I’ve been pondering writing this for a while, and a recent post in another thread was a good kick in the pants to do it. This is a message not just for those who actually published a CoG or HG title that met with few purchases and/or dismal storefront reviews, but anyone who has ever put out their WIP thread only to get 55 thread likes and a wholly insufficient amount of feedback posts. And this isn’t meant as an attack or dig at anyone; I think that should be fairly apparent since I consider myself someone this whole message applies to, but I wanted to make sure it was mentioned. Hopefully this helps ease your mind a bit and put a positive spin on a difficult experience.
Unpopular isn’t necessarily unsuccessful.
Depending on what you want to accomplish with the story, it can still be a huge success without critical acclaim or much in the way of renumeration. For my first story, Nuclear Powered Toaster, my main goal was to finish it by the contest deadline. I knew I could do it if I tried despite the short timeframe, and it was incredibly important to me because I’d never actually been able to complete any longform fiction at all after a decade and a half of trying in one form or another. And…I did it! I overcame self-doubt and wrote 160,000 words in a little over half a year. I told myself this was the goal and anything after that was gravy. Which is good, given that it didn’t place in the competition, and when it was eventually released it received mediocre reviews and a painfully small amount of purchases. It is unquestionably an unpopular game. But it is not unsuccessful, because it accomplished what I set out for it to do, to break that mental block that had kept me from finishing anything all these years. So if this game or WIP you made that wasn’t well-received had a personal meaning for you above riches and glory, then hold on to that. Cherish it. Because no one can take it from you. And if it didn’t have a higher meaning, well, go on to #2.
Failure is the best teacher. Every unpopular story teaches you something: it shows what the readership does not want. If your goal is acclaim or riches, now comes the relatively easy part: just do not-that. Sure, if the criticism you got was mostly “you should be a better writer”, improvement may seem tough, but that’s usually not what a lot of negative reviews say (and even if it is, there’s always classes and such for that sort of thing, or simply looking at those who are regarded as ‘better’ writers and seeing what they do that you currently don’t, or vice versa). If the reviews focused on your story being railroaded, make an effort to increase choices. If you lacked customization, make sure your protags and major characters are much more blank at the beginning to let players imprint on them and customize to their heart’s content. If you published in an unpopular genre, well, don’t do that. The holy trinity here is fantasy, supernatural and superheroes. They are crowded genres, so you’ll have to work to stand out, but they come with a built-in audience that other genres lack. If you didn’t have romance and feel comfortable, add that too and make sure it’s fleshed out, that’s a solid way to boost your chances at success. Odds are if your story was unpopular, you lacked a lot of feedback during the beta phase, but this is your chance to make up for that. Each review (barring the obvious troll ones or those complaining about things you cannot change, such as app glitches or having to pay for the full story) provides you valuable intel to incorporate into your future writing for maximum appeal. I know for me, it was NPT that helped me hone Parenting to be better than it ever would have if I had created it first.
And there’s one other major thing you can do to help your odds of future success and let you rise like a phoenix from the ashes…
When it comes to word count, less is not more. More is more. When I did the data dive earlier this year (link: Hosted Games Data Sheet: For All You Number Nerds Out There ), one of the most amazing things to see was that even though everyone knew how much word count mattered, it was an even bigger element to success than I could have guessed. Not necessarily that a high one guarantees success (although it doesn’t hurt), but that a small one can almost guarantee failure. Readers have gotten a bit spoiled, and at this point, I have one major piece of advice for anyone planning on putting out a standalone story under 100,000 words in length: DO NOT DO IT
Why? Because, aside from older stuff when standards were more lax, or the rare outlier like Aether, stories under 100k bomb on the regular. Being free helps some, but not enough. If your desire is success, make the effort and get that count over the 100,000 mark. It’ll be worth your while.
But let’s say you don’t want to fatten up word counts and force yourself to write kissy-kissy scenes in marketable genres just to earn extra cash or please the faithful. In that case, go on to #4.
If you don’t want to change to be successful, then don’t. But be happy where you are.
Not every author has to be a best-seller. If you’ve got enough fulfillment from those non-measurable elements of writing that were mentioned in point #1 that it sustains you, well, then rock and roll. Because for the vast majority of authors here, the money will never be such a high amount that it justifies torturing yourself to get it. You’re better off making a very small amount of money and enjoying yourself than increasing both the dollar figure and the level of dislike you have for what you have created.
However, you may be tempted to get the best of both worlds. To try and make your ugly duckling beloved by the masses through advertising, tireless shilling, and other methods, sure that if you can just get more people to read it, it will turn into a swan after all. That brings me to my last point, and perhaps the most painful.
You can will a story into existence, but you cannot will it into popularity.
Simply put, release is a big deal for these games, and pretty much all other games or books too. If it flopped hard at release, do not fall into the trap of trying to get more reviewers or readers to it for months or even years on end as some have. Don’t move forward with your sequel plans simply because you think the next entry can rehab the first. It’s not impossible, but the odds against it would make even the most reckless gambler cringe. Accept your losses and move on, spending your time creating a new story that will be able to succeed on its own merits (or happily writing unpopular stuff and not sweating whether you ever get mass appeal) instead of constantly trying to get a second chance at a first impression. You’ll be happier, since you’re not constantly getting your disappointment refreshed like an overactive web browser, and the time you spent creating something new instead of obsessing over something old and dead is going to be both more productive and better for your mental health.
So, that’s it. If this can help at least one person feel a bit better about not soaring to the top of the charts, it’ll be well worth it. Feel free to chime in with any other suggestions, feedback or positive affirmations to help out those that might need it.