Business Musing: Writing in the 21st Century (Part Two)
The other day, I was reading a friend’s Facebook post about writing, when another writer popped up in the comments. Comment Writer, whom I have known for thirty years and whom I do not have a good opinion of, began their comment on self-publishing with “The only way to make money as a writer in today’s environment is…”
Immediately, my fingers lifted off the keyboard. Immediately, I leaned back in my chair and forced myself not to respond. Immediately, I reminded myself that I have always thought Comment Writer was both emotionally difficult and intellectually challenged.
And still, I had the tiny nagging thought: Are they making more money than I am? Are they right?
I actually had to walk away from the computer and mentally bitch-slap myself. Even if Comment Writer is out-earning me, it doesn’t matter. Comment Writer is a very different writer from me. And even though I personally dislike Comment Writer with a deep passion, I know that Comment Writer is a heck of a storyteller.
That’s one of the most annoying things about being an editor, truth be told. Some of the biggest assholes on the planet are some of the planet’s best writers.
So there is a possibility that Comment Writer is out-earning me. There’s a possibility that Comment Writer is making Big Money. There’s also a possibility that what Comment Writer thinks is Big Money and what I think of as Big Money are different by a factor of $100,000 or more. (Most writers who make “a lot of money” are making a decent middle class income. Which is great. But I think of a lot of money as something in the millions, not something in the tens of thousands.)
I did not go look to see if Comment Writer is out-earning me. I would have done so, back in 2012 or 2013, when I was still uncertain of the ground I was standing on as a hybrid writer who was slowly leaving her traditional publishers and publishing her material herself.
To be fair to my previous self, the business was shifting almost daily and the self-publishing industry was changing so fast that it made my head spin. There was so much to keep up on, so many new venues for selling work coming on board, so many ways to self-publish, and so many ways to promote that I couldn’t stay on top of everything.
Then there were the indie bestsellers who were putting out a lot of books of minimal professional quality and making a boatload of money—some of them even making Big Money before they would give it all up to run to traditional publishers, believing that trad pub would make them even richer.
Trad pub milked them dry. Some fulfilled their traditional contract and fled. Others jumped happily to traditional, making supposedly big money, although their output has declined markedly. Even more have just plain disappeared. (I just went down the rabbit hole, name-checking indie writers who jumped to trad pub years ago, and found a stunning number of them had taken down websites…and had published no new books since 2016 or so.)
According to Comment Writer, the only way to make money as an indie writer was to write short books in a series, and publish at minimum a book every three months. Sound familiar? I’ve heard a variation on that since 2013, and to be fair it does work for some.
However, it also puts writers not used to that kind of workload on a treadmill that can lead to burnout. It also turns writing from fun into drudgery. Some writers can write the same series over and over and over again. Some can write literally the same book with different characters. Some can write in the same exact genre book after book after book.
But most of us? We don’t want to do that. If we wanted days of endless sameness, we would have stuck to our day jobs.
I cringe whenever I see a writer pronounce, “The only way to…” because it’s demonstrably false—whatever they’re saying. This problem existed long before indie. I remember sitting on a panel at a science fiction convention with three very Big Name writers who got their start in the 1960s. The only way to become a writer, they all said, was to start in short fiction then graduate to novels—something that had become nearly impossible in the mid-1990s.
The only way to make a living as a writer, several Big Name sf writers said on other panels, was write hard science-based science fiction. Space opera is dead.
Of course, they were saying that as space opera was being revived in the arty sections of sf. In the Real World, where readers actually bought books, space opera never went away at all. It just was off the critics’ radar for a while, before it returned.
Regular readers of this blog have seen me rail against “the only way” for a long time, while telling writers that they needed to learn business. The only way to survive, I would say, is learn how to manage your money and your accounts and stay on top of your actual business. Learn copyright.
I’ll stand by that as an “only way.” And that’s pretty generic. I want writers to survive in this business, and the best way to survive is to learn business. Does that mean writers who don’t know business will always fail? Hell, no. It means that writers who don’t know business have seeded a cottage industry of hangers-on who usually siphon off funds (be that agents or accountants or “assistants” or “financial managers”). A lot of those writers make enough money to lose a goodly percentage without noticing.
Those who don’t make the kind of money that will support those hangers-on usually leave the business (and take their lovely writing with them. Pout, pout).
But I never tell writers how to write. Even in craft workshops, I struggle mightily to work with writers who clearly love fiction that I hate with a deep and powerful passion. I know there are readers for the things I hate, and I’d be giving bad advice if I based my teaching only on the things I like.
There is something for every reader, and just because I hate it doesn’t mean that the work is bad. The work is, most likely (given the pro writers I teach), quite good. It’s just not for me.
(I had that brought home to me yet again this week as I reluctantly set aside a book by one of my all-time favorite writers. She took me to a carnival with a baby killer and an insane hero. I might’ve tolerated the carnival by itself. I might have tolerated the insane hero. I might’ve skipped over the baby-killing references. But all three together? I couldn’t handle it, much as I normally adore her work. Did she suddenly get bad as a writer? Hell, no. She just hit what we call in our workshops my “anti-reader-cookies,” meaning the stuff that makes me run screaming from the room. I tried, I really did. I failed miserably—and it was all on me.)
So much of the advice for indie (self) published writers is couched in the terms of “the only way to make money is.” The thing is, the advice writers get is contradictory.
The only way to make money as a writer is to write short books in series and publish really fast.
The only way to make money as a writer is to follow the trends and write as much as you can in that trend until the trend goes bust.
The only way to make money as a writer is to write one really good novel per year and spend the rest of the year promoting it.
The only way…
Well, you get the picture.
But here’s the thing: We work in the arts, people. Readers don’t know what they want until they get their grubby little paws on it. And then, if they like it, they want more of the same. Not in the same series or a similar story, but by the same writer.
Readers fall in love with voices. Sure, they might pick up Tolkien-lite fantasies because good ole J.R. is long gone and not writing any more. But if someone discovered a long-lost Tolkien manuscript, you can bet the Tolkien fans would dump this month’s Tolkien-lite novel and buy the brand new Tolkien.
Some readers only like certain subgenres, until they don’t any more. The horror subgenre faded away and died in the 1990s because every book became a watered-down version of every other book. (The traditional publishing verson of write-in-the-current-fad thinking.) Now, the horror genre is revived thanks to three major things: 1) the kids who read R.L. Stine have grown up and become editors/writers/filmmakers; 2) the door has opened to diverse horror tales—stories like the movie Get Out which takes real world horror (the treatment of African-Americans by “well-meaning” white people) and makes it into a horror tale with powerful reverberations; and 3) an entire generation of readers who were born around the turn of the century, grew up in the shadow of 9/11, and are now living through this global pandemic hell. For some reason they want more horror, rather than less.
And, you’ll note, R.L. Stine kept publishing a lot of horror fiction right through the horror crash, because he was working in a sub-genre of children’s literature that was considered schlock by the critics. Kids, though, the only people who counted (because the books were written for them), loved what Stein was doing, and told their friends.
Word of mouth, as I mentioned last week. That’s what is going to propel books forward in this century. And not always the expected book. Or this week’s release, either.
Sometimes books take forever to take off. They’re early in the trend cycle—sometimes years early. Or it takes the author a few more books to attract readers, who then work their way backwards and find this particular book. Maybe a bunch of readers blog about it, and then they start word of mouth going.
Sometimes the book does well on a new platform. Maybe the Apple Books platform has a better algorithm for that particular book. Or maybe Kobo’s algorithm brings that book into a category list for a particular subgenre…in New Zealand.
Once writers accept that there is no right way to write books, no right way to promote books, and no right way to start word of mouth, the writer will be better off.
There is only…your way.
There’s no point in writing books about topics you hate just because they’re trendy.
If you don’t think in short series books, then don’t write them.
If you like a subgenre that is “out of style,” write it anyway, and maybe your books will be the books that “bring the genre” back. (Chances are it was never really gone—just dismissed by critics and tastemakers.)
Only write short stories? So be it. Figure out how to market them in collections. There are a lot of famous short story writers in the world. Collections and anthologies sell all the time; no reason why yours can’t.
Plus, short stories are great loss leaders for newsletters, places like Patreon, and, um, a weekly free fiction giveaway.
I think the way to write in the 21st century is to write what you love. Commit to it, enjoy it, and write from the heart.
(We’ll talk about marketing it next week.)
Once upon a time, not too long ago, there really were only a handful of ways to break into publishing. You had to take the path of the moment. In the 1960s, in science fiction, that path involved the short fiction magazines and “graduating” to novels. In the 1980s, in romance fiction, that path involved writing categories (short novels) before “graduating” to big paperbacks.
You can still hear vestiges of the traditional publishing break-in advice…often from traditionally published writers. There used to be rules because the only way to break into traditional publishing was to catch the attention of various gatekeepers.
The digital revolution has changed all of that. Now, anyone can publish a novel. The way to attract attention isn’t to have someone in power champion the book; the way to do so is to get a handful of people to read it, love it, and tell their friends.
That means that readers aren’t looking for trends. The best storytellers win, because story is what we remember.
But all that advice you hear—some of it using words like algorithms or velocity or newsletters or marketing or agents or sales volume—almost all of it belongs to a now-dead world.
The pandemic has put a nail in the coffin of the mid-20th century publishing traditions. I’ll talk about this more in the future, but take a look at last week’s post for guidance.
Most of the Comment Writer types will spout off on a variation of traditional publishing rules. Whether it’s write to market or write to trend, whether it’s about the swiftness of publication (which comes from traditional category romance publishing) or “taking your time to craft something memorable” (which comes from the literary mainstream), all of that comes out of a world that has, for better or for worse, disappeared.
There are trends and techniques to get your book(s) noticed. That will help, but remember this: You might be early. You might be the person who starts the party, not the person who crashes it.
Best to write what you love, find your voice, and write a lot.
Does writing a lot mean a book per month, in some series? Hell no. Writing a lot for some writers is a book every two years. For others, it’s a book every six months. For some, it’s a book per month.
Some writers, like me, hate being tied to a genre. My brain simply can’t handle being forced to write the same tropes over and over and over again. I wonder how many writers manage it.
And yet, some writers love working within a certain genre’s tropes, finding new and compelling ways to tell the same story.
As a reader, I love the work of some of those writers. I marvel at their ability to find something different in the same-old same-old. (You’ll see a lot of their names in my Recommended Reading List every month. I don’t want to do it, but that doesn’t mean I lack appreciation for those who excel at it.)
Find your voice as a writer.
Then—the hard part—accept that voice. Realize that this is who you are as a writer, and make that work for you.
Sure, that means you’ll occasionally have the reaction that I had to Comment Writer. You’ll wonder…are they doing better than me? Should I change?
That’s a healthy reaction, and a gut check. Sometimes the answer is, as it was for me, Oh, hell no. Just keep doing what you’re doing.
Sometimes the answer is, hmmm, that’s intriguing. Let’s try it and see.
And sometimes the answer is, how come I never thought of that? That sounds a lot more like what I want to do than what I’m doing is.
Writing is a journey, particularly if you want a long career. You won’t be the same writer at the end of that career as you were in the beginning—not if you’re striving to grow and change and become better with each work.
The heart of the journey comes from being true to yourself. The best writing comes from who you are, not the originality of your plots or the lovely sentences you compose.
The sad part about it all, though, is that you’ll never recognize your own voice and your own originality. After all, you’ve lived with that voice and that perspective your entire life. It’s familiar to you.
But it’s not familiar to anyone else.
Be yourself, and trust in that.
Here’s the thing: It’s so much easier to follow rules. The fact that those rules used to be necessary makes it harder to get rid of them.
Rules provide a framework, and jettisoning that framework is scary. That’s why so many indie writers follow the lead of some other successful indie writer. Rather than seeing what that writer is doing as unique to them, these other writers jump on the bandwagon and try to become just like that writer.
It’ll work until it doesn’t. Or until that particular trend dies. Or the writer breaks from boredom or burnout.
Most writers rebel at my advice to be themselves and write what they love. They want the magic bullet.
It’s easier to follow a set of rules, but rules don’t guarantee success. They feel comforting, though. They make the writer feel like she’s doing something, even if that something isn’t working.
So, sadly, my advice in 2020 is no different than my advice was in 2015 or even 2010. Write what you love. Be yourself. Find your own voice. And be the best writer you can possibly be. Keep learning, keep growing, and most importantly, keep writing.
Stop trusting editors and gatekeepers (even the ones you pay) to tell you how to write. Write for yourself. Enjoy your work.
But here’s the difference between 2020 and, say, 2009. You can have a career writing what you love. You can make a lot of money at it, if that’s your desire. You can actually become well known for whatever it is that you do best.
Because the old order is falling away.
Yes, I know. It’s sad. You’ll never have that #1 New York Times million-copy bestseller through Times-approved paper bookstores, because most of those stores are gone now. You can make the Times list with as little as 5,000 books these days.
You’ll never write the culture-defining novel that is reviewed in all the right places, because all the right places have gone out of business or have become click-bait troll farms. (It’s amazing how many famous magazine brands got sold off to troll farms.)
You’ll never write that coffee-table book that all the best people are discussing because no one puts paper books on their coffee tables any more. Hell, many people don’t have coffee tables. And who invites snobby people over in the age of Covid, just to impress them with books and records and a well cooked meal (with martinis first, of course)? No one. That’s another mid-century tradition happily gone.
But those impressions formed us, and we want something to replace them. Indie writers who make hundreds of thousands of dollars, who have a solid worldwide fanbase, and whose latest release gets readers to preorder in large numbers even in an age of digital abundance don’t think their type of success is worthwhile, because it doesn’t fit those old-fashioned tropes.
It’s not the world that needs changing, my writerly friends. The world has changed. And, startlingly, it changed long before lockdowns and the pandemic and the economic collapse made that change clear.
What needs changing is our attitude. We’ll never recover that lost world. It is as far gone as the Belle Époque or the Renaissance. That world is behind us now, and the quicker we let go, the better off we’ll be.
Particularly when it comes to our writing.
Let’s move into the future together. Let’s see what the 2020s will bring. Let’s see what we can build out of the devastation of this year.
Note that I didn’t say rebuild. I said build.
We’re starting anew.
We have the opportunity to create something better than what we left behind.
Let’s do so.
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“Business Musings: Writing in the 21st Century (Part Two),” copyright © 2020 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog © Can Stock Photo / bruesw.