OK, so if you’ve been following this series you’ll have picked up on the general idea that overnight success is probably not on the cards for new writers.
It might happen. It happened for J. K. Rowling and Harper Lee and all those other famous names that you may well be thinking of who ‘made it’ with their first novel. You might strike lucky, write a book which catches the ‘zeitgeist’ of the moment and takes off, or receives backing from a heavyweight influencer, or is supported by a multi-million dollar advertising campaign, and so forth. I hope you do. But keep in mind that ‘zeitgeists’ can be fickle, that celebrity endorsement can be a double-edged sword and that 99% of multi-million dollar ad campaigns fail.
What you really could do with is a solid foundation that won’t depend upon passing fads or famous names or promotional money: you really want a growing fanbase who will seek you out and buy your stuff, both the stuff you have out there and the stuff you have yet to write. And this fanbase needs to be a viable size so that you can live with reasonable comfort from your earnings as a writer forevermore. If that’s what you’re looking for, read on.
We’ve learned that the first two or three years can be tough. But what’s actually happening here? As a new writer, you are moving through a number of phases, and they look more or less like this:
You’ve just started and you have almost nothing written. Of the writing that you have finished and submitted, you have heard nothing back. If this phase has continued for some time, you might want to consider whether or not the writing game is for you; if it’s been going on for only a short while, persist and you will probably get to Phase Two.
Solution: Work on short stories as a way of picking up your morale and developing your craft and keep sending them out. This is actually a key piece of advice. Spending all your time on the 'grand novel' may be good for your soul but probably won't do your bank balance much good.
You’ve had something accepted! You’re joyous and feel that you have ‘made it’. You have made the right choice to be a writer, you think. But then nothing happens, and more nothing, and the following week still nothing. Your morale feels drained and you feel as though you are slipping back into Phase One.
Solution: keep submitting. Get hold of Steve Carr’s book Getting Your Short Stories Published: A Guidebook and fine tune how, where and why you are sending material to publishers. You've just started.
You’ve persisted. Here, you get more acceptances. It’s a little sporadic, but enough to give you hope. No money as yet - that’s probably a long way off - but you are no longer drowning in despair. You probably complain about getting rejections now, whereas before you weren’t even getting those. The reason you feel you can complain is because you have a sense of ‘being a writer’ now and a rejection is an obstacle. How can you move to the next phase?
Solution: Look for patterns in what you’re doing. Are your acceptances coming from particular quarters and not others? Are your rejections saying similar things? Change your habits accordingly: send more of the kind of stuff that gets accepted to more of the kind of people who are accepting it; tweak your rejected work and send it off to new places. Keep your eyes open for submission opportunities - there are thousands of them, internationally. Again, follow the advice given in Steve Carr’s book.
My own book, How Stories Really Work, will help you with knowledge of the craft of writing. Use it here, if you haven't already.
Some sales! Whether you are a short story writer or have published a book or two, your persistence pays off here with a few sales. Actual money arrives in your bank account. It probably won’t be much, but you can now call yourself a ‘professional writer’. It’s strange how £10.00 earned from writing somehow feels more precious than £10.00 earned anywhere else. Perhaps you want to frame your first cheque. Go ahead, it’s a legitimate milestone. But get ready for the long haul towards viability.
Solution: Keep doing what you’re doing, you’re getting somewhere. Work on your craft; join supportive groups and take sensible advice. Re-visit earlier work in the light of what you’ve learned so far. Try to find one or two publishers who consistently support your efforts. They can act as your mentors.
Feedback! Reviews! Independent sales! In other words, something starts to happen here without depending on you to make it happen directly. Readers whom you have never met leave positive reviews; people on social media whose names you don’t recognise start sharing your stuff; you’re referred to (in a good way) in conversations that you are not part of. What’s occurring? You’re starting to emerge from obscurity. You’ll find a trickle of sales as people who have read something of yours seek out other things you’ve written. It won’t be much money, but a pattern can be discerned of growing readership.
The drawback is that you really need volume material out there at this point to sustain that growth. No good (in most cases) only having one book or a set of stories - you need lots.
Solution: Get lots out there. Go crazy on producing stories, collections, novels, anything you can get completed and accepted. Get your publisher(s) on board in terms of getting more material out there.
This might be your fourth year doing this at this point. But things start to come together here: you know more or less who your readers are, you can produce more or less what they want, and you get fairly regular sales — still not huge amounts of money, but much more reliable than a short while ago. Viability is on the horizon.
Solution: Pump out more stuff. Look more closely for patterns. Upgrade and revamp anything from earlier. Get your internal organisation set up so that much of what takes up your time happens automatically - finances, taxes, routines etc.
Viability. You are earning enough money from writing to rely upon it as a source of regular income. Maybe you can even take a break, as book sales will continue without you breathing down their collective neck. You’ll need to keep certain actions in place, of course, but this is where you wanted to be: earning a living from your writing.
Any and all of this could be cut across any time in both good and bad ways. You'll probably slip up and down this scale from time to time. This happens to all small businesses, and you are in effect as small business once you set out building a career as a writer.
You might strike lucky, as mentioned earlier, and hit a motherlode of readers way back in Phase Three which means your fortunes are made. Or Life might step in and prevent you in some way from keeping up the volume, which means your progress slides back a phase or two. But these seven phases give you a kind of framework with which to assess how you are doing and what to do to move forward.
Any questions? Let me know. I hope that I can be of some use to you in creating a dream career. That's why I'm here.