Writers are curious creatures. We’re a mix of insecurity and ego. The ego is there whether we admit it or not. Why else would we write stories and put them out into the world? Deep down, we believe that other people want to read these stories. For some of us (all of us?), we believe that our stories will be read by millions of people and that we will become the most famous author of our generation.
That ego keeps us going through the rough early years. It keeps us writing even through the discouragement that we all receive, sometimes from well-meaning folks and sometimes from malicious “friends.”
But…the insecurity is there as well. Are we good enough? Are we delusional? Are we trying for something that hardly anyone ever achieves? Are we crazy? Are we wasting our time?
The longer we strive, the more the insecurity grows. We have failures and setbacks. Once we publish, professional critics chime in with their professional negativity. Those words get stuck in our heads, and we haul them out when we’re feeling down.
Sometimes we even heed the negative, taking it all in. Some writers stop writing because of that. The rest of us soldier on, sometimes changing our behavior to silence the critics (never works) and sometimes letting anger fuel us to help us move forward.
The ego remains, but it’s been tempered by years of negativity. Or by social conditioning. When a writer—an artist—heck, anybody with a dream—talks about that dream, other people feel that it is their duty to warn.
Most writers never achieve that.
Make sure you guard your heart so that you don’t get hurt.
Maybe your expectations are too high. Maybe you should temper them back a little.
And on. And on.
What makes this worse is that writers, in particular, never hear the praise. When I teach craft workshops, I admonish writers to write down everything someone says about their work, the good and the bad. Most writers still pause over their notes as I say something like, This story is marvelous. I loved reading it. They don’t write that down. They think those comments are irrelevant, and yet the positive comments are the truly important ones.
Because they’re the ones that show us the pathway to success. Not to make us write another work exactly like the one we just finished, but to show us that yes, indeed, there are people who love what we do.
No one will love everything that we do. It’s just not in the human DNA. If we were alike, then we wouldn’t have variety. Some of us like sf and some of us hate it. Some of us like to windsurf and some of us are afraid to try. Some of us love cities and some of us would rather live in a remote place.
We build readers one at a time, and at different times. Someone might not read our first novel until decades after it hit print. Someone might love a novel that we struggled to write. (Never discourage that fan or tell them that the novel was work.)
The key to building a big audience, for any writer who has learned their storytelling craft, is exposure. Repeated exposure, so that readers hear about the writer enough to sample the work.
If you look at the big names in traditional publishing right now, you can trace back to their big exposure moment. For Jim Butcher, it was the not-very-successful Dresden Files TV show. Fans fell in love with the character in the books, but didn’t watch the series in big enough numbers to keep it on the Syfy Channel’s roster.
For John Grisham, it was The Firm. Readers found it all at the same time, because it was a Tom Cruise movie. James Patterson funded his own success in the early 1990s by writing, producing, and marketing TV ads through the advertising company he headed. Fortunately, the book he was promoting was worth the effort, so readers stuck with him.
Other writers built slowly. Nora Roberts started in category romance, writing several books per year and putting them through the Harlequin system. Her readership grew enough that Bantam Books took a risk with her in the mid-1980s with a “big” contemporary romantic suspense novel and the category readers showed up for her.
Nora’s build was slow, but steady, fueled by the fact that she was prolific.
It’s different for every one of those writers.
And in the indie publishing ecosystem, the same pattern emerges. Some prolific authors slowly build their audience. A few authors fund their way into people’s attention, usually on one platform (Amazon). Others have a series that takes off.
It is ever thus, and honestly, it’s unpredictable as hell. Some series do well; some books do very well; some authors do well no matter what they write.
Sometimes a book will take off years after it hit print because it touches a cultural zeitgeist. What happened to Kate Bush with her 1985 song “Running Up That Hill” happens to writers too.
And most writers aren’t ready for it. Either the writer got used to all those negative comments (and therefore doesn’t believe the success) or the writer doesn’t have the infrastructure to handle the success.
You’d think that someone with a large enough ego to start writing in the first place would have planned for great financial and/or critical acclaim.
But writers never do.
Sometimes it’s superstition: If I plan for it, it will never happen.
Sometimes it’s embarrassment: I’ll look stupid if I constantly say I’m going to be a Big Name Writer.
And sometimes it’s just that old insecurity, winning again.
But you as a writer can prepare for success without dealing with the insecurity at all. It’s easier now than it ever was, because writers can publish their own work and keep it in print for decades.
How do you plan for success?
Mostly you leave the door open. Every possible door, in fact. You look at every contract, every terms of service, every deal, every possibility with an eye to the future.
You ask: How would I feel if the best possible thing happens? Would this contract enable me to profit from that thing? Or even participate in it?
There were two great examples of this. The Kate Bush example, as I mentioned above. She kept the door open by handling her own songs for the past thirty some years when most musicians sell damn near everything. That means she gets to profit from the success, not some major corporation.
Sure, she still would have had the ego boost of a song that was central to a TV show that was also a cultural phenomenon, but you can’t eat ego boost. Still, you can capitalize on it.
Imagine for a moment that she had sold most of the rights to that song decades ago. Her name was still in the news and there was a revival of her work. If the worst had happened and she didn’t make a dime off the song, she still could have made future money on selling new songs or performing live or leveraging the momentary fame into something else.
Most writers/artists never do that either. Sadly.
Instead they whine about how unfair it all is.
Which is exactly what happened with the second example which was in the news at roughly the same time.
In an article titled “Marvel’s Movie Math: Comic Creators Claim It’s ‘Bait and Switch’ on Payments,” The Hollywood Reporter showed how little most of the creators of the most famous comic book characters in the Marvel universe made, particularly those who developed some of the newer characters.
Seems those writers signed something called a Special Character Agreement which purported to give the writers money when a character they originated was used in media other than the comic book itself. Buried deep in the contractual language, though, was this: Marvel had the right to dramatically lower any promised payment based (it seems) on its own discretion.
And then there’s this paragraph, which is the kicker, I think:
Some who spoke to THR say it is more beneficial for a creator to avoid signing any paperwork with Marvel, noting Special Character Agreements give the company wiggle room to pay essentially whatever they want and include an NDA clause that muzzles creators from speaking out. One source, who reps the creators behind several A-list Marvel characters, notes one client who never signed paperwork is better off than those who did. “He has a lawyer that doesn’t listen to Marvel,” says the source.
He has a lawyer. Who probably read and understood the document and explained it to the client, who then planned for the future.
The others took what they thought they were offered. Not thinking ahead at all. Some comic book characters have been around for going on 100 years. They’re now being used in media that hadn’t been invented when the character burst on the scene.
It isn’t hard to foresee that other comic characters will have the same kind of longevity. But the writers mentioned above needed a paycheck more than they needed to protect their future, apparently. (Because that Special Character Agreement, even if it worked as planned, still sounds like a raw deal.)
You’ve seen me mention focusing on the future in deal-making. But it also applies to craft.
Write the series you want, not the series that someone else demands. The series you want will have a lot more opportunity for you as a creator than the series you think someone else wants. First of all, your personal series will have a lot more life. Secondly, though, your muse will know what to do with each part of the series or the book or whatever it is that is yours 100%.
If you collaborate, make sure you have a collaboration agreement, even if you’re collaborating with your best friend. Most arrangements break up over money or business disagreements that were unforeseen in the heady days of the initial collaboration.
If you want to keep the friendship and the project, then draft that agreement with an attorney for you and an attorney for your friend. If your friend doesn’t want an agreement, don’t go into business with them.
It’s that simple. Because the break-up down the road will be a lot more painful after the collaboration is a success than it is when the collaboration is little more than a shared idea.
The future needs to be a friend sitting on your shoulder with everything you do in your writing and writing business. And the future that sits on your shoulder needs to come out of your ego, not your insecurity.
The future is a successful future, something that might happen decades from now. But the key is that it might, and you have to make sure that you are in the position to capitalize on it.
Through your craft and through your business dealings.
The future on your shoulder also has to be clear-eyed about one more thing: your projects will outlive you…if you plan for it. A few months after Eric Flint died, his heirs shut down his successful publishing company. Why? I haven’t asked.
Then I learned from David Drake’s blog that Eric’s widow declared bankruptcy. (I was never close enough to the family to be privy to all this.) From other, non-public sources, I learned that it was the publishing company (and probably medical bills) that tipped the estate over the financial edge, not the pursuit of fame as David Drake says. As I searched for more information on the bankruptcy (and found little public-facing), I also found a lot of articles about copyright that Eric wrote. So he knew some of this, but apparently did not pass that information to his heirs. Bankruptcy will bring serious issues to the estate and the long-term future of Eric’s work, which breaks my heart.
Somehow, planning for the future—the good and the bad of it—was not on Eric’s radar.
Part of any writer’s ego is that drive to have our work live beyond us. We think it will just happen automatically, but it doesn’t. It depends on the decisions we make when we’re still alive.
We need to put someone in control of our copyrights who will not just safeguard them but keep them active—whatever that means.
And we need to make sure that those in control of the copyright understand what they control. From copyright to business, from the development of the various works from when they were created to where they are now.
It’s a lot. And it can’t all be done at once.
But it all starts with that vision of the future—a successful future, a highly successful future—sitting on the writer’s shoulder as she works.
Entrust your ego to that future. Banish any insecurities from getting near that future. If you want your writing to live beyond you, then you need to harness your ego now.
You don’t have to talk about it with your friends or your family unless they’re your heirs. And if they’re critical about that future or your ego, then make someone else your heir, because those folks will never handle it right.
If you look to the future, you will have to make harsh decisions like that. You will also have to stand up for yourself and for your work.
Over and over and over again.
Because that’s what writers do.
Starting from the moment they first commit words to a page.
Remember that, and get back to it.
And say hello to your future. It’s been beside you all along.
Speaking of the future, we’re doing a Kickstarter for a project that’s four years old now. I’m trying to get the Holiday Spectacular to the right size where it can have its own future, with or without me at the helm. Part of that is building the subscription base, which we do every year through Kickstarter. This year, we added new art, and finally got the branding that I wanted all along on the project. It’s growing incrementally. (If you want to see how we decided to rebrand, take a peek at this blog.) Take a look at the Kickstarter to see what we’re doing and maybe get yourself some holiday reading.
As for the blog itself, it’s probably my only more-or-less ephemeral project. I say more or less because I occasionally get some nonfiction books out of it. But much of it is news analysis. For that reason, this weekly blog is reader supported.
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“Business Musings: Thinking Big” copyright © 2022 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog copyright © Can Stock Photo / Sangoiri