We’re talking about the biggest problem that publishers have with writers — not technical errors or anything like that, but the fact that the writer often has unreal expectations about getting published and what follows. This is not to blame writers at all for having those expectations - I have had them myself. Of course, writers work hard on their work and want success. But observation and research into what happens after publication reveal some interesting patterns. These in turn lead to a better set of expectations which can actually be made to come true.
Success in any line of work is rarely immediate. From professional football to accountancy, a good level of income is normally preceded by years of preparation and training.
So what is a realistic timetable for writers?
Remember, you’re talking about a career in which, sitting by yourself with minimal equipment, you create products out of the thin air of your imagination, formed out of words that you have chosen, and then handed over to technicians to shape into a book. To expect that this process will yield instant cash is very much like the ancient alchemists expecting to transform lead into gold overnight And for many writers, the process is equally arcane and mysterious.
But it can be done, provided that you can adjust your expectations and timeframe. It’s a case of careful and long-term planning, as well as persistence and purpose.
What follows is a proposed strategy for turning writing into a viable career. It will require patience, persistence and passion to pull off. You might be able to take a few short cuts, and there is always, of course, the possibility that you will strike gold early on in terms of a loyal and rapidly growing readership — but the norm will be that it will take time to achieve your goals.
Firstly, let’s deal with Time.
As we discussed earlier, today’s society operates on instant gratification. We press a button, and corporate giants move into action to get whatever it is we want in our hands as quickly as they can. Soon, we’ll have drones dropping parcels in our homes within hours of placing an order.
Viability doesn’t happen that fast.
Writers who want successful careers as writers need to start thinking of their writing as a business. Gone (or rapidly going) are the days when all a writer had to do was sit and write before handing over the whole deal to a huge publisher who would take care of the rest (and even then, 90% of their clients failed commercially - the big publishers were kept alive by the one or two 'big hits', just as they are today. There were and are no magic wands.) Nowadays, even the large publishers expect writers to be involved in the business end of things, especially when it comes to promotional actions.
Launching a startup business can happen really quickly. Making it a real business takes a lot of time. But how much time before it can be considered successful? The short answer is it takes at least 4 years just to get going as a real business, and arguably it takes 7-10 years to make your startup successful in terms of your original goals.
There’s a consistent pattern in how those early years unfold, and that’s what I’m going to outline for you in this and the next article in this series.
Your First Year
The moment you start writing you’ve got dozens of easy, obvious victories to celebrate.
1. You got started!
2. You launched a website!
3. You finished a story or two - perhaps even a novel!
Your first year is probably going to be full of emotion, but generally speaking, it’s often also full of tons of small victories that feel like real progress.
They normally don’t include money.
Don’t listen to the enthusiastic voice Year One too much. You’re off to great start, that’s all. It’s like a good set of grades after a major examination series at school — great and worthwhile, but it doesn’t mean you have achieved anything much yet. What should you be focusing on? Keeping going. Find other sources of income to support your activity; expect your writing to make you nothing — yet.
Your Second Year
The second year is where your savings start to run out. If you’re using credit cards to get by, they are approaching their limits. You had some sales one month, perhaps — and then nothing. This applies whether you used a big publisher, a small publisher, or self-published.
You’re beginning to realise that this is harder than you thought. Getting some readers doesn’t mean you have long-term readers—or paying ones. It just means someone happened to find your book and read it.
The second year is when you begin worrying about whether or not you made the right decision to be a writer.You start getting into real debt. You start seriously questioning yourself and the quality of your work. You find yourself occasionally looking around for part-time work.
What can you do? You can always give up, of course — many do. Or you can keep chipping away at growth day in and day out. Looking for some kind of grand breakthrough after which all your financial problems will be solved is tempting and probably persists as an idea, but is a waste of mental energy.
Keep at it. If you have found a good publisher, he/she will keep at it too. It is in the nest interest of a publisher to persist and to nurture you and your work, knowing that success rarely comes swiftly.
'That's all very well,' you might say, 'but what exactly is "it"? Am I supposed to sit around and twiddle my thumbs until something happens? What am I actually meant to DO during these two years?'
Good questions. 'It' is writing. These two years are your equivalent of the farmer's and gardener's planting of seeds and nurturing them. As a farmer, you wouldn't expect to harvest a crop until it was ready, and as a writer you need to recognise also that you are trying to do something virtually miraculous: get readers to part with money for stuff which you just plucked out of your head.
These first two years have a strategy which you can use, adapt or ignore depending on your predilections.
So you have a couple of years here in which to grow as a writer. My suggestion is that you concentrate on TWO things. As I say, you don't have to follow this plan at all, it may not suit you and you may have other things to do. But this is what I have seen working for others over time.
1. Work on your craft.
I don't mean sit around and read book after book about 'how to write'. You should read some books, especially mine (How Stories Really Work), but your main efforts should be on writing and writing and writing, experimenting with styles, playing with genres, discovering what you can do. Of course, I recommend my own book as I believe it gives you the fundamental building block, the 'Higgs-Boson Particle' of fiction writing, from which you can build virtually anything, but there are other books on the craft of writing out there.
And don't just work on writing - get your pieces out there into the community of magazines, anthologies, collections, websites, and so forth. Get your name known; get some acceptances. (Steve Carr's book Getting Your Short Stories Published: A Guidebook is an invaluable tool here.)
Crucially, find out what readers like about what you do. This is so important. You can write yourself into a blind alley in terms of saleability unless you actually interact with the public. I don't mean that you always have to write commercially acceptable stuff, but find out those niches that you can cater for well.
PLUS getting your name out there and getting a few acceptances will feed your morale. You're going to need feeding in some way, because it's unlikely there'll be much cash coming your way.
Sorry to be so brutal, but I'm trying to tell it like it is. Your publisher should be working with you on a long-term strategy, and encouraging you to persist.
2. Make plans.
Plan collections, plan novels, plan series of books, plan sequels and prequels. Build worlds. This applies to all genres, not just fantasy/sci-fi: you're creating universes when you write literary fiction, too. Just look at Hardy's Wessex, Austen's Napoleonic England, even P G. Wodehouse's worlds. Build, build, build, create, create, create.
Tolkien worked for about 40 years, on and off, on his Middle-earth opus. As a result, his is one of the most convincing and attractive fictional worlds ever created. But what's really happening here for you, as it did for Tolkien, is you are learning how to do it: what works, what doesn't work, what fits, what doesn't fit, what your strengths are and what your weaknesses are. This is absolutely essential if you want to build a career from doing something as ephemeral as inventing stuff from thin air.
It might be hard to keep on creating when the bills are stacking up and the bank balance is emptying, but if you hold to your purpose you will begin to see the foundations of something forming.
We move onto Year Three next - hold tight.