The Biggest Problem That Publishers Have With Writers - Part Three
In Parts One and Two we covered the harsh realities of building a career as a writer. We reached the end of Year Two without much money coming in, if any. So, what about Year Three? Do we finally get rich? Can we afford to pay off some of the debts we've run up?
Your Third Year
Many of your illusions have worn off. You probably spend a lot of time questioning things. But here are some key points which you need to focus on at this stage:
1. It’s nearly impossible to have had a runaway success by this point. If you’re still struggling to break even that’s about where you’re supposed to be. Hopefully your publisher is still working with you to build your presence and profile.
2. The part where you build a real career as a writer which generates funds enough for you to pay yourself a decent wage is probably a couple years away. Or it may be never. That’s hard to digest. But 'a decent wage' is quite something -- it doesn't mean that you're making nothing, just that your dreams of being suddenly rich from writing needed revision.
3. Ask yourself: ‘Can I go on at this pace for another 2-3 years?' At this point you know more precisely what you signed up for and what level of commitment is needed. If you don’t think you can keep this up, you might want to consider a new career. It doesn't mean you're no good as a writer - it just means that you needed a little more stamina, like anyone starting a small business, which is what you're doing, effectively.
All this doesn't mean nothing good will have happened: you may have had some good months; you will almost certainly have received dozens of acceptances. It just means that you probably won't have achieved viability yet - you won't yet be able to live off your writing.
Further key point: everyone else will have even less idea whether or not you can make a success of it than you — so don’t listen to the doomsayers and gloom-mongers. These will abound from time to time.
The third year is about preparing to run an ongoing business in growth stage. You have to make the call as to whether or not this is something you want to do.
'That's NOT what I wanted to hear,' you're probably thinking. 'I wanted to learn that Year Three was the Big Turning Point where I finally hit the bestseller lists and can retire from anxieties.'
It might be. There's always the tantalising possibility that you might be 'discovered' and get runaway sales. But Year Three is probably going to seem much like Year Two on the outside.
On the inside, though, things should have happened. If you were following my strategy outlined last time, about writing, learning your craft, getting your name out there and building your worlds, a marvellous magic will slowly have begun to occur. You will have begun to learn about yourself as a writer, your strengths and weaknesses; and you will have started to detect what it is about your work that readers like.
There's this diagram:
During Years One, Two and Three you MUST keep writing so that that overlap section has a chance to grow. Acceptances, good reviews, getting your name out there, some sales coming in... it's all building that middle bit.
Then you have a chance of reaching Year Four.
Your Fourth Year
As a management consultant who used to have an office on Berkeley Street in Central London, I dealt with a lot of small businesses. I also learned that most major companies were typically on the edge of obscurity for many years until one day they started finding out that what they had was worth something to someone. Think Google, Apple, Amazon and many more.
The same principle applies to authors.
If you’re worried about the years skipping by, famous authors who didn’t achieve success until they were past 35 years old include Jules Verne – Five Weeks in a Balloon (1863), Edith Wharton – The Decoration of Houses (1897), Jane Austen – Sense and Sensibility (1811), Amy Tan – The Joy Luck Club (1989), Saul Bellow – The Adventures of Augie March (1953), Miguel de Cervantes – La Galatea (1585), Ralph Ellison – Invisible Man (1952), Wallace Stevens – Harmonium (1917), Anthony Burgess – Time for a Tiger (1956), William S. Burroughs – Junkie (1953) and many more. Over 40 years old? Join EL Doctorow – The Book of Daniel (1971), George Eliot – Adam Bede (1859), Maya Angelou – I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969), and many, many others. J. R. R. Tolkien was over 60 before The Lord of the Rings was published, and a decade older when it became commercially viable.
But back to your fourth year: the reason most small businesses don’t find their footing until Year Four is because it takes that long before every aspect of the business has been refined – brand message, customer acquisition, product development, management team, and much more. All of these things take time to get right. So those first three years of struggle? That’s the very least that it takes to get those things refined until they begin to work. You’re building a machine which you hope will generate money for you for the rest of your life — and, as a writer, you are doing so from literally nothing.
What do all those things mean for writers?
Brand message: what your writing is about; what readers can expect when they pick up one of your pieces; what 'flavour' or 'feeling' or 'vibe' do they get; what it is about your work that makes it distinctly your work as opposed to some kind of copy or formulaic blandness.
Customer acquisition: where are your readers? Who are they? What do they like and dislike about your stuff? Do they exist in viable numbers? What else do they like? This takes time to discover. Over a couple of years, you will probably proceed from an attitude of 'The whole world will love my writing! All I need to do is get it out there!' to a more pragmatic 'The people who are actually going to buy my work are from a tiny, narrow demographic with very precise and peculiar tastes.'
Note that I said 'a couple of years'. Not 'a couple of days' or 'a couple of weeks'. And to find them, you need to be disseminating your material along channels all the time so that they are able to find you.
Product development: in writing terms, this means the evolution of your writing from the circle on the right in the above diagram until it starts to overlap with the circle on the left. Your 'product' is your fiction; 'development' means growing in skill and wisdom.
Management team: for a writer, this can be your support network of family, friends and colleagues. But it can also be that friendly publisher you've found who believes in you -- you know, the one who keeps raving about your work and badgering you to write more. The one who streams support constantly your way. If your work is any good at all, you'll find him or her.
Please don’t expect all this to happen overnight. Whether any of it happens at all is largely up to you and your publisher.
What’s the primary quality you need to make a go of a writing career?
Emotional fortitude probably outweighs talent, even. But you have to decide to keep going and then keep going. Obstacles that come up are just that — obstacles, things to be overcome on the path to your goal as a viable writer.
There are some obvious things which you can do to make this whole process a little bit easier, and they are what we will look at next.