will never be able to finish the series. George RR Martin and Patrick Rothfuss have nothing to prove to publishers. When they finish those books, they’ll sell like hotcakes. But for the writers of my generation, sales are life. We MUST sell well enough to justify our next book, because it isn’t just about quality. Good reviews help, but the single most important thing to a writer’s publishing career is sales. If the books don’t sell, it doesn’t matter how good they are.

Also, I do not get that “wait until it’s complete” thing at all. I mean, I’ve loved series that never ended. And yeah, it’s unsatisfying. I will probably never know what would have happened in THE CAPTAL’S TOWER, the final book in Melanie Rawn’s Exiles series, which should have come out 30 years ago and never will. And that sucks, because book 2 had a HELL of a cliffhanger. But you know what? I still enjoyed book 1 and book 2. I still re-read them sometimes, because they’re good reads. Even without the finale, I got my money’s worth.

How many TV shows have been canceled before the story was complete? You learn to move on, even if you regret not getting the full story. I mean, this attitude also hurts TV, too–if the ratings aren’t there because a lot of people want to wait to see if it continues, then it risks getting canceled.

If anyone is tempted to bring up “classics” that sold poorly but are now beloved, please don’t. Herman Melville is dead, and while I’m sure he’d feel good to know that Moby Dick is regarded so well today, it would have done him much better if it had been a success while he could have enjoyed it. If a book appeals to you and you can afford it, buy the thing. Wait to read it if you must, but buy it when it comes out.

Published by Michael R. Johnston

Father of a fifth grader, high school English teacher, writer. Forty-six years old and feeling almost every bit of it on some days, and not a bit of it on others. Based in Sacramento, California, USA

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