Business Musings: Burnout and the Indie Writer
I’ve been hearing that word a lot in the writer community. It took a while for the word to penetrate. I’ve had my own things to deal with this year, and I really haven’t been looking outward as much as I usually do.
But a friend who traveled to a number of conventions this year mentioned that avoiding burnout was a topic at every single one of those conventions. We mentioned burnout at the Business Master Class briefly on one or two of the panels, mostly telling people to watch out for it, but we didn’t focus on it.
Because I came perilously close to burning out in the past two years. I watched the people around me get sick or irritable or lose effectiveness, and I recognized all of that a sign of burnout in them.
I knew that I was on some kind of edge as far back as last summer, but I also knew that some of it was due to grieving for lost friends. I blamed some of that edge on exhaustion as well, because I hadn’t taken enough time off—or rather, the proper kind of time off for me. I’m an introvert, so time away from the computer isn’t necessarily time off, particularly if I spend that time with people (even people I love).
I forced myself to take one day per week totally off starting last spring (a life saver, that), and then I added no screen time to that day off. No email, no iPad, no laptop. Phone with me, but set on do not disturb except for the handful of people who can call in for an emergency.
That time away from screens helped almost more than the day off itself. Because I had to remind myself that answering an email immediately didn’t matter. Reporting something about my life on Facebook didn’t matter. Retweeting the hashtag of the day on Twitter didn’t matter.
And staying out of touch on the news was A-Okay, at least one day a week. That led me to changing my default home page from NPR to Emergency Kittens this month—and guess what? My productivity increased. Not because NPR was a gateway to other websites, but because my stress levels went down.
I had figured all of this was particular to me, although other American writers were blogging about how much time they had lost this past year to political matters, flame wars, and general feelings of unease. The never-ending 2016 election, still being litigated here in the States, is the lump of coal that we can’t shake out of our Christmas stockings. And there have actually been studies now to show that the constant harangue of negativity has led to a reduction in productivity in almost all businesses, not just writing.
So, I more or less dismissed the discussions on burnout as the natural course of a difficult year. Some writers burn out, especially first time freelancers, because they don’t know how to handle the day-to-day challenges of working from home.
They also don’t know how to handle success, which is one of the biggest contributors to burn out. Successful people often don’t know why they are successful, so they try to replicate that success without understanding it, churning and spinning in their confusion, working harder, but not necessarily working smarter.
It’s such a common phenomenon that I felt it was worth a section in my Freelancer’s Survival Guide. Tonight, I reread the post on burnout from the guide (which is still available for free on this website). Looking at it from the distance of eight years, that post is still relevant. It has good advice and it provides a great way to see if you’re on the edge of burnout.
There’s a list inside the post of the signs of burnout or impending burnout. I suggest you read that list and see where you fit on it.
I read that post after rereading another post, written just before last year’s Master Class—a short post in which I mentioned burnout. In that post, I linked to a previous post on how busy my September was in 2016, and as I read, I realized that I was burning out then, much more so than now. And for good reason. My sleep schedule got disturbed by some major promotion for a book I had done traditionally; I had other projects to promote; I was writing three other short-deadline projects; and I had stopped doing anything fun.
I wasn’t taking my own advice—except that I managed to keep up the exercise throughout all of it. Maybe that was how I remained sane.
Anyway, the burnout discussions from other writers were just background noise, until this week, when I put a few things together. Earlier in the week, I had had an unsettling interaction with a clueless writer whose career is on an obvious downward slide, although she doesn’t realize it yet. She actually explained writing careers to me, and how to be a business person, and how publishing worked.
The interaction was unsettling not because she was rude (which she was), not because all of her beliefs about publishing were stuck in 1999, not because she shows a stunning lack of respect to the people who came before her, but because my reaction to her is different than it would have been as little as five years ago. As she spouted off about all the myths, and treated me like an aged idiot granny whose brain had disappeared along with my once-perfect skin, I regretted getting involved in the discussion in the first place. I begged off the comment thread as fast as I could.
Eight years ago, five years ago, maybe even three years ago, I would have pointed her to blogs about the way the business had changed. Not just my blogs, but blogs by others including people whom she might have respected more than Ancient Old Granny here. I would have done whatever I could to make sure this clueless writer had access to clues.
I have failed to put out the links to the changing business to help clueless writers for more than a year now. I think some of that is due to the fact that the information has been out there, and to believe that things are the same as they were in 1999 shows a willful ignorance. Or maybe a cluelessness I no longer have to subject myself to.
Something in the interaction, though, made me climb out of the murk of my own self-involvement to realize that the usual Saturday assault from the Kindle Boards had ceased at least three years ago. Used to be, when I would post something about some new thing in publishing, or when I would do a pricing post, or when I would discuss advertising/branding/newsletters, hoards of young writers would descend on my comment section en masse over the following weekend. Most of those writers touted their credentials, and then, without reading the blog (because the excerpt someone posted on the Kindle Boards was enough in their eyes), would point out to me where I had gone wrong.
Some of those writers had no real credentials. They had tens of thousands of books given away for free, with no real follow-up sales. But quite a few—maybe a hundred or so—did have real credentials. They had ebooks that sold extremely well on Amazon, and in some cases, on all of the platforms. Some of those writers were making tens of thousands of dollars per month.
They didn’t have to report that income to me (although some did). That income was verifiable through the continuing sales ranks in the early Kindle algorithms (since tinkered away as to be almost unknowable).
Those writers—however rude and arrogant in their brand new knowledge of a career I had spent my life in—were worth watching. They were doing something right. Some of what they were doing was the same thing writers had done well since the dawn of the printing press. Those writers were telling excellent and compelling stories.
But the writers were also doing other things, creative things that weren’t about the book. They were publishing a lot of product very fast, something traditional publishing did not allow. The writers were also maintaining a personal relationship with their fan base, usually through websites, social media, or—toward the end of that gold rush era—newsletters.
I quietly kept an eye on a good number of them, because I figured if they could sustain their sales at even half the numbers of the gold rush period, those writers had something to teach me.
And I did learn—and change my mind—about a lot of things. Over time, though, the hoards stopped assaulting my comment section on Saturdays, and it became clear that the hangers-on, the wannabes, had vanished. The writers who were writing a lot were working too hard to care what I was saying on my blog. They were trying to stay on the crest of the wave they were riding.
We sort of forgot each other.
Occasionally I would lament the Saturday silence, only because when the Kindle Board writers came over and screamed at me, they usually gave me blog topics.
But I didn’t think about it in depth until this past week, when I decided to look them up. The hangers-on don’t even have websites any more. Most of the wannabes have taken their books down, which stuns me, since they could still be making some (miniscule) passive income if they just left the books up.
The legit writers, though, the ones who were telling good stories and doing a lot of work—well, a lot of them were gone as well. And I would wager they didn’t disappear because their sales went down (which sales inevitably do) or because their hot-hot-hot genre became lukewarm.
They vanished because they burned out.
The handful that I had continued to watch over the years slowed production long about 2015, and almost stopped in 2016. Many of them haven’t released a book in 18 months or more. Some haven’t even done basic maintenance, like boxed sets or new covers or newsletters.
Either they had had life crises (always possible) or they had lost the joy in writing or the interest in their work, and they simply couldn’t drag themselves to the keyboard.
I checked with Dean, who had also experienced the Saturday phenomena back in the day, and he had done a similar search about three months ago. He confirmed my own anecdotal evidence; most of those well-performing writers were gone.
On Sunday, I saw my friend who had been attending conferences and that, combined with the web search I had just done, inspired me to ask him about all of those burnout conversations.
How many of the writers who worried about burnout, I asked him, were the writers who were producing 5 to 10 to 15 books per year?
All of them, was his reply.
He did tell me that, in romance at least, the books weren’t 100,000 words long. They were more like 40-50,000 words long. But still. At 10 books per year, that’s a half million finished words, something many traditionally published writers can’t manage in five years, let alone one.
The writers were trying to hit a goal of at least one new novel per month, if not more, plus advertising and newsletters. I asked how many of those writers had farmed out their work, and he reported a rise in the use of virtual assistants (which I knew about) as well as a rise in the use of dictation.
The writers could produce 3-4,000 words per hour by dictating, and then cleaning up the copy, which increased their output. Which was great for actual productivity, but didn’t solve the marketing issues, or any of the other issues that came from being a one-stop publishing business.
I understood why these writers were worried about burnout. I had worried about the same thing a few years back, and as I wrote above, nearly succumbed to it last year (through some bad choices of my own).
I watched friends and business associates have similar problems. There is, as I’ve been saying, more work in this indie publishing world than one person can do. I joked with a reader on email a day or so ago that I would love to be able to write two books at once—one with each hand.
The key really isn’t avoiding burnout. The key to surviving as a writer is learning how to sustain a career.
And that’s true not just for indie writers, but traditionally published writers as well. Some of the demands traditional publishers put on their bestselling writers make the actual writing impossible.
Writers in traditional settings have to learn how to say no.
Writers in an indie setting have to figure out their priorities.
Priority number one should always be self-care. If you break down, your business slows or stops.
Self-care includes taking care of any medical conditions you might have, of course, but it’s more than that. You need to do three very important things to avoid burn-out. You need to:
- Sleep eight hours a night.
- Eat well.
By eating well, I don’t mean eating a lot. I mean eating a healthy diet. I’ve been eating more sugar this week because of Thanksgiving, and boy do I feel it. Much as I enjoyed the pie, I’ll be happy to be back on my normal eating routine, which has a lot of fruit and veggies and protein and very little sugar.
As for exercise, you don’t have to go overboard. You need a minimum of a thirty-minute walk per day, something you can do around the neighborhood. When I walk, I catch up on podcasts or, sometimes, I have no distraction at all. I just think about the stories I’m working on.
Priority number two is spend time with your loved ones. Your children are only little once. You need to give them time. Your spouse need to know that they’re loved, and not just because you say I love you frequently. The people in your life are important. Make sure they know that.
Priority number three is writing new words. I used to say this back in the day, and that was one of the many things those Kindle hoards argued with me about. They told me that once a book was done, promotion was more important.
But the online data has caught up to the data that has existed in traditional media for a long time. Readers don’t care about marketing; they want to know when the next book will appear.
The best thing you can do as a writer is produce a lot of words.
Priority number four is publishing those words. Make sure you have good covers and blurbs and a good static website so your readers can find you.
Priority number five might be…marketing. Or it might be…consuming other people’s stories. Or it might be…playing a video game.
There are only so many hours in the day, and it’s up to you how you spend those hours. Not up to some guru or some data-driven stat at the moment. But whatever it is that will keep you healthy and happy and at the keyboard.
Priority number five might be…learning to say no. Or maybe, learning to say, I can only do this much right now.
Priority number five might be…learning to be satisfied with what you’ve accomplished rather than what you failed to accomplish.
It doesn’t surprise me that burnout has become a serious concern for indie writers.
The writers who have survived the loss of the gold rush and the move into a long-term business model might not have yet learned how to exist in that new business model. I’ve got some ideas on that (You knew that, though, right?) and I’ll discuss those next week.
Until then, get some sleep. Play with the kids or the dog. Take a walk. Write a goodly number of new words. And have fun.
I certainly plan to.
I’m finally getting rested after my long year plus. I am laughing more, singing a little, and enjoying the day-to-day moments that I hadn’t enjoyed for a long time. And the writing is not just a challenge, but it’s fun all over again.
I have a work plan for the upcoming year that includes some business blogs that require a bit of research. I’m looking forward to them. You’ll see them come along, and you’ll see the branding book as well.
For those of you new to the blog, it’s pretty interactive. I get a lot of blog ideas from you folks, and I appreciate that.
I also appreciate those of you who donate on a regular basis, either through Patreon or the occasional donation via PayPal. Thank you!
If you can’t afford to donate, that’s fine. That’s the reason this blog is here for free rather than behind a pay wall. Please share this blog with your writer friends. That helps a great deal.
Thanks, everyone, for your support. I’ve been blogging on a weekly basis for almost nine years now, and I’ve learned a lot because of you. Thanks so much!
Click paypal.me/kristinekathrynrusch to go to PayPal.
“Business Musings: Burnout and the Indie Writer,” copyright © 2017 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog copyright © Can Stock Photo / xilius.