After falling into and subsequently climbing out of another bout of depression, some things about this crazy profession called “writing” occurred to me. After all, there are a lot of myths out there about us writers. That, say, we’re famous, or untouchable savants sitting on top of a tower of genius, or that one book separates the average writer from fortune and fame. Those and many more. The thing is that, while there is some truth to all of those things — we’ve all heard of Stephen King and J.K. Rowling and Stephanie Meyers, all three of whom are filthy rich, famous, and the first is widely considered a genius in his field — most of us writers are folks like me. That is to say, we’re bumbling along, struggling to write around day jobs (or struggling to find a day job), hoping some day to catch that big break that allows us to sit in our luxurious manner house all day, pounding out the next Great American Novel.
…yeah, about all that. Not gonna happen.
Don’t get me wrong, you CAN find success in this business. This isn’t some bitter polemic, and I’m far from an expert. Shoot, I don’t even have a book published at the moment; the two I did have up, I took down due to quality concerns (but more on that later). So, like anything else, take what is useful out of this mess and leave the rest. Without further ado, here are some harsh truths about writing I’ve learned both through personal experience and by watching others who are way, way more successful at this than I am.
1) Writing is a Business
It’s right in the title, so you knew this one was coming. Yes, writing is art and fun and wonderful, but if you want to “make it” as an author, you have to also look at it as a business. I don’t really believe in writing for the market, because fiction is notoriously hard to market, and what you write now could be out of vogue when it comes time to publish. You should write what you enjoy. If you like sparkly vampires involved in hackneyed, possibly abusive romances with underage girls, write stuff like that. I like fantasy and horror, so I write that. Be that as it may, this is still a business. You still have to do marketing, accounting, and all that good stuff. If you go through a traditional publisher, you’ll have some support, but if you choose to self pub, you’ll have to take care of all that on your own. Writing is not the glamorous, romantic profession people think it is; it’s as muddy and messy as any other, and there is a lot of drudgery involved.
2) Speaking of Traditional vs Self Publishing….
Lots of digital ink has been spilled on Traditional v. Self Publishing. The truth is that both have their pros and cons, and neither one is a guarantee of fame and fortune. The rule of thumb is that with traditional publishing you get more support from a publisher in terms of marketing, sales, editing, and all that good stuff, but get a smaller share of royalties. Self Pub nets you higher royalties, but you are in charge of everything from cover design to wrangling an editor to tracking sales and, of course, the dreaded marketing. The fact is that the bulk of authors, no matter what method they pick, don’t make enough to quit their day job. Most traditionally published books don’t earn out their advances, and most self published books only net a few hundred sales, if that.
3) Oh, and No Matter Which You Pick, It’s Going to Take Forever
“Forever” being a relative term. I mean, it isn’t going to take until the end of the universe to get a book completed. When you’re as impatient as I am, it might FEEL that way, but trust me, that’s just your monkey brain babbling. Try to ignore it. The sad fact is that it takes a really long time to produce a high quality novel. You might, if you work really hard and learn the craft, or happen to hit on a good idea, produce something really good your first try. And that’s great if you do that. But it doesn’t end with draft one. There’s revisions to be done. You have to polish book up until it’s so shiny it makes your eyes bleed. That takes a lot of time — a friend of mine said it takes about 14 months, on average, to produce a novel from start to finish. Then there is one of two paths you can take. You can farm it out to an agent, and then IF you find one, they’ll try to sell it to a publisher. Most likely it will end up in the slush pile with all the other hopefuls, but just maybe you will get a deal and be published. However, this could take several years time; the publishing industry works on its own schedule, not yours.
If you chose self publishing, the process is a lot faster. The accessibility of self pub is both its strength and its Achilles Heel. Remember when you had your masterpiece all super shiny in the above paragraph? Well, good as it might look to you, there are mistakes in there. The little buggers multiply like rabbits, I swear. Anyway, the point is you need another set of eyes, preferably more than one, to look over it and fix your boo boos. There are a lot of different ways you can go about doing this; if you’re on a limited budget and can’t afford the equivalent of buying a used car (the going cost of many freelance editing services), you’re going to have to get creative. You could pester a friend with an English degree into submission, or offer them Ramen money in exchange for editorial services. Whatever. The point is, that once you reach this point, you’re involving other people, and you have to work with their timetables, not yours. And it is going to take time. A lot of it. The best thing to do is focus on your next project, and write, write, write! You can control what you do, not what other people do. So focus on what you can do today to move yourself forward toward your goals.
4) So You’ve Put in All That Time and Effort…Now For the Big Pay Off!
…whoa now. Hold on a second. Remember how I said that there is no guarantee that self pub or trad pub are going to net you fame and fortune on par with the Rowlings or Kings of this world? Yeah. You can do EVERYTHING right, and still tank miserably. You could have a great book, a sound marketing strategy, and a great support team, but the fact is that not everything is going to sell. The first book you publish isn’t likely to make a killing. Most writers who are successful, especially in self pub, have a pretty huge back list. It takes a lot of time to build that up, and even that is still not a guarantee. There ARE no guarantees. Sure, working hard can go a long way toward making you successful, but the universe isn’t going to crap out a golden goose just because you did everything “right”. Go tell some poor farmer in sub-Saharan Africa that if she works hard and pays her dues, she’ll make it some day. Or perhaps tell that to some kid working in a sweat shop over in China. The fact is, for centuries people have performed back breaking labor for a pittance, and never gotten anywhere for it. You aren’t any different.
5) Now That I’ve Completely Crushed Your Spirits…
…I know, that last one was harsh. Want a hug? *squeeze*…okay, now that that’s done, let’s do a bit of spirit rebuilding, shall we? We don’t want things to end on a note of doom and gloom, because that’s not my intention. I’ve tossed around the word “success” a lot during this post, but what does that mean, exactly? Frankly, that’s up to you. That’s what is cool about all of this: you can sit there, read everything I just wrote, and ignore it completely, if you want. That is because if your definition of writing success is: “Finish a novel and let a few friends read it,” or “Just have something published,” then most of what I said up until now doesn’t apply to you. If you are content that your books sales cover your car payment each month, more power to you. The real secret to success is to ENJOY what you are doing. If you don’t enjoy writing, what is the point in doing it in the first place? So what if you make a crap load of money doing it, if it’s all drudgery and frustration? I mean, if you don’t have a deep passion for writing you probably won’t make it very far anyway, but still.
Never forget why you started to write in the first place. Don’t let sales figures or notions of “success” cloud your vision for yourself. If you do want to make a living at the writing game, don’t deceive yourself by thinking that you’ll make millions right out the gate. The fact is, you won’t. But that’s okay, because most of us don’t NEED that much to be comfortable. If you write well, work smart, and figure out what works for your unique situation, it is possible to make a decent living doing something you love to do. I’ve come across people who have done it, and that is what I want for myself. That, to me, sounds like the definition of success.