While my efforts to post more articles about writing on this site have been less fruitful than I had originally hoped, I came across this article on Slate yesterday. To get to the letter I’m talking about you need to scroll down a bit. Seeing as that letter is directly relevant to the state of the writing industry today, and it seems to be alluding to misconceptions that a lot of writers and would-be writers have, I figured it was worth sharing with some comments.
While he has a full-time job, my boyfriend considers himself a writer first. He’s had shorter works published and just spent two years on his first novel. He sent the first chapter to numerous publishers only to get rejections or no response at all. He’s just gotten rejected by the one publisher who asked to read the whole novel. Each rejection is painful to him, and the whole thing has left him devastated and questioning his passion. I’m trying to be supportive but don’t know enough about the industry to offer helpful advice. Given the state of publishing nowadays, I always thought it may be a long shot even though he’s talented. He was just starting on a second novel but says he’s giving up if this first one doesn’t go anywhere — that it’s not worth the time and effort. What’s the best way for me to support him through this, and is there any advice you’d give to him?
First off, my advice is to read this from 2004, this from 2013, and this from 2015. The general trend of the industry should be evident – the money in writing has basically been going away for the last twenty or so years. These articles are all written by people more successful than I am in the writing industry, and even for those folks, it’s tough going.
My first book, Arcana, was published in 2009. It did what most new novels do – it produced a flurry of sales when it came out, and then the sales rank dropped like a stone. Mastering the Mystical Heptarchy and Mastering the Great Table have actually done better over the years, and continued to do better, despite their niche subject area. One of the things that I didn’t understand at the outset is that even though there is a much bigger market for fiction, essentially every fiction book has to compete against every other. The Enochian books do better because there aren’t many books on Enochian magick, especially compared to fiction.
Slate’s Dear Prudence recommended that the boyfriend in the letter should find an agent. I suppose that might help – if it works. The trouble with submitting work to agents is that it’s just like submitting work to publishers. Most of them will reject you, too, for frustrating but understandable reasons such as your work not really fitting market conditions at the time of submission. So there’s a good chance that submitting to agents rather than publishers will just lead to another round of rejections for this poor guy. I’ve submitted to agents myself and still don’t have one, after seven years and three published books in print.
Still, as the first article there from 2004 shows, the problem with agents, especially today, is that they take a cut of the already not-very-much-money that you make writing. Unless you’re sure that you have a real bestseller on your hands, it may not turn out to be worth it. No matter how sure you are, and – this is important – no matter how good a writer you are, that’s hard to predict. Most readers have trouble distinguishing good writing from great writing, and many even have trouble telling good writing from mediocre writing. A survey of popular books from the last ten years will show you that quality is really not the deciding factor. Market forces are.
So why write? You have to do it because you love it, full stop. And yes, you have to have a full-time job unless you are unbelievably lucky or independently wealthy. And luck is what sales are about – it’s very difficult to predict how the market will react to a book, if not impossible. Dan Brown’s first three novels didn’t even sell 10,000 copies, but then his fourth was The Da Vinci Code, which sold 81 million copies making it one of the most popular books of all time. Brown’s work is hacky, kind of cliche, and not particularly literary – but now that he’s hit the jackpot, everything he writes (of course) sells very well.
The big secret about publishers now is that they basically do no promotion for your work – besides some straightforward online stuff you can do yourself – unless you’ve proven yourself successful enough to warrant it. And that’s a big chicken-and-egg problem, because you essentially only get promotional resources once you no longer need them. That’s a big problem for authors who are just starting out, and it was already a big problem seven years ago. Sometimes I wish I would have gotten off my butt and finished Arcana sooner (it was a rewrite of a novel that I first completed in 1989) because at that time, publishers were more engaged with promotion. But still, all that depended on getting the book accepted in the first place.
I don’t know if this is where the boyfriend in the letter is coming from – it’s hard to say from a secondhand account, edited into an article. But if he is working on writing novels with the goal of “making it” as a writer and being able to do it full time, he probably is doing it for the wrong reasons – especially in this day and age. I can only think of a couple writers who are able to do it full time without holding another job, and none of them are rich or even that well-off. Once I realized this, I was very happy to have done as well as I have as a software developer. The writing helps too, since being a developer who can also write has opened a lot of doors.
My advice is pretty simple. You have to love what you write, because otherwise it’s usually not worth doing from a strictly financial point of view. Statistically speaking, you’re not going to be the next J. K. Rowling or Dan Brown regardless of how well you write. And unless you break into that upper upper tier, you are probably going to be able to make better money doing something else. It used to be that mid-list writers with established fan bases, coming out with a book a year, could make maybe $20,000 per year. These days, it’s more like $10,000 – not even minimum wage.
Second, look into small indie presses and consider self-publishing. Indie presses will give you a bigger royalty cut than the big publishers will, it’s easier to get your work accepted, and big publishers won’t do much promotion for you anyway. Self-publishing requires you to learn a few more skills like formatting ebooks and putting everything together for printing, but you get all the profits – and I will point out that popular self-published books do sometimes get picked up by big publishers if they do well.
Fifty Shades of Grey started out as Twilight fanfiction, then was self-published with “Edward” and “Bella” changed to “Christian” and “Anastasia,” and “vampire” changed to “billionaire,” and after that was picked up by a big publisher. Now there are movies. So it can happen, even with a book that by traditional writing standards is just plain awful. But it’s highly luck-based and very hit-or-miss. If the right people happen to get ahold of your book, and they happen to like it, even a self-published title can do very well.
Me, I’m still writing in the Indie-publishing space. Ipswich, the second novel in my Guild series, is going to be released by Moonfire Publishing, a new publishing startup here in the Twin Cities, sometime this next spring. We’ll see if it does better than Arcana. It’s always possible that it might go through the roof, and all of a sudden turn Arcana into the bestseller it never was when it was originally released – but I’m not holding my breath.
It does take longer to get books written when writing is essentially a second job, but these days it’s pretty much unavoidable unless you hit it big. The first draft of Ipswich was written back in 2011, five years ago. I’ve been tinkering with it ever since. Mastering the Thirty Aires, the final book in my Enochian trilogy, is still not finished, even though Pendraig would be happy to publish it as soon as it’s done. That’s kind of frustrating, I won’t lie, but it’s necessary. There are only so many hours in the day.
To some extent, I would say that my feelings about writing are like filmmaker Werner Herzog’s famous quote about the jungle – “I love it, but I love it against my better judgment.” At the same time, there are other hobbies I could be pursuing that would make me no money at all, and even incur significant expenses. Really, that’s what it usually has to be – more of a hobby than a vocation. And I don’t know what would have to happen in order to fix the industry and make it a place where you could earn a living by writing books. The current trend has been in place for a long time, and shows no signs of abating.