What’s the biggest problem that publishers have with writers?
Is it technical errors in submitted manuscripts? No.
Is it missing deadlines? No.
Is it not being able to quickly get hold of writers to deal with urgent queries? No.
Is it stubbornness from writers about necessary changes in their work? No.
It’s the expectations of writers. It’s what writers think is going to happen AFTER they get published.
Many of us have grown up in an ‘instant gratification’ society. If we want to order something, we can do so immediately on the internet; if we need an answer to a question, we can look it up on our smart phones; if we desire to communicate to someone, the means to do so instantaneously is at our fingertips.
I recall that, in my youth, if you wanted to order something you had to go into a shop or write a letter. If you wanted to know something, you usually had to put your query aside until you could get to a public library or reach an encyclopaedia. To communicate required letters and patience. If you wanted to get hold of someone urgently, you had to go and see them or find a public telephone — that’s if the person you were trying to reach had a phone of their own — I think I was about 15 years old before we even had a landline phone at home. Life didn’t grind to a halt: certain things moved more slowly, for sure, but the main thing was that expectations were very different.
With the advent of the world wide web and the various devices we carry around connect with it, our own expectancy of gratification has shortened to almost zero. Governments even promise us faster broadband connections as though they were a human right. Everything moves faster, with even greater speeds on the horizon.
This affects publishing. Very few writers are still living in the slower world of letters and patience. Most expect that, once the book is written and the manuscript handed over (by instantaneous email rather than by post) things will move swiftly —and by ‘things’, they mean cash coming in from book sales.
There’s often a lot of anxiety these days when that doesn’t happen. Firstly, most publishers take time to properly process a manuscript to remove errors and to format the thing correctly — I have yet to receive an error-free manuscript despite the sincere efforts of writers to present one. Then there are various technical procedures involved with transforming that manuscript into a book which can be sold. But the main concern from writers occurs after all that has occurred and the book has been released. Anticipating an avalanche of sales, the writer nervously checks his or her email several times a day to see if there are any reports.
The first few days after a book is released are full of excitement. Then a kind of post-natal depression sets in. Nothing happens, and the realisation dawns that their book is not going to be an overnight bestseller.
Anticipation gradually converts into frustration. Many writers introvert and begin to wonder about the quality of their own work; some grow angry and resentful towards the publisher; a few are so disappointed that they give up writing. There’s a scale here which many writers slowly descend, from being curious about and desiring success, down to a feeling that such a thing was impossible, and then even further down to pushing their work away and denying it.
I don’t know of any career that doesn’t require preparation of some kind. Manual labour probably needs the smallest runway, but apart from that, whatever a person intends to make money from usually takes quite a while to prepare for and perhaps even longer to reach viable levels in income terms. Whether you’re aiming to be a doctor, a musician, a computer programmer or a shop assistant, some training and apprenticing is normally involved. What is always included is Time — Time from the initial steps to the fruition of a good income coming in from whatever it is.
But writers, engaged in the alchemical task of pulling ideas and images out of thin air and turning them into words and worlds on a page, for some reason expect the same sorcery to continue working until money appears in a similarly magical fashion in their bank accounts. To build a career out of our own imaginations is quite a feat — it’s probably much easier to engage in manual labour or even train as a technician of some kind, in terms of material cause and effect. Writers are expecting their customers — readers — to pay hard cash in exchange for the most ephemeral of products: fiction.
So what should writers’ expectations be? And how exactly does one build a career as a writer?
We’ll look at that in Part Two.