I’ve been watching For the Love of Kitchens on the Discovery+ app. The show follows the work of the kitchen design studio of deVOL, in the UK.
It’s something my wife got me into—a sort of “visual comfort food,” watching a show that’s centered on designing and building one of the most used and most “publicly viewed” rooms of your home. We modern humans spend a lot of time in kitchens—the running joke in my family is that every party ends up in the kitchen and stays there.
Watching the show, it struck me just how similar the journey has been for the founders and owners of deVOL, in comparison to my own journey as an author. And by extension, I think it’s a relatable model for any author—a way to frame the journey from just starting to building something successful.
Basically, deVOL started with building simple but beautiful pine kitchens, and over time they were approached by clients who had seen things in magazines or on television, and wanted to know if deVOL could build something similar. And in the pursuit of adding to their catalog, they expanded their team—they partnered with and contracted and hired artisans and craft masters, people who have incredible skill and can produce fine things by hand. And eventually deVOL evolved from something modest to something profound, with multiple showrooms worldwide. It didn’t happen fast, it took a lot of time and effort and investment, but it happened. One kitchen at a time.
As authors, we have a similar opportunity, and similar needs. If we frame it in the right light, we’ll see a path forward toward our goals. And it won’t happen fast, but with time and effort and investment, it will happen. One book at a time.
Here are the lessons writers can take from the story of deVOL, as I see them:
Start Simple, Build Quality
When deVOL started business, it wasn’t with the grand, upscale designs, styles, and products they currently offer. It was pine cabinets, built to order. Simple, but something people wanted. And, more to the point, built to high standards.
Authors sometimes sweep into their writing careers with grand designs of their own. I’ve lost count of the number of will-be authors I’ve met or coached who wanted to write epic tomes of fantasy, but hadn’t yet written so much as a short story. Or the authors who want a bestselling series that dominates the New York Times, but haven’t written their first book.
Writing is a paradox—it’s simultaneously hard and easy.
Hard, because sitting down each day and applying discipline, coming back to the page every day even if we don’t feel like it, can be grueling. Existential crises have been built on foundations such as these.
But writing is also easy, in that it’s something we already know how to do, from a mechanical and practical standpoint. We’ve been doing it since grade school, after all. We know how to put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard and produce words.
The difference between these two perspectives comes down to discipline and work ethic and, above all, goals. It’s easy to write a quick note and stick it to the fridge, or to send a Tweet or text message. Easy. It’s harder to tell a story, and at that, one that readers will love.
Aside from developing the self discipline and work ethic to sit and face the existential-jumpstart that is the blank page, the two keys to writing a good story are “start simple” and “build quality.”
Starting simple means start with writing that comes easy, that comes naturally. Write what you love.
So often, writers want to pen the next big novel, the next thing to top the Oprah Winfrey reading list, the next USA TODAY bestseller. It is entirely possible that you could create a work like that, right out of the gate. There are thousands of tales of authors who did that—just wrote a book that resonated with readers. Usually, though, that book wasn’t their very first try, or the very first thing they ever wrote. It typically came after years of writing away in obscurity, practicing their craft (even if they weren’t aware that this was what they were doing).
To start simple means to focus more on the story you want to tell than on the end result you want to achieve. Stop thinking about accolades and awards and fat bank accounts and throngs of readers demanding autographs, and start thinking about how to improve your skills as a writer so you can tell the best story possible.
Which leads to the second secret—you should always aim to build quality.
The artisans and craftspeople at deVOL do not phone it in. They show up every day with their A game. They have spent years perfecting their skills, learning new techniques, sometimes even creating proprietary, secret formulas and methods to accomplish the beauty that is their craft.
You are an artisan as well. And if you want to build a writing career that leads to success, you accelerate that path by ensuring that you are building to the very best of your ability. Ensure that you are building quality—that you are crafting the book you are most capable of writing.
This does not mean that you should be pursuing perfection with every book. Far from it.
“Perfection is the enemy of [progress, done, good].” That phrase has been uttered from the likes of everyone from Winston Churchill to Steve Jobs, and the object changes from time to time. But the sentiment applies universally. Aiming for “perfection” is a guaranteed way to end with no book at all, or with a book that isn’t worth reading.
Don’t chase perfection. Flaws are often the most beautiful part of a diamond, and the same is true for literature and those who craft it. Celebrate your flaws. They’re your best feature.
Listen to Your Customers (Readers)
When deVOL was building pine kitchens, they started making a bit of a living. But when customers started asking for more, and deVOL listened, they started seeing success beyond anything they imagined.
This is not the oft maligned “chase the market” idea. It is, in fact, the much more misunderstood “write to market” approach. But more… much more.
The difference between chasing the market and writing to market is pretty simple:
Chasing the market means that every time a new, hot trend is churned from the presses, you’re on it. If sparkly vampires are in, then you write sparkly vampire books, even if your past work was all historic fiction. If steamy S&M tales are the in-thing, you dust off your literary whip and fur-clad cuffs and you get to writing.
Chasing the market means that you’re a slave to whatever is popular. And it’s a losing game. First, very few actual success stories were spun out of imitation.
True, readers do love reading “the next X.” They loved the book that launched the trend, so much that they’re willing to read nearly everything that looks anything like it.
The problem is, if you write only what’s “in,” sooner or later the trend shifts. And when you write the next “in” book, the readers you picked up earlier likely won’t follow where you go. They’re readers of X, and only want More X.
Chasing the market means you never actually build the coveted “author platform” that will sustain you to success in this business.
Writing to market is very different. It means that you’ve done a little footwork, done some research, and discovered two things: You like to write certain types of books and stories; and there are readers who like to read those types of books and stories.
Writing to market doesn’t mean you only write what’s “hot” or “in,” but that you do pay attention to trends. You watch to see what’s popular, and what’s getting sales. But instead of chasing those trends, you consider what it is you like or are most comfortable writing long term.
If sparkly vampires romances are in, that’s great. But if you’d rather write about sparkly alien romances, then what you have to determine is whether readers of one might be into the other. Is it the blood sucking and avoiding the sun that readers are after? Or is it some other element? What is it the reader is really after in those books?
Chances are it’s something simple (see above). Readers of sparkly vampire romances likely want the romance part, as well as some supernatural or unearthly element that can thrill and titillate them. Given that, your sparkly alien romance books could be a hit.
There’s a kind of compromise that happens with writing to market: You still write exactly the book you want to write, but you take the time to find out what it is the readers want, and you tailor your book to give it to them.
The other side of “listen to your customers” is equally simple: You should actually listen to your readers. And believe me, they will be more than happy to tell you what they think.
You’re going to get all kinds of mixed advice about reading and paying attention to reviews, or social media posts, or emails. Here’s mine:
Never let a review, social media post, or email dictate how you feel about yourself.
Remember, most people fire these things off with no thought whatsoever. And people can be cruel. Don’t tie your identity to the opinions of others, it’s just a fast route to hating yourself.
But that doesn’t mean these things have no value.
Something I look for in reviews and other communications from readers is commonalities. If dozens of readers are pointing out that my books are full of typos, it’s time for me to invest in some proofreaders. If readers are saying I’m too repetitive about a given idea or concept, it’s time to do some developmental editing. If readers tell me I’m too repetitive, it’s time for developmental editing.
The point is that you should always maintain some awareness of what readers are telling you about a book. Treat emails from readers as the gold that they are—respond to every email, be grateful and courteous and kind. Yes, even when they’re being jerks.
Don’t let their opinions shape who you are, but start watching for common feedback that you can use to improve on your books.
And if readers are asking for something—nay, perhaps demanding something—take that as the grand prize for authors! If readers are asking for audiobooks, or asking for a story to focus more on a certain character or event, or asking for short stories, these are all very good things to consider adding to your own catalog. Give your readers that overhead cabinet or copper faucet or gas range they’re wanting, and they’ll be amazed at the literary kitchen you’ve given them.
Find the Best Help
One of my favorite things about For the Love of Kitchens is how deVOL has built relationships with so many astonishingly talented people. Every episode focuses as much on the people who make deVOL what it is as on the design of the kitchen they’re featuring. And every artisan they employ has spent years perfecting their craft.
There’s a definite lesson there for authors, and it’s one that I haven’t always paid attention to myself. But the point of posts like this is we all grow, even the guy writing it. So here’s the lesson…
As an author, you are not alone in this work.
We think of writing as a solitary activity, and it really is. We spend hours with just ourselves and our creations for company. We tend to create the initial work in something of a vacuum. It can’t be avoided. Even in collaborations, at some point it’s just you and the words.
In his incredible memoir-esque writing guide, On Writing, Stephen King gave some advice that I have incorporated into my career for more than two decades:
“Write with the door open, edit with the door closed.”
This advice came with the story of King’s home office, which was a fancy space with a huge oak desk, where he could close the door and “get it done.” But he discovered, as many do, that writing in such an isolated space usually ends with the writing becoming dull and tedious and uninspired. He opened the space up for his kids, pushed the desk off to the side, and started writing around and through and alongside the activity of his home.
He seems to have done alright.
Authors have discovered and rediscovered this over the centuries. In the 1920s, there was an expat movement of American authors in Paris, with the likes of Hemingway and Fitzgerald and Stein all frequenting Paris cafes and bars (mostly bars), writing and sharing their work with each other. They were brutally judgmental and unfailingly critical and honest. And the work produced during that period was legendary.
Community is a big deal. The self published community is one like I’ve never experienced at any other point in my life. And because of that community, I’ve continued to grow as an author. Meeting and chatting with and working alongside other authors has taught me more than any writing course I ever took. It’s invaluable.
Along with a community of writers, you should build about yourself a team of people who can help you to make your books the highest quality they can be. Proofreaders, developmental editors, cover designers, marketing experts—you should be continuously on the lookout for true artisans in their fields, and go to great lengths to befriend and recruit them.
This won’t happen overnight. And you do not need a team before you launch your first book, or even your hundredth book. The team comes as you grow. You meet people in the course of this work, attending a conference or going to a meetup or having drinks with friends in a bar. Look for talent and skill, and then approach those people to ask how you might work together. Sometimes you won’t. But sometimes you will.
What impressed me about deVOL was that the owners look for talent and inspiration outside of their space, and when they see something or someone that resonates with them they put all their energy into making that a part of deVOL. If they meet a craftsman they want to work with, they start talking. Eventually the two find some middle ground. Or they don’t—you won’t get to work with just anyone you meet and admire.
The key is to make yourself and your work something that is as attractive to your “team” as they are to you. Show people that you are out to make something great, and that you hope they’ll agree to be a part of it, and you’ll find soon enough that you have access to everyone and everything you need.
Pursue great accomplishments first and only, and greatness will come to you as well.
It isn’t over for deVOL. They’ve reached great success, but they are constantly keeping their eyes open and roving. They are always looking for the next thing, the next challenge, the next opportunity.
You should be as well.
Writing a book is hard/easy, as we discussed. But most authors can’t build a career on one book. If your dream is to build a successful author career, you should be thinking about the next book. And the one after that. And the one after that.
You should be thinking, “How can I develop a better launch strategy for the next book?”
You should be thinking, “How can I streamline editing and proofreading?”
You should be thinking, “How can I get these books translated into other languages, or narrated as audiobooks?”
The truth is, there may not be a way to accomplish any of those things right now. But keeping those questions in mind is how you keep your eyes open for opportunities that come along.
Opportunity is the key. Knowing it, seeing it, and putting it to work is how you grow and succeed. It’s true of kitchen designers, it’s true of authors, it’s true of life.
Keep building. Determine that you are in this for the longest of long hauls, and keep building. Every brick you lay is one more done, and the wall gets that much higher. The house you’re building goes up one brick, one book, at a time.
And every house needs a beautiful kitchen. It’s where the party always ends up.