June 7, 2011

After The Call: It's a Marathon, Not a Sprint

"After the Call" is a  regular feature on my blog! It chronicles what happens after an agent offers you representation: how to choose the right agent, how to communicate with your new agent, what the revision process is like, etc. For previous posts in this series, please see the "After The Call" sidebar to the right.

Like most writers, I have some hefty aspirations floating around in my head when it comes to my career.

Book tours!
Bestsellers lists!
Movie deals!
Living on a yacht in the Caribbean!

What can I say? When I dream, I like to dream big, damn it!

Okay, okay. I'm totally kidding. I don't really believe that I'll get a movie deal or a fancy book tour or a big pimpin' yacht that comes with a British butler named Mr. Belvedere. Realistically, my career goals take on a much simpler trajectory:

1.) Write and revise a book. (Check!)
2.) Get a respected agent. (Check!)
3.) Sell book to a respected publisher.
5.) Sell more books to a respected publisher.
5.) Rinse and repeat until I die from old age on my 100-foot yacht.

I'm not asking for million-dollar advances or worldwide book tours. (Although I'll gladly take am awesome yacht.) I merely want to make a career out of writing books. And once I get that first Elusive Book Deal, everything will get easier, right? It'll be easier to sell another book. It'll be easier to land a bigger advance. It'll be easier to get royalties. Indeed, my writing life will get a whole lot better.

Right?

But a few weeks ago, I came across a thread on the Blueboards that sobered me completely. It was like a bucket of cold water had been doused over my melon-like head. (It's true. I have a gigantic head. My husband can attest to this. But I'm getting off track...)

Basically, the thread was kicked off by a writer who wondered if her career was over. I've paraphrased her post below:
When my first book came out, it was widely anticipated and received a lot of promotion. But every book I've published since then has garnered less and less attention. My advances have gone down, as well as traffic to my website. Even my agent and editor have gone silent. So...is my writing career over? I don't know if I should get a pseudonym or apply for a job at my local Starbuck's. Or is this simply something that most authors go through?
Yipes, this is terrifying! I mean, publishing should get easier after we land our first book deal! Right? Right?!

As the thread continued, I felt like another bucket of water was thrown over my giant noggin. Numerous authors came out of the woodwork to say that they were in the very same boat as the original poster. Many of them had published multiple books, but they had all found it harder and harder to get a new book deal. One writer even said that she had been publishing books for over twenty-five years and had won several awards, but now she has found it more and more difficult to get her foot in the door.

Twenty-five years! Holy moly!

I stared at my computer screen for a good five minutes with my head spinning. Egads, publishing gets harder after your first book deal! It doesn't matter if you've written novels for three decades! Your sales numbers have to be good...or else!

Yes, this thread was quite sobering for my naive eyes to read.

But you know what? It was also very encouraging. Because it was honest. Because it was eye-opening. Because it was so real. Over a dozen writers chimed in on this post, offering their empathy and their sympathy and their advice. And man, there was some fantastic advice! Below, I've written a quick list of what I took away from this thread.

1.) Perseverance is key, even after you've published multiple books. 
Success stories like J.K. Rowling's and Stephenie Meyers' are one in a billion, despite what your extended family tells you. ("You're gonna write the next Harry Potter!") Most writers will continue to face rejections--perhaps many rejections--after they get published. In the aforementioned thread, a picture book writer explained how she had hit a ten-year dry spell after selling her first two books. Wow. Ten years. But she didn't give up. She continued writing and querying until she sold another book, even if it took her over a decade. Now that's perseverance!

2.) Every writer has a different path. 
Whenever I interview a newly agented writer for my "After The Call" series, it amazes me to see how their journeys differ. For instance, Writer A may snag an agent in only a couple weeks but Writer B takes over a year to find representation. The same thing goes for the rest of their careers. Writer A's first book might not sell while Writer B's novel sells at auction. Five years down the road, Writer A finally gets her first book contract while Writer B frets about low sales figures.

See? Mileage varies. And it can vary wildly. Which leads us to lesson three...

3.) Writing is a lot like life. There are a lot of ups and downs and in-betweens. 
When I first started writing seriously in 2007, I often read the blog of an MG author who had recently published her first novel. Now, this author had a lot going for her. She wrote her very first book, she landed a great agent in a few weeks, and then she sold her novel for a handsome sum of money. Every writer's dream, right?

But then the author hit a brick wall. Although her novel had garnered some success, her publishing house turned down the option to buy more books in her series. The author was crushed but she refused to stop writing. She worked on a new book...but it didn't sell. She worked on another book...but it didn't sell either. But finally--finally!--she wrote a new manuscript that sold to a fantastic publisher. Huzzah!

And so, the moral of the story is this: writing is full of highs and lows and curve-balls. Some writers may start off with a bang but they hit a few snags down the road. Some writers may take a few years until they publish their "break out" novel. And some writers may spend their entire careers in the mid-list realm. There are so many things that we can't control in this crazy world of publishing. Just like in our personal lives. Thus, the question we have to ask ourselves is...what do you make out of the success that you do receive?

4.) Your career doesn't have to be over. 
In the original post on the Blueboards, the author wondered if her career was over. After all, her books weren't selling well and she feared she wouldn't be able to get another publishing deal. A lot of writers offered their advice on this matter. Some encouraged her to use a pen name. Others told her to switch genres. And others said she should take a break to rejuvenate. This is all good and sound advice but I think my friend Ellen Oh said it best in the thread:
I don't believe that a career is ever over - you might switch gears, switch paths, change your name, etc,  but it isn't over til YOU say it's over.
Can I get an "Amen"? Because Ellen's words are simply spot on. Publishing is a business that writers have little control over. We can't control publishing boards. We can't control trends. We can't control what a reader wants to buy.

But you can control when you decide to call it quits.

You're the only one who can do that. Not your readers. Or your editor. Or your agent. Only you.

Sure, you may decide to use a pen name or pursue self-publishing but these channels are merely different paths in your writing career. At the end of the day, only YOU decide when your career is over. And that may be scary, but it's pretty empowering too.

Whew! What a long post. It has been simmering in my head for a few weeks, which is probably why I got so long-winded. Anyway, I'd love to hear your thoughts on the matter! Would you be willing to use a pen name? Or pursue self-publishing? If you are published, what sort of lessons can you teach those of us in the querying or submission trenches?

15 comments:

  1. Great post! I'm so here right now. Trying to figure out how not to be creatively paralysed while waiting on my agent. It's tough.

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  2. This sort of well-tempered and sensible advice is complete hooey. I'm only here for the yacht! I was told there would be yachts!

    Where am I??

    WHO ARE YOU PEOPLE.

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  3. This is a great post. Scary but great.

    I mostly read and write Fantasy but not strictly. I have some non-Fantasy ideas and I think I would use a pen name for genre jumping. Like a separate genre identity, so readers aren't put off, if they associate your name with a genre they don't like.


    Right now, I am unpublished, unagented and working full time in my non-writing career field. I will write forever, even if I have to return to (or continue) working a 9 to 5, because of lulls in my writing career.

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  4. Caroline, thank you for this. It is a very honest and realistic look at the industry. While it is important to dream big, it is equally important to remember that no book sale or advance or snagged agent will ensure your future as a writer. This industry is a crazy one. There are highs and lows. Success can be preceded by lows, followed by lows, or flanked on both sides.

    Again, thank you for this truly fantastic post. And props to Ellen for her genius response. Your career as a writer is never over unless you decide it is. Amen, indeed!

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  5. I agree, great but scary. I've often wondered how sustainable my writing career could be, and if I'd ever consider giving up my other job to do it. You're so right that the entire writing journey is a highly individualized process, including when and if you decide to do something else. Really fantastic, honest post!

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  6. This is so eye-opening -- I think all writers should be briefed on what the publishing industry's really like, all the way through to the end. It'd help so much in keeping your dreams from being popped like a balloon.

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  7. This is a great post. It's only natural that unpublished authors have starry eyes and think life after The Book will be infinitely better than life before. That's most of what you see online. When someone's doing great, you know it. Not that many people want to share the struggles. But I agree with Ellen. We make our careers. You can always write more, and better. It's similar to the way unpublished authors can get down that they haven't found an agent/sold: We can either give up or keep writing.

    This reminds me of a post Kirsten Hubbard wrote a couple days ago about being a midlist author. It's a really good post. You should read it: http://kirstenhubbard.blogspot.com/2011/06/extemely-honest-and-scary-post.html

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  8. I think it's important to remind ourselves that even after we get our dream agent we'll want more. We'll have to push for more. We'll have to work for more.

    More, more, more. The writing world is a brutal one and unfortunately the profession we love is the one that we'll constantly have to work at.

    I laugh at those who when I tell them I'm a writer (they assume I have no job), they say "it must be nice," having no idea how much stress and work is involved. They think it's a fancy job where you sit at home and lounge in your pajama's writing books.

    Right now I work full-time and in the evenings I write. So technically I have two full-time jobs, one that pays my bills and one that I hope will one day pay my bills. But it's all about the love and perserverance.

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  9. Great post! I totally agree that if you want to be a writer, you have to be in it for the long haul. You don't get that instant gratification that you may have in other professions--but if you truly love writing, then you'll hang in there. :)

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  10. I'm enjoying this series a lot. Keep it up!

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  11. Thanks for this. I have to admit, when I first started reading your post, I wanted to immediately close the browser window, put fingers in my ears, and yell "la la la."

    It is scary. Things seem so hard now, it MUST get easier, right? Don't answer that. But this is something I've been thinking about. It seems like most buzzed about books are by debut authors and it makes me wonder what happened to all the veteran authors. But like you said, all we can do is keep writing.

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  12. Just found this blog. I haven't read past the first post yet, but this is great advice. Just keep writing. (I tell myself that sometimes in singsong voice like Dory from Finding Nemo saying, "Just keep swimming, just keep swimming...")

    I agree that every writer's path is so different. I have one book published with a small publishing company, another one that should be coming out this year, and I recently made the decision to self-publish another novel. For me, it's been a huge journey of sifting through more than one option, and deciding what I really want with my writing and WHY I do it.

    One step at a time, one book at a time. (Or, you know, if you're crazy like me, two or three books going at once. ;))

    Thanks for the insightful post!

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  13. Oh, so scary!!
    But it was great to read it all. And what would I do if I were in this writer's position? I wouldn't give up. Maybe I'd use a pen name, yeah. But I just couldn't live without writing.
    Awesome post, btw.

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  14. Just started reading through that Blue Boards thread you linked to. And it is scaring the shit out of me. Making me want to change all my plans and never write a book that isn't 200% commercial. Aye aye aye.

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  15. Wow, thanks so much for sharing this, Caroline. I was stunned when I read it. I mean, I know this type of thing happens, but not this often.

    Someone commented before me and said that writers don't usually discuss their struggles--and that's true.

    Keep sharing, please. :)

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