The Business Rusch: Why Writers Disappear
Last week, I spoke to a gathering of librarians in Washington State. I had agreed to the appearance almost two years ago, before my health got real bad. It will be the last such appearance until my health improves dramatically, which could take as much as two years.
As the organization planned its program, I had to choose what I would talk about. A friend of mine, who initially recommended me for the program, reminded me that I’d be speaking before librarians, who were avid readers, but not necessarily writers. They have a very different perspective than groups I usually talk to.
I was asked to speak on the changes in publishing for my first talk, because those changes have an impact on all of us. But I struggled a bit with the topic for my second. So I put on my reader hat and thought about the things that frustrate me as a reader. I came up with “Why Writers Disappear.”
My thinking was this: How come writers vanished from bookstands? Why would a seemingly successful writer (to a reader) never write another book? Why did series end in the middle even when two more books were planned?
Most readers—and most writers—don’t know the answer. I do. It breaks my heart and is one of the reasons I write this blog. When I get vehement, it’s because a particular path is fraught with potentials for career-destroying moments. Even in indie publishing.
Everything Dean Wesley Smith and I do as teachers of writing and writing business is to designed to keep writers in the profession, to keep them writing, and to make sure they still have careers fifteen years from now. That’s one of the many reasons we primarily teach professional writers.
So many established writers teach beginners that we would only be adding our voices to the cacophony. Almost no one does continuing education for professionals, and even fewer teach the business of writing.
Yet business is the primary reason that writers disappear.
First, let’s talk about what I mean by writers “disappearing.” I don’t mean that the writer has vanished off the face of the Earth. Her family and friends still know where she is. She’s probably participating in her local community.
But writers who disappear are writers who, for whatever reason, no longer produce new work—from the perspective of the readers.
I add that qualifier for a reason. Before the changes in the publishing world, writers often had to change their names to continue in the career. One pen name (or even the writer’s real name) would become an abandoned byline, and the writer would move to a new pen name. Sometimes the writer would take on a new pen name and a new genre.
Many readers rarely read outside of their chosen genres, so even if a writer keeps her name and moves to another genre entirely, that writer has “disappeared” as far as the readers are concerned.
I have a dozen books in my library reveling the pen names of famous writers. RT Book Reviews has an irregular column called “Whatever Happened To…?” which researches what stopped Writer A from writing. Usually she hasn’t stopped. Usually she has moved on to other names or genres or a completely different type of writing like gaming or screenwriting.
Writers write. Writers just aren’t always visible when they do so.
Like everything else in publishing, this trend of the disappearing writer is changing. Fewer writers will disappear because they can indie-publish the works that traditional publishers don’t want. But even then, not all of our favorite writers who have “vanished” have made an indie-comeback. And there are a variety of reasons for that.
Trying to explain all of this to an engaged group of active readers proved a lot more challenging than I expected, because so many factors figure into writer disappearances. Until I spoke at that conference, I had never thought of this topic from a non-writer perspective before. That perspective (and the questions the librarians asked) made me look at the entire topic from a new angle.
Let me list the reasons writers disappear, starting with the reasons that existed in the bad old days of traditional publishing only, when writers didn’t have the indie option, and then I’ll list the reasons writers still continue to disappear, even if they can self- or indie-publish their books.
Writers disappear because:
1. They can’t get a new book contract under that name.
2. They can’t get a new book contract because their genre has vanished.
3. They became toxic—and that toxicity trickled through the entire industry.
4. They achieved all their goals.
5. They were no longer interested in writing.
6. They moved to a different part of the industry.
7. They got discouraged.
8. They couldn’t handle the solitude.
9. They couldn’t handle the financial problems inherent in a writing career.
10. They had life or health issues that interfered with the writing
11. They didn’t keep up with the changes in the industry.
12. They sold or gave away too many rights to their books.
Let’s start with the first one, because up until five years ago, it was the main reason writers vanished.
Writers disappear because they can’t get a new book contract under that name.
As we’ve been discussing over the course of this blog (and we’re in the hundreds of posts now), the publishing industry is changing. But traditional publishing still remains a short-term sales numbers game. When traditional publishing was the only game in town, writers either had to accept that their careers were over or they had to find a way to make those sales numbers disappear.
Twenty-five years ago, what a traditional publisher wanted to see from a writer’s career was slow growth, an upward trajectory in sales. Publishers had more leeway then for a variety of reasons (which I’ve dealt with in past blogs), and understood that a thousand more sales on the second book from Suzy Q. Writer was a good thing. The publisher might have actively worked to get two-thousand new sales on Suzy’s third book back then.
Writers whose names you’d recognize from Patricia Briggs to Laurell K. Hamilton, from Robert Crais to Ian Rankin all had careers that grew like that. Sometimes the growth required a jump to a new publishing company that promised to revamp or redefine the writer’s audience, but companies did such things until the distribution collapse of the late 1990s.
Then all bets were off. That collapse forced publishers to start looking for the next overnight bestseller and if a writer “only” had one-thousand new readers on her latest book, then she clearly wasn’t going to become an overnight bestseller. Ever since then, the writer who experiences a slow, supported growth from her publisher has been the exception rather than the norm.
Writers whose sales growth does not hit expectations have contracts canceled or don’t get new contracts with any major publisher. Why? Because the numbers are more or less available now with the touch of a button. Rather than believing the sales figures will grow with the proper nurturing, another company will see the slow growth or declining numbers and believe the writer can’t be rehabilitated. Time is no longer a luxury that traditional publishers believe they have—even though most of their long-term bestsellers were created in just this way. (sigh)
In traditional publishing, there are only two roads open to the writer. First, use a pen name and start all over again. Or, second, move to a new genre—and sometimes use a pen name as well. Some writers take other routes as well, writing only short fiction, for example. Individual short stories don’t have individual sales figures (in traditional publishing), so this worry goes away. Same with nonfiction. Writing screenplays, scripting games or comics have other issues, but none of them rest on the previous novel-writing career.
So if the writer chooses to stay in the business, the writer’s work becomes harder for the old fans to find. Many writers put their new names on their websites, and readers are getting smart about looking. Some writers don’t have that option, however, because they might be contractually obligated to keep the new pen name secret.
In essence, then, the writer who changes her name effectively forces the previous name to “disappear.”
Writers disappear because they can’t get a new book contract when their genre vanishes.
In traditional publishing, genres are like writer names. Genres have sales expectations as well. For the last twenty or so years, romance has been the bestselling genre, followed by mystery, fantasy, science fiction, horror, western and literary/mainstream.
Literary/mainstream has the occasional breakout bestseller, which keeps the smaller books afloat. Romance generally sells so well at a base level that publishers are willing to use some of the old-fashioned “building” practices that they’ve abandoned in other genres.
Or let me put it you this way: If your science fiction novel sells 10,000 paper copies, it’s considered a good seller and may even hit some science fiction only lists. If your romance novel sells 10,000 paper copies, you’re a midlist writer who is on the edge of a downward spiral.
Traditional publishers give genres their own imprint. And then the traditional publishers look at those imprints with an eye to the bottom line. So if the imprint’s sales decline over time, then the imprint gets revamped. If the imprint’s sales are significantly down compared to the other imprints, the imprint gets discontinued.
Traditional publishers, like the rest of us, have no idea what the future will bring, so traditional publishers hedge their bets. If Johanna C. Writer’s vampire romance sells one million copies, then other vampire romances get purchased. Many of those vampire romances are good, but as the competition heats up, more and more vampire romances that are pale copies of Johanna C’s get published. Readers get disillusioned, unable to tell all of the new vampire romance authors apart.
Vampire romance sales go down, except for Johanna C’s and a few other brand-name writers, and then, one day, publisher after publisher declares vampire romances “dead.”
This means that the publishers no longer want to buy anything other than Johanna C and those few brand-name writers in that particular genre. Everything else is just too risky.
The market got glutted, and even a writer with an ongoing vampire romance series that has some pretty good numbers might not be able to sell the next book traditionally.
In my lifetime, this has happened to westerns, gothics, and horror. Louis L’Amour and other major western writers never went out of print. Neither did Victoria Holt, Phyllis A. Whitney or Barbara Michaels. Stephen King and Dean Koontz remained at the top of the charts even after horror was declared dead.
A “dead” genre means that a writer can’t sell a new book into that genre.
Writer after writer keep banging their head against that wall, not realizing that a window is open right next to them. Just like writers whose names become unmarketable change those names, writers whose genre disappears redefine what they write as something else.
So Alien is no longer horror. It’s science fiction. Yes, it’s dark and scary, but it takes place on a spaceship, hence the redefinition.
Only a handful of writers ever manage to make that kind of transition, because it requires some rethinking of genres on the part of the writer, so most simply let their writing careers die with their genres.
And those writers disappear.
The writers who move to the new genre might disappear as well, since genre readers rarely leave their genre niche. The horror reader might never discover his favorite horror writer has moved to noir because the horror reader never goes into the mystery section.
And so, for all intents and purposes, those writers “disappear” too.
Writers disappear because they became toxic—and that toxicity trickled through the entire industry.
Until the last five years, publishing was a very small industry. The U.S. Justice Department lawsuit against several major publishers didn’t reveal anything new to those of us with a long-time history in traditional publishing. The publishers, editors, and agents all know each other and gossip routinely.
They also would tell stories about writers who acted badly, and those writers would find themselves effectively blacklisted. Now, when I say badly, I mean truly bad behavior. Not rudeness (most writers are rude, sorry to tell you), not lack of social skills (most writers work alone and forget how to be around people), not even things like slapping an editor can get a writer blacklisted.
The writers whom I know who got blacklisted did things like calling up the CEO of a major chain bookstore to demand to know why that chain store didn’t have enough copies of his book. And when the CEO professed ignorance (which was probably true), the writer insulted and verbally abused the CEO. As soon as he could get off the phone, the chain store CEO called the CEO of the publishing company, and asked what the hell was going on, and oh, by the way, the chain store was returning all copies of the writer’s books, and didn’t want any more ever.
I heard about this from the writer’s editor, back when I was editing. I was at a table with half a dozen other editors at the time, all of whom vowed then and there never to pick up said writer’s books. The original publishing company canceled the writer’s contract, but the incident was so juicy and gossip-worthy that a half dozen other publishing companies heard about it within days, and made it impossible for that writer to sell more books.
This particular writer is someone you will have heard of. Under the writer’s pen name, the one the writer took after this incident. The writer had to create an entire business around that pen name, enabling the writer to cash checks under the pen name, because the writer’s real name had such toxicity attached to it that publishing companies didn’t want the writer on board even under a fake name.
Fortunately writers aren’t actors, so we don’t have to have our faces everywhere. This writer has had a successful seventeen-year-old career, after learning a very harsh lesson.
And this writer isn’t the only toxic writer I know of. One threatened to rape and murder several female science fiction editors who had the audacity to make criticisms of his work. Since that writer had been in prison for rape and battery before making this threat, everyone took him seriously and no one was willing to consider his work from that year on. If he’s writing under a pen name, I don’t know about it.
I could go on for days with stories like this. But the point is, that even if these toxic writers are still publishing, they’re doing so under pen names so secret that we’ll never know if they’ve rehabilitated their careers or not.
They too have effectively disappeared.
Writers disappear because they achieved all their goals.
This one fascinates me, because I don’t entirely understand it. Let me try to explain it as it has been explained to me by the some of the writers in question.
These writers don’t enjoy writing for its own sake. They see it as means to an end. That end can be anything from they want to become a tenured professor to they want to become millionaires. They want a bestseller, they want to be famous, or they simply want to publish a book as part of their bucket list.
If they want to publish a book and do so, they quit. If they want to become rich/have a bestseller/become famous (however they define fame), they quit.
This leads to a place Dean calls the island of one-hit wonders. These folks have only published one thing (or two or three things) and dine out on that achievement for the rest of their lives.
They’re not interested in a writing career, they’re interested in achieving a life goal. Once attained, they move on to other life goals.
Some writers who really want a career get trapped here too because they never realized they had these kinds of dreams. Then they achieve their dream, and don’t know how to get motivated again.
It takes time, commitment and, sometimes, therapy to get back into the writing saddle.
Until the writer does, she has effectively disappeared.
The others, the bucket-list folks, walk off the publishing part of the world stage, but might remain as Authors who have published their one book around the fringes of publishing forever.
But as far as the shelves are concerned—virtual or otherwise—those Authors have also disappeared.
Writers disappear because they are no longer interested in writing.
This one is similar to the one above, but not quite the same. Writing is hard work. It’s not rocket science or brain surgery; no one will die if you fail to meet a deadline or if you write a bad book. But you are in your head all the time, and you have to have a certain personality type to enjoy all the challenges that the career brings.
Above all, you have to like writing.
And as I mentioned above, many writers do not like writing. Sometimes it takes some success to realize that. For many writers, the grind wears the glitter off the idea of writing for a living, and the writer goes back to her day job or to a new career.
Not because she’s disillusioned or even because she can’t sell another book, but because she’s really not interested in writing any more, not interested in putting out all the effort.
Maybe the writer has said everything she’s wanted to say or maybe she’s no longer challenged by the profession. Or maybe she has just realized that she’s a better actor/salesman/lawyer than she is a writer, and she doesn’t have the desire to improve the writing the way that her more driven friends do.
These writers really do disappear. Or to state it better, they walk off the field like a second string football player who has played a game or two in the big leagues, decided that he doesn’t like getting tackled, and goes back to college to study biology.
(I just read an article in The New Yorker about forensic linguist Robert Leonard who, in another part of his life, was one of the founders of the group Sha Na Na. He left in 1970 for academia and, apparently, has not looked back. This is the kind of person I’m talking about here. They exist in the writing profession as well.)
Writers disappear because they moved to a different part of the industry.
I know a lot of people like this. They found writing difficult, so they moved to agenting. Or they became editors, copy editors, illustrators, fact checkers or accountants. They remain on the fringes of the industry, but they found a job inside the industry that they like better than they ever liked writing.
They occasionally dip their toes back into writing. If they’re editors, they might write the occasional work-for-hire under a house name. If they’re agents, they write nonfiction about the industry.
But they never again write original fiction and they never again try to make their living from writing alone.
I’m halfway through my list. There are still writers who disappear every year because of the six things I listed above. These writers often don’t understand the new world of publishing, nor do they seem to realize that they have options.
Some of these first six things will still apply to indie-published writers. For example, if you only publish e-books through Amazon and Amazon goes away, you might become discouraged and quit, thinking your market is gone. But if you were savvy enough to e-pub in the first place, you’re probably savvy enough to regroup and find new markets.
The remaining six can apply to indie-writers as well as traditionally published writers. And I’ll focus on those next week. I don’t want to write a mega blog post like I did last week.
So we’ll have part two next Thursday.
Speaking of last week, I want to thank all of you who wrote supportive comments on the blog, in e-mail, and who donated. Every time I mention Kindle Select, I get attacked. I don’t post most of the comments because they’re vicious, but I do post the ones with interesting points. And I posted a rude one last week, which caused a lot of you to send me encouraging letters and other support.
Rest assured, these people don’t discourage me. They aren’t regulars to the blog and they probably won’t return. Those of you who do are encouraging and supportive and warm, and I get reminded of that every single time one of these incidents occur.
Thank you ever so much for your kindness. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate it.
“The Business Rusch: “Why Writers Disappear (Part One),” copyright © 2012 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.
Walking away from writing isn’t easy but it can be done. I was a journalist for a decade and then tried my hand at novel writing–I completed several before realizing publication wasn’t going to happen. Writing is hard, but I learned the business side is even harder. I turned my creative energies to handweaving and sustainable living, and yes I blog about it, which is like writing a column. But it isn’t novel writing.
Writing a novel is so beyond hard I am at loss of words to describe it.
I am so glad to be a reader again and I can enjoy such books as the Retrieval Artist series. Thank you for all the hard work and effort you put into writing them.
I’m sorry to hear this, Rose. Since you were a journalist, I suspect the level of craft in your novels is just fine, and you ran into the changes in publishing. You might want to consider indie publishing them now. Everything is so different than it was even five years ago.
And thank you for your kind remarks on my books.
Revisiting those failed novels doesn’t appeal and if I returned it would be with something new. I’m glad publishing has changed and I plan to read your blog to learn about Indie publishing if only to find more authors to read.
Boy do I understand about the lack of appeal. I do hope you try again. That said, lots of good authors to read, both indie and traditionally published. 🙂
I am curious about your statement, “almost two years ago, before my health got real bad…”
Can you spell out what happened to you, and whether you can battle back to good health?
I’m still battling health problems, Andrew. I have a chronic condition that I’ve had for years that got exponentially worse these past few years. And that’s about all I’ll say, except that I’m doing the doctor thing, dietary changes thing, and the exercise thing to improve.
I appreciate your post about why writers disappear.
I’m not sure if my reason, such as it is, will make much sense, but here goes: just as my husband and I had started to find some success, he passed away, suddenly and unexpectedly. (This was in 2004.) We wrote both together and separately; his loss was completely devasting in every possible respect.
What ended up happening was this: the grief cycle drastically impeded my writing for several years. But I kept going; it was slow, and much of what I was doing rather than writing fiction was along the lines of editing, or writing poetry, but I just kept after it.
Then I started reviewing books again at Amazon (there was something like a two-year hiatus between reviews due to my husband’s passing). And started my own blog. And reviewed books at a different blog.
Then I finally found a publisher for my 240,000 word novel, “Elfy” — Twilight Times Books — after many years of searching for an agent, then a reputable publisher after it was clear that due to market changes and fluctuations, no agent wanted to take on a lengthy humorous urban fantasy from an unknown writer. And of course the majors weren’t interested — too risky.
I still don’t write with the output I had when my husband was alive. I haven’t had many short story sales (four, in total; three are to very small presses). I have sold only three poems. So there are still many things I’d like to do that I haven’t yet done.
But I continue. Which is what I need to do for myself — that it’s also what my late husband Michael definitely would want is just a bonus.
(Other novels — six in all — are in the pipeline are at various stages of completion, and I refuse to give up on them. As far as I can tell, the only way to win is to do exactly that: if you know you can write, just keep trying.
(And I’m also still trying to sell my late husband’s work, too, because I believe it was and is good enough. If I have to go independent, so be it — my reasons thus far for not doing it have more to do with file conversion issues than lack of belief in either my or my husband’s writing, and the money is *not* there for me to hire a professional to make sure the files are clean and readers will actually be able to make sense of what I write without a bunch of HTML gumming up the works.)
Thanks for this post, Barb. I’m sorry to hear about your husband and the changes. What happened to you is exactly a case in point. Thank you for adding to the discussion–and for moving forward with your work and your husband’s work.
You’re welcome, Kris. I appreciate that your site is here and I enjoy reading what you have to say; mostly I don’t say much because you know a great deal more about the business end of things than I do. Thank you again for all that you do, and for your kind words.
What I’ve found is that while I can still write, and write well, it’s a lot more difficult because my husband isn’t here to talk writing with. That makes for a much slower process, because I tend to write better when I can verbalize what I’m writing about. But I do continue; eventually, I figure it out.
I fully intend to succeed even though there’s been a long delay. But I’ve redefined success; it’s not about a best-seller at this point, even though I’d enjoy it if this somehow happened. Now, it’s about being a professional in all aspects of my life. That way, I can be proud of what I’ve accomplished, which to me is success.
That I finally found a publisher this year for “Elfy” really helped; now I know it will see the light of day next October (or thereabouts) as an e-book. (I understand this from two fronts; one, if I were putting it up myself — had I managed to solve the HTML file issues, that is — it would’ve been put up as an e-book. And two, it is a lengthy book.)
Thanks for putting these essays out here. I’ve done a lot more reading of your essays, and learned quite a bit.
I don’t have what it takes to be a professional writer, and that’s because I look at what you have to do to get a book contract and blanche in horror. Far too much investment for somebody who’s more of a generalist and has irons in a half-dozen fires, rather than just one or two. I’ve got my “recital piece” novel out there alongside the superniche scholarly work, it’s viciously copy-edited, and another one will go out there next year. Then a few more after that. Maybe some folks will even decide they enjoy them — that’d be fun.
In the meantime, I have a lot of respect for those people with the raw burning persistence to keep hacking at the log until it looks like a book contract. That’s not me — that’s some other, far more focused, far more driven person….which in and of itself is neat.
Pardon my typos . . . par for a writer’s course, and precisely why God invented editors and proof-readers.
Writers disappear because they can’t get a new book contract under that name.
As a reader, I am exasperated by publishers who cut a series off unresolved, even in mid-crisis, as soon as sales wobble. This goes at least as far back as the Dumarest of Terra series and the Dray Prescot series.
Their attitude toward their readership is as short-sighted as their attitude about authors’ sales. Of course, I’m not saying they should keep publishing a series which no longer makes money; my point is that they should provide a wrap-up to the readers who made the series successful.
With hardly any exceptions, I no longer buy a series of novels until it is complete.
My attitude as a viewer is similar.
I write over 3,000 words every five days, but I only in one vein in my writing consistent.
I have no desire to be published – although my peers suggest I do so. I have never written to be “published” – nor do I write to be “noticed.”
I write, because as Lewis recognized, I cannot help but write – what comes over me when I do is far beyond me, yet it merges with me. Call it what you, or anyone will, I agree with Lewis that it is the Holy Spirit that, be it believer or unbeliever, has something He wishes to be said (be it dark side or light) and those who get it write almost beyond their own will, because somehow they must, and they do.
I have so many “quit blogs” online . . . but I quit each because none satisfied me where I really “wanted to go.” I have one format – one arena that challenges me – it won’t make me a nickel per se, although it does pay the bills and a tad more
But it satisfies every bot of the writer in me.
I won’t go there specifically, but I will say that only when a writer – one who, in a way, is willing to condemn themselves as such (a real writer), finds the niche they are most suited for, they write without regard for whatever anyone else thinks.
They must, as they breathe – write. I have written twice of what is considered the minimum of a work to be published in the last year, not counting a like number of words online. The last I have rejected . . . the former have been retained, but not so much by me.
Writing is “thinking in words” as Lewis understood the matter, and few have surpassed him in the task. I will read anything once – I give any author his just due – just for undertaking (and for understanding, most of all, the task may well be useless. Her or his success will most certainly depend upon the number with whom said author connects – but no profit may be involved.
A true “writer” never disappears . . . they just grow ever longer callouses on the end of their fingers.
True writers write for no reason but one . . .
Great article, Kris. I’m sure you will cover this next week, but there is also the writer who gave up, or waited to come back decades later, because of a conflagration of several of your 10 items. Some people give up after one thing happens, some people give up after several hits at once.
For myself, I began publishing short stories in the late 1970’s to the mid 1980’s. My venture into novels was met with rejection at a time when I didn’t understand the transition from short to long forms, and when I needed to be the one in the family earning enough money to pay the mortgage, take in one of my siblings who was in trouble, and deal with some serious health issues of my own. For the next two decades the only writing I did was non-ficiton as I built a career in academia. However, fiction stayed in my head and I missed it terribly. I continuously told myself I would return to it when (name that reason here) happened. I hung on and finally eight years ago returned to it. Over the last eight years the publishing world has turned upside down and backwards, but I feel more empowered than ever before. With four published novels and one getting ready to find a market, I’m finally doing what I’ve wanted to do all that time.
As for my readers from the 1980’s finding me. I don’t write under the same name I did then and I don’t write in the same genre/sub-genres I did then. However, I am finding readers. Just as some readers may not even know they are reading an author they loved previously, authors rarely know that an old reader has found them again. However we connect, I am happy for it.
Good points, Maggie. Thanks for sharing them.
Better watch out. If someone mentions that writing is hard work too many more times, Dean’s likely to come over here and smack us around a bit. 🙂
I’ll second Camille and Cora’s comments. The archaic rules and quixotic guidelines, along with contradictory feedback, made submitting my work more difficult than the actual writing. Sucked the fun right out of writing so that it really did become hard work. I would quadruple-guess every tiny decision using a filter that actually had nothing to do with the writing itself.
These days, I still have to remind myself that it’s okay to have fun. In fact, the stuff comes out better that way.
Great post. Thanks for this. Looking forward to the next installment.
I should point out one thing: it wasn’t the crazy rules or guidelines that got me. I don’t mind jumping through hoops, and I can be incredibly patient.
What got me was more related to the negative effect booksellers had on the industry starting in the eighties. The push for bestsellers only, and the death of the midlist. The “churn” of new authors (two or three books and you’re done).
As a reader, my entire enjoyment of reading was destroyed. I simply stopped buying new books. I bought used books instead.
In the meantime, I began to learn more about what was happening behind the scenes to series I loved. The authors lost control of them — either through horrid contracts, or bad reversion clauses, or simply because when the original publisher didn’t want them any more, nobody else did either.
And yes, writers were also being asked to rewrite things in ways that were simply wrong. Genericize it, make it more “hook” oriented. But, imho, that’s just a sign of the tail wagging the dog: when booksellers and publicists and distributors started making the editorial decisions.
Thanks so much for sharing your talk with the librarians, Kris. The subject of writers “disappearing” doesn’t get discussed much, but I saw “disappearances” happen in my own writer communities after I’d been around long enough (5 years).
Also, what I saw happening in the industry (the tightening of the genres and the frantic search for the next bestseller by publishers) spooked me away just as it had other writers who have posted comments here.
I didn’t get serious about writing until mid-2009, and think that’s because it was only then that I discovered indie musician Jonathan Coulton’s music, and realized that there were new ways opening up to reach an audience even if one was too quirky as an artist to appeal to a big company.
Right now I’m reading David Byrne’s HOW MUSIC WORKS, and there’s a fat juicy chapter titled “Business & Finances: Distribution & Survival Options for Musical Artists.” Byrne goes into detail about six business models he sees coming into shape for musicians to mix & match with. Byrne’s focus was on the various ways that musicians can now make a living in music and have a lifetime career doing it. It was great to be reading that chapter in tandem with your insightful post last week, because they complimented each other very nicely.
Looking forward to part 2 of this post. Hunh, I just noticed that I can replace the word “writers” with “musicians” in your list, and it works very well for why musicians disappear as well!
Thanks for the music book rec, Lisa. I will have to check that out. I’m thinking of a new post…
This blog will be required reading for my students. I teach at an Alabama university, and the business of publishing is something few creative writing programs touch on. But it is the preparation necessary for a career. Thank you for the thoughtful and thought-provoking, clear analysis of what writers face in this crazy, difficult, wonderful business.
Thank you, Carolyn!
Kris–With all your experience, have you ever found that there such a thing as a professional writer doing too MUCH writing? As in physically damaging, draining the creative well to the point of no return, kind of writing? Is there a daily word count that you and Dean have found counter-productive and try not to go beyond (at least on a regular basis?)
Nope. I’ve never heard of that, Serena. Only writers who don’t move around enough, and get injured from sitting in the same position. But I’ve never heard of anyone who has written too many words.
Great! I’ve been getting some comments along those lines. Well-intentioned family members warning about carpal tunnel and heart attacks and career burn-out. Couldn’t find any info on-line. Figured you and Dean would know. Thanks!
I think it’s very different from a day job, since you do something you love and would do anyway for relaxation. Just make sure you’re moving around enough and get exercise, and you should be just fine.
There’s one answer to that and it’s the same answer as for day jobs: monitor your health.
My day job gave me a lot of physical problems, and I modified my work space and dealt with schedules to deal with it. You have to be equally proactive about your health at home or at a job.
Uh, well actually…
Yeah, it is possible to hurt yourself writing. Both the way Kris says (not moving enough) but also simply through the act of writing too much.
The first one is a real concern for me. I have a genetic disorder called Factor V Leiden. The first time I found out about it I was working a 17 hour day on a deadline. Unfortunately I got a blood clot in my leg that moved into my lung. Very unpleasant – almost killed by writing in an unhealthy way.
The second class of writing really doesn’t kick in at ordinary writing levels, but I’ve met people who have written up to 1 million words of writing in a month, and these folks can and do pick up serious injuries from writing really silly amounts.
Writing 100,000 words a month? Not likely to hurt you at all unless you forget to move.
Wow. Sorry about what you went through with that blood clot, Thomas. That’s really good information you gave me though. Thanks so much.
Good post. Would love to know the names of the toxic writers. I had written a book about writers and the troubles they got into, and I hadn’t heard about them. I can’t imagine calling up the CEO of the chain and treating them like that (or treating anyone like that, for that matter).
Anyway, Scott McCloud, a cartoonist (graphic novelist?) wrote a book called “Understanding Comics” that, in one section, described the stages artists could go through. They’re all motivated, all creating publishable work, but their responses to the use of their talent range from being perfectly happy drawing for themselves, to those who get one book published and are content with fulfilling that ambition (the ‘bucket list’ type), to those who are committed to the act of creation, who enjoy working for themselves, who are complete artists and just about nothing else matters.
Thanks for the book rec, Bill. I will have to seek it out. Much appreciated.
It really is a splendid book. I’d put it up there with William Goldman’s Adventures in the Screen Trade as one of the two or three most useful books on writing that I’ve ever read.
As an amateur writer, I know the maxim that nothing is easier than Not Writing. It’s like exercising: you have to make yourself do it, set aside time every day, and let nothing stop you. If you know you have a lunch meeting and a dinner party, then get your 500 words down at breakfast. I imagine a lot of writers disappear just because they lose the habit.
What a great, insightful piece. I’m deathly afraid I won’t remember to come back to this blog frequently. I believe I saw the link in a Sandra Hoyt guest post on a blog I read, Instapundit.
I can tell I’m going to enjoy catching up on the back posts.
I guess that I am very lucky to have gotten into writing as an indy, first and foremost, and through the back-door of blogging, where I built an audience and established some name recognition even before I started to scribble historical fiction. (Which I was told early on, unless you’re Phillippa Gregory, forget it!)I am a regional writer, and have never even had the opportunity to behave badly to the New York literary-industrial complex … wait … no, that was only a local bookstore, and I was relatively civil.
Anyway, I’ll have a nice regional reputation, and a circle of fans, and my books will be out there basically forever. Life is good, I love writing HF and I’ll be at it for the rest of my days.
So that’s what happened to trad pubbed historical fiction. [sigh] Instead of building on Philippa Gregory’s work, they decided it wasn’t worth it. [double sigh] Glad you and folks like you are publishing indie, Celia. Thanks for the post.
Yup – apparently if you’re not writing about the Tudors, or at a stretch, the Plantagenets, you don’t have a hope of getting shelf-space.
I write about 19th centurt Texas and the American frontier, which appears to be a specialist taste. Mildly profitable for me, but a definitely specialist taste.
And not historical romance, right? Because historical romance in that time period is big. I suspect the taste is less specialized than NY thinks it is.
No, not romance so much – more a straight historical family-saga. Wierdly enough, although I think my first four books go straight down the middle as far as dealing with male and female characters and their concerns, it seems that about two-thirds of my most dedicated fans are men. The last two books – which was a two-part – was almost completely from a woman’s POV – but it dealt with the Texas War for Independence and rowdy times during the Republic of Texas. It was still kind of limiting, though – so one of the next books will return to a largely male POV, for a rackety adventure in Gold-Rush era California.
I know a lot of men who read western romance because that’s the only way they can read about the time period. I’ll tell them about your books!
Mom! What a pleasnt surprise, reading you here.
*bwah-hah-hah! I’m everywhere!
This is an off-the-charts fascinating subject, Kris! I am waiting with anticipation (and not a little bit of fear) to see what pitfalls you envision for indie writers. Personally, I think even if I were the last man on Earth (a la’ Burgess Meredith in the TWILIGHT ZONE where he breaks his glasses) I would STILL write, but I’m really interested to see what kind of career-killers are out there.
Yeah, me too, Steve. (And as for the Burgess Meredith scenario, I’m stockpiling books, paper, pens and extra glasses just in case. 🙂
>I’m stockpiling books, paper, pens and extra glasses just in case
Kristine.. So glad Glenn linked to you so i could say this. Im such a fangirl..i’ve bought the Fey series twice :-). One of my favorites
Thanks, Zeluna28. 🙂
Really great article. I love the way you laid it out and THANK YOU for 4. 5. and 6. Too many times people simply don’t want to hear or believe that yes, sometimes people walk away. With writing, they act like it’s not okay to do that–but it happens in any career you can name. Writing and creating is very hard work–it’s not all fun and games and there really are other things worth achieving in life. I don’t think walking away is all that unusual, nor is it a failure. I know authors who have done it and don’t miss it a bit. It might be harder to walk away these days because there are more options with indie publishing and so on, but I’ve never seen the point made so clearly and well.
I think walking away is a lot more common than we all realize. Just today, I was looking at some bookshelves and saw novels from The Hot Young Thing from 20 years ago, whom I haven’t heard from in 15 years. It happens all the time. It’s sad when the writer wants to continue and doesn’t know how. It’s just fine if the writer decides writing isn’t for him. Thanks, Maria.
Some writers vanish because they only have one book in them.
I find writing a good book to be torture. There are millions of decisions to make, from diction, to plot, to characterization, etc., so one must be driven to write, to subject oneself to such an often thankless task.
Another reason is that one’s book rarely survives the writing. One’s imagination and tools prove unequal to the task of translating imagination into a novel, compelling story.
Plus I’m lazy.
Writing is much harder than reading. Sometimes it takes a few attempts at writing a novel to realize that, and then the writer moves on. Nothing wrong with that; it is the way things work. It takes practice, like all of the other arts, and one must be motivated to practice.
Very informative, and something I haven’t thought about in a long time. Thanks again. Oh, and for what it’s worth, I think you’re spot on about Kindle Select.
🙂 You’re most welcome! Your business posts are one of the highlights of my week. I look forward to each one. I may not fully agree with you, but I appreciate the fact that you do take the time to share the decades of experiences with other writers to help us build long lasting and successful writing careers. Keep it up.
Your first couple of reasons hit the exact reason why I didn’t appear in the first place.
Just about the time that I started getting good solid responses from editors and agents, two things happened: one was that the kind of books I liked to read started disappearing from the shelves at B&N, and in talking to the writers whose books I loved… I found out what was happening to their careers. (Both creatively AND financially.)
So I dropped out. I kept writing, but I decided to wait until the kind of stuff I liked to read came back into style, at least — but even there, I did not want to tie up my series with a publisher who would kill it after two books.
Luckily, the self-publishing revolution came along.
‘fraid I have to agree. The more I read what the business-people have to say, the more I wonder “why on earth would anyone write for a publisher, rather than simply to do it?” Absolutely no offense to anybody in it, but from the outside the entire industry makes ballet recruitment look psychologically wholesome by comparison.
In the last few years, I’ve heard from a lot of writers like you, Camille. They heard about the byzantine publishing system or tried it and hated it, then just wrote for themselves, or waited for things to change. Fortunately, things have changed, so these writers can find readers. I think that’s a great thing.
My experience was similar to yours. I had a few short story and poetry sales, but when I finished my first novel and started researching where to submit it, I realized that I did not really want to have an agent, so I only submitted to small publishers that took unagented works. Plus, I did not want to get pigeonholed and write the same sort of book over and over again. So in the end I only submitted the novel to one publisher, a small press which promptly changed its direction, so my novel would no longer fit, and then just left it alone to concentrate on my academic work and write largely for myself, occasionally submitting a short story or poem.
Then indie publishing came along.
One of the sort of subpoints to deciding they didn’t want to publish/write anymore is I think writers who don’t have much success (let’s say financial success) writing fiction, and perhaps find the business end of it debilitating, so they just say, “What’s the point?” and move on. I think this can happen to indie writers, too, who don’t find all the magic that Joe Konrath and Blake Crouch et al predict.
Perhaps some people simply wake up one day wondering what happened to the drive and hunger that made them write all the time in the first place.
I think it could not only apply to indie writers, but be even more likely for them (particularly if they have physical or mental health issues) because so much more of the work & stress then falls on their shoulders.
Probably not, Xyzzy, since indie writers also have more control over their careers, which reduces stress.
I suspect it depends on what kind of writer you are. If you are the kind of writer who wants someone to take care of you all the freedom that indie offers is probably terrifying.
But for me, having the power to change things and control my own work has dramatically reduced my stress! I can write whatever I want and at whatever length the story requires. I can experiment with all kinds of things. And If I make a mistake, I can fix it myself. Really love this new world!
Is there a “Whatever Happened To…” for SF/fantasy writers? I know the pen names of several authors, but I’m sure there’s a lot more out there that I’m not aware of.
It will be interesting to see whether the self-publishing option will reduce the number of “disappearing authors.” In the meantime, I’m looking forward to Part Two next week.
Not to my knowledge, Sandra. But if anyone does know, could you answer her?
Sandra, there’s always Wikipedia. (Wikipedia does attract a disproportionate number of SF fans.) One lesser-known resource WP offers is the “Reference Desk”, which describes itself as “a virtual librarian’s reference desk” where you can ask questions like that.
Interesting stuff. Seems to me that a writing career is a lot like that Billy Joel lyric, “life is a series of hellos and goodbyes.” I can only speak from my own experience, but that’s exactly what it feels like to me. I am absolutely not a name anyone would miss, but I still have a career in this business because of all the hellos and goodbyes (to jobs, to associates, to genres, to places that fold, etc).
I wrote a lot of dark genre fiction back in the late 80s, early 90s when I was starting out, and I was just beginning to sell short stories consistently when I was offered some ghostwriting work for the biggest bestselling writer at that time (contractually I can’t say who, but it’s not astrophysics to guess). It was probably at that moment when I learned the difference between “writer” and “working writer.” Those are two very different terms. I became a writer with paying gigs, instead of one that was, for all intents and purposes, writing on spec with each short story or novel. Maybe it sells, maybe it doesn’t. Trust me, it doesn’t take long for paying gigs to take precedence over non-paing ones.
So the short fiction production stopped. I continued writing my own novels, cycled through a couple of agents (both of them good guys I’d have a beer with if any of us ever had the time), and racked up the best kind of rejections you can get: Really like the novel, really want to offer on it, but people up the ladder read it and gave X reason to pass.
Those comments told me that my stuff was good enough to self-pub. Meanwhile, by this time I’m working like mad in the nonfiction magazine and book realm, racking up a crazy number of bylines and cover stories, and most importantly, cashing checks (oh, and if anyone ever asks, you’re not “selling out,” you’re “cashing in”…a writer’s always up for semantics 🙂
That’s the beauty of the industry now. You can do it all. Writing fiction doesn’t feel like “on spec” anymore. This past year I wrote about 50,000 words of short fiction in a genre I’d never tried, just for the righteous hell of it. Set up a pen name and went to work. And I’m selling. But even more importantly (to my artistic side), I recently finished two 10,000+ word stories that are poles apart in tone and genre, but are both among my personal favorites. And I’m still going to ghostwrite at least three more fitness books this year and next. And do celeb profiles for magazines. And personal finance stuff. And health & fitness stuff.
The point of all my yakking here is that all writers need to understand that a fruitful career — being a “working writer” — is not allowing that series of hellos and goodbyes to freak you out or scare you away. Or suck the will to create out of you. It’s a natural progression. Today, right now, the only thing that stops you from being a writer is whatever stops you from writing. Finish stuff and try something new.
Hope this adds something useful to the conversation.
This adds a lot to the conversation, Mike. I feel that way about my career as well. Lots of fits and starts and stops and new beginnings. It seems consistent to me, but to readers out there, I probably vanished repeatedly. 🙂 Thank you.
Thanks for some more salient thoughts on the working writer realm. I’m struggling now, wanting to make more money with my fiction but knowing that I need to keep all doors opens in both fiction and nonfiction realms.
This is a great list. I think the element of toxicity is one that is least understood. Some folks think that if you sell well, people will put up with anything from you, but no one likes dealing with a jerk.
Thanks, Russ. No one puts up with jerks long term. Even the writers who have reputations for being jerks are 99% of the time the most charming people on the planet. You just don’t cross them. And in the 1990s, a few of them stopped being able to get work too–they had pushed it too far.
I remember a writer years ago had one book published by a major house, submitted the next one without editing it herself and they didn’t do a thorough job. She blamed them loudly and often at a major event and at other house’s parties. She’s not had a contract since under any name. It’s a business,folks. You can’t insult your boss and expect to keep your job.
Great post, Mona, except I will correct one word. Your publisher isn’t your boss. Your publisher is a business partner, one of many. And you don’t insult the people you do business with. Thanks.