Business Musings: Following The Crowd
We all have those moments when we think, Jeez, if I just write [insert latest trend here], I’ll do so much better than I’m already doing. It doesn’t matter how well we’re already doing. There’s always a better.
If you’ve been in the business a long time, you have a follow-up thought: I know how to do [latest trend]. It wouldn’t take much.
And if you were in traditional publishing, and occasionally wrote tie-ins or some novel that your traditional editor demanded you write, you have a third thought: I’ve played in someone else’s universe before. It wouldn’t take me long to churn out something just like [latest trend].
Yes, note that I used the phrase “churn out,” which I complained about a few weeks ago. I did so deliberately. Because that’s the mindset you end up in.
You’re not writing for the joy of the art. You’re not writing what you want. You’re writing what you think is required for success.
A lot of people end up with an okay short-term career doing just that—writing the latest trend, whatever it is. When that trend eases, they move onto the next trend, and the next until they burn out. Sometimes, for some of them, following the trend works, and they find their niche. But for a lot of folks, they wake up one day to find themselves not wanting to go to their writing desk because sitting there feels too much like the day job they quit (or are still working in the hopes of a windfall).
When I say “short-term,” I say it from the perspective of a long-term career. I mean a five-to-ten year career in publishing, with only two or three years of real success. It’s a career. It’s something to be proud of. But it isn’t a lifetime career, which so many writers say they want.
I firmly believe in writing what you love. Even when I was writing tie-in fiction, I wrote what I loved. Star Trek and Star Wars got me into science fiction back when I was a kid. They had hijacked my imagination. I still adore that Classic Star Trek universe, and all Chris Pine’s Kirk showed me was that I am a super huge fan of Captain James T. Kirk, if he’s written and acted properly, no matter who portrays him (Sorry, William Shatner—I like you too, but I like Kirk more).
I loved the original Star Wars film, loved, loved, loved Empire Strikes Back, and was okay with Return of the Jedi. Those were the only films that were out when I took on my Star Wars gig. Every other series I wrote in, from Quantum Leap to Roswell, I was a fan of first.
In fact, I turned down a lot of tie-in work for projects that I wasn’t a fan of. And when I say a lot, I mean hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of tie-in work.
I know I can’t write well about something I don’t enjoy.
I write in a lot of genres because I read a lot of genres. I write a lot of short stories for themed anthologies to stretch myself. Once in a while when I write a theme anthology story, I discover a subgenre I don’t really want to tackle again, but mostly I learn the ins and outs of the genres, and often I get too many more ideas to ever finish before I die.
Writing novels to follow a trend (even if it stretches me) is something I won’t do. Novels take too much time, and you have to sink into them, or at least I do. I need to lose myself in the world that I’m writing about, and losing myself means a full commitment.
Frankly, if I want to write the latest thing, if I want to be trendy instead of artistic, I’d’ve taken the jobs I was offered in Hollywood, writing screenplays for television shows, and making a small fortune. I’ve worked collaboratively, and I’ve successfully written both screenplays and radio dramas. (By that “successfully,” I mean they were produced. I got paid for some things that weren’t produced as well.) Screenplays and radio dramas are fun until they’re not, and when they’re not fun, they’re awful.
But trend-following in novel-writing, that’s generally not collaborative. That’s just being outer-directed instead of inner-directed.
What do I mean by outer-directed? Someone else or something else, in this case a trend, determines what you write from day to day. Nothing wrong with that, except…
To me—and this is probably just me—it completely defeats the point of being a freelance writer. If I wanted a day job, I’d get one. If I want someone to tell me what to do, then I’d have a boss. If I wanted to guess trends, I’d work in advertising.
I don’t want to do any of that.
At heart, I’m both a rebel and an artist, and those two aspects of my personality have allowed me to freelance successfully for decades.
I know how hard it is, though, to see folks who started with you who are, in your outside opinion, doing better than you are.
In some cases, another writer actually is having more success. She is writing in the right subgenre or she’s hit the cultural zeitgeist or—here’s the hard one for many authors to admit—she’s just a better storyteller than you are.
But if you’re a long-time observer of writing careers, like I am (and like Dean is), you realize that today’s success story is tomorrow’s struggling writer.
Yes, that writer’s struggling from a different place—a place you might consider successful—but she’s often having problems she couldn’t even have imagined at the start of her career.
Those of us who went to Clarion Writers Workshop have all experienced having someone in the class end up more successful than we are. In my class’s case, the initial success story was a writer whose work was on the Hugo and Campbell ballot when he arrived at class. He intimidated the heck out of all of us.
When we survivors of that class got together in 2011, he said, “I often joke that my Clarion class has written a hundred novels, and Kris wrote most of them.” Everyone laughed, including me, but it made me realize that somewhere along the way, I became—at least to him—the success story of our Clarion class. It was a weird feeling.
It’s an even weirder feeling when one of your students does better than you do at something you’d like to succeed at. A while back, a friend of mine taught at Clarion. This friend has published dozens of novels, but none have hit any bestseller lists. One of her students sold a novel right out of Clarion for five times what my friend made on any of her novels. That student became the Hot Young Thing in the front part of this decade.
Dean and I have experienced that as well. We’ve had students who hit the major bestseller lists with series, and those students remain on the lists. We’ve had students who’ve won all kinds of prestigious awards. We’ve had students crack markets I still can’t crack (like The New Yorker).
We never take credit for our students’ success—I mean, how can I claim I’m responsible for someone repeatedly hitting The New York Times list with a series when I’ve never done it? (I’m not that needy or hypocritical.) Those former students are doing something right. They’re great writers who tell amazing stories—and guess what? Those former students have a fantastic work ethic (which was visible at the workshops they attended before the success hit).
I’ve known other writers who also teach who end up jealous of their former students or who denigrate the students’ success. And that just reflects poorly on the writer-teacher. I know it’s hard for some writers to watch others be successful, and I also know that everyone when they’re starting out believes that there’s a secret formula to being a successful writer.
There is: Work hard, write a lot, and don’t quit.
But you will never reach the same level of success as your friends. Their careers are theirs. The careers are dynamic, and as individual as your writer friends are.
Plus, all careers have ups and downs. Even the biggest bestseller struggles with something—maybe in the craft or maybe in the business. What every successful writer learns is that complaining about problems gets this response (often accompanied with a sneer) : I’d love to have that problem. So the writer doesn’t talk about it.
When Dean and I first met, we had several long talks about the problems of writer-couples. We knew some friends who broke up when one person in the couple became successful. (This isn’t limited to writers, by the way. Sometimes couples break up when one person in the relationship makes more money or gets a better job or gets more acclaim. I think it’s a sad side of human nature.)
Dean and I kept talking about this issue to make sure we were on the same page. That page was this: We’d stay together even if one of us was more successful than the other. More than that, we’d cheer each other on.
As Dean said back then, one of us will always be more successful than the other one, but over a lifetime, it might not be the same person. And that’s proven to be true. Early on, Dean had more success—he’d sold a lot more fiction than I had. Then I became a critical darling (and the editor of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction), winning lots of awards and getting great reviews. That continued, but Dean out-earned me (by tens of thousands of dollars), and we both found that ironic.
Because early on in our relationship, he cared more about acclaim, and I cared more about making a living. Yet, the universe made sure I had the acclaim and he made a better living.
We’ve had all kinds of ups and downs in our careers. Then we had careers that branched out into their own smaller careers. Some of my pen names are more successful than others. (Now, that’s a weird feeling: one part of me is so much more successful than another part—and they’re both me!) Dean has had the same experience. And we have some interesting success as Kris&Dean (or Dean&Kris, depending on how you look at it).
Our early discussions made us hyper aware of the way that some authors surge into success and others don’t. Our long-term careers have made it clear to us that success doesn’t guarantee a lifetime of success.
We know a lot of New York Times bestsellers who no longer write. Some burned out, others moved to different professions, a handful can no longer sell books traditionally (!) because their numbers slid. (Those poor souls refuse to indie-publish, too, and I think that’s just too bad. They have fans. They can write again. They’re just not willing to work outside of the traditional structure.)
I’ve had several long talks with a number of the latest Hot Young Things—because once upon a time, I was a hot young thing. I won the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, which takes an uphill career trajectory in sf of less than two years. It’s a rather giddy experience.
Everyone wants your fiction, everyone wants to be your friend, everyone wants to take your picture—
And then, one day, someone else becomes the Hot Young Thing, and you become an Established Pro. For a lot of writers, that shift is hard. (It’s not fair to call it a transition, because it happens almost overnight.)
I really tried to warn one Hot Young Thing, because he had tied his ego into being the It Writer. I knew it would end for him, and it would end badly, and he wouldn’t be prepared. One day, the publishers would want his books, and the next day, his sales figures would cease to be theoretical, and he would get (or not) get a book deal based not on being an It Writer but on a track record.
He never prepared, and the loss of his It status devastated him, like I feared it would.
Another Hot Young Thing listened when I warned her about the possible change coming up. She asked how to sustain a career, and I advised her (mostly on short fiction). She took a lot of the advice I gave her, and is considered one of the sf field’s most valuable talents.
Yes, she too ceased being the It Writer, but she’s still got a solid career. Because she understood career trajectories, and planned for the days beyond that early giddy success.
Why am I talking about Hot Young Things and It Writers when it comes to chasing trends? Because publishers chase trends all the time—including the hottest writer, the best genre, the perfect novel—and writers try hard to fulfill that.
(The meme I’m hearing these days from traditional publishing? Urban fantasy is dead. Um…what? Tell the fans that. Urban fantasy might not sell at 2005 levels, but it still outsells most other sf/f genres.)
Traditional book publishers, because of their business model, chase short-term trends because traditionally published books only have a short time to earn a lot of money. (That whole velocity thing we often discuss.) Traditional book publishers move from trend to trend, hot writer to hot writer, searching for what’ll sell today, not yesterday.
I get it. Their business model depends on it, still.
But writers—indie and traditional—who chase trends are thinking short term.
First, a trend will have already peaked by the time you notice it.
Second, those writers who are trying to game the Amazon algorithm, to see what categories the books at the top of the charts are in, are chasing trends that might change next week. Unless you’re writing really, really fast, or unless you’re writing short stories, chasing trends using that method is an exercise in fruitlessness.
Besides, it won’t pay off long term.
Trends cycle. Urban fantasy used to be called contemporary fantasy. Contemporary fantasy was hot twenty years ago, then died out, and then came back disguised as “urban.” Traditionally published writers often couldn’t repackage their old books (and publishers let them languish).
But now, in this new world, where writers have control, they can repackage those old books, put the proper modern label on them, and discover a whole new audience.
That’s part of long-term thinking.
The true aspect of trend-following, though? The real short-term part of it? It’s not the word “trend.” It’s the word “following.”
You’re always playing catch-up. You’re always trying to do what someone else has already done—and, in fact, what someone else has already done better and in a fresher manner.
You’re just grabbing coattails.
An agent whom I should have fired sooner than I did once complained that I always wrote in genres she had trouble selling. (Boo-hoo.) And she told me to follow trends. I told her that the best writers don’t follow trends. The best writers set trends.
Something a writer wrote from his heart took off, and readers responded. They didn’t respond to the plot or the identifiably different thing. They responded to the whole package—the enthusiasm of the writer (visible through the story), the storytelling, the perspective, the voice, the setting, the characters—most of which is impossible for someone else to replicate.
Because the key words here are “heart” and “enthusiasm.”
J.K. Rowling wrote a book set in a magical boarding school. There was an entire tradition of British and American literature set in boarding schools. Publishers at the time thought the entire idea passé. That first book got rejected a lot—primarily for the fact that its idea had been done to death in British and American literature, and was no longer trendy.
But she persevered, sold the first book, and the book she wrote from her heart—her passion—because she couldn’t stop writing that book—became a worldwide phenomenon.
There are only so many worldwide phenomena, and not every writer can be one. But every writer can attract readers who like the writer for their unique perspective, voice, and storytelling ability.
When you follow, you lose that uniqueness—and quite often, you lose the passion too. That’s why follower-writers burn out. Why you often hear them at writers conference, speaking with contempt about the entire creative process.
Why write when writing is drudgery?
And why follow trends these days, when indie publishing has opened the entire world for a writer?
Some of my books don’t sell well in the United States, but they sell extremely well in Australia or in Europe. Some readers know me as a non-fiction writer (which still surprises the heck out of me). Some readers only know my romance name. Some readers only read certain science fiction novels, and some readers only read my mysteries.
If I limited myself to writing only the hottest, most trendy things, I’d lose readers. If I had limited myself to writing only the hottest, most trendy things before I was ever published, I would never have attracted those readers in the first place.
I worry about trend-followers, just like I worry about the latest Hot Young Thing. Because both are setting themselves up for a fall.
I truly believe that trend-followers want to be long-term writers. I believe trend-followers love writing, and see trend-following as the only way to be successful.
But success isn’t an upward line on a graph. Success is a wave—sometimes you’re up, and sometimes you’re down. Following trends only makes that wave into a series of pyramids that don’t share walls. A huge up, followed by a terrible fall. Most writers never make it to the next up after a terrible fall.
But they will have had a year or two of success.
Maybe for some people, that’s all they need.
Me, I enjoy doing what I do. I have a job that I love, and I’m able to do it, because sometimes readers like what I do.
I’ve had bestsellers and I’ve had complete flops. It’s great when a book sells well. It’s disappointing when a book doesn’t.
But the key isn’t how the book sells. The key is the writing. I always ask myself if I accomplished the creative task I was trying when I started that book. Did I write the best book I could? Did I learn everything I could from writing that book? Now, with the benefit of hindsight, am I happy I wrote the book?
If I answered yes to those questions, I deem the book a success.
If readers like it, then the book is blessed.
If they didn’t, then I got some practice in.
I move onto the next project—the next project I’m passionate about, not the next project I write to hit a trend. Because enjoying my work matters more to me than some outward measure of success.
That’s the artist-rebel.
The irony is that often, enjoying my work and finding my passion leads to the success so many others chase.
To me, that’s the secret of a long-term career. Stop chasing, and wander along your own path. If you do it long enough, you’ll notice that some people have joined you.
And that, my friends, is completely cool.
Thanks to you all for coming back to the blog. I started this because I was following my passion: At the beginning of the recession, I realized I needed to finish a freelancer’s guide I’d been planning for almost a decade. (So many out-of-work people freelance, and do it wrong, making their situation worse.)
I also knew that I wouldn’t finish the book with all the other writing projects I had unless I had a weekly deadline. I expected maybe five people to read those weekly blogs and, to my surprise, I’ve ended up with thousands of readers.
Just because I was (and still am) doing my own thing.
Thanks for coming with me down this windy path. Thanks for the forwards and the recommendations. Thanks too for the donations, which do keep me focused on nonfiction as well as my fiction.
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“Business Musings: “Following The Crowd,” copyright © 2015 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.