The Business Rusch: Career Writers
Those of us who blog regularly about the changes in the publishing industry do not do so from the place of disinterested observers. Even though a few of us are former journalists, we’re not writing like the journalists we once were. Yes, we’re imparting information, but we’re imparting information with a bias.
For those of us who were formerly in the midlist, our bias is generally Oh my God! This is sooooo much better than traditional publishing.
But we’re coming out of being treated like the mud on the shoe of traditional publishing—if, indeed, we made it that far.
I’m in an unusual position. I have started two publishing companies, have been involved in several more, have worked as an editor for magazines, anthologies, books, and textbooks, had bestsellers because I was a tie-in writer, had bestsellers because all the stars aligned on my original novels, had publishers dump me, have trained copy editors, written cover copy, run newsrooms, sold lots and lots of nonfiction, worked on daily newscasts, been head-hunted by broadcast news organizations and traditional publishing houses, and…and…and…
Sometimes I write from the position of someone who’s seen most everything; sometimes I write from the position of an editor or a publisher; sometimes I write from the position of a mistreated writer; and sometimes I write from the position of a successful writer.
But the one position I never write from is the one-book writer. It’s a position I honestly don’t understand. And that gets me in trouble with some of you who read this blog. Some of you think I don’t do enough to support my “book”; some of you believe I don’t understand what it’s like to be a beginner (what, was I born fully formed from the forehead of Zeus?); some of you think I could never understand how hard writing is.
I understand all of that. What I don’t understand is why some of you believe that your book (singular) is a sacred and holy text. Why you believe that once you’ve published your one book, you’re done.
I’ve never understood that position. Or the idea of writing as something other than a career.
At my very first World Science Fiction convention in 1989, I got invited to do a book signing. I foolishly said yes. Whoever organized the signings that year did so alphabetically by guest last name, so I ended up signing books between Frederik Pohl and Jack Williamson.
My first novel had yet to come out. I’d published a few short stories, and I’d edited a few issues of Pulphouse: The Hardback Magazine. I showed up for my signing—pen in hand—to see lines snaking around the door, into the hallway, and down to the lobby. I walked past those lines, sat down, and proceeded to watch Jack and Fred sign book after book after book older than I was, along with their latest releases.
I signed nothing, although some guy took my picture. I used to joke about that, mostly to hide how embarrassed I was to even be at a book signing when I had published so little.
Jack Williamson had sold his first short story in 1928 to Amazing Stories. Frederik Pohl had sold his first piece nine years later under a pen name. By the end of the 1930s, he was editing two pulp magazines and often writing some of the content himself.
By the time I sat next to them, they each published hundreds of things, many of those things books (be they collections or novels or novellas or anthologies). They’d survived several downturns in the industry, including one that was content-driven. (In other words, what once sold was considered “horrible” and only “good” “new” fiction in a completely different style was “acceptable.”)
They grew as writers, learning new technologies and adapting their work to new mediums. And they continued (or in the case of Fred, continue) to learn.
In the last few years of his life when he could no longer travel, Jack Williamson invited his friends to his hometown in New Mexico for a symposium (which still continues) called The Williamson Lectureship. When Dean and I went in 2001, I was pleased to note that the most informed person in the room about the current trends in science and science fiction was 93-year-old Jack. On that trip, he showed us his office, where he was working his latest project. I don’t know what that project was because Jack continued to write up until the last few months before his death at age 98.
Ninety-three-year-old Fred is still with us, still learning, and still writing. He’s blogging, almost weekly, as well as writing other things. A month ago, he blogged about the way to start a new magazine, and ended with this line: “I know I shouldn’t give it a thought, but if an [editing] offer got real, how could I say no?”
So many young writers are afraid of blogging, afraid of learning new tools, afraid of leaving the traditional world, and here’s Fred, who has seen countless changes in the industry, writing blogs about his life, the industry, and his thoughts—using a form that did not exist when he started writing. Or when I met him, for that matter.
I went to Wikipedia to find a list of what these men wrote, and realized as I glanced at it how those lists were. I had the same reaction when I looked at the obituaries of Elmore Leonard this week. They all said he wrote 45 novels (a figure that comes from his website), but they don’t count his short stories, the reviews and essays he wrote, and the countless other things he had probably lost track of.
The initial obituary in The Los Angeles Times focused on his Hollywood work, and left out much of it. An obit that I saw on one of the major newscasts made it sound like Leonard only had three of his works produced, Get Shorty, Jackie Brown, and the short story that inspired the series Justified.
In fact, Leonard’s obituaries became a kind of Rorschach test for me: Had the person who wrote the obituary read Leonard’s books? Seen his movies? Seen Justified? Read his rules on writing?
Elmore Leonard had been a career writer, a working writer, who didn’t become famous until he turned sixty. He had another 27 years of writing after that, and died with his boots on, as he was deep into his 46th novel.
We lost other career writers this year. Most of you have never heard of Barbara Mertz, but she had two bestselling pen names: Elizabeth Peters and Barbara Michaels. I am a big Barbara Michaels fan—have been since I read Greygallows in 1972. I’m not as big a fan of Elizabeth Peters. But I must admit that one of my favorite Mertz books is long out of print, one the incomparable Laura Resnick mentioned to me. Called Two Thousand Years in Rome, the book (which Mertz published with her ex-husband Richard Mertz) is a travel guide to Rome that still holds up—mostly because the book looks at the historical Rome, not the modern one.
Mertz would have turned 86 in October. She wrote on her website (which I couldn’t access tonight, so I had to trust The Los Angeles Times for this):
I have never been able to understand how people can complain about being lonely or bored; there are so many interesting things to do, so many fascinating people to know. I love my work, and I hope to go on doing it till I drop at the age of 99.
If only. Because, had she kept writing for another 13 years, we would have more wonderful books.
Career writers are different from most writers. We’re more resilient, for one thing. This career has incredible ups and downs, heartbreaking sadness and some truly nasty crap.
Michael Connolly intimated at the ups and downs in his tribute to Elmore Leonard in Wednesday’s Los Angeles Times:
He had worked so hard and for so long in obscurity before getting his due, before ending up on the cover of Time magazine and in American Express ads. There was nothing that could rock him, no moment for which he didn’t have a line.
It was like he was one of those jazz masters who had come out of a long stay in San Quentin. You knew there were dark times back there but he had to go through them to play the music he made now. I never could bring myself to ask about those times. By the time I knew him he was an elder statesman of sorts….
Writers often don’t talk about the hard times. I’m unusual in that I do—and I’ve noticed that because I do, I get called all kinds of things on the web: bitter, angry, a failure. I’m told that I hate traditional publishing, even though I’m still traditionally published, and I’ve started two traditional publishing companies (one is still in existence) and worked at countless more.
I’m not sure where the name-calling comes from. I do know that it usually comes from other writers, although this summer, Danielle Steel had issues with people (men, she says, but this might be generational) who belittle her writing career. They ask her if she’s still writing, and here’s how she responded on her blog:
Yes, I am STILL writing. What this does is that it immediately puts my writing into the category as a hobby. As in, are you still taking piano lessons, doing macramé, have a parrot? I don’t have a huge ego about my work, but let’s face it, for me it is a job. A job I love, and I have been doing it since I was 19 years old. I have been in the Guinness book of world records repeatedly for having a book on the bestseller list for more weeks consecutively than whoever. Yes, for Heaven’s sake, I am still writing. It’s my work, my job, how my family eats and went to college. People said that comment to me when I was 35. Now when they say it, I get even more insulted…
Yeah. Been there. Apparently, very few people—writers and non-writers—understand that many of us view writing as our job, our career, the thing we do every single day.
I ran into this as recently as this past weekend. And my problem usually comes from other writers, often other published writers. On Saturday, I participated in a mass book signing at Bob’s Beach Books on the Oregon Coast, an event I participate in every year. Some of my books were on the table in front of me, but honestly, not even a tenth of what I’ve done was represented there, and certainly not most of what’s in print.
I found myself apologizing to three different writers (published writers!) for the fact that I have published more than they have, that my output is significantly higher. I was tired because the signing was in the middle of my night (I usually get up at noon; signing began at 10:30), and when I’m tired, I actually get polite. (I learned long ago that I’m caustic, so my default is either funny or polite.)
So there I was, apologizing for the fact that my writing has been my job for my entire life, that—like Danielle Steel—I’ve had work in print since I was a teenager, and that I write a lot.
I shouldn’t have to apologize for being prolific, especially to other people who consider themselves professional writers. But I do apologize in those situations, which is why, more and more, I don’t talk to other writers about writing. In fact, I avoid those discussions as much as I can. I’m “intimidating,” you see. I “should know how uncomfortable it makes other writers” when they see what I’ve done.
Which, honestly, I do not understand.
When I sat at that book signing with Fred and Jack, a 29-year-old writer between a 70-year-old writer (who started at age 19) and an 81-year-old writer (who started at 20), I looked in awe at their lines, at those books that predated me (sometimes by decades), at their latest books in the hands of fans, and I admired it.
That’s what a writer is, I thought. And that’s what kind of writer I wanted to become. It was a defining moment for me, a moment that enabled me to see so many possibilities.
Like Elmore Leonard and Donald Westlake and Robert B. Parker and oh so many others, I want to die with my boots on, facedown on my keyboard if possible, in the middle of a sentence.
Which brings me back to this blog. I write from the perspective of a career writer, someone who started as a teenager and plan to finish when my heart stops pumping. I write about survival—long-term survival—in a business that discourages longevity. That’s my point, that’s always my point, in all of these blogs.
I know some people only have one book in them. I know that others quit after four or five books because they get discouraged. I think some of that discouragement might be abated in the future with the rise of indie publishing, but I doubt that all of it will. Already I’m seeing blogs by traditionally published writers who are convinced that indie publishing is too hard. I keep hearing, “All I want to do is write!” and I think it unrealistic in the extreme.
Of course all they want to do is write; that’s all every writer wants to do. And indie or traditional or a hybrid, we must do other things, like look over edits, maybe approve covers (or design them), maintain blogs, and a whole host of other non-writerly duties. It doesn’t matter what side of the fence you’re on or if you’re straddling that fence. No published writer gets to “just write.” Not a one of us.
Much of the advice out there, though, on both sides, is geared toward the one- or two-book writers, the folks who have the time to monitor their Amazon reviews (and, as one rather dumb new writer advocated, revise the book accordingly).
There are a handful of us—from JA Konrath to my husband Dean Wesley Smith to Bob Mayer—who blog for the career writer, the ones who know that we have many books inside us, and who want readers for all of those books.
We approach this new world with awe, and with the spirit of experimentation, because we have no idea what will work five years from now, but we’re eager to see it. All of us are making more money indie than we ever did traditionally, and we’re rather stunned at it.
But more than that, we’re getting to our readers for the first time.
Our readers don’t ask if “we’re still writing” any more, like those poor idiots asked Danielle Steel. Our readers used to ask that question because they couldn’t find our books. Now the readers can find our books, and what we’re getting is “When is the next one coming out?”
The fact that we now have an answer is new for us—most of us suffered series interruptus because of problems with our traditional publishers. We’re excited about all we can write. (And sometimes overwhelmed by it.) We can experiment in craft, we can experiment in types of stories, and we can write as fast as we want.
Readers aren’t intimidated by prolific writers. Readers like prolific writers. Readers can always read faster than we can write; we’ll never be able to keep up with the demand for stories.
And that’s a good thing (even when it’s hard to remember as someone asks for a novel two books away from being written).
I’ll be honest: this blog came from a reassessment I’ve been doing all week. I looked at my schedule and realized I’m having a slow novel year. So far, I’ve only finished three books (and one of them was rather short). I have written a number of short stories, and I’m on pace for a good short story year. But if I want to finish all the books promised in 2013, then I need to get cracking.
So I was trying to figure out what I could cut, and I looked hard at this blog. I no longer consider myself a nonfiction writer, even though I produce about 160,000 words of nonfiction every year. (That’s two novels, folks.)
But the blog does serve me, right now. I’m still exploring this new world, and I like doing it with the help of the blog’s readers—so long as you understand that this blog is about writing careers, not about writing a single book. I also am not looking at one way of doing things. Because there isn’t one.
I’m still deeply rooted in traditional publishing, even though I do some indie publishing. I understand most sides in this industry, even though I rarely express those other sides on Thursdays. If I wanted to, I could write a blog about the ways that agents could change their business model and survive. Or a blog about how an editor could thrive in the modern market. Or a blog about the best paths for beginning writers.
Even though I understand those things, they don’t interest me much. And this blog is for me as much as it is for you all. I’m still learning about this new world, still figuring out my path
And as long as I am doing that, this blog will survive. I haven’t missed a week in 54 months. That means I’ve written about 700,000 words. And that number scares me, considering how much of those 700,000 words are only one-time words.
To put it another way, most of what I write here won’t last six months, let alone four more years. That makes most of these blogs what my friend Bill used to call ephemera, works that are unimportant and don’t last, works that I’m certain didn’t even show up on any publishing list after my death.
But I see all of these words as part of a process. I think better while researching and working at the keyboard. I feel an obligation to investigate the changes in publishing every week because I have a Thursday deadline. So I do.
I’ll leave you with the words of George Carlin, spoken in a 1997 interview with Jon Stewart. This morning, writer and actor Terry Hayman sent this to a list serve that I’m on (perfect timing, Terry!), and Carlin’s philosophy on being a career artist sums up how I feel about being a long-term writer.
Carlin said, “The artist has an obligation to be en route, to be going somewhere. There’s a journey involved here, and you don’t know where it is, and that’s the fun. So you’re always going to be seeking and looking and going and trying to challenge yourself.”
This new world of publishing is challenging, but that’s not enough. The act of writing is challenging. Being an artist in the 21st century is challenging.
And oh so very much fun.
Even though I write part of this blog for me, I also need the blog to fund itself. That’s why I have a donate button. If I’m going to sacrifice two novels a year to this blog, I need to recoup the amount I would earn (at least as an advance) from the blog itself. So, if you’ve learned something from this week’s blog or previous ones, or if you like what I’m doing here, please leave a tip on the way out. Thanks.
“The Business Rusch: “Career Writers” copyright © 2013 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.