Wednesday, May 07, 2008


Writing isn't a career for the weak-hearted.

Besides the regular perks of self-employment, such as spending countless hours on your tax return, being without health insurance, and lack of regular paychecks, there is also what I consider to be the the most daunting aspect of all:

The fact that, at any moment, you won't have a career anymore.

Many things conspire to sabotage our livelihoods.

Signing with a bad or mediocre agent is like putting your all your money on a three-legged horse to place. Even good agents can be wrong sometimes, which is why they're unable to sell much of what they acquire.

Your editor can quit. Your publisher can change agendas. Other, similar books can tank, squashing plans for yours. Like all companies, publishing houses often have good employees and bad employees, and who winds up in charge of editing, promoting, and marketing your book is a crapshoot---especially since only 1 out of 5 books makes a profit anyway.

Bookstores may not buy your book sufficient quantities, or reorder stock when it sells. They can shelve it wrong, ignore coop placement, refuse to stock your backlist, and do a hundred other things that could hurt your potential sales.

The readers may not buy it. They may not like it. They may not know it even exists.

I've often said that you have to sell a book several times in order to actually earn a royalty. First, to an agent, then to an editor, then to the publisher, then to distributors, then to bookstores, then to the customer. Anywhere along the food chain, tragedy can occur.

No, this isn't a career for people who want or need security.

But the worst thing about being a professional writer has to be this:

Being between contracts.

It's true that your second book is harder to sell than your first. Numbers follow you. If your sales aren't strong, your career is pretty much over.

When you have a contract, and a guarantee of a book coming out and a check coming in, you breathe a little easier. That's real, concrete, something you can count on.

But then your contract ends. And, for those who haven't been in this position before, I have to lay down some bitter truth here: it can be weeks, or months, before you get another contract. Sometimes even years.

You'd think that a publisher who has been growing a writer for several books will want to immediately reassure the writer that there will be more books to come. This isn't the case. Deciding to offer a new contract depends on many things. Numbers, money, in-house enthusiasm, trends, backlist sales, critical response, the influx of new people and farewell to old people at the publisher, new imprints, closed lines, and so on.

Plus, since your publisher often has a first look option for your next book, there's no rush. You give them a manuscript or outline, and they can take up to three months to make an offer.

This waiting time is hell.

If you're a guy, it's like having to propose to your spouse all over again every few years. And ladies, it isn't romantic. It's nerve-wracking. The possibility of being told no can terrify the stoutest heart.

So, when you're between contracts, how should you deal with it? After so much booze, so much fingernail chewing, so many phone calls and emails to peers who assure you that of course you'll get an offer, what can you do to keep your spirits up?

Here are some answers:

Write. The best way to cope with the anxiety of being without any visable means of support is to get another iron in the fire. The more projects you have completed, the better your chances at selling one of them. While you're waiting to get a contract for one book, write another book. Or a screenplay. Or some short stories.

My latest book was on submission for almost six months before it sold. In the meantime I wrote another book and a screenplay--which are now on submission. I'm currently working on three other projects. Writer's write. They don't wait around with their fingers crossed.

Believe. I'm not big on faith. I prefer cold, hard, provable facts, and think hoping and wishing for things have as much use as guilt and worry--in other words, no use at all.

But having confidence in my work, and knowing that if this current project doesn't sell, the next one will, is how I'm able to sleep at night when I'm between contracts. I believe I'll succeed. Without resorting to mantras, daily affirmations, or self-pep talks, you can also believe you'll succeed by remembering the following:
  • You've got talent.
  • You're constantly honing your craft.
  • You're smart.
  • You're dedicated.
  • You work hard.
  • You keep writing.
  • You won't ever give up.

Actually, that does sound like a self-pep talk. But so what? You need to believe in all of these things if you truly want to be successful.

Success isn't about accepting "no." It's about searching until you find a "yes."

Think. This one is the hardest. While writers tend to be overly introspective, they aren't normally self-critical. After all, in order to have confidence and believe in ourselves, we have to trust our writing, our goals, our business plans.

But we should only trust those things after they've been proven.

I posit--and I'm 99% right--that your worst enemy in this business isn't your agent, your editor, or the publishing industry as a whole.

It's you.

If you're not being offered contracts, if your career is flagging, if you've been rejected a gazillion times and don't understand why, it's because you aren't looking hard enough at what you're doing wrong. Because, believe me, you're doing something wrong.

Yes, publishing comes down to luck. But odds play a part in luck. And if you understand odds and stack them in your favor when you can, you eventually have to win something.

If you're doing more losing than winning, you need to figure out why. It's not the casino's fault--their odds are set. It's your fault, because you're a shitty gambler.

Here are some things to consider:

  • Check the writing. It might not be as sharp as you think it is. Get other people's opinions and demand criticism, not praise. Figure out what you're doing wrong. Examine the lock before you make the key, study the markets, understand the genre you're writing in, and figure out your place in the machine.
  • Evaluate your professional relationships. If your agent isn't working for you, dump her. If your publishing house isn't behind you, leave them. Don't settle for scraps, because then scraps are all you'll get.
  • Examine your goals. Are these attainable goals (I'll send out 50 queries, finish the book, and rewrite the outline) or goals that are beyond your control (I'll get an agent, become a bestseller)? Unrealistic goals not only cause disappointment, but your structure for reaching them is invariably flawed.
  • Look at yourself. No one thinks they're difficult, negative, stubborn, or demanding. Yet, at times, all of us are all of these things. Projecting them professionally is the kiss of death. Observe and understand the effect you have on others. If someone insults you, even constructively, assume that a hundred other people think the same thing but don't have the guts to tell you.

Like everything in life, the more you have control over (your craft, your drive, your attitude, your relationships) the less uncertainty you'll encounter.

There will still be uncertainty, because success still requires luck. But empowering yourself with knowledge, awareness, confidence, and good old-fashioned hard work is a lot more productive than holding your breath and hoping.

Now uncross your damn fingers and get proactive.


  1. Everything you said is absolutely fracking true. Solid hit of hammer on nail head.

  2. Joe, every time I pop in here and read your words of insight and wisdom, I ask myself,'why am I not tuning in my TV to the Dr. Joe Show?' Give up the novels (for the moment) and get out there and tell people how to live and how to think. Ask for your own media show and lots of $$$$$$$$$...

    Why give all this wisdom away for free?

    Slan go foill,

  3. Nodding in agreement....


    Uncrossing my fingers to do so. :)

    Great wisdom.

  4. True, writing is a brutal business. But say your books get read ... I'll pick a random number ... 20,000 times. That's a lot of pleasure you end up bring to the world.

  5. I think you're absolutely true. And one thing that's not exactly new, but perhaps more of a nuance thing is that publishing houses are businesses so they may be tweaking how they do their business, which can kill you.

    For instance, and these numbers are just examples.

    Say, a publisher says, "Any author whose sales figure grow from book to book by 5% each time is worth keeping on."

    Then the publisher gets a call from his stockbroker telling him his porfolio looks like a moon crater or his mistress insists on a bigger condo and he promptly calls his editors and says, "New policy. Any author whose sales figures grow from book to book by 7% is worth keeping on, but anybody under that... cut 'em loose."

    And just like that, folks, you're out of a job and that can be a pretty long damned tail that follows you.

  6. If you're not being offered contracts, if your career is flagging, if you've been rejected a gazillion times and don't understand why, it's because you aren't looking hard enough at what you're doing wrong. Because, believe me, you're doing something wrong.

    Not necessarily. James Lee Burke went something like thirteen years between contracts. The guy's a literary fucking genius, and all the major publishers were rejecting him.

    Thirteen years.

    I don't know whether to laugh at that or run naked through the woods crying and yawping incomprehensibly.

    Because, if that happened to a writer the caliber of JLB, what kind of chance do any of the rest of us have?

    It's all a crap shoot, only the odds against you are exponentially higher than with any set of dice.

    We write because we love it, not because we go in expecting any degree of success. That's the way I have to approach it, else I lose what little mind I have left.

  7. I'll put in a word for smaller trade publishers here. (Not POD or vanity, I mean independent advance-and-royalty paying outfits with some kind of distribution setup that doesn't entirely revolve around listing their titles on Amazon and B&N.)

    Smaller publishers may have less clout, but they also have lower expectations. You won't make a million or hit the major bestseller lists, but if you're writing a series it gives you the chance to get past book two before bookstore buyers decide you're selling 2% less than you should be.

    I'm with a smaller, independent press here in Australia, and they're incredibly supportive. They attend international book fairs, have a killer distribution arrangement with Penguin and don't see editing and proofing as a cost to be shaved to the bare minimum.

    Not sure whether you have equivalent publishers in the US, but they could be a good option for an author with long-term goals. (Not speaking directly to you, JA. And I'm not suggesting anyone bypass the majors and start submitting manuscripts to all the smaller presses either. I'm just pointing out that viable alternatives exist.)

  8. Your posts are informative, just what a writer needs to read. It is necessary for us all to remember that we have to strive harder in order to succeed, that persistence will pay off in the end.

  9. Anonymous2:18 AM

    Completely agree with you - this is not a business for the faint hearted.
    I like the analogy Barry Eisler made to the writer an entrepreneur inventor looking for a venture capitalist to invest in their work and finance the development, production and sales. And all of the pain that comes with creating something unique that other folks will want to pay for. Years. Maybe decades. Think James Dyson.
    I know this comparison will probably offend the 'artistes' but I find it gives a realistic and valuable viewpoint.
    Why should an agent/publisher invest time and money in YOUR work as opposed to the other submissions they receive that day?
    It then becomes my job to make it special. To create a product other people can see will make money.
    Thanks again for the post.
    More please.

  10. Great suggestions as usual, JA.

    The only point I'd add to help with the uncertainty...

    Marry well.

    Seriously. My wife is currently finishing up her first 5-figure book deal, and several publishers are already calling her regularly for her next (which we're planning to co-write). This, in addition to a high-paying salary job with tenure and benefits, goes a long way towards taking the uncertainty of my own writing and producing career.

    And it's advice that Pete Hautman once gave me a few years ago.

    Marry well, folks.

    It's so much more important than winning the lottery that is publishing.

  11. Isn't this true with all the arts? If you think about how many people are trying to be musicians and artists and sculptors and who-knows-what, we have to work our butts off. If you get a medical degree, you're pretty sure to be employed. Writing? Never.

    But how else can we get our adrenaline rush? We spend all of our time at computers, there's got to be some kind of thrill.

  12. Your words lift me up and ground me at the same time. Quite a feat! Thanks, Joe.

  13. Thanks for the very inspiring post if you could just pop one of thoughs out everyday I would be all set. If not I guess I can just copy and paste it, then re-read it each day until you post another gem.

  14. Anonymous1:35 PM

    Great tips, Joe. I also think that the more versatile you are as a writer, the less likely you are to be lost if your "one thing" disappears.

    That's why I'm against "branding" and I'm all for the way I make a living -- publishing under more than one name in more than one genre.

    The keep writing and have faith are really important, and those are the first, for many, to fall by the wayside.

  15. Great post. I'm not published yet. I'm in "first time editing" slump, as opposed to "between contract" slump. But I appreciate your comments--especially the part about having a business plan.

    I keep having to remind myself that magical gnomes aren't going to clear two hours of time in my day. Fairy godmothers aren't going to find me an agent. Guess I'll actually have to sit my tush in the chair and commit to that hard work, after all!

  16. Anonymous9:10 PM

    The best way to cope with the anxiety of being without any visible means of support is to get another iron in the fire.

    Joe, so true. I won't go into a bunch of personal details, but this was a timely post for me. I need to be writing to stay sane!

  17. This is EXACTLY the post I needed to read today.

  18. Very inspiring. Thanks!

  19. bugger! So you mean I have to actually work to get published? Oh well.
    Thanks for your info. I'm a long time lurker, finally coming out of the closet to make a comment...

  20. Anonymous11:48 PM

    Great post, JA. I've been to your site before (I actually learned of you from a WD interview a few years ago -- right before Whiskey Sour was released), but just "re-found" it, especially this blog, from WD's list of the 101 best sites for writers.

    It's funny (not "ha ha" funny, mind you, but "oh, crap" funny) for me to be hearing people complain about needing to write to support themselves. I've got the exact opposite problem.

    I'm a fairly successful software engineer who, since I was 10 and wrote my first story, has wanted to be a writer. (Un)fortunately, I'm also very good at programming.

    To most, being able to make good money at something you're good at (and, for the most part, enjoy) would be enough. But I want more.

    The dilemma comes with the realization that any chance of supporting myself and my family by writing alone (without a break of King-like proportions) went by the boards a long time ago. I'm pretty much "trapped by success". (I know: cry me a river). Sometimes, I wish I was a waiter... it's certainly easier to quit your job when you make $10 an hour.

    Software engineering pays well -- hazardously well. It also has long, mind-breaking hours. Even so, I slog through every chance I get and write. It's not always great, and many times, the last thing I want to do is sit in front of a computer and try to be creative (though I can say that by the end of most sessions, I'm glad I did it)

    So now, I've set my lofty goals lower... I just want to walk into a book store one day and see my name on a shelf. That's it.

    After that, the goals can change. But for now, that will be enough.

  21. What awesome advice! A great site, from one writer to another. Best, Mike Geffner


Thanks for the comment! Joe will get back to you eventually. :)