In the past several days, I’ve had a lot of authors email me privately about the state of the industry (self-pub and otherwise. Most were pretty new writers and I found myself trying to say all of this to them, so I figured, maybe there are other writers out there who need to hear it too.
So this is not so much about the current scandal but more about the industry in general, particularly for newer writers who are like “wtf is wrong with this industry?” (and honestly, how much time do you have because we can sit down over tea)…and it’s my take as someone who’s been in this industry since fucking forever.
Or 18 years.
Dude, I used to send out SASE envelopes in order to get my rejections, okay? I come from the days where, if you didn’t get an agent, you didn’t get a publishing deal and therefore, your name never got a shot at recognition at all because you couldn’t just put your own book up and become a bestseller. Things today are both better and worse, which is kind of publishing in a nutshell.
So here goes. My version of Marge Piercy’s “For The Young Who Want To.” Let’s call this, “For those of any age who want to be a published author while trying to feed themselves and stay sane and that might not happen.”
A long time ago, an agent told me that trying to earn a living writing was about as safe and sane as gambling in Vegas for a living. I always keep that in mind, because I’m in this business because I love writing. That’s why I struggle with the business end of things but I’m willing to take it on because I’m grateful that I can be my own boss. I remember sitting down with a lawyer years ago to create a trust for my daughter–he looked at one of my very first publishing contracts and said, “Why would anyone ever sign anything like this? It’s horrible for the writer.” And I was like, “Yep, and I signed it because that’s the only way to get going in the direction I need to go in.” No literary lawyer would’ve blinked an eye at those contracts at the time. You do what you need to do in order to make your thing happen.
I’ve seen so many things come and go in this industry. I remember when self-published authors kicked the doors down and I was pretty grateful because again, I go to be my own boss and work in traditional publishing at the same time. And for me, like it is for many of you, writing is also healing. It’s my escape. My pure pleasure. I can’t not write.
Making a living writing and getting name recognition and growing a readership was always a crapshoot (I still think that it’s like less than 5% of authors ever sell more than 5K copies of their books over a lifetime) and it’s always going to be a crapshoot. And there are always going to be people who do anything in their power to get there, with scruples or without.
So keep in mind that just because someone’s got a formula to game the system, it doesn’t mean they’re always going to be able to do so, because the industry changes. Like, changes so fast you could get whiplash. Like,remind yourself that this too shall pass, and it might make things better or it might make you go, ‘remember the good old days when all we had to worry about were the Amazon algorithms?’
And it’s also about reminding yourself that people will buy a book a month from an author times a hundred, which means there are a shitload of readers out there! I mean, the amount of books I buy a month myself is staggering. So there’s a marketplace need.
It’s about knowing where you fit into the marketplace. Or where you can fit in. I always tell people (editors especially) to think of my work in movie terms, like The Expendables. I’m not going to win a shitload of awards and my writing is not gorgeous, but readers will get alpha males, sex, angst, sarcasm and lots of explosions in my books. That’s my wheelhouse and it can work within a wide-variety of stories that I can tell in my voice, and my voice makes my work different from anyone else’s.
So know your strengths and write to those. And try things that you don’t think are your strengths, but might be.
Fuck writing what you know–write what you want to read.
Remember that this entire business is built on risk, and you’re going to have to take a lot of them. Some will pan out and some will leave you sobbing in the corner. Even with a publisher behind you with a great marketing plan, your book can tank. No one knows what makes a book take off, thus, the gamble. Accept it and move on. We all start in the same place–with a first draft, wondering if it’s really any good. And honestly? It’s kind of cool when you think about it.
Don’t get so caught up in the drama that you lose your way. Like if you don’t get your writing done for the day or the week but you can tell people in great detail about the #CopyPasteCris scandal and you’re not one of the authors who was plagiarized who has to know all of the details (because holy fuck, I feel terrible for said authors), then you need to re-evaluate. You will survive without knowing all the shit that happens in great, exhaustive detail.
Don’t turn your head to look into the other lanes while you’re swimming ( or writing) because that will slow your finish down. You should be swimming as fast as you can, anyway, trying to break your own records, not other people’s.
Take a few minutes every once in a while to appreciate the good things that have happened in your career. Remember your first reader letter / email. Print that out and keep it where you can see it. Because anyone who’s had any level of success will tell you that the fear / worry / panic of this business grows right along with your career. It’s not like, “once XYZ happens, I’ll be set.” Trust me.
New opportunities open up constantly. New publishers will open. New ways to gain recognition will happen. The majority of authors in my genre are an amazing force when they rally together to get something done. And publishing will always be the wild west, as it were. Was? Were. (Where’s my editor?). You’ve got to survive and evolve. It’s always about taking a gamble, remember?
It’s not an easy business, it’s never going to be and it shouldn’t be. Not everyone’s going to succeed in the end, which makes it no different than anything else in life. If you still want to try, start by finding your people, the ones who will keep your secrets and let you bitch and moan to them for a short while before telling you to ‘forget it and go write.’ Remember, scandals come and go in this part of our world. So does the ability to make money. There’s always going to be something to shake your faith and rock your world and make you question why the fuck you do this.
Make sure the answer is, “because I love writing” … because that’s the only thing that makes all of this worth it in the end. As Marge reminds us, “Work is its own cure./ You have to like it better than being loved.“