Sunday, October 22, 2006

Treading Water

I get a lot of email.

This isn't a brag, or a complaint. But in any given week, I'll get between 50 and 100 emails about fiction writing.

Some are from fans who want to tell me they enjoy my books or stories.

Some are from writers who want to tell me they enjoy my blog or website.

Some are from peers who want to talk shop.

Some are from people who want a moment of my time to look at their story or query or speak to their writer's group or school or library or convention or conference or who want an interview or a blurb or to use a quote or an excerpt or to enter one of my contests.

I'm also getting a lot of thank yous for helping people, which I enjoy almost as much as the kind words from fans.

I began A Newbie's Guide to Publishing because I wanted a place to share what I've learned about this business. One of the cool side-benefits is that I've met a lot of people through this blog, and have learned a lot from them. It's become a place where people of all experience levels can come to dish the dirt, exchange ideas, and form mutual appreciation societies, which I'm all for.

I have always prided myself in being accessible. I want to be the author that returns emails, responds to appearance requests, gives freely of his time.

But I'm starting to slack.

I haven't really recovered from the Rusty Nail 500 this summer because I've remained pretty busy. Since returning from tour, I've visited an additional 65 bookstores, and have taken business trips to Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. I've also done ten events, and managed to write a screenplay, a treatment, the first 10k of a new novel, and a short story. Plus I blurbed two books.

As a result, email is suffering.

A lot of big authors don't have contact info on their websites, or you can only contact them through a form, or through their web designer.

I'm not a big author, so I can only imagine the huge numbers of emails they must be getting in order to force them to do this. I'm overwhelmed by 600 overdo emails in my inbox. I bet Stephen King gets that per day, or per hour.

Which got me to thinking. Does this career ever become less time-consuming?

I've been working pretty hard to become successful, hoping to reach a point where I can coast. But now I'm wondering if I'll ever reach that point. Will any of us?

Tess Gerritsen is in the middle of a huge tour. I spoke with Lee Child in NY a few months back, and he'd already been on 47 planes this year. Barry Eisler finished his own 330 bookstore tour and then immediately had to head east to research his new Rain book, due next month. I've seen David Morrell more times this year than I've seen my wife, because we keep going to the same events. The only one who doesn't seem to be doing any constant promotion is James Rollins, but he's excused because he writes two 120k books a year. Actually, I have seen Jim four times this year at events, so scratch that last comment.

Can we, as writers, ever reach a point where we can slow down? Does success ever come, or do we fear failure even when we become bestsellers? Does that fear force us to keep working 80 hour weeks?

I've only been a professional writer for about five years. It seems that I'm working just as hard as the day I signed my first contract. I don't think this is getting any easier.

But things have changed. I'm in much better place than I was five years ago. All of the work branding and building name-recognition, all of the intangible effects of constant self-promotion, seems to have helped my career.

I've reached a wonderful point where I don't have to fight as hard for media or events--often they come to me. The time I would have spent searching for publicity is now spent doing publicity, which is much more rewarding.

I've also reached a point where I get recognized occasionally. When I visit a bookstore, the booksellers and fans sometimes know who I am. This is sooooo cool, and always thrills me. In fact, it thrills me so much that I'm visiting even more bookstores. I'll hit 600 by the end of the year.

Which brings me to the point of this blog entry. When I first began in this business, answering email was a priority. I printed out my first hundred fan letters and kept them in a binder. I was amazed that people actually contacted me.

While I still enjoy getting email, these days it takes me three months to respond. It's important, but not near the top of my to-do list.

Five years from now, will I be one of those guys who simply can't respond to email? And if so, is this a good thing or a bad thing?

Can we, as authors, ever reach a point where we can relax a little bit? Or are we salmon who never get to spawn, no matter how far up the river we get?

35 comments:

SAND STORM said...

It seems to be an almost arbitrary call. Some authors (Tess and JA)do PR all the time and answer e-mails.
While others Robert Harris or Stephen Hunter seem to publish every few years, do a little PR and thats it. Whatever floats your boat I guess.

JA Konrath said...

I don't think it's arbitrary.

Some authors might be able to get away with not doing any promo, but I believe they're the exception, not the rule.

Mark said...

You're scaring me a little bit, Joe. I've been writing fulltime 2 years (this week, as a matter of fact), and this year has been enormously busy compared to last year. Much of that has been the nonfiction book (biz report) I'm just wrapping up, but I'm thinking, "Okay, yeah, done with that, I need to take a few days off... oh, I need to hit bookstores throughout Ann Arbor, and start on the next Derek Stillwater novel, and I want to finish this fiction book proposal, and..."

God, I need a drink.

Best,
Mark Terry
www.markterrybooks.com

Bill Peschel said...

Have you read Neil Gaiman's blog? He has to make decisions about where to put his time.

He's mentioned that he used to answer fan e-mails. Now he doesn't. He simply hasn't the time.

He did extensive touring for Anasi Boys. For his book of short stories, he deliberately cut back. I think he also mentioned that, because his books are published widely in translation, he has to cap his PR on those countries to one shot and that's it (don't quote me on this; I just want to get across the point that, much as he regrets it, he imposed definite limits on PR).

Because, if you read him awhile, you'll see that he's got a lot of work that he wants to accomplish. He's asked to write introductions to books, scrips, articles, blurbs for books, short stories. All that, and he wants to spend time with his family and relax and have a cuppa.

Because writers these day can be more accessible if they want, this overwhelming attention can come earlier in the career, perhaps before you're established. Cut off the flow too soon, and you risk upsetting your fans.

Although I suspect that, if it's clear on your site that not all messages will be answered, they'll take it in stride. If it's a choice between another short story and a personal reply, they'll take the story.

What it boils down to, in the end, is that it up to the writer to set the pace and stick to it.

Roddy Reta said...

Stephen King hires two assistants to answer all his mail for him. I don't think he responds personally to any fan mail.

Dean Koontz answers much of his mail personally, which amazes me since he gets 20,000 letters a year. But he doesn't have an e-mail address.

My guess, though, is that most mid-list writers don't receive a fraction of the e-mail that JA Konrath receives.

Andreya said...

I'd say the emails are nice but not life-important. For me, at least.

But agree letting people know in a friendly tone you try to answer but it may take a while is cool.
Another thing I've seen done (by a newbie author though) is 'write PLEASE REPLY (or something like that) into the mail heading if you wish me to reply'. It looked a bit odd though.

I like it how Amanda Quick/Jayne Castle has a forum & a section of it where you can post a question or message for her. I liked the newsletter too.
And I really enjoy this blog.

Still a bit 'in awe' of big names/famous people ;) Never wrote to someone very famous personally, somehow it just never occurred to me. I do love reading about daily lives & routines & such.

Was pleasantly surprised when I got a reply from a semi-famous (ok, famous, but not in my country)writer's assistant/friend - thought it was pretty nice.

Hope your load gets easier, as you go along. But maybe you should ask Nora Roberts or someone like that?;)

Stacey Cochran said...

This fall is the first time ever in my career, when I've begun to actually feel pressure to balance my writing and my schedule. I've put myself out there as much as I can with a self-published book, have had several speaking engagements, have been to a couple of major conventions, have started hitting writers groups, bookstores, and open mic nights with self-promotion. I've also produced my first audio book, fought to get my book paired at Amazon.com with a high-ranked book, have kept pumping out tons of inexpensive postcards and fridge magnets to hand out. And have managed to start writing my tenth novel.

I love the excitement, but it hasn't reached the point where I'm feeling overwhelmed to the degree that you're talking about, Joe.

At some point, you probably should consider employing a secretary.

This is the person who could field emails for you, send out letters to libraries, bookstores, etc. This is the person who could cull together lists of bookstores for book tours, newspaper review writers names and addresses, etc.

Maybe you're not in a position financially to do that quite yet, but it's definitely something you should begin considering doing in the next 12-24 months.

Stacey

Richard said...

I know you'll read my email if i put FREE BEER in the subject line.

Anonymous said...

I just listened to the NY Times podcast interview with Lemony Snicket a k a Daniel Handler. He receives one thousand fan letters a week, plus heaven knows how many emails. The letters alone number more than can physically be read, so his reply system (form-style) is to send a special postcard.

anne frasier said...

a lot of writers do have assistants. i've been wondering about that, but then i'd have to tell my assistant what to do. and i'd have to pay her.

i've been pushing a boulder up a hill for six years, twenty if i want to go back that far, thinking next year will be different, next year i'll hit a level spot, but that never happens.

i'm pooped, and i know i haven't done a fraction of what you've done and what other writers are doing. i think there's a mental exhaustion that comes with the change of seasons and the realization that here i am, same place i was last year, and the year before that, and the year before that. there's a drudgery completely outside the love of writing that is sucking me under.

S. W. Vaughn said...

Ha! I'm nowhere near where you are in the industry, and I'm already thinking, damn, won't I ever get to take a break, have a few days to breathe?

I see that isn't likely. All right then -- 80 hour weeks for the rest of my life it is. No problem. I have this great new hyper-caffeinated coffee that ought to help out.

By the way, Joe, you likely don't remember this, but a while back you had an author chat. I went to the wrong room and came in late, but got to participate for about half an hour. We mostly talked about B-movies. It was awesome. And you made me feel so awesome that I put you on my acknowledgements page (my first contracted novel of seven is finally out -- it's an ebook-going-to-print thing, but they're a great, quality company, albeit small).

Long-winded response to a short question, but there you have it. :-) Let me know if you ever get to slow down... I'll look forward to getting there some day. (ha ha ha)

Rob Gregory Browne said...

Jeez, Joe, and here I am complaining on my blog that I can't enjoy the upcoming release of my first book because I'm too busy working on the second.

I feel like a complete rookie. It also sounds -- if I'm lucky -- like I'll never get a chance to slow down...

By the way. Don't you owe me an email? :)

Jim Michael Hansen said...

When rationing time, writing always has to come first. But after that, it's important for an author to stay in touch with fans, especially those who specifically go to the trouble of writing an email. Some authors are very accessible to fans. For example, when my daughter was in 10th grade she wrote a letter to Dean Koontz. He wrote back a full one page letter, hand written, and signed, persoanlly responding to her questions. When she showed it to me I was amazed and asked her if she knows who he was. She sort of did, but not really. I explained and then told her to save the letter forever. Other authors, on the other hand, don't respond to emails which is a big mistake. If authors have a contact system such as email, and then don't honor it, I can't help but believe that it ultimately serves as a mechanism to alienate people who have reached out and then got slighted. But like you say, there isn't time to do it all. Authors that can't keep up with the intake should either find a way (e.g. assistants) or cut off the intake to begin with. One way attempts to communicate don't help those writing in and certainly don't help the career or future sales of the author who doesn't respond.

The Dark Scribe said...

Hey Mr. Joe,

It was great meeting you (and Rebecca!) in Woodmere. Your promotional efforts and accessibility is part of what makes you so helpful to those of us trying to break into the biz. And we really appreciate it.

So thanks. Have a couple of beers, take a couple naps, and check in with your family to make sure they haven't moved or something.

Your accessibility means a lot to your fans, but we'll support you either way.

Oh, and that e-mail I sent a few days ago...take your time :)

Douglas V. Gibbs said...

Joe, you are admirable. Your choice to remain accessible is something that I plan to emulate once the break happens for me. By the way, just wanted to tell you (or maybe I should tell you by e-mail so that you'll know about it sometime after the first of the year) lol - that I attended my first writers conference over the weekend and loved it. Hope on the next tour you make it back out to California, I still owe you a few beers and a meal since our last meeting at Mysterious Galaxy in San Diego.

Creekshine said...

With such a big piece of time dedicated to PR it seems amazing that you are able to do the amount of writing that you are.
But think about this.

The volume of email goes up the bigger you get.

I would start worrying when that level plataeus, or even worse, starts to decline. Although I am not in your shoes(the only hit I've got on my blog was a spam post) you are becoming required to do more work as a result of your success and hard work.

I would suppose that when it becomes more work than enjoyment, in a fulfillment sense, then I might rethink strategy. Till then you're good.

I know some authors have people that respond to some types of emails for them. Stephen King does.
Whatever you do don't burn yourself out because the writing world is deffinatley more interesting with you in it.

Thanks for your hard work.

SAND STORM said...

In light of this topic I find this article from the other end of the spectrum.

Most of us will never reach this level of success or at least I will say that I won't.

http://www.time.com/time/arts/article/0,8599,1548914,00.html

SAND STORM said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Jude Hardin said...

Joe:

Just wanted to say thanks here for responding to me on various occasions with helpful wisdom.

Don't worry. If the time comes that you're not able to do that anymore, we'll understand. Everybody has to set priorities, and there's only 24 hours in a day.

Bernita said...

"Only the game fish swims upstream..."
Honestly, Joe, I think people will understand if you have to cut back on individual e-mails and letters.

Devon Ellington said...

As someone who has both had an assistant and been an assistant, the best way to handle the mail is to set aside X hours per day or week and only focus on the mail.

Between the half dozen names I publish under I get a couple of hundred emails a day. When I was deep into the hockey book, I got 300-500 emails a day -- most of which had relevant information from individuals who went out of their way to help me and it was vital to let them know they mattered, and their help was appreciated.

When the annuals come out every year, I get one big batch of snail fan mail at the top of November, and one again in mid-January. It takes awhile to get through it all, but I have found that it's worth it.

And I'm still not as on top of it as I could be, but I get there.

I also keep a "fan mail log" which I created when I was an assistant to a couple of well-known actors, because there are some people who will lie like rugs and try to make you feel guilty for not making them the center of your universe. And the whackos. There are ways to deal with all of them.

But the log helps me create the data bases so when I travel, I can pop out a postcard or an email and let people know I'm in the area, and have more successful events.

Keeping the connections strong will do more for you in the long run than anything else.

You'd be surprised how many emails you can get through in one hour per day.

The most time consuming part of it all is figuring out what system works for you and setting up a system.

One of the addresses, which has a huge influx of mail, has an autoresponder that thanks the person for writing and says I'm backed up on mail, but will give a more detailed response soon.

Can we ever relax? Sure, when we're financially secure enough not to have to worry how to pay bills, etc. When we can afford to hire a full-time person to handle the mail. When we've built the reputation and the following so that we can say no and those to whom we say no aren't determined to "punish" us for taking the time to actually write the stuff they want to read.

From my own experience (and I'm hardly the most experienced) and from the paths friends have taken, I do think it takes about 10 or 15 years, at least.

And one writer friend is so terrified of losing what he's worked so hard for that he's pushing himself even harder, and it'll make him sick. When you work out of fear, it'll always kick you in the ass. Work out of your own sense of what you need to do to get the work done and leave as little harm in your wake as possible.

Devon Ellington said...

And, as a coda to my previous post, to me, the writing is the most important. If it's not written, it can't be read/sold/marketed/whatever.

So the writing comes first and everything else has to fit around it.

I'll never be the most famous or the richest, but I'm learning how to balance all the demands in a way that I protect the work, which is why I'm a writer in the first place -- I love to write. I love the process. I love the physical and emotional and mental aspects of it.

I'll do what I have to in order to get it out there, but I refuse to let the writing itself take second place.

Devon Ellington said...

Adding even more -- if you want to try the assistant route, I'd suggest getting a college student from a local school to come in and do it on work-study for credit.

Get someone from the business adminsitration program, NOT humanities,liberal arts, or creative writing. You want someone who's primary focus is busienss administration, not someone who wants to be a writer someday -- it's counterproductive to what you need right now. You have plenty of mentoring opportunities -- you need a business relationship here.

Make several templates of letters/emails for different circumstances and go over the original letter and the template to be used.

The assistant will do the bulk of the mail, clip the original incoming letter to your outgoing letter, and you'll look them over and sign them in batches. Or, if you feel a different answer is called for, you can make corrections and send it back for another draft.

The assistant will update the database and track changes, and build your address book(s).

The assistant can help with your calendar, but, ultimately, always be responsible for your own calender. Fewer screw-ups.

If there's research to be done, the assistant can do preliminary groundwork and set up contacts, initial emails or letters, and set up for you the first meetings.

From both sides of the table, as an employer and as an assitant, I found that to work well.

Just my two cents, in case any of the experiences are helpful as you think about your own situation.

Anonymous said...

Hi Joe, it's Terrie Moran. You stayed at my Florida apartment when you were on your recent book tour. Do you remember when you got to the front gate and had to call me in New York because the gatekeeper didn't want to let you back in since it was after midnight? You were exhausted then and you are still very tired, which leads to your question: "Does this career ever become less time-consuming?" I have a very long answer based on my first career--more than 25 years of service to the people of the City of New York, but since you're tired, I'll give you the short version.

If you love what you do, you'll put a lot of effort into it and sometimes it will wear you down. If you are in it for the long run, you must adjust your intensity to meet your personal needs. Can you relax a bit? Of course. When? How? That's up to you. Are you as happy when you slow down as you are when you are moving at warp speed? There's no law against taking a break.

As for me, I am a retiree with a part time job, five grandchildren and a small social life. I love writing. I write every day and read a few blogs, read a few books and do research. It tires me out but I keep going. When I get to your stage, I'll probably have to hire an assistant AND a home care attendant to keep me on track. ;)

Take a short break from one activity or another and see how it feels.

Grandma knows best. Love, Terrie

Ms. Bonkler said...

Burning out is never fun. That's why I also keep a different goal aside from running after the holy cup of publishing.

Someday I want to have my own little restaurant and pastry shop.

Allison Brennan said...

Joe, I have a web form but that's only to control spam. The web form gets forwarded to my personal email address, and I respond to all emails I get. Sometimes I get behind, but then I spend a night catching up.

I'm just starting out. I'm young (relatively). I'm not planning on slowing down anytime soon. I'm going to two major and one minor conference next year, plus I have four speaking events already booked. Not a lot compared to the big authors, but a lot for me. I'm sure that'll increase. I've turned down several things this fall because of my deadlines.

I figure I'll do what I can. I'm building my audience, and that's something that I'll need to do as long as I'm writing.

But I'm hoping in a year or two that I can afford someone to help out . . . even if it's hiring my kids.

Aimless Writer said...

On a normal day at work I get between 50 to 100 emails. Most causing me more work. So no sympathy here on that! But this is a good thing! If those emails stop then you should worry. When I write to an author I really do not expect an answer because I know they are busy. When I get notes from you, Jack Kerley or even James Patterson and Stephen King I'm thrilled they took the time. (and no, I don't spend my time emailing writers-only if the book really moved me will I send a "thanks for the great book!") However I think you are the most proactive writer I've ever heard of! The Rusty Nail 500 should go down in history. Perhaps you should hire one of your kids to answer your email??? So you can hurry and get that next book out...which I'm patiently waiting for...

Aimless Writer said...

P.S. Did you know there is a four story book store in Harvard Square? (Boston) Its called The Coop and its like heaven!
Books, books and more books as far as the eye could see.
They had to drag me out of there kicking and sceaming!

Erica Orloff said...

Hi Joe:
I would guess I get about 40 emails a week needing a response . . . more if I'm running a contest and then sometimes people put questions in with their entry. It's so ingrained in me personally that what goes around comes around, and the whole karmic thing--putting good out there. That I try to keep up with it . . . and I suppose if I am ever so lucky to get to the upper stratosphere of the writing game, I don't think my personal philosophy would change any and I'd still try to keep up. It would take me longer--a LOT longer, but I guess it's just part of who I am that I would feel it worth it.

E

Allison Brennan said...

Aimless writer brought up a good point--when I was a young teen, Stephen King wrote me back. This was before email. I will never forget it, and in fact it inspired me greatly. He wasn't as huge as he is now, but he was big.

Anonymous said...

Excellent post. You want to reach those heights... but a lot of responsibility and energy is required to stay there.

It sounds like you are doing the best you can. I very much appreciate your words of advice and the posts you share with us.

Cheers

Steve Childress said...

I'm one of those pain-in-the-a** people that emailed JA and asked him if he could take a look at my story (Veronica's Sweetest Gift). I felt weird doing it, I must admit. Ashamed, I guess? For knowingly wasting this professional writer's time? Of course, I did it anyway.
Several weeks later, Ja gave me an encouraging response. I responded to his response, he responded yet again.
This was DURING the his huge book tour!
The truth is, I just don't see how JA could continue to do this, without some help of some kind.
But I'll never forget the righteous advice from this established, successful, professional writer that took the time to read my little story:
Great, you wrote a story that wasn't that bad. Now write another one.
That's it, JA. That's it, exactly.

Patrice Michelle said...

Joe,

I never will forget a NY Times bestselling author responding to my aspiring writer emails. She was wonderful! When I look back on that now, I'm ever so thankful she was kind and patient with me. Had she not been so gracious I imagine my optimistic perspective would've been crushed.

I think it's ingrained in some people's personalities to be helpful, and that's why it's hard when you don't have the time to be as accessable as you were before. For the most part readers and aspiring writers know this and are understanding.

And don't forget, your blog speaks for you when you're not around. There's a ton of great information here, and if someone's really interested, they'll take the time to look around. :)

Nevah~ said...

Your success is inspiring!

ec said...

I've been writing for nearly twenty years now, and have published about that many books, plus a couple dozen short stories and the odd article (some odder than others.) Since most of my stories are set in shared worlds, such as Star Wars and the Forgotten Realms (a setting related to the Dungeons & Dragons role-playing game), I get a lot of email. RPG games are essentially interactive storytelling, so those who play the games and read the novels are personally, actively, and creatively invested in the setting. Shared-world writers field lots of questions about lore, about future character directions, and so on. I read and respond to all email, and also have a designated Q&A thread on a Realms-related board (www.candlekeep.com). But because this IS a shared-world setting, I stay clear of reading any fanfic stories, to avoid copyright tangles and help ensure continuity. Continuity is a major issue in shared-world fiction, and it's just not a good idea to have "non-canon" characters and data in your memory banks. Errors are not treated lightly, and can easily jar knowledgable fans out of the story. Many Star Wars fans, in particular, approach the setting with the fervor of Talmudic scholars. :)

Also, the realities of 24/7 dictate the no-manuscript-reading policy. It's tough to admit that you can't say yes to every request. Most people are very gracious and understanding when I explain why I can't read their unpublished stories. If anyone reading this does not, remember that most published writers do not write full time. Most have day jobs, and/or one or more part-time jobs. Writing time is scarce and precious; deadlines must be honored. If I read everything people wanted to send me, I'd be sleeping alternate Tuesdays, and forget about doing any writing.

At times the email gets to be too much, but I keep it manageable but investing time answering questions in detail on my author website. Most people have a FAQ page, and enormous amount of time can be saved by writing a three-line email with a link to the FAQ page. So as not to sound off-putting, I always invite people to write back if they have questions that aren't covered. And, of course, thank them for taking time to write. I also invite them to subscribe to my email newsletter, which is another investment of time that ends up being a time saver.

As in all things, YMMV.