How do authors earn credibility?

From the mailbag, here’s a question from Emrah on reputation and writing:

I just read the post titled How I make a living: in detail and I was  curious about how an author earns credibility, especially someone  starting from scratch, for the value of the books she writes. It’s  one thing for the book’s content to be good, but another thing for  people (customers,  publishers) to believe that you really have something valuable to  share, right?

Is it less about credentials and more about selling yourself to  publishers and them promoting your book to customers, journalists etc?  I know from experience that some of the most widely promoted/suggested books aren’t necessarily better than other books on same/similar topics.

I agree – there is a big difference between popularity and quality. Plenty of of shlock is popular, and plenty of very good work never gets the recognition it deserves.  There is no law that says the highest grossing author on a subject knows the most about it, writes the best about it, or is even more than mediocre on the subject at hand. S/he might simply be much better at writing marketable books, or or has the financial resources to promote them better than other experts or authors do. A mediocre book on a hot topic, a book everyone knows about, will likely sell better than a better book on the same subject that few ever discover.

It’s a funny thing, but now at parties or bars when I tell people I’m an author, you know what the first thing many do is? They whip out their iPhone, look me up on amazon.com, and tell me how many reviews I have and what the average is. That’s what seems to be the prevailing way to instantly ascertain a writer’s credibility in 2010.

This is part of why, and I write this as an author, you readers have no idea how much your amazon reviews, tweets, blog posts, forwards of links, recommendations to co-workers and friends, nearly anything at all where my work is mentioned matters in my career, or the career of any writer.  So much of what determines my success is out of my hands and largely in yours.  So if you’ve rarely written an amazon review of books you like, or posted on facebook, or told your boss or friends, know there are authors out there desperate for your help, regardless of how successful you think they are. This stuff matters. Unlike promotion and marketing which is (semi)manufactured credibility and happens before people have read the book, your opinions have surprisingly strong weight. It is, by and large, the people who determine how credible or viable an authors career is and how easy it will be for them to pitch their next book, if they can find the courage at all.

People send me email now and then saying “Thanks! I loved your book!” which is awesome and amazing. It always makes my day and gets me going to write more. But at the same time, if they wrote a similiar note to a friend, or coworker, or a popular blog, or on amazon.com, it has more value to me in terms of keeping this all going. It’s crude to call this out, and effectively complain about complements, I get that and I’m embarrassed to do it – but at the same time if the goal is to help any author keep plugging along, it’s the stuff not directed at them, but at others in the world that has the most leverage and few people realize this. And of course, these two behaviors are not mutually exclusive.

The idea of author credibility from the publishers perspective, most of the time, centers on sales-base and the term they use is platform. The word platform means how well known are you among people who are likely to buy the kind of book you are writing. Are you affiliated with a university and teach in the subject you’re writing about? Do you have a popular blog? Are you a leader in a community or event? The term platform is based mostly on sales potential and possible audience, rather than on whether you specifically have something valuable to say (although the former can imply the later). It’s your platform, relative to the book you are writing, that makes it easier or harder to find a publisher. You might have a PhD in mathematics, but if your book is about making obscure variants of Swiss cheese while blindfolded, your math platform is useless. Part of why authors rarely jump across genres is this fear that the platform wont translate across that chasm.

As far as ideas for books, or quality of content, the game is slated towards the masses. The ideas most publishers and most writers are going to be interested in talking to each other about are books with wide appeal and a wide audience (or at least a wide part of the audience the particular publisher has). Publishers are a conservative bunch, and rarely want to be the first to write a book on an unproven topic, which explains why, much like all businesses, there are often dozens of books with similiar titles and themes coming out around the same time.  The trick as an author is to find a way to take a fresh angle on a topic that is deep and interesting, but not too far afield from what others have done so a publisher won’t be afraid to do the dance with you. But like the film, music or theater worlds, despite how creative things are supposed to be, there is a surprising amount of conservatism and insecurity about which bets to place.

This insecurity is well deserved since no one has ever been a reliable predictor of which books will be bestsellers or not (Many claim this after, but never before). There are too many factors involved outside any author’s or publisher’s control, and most are afraid to admit it. The advertising agency world has similiar angst. Plenty of books have huge marketing budgets, and fail to break even, and some have no marketing at all, and do amazingly well. The missing factor, again, are you readers out there. As much as everyone wants to control your behavior, you guys are still in charge.

Other forms of credibility come from reviews and endorsements. This is why the back of books has lists people more famous than the author saying nice things about them and their work. It’s an attempt to demonstrate the credibility of the author’s work by proxy. And it works. I’m not sure where I stack up in your view of authorial fame, but I get plenty of requests for blurbs, and I know many authors who get way more than I do. As far as reviews, it still matters more to the world to get a review from the NYTimes or the WSJ then from a popular blog, but that gap is closing all the time, and there are many exceptions where a blog review generates way more sales then a prestigious newspaper review will.  And let me tell you as someone who has been reviewed by some prestigious blogs and newspapers – reaching high profile bloggers is much easier than reaching reviewers for the NY Times.  Bloggers nearly always list an email address – something not in the culture of most papers and magazines. And if you write well, and thoughtfully, you’d be surprised at who is willing to respond and take a look at your work and consider reviewing it or endorsing it.

At the end of the day the best credibility for writing, as a craft, has no secrets. Write more and write better than other people do. Write online where, at any time, its possible an infinite number of people can see it, so maybe Nancy Pearl will accidentally type in your url, and who knows. Write responses to popular writers online, link to them and email them a link to your response to what they wrote. So much of what’s written, now or ever, is trash, and good writers will recognize good writing and link back to what you did (assuming its as good and thoughtful as your ego thinks it is). But getting to work and putting the hours in is an unavoidable aspect of writing. It’s an unavoidable aspect of promotion. Put together, credibility comes from lots of effort. I have yet to see any other way.

I look at the writing life with the long view. I want to be doing this for a long time and I make my bets accordingly. I don’t need to hit one book out of the park – I just need to continually deliver the goods book after book and let my credibility accumulate. I started from scratch in 2003  – I don’t care about winning the sprint – I want to finish the marathon. Many writers in my categories sell many more books than I do, but I don’t care. I’m making a good living and I’m happy as hell. And this view makes many of the things I do, speaking, blogging (effectively giving away much of my writing), and the rest make total sense. When you take the long view, much of the short term confusion goes away. And when I hear people desperate for shortcuts, part of me knows on that alone they don’t have what it takes.

But perhaps I’m all wrong. What did I miss? Could I be more credible to you, dearest blog reader? Let me know where my blind spots are.

12 Responses to “How do authors earn credibility?”

  1. Emrah

    Scott, thank you for answering. You said pretty much what I was suspecting. Well, I’m doing my part, to the best of my ability, promoting content, products and services that are not mainstream, yet deserve to be.. :)

    Reply
  2. Naer

    After reading this blog article, i got to know bit better. Your books have drown me. But reading your blog is like talking to you. Having a conversation. Though over here for me is monologue. No matter how truly we can speak about, we are all the same. Desperately finding our ‘blind spots’, in order to be satisfied, recognized… Isn’t it? Just i envy you living your life casually and satisfying. Not everyone has guts. Great reveal, Scott! Still i can’t help to give you the least comments you care.

    Reply
  3. Paul Milne

    Scott, thanks for another insightful blog post – I’m going to put a link to it up on Facebook right now ;)

    Reply
  4. Jeff Osier-Mixon

    All good points. I would draw a distinction, though, between gaining credibility as a writer and gaining credibility in a particular field. In technical, scientific, and academic writing, a very few experts are engaging writers (like Michio Kaku, e.g.) but many of the best authors are mediocre writers. They succeed and reach their audience despite this because of their field credibility, and some are even proud of this because it indicates that they care more about the subject matter than its presentation.

    Many others depend on editors, which I would highly recommend. I believe that field credibility can only take a writer so far. Publishers like O’Reilly have proven that adding writing skill to technical knowledge makes the end result greater than the sum of its parts, and the book’s reach is greatly extended by approachability.

    I would be grateful to hear you expand on the concept of credibility as opposed to marketability. As you mention, there are a lot of mediocre but marketable books that succeed beyond some well-written counterparts. I am working on my first commercial book right now, having worked as a technical writer for 18 years, and would love to know what makes a book “marketable” assuming a certain amount of both writing skill and field credibility.

    Thanks & keep up the good work

    Reply
  5. Scott Berkun

    Jeff:

    Great point/question about marketability vs. credibility. I thought about making this distinction as I edited the above, but it seemed to warrant a separate post, so I’ll get on that :)

    In short, I think there are two different kinds of credibility. There is expertise, as in “does this guy know what he’s talking about”. And there is interest, as in “do I believe this guy will share what he knows in an interesting way”. Both drive interest in books, but they’re different things, and often marketing for books conflates them together.

    Reply
  6. Jackie Capers-Brown

    As a first time author, this article was very useful towards my effort to build credibility and a platform for my first book. Thank you for the heartfelt words that struck a chord with me. You have shared valueable information that will are beneficial to many other authors who strive to do the work that they are passionate about and believes it to be a part of their purpose. God Bless you and may opportunities abound for you to continue to share your gifts creating abundance in all aspects of your life.

    Reply
  7. Fouad Oodian

    Thanks it is a very helpful blog.
    Truly honesty and credibility bring confidence.
    I would like to invite you to comment on the presentation of my book on my blog above.

    Reply

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