How Many Licks, um Books, Does It Take to Get to the Top of the Best-Seller List?

The Dork Side

Image courtesy of The Dork Side

Most of us, especially when we’re new, want our first short story to be a major contest winner or our first novel to be a runaway success. That’s natural. Of course, this is not reality for us mere mortals.

Just like most of us never picked up a violin and magically busted out a flawless rendition of Flight of the Bumblebee, most of us won’t sit down and write a work that hits the New York Times best-seller list the first go round (or that sells a bazillion copies on Amazon, if you’re an indie).

Yeah, I was bummed, too.

Writing, like most other things, follows the Law of 10,000 Hours (Read Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers for more). 10,000 hours of dedicated practice/work/study/training seems to be the magic number that separates the successful professional from everyone else.

Whether it is gymnastics, ballet, playing the ukelele, or writing, practice is key if we want to become masters of our pursuit.

*shock face* :O

This is why we need to write as often as possible, and it’s HUGE reason I am a proponent of writers learning to blog. Blogging can help accelerate the path to mastery, and has an added benefit of helping build a lasting author platform that can help drive sales.

History demonstrates time and again that it takes roughly 10,000 hours (or a million words, depending on who we listen to) to reach the status of true artist and masters of our craft.

Additionally, most authors write at least three books before they start seeing success, which is part of why successful novelists like Bob Mayer, Joe Konrath, and John Locke are constantly telling writers to do less tweeting and more writing. They’re correct. Write, write, write. Great to have a social platform, but we need books to sell or the platform is merely a monument to our Facebook skills.

Guess how long it takes to write three novels?

About 10,000 hours.

Three books minimum.

Thus, all you indie/self-pub authors who put your first book up for sale and you haven’t sold enough copies to buy tacos? Keep writing. 10,000 hours. 3 books. Traditional authors? Three books. Rare is the exception.

The more we write, the better we get (ideally). If the first novel is “eh” keep writing. To paraphrase some Monty Python:

I wrote a book! …and it sank into the swamp.

So, I wrote another book! It, too, sank into the swamp.

So, I wrote another book! …. And it caught fire, fell over…and sank into the swamp.

But the fourth book, THE FOURTH BOOK STOOD.

Happy writing! And follow The Dork Side on Facebook if you want to laugh regularly.

What are your thoughts? Do you agree? Disagree? How much practice do you do daily? How much did you write before you started actually thinking your writing was any good…and other people didn’t run away bleeding from the ears?

I LOVE hearing from you!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of September, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novelor your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

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  1. Darn, I was hoping for a secret magical formula to bypass the waiting and the work. Time to lean on my flimsy patience and persistence! Thanks for the reality check with a dose of encouragement!

    • Dana Volney on September 16, 2013 at 11:01 am
    • Reply

    Great blog post – it is nice to hear that it took even the greats a bit to break into the publishing world. I’m close to book three *jumps for joy* so hopefully that means less ear bleeding from my beta readers! 🙂

    • Lanette Kauten on September 16, 2013 at 11:03 am
    • Reply

    There might be something to this. My third book was picked up by a publisher. If this keeps up, my third published book will be a bestseller, right? I guess it’s time to get off the internet and write my third publishable book. 🙂

  2. Sometimes it takes more than 10,000, sadly. One gets to the point of “what’s the use” when books probably written and published before 5,000 words make it to the top. Then somewhere along the way we pull out an earlier book, see the value of the plot or maybe one part of the story that really does work AND we see how the five layers of cream frosting and candy roses totally ruin a great chocolate cake. And what that other writer did or does or will do becomes irrelevant.

  3. What’s really ironic is that I used to think I wrote some fine prose. I had amazing short stories and my novel story lines begged for stardom. The more I learn from craft masters and learn to look at my work critically, the more I see that I’m still a beginner. I’ve been writing for well over 30 years (trying to maintain my illusions of youthfulness here) and I still think my writing is subpar.
    Is this maturity? Realism? Idealism? A critical spirit?
    Now it’s time to knock out a few thousand word on my WIP.

  4. great reminder kristen, my first one did well (pub’d in late 2011) but i now know how much further i need to go in order to improve…and that ONLY comes with more pub’d books, not with lots of tweets and/or FB friends…..hi5

  5. I whole-heartedly agree. I wish more new authors understood this. You don’t pick up an instrument and expect to play a concert style performance right away; why do people think differently with writing? Oh, and I wrote four novels before I found my ‘voice’.

  6. It took me about a year in a writing critique workshop for me to feel confident about my writing. By writing flash fiction pieces and blogging regularly, it has honed my skills somewhat. Nothing beats good, solid practice!

  7. OMG, can I just say I love you without sounds creepy/ The Monty Python reference had me rolling! This is a GREAT bog. Thank you. One of my faves yet. Preach on sister Kristen, preach on!

  8. This is so validating and I’m still working on book #1 🙂

  9. Getting better and better! I’m finishing up book number two and I’m hoping that all the writing I did as a kid was enough to make this more like book number 3. But I won’t hold my breath until the numbers come back. 😉

  10. yep. although i think my 3 manuscripts are really only 72 hours each from the 3 day novel contest. guess I now have to add all the editing time.

  11. This is really helpful! And also nice to hear because I know not to give up after book one. Not that I was planning to, but I appreciate the advice. 🙂

  12. I actually started out with flash fiction in magazines and went up to short stories and now that my third short collection is about to be published (september 30th) I feel confident enough to maybe publish my full length novel on which I’ve been working for the past 2 years, writing and then polishing and rewriting and more polishing. But I think it will now stand and not catch fire, fall over and sink in the swamp. So yes, I agree, 10.000 hrs. Or a million+ words and maybe you are ready.
    I think I have written 2+ million words now and I still doubt.

  13. Would you critique a poetry collection? I have written a book of poetry, but I can’t afford the time or money it takes to get an editor and/or a publisher. I don’t want to self publish.

  14. I definitely agree. My first book has sold very modestly. The second is about ready to head out the door to the publisher, but the writing in my third book – a novel – is singing. My mentor said it was professional level and then laughed… She said, “Now you gotta keep doing that the rest of the book.”

    • Jai on September 16, 2013 at 11:57 am
    • Reply

    I had heard three is the charm… working on cranking out book 1.

    Those owls are kind of creepy. I’d wet my pants not take a photo. =)

  15. I’m not sure any of my first readers (um, family…friends…people I could convince to take a gander) ever ran away, screaming that their ears were bleeding–which only means I was at least smart enough to pick kind-hearted souls who didn’t want to crush my writer spirit. But even after penning seven books (two published, one about to be published, one waiting for a home, and three in revision), I still cringe when I read my own work. I no longer think everything I write is crap (and, actually, I do see flashes of brilliance on occasion), but I feel I still have a few books to go before the brilliance outweighs the bad. When that day comes, that’s when I’ll feel like I’m in the fold. I’ll no longer be looking in at all my sister authors who make it look so easy. Ten thousand words? I’m thinking (for me at least) it’s more like fifteen or twenty thousand.

  16. I hate that this is probably true–says she who is desperately trying to finish her first book. But the journey has been pretty OK, now that I think about it. Maybe I’ll just stay on the path. Thanks for the smiles on the way.

  17. This is a fabulous post! Too often, I see authors keep forcing their first book by revising and revising, rather just moving on to a second and third.

  18. Love the Monty Python riff! I’m glad I didn’t Indie publish until I’d written four books. I was able to go back and revise the first ones using what I’d learned. And I’m still learning. I think I’m supposed to learn patience in this lifetime. It’s not going well . . . 🙂

  19. I wrote three books and I know it was a damn sight less than 10,000 hours total.

    Wayyyyy less.

    Then again, the jury’s still out on if they are any good =)

    It takes me less than a thousand hours to have a finished book, so I guess I will need to write many more before I’m an ‘expert’.

    I don’t subscribe to the 10,000 hours concept because I know there are many who are ‘naturals’ who don’t need all that to be amazing, and there are those who would not get where they wanted even if they did every bit of that 10,000 hours.

    I will, however, follow the sage advice to keep writing. In the end, your finished projects will be your legacy, and are the only vehicle to notoriety.

  20. This is so true. Look at most of the “overnight” successes and you will see the huge amount of work they really put into it.

  21. I will remember these words when my current novel (the first I’ve finished) starts getting rejections. In the meantime, I’ll keep plugging along.

  22. I wish it only took me 14 months of writing to produce three books; I’m such a slow writer. I’m gonna be reeeeeally good when I finally finish book #3. 🙂

  23. I would certainly say it took three books before I felt I was good or knew what I was doing, but it was really more like this. I wrote a book, thought I was brilliant and then wrote two more and started two others. Went back to the first brilliant book reread it and thought OMG! I suck! This is garbage. I kept studying the craft and rewriting the book each time thinking I was brilliant and then learning more and realizing, I still would be horrified for the public to see the book. But eventually I started rereading after long breaks and thought, wow, this is quite good. Also, what I think helped me was helping others edit there books. As I learned more and more about the craft, it was still easier to spot issues in other writers books. But, then as I started spotting and fixing issues in other people’s writing it became easier to spot and fix those same issues in my writing.

  24. I have written four books … three of them are sitting on virtual dusty shelves in my computer files, and the fourth has recently been optioned for publication! Much of my learning has been because of all that writing (and the many other shorter stories I’ve written on the side), but I will say that some of it has simply come with age. My fourth book, coincidentally, was the first I finished after I turned 30, a time when I finally emotionally felt “grown up” and much more confident. I think that was a huge contributor to my success in finding a publisher for my fourth book. Thanks for the great (and very true!) reminders, Kristen! I always look forward to your posts!!

  25. Reblogged this on The Written Odyssey and commented:
    Good thoughts to those of us who need that push, and a bit of a reality check. Nice read.

  26. I love the Monty Python analogy 😉 The third book in my current series comes out next year and I’m hoping to build a larger following that will hopefully generate more sales afterwards. Hell, it might not even happen until Book 4. Patience is a hard-earned virtue. I cannot agree more with the advice provided by many authors who are now making a living as full-time writers: you ain’t gonna get better at this art form unless you practice. I would also add that you ain’t gonna get better unless you practice and have others professionally critique your work. I know my fans love my second novel more than my first. That’s because I’m a better writer today than I was last year. Had I not allowed that first baby into the world and learned from the comments in the reviews I received, I wouldn’t have sussed out my ‘bad writing habits’ and improved upon them. Like “stare”. There was a lot of “staring” going on in my first book. It’s a miracle no one lost an eye 😉 And “frowning”. Yep, many eyebrows were permanently crinkled during that adventure!

  27. I think this post is so true. I shelved three manuscripts, and my fourth became my recent debut novel, The 228 Legacy. I’m definitely a believer of the 10,000-hour rule. (Thanks also for the hilarious Monty Python excerpt.)

    From what I’ve heard, though, the breakout novel comes after the third *published* manuscript, so I have a few more books to go…

  28. Great, solid realistic advice. Do you think this works the same with fiction vs. non-fiction? Just wondering. I am not sure what kind of book I have in me but have been learning to blog over the last few months and see very clearly how my ability to go from inspiration, to post I’m proud of, in a much shorter amount of time. Now, 10000 hours? Wow, not even close to that but hey, you have given us all that pie-in-the-sky number that keeps us inching forward but with expectations in check…. Thanks!

  29. Thank you for a solid and realistic outlook on writing. I had kinda come to the understanding of this on my own but I do just love reading your advice. I’ve already taken so much from it and i give back to fellow authors who are just starting out. ANd i just love the tone of your works very conversational and light hearted.

  30. Yes, yes, and YES! And whenever people ask me how I learned to write or anything along those lines, I tell them the truth: I started writing for fun (outside of school) when I was 10 years old. TEN! And I never stopped. I wrote for fun, for escape, because I didn’t like the end of a movie (I rewrote a lot of movies), because I had a crush on a boy who didn’t know I existed, etc. etc. etc. I’m going to turn 40 next year. Yes, I’ve been writing for nearly 30 years. That’s three-quarters of my life. I also happen to be an advocate of writing fan fiction, but for practice purposes only, NOT to sell or retool to sell! Fan fic is like practicing scales to a musician. You get to work with character, setting, and ideas that have already been created and learn to stay true to a world. But I digress….

  31. You mentioned “Outliers” and the 10,000 hour rule. I hate the 10,000 hour rule – it’s so BIG and SCARY! And it may not be accurate – unless you have to be [insert name of best author ever]. There’s a TEDxTalk dealing with this question – the first time I watched it I felt so relieved. While I don’t think 20 hours of writing is enough to make anyone publishable, the real number is probably somewhere in between. Check it out.

    (If the link doesn’t work, search youtube for Josh Kaufman “The First 20 Hours”.)


  32. Loved the Monty Python bit. I could see the scene in my head as I read. I love it when that happens. 🙂

    • Marie Miller on September 16, 2013 at 10:37 pm
    • Reply

    You can never be reminded too often of the need to see down and write, and when you put it in that light, I can see why blogging becomes so important. I heard Bob Mayer paraphrase someone else. He said you have to write a million words before your writing reaches an acceptable standard. Just read comment from Jennifer Chow, a great true example of the 10,000 word theory.

  33. Are Gmail and Google+ still in operation? I cannot access my Gmail log in and Google+. You need a log in to contact tech support. I sent FACEBOOK messages for tech support, but Google and Google+ and Google Chrome did not reply for more than ten days. I have Windows 7. Any Internet savvy people out there who know what is really going on? Or is the Gmail log in no longer compatible with Windows? It might be better keeping FACEBOOK than switching to Google+ to succeed.

  34. That’s kind of reassuring because I don’t have the time to do the volume of facebook marketing required to get my (or… well… any) works to sell.

    I absolutely agree about the three book rule. The first book I published was the fourth book I’d written. On the other hand it was the first book I didn’t wish someone else had written. I’ve two out there now, I’m working on the third. It’s hard going.



  35. Great post, thanks for the wake-up call :). I think the rise of e-publishing has allowed a lot of people a lot of success, and a lot more quickly than before – but I think that many of the <10k-practice books that seem to have been published regardless will also sink into the swamp :). I don't wish the authors ill, but I do wish the readers and the industry the best.

    I'll confess I've had some not-brilliant books published – but then, aren't authors always dissatisfied with their performance. whatever the reviews? I know I am. I hope it keeps me on my toes, rather than just depressed LOL. But it's keeping me from moving on with a series next year. Maybe I need to look on that as my #4 break through! Thanks again.

  36. I wonder… are we becoming too obssessed with numbers? 10,000 of this… 1,000,000 of that. I find it hard to believe that one size fits all.l wonder what the scientific basis for the 10,000 hours or one million words theory is.

  37. Ten thousand hours, 4,000, or 20,000…it’s a fact that to perfect anything you need to work damned hard. I (like many others) tend to get caught up in the whole social media thang, where you attain a certain degree of “fame” and recognition – not to mention meeting and talking to a whole bunch of really cool folks. But yeah…if you really, really wanna be a writer – and a good one – shut off facebook, lock the door, and get writin’…
    Fantastic wake-up call, Kristen, and duly faced, blogged, twittered, pinned, linked, tumbled, and stumbled 🙂

    Thomas Rydder

  38. Oh I try and try but after work (isn’t it annoying how this working malarkee gets in the way all the time?) and staying fit, doing the shopping, tidying, cooking etc it really only leaves the weekend for writing. However, I am persevering and just last week started my very own blog (which i am still very excited about) to encourage myself to try and write every day so fingers crossed I am soon the proud owner of a completed novel!

    This is my first ‘visit’ to your blog but I will definitely be back! Thanks!

  39. I’ve heard this advice before, but not in relation to writing, but when I was a competitor in Karate Competitions. Practice truly does make you better and more successful. Great post.

  40. Interesting. I’ve heard about the 10,000 hours before. Have been told it takes anywhere from 4-10 books to gain you success or 3-9 years. Well, I have 9 novels out in just over 3 years, I’m pretty sure I’m over the million words and 10,000 hours, but, with the huge amount of books being published every year, it’s getting harder and hard to get noticed. Yes, I’m Indie, and have been pretty much since the beginning. I have several hundred fans on my FB page and Twitter, and I don’t do a huge amount of social media- being a farmer and author keeps me pretty busy. I pay a copy editor, so there goes most of my profits. But, I keep writing because some day, a spark will ignite and sales will really go off the charts. Have I been successful? I have one book that’s an award winner, another was a bestseller, and yet a another made it to #4 on Amazon. Yes, I think I’m successful enough, but I have higher aspirations. Will I get there? Only time will tell. Until then, I keep writing!

  41. The first novel that sold for me was the eighth one I’d written. I had agents for five of the others, and for three of them, editors who wanted to acquire (but were turned down by their editorial boards). I think that means I needed about 30,000 hours. Now my second is coming out in April. Or my tenth, if you count the one I wrote after my debut that wasn’t right for my publisher. But really, who’s counting 😉

  42. Thanks for the good advice. I just started a blog and my first book is set to come out and I’ve already started planning my second. I’m hoping you’re right and three is the charm.

  43. Oh, no. You just confirmed my worst fears:) Back to the keyboard I go!

    • J. K. Pendragon on September 17, 2013 at 11:47 am
    • Reply

    This is so true! I’ve written four books so far and am starting on the fifth, and the first three books were long, arduous and painful, like pulling teeth… But by the fourth book, something had changed. It wasn’t so difficult anymore, the words came out easy and I stopped feeling like my writing was falling short of my vision. I feel like I sort of know what I’m doing now (as much as can be expected anyway) and I find that I’m becoming much more prolific and professional as I go.
    It’s great to hear this and know that I’m on the right track and not way behind everyone else! This is a great, informative post, so thanks for writing it!

  44. My writing is more of a hobby than a profession, but even still I agree. It’s the practice and improvement that shows quality. Not ubiquitous social media promotions.

  45. Hmmmm… 10’000 hours, right? I feel I’m at hour # 9,990… it’s time… *sigh*

  46. That’s my marketing strategy for the time being, just keep writing. It seems to be working. 🙂

  47. What if your earliest work is so cringingly bad that you feel you will be supernaturally struck down if you have the hubris to count it as a book?
    Maybe I should set it on fire and chuck it in a swamp…

  48. I’d start with first principles…why on earth does ANYONE ever anywhere assume their book is going to be/should/deserves to be a best-seller? Most rational people who buy a lottery ticket (maybe that’s an oxymoron) don’t EXPECT to win because they are aware of the enormous odds against it, no matter how much they wish and hope and pray.

    Same with publishing.

    I’ve published (commercially) two NF books, both well-reviewed, and my proposal for the third is now out for submission. Is three the charm? I have to find a publisher, then I have to write a fantastic book and market the hell out of it and get a lot of media attention and great reviews and…will it become a best-seller? Who knows? Probably not. Would I enjoy it? Of course! But even thinking about that flies in the face of reason, fact and experience — as my friends working in the industry remind me.

    If that’s your goal, get a better goal. It’s way too unlikely and unrealistic.

  49. The bottom line is that writing is hard work, and the more you learn about writing, the more you realize just how much you don’t know. It’s like trying to get into shape, if you don’t exercise regularly, you can’t expect good results. If you don’t write on a regular basis, well, you probably will never fit into the skinny jeans of success – whatever that may be on your scale. I love the owl picture! Thanks for the laugh : )

  50. The odds are chilling I know, and even the price of a pack of butter might sound like an ambition too far, but I enjoy the dose of realism you provide. Steeling myself for setbacks as my first book moves towards publication

  1. […] How Many Licks, um Books, Does It Take to Get to the Top of the Best-Seller List? | Kristen Lamb&#82…. […]

  2. […] Image courtesy of The Dork Side Most of us, especially when we’re new, want our first short story to be a major contest winner or our first novel to be a runaway success. That’s natural. Of course, this is not reality for us mere mortals.  […]

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