Why Happy Amateurs Win

"I got up at 7.30 and wrote for an hour before I got on my train. I wrote on the train for two and a half hours. I went out there during the lunch break and wrote for another hour. And I’ll do two and a half on the way back.”

This casual comment burrowed into my brain like a burr at June’s Writing In A Digital Age conference (which I covered for Bookdiva here), and I still can’t get it out. It came from the young author Kerry Wilkinson, and back then, there was plenty of uncomfortable shuffling around me as he explained his day’s writing schedule. The shuffling turned to audible squeaks as Wilkinson shared that his output averaged “around 1,000 words an hour”. His message, delivered with no trace of a boast, was blunt. He loves to write, he lives to write, and nothing – not travelling from Lancashire to London, not sitting on a panel, and certainly not schmoozing with industry bigwigs over pinot – was going to get in his way.

Wilkinson – a 31-year-old sports journalist who sold more than 250,000 ebooks in six months, topped the Kindle charts and subsequently netted a six-book deal from Pan MacMillan – is an e-publishing hero, and the assembled audience was eager to know his secrets. Sure, he obviously had a big dose of luck and a terrifying work ethic, but how did he, above all those thousands of other wannabes, scoop the dream duo of grassroots and establishment success?

Was it his social networking tactics? His crime thriller genre? His pricing strategy? His cover designs?

The answer was, typically, simpler and more profound than the questions: Wilkinson achieved conventional success because he didn’t chase it. He has repeatedly said in interviews that “you should write for yourself, not because you think you can make lots of money or have a bestseller”; an easy truism, and one almost every author would subscribe to (publicly, at least). But Wilkinson genuinely doesn’t seem to crave the money and validation he has achieved. He is pleased about it all, of course, but up on that podium, with his impassive and distracted manner, his mind seemed to have already flown away from all this timewasting debate and back to his book.

Back in May, advertising supremo Robert Bean presented excerpts from his book Nine And A Half Golden Rules of Branding at Like Minds, an innovations festival in Exeter. A very different man at a very different conference; but Bean’s central tenet, that brands such as BMW, Honda and The Body Shop have succeeded by “winning in their own way” applies perfectly to Wilkinson. Wilkinson didn’t succeed because his methods of success were different, but because his criteria were. He still had defined goals – to write as well as he could, as much as he could, and to make that content available to readers who might love what he did. But those goals were strictly in his control, unlike getting a publishing deal or coercing others to buy his book. By ruthlessly pursuing those aims and ignoring the cultural baggage involved in ‘being a writer’, he ironically won not just in his own way, but the industry’s.

Rather than being the consummate man of our times, Wilkinson is a throwback: a rare example of that endangered breed, the happy amateur. Once endemic in Britain – from our age-old tradition of tinkering in sheds to the brilliance of Charles Darwin’s layman naturalism – amateurism has become a source of contempt. In The Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet Is Killing Our Culture, Andrew Keen argues that quality creative content is being dispersed and undermined by a parasitic online public. But the problem is subtler and more psychological than this. In a culture of public sharing, even talented amateurs producing careful, original work no longer feel that their output has value unless it achieves mass exposure, plus a nice financial kick-back on the side. Five years ago we were content to blog about our passion for noodles, delighted with one comment from a friend. Gradually we started to feel inadequate if we didn’t have hundreds of hits a day and a stable of ads embedded on the sidebar. Now we feel a failure if our noodle-based crime thriller isn’t downloaded by hundreds of people we’ve never met.

‘Amateur’ means ‘lover of’, but love is now expected to bring us both kudos and cash. This is embedded into how online platforms operate; every day we sell, in the form of data, the details of our family, friends, activities and tastes in exchange for free services from Facebook and Google. The divide between the personal and professional is dissolving and in a sharing-obsessed world, doing something for yourself means doing it for everyone. If it doesn’t achieve professional-scale exposure, it can feel like personal failure too.

Wilkinson has a disconcerting lack of ego that would be easy to mistake for arrogance. When, later in the conference, an agent was told that he had never considered courting a traditional publisher, her puzzlement bordered on the comic. His single-minded dedication to telling stories and his utter lack of angst about his status as a writer are reflected in his Twitter stream. With a modest 600-odd followers, I doubt Wilkinson has a ‘social media strategy’, but I defy anyone who browses his tweets – 90% of them responses to others – about the joy of cheap sandwiches, reading in the garden and train stations (“a goldmine for potential nutcase characters”) – not to like him instantly and then want to read his books.

One topic that cropped up again and again at the conference was how to promote your book using social networks. But most of the tactics discussed – offering bloggers free copies, imploring readers to post Amazon reviews, sneaking sales calls into tweets – miss the point that Wilkinson so blatantly gets. Social media is a terrible marketing tool. Trying to aggressively promote yourself in such a personal environment will leave you feeling frustrated and soiled. But focus on conversing with likeminded others and, if your book is good enough, the emotional connection will slowly convert to curiosity and readership. Again, shift the criteria for success to something that you can control, and you have the best chance possible of ensuring that the uncontrollable follows suit. If it doesn’t, at least you still feel good about yourself.

Aspiring writers simply must escape from their anxiety deadlock. It is no good for them or their work. Yes, it is excruciatingly hard to make a book a commercial success; there is no magic bullet. Traditional publishing is crowded, risk-averse and prone to unpredictable commercial fads; self-publishing is no easier, being even more crowded and requiring you to morph into an always-on hybrid of writer/editor/designer/publisher/media whore. There is, however a third way. Focus on the work itself, create goals you can control, and make sure the journey is as satisfying as the end game. Become a happy amateur, and you might just have a chance of becoming a happy professional after all.

This article originally appeared in Bookdiva