The Business Rusch: Why Writers Disappear (Part Two)
Last week, I started a blog post that I thought would go relatively quickly and be somewhat short. After all, I had just given a one-hour talk on the topic, and about forty-five minutes of that had been in response to questions.
Talking something and writing something are vastly different. I only got through half of my list before I exceeded my comfortable blog post length. Please go back and read the post before you read this one. Please read the comments as well; some writers who vanished from one genre or another talk about the reasons why they moved to another. The comments section of my blog often have a lot of great insights from a variety of people, and so are generally worth checking out.
In last week’s post, I had a list of the reasons why writers disappear. I got through half of it.
For those of you who read the post, here’s the refresher.
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.
I’m going to deal with points seven through nine in this post. So, here goes:
Writers disappear because they get discouraged.
It’s really easy to discourage a writer. Writers are a fascinating mix of insecurity and ego. The ego comes in believing that they have something to say, something that the world needs or wants to hear. The insecurity comes from everything else.
From parents who want their child to do something “practical,” to teachers who take it upon themselves to dismiss the less “talented” among their students, to the editors/agents/publishers who reject with forms, the entire world (it seems) exists to tell writers they shouldn’t follow their dreams and they should get a “real” job.
It’s taken me decades to say to people, “Hey, my job is real. It’s just unusual.”
There’s also an attitude, particularly among professional writers, that writers who can be discouraged should be discouraged. My reaction to that sentence, which I first heard from one of the professional writers teaching during my year as a student at the Clarion Writers Workshop, was a reader’s reaction. Why should voices be silenced? What if those voices have interesting things to say or great stories to tell? Just because a writer isn’t “tough” by another writer’s definition doesn’t mean she’s not worthy of the profession itself.
Still, those instructors have one valid point: writing is hard. Not on the rocket-science/brain-surgery side of hard or on the twelve-hours-of nonstop-manual-labor side of hard, but on the invent-your-own-path-and-survive kind of hard. It takes a tough person to handle the continual ups and downs of the profession.
What I tell my writing students is this: It doesn’t matter if you get knocked to the floor. It doesn’t even matter how long you remain on the floor, recovering or feeling sorry for yourself. What matters is that you eventually pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and try again. (I wrote a post on a part of this topic last year.)
Those people will make it as writers and will remain writers decades later. It’s a kind of mental toughness that the arts demand of its practitioners. People who are unwilling to take the hits—and there will be dozens, if not hundreds, of hits—will move on to other things.
Most of the folks in category five (“They were no longer interested in writing”) and category six (“They moved to a different part of the industry”) are folks who move on. They looked around after their first or second or tenth hit, and decided that, much as they liked the industry, it wasn’t worth their time and energy.
Sometimes the decision isn’t even conscious. The writer finds himself doing other things, and the thought of going back to writing seems like too much effort. The writer ends up seeing no point in continuing in a discouraging profession when other opportunities seem brighter.
What can discourage a writer?
I think the most common thing is the constant negativity inbred into the profession. Writers get told from the beginning that their dream is impractical, or they’re not good enough, or they should be writing “art,” or they should make money first or…or…or…
Then the writer achieves a goal—she sells her first short story to a major market or her first article gets published. Usually those endeavors sink without a mention, and the writer must repeat the success somehow.
Or the first book comes out and mingled among the good reviews are negative ones. Writers train themselves to hear the negative only—how else will I improve? they think—and don’t realize that the negative reviewers might be responding to taste. (I addressed this in detail last summer.)
Writers who get discouraged never understand what success they’ve already had. They don’t know that most people who call themselves writers never finish a novel or market a short story. They don’t know that the first sale is a triumph, whether that sale is to a major magazine or a sale to an unknown reader through an e-reading device.
They don’t understand that ten positive reviews of their first novel mean so much more than any negative review.
And they don’t understand the journey. A writing career isn’t a destination. It’s not one sale or twenty. It’s about a lifetime of sales, about writing more books, stories, poems, and articles than you can remember in any one sitting.
In last week’s post, I listed things that could discourage a traditional writer. The first three don’t apply to indie writers, but there are variations. Indie writers get discouraged when they’ve published one book, promoted the hell out of it, and get no sales—or very few sales. (See Dean Wesley Smith’s blog on promotion this week to learn how to do it right.)
Indie writers get discouraged when they realize how much work this profession actually is. More than one book? More than one cover? What about ten books that don’t sell well? What about twenty?
Those writers have to look to their skill level, their book package, and their expectations. Some writers will strike it rich by publishing their own books, but most writers won’t.
Like traditional writers, indie writers need to be in this profession for the love of writing, and when something—or someone—steals that love away from the writer, the writer has to do whatever it takes to recover the love. Sometimes that’s writing something that’s just for the writer; sometimes it’s avoiding writers workshops or reading reviews; sometimes it’s several years of therapy.
More writers quit because they get discouraged than for any other reason. And often, it’s not a conscious decision; they gradually stop and don’t notice for years. The readers notice, though. To them, the writer has disappeared.
Writers disappear because they can’t handle the solitude.
Most successful writers are introverts. They’re happy spending 99% of their time alone in their own heads. But I’ve met some extroverted writers, and they struggle with the alone time. They write in Starbucks or some local restaurant. They open an office and share it with other like-minded authors.
Mostly, though, they gravitate to writing jobs that require more than one person, like writing for television. There, writers bat ideas around in a writers’ room, sometimes writing while the meeting is going on. Many gaming writers do the same thing, and so do some comic book writers. Journalists spend more time with people than away from people.
Fiction writers, though, even those who collaborate, do so by themselves. And some extroverted writers often try that for a few years before it drives them completely batty. Those writers quit writing fiction, and find ways to write that require a group effort.
Often you’ll see one or two novels from these folks. Most often, you’ll see the novel by the writer of the screenplay for the movie Such N So, or the novel by the writer who worked on the TV series Famous TV Show. That writer generally fulfills his contract with a traditional publisher or publishes his two or three trunk novels as an indie writer, and then goes back to what he knows, writing in a group setting.
From the point of view of book readers, that writer has vanished. But to those of us who actually read the credits on TV shows and movies, that writer might still be quite active.
Hollywood has made it very difficult for writers of a certain age to get jobs, however. I recall one friend of mine, an extremely successful screenwriter, who had a top-secret fiftieth birthday party because he didn’t want anyone in Hollywood to know how old he was. He was afraid that his age alone would cause him to lose work. I know some good folks are fighting this ageism even now, and I wish them the best.
So, even if writers who can’t take solitude return to the trenches in Hollywood (and gaming has started this insanity as well), they sometimes can’t get work. Their byline disappears, even though they haven’t stopped writing at all.
This reason that writers disappear has an impact on indie writers as well as traditional writers. In fact, indie writers might have more difficulty with this, because they don’t have to interact (even in a minor way) with traditional publishers, editors, and sales people. Indie writers can choose to do it all. Alone. In front of their computers. Without outside stimulation. For days, weeks, or months.
I’m an introvert, and that would drive me batty.
So this is one to watch, for all writers, introverted or not.
Writers disappear because they can’t handle the financial problems inherent in a writing career.
Believe it or not, this problem will cause more indie writers to disappear than traditional writers. The reason? There are decades of writing advice on how the income streams work for traditional writers, and very little advice that will help the indie writer.
Writers are freelancers, and handling a freelance income fulltime takes a lot of money management skills, patience, and an ability to handle stress. I wrote about this in my Freelancer’s Survival Guide (which you can get in book form as well as free on this site) and in a short book called How To Make Money.
But the shorthand version of it is this: Freelance income isn’t steady. It comes in dribs and drabs. Sometimes it arrives in large chunks and the freelancer needs to manage that money for months before another check comes in. Imagine getting your salary in two half-yearly payments with no taxes removed, and then you have the income of most traditional book writers. Those writers have to make it to the next payment without racking up high credit card bills or delaying mortgage payments. And they have to be prepared for the next check to be late—not days late. Weeks or months late.
It chews up stomach lining. It’s uncertain. It’s hard.
It drives writers away from fulltime freelancing in droves, it discourages them (see above), and it sends them back to day jobs—where they have little or no time to write. So many writers disappear because they simply don’t have the ability—either mental or emotional—to handle the freelance income.
I know many of you successful indies are thinking that will never happen to you. After all, Amazon and Barnes & Noble pay monthly. Smashwords pays quarterly (and I wish to hell they’d change that). Other sites have a different payment schedule, but those payment schedules are usually regular.
However, sales are not. Particularly book sales.
They go up and they go down.
Here’s the hard truth of book sales, indie writers. Just because you earned $1,000 this month (and the five months previous) doesn’t mean you will earn $1,000 next month. Tastes will change. Your book might lose momentum over Christmas because people are spending their holiday dollars on a different type of book. That $1,000 per month might return in six months, along with even more money, but—unlike a salary—your $1,000 a month is not guaranteed.
Most writers come to freelancing from regular jobs. Your boss offers you a salary or an hourly wage, and you will receive that money for your troubles. Every two weeks or every month, you’ll get a check of a predictable amount.
There’s no predicting freelancing. One month you could get nothing. The next month, $20,000. You can’t bank on either happening the third month, but you should plan on nothing instead of something. Why? That way, you have a contingency plan.
So many indie writers will have a relatively steady writing income for a few months and think they’ve made it. They’re set for life. Then the income will go down, and no amount of promotion or cover tweaking will change it.
The only thing that will help your previous books is writing another book, but that takes time. And if you banked on the set income, you suddenly find yourself in financial trouble, which is not conducive to work.
A lot of writers have gone through this on the traditional side. They sold several books, then couldn’t sell another (see point one). Panicked, behind on the rent, they quit writing and get another job.
Better to have a contingency plan, and expect the worst.
But most writers don’t, because most writers don’t understand business. In particular, most writers don’t understand business cycles, which are called business cycles for a reason. No business—not one—earns the same amount of money month in and month out. Employees do, because the employer guarantees the paycheck. But if the employer can no longer meet payroll, the employees get laid off.
The employees never see the business’s uneven income (unless that employee works in accounting), and so rarely understand how normal this is. Most people, in fact, have no idea how precarious their regular jobs really are. (Although, after this recession, more people know now than before.)
When people who’ve had steady work move to freelancing, they expect the freelance income to behave the way that their paychecks did. They expect regular and on-time.
Because indie writers get regular checks from their distributors, this problem gets compounded. The checks feel like a salary, even though they aren’t.
And so when the money decreases, or dries up, it feels personal. It hurts. What has the writer done wrong?
Nothing, except fail to plan for normal business ups and downs.
But most writers, facing months of little or no income when they had a lot of income earlier, see themselves as failures and quit.
Indie publishing has existed long enough that the first cycle has made itself known. Lots of writers aren’t earning what they did before.They think it a failure of the system or of their own writing, when in fact, it’s the way all businesses work.
They’ll believe that the gravy train has ended, and they’ll get discouraged. Then they’ll quit.
And so, to the readers, these writers will disappear—except for the indie books they already have up. But there won’t be new books, maybe not ever, and that will be a crime.
Once again, I have too much to say in the remaining three points. I can truncate them or I can give them the room they deserve. I opt for room. So rather than two posts on why writers disappear, I’ll have three.
Thanks to everyone who visited last week, including all the newcomers. I hope you stick around for a while.
And, speaking of income, I make my living writing fiction, so the time I take each week to write this blog needs to pay for itself. That’s why I have the donation button on these posts and no others on this website.
So, if you’ve learned anything, or feel that you got something of value from this or previous posts, please leave a tip on the way out.
“The Business Rusch: “Why Writers Disappear (Part Two),” copyright © 2012 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.