Posts Tagged writing business
Last week my post – as you may have seen – was a letter to a writer who was losing confidence. Thank you all for your comments and tweets – I had no idea it would be so widely appreciated.
I also had a comment from Steven Lyle Jordan, who felt I’d glossed over some hard truths. And I agree we should think about them.
Here’s what Steven said:
I’m surprised that the letter managed to miss an all-important question which I believe all novelists ask themselves, whether they admit to it or not: Will anybody care?
I don’t believe writers write in a vacuum. If they write, it’s because they want someone to read what they’ve written. If no one wants to read your book–if no one will buy it–it does two things to a writer: It breaks down a great deal of the confidence that was built up in order to write it; and it forces the writer to consider whether all that effort, no matter how good, no matter how enjoyable, was worth it.
After writing a number of novels, I firmly believe that I know how to do it right. But lack of interest and lack of sales does more to discourage me, and prevent my bothering to write the next novel, than all of the other points in that letter combined. (It still may prevent me from writing the novel I’m actually developing right now; at any moment, I might “come to my senses” and pull the plug.) If that letter had been written to me, and it did not touch upon that point, it would be essentially worthless to me.
Who will care about what we’ve written?
From time to time I hear a writer wistfully bleat: ‘the good novels rise to the top’. What rubbish. The novels that rise got lucky or were marketed smartly. We certainly need more ways to find fairy godmothers for deserving books (and I’ve talked about quality control and recognition recently here).
You might have also asked Lucy if she was comfortable with the state of publishing, the industry turmoil she’d be injecting herself into, the multiple channels of the ebook industry she may have to master, the likelihood that ebook piracy would rob her of some amount of possible profit, etc. All of that has been known to sink many a prospective author before they’d sailed.
First, piracy. Discover the atom and someone will make the bomb. We invented ebooks and we got piracy. Anyone who argues that piracy is flattering or beneficial should be strapped down while their house is burgled. Steven, I agree. It’s a shark’s world out there. And it’s going to get more bloody.
Now authors will pay to make their books better, we’ve got critters willing to fleece them for editorial services of dubious quality (in an attempt to avoid this, here are my tips on choosing a good critique service).
We have authors aching to be recognised, and we have schemes charging astonishing fees for awards and seals of approval. On the law of averages, many of these books will be rough and a glance at the opening will be enough to tell the reviewers that. The reviewer only needs to read for as long as the book is up to standard. Some sort of fee seems fair because time and expertise aren’t free. But many of these schemes charge several hundred dollars a pop – for what must on average be ten minutes’ work.
While we dodge the rip-offs, we’re giddying from goldrush to goldrush. Last December, it was free Kindle books. Now people are so used to piling free books into the infinitely deep pockets of their Kindles they never look at them.
Right now we’re dancing can-cans about Kickstarter. How long before some investor makes a mighty fuss that all they got was a lousy T-shirt? There will be a sacrificial lamb – whether a crook or a well-intentioned author – and that will be the end of it.
Another point is simmering under Steven’s comment, and it’s worth considering. Never has the writer’s livelihood been more precarious – and that’s even for those who have ‘broken in’. About 20 years ago, a publisher’s advance would realistically fund you to write a book. Now you have to write the first book for nothing and if you get an advance for the second it’s pitiful.
What’s more, publishers seem to do very little for the percentage you hand over. For most writers the editorial services have been cut to minimal levels. And recently the estimable publishing guru Jane Friedman advised that if you want your breakout book to be a hit (and thus to increase your chances of having a traditionally published career at all), you should hire your own publicist. Yes, even if you have a publisher. In which case, I have to ask, what is the publisher doing for you?
So, Steven, I agree it’s not rosy at all, especially if writing is your livelihood.
Right now, it’s anarchy. We are all trying to thrash our way to a better spot in the food chain – writers, publishers, editorial pros, agents, investors, teachers, tech companies, retailers, distributors, conference organisers. But people want to write and people want to read. That means we have an industry – and even a way of getting our work out. Who will be making a decent wage from it? Can emerging writers still cling to the dream of supporting themselves only by their novels? Perhaps those days are gone. Or perhaps the publishing economy is about to become a lot more equitable.
Maybe at the moment, we have to see our publishing dreams as separate from our writing dreams. Our writing dreams have always been the same – write a book that somehow matches up to our hopes for it. Do whatever we can to honour the reader and the artform. Make good work, and never stop trying to be better. Sit out the bloodbaths and keep writing. Which is what started all this anyway.
What do you think?
Let me phrase this another way. Look at the kind of novel you’re writing now. Look at the way it might be marketed – perhaps by a traditional publisher, perhaps by your own efforts as an indie. In five years’ time, will you be playing with the same ideas, treading the same themes? Writing the same genre, perhaps the same kind of characters?
If the answer is no, you definitely need a platform.
Traditionally in publishing, writers get tied to one genre. Careers are built in pigeonholes, set up by editors and marketers. That’s not surprising; it’s their job to decide where you fit in a bookshop, not to nurture your long-term art. After that, publishers want broadly similar works from you, a row of books like a matching set of table mats.
Actually, the readers want that too. A Big Six editor I know was telling me recently that [author of phenomenally big series] wanted to try a new direction. (Yes, those brackets are frightfully coy. Sorry.) She was disappointed to find her fans didn’t buy her ‘departure’ novel. It seems they wanted only [coyly bracketed phenomenally big series].
But look at the music industry. Musicians aren’t expected to stay the same. Their fans are far more forgiving when an artiste evolves. Writers, though, don’t get away with it. Why? Because we hide behind our disembodied words, or only emerge in targeted publicity campaigns built like DVD extras around our books. The books build the readership.
No room to hide
Of course, our books are what matters. But it seems there’s a danger in letting them do all the talking. It’s even worse if you leave platform-building to someone else, because they become the intermediary between your work and the world. Which might paint you into a very tiny corner.
Building a platform is an extra job. It doesn’t come easily to everyone. Ironically, it’s the genre authors who find it simplest – mainly because there are well defined templates to follow, established groups to hang out with. But if you’re not easily pigeonholed, you need it even more. You need to show people who you are under the books, where you go exploring for ideas. That relationship will keep readers with you when you venture to new places.
Writers now have a fantastic tool to own our creative identity. We can now be like the musicians who aren’t damned for developing or for reinventing ourselves – and indeed are respected for it.
If you know you will always be adding new tools to your repertoire, be stirred by new influences, will change the ways you seek escape and enlightenment – hell, if you might just get older and wiser, you need to build a platform.
It is your ticket to creative freedom.
Thanks for the pic Thuany Gabriela
Tiny bit of news. My Memories of a Future Life was nominated for an award at Underground Book Reviews last month – and I’ve just discovered it won a Reader’s Choice award. If you helped by giving it a vote, thank you very much
Do you think platform is just for one kind of writer and not another? Do you resent having to do it? Do you embrace it? And what are you doing to build it (assuming you are not about to leave a comment screaming ‘NOOOOOOO’)
Some books take time to write. You know that already. Having recently flogged my way through two tricky narratives, I’ve been blogging about slow writing quite a lot.
But slow isn’t the only way to write decent books. There are a lot of authors who turn in perhaps two or more a year (I once did four). If you’re writing in a well defined genre, your craft is well established and you know what you’re going to do with the ideas, it’s perfectly possible to whip your novel out in six months or faster. Especially if you’re writing a series.
With genre fiction, I know where I’m going – and here’s my rough process:
- 1 establish the characters, using genre expectations as a start point, and then twist as much as I dare to give my version a unique flavour
- 2 establish who will cause the biggest problems, what they want to do and whether that will have enough mileage for a story
- 3 take the tropes of the genre as a starting point, identify the reader must-haves and work out some spectacular set-pieces
- 4 research where necessary
- 5 decide my locations, arm myself with details to write plausible scenes there (travel photos on Flickr are brilliant for this)
- 6 plot, write, revise, ferment, revise, send to publisher, get notes. Done. Bring on the next one.
[If you liked my potted guide here, you might like my book Nail Your Novel: Why Writers Abandon Books and How You Can Draft, Fix and Finish With Confidence, which I wrote in about 6 weeks (and 20 years of experience).]
A lot of writers work like this, especially genre writers. If you know where you’re going, know your audience, you can keep fans and editors well supplied. Perhaps too well supplied – the publishing industry usually likes a writer to produce one book a year. They don’t want to publish as fast as some writers are able to deliver.
What’s the problem?
You could say this does no harm; the books can be stockpiled and everyone sits pretty for years. Except they won’t. Because readers don’t want to wait. They are used to gobbling their entertainment in the grip of a craze – they want all of Lost, right now. And these kinds of writers get more leverage the more titles they can offer. Publishers may be losing something if they can’t feed those fans right now.
I know plenty of writers who find themselves hamstrung by this and turn to indie publishing in order to satisfy their fans and make the most of their productivity.
So does the book-a-year model suit the slow-maturing novel? Not remotely. When you’ve been hit by a bizarre idea where anything is possible, these books need many drafts of experimentation before you get near the steps in my plan above. This work cannot be done in a mere 12 months.
Obviously, the traditional book-a-year schedule exists because of publication practicalities. But there are a lot of writers it doesn’t suit. And it seems it doesn’t necessarily serve readers particularly well either.
Thanks for the pic Kio
Fast writers, slow-burn writers – we are publishing in interesting times… What writing pace suits you and why?
When I was ghostwriting, I longed to have a novel published with my own name on. Today I’m talking about my journey to make that happen at The Alliterative Allomorph, bloggish home of author, singer, poet and songwriter Jessica Bell.
Her name might be familiar to you as a recent guest on The Undercover Soundtrack, where she made a big impression by revealing she wrote her own unique soundtrack for her debut novel String Bridge. Yes, that Jessica Bell, I knew you’d remember her… Come over and see where this very cool lady hangs out.