Saturday, December 13, 2008

Writing: The Temporary Career

I'm not going to name names in this post. Partly because it would be mean. Partly because I'm only speculating on the reasons why, and have no real proof.

But I still wanted to talk about something that's rampant in the word of publishing. It's also rampant in other media like radio, TV, movies, and music.

It's Where Are They Now Syndrome.

The scariest thing about WATNS is how quickly it seems to occur. When my first novel, Whiskey Sour, was published in 2004, I did as much self-promotion as I could. Going to writing conventions, signing at bookstores and libraries, I met dozens of writers who also had new books out. Some were debut authors, like me. Some were veterans who seemed like they'd be around forever.

But here it is, a scant four and a half years later, and I can name more than thirty of these authors who didn't publish anything in the past year, and in some cases the past two years.

This boggles my mind.

While everyone is aware of the transitory nature of fame (it's particularly noticeable in Hollywood where A list actors fade into B list actors, and B list actors sometimes have a huge hit that makes them A list) I actually never thought it applied to writers as well.

Well, it does. With one major difference. When you're considered a B list author, you can't even give your work away. There's no straight-to-DVD or movie-of-the-week option like there is for actors who used to be Somebody. There are some smaller presses, yes. And while a lot of them are terrific, their lack of major distribution dollars means even smaller numbers for writers who once were published by the major houses, which means the major houses will be even less likely to give these writers another shot.

In thinking about this phenomenon, I was tempted to rationalize why so-and-so hasn't had a book deal in a while. Yes, numbers follow authors. But maybe there are other reasons too.

Perhaps some authors decided they just didn't want to write anymore. Perhaps some veered off into different territory and couldn't find a home for it. Perhaps some wanted to write, but were out of ideas. Perhaps there were extenuating circumstances like sickness, or some personal or family tragedy. Perhaps some simply take a very long time to write a book. Perhaps work or some other aspect of real life got in the way.

Perhaps.

And yet, knowing what a struggle it is to find an agent and get published, it seems odd that so many writers--writers I did signings with only four years ago--would let anything prevent them from writing. This profession requires dedication and sticktoitivness, and the lessons learned early on in the career when rejections are plentiful tend to make a person battle-hardened. Writers, as a species, don't tend to give up easily.

Which makes WATNS all the more troubling.

There are writers who had the brass ring, and want to have it again, but for whatever reason can't seem to grasp it.

Battle-hardened does not equal bullet-proof.

It's tempting to blame the industry, which is flawed for many reasons. A book's success is often a self-fulfilling prophecy; big promotional dollars leads to more orders leads to more sales. Do bestsellers really sell so well because of name recognition, or because when you're at an airport or drugstore and want to buy a book you only have the choice of a dozen titles? If a lessor name writer was given wider distribution, naturally they would sell more books. Yet few are given this push.

But I also personally know a few authors who did get that big push. In some cases, six and seven figure advances and corresponding marketing dollars. And here it is, a few years later, and those books are already out of print.

It's tempting to blame the writer, for producing lackluster work, or failing to self-promote, or being difficult to work with. And yet I've read many out-of-print novels that I believe are just as good or even better than books in their thirtieth printing by name authors who do very little self-promotion. I also know a few successful authors who are real jerks, and that hasn't seemed to hurt their careers.

There's a mentality that once you land a deal with a major house, you're set. But the fact is (and get ready for the kick in the groin) the majority of people who get a major deal wind up as WATHS statistics.

I can look at my extensive personal library, and 90% of those books are out of print, and 60% of those authors haven't published anything in years.

Landing a major deal, in most cases, doesn't signal the start of a longtime career. For many, it's the beginning of the end.

I can guess what many regular readers of my blog are thinking. Okay Joe, now that you've presented the problem, tell us what we can do to fix it like you always do.

Well, frightening as it is, this is one problem I can't fix.

I'd love to be able to point a finger and conclusively say, "This is why she's still being published, and this is why he isn't." But I can't. There are no traits or commonalities that can accurately predict success or failure.

After a certain level of competency is reached, who gets published and who doesn't is pretty much based on luck. This is true for newbies, and remains true for writers who have been in the biz for years.

All we can do is persevere, and keep writing and self-promoting and doing our damnedest to survive. Because, depressingly enough, this career is more about survival than success.

But, as I've been saying for years, the harder you try, the luckier you seem to get.

So if anyone with WATNS is reading this, remember that giving up isn't an option. Yes, you've gotten some bad breaks. Yes, this business is woefully unfair. Yes, it doesn't make any sense at all. But the same dedication that got you published that first time must be used to get you published again.

I know we all believe that once you "make it" there is no longer any struggle, the fears go away, and the opportunities are boundless.

But the truth is the struggle never ends, the fears are always there, and every opportunity that comes along should be appreciated as the gift it actually is.

So the rules, for newbie and pro alike, are the same.

1. Write the best book you can.

2. Try your best to get it into the hands of as many people as possible.

3. Repeat.

That's all we can do. Beyond that, it's all luck.

Just don't forget rule 3. The longer I'm in this business, the more I think it's the one that separates the haves from the have nots.

Now quit your whining and get to work.

43 comments:

Samantha Clark said...

Good advice for newbie and the more experienced alike. Thanks, Joe.

Stacey Cochran said...

I made a video of my recent trip to New York City to interview literary agent Rita Rosenkranz and Random House assistant editor Randall Klein.

Despite having no book deal (what feels like twenty years now), I've found a way to stay visible.

A platform for visibility is a big part of the equation... even if you can't find a traditional publisher.

One thing's for sure, I've never let rejection keep me from sticking with this.

Dave Zeltserman said...

Authors get dropped all the time because their sales din't meet expectation. One guy I know, his first book out sold 40K copies, which should've been pretty good, but his publisher was expecting 100K sales, and there was nothing this writer could've done to change that--so his career was basically shot after one book. If you go to your local chapter MWA meetings, I'm sure you'll find many other writers in this same position. Also if you pay more attention to some of the blogs out there. And this is only going to get much worse during the massive consolidation going on now. In this current environment, once a writer fails to meet sales expectations with a lot of larger corporate houses, they're done--their only choice is to write for the small presses--which some do. Occasionally someone sneaks back in with a psuedonym, but that doesn't happen often.

Dave Zeltserman
Small Crimes--"Top 5 Crime and Mystery books of 2008" NPR, "Best Books of 2008" Washington Post

Karin said...

I have spent the past month playing games and entering Christmas Contests on the Internet. Many of the authors (AND many of the publishers) I had never heard of before. They do a lot of the things that you do - free short stories (In fact several of them group together and you get a new story every day for a week or something like that) I now look for their books when I take my 'funny money' to Borders. The bottom line is to get out there.
Speaking of being 'out there' I REALLY do miss your old web site!

tess gerritsen said...

A great post, Joe. Very scary -- and very true. I second your point that luck plays a large part in success, which is pretty depressing.

As for what one can do about it, an author simply has to keep writing and keep submitting. Several authors who've vanished from the market did so because they just couldn't finish book #2. Second book syndrome destroys quite a few careers.

Sometimes all it takes to restart a stalled career is a change of genre, a change of voice, or a change in pen name. If your past numbers are bad, don't let them chase you.

Conda V. Douglas said...

And there's another ray of hope for the WATNs. As a reader, if an author I like doesn't publish for awhile, I still stay on the lookout for that writer.

And I'm sure I'm not the only one who spots a name I haven't seen in years and says, "Hooray, they're back!"

Jen said...

Thanks for posting this Joe. I'd like to ask you and the rest of the authors here a question about one of my favorite WATNs. Thanks in advance for your insight.

First off, this author is ADORABLE. Adorable website. Adorable blog. Adorable books. Tons of adorable people marketing her adorable work while cross promoting their own adorable work . . . so . . . straight up adorableness pouring out of every orifice. Needless to say, she's immensely popular with fans and has a major cult following.

Quite some time ago, this adorable author quit her contract over personal objections about how the publishing house wanted to use her work.* Immediately after quitting, she wrote a post on her blog about continuing to write and about having another project in the works. It's been several years.

But the strange thing is that she's still very, very popular and has a very devoted fan base. There's no reason to believe that her work would be less than profitable.

My question is not only why hasn't this author published anything, but also whether quitting mid-contract is a red flag to other publishing houses. Would something along those lines make her appear too difficult to work with, even when profit is basically a sure thing?

*She was writing creative non-fiction that was ordered by the publishing house. The characters belonged to the publishing house, not to the author.

Chris Wood said...

Writing is very very difficult and my heart goes out to anyone who has their dreams quoshed.

My first book was released two weeks ago - "The Ingredients Of A Good Thriller," available now from Amazon. So if anyone's writing a thriller, hopefully this will help.

ben said...

A very shocking post. Really opened my eyes to some things.

I think what you said about repeating the hard work you put into getting your first novel published, into your 2nd...3rd...4th. Is the key.

You should be getting better with each book,(as all of yours have done Joe)then lowering your standards once you have reached the "majors".

Getting better involves putting even more work into each proceeding novel.

A pro athlete doesn't quit practicing after making it to the big leagues, they practice more to live up to the opportunity that has been given to them.

Enough about that.

Chris Wood, your book sounds fascinating, I will be sure to check it out.

Stacey Cochran said...

Sounds like a great idea for a book, Chris.

Good luck with it!

Stacey
howtopublishabook.org

Jude Hardin said...

For one thing, I think a lot of folks are delusional about how much money they can expect from writing fiction. Most writers can't survive solely on the advances and royalties of novel sales.

Real writers keep writing anyway, but I imagine some get discouraged when they realize they're never going to make more than about $3.87an hour for their efforts.

Ty Johnston said...

That's what I love about Joe's blog, tough love.
Seriously, I feel this is one of the few writer's blogs that tells it like it is. You might not like what you hear, but it has the ring of truth.
And keeps me entertained as well. ;-)

Danette Haworth said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Danette Haworth said...

Joe,

Thanks for the kick in the pants!

BTW, thank you for all the good advice you put on this blog. I've just had my first two book signings and I knew, thanks to you, that I didn't have to sit behind the table and wait.

My dad was a big ham, so I tapped into my inner ham and circulated about the bookstore, approaching complete strangers with a smile and my bookmark. (This is what Joe does!) Many of those same people found their way back to my table and picked up a book.

The best part about circulating is that it's more fun to be active. I even directed people to other books they were looking for and to the bathrooms. Ha!

Sherryl said...

Timely post, Joe. I was at the funeral of a very well-known writer recently, and saw several authors there who made me think: Hmmm, they haven't had a new book out in a really long time.

I'm not sure of their reasons why but you provided some possibilities. For a couple of those writers, I'd say that teaching for a living has sucked away their creative urges a bit perhaps? For others who write literary fiction, the market has died quite a lot here.
Definitely food for thought.

JA Konrath said...

Dave--It's a sobering situation. I don't know of any other career where a changing your name may be the only way to continue.

Karin--MY old website still exists. It just isn't being updated anymore. I needed something that loaded faster and had universal surfability on different browsers and devices, which meant sleek function had to replace cumbersome and ugly. :)

Tess--Thanks for chiming in. What frightens me most is that in many cases "bad numbers" is a subjective term. I know of cases where authors have earned out their advances, sold multiple printings, and are still having problems getting a new contract. It seems like publishers would rather take on established bestsellers or unproven newbies than someone with solid sales and an established fanbase.

Conda--I do the same thing. But I don't see too many writers who come back from an extended disappearance.

Jen--There are always two sides to every story, so there is probably more to learn about the situation. I'm not sure there are such things as "red flags" preventing people from being published--even James Frey has a contract. That said, this business is becoming harder and harder to survive in, and if a writer is pigeonholed or typecast it can be tough to move on.

But there's always the opportunity to write and submit something under a new name. The writing still does count for something.

Chris--Thanks for joining the discussion, and I don't mind BSP around here, but your book title begs the question: Have you written and published a good thriller to prove your advice has gravitas?

Ben--True about athletes. I was discussing this with my friend, writer Henry Perez, and he brought up the same thing. Athletes not only realize that making it to eh big leagues requires even more hard work and practice, but they also understand how to lose and what it means. In short, a loss is an opportunity to learn and to improve. Too many writers view failure as insurmountable, when indeed it may be more about deciding upon a different approach.

Jude--Money is indeed a factor. Spend an equal time writing a book and working at McDonald's, and many would make more money flipping burgers. That said, I doubt money is the principal motivator for storytellers. Most writes burn with the need to write, and money (at first) is just the frosting on the publishing cake.

Ty--Get back to work. (More tough love for you.) :)

Sherryl--I don't know of any writer who willfully traded writing for teaching. Instead, they became teachers to help support their writing career. Or, like me, they teach a few times a year just because it's fun.

mand said...

Scary indeed, though my eyes were already open. ($3.87 an hour btw is to dream of, Jude, the stage i'm at!)

Just wanted to say hi - found your blog via either Adrian Graham or Jim Murdoch, and i'm sticking with it, full of good teachings. Thanx.

Chris Wood said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Chris Wood said...

My advice comes from having reviewed over 100 thrillers, and while my stories have been best appreciated in France and have yet to find an audience elsewhere, I hope my advice is still helpful.

Jim said...

Writers are entrants in a beauty contest untimately judged by the masses. Publishers pay to enter the writers in the contest. The readers vote. Any structure that plays to the whims of the masses is inherently temporary, be it writing, music or whatever.

JA Konrath said...

An interesting take on this, Jim. But I'd add that distribution and exposure play a huge part.

Let's say one out of three people would like a certain book, based on their tastes. But what is the likelihood that one out of three will know this book even exists?

Sure, there is word of mouth. And word of mouth does lead to success.

But first the book must be available.

The more places a book is available, the easier it is to find, the more people have the potential to discover and enjoy it.

I believe this is very much a tipping point scenario. If a writer can survive long enough, and enough books are in print and readily available, word of mouth can eventually lead to a large fanbase.

Consider video rentals. Many movies that did lackluster at the box office went on to eventually sell millions on VHS and DVD because of word of mouth and distribution.

Yes, public tastes change, but a book that has a thousand rabid fans would likely have ten thousand or a hundred thousand rabid fans if word of mouth grew and availability was easy.

Libraries help, but too many of those books and authors are out of print, which leads to a consumer demand without a supply, and no way for publishers to be aware of this demand because they don't track library book loans.

The secret, if there is such a thing, is to survive long enough with enough books in print to reach a point where some publisher, or movie producer, decides to give it a large campaign, which will then really reach people.

Until that point, it's grass roots and hustling.

Unfortunately, most authors never get to that next point, because publishers have less interest in growing fanbases and more of a blockbuster mentality, where the only thing they get behind is a hit. The problem is that hits are often self-fulfilling--the only books that sell well are those with wide distribution and discounting to start with.

Jim said...

"But I'd add that distribution and exposure play a huge part."

Absolutely. Your genuis is showing through again.

Some publishers enter their authors into the beauty contest by putting them in the cheap seats, 4th row, in the shadows. Others get entered center stage with the spotlight on them. The initial placement absolutely affects the number of favorable votes.

The smart author will do everything possible to squirm to the front.

tess gerritsen said...

joe, I just mentioned this blog post in my entry over at
http://murderati.typepad.com/murderati/2008/12/changing-genres-to-stay-alive.html.

mand said...

You've summed up the problem.

But i thought publishers did track library book loans? Shows how much i know about the library side of it. I thought it all showed up when they tot up the royalties.

unwriter said...

I chuckle to myself as I write this, and I won't name names (you all may have your own private list)
but on the flip side, there are a number of writers who shouldn't be writing and yet every few years (sometimes every year) there they are on the shelf and hundreds of loyal readers are buying the books......
what a weird business this is.
Great essay by the way!

JA Konrath said...

Mand - In the UK the libraries are tracked. In the US, no.

Tess - Thanks. :)

Unwriter - An on-again off-again topic on this blog is judging a book's worthiness by the number of copies it sells.

While there can be little inherent greatness in a book, because taste is subjective, a pretty good argument can be made to equate popularity with quality. After all, if you poll ten million people, chances are JK Rowling or Stephen King or Dan Brown will be named favorite author.

The flip side of that argument is that McDonald's is popular, but that doesn't make them good. But, in fact, McDonald's would probably win in a best burger poll.

We all have things we like and don't like about books, but our taste is not only personal, it varies. You can read a book and gate it, then read the same book three years later and love it.

So the only objective way we have to look at books is by how popular they are.

It does beg the question though: there are some authors on Amazon.com who regularly get two stars or less from readers, yet still are huge bestsellers. How can someone who consistently disappoints their fans continue to sll so many copies?

Anonymous said...

Sherryl--I don't know of any writer who willfully traded writing for teaching. Instead, they became teachers to help support their writing career. Or, like me, they teach a few times a year just because it's fun.

I was a teacher before I started writing. Writing was something I could do at home while taking care of my family. Now that the kids have left the nest, I'm seriously considering a return to the classroom. It turns out that I don't LIKE being home alone; I'm neither happy nor healthy in such a solitary environment. And as a second generation teacher, I have a deep interest in education that borders on a sense of mission.

Teaching and writing are two different impulses. But most people assume that people who teach writing can't make a go of it as a career. Unfortunately, the old stigma "those who can't, teach" seems to be alive and well.

JA Konrath said...

I'm not knocking teachers. But I do have some biases.

I believe the best teachers are those who do, or did, practice in the profession they're teaching.

Every college has a creative writing teacher or teachers. But how many of them have been published my a major house?

And for those that have, how many of those teachers are teaching because they need to rather than want to?

Davin C. Goodwin said...

Joe,

Great post.

It's interesting..... the points you bring up are actually applicable throughout any industry where a person is self employed or on a contract basis.

In my "real" business, I have to strive everyday to please my customers, control costs, and promote myself to be better than the guy next door. If I fail, then I very quickly become a hasbeen.

Self employment is tough. You can't ever rest on your laurels -- whether it's writing or auto repair.

Believe me, I've seen the "wonder kids" make a splash in my industry only to pither and be washed away as soon as the spit and polish has worn off.

Deliver a good product (or service), then promote the hell out of it. You do both of those very well, hence the reason you are sucessful.

Just my 2 cents worth....

Stacey Cochran said...

Appropos of nothing, watch a mountain lion attack a man.

Sara said...

Hi Joe,

We are a month away from the event we have scheduled with you at the St. Charles City-County Library District, and I have not been successful in contacting you to make travel arrangements. I have gotten only email bouncebacks from the address I have for you. Will you please email me at snielsen at stchlibrary.org as soon as you possibly can - we are very anxious to hear from you!

Lisette Ogg said...

Writers Centres play an incredible part in a writer's network and sucess.
I work for the Queensland Writers Centre (http://qwc.asn.au) here in Australia, and we act as a advocacy agency for our authors.I think it's also crucial for ongoing inspiration, guidance and support in the industry. Does the states have a similar set up?
Additionally, you'll probably find that apart from the literary superstars a lot of writers juggle teaching and other jobs alongside their labour of love - and after a while, this can prove difficult to continue with finances and family. Not always, but sometimes.

http://www.qwc.asn.au/Resources/Blog.aspx

Anonymous said...

This is a terrific post that gets right down to cause and effect, as well as the cruelty of bad luck.

I've been fortunate to have modest advances for years, which means my publishers haven't been left in a sea of red ink when a book failed. I know of one eminent Michigan mystery writer who barely salvaged his career after a three-book contract with huge advances ended up disastrously.

I've evolved away from the genre westerns I started with, toward big historical novels set in the West, and now, biographical novels. One reason I write biographical fiction is that I have the market cornered. Who else is doing it?

I've also switched genres, writing a mystery set in Milwaukee in the 1940s. I wrote it under the name of Axel Brand for several reasons. One is that my last name, Wheeler, dooms my novels to toe level at the far right of a bookshelf. Axel Brand's going to be at eye level. Another is that western writers operate under a stigma that can be terrible when they try to move to another field.

In any case, Joe Konrath has written a discerning, real, and thoughtful study of why and how bright lights suddenly dim out.

Richard Wheeler

Anonymous said...

I can't even begin to thank you for this post. I've been anguishing over the fact that low sales on my published books might keep me from ever getting another published, and now I learn that this may be true even if you've sold a lot of copies of a book published by a major publisher.
If, however, I have a chance to be in print again if I change genres and/or use a pseudonym, I'll gladly do it (I've been toying with writing a mainstream anyway).

Stacey Cochran said...

now I learn that this may be true even if you've sold a lot of copies of a book published by a major publisher.

This is a great comment, but it makes me think of something we've talked about on this blog before.

Namely, why not figure out how to self-publish a book and sell 5,000 or 10,000 copies completely on your own?

To me, there's a security in knowing if your publisher drops you that you could publish your next book on your own, sell 10,000 copies, and keep things rolling.

I don't understand letting your career stall because no one thinks your book is cool enough to publish. Particularly if you have 5-10,000 readers who like your work.

My podiobook of THE COLORADO SEQUENCE has had nearly 30,000 downloads since May, yet 450 literary agents passed on it.

If folks want to read it, why not publish it on your own?

N. Mahana said...

As usual, Joe, putting out the hard truth and still ending with a line of encouragement and swift kick in the rump.

Thanks a bunch!

Anonymous said...

Thanks. It is very good advice, particularly the end, when you mention that writers need to keep writing.

mbdabney

Marti said...

Excellent points! You are always so generous with your advice and commentary - it is deeply appreciated!

Wishing you a Merry Christmas and a very Happy New Year!

pundy said...

Depressing post. This doesn't sound like a game I'd like to join. Right at the bottom of the food chain.

As a creative businessman I make my own rules and play my own game. And make money on my terms. As a writer I'd rather do the same.

There has to be a better way.

Adrienne said...

I totally agree with your post Joe, I am quite like minded in my passion for writing, and feel a need to keep driving forward. Keep swimming, as it were, or drown.

Your post is a fantastic kick in the pants for those of us who might be having a sluggish kind of day.

Here's the thing though: I'm also an actress and I went to many theatre schools growing up. When I was a bit younger, I had such pity for people that I had gone to said schools with that were now working 9 - 5, that had given up on the "dream".

Today, with a bit more wisdom, I have realised that many of those people with me in theatre school enjoyed acting true, but did not have that same drive, that same, one could say, obsession, that I did. They liked acting, but it wasn't the be all and end all for them. They found something else that interested them, that made them happy. My feeling sorry for them was absurd because they did not regret anything. I was imposing my own attitude towards acting on them, which was absurd because they were different people.

I think the same could be said of many of the authors you wrote of in this post. You claim that all authors are fighters. But this is a generalisation. Maybe at one point all these authors your speak of wanted was to publish a book, but after it was all said and done, after they had gone through all the grief and hard work, they realised it just wasn't something they were that passionate about. They didn't have that same drive. Being an author and writing are two very different things, and require two very different levels of commitment. It is very very possible that many of these MIA authors simply realised that they had other passions, would rather put the effort into starting a family or, yes, even teaching, than going through the real slog that is being a published author.

I guess my point is that for people like us, who can't imagine not following this path, it may seem pitiable that others took a left at the crossroad. But really, as long as they are happy and content in their lives, does it really matter?

Maria said...

While I'm sure money is a factor more often than not, job satisfaction may be an issue also. Not the writing part--but to go to all that trouble to write it and have to deal with the publishing end may require so much effort, it isn't worth it for many people.

They may hate the promotion side so much or the submitting side that they find teaching or some other job is ultimately more rewarding.

I would imagine many keep writing--but they opt out of bothering to get published. It may not be worth their trouble and without much financial gain, it just isn't worth all the emotional and physical effort.

Of course, that's just speculation on my part, but I do know of one author that basically left writing to teach. She didn't give reasons on her blog, but her series was a long running one, so it would seem she just decided to do something else.

Forsooth! said...

Every writer in the world doesn't push out a book every year. Bret Easton Ellis has published something like five books in 30 years. The reason some of the people aren't present may not be because they are dropped - maybe they want to work on their next novel when they're ready or until it's good, unlike some people who sign multi-book deals and then write increasingly derivative and boring novels. I'm looking at you, Tom Clancy! Down with authors becoming a brand name.

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