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:

  1. 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.)
  2. 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
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

13 thoughts on “Looking Forward: Contemplating a Writer’s Living, Contemplating the Passing of an Old Dream

    • Thanks. It will be, I presume, some years before I’ll know how this will all play out. For now, I hold fast to the dream while trying simultaneously to embrace reality. We’ll see if I can keep up that balancing act. Either way… I won’t stop writing. It’s just a question of whether my writing will ever really be more than just a hobby for me.

  1. Good luck. I think you can do it! There’s really no rush to be published, especially with the state of the publishing industry right now. Maybe by the time you’re ready things will have settled down into the ‘new paradigm’ and things will be different for writers.

    I don’t expect to ever be free of a dayjob, and so right now I’m figuring out how I can fit writing into my present life. This is already the writer’s life (irregardless of publication), and you’re living yours, however which way you can. Just don’t stop writing, or that would be a great shame.

    • Yeah, I do think that’s one benefit to waiting right now- or of being forced by circumstances into a place where waiting is necessary. So much is in flux, so much is changing, that it’s hard for a writer to know what’s the best path or what’s going to happen next. And all of that change makes things a little scary, in some ways. I don’t expect things will ever stop changing in the publishing industry, but hopefully the rate of change and upheaval will calm down somewhat in the near future, or we can get a better sense of the direction of that change. But I don’t intend ever to stop writing – not even if I reach a point where I come to believe that I will never be a published novelist, even then I’ll still write.

  2. “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.” I laughed out loud when I read this before I went to work today, not because it’s funny, but because it’s true and almost nobody thinks that way.

    It sounds like you’ve really thought this through, and I think (based on what little I know, of course) this sounds like a good decision.

    I wanted to be a musician. Well, I was a musician, but I was set on Making It Big (getting signed, at least) and that leeched the fun out of it so that not only didn’t my band get signed but I haven’t picked up an instrument (or wanted to) in decades.

    And, yes, the publishing industry is in a state of flux, and it will be interesting to see how it ends up. But remember, the desire to tell stories, and to hear stories, goes back to the beginnings of the human race. The publishing industry has existed for (historically speaking) about ten minutes. If you get involved with the industry, or not, in whatever form it ends up, or even if it ceases to exist (unlikely I know) or becomes unrecognizeably different, storytelling will go on.

    That’s what you’re a part of.

    • I’ve been thinking about this thing for months. So yeah, I’d say I’ve thought about it quite a lot.

      The crazy misalignment between the expectations put on authors and the compensation, I think, is part of what fuels the vitriol and anger of some of those who have embraced the new digital self-publishing. On that issue, I have to agree (though not the level of being nihilistic about it). What authors do is the bread-and-butter of the publisher’s business. Sure, some authors have gotten quite wealthy (J.K. Rowling) based on their work. But I don’t think it’s too much to ask that the compensation for what is in effect a full-time workload at least pretends to be competitive in the market. The only reason publishers can offer such sub-market compensation for the work of authors is because authors are so in love with the work that they do that they’ll do it for less. But having that love for the work doesn’t mean that it’s a good idea actually to make that particular sacrifice. Each author that gives away too much hurts not only themselves but other authors by perpetuating a normative system that undercompensates the efforts of authors.

      Anyway. Yes.

      Storytelling. Absolutely. Whatever happens… storytelling is at the foundation of human civilization and the heart of the human psyche. It’s not going anywhere. And I’m proud to be part of that tradition, in whatever form it takes, and in whatever form I can participate.

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  4. As a fan of your writing skill and a follower of this blog since its inception, I’ve been moved by this piece. I know very well how becoming a published author of fantasy fiction means to you. Deferring your dream of becoming one must be kind of heartbreaking on your part. I was particularly touched by the last two paragraphs of your post above.

    I think your decision can be summed up by your lines “my implacable practicality doesn’t get along well with my unquenchable sentimentality. And so my implacable practicality almost always wins at the expense of my dreams.”

    Unlike other writers, you have such solid and substantial business sense and acumen that might have played a huge part on all this. You have the ability to consider every angle in all things pragmatical which is just the most sensible thing for you to do, for now, because of your family.

    I commend you too for being able to understand (not the vitriol part though) the side of the new digital self-publishing which previously fueled challenging discussions here.

    I believe you’re making the right decision. For the meantime. As you said, let’s see how all this will play out.

    Meanwhile, hang on to the dream still and don’t stop writing, Stephen.

    • Thanks. It has been a difficult journey, emotionally, for me to reach this conclusion. I want to be engaged in pursuing my dream actively. As I said in my post… this has been a dream of mine since childhood. It’s always been with me and I suspect it always will be a part of who I am. But more than a dream, I’m a practical man, and I’m also a loving father and husband. And practically speaking, real people come before the imaginary people in my head and in my stories. In the meantime… there’s no way I’ll stop writing: I’ll keep on doing that until my mind is too far gone to assemble a coherent story. And maybe the publishing industry will settle down a bit so I can figure out how I can do anything there. Thanks for the well-wishes. 🙂

  5. I love this thoughtful essay, Stephen, which is a complement to the data-driven ones you site by Gianmaria Franchini and Meghan Ward. Please feel free to post a comment on my site, because it’s important not to lose sight of the emotional and psychological impact of facts about advances, etc., on living, breathing writers.

    One thing that has helped me is to find a community of writers–I’ve built critique groups of writers I trust, and I work at the San Francisco Writers Grotto–who understand the vicissitudes, the disappointments, the glories, the frustrations, the highs, the sighs. Our society measures success by things like money and bestseller lists, so it can be hard to keep at it without supportive colleagues who value what you are doing.

    • Thanks for responding. I think you’re right about the emotional impact. Most of us who write didn’t just wake up yesterday with this dream of becoming an author fully formed in our minds. We’ve been doing this a while, and we’ve had this dream or this goal for almost as long. And we’re not emotionally prepared to discover that the reality is a little more… challenging isn’t the right word, and neither is murky. Let’s just say can be tough once you realize that the numbers are not in an aspiring author’s favor, and that’s before we get to the question of the relative merits of what one has written. I’m sure a lot of us think that what we write is pretty good, maybe even really good – why else would we keep writing, if we didn’t think we were good and getting better? – but are we good enough to make the numbers irrelevant? For some, maybe yes, we are. But for most of us? I don’t know. So this was a hard thing for me to think about and work through, with respect to myself and my own career prospects. I can’t just let my dream die… but I have to protect myself and my emotional well-being from the pain of the possibility of eventual failure of the dream. To accomodate both realities: the internal facts of my emotional state and the external facts of an unforgiving market, I continue to strive toward the dream while mentally rehearsing what failure looks like, to acclimate myself to it, should it come.

      AS for the writing community side of the equation: that’s largely the purpose this blog serves for me, at the moment. I don’t really have readers, per se. I have fellow writers who happen to read my blog (and often whose blogs I happen to read in return, where time permits). In my daily, regular life, I don’t have time for a dedicated face-to-face writer’s group, though I sincerely wish I did. It’s just not the point in life that I’m at. Someday, perhaps, that will be more realistic for me. In the mean time, I’m grateful for the community of writers and aspiring authors alike who actively participate in the blogosphere.

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