Saturday, December 13, 2008

Writing: The Temporary Career

I'm not going to name names in this post. Partly because it would be mean. Partly because I'm only speculating on the reasons why, and have no real proof.

But I still wanted to talk about something that's rampant in the word of publishing. It's also rampant in other media like radio, TV, movies, and music.

It's Where Are They Now Syndrome.

The scariest thing about WATNS is how quickly it seems to occur. When my first novel, Whiskey Sour, was published in 2004, I did as much self-promotion as I could. Going to writing conventions, signing at bookstores and libraries, I met dozens of writers who also had new books out. Some were debut authors, like me. Some were veterans who seemed like they'd be around forever.

But here it is, a scant four and a half years later, and I can name more than thirty of these authors who didn't publish anything in the past year, and in some cases the past two years.

This boggles my mind.

While everyone is aware of the transitory nature of fame (it's particularly noticeable in Hollywood where A list actors fade into B list actors, and B list actors sometimes have a huge hit that makes them A list) I actually never thought it applied to writers as well.

Well, it does. With one major difference. When you're considered a B list author, you can't even give your work away. There's no straight-to-DVD or movie-of-the-week option like there is for actors who used to be Somebody. There are some smaller presses, yes. And while a lot of them are terrific, their lack of major distribution dollars means even smaller numbers for writers who once were published by the major houses, which means the major houses will be even less likely to give these writers another shot.

In thinking about this phenomenon, I was tempted to rationalize why so-and-so hasn't had a book deal in a while. Yes, numbers follow authors. But maybe there are other reasons too.

Perhaps some authors decided they just didn't want to write anymore. Perhaps some veered off into different territory and couldn't find a home for it. Perhaps some wanted to write, but were out of ideas. Perhaps there were extenuating circumstances like sickness, or some personal or family tragedy. Perhaps some simply take a very long time to write a book. Perhaps work or some other aspect of real life got in the way.

Perhaps.

And yet, knowing what a struggle it is to find an agent and get published, it seems odd that so many writers--writers I did signings with only four years ago--would let anything prevent them from writing. This profession requires dedication and sticktoitivness, and the lessons learned early on in the career when rejections are plentiful tend to make a person battle-hardened. Writers, as a species, don't tend to give up easily.

Which makes WATNS all the more troubling.

There are writers who had the brass ring, and want to have it again, but for whatever reason can't seem to grasp it.

Battle-hardened does not equal bullet-proof.

It's tempting to blame the industry, which is flawed for many reasons. A book's success is often a self-fulfilling prophecy; big promotional dollars leads to more orders leads to more sales. Do bestsellers really sell so well because of name recognition, or because when you're at an airport or drugstore and want to buy a book you only have the choice of a dozen titles? If a lessor name writer was given wider distribution, naturally they would sell more books. Yet few are given this push.

But I also personally know a few authors who did get that big push. In some cases, six and seven figure advances and corresponding marketing dollars. And here it is, a few years later, and those books are already out of print.

It's tempting to blame the writer, for producing lackluster work, or failing to self-promote, or being difficult to work with. And yet I've read many out-of-print novels that I believe are just as good or even better than books in their thirtieth printing by name authors who do very little self-promotion. I also know a few successful authors who are real jerks, and that hasn't seemed to hurt their careers.

There's a mentality that once you land a deal with a major house, you're set. But the fact is (and get ready for the kick in the groin) the majority of people who get a major deal wind up as WATHS statistics.

I can look at my extensive personal library, and 90% of those books are out of print, and 60% of those authors haven't published anything in years.

Landing a major deal, in most cases, doesn't signal the start of a longtime career. For many, it's the beginning of the end.

I can guess what many regular readers of my blog are thinking. Okay Joe, now that you've presented the problem, tell us what we can do to fix it like you always do.

Well, frightening as it is, this is one problem I can't fix.

I'd love to be able to point a finger and conclusively say, "This is why she's still being published, and this is why he isn't." But I can't. There are no traits or commonalities that can accurately predict success or failure.

After a certain level of competency is reached, who gets published and who doesn't is pretty much based on luck. This is true for newbies, and remains true for writers who have been in the biz for years.

All we can do is persevere, and keep writing and self-promoting and doing our damnedest to survive. Because, depressingly enough, this career is more about survival than success.

But, as I've been saying for years, the harder you try, the luckier you seem to get.

So if anyone with WATNS is reading this, remember that giving up isn't an option. Yes, you've gotten some bad breaks. Yes, this business is woefully unfair. Yes, it doesn't make any sense at all. But the same dedication that got you published that first time must be used to get you published again.

I know we all believe that once you "make it" there is no longer any struggle, the fears go away, and the opportunities are boundless.

But the truth is the struggle never ends, the fears are always there, and every opportunity that comes along should be appreciated as the gift it actually is.

So the rules, for newbie and pro alike, are the same.

1. Write the best book you can.

2. Try your best to get it into the hands of as many people as possible.

3. Repeat.

That's all we can do. Beyond that, it's all luck.

Just don't forget rule 3. The longer I'm in this business, the more I think it's the one that separates the haves from the have nots.

Now quit your whining and get to work.