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Overnight success takes years of work, just like bamboo takes years before it sprouts. Whether self publishing or seeking a deal, patience is a cornerstone for success as an author.

Imagine you’re a farmer planting seeds in fertile soil. You take tender loving care of these seedlings, constantly weeding, watering and fertilizing your starts. And then you wait for the first signs of life. And you wait… for five years.

Yes, that’s right. Half a decade. Welcome to the life of the bamboo farmer. Even with perfect care and maintenance, you won’t see any progress. You won’t even be sure if they’re still alive down there.

It occurs to me that self publishing can be a lot like growing bamboo. Over the last few weeks I’ve gotten a number of letters from authors who are…well, to sum it up in one word: discouraged. They’ve watered the “seeds” of their literary career in the same way. They have:

  • Self Published their book – in some cases multiple books.
  • Sought out and hired professional editing for their manuscript.
  • Hired a professional cover artist to design a great cover.
  • Completed many of the BookPromo tasks we give to all BB author including promotion on GoodReads, gaining free book reviews and more.

And yet, like the patient bamboo farmer, these authors are not seeing signs of life in their literary efforts. They’re writing to me, asking for advice and ideas to help them get started. My response? I tell them about the “overnight success” of the bamboo farmer.

As the story goes, an inexperienced, would-be bamboo farmer is confronted with a difficult choice: He’s so tired of waiting for the plant to sprout, and he is growing discouraged. If he digs up the plants to check on them – well, he’ll kill the seedlings.

Meanwhile the experienced, successful bamboo farmer continues to care for her seeds. Day in, day out, even when she’s discouraged. Even when she suspects it’s futile.

Then, after five years of labor and faith in something she can’t see, she’s rewarded with the miraculous “overnight” growth. Some species of the plant can grow a staggering three feet in a 24-hour period and ultimately reach over 100 feet in height!

But did all that growth really happen overnight?

To anyone besides the farmer, it’s quite easy to say “yes,” as the apparent growth seemed to happen in just a few short days. But none of that growth could have happened without the farmer’s faith and consistent action, day after day, to nurture something that was still developing — even though she couldn’t see it.

It’s easy for authors to get frustrated when something isn’t happening immediately, or at the pace that you’d like it to happen. Reading of the “overnight success” of self pubbed authors like E. L. James or John Locke only adds to the angst.

When we get frustrated, and we don’t see the results we want, it’s easy to give up. Like abandoned bamboo seeds, our writing dreams can die in the ground before they ever have a chance to sprout. We think to ourselves…

“What’s the difference? My books aren’t selling. I wasn’t making progress anyway.”

But you would be wrong. It’s at this stage of your writing career that you may need to redefine what qualifies as “progress.” Despite a lack of sales – or even notice – every writer who has contacted me has experienced:

  • Improvement as a writer. It’s inevitable that the second book is better than the first. The third book is better still. As you improve and perfect your craft, the results will follow.
  • Increased knowledge of the self publishing world. The hard knocks they’ve experienced have often provided valuable experience to build on. Reading all of the great self publishing blogs out there – including our own BookBaby Blog – are helping to teach writers about the self publishing business.
  • New connections and friendships. I’m happy to note that the author community is a very giving bunch. There are dozens of forums where authors can exchange tips and ideas. Even famous authors at the top of the food chain such as Hugh Howey and J A Konrath are happy to share their thoughts, opinions and even sales results.

This part of growth as a self published author constitutes part of the constant improvement that can form the path to your end goal. It might mean you won’t be able to see every step towards the end of your journey. The successful self published authors will have this mindset and dogged determination to help you keep moving forward.

If you quit doing the little, incremental improvements that add up to a big difference, you’ll have nothing to look back on after five years. If there’s one thing to be learned from bamboo, it’s that patience + persistence (with the right things) = growth.

Remembering this on a daily basis will make it easier to push through, even when things get tough. One day, without warning, your efforts will spout and that “overnight success” will suddenly be yours.


The Complete Self-Publishing Package


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Steven Spatz

About Steven Spatz

Steven Spatz has written 98 posts in this blog.

Steven Spatz is an author, marketer, and the President of BookBaby.

15 thoughts on “Why self publishing is a lot like growing bamboo

  1. thomas says:

    Thanks, I’m mentally there right now,I just took my tennis coaching business online and I need to pay the biils, will keep the faith and keep on writing,

    Great work too.

  2. I learned in business school that the rule of thumb when starting a business is don’t expect to take one penny from the business for the first 3 years. And if you can’t live with that, then you need to rethink opening a business. I see businesses, especially restaurants, open and close inside a year and I know they went into it expecting to be able to take money out too soon. So,the plan? Keep on keeping on. Thanks for the great reminder and bamboo farming lesson!

  3. Thank you! I am sitting on the couch, it is raining and I kept flicking between Facebook, my Amazon sales graph and what I should be doing which is writing my new book. Only thing is I was having a ‘what is the point and why am I doing this?’ morning. Your blog was just the tonic to get typing.

  4. Another humbling and expensive process or service an indie writer has to take the time on is fact checking. I think you mean Bonsai, not Bamboo.

    Bamboos are some of the fastest-growing plants in the world,[4] due to a unique rhizome-dependent system. Certain species of bamboo can grow 88.9 Centimeters within a 24-hour period, at a rate of 3 cm/h (a growth of approximately 1 millimeter (or 0.02 inches) every 2 minutes) ( )
    Growing Bonsai from tree seeds can be very rewarding and gives you full control from the earliest stage possible. Although it takes a long time (at least three years) before you have a tree you can start working on ( )
    Maybe you’re thinking about a different type of bamboo but the fiction/non-fiction marriage used to try to explain real-life to writers was distracting for me.

    1. Steven Spatz says:

      Hello Joe – Thanks for your comment! While I agree with you about the slow and painstaking growth with bonsai, my post about the slow-then-rapid growth of bamboo does hold true for self published authors. My point remains: The frustrating time of authors – and bamboo farmers – is after they plant those first seeds. Many seeds never germinate at all – and many authors’ books never go anywhere either. The seed that do survive are growing – but only beneath the ground, spreading roots and tendrils out horizontally. It takes years for some of these plants to finally break through the surface. The same can be said for the dedicated author who continues to improve their writing and book promotion. As my post describes, bamboo does indeed shoot up at amazing rates. And so can an author find unexpected growth – thanks to the their hard work and dedication invested despite a lack of visible progress. FYI: My background is actually in agri-business as a 3rd generation pear grower and the time it takes to grow/graft a commercially viable pear tree used to be just as daunting.)

  5. Sandra Savell says:

    Thank you! I self publsihed my first book in January and have been told by other SP authors that I am doing above average. I just never expected it to be an all consuming job. Going back at it with all I have….renewal…Yay!

  6. Indy says:

    Thank you for this, Steven. It came at a perfect time for me. I’m at that five year mark. Have an agent and have come painfully close to getting picked up by NY houses numerous times. I’ve taken the advice of my agent and just kept writing, so now I have three novels completed and edited. This year I have watched all my writer friends self-publish or use a vanity press (many are calling themselves hybrid publishers) to get their first books out there to the world…while mine languishes on my hard drive. I was ready to throw in the towel and independently publish. But something keeps me trying for a traditional book deal. Maybe because it’s been my dream for so many years. Then my agent and I decided to take my first (revised) novel back out. Five houses have asked to read it. When a writer acquaintance, and NYT Best Selling Author, discovered one of the houses who asked to read it represents him, he offered to blurb the book. All this in the last month! So I’m not giving up yet. I’ll keep remembering that bamboo. And I’ll remind myself that it took four years for my business to take off and become profitable – and now I have trouble keeping up! Thanks again for the inspiration!

  7. Glade Swope says:

    Some wish that it was as easy as growing bamboo. Many are struggling with trying to stop their bamboo from growing. Ever seen live bamboo siding?

  8. Thanks a lot on this article. I was almost getting discouraged, but your piece has rekindled my hope to stay on

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