Looking Forward: Contemplating a Writer’s Living, Contemplating the Passing of an Old Dream
I’ve been thinking a lot, lately, about what the future might look like, if I continue down the path of trying to become a published author. I’ve been thinking about what it would take for me to be a professional writer; what path I might follow to success. I’ve been thinking about what it means if I never pass that threshold. This post has been gestating inside me for the better part of a month or two, and has taken me several weeks to write.
Since I was very young, it’s been my dream to be a full-time author. It’s what I’ve always wanted to do. And for much of my youth, this seemed an attainable dream. There were lots of popular fantasy writers, and as far as I knew they were all making pretty comfortable livings by writing books.
But lately, my thoughts on the subject have been a tad more… not really pessimistic, I think, so much as resigned to reality.
I’ve blogged a bit, off-and-on, about some of the challenges I’ve learned face someone interested in a writer’s career. Some time ago, for instance, I blogged about the story of author Steph Swainston, who put a premature end to her writing career to go into teaching, and what her decision says about the difficulties of a writing life. More recently, I blogged a link to new author Myke Cole’s explanation of how he makes the finances of an author’s income work for him.
Several authors have blogged about the decline in author advances across the industry. Some, including Tobias Buckell, have even done surveys of fellow authors to try to glean some empirical data. (Here’s Tobias’s survey. And here’s a separate survey by author Meghan Ward, which includes a lot of non-speculative fiction data points. And here’s some thoughts by Constance Hale and Gianmaria Franchini. There’s lots of good, crunchy data) If you make your way around the various author and writing blogs, you’ll likely have seen one or more of these before. Meanwhile, authors like Jim C. Hines have regularly blogged about the vagaries of their writing income. The take-aways from these various links: the stability and dependability of writing compensation is weak, and in many cases it’s completely insufficient to support even a single person living alone, much less a family – especially if you write genre fiction, it seems.
In another recent Jim C. Hines post, author Benjamin Tate/Joshua Palmatier talked about how declines in available shelf-space at brick & mortar book sellers has significantly impacted an author’s ability to break out and make a living doing the writing thing. Another author, Kameron Hurley, in a long post about her own personal challenges and self-doubting also talked about the difficult realization that having a day job will be necessary for her having a successful writing career.
All of this is just the tip of the iceberg. I could go on, trawling the internet for more posts and more links that touch on the subject of writing income or the challenges of the writing life. They are legion. These are just some of the more prominent and/or more recent that I’ve come across.
My key take-aways? Speaking only for myself, it looks something like this:
- It’s hard – not impossible, but “climbing Mt. Everest” hard – to make a living solely from writing fiction. Relatively few of the writers I follow who publicly talk about their writing income report being full-time authors or writers for whom their writing income makes up the majority of their household income. Those that do are writing not just bestsellers but blockbuster bestsellers. And there’s typically some Hollywood/film-rights money floating in there, somewhere, too. (The latter seems to flow in the direction of “blockbuster bestseller”, so if you’re already very successful, it’s more likely that even more success will be forthcoming.)
- Pursuant to the above, the writing business seems largely to be a feast-or-famine sort of business, and apparently becoming more-so. Many writers seem to be making very little from their work. Others are very successful (and higher profile). The ones in between? A vanishingly rare breed. We hear more about the “very successful” ones of course. And we very rarely hear about the folks who don’t fare so well, except in the sense that by all accounts it sounds to me as though there’s very many o f them. But it’s the fates and fortunes of the ones in the middle I’m more interested in… because…
- As an author, you really don’t have a lot of control over whether you make it into the “bestseller” or “blockbuster bestseller” status, or languish in the midlists, or are ultimately consigned to obscurity. There are a ton of factors that are entirely outside an author’s control that have more of an impact on an author’s career trajectory than just what an author actually writes.
- And yet, there are some pretty intense demands placed on authors by publishers and the market - demands that are, frankly, out of proportion with the compensation. Things like the expectation for a book-a-year just to maintain a viable career.
Consequent to all of these things, I’ve been thinking about what my life looks like, as a writer, and what direction my writing career might take over the next year, five years, ten years…
One thing is immediately apparent: even if I had a finished novel-length manuscript in hand today, even if it were brilliant and highly desirable by publishing houses… even if… I wouldn’t be able to make a switch to full-time writing as a career. It’s just not feasible, not at this time. I’m going to need a day job for the foreseeable future – for the stable income and for the health benefits if for nothing else. This isn’t news to me, of course. I’ve known this for quite some time. But contemplating this fact, and following the logic of the above points leads me to further conclusions about what my writing career, or lack thereof, might look like… And thus…
From that reality flows another: I cannot sustain the “book-a-year” demand. It simply isn’t possible for me. My WIP, “Book of M” has now been in active development for about 9 months or just over – since May of 2011 - and I haven’t written a single word of first draft, yet. Even if I can improve my speed over time, there’s no way I can hold down a full-time day job and write books at anything even approaching a book-a-year.
Those two facts, taken together, lead me to a stark conclusion: I can’t have a professional, traditional writing career as a novelist. In my current place in life, it’s simply not possible.
This was a difficult realization for me to reach.
It’s always difficult when you are forced to realize that your dreams and your hopes for your life are unattainable, no matter what effort you put into them.
Of course… that last statement is entirely true. But the efforts involved would be unacceptable risks to my family (and still aren’t guaranteed success). And that’s why I can’t do it. Because I have a higher calling to protect and provide for my family. I had a long, frank discussion with Dear Wife about all this not too long ago. She was very supportive and encouraging, which I appreciated.
We reached something of an understanding - a plan, if you will - for what the next decade might look like. Of course, I anticipate working during that decade - day job working, that is. And advancing my day job career, to better support my family. That will consume a majority of my mental and creative energy. It has to, because it’s a more viable and stable way to care for and support my family than writing is ever likely to be. And writing? Writing will be my hobby. What I do because I can’t not do it, because it’s so foundationally important to who I am. Getting published? In the next decade? Not so much a priority.
The thing is… I don’t want to risk getting published. I don’t want to risk success. Because I don’t think I can sustain it. If I can’t do a book a year or more, I suspect it gets increasingly, prohibitively difficult to sustain a successful career. The writers who can do it without staying constantly prolific like that I can count on one hand. So what if I had a break-out novel? What if I got published? What then? Right now… the next book wouldn’t come for two… three… maybe four years. During which time… unless I was freaking awesomely amazing I’ll have been forgotten. The writing career I’d hoped to have? Dead before it started. This, I suspect, is the far likelier scenario if I were to aggressively pursue publication right now.
To come so close to my dream, only to have it snatched away? It would devastate me. Better for my psyche to face the reality now, when the dream is still so far away. You see, my implacable practicality doesn’t get along well with my unquenchable sentimentality. More often than not, the implacable practicality wins, and when it does, it wins at the expense of my dreams.
But that does not mean the dream itself is dead. It is only deferred. For a long time. Possibly forever, but hopefully not forever. Over the next ten years, if I’m lucky, I’ll have written three, four, maybe even five novels. Hopefully, the first one, “Book of M”, is good enough to get published. If not that, hopefully the second. Or the third. Hopefully… hopefully whatever else happens in ten years I’ll have at least two or three good, publishable novels.
And then… maybe… just maybe I reach once again for my dreams. And maybe they no longer elude my grasp. And then, if I’ve done everything right, I’ve got two or three or four years of solid book-a-year performance already in the hopper. And in the intervening two or three or four years I write another one or two books. So I do a solid five or six years of “writing” a book-a-year.
By then, Dear Wife theorizes, my free time will be substantially improved from what it is today. She has it on good word from others who are between five and ten years ahead of the game from us. I… I don’t quite buy it. But it’s a nice little idea. I get more free time… and that translates into more writing productivity. It sounds great. So maybe my current rate of a book every two-to-three years (which is where things look like they’re going on “Book of M” right now) improves, and I’m doing a book every year-and-a-half. If, then, I do get published in a decade-ish from now… I’d be able to do another solid decade of putting out a book-a-year before I’d burned through my whole backlog of publishable quality books, after which my rate would slow. But by then my career would be established. And then it’s only another five to fifteen years, give or take, and I’m looking at retiring from the day job. At which point… writing finally, at last, becomes my full-time job. And my productivity skyrockets.
So… that’s the “plan”, as it were. I put “plan” in scare-quotes because, of course, over the next decade I’m sure things will change so drastically in my life, the life of my family, the world of publishing, and the world of writers that none of what I just said will be even remotely realistic. Heck… I don’t think it’s remotely realistic now.
But I’ve got to hang on to something. Because the dream is a part of me. And letting the dream die… that would be letting a part of myself die. That’s not something I’m prepared to do, right now. And so there’s this plan. Just keep writing… and maybe, eventually, someday, you can achieve your dream. I mean, I can achieve my dream.
And who knows? Maybe it will work. And if not, maybe, by then, I’ll have matured enough, as a person, that the dreams that inflected the entirety of my childhood and my young-adulthood and my early-middle-aged-hood I will be able finally to accept belong in my past. Maybe then I’ll be able to fully accept that I’ve done my best, and my best wasn’t good enough. Maybe then my old dream will pass away.
But not today.