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.


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. 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?