Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Uncertainty

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.