I wrote this essay in 1997, when the world of publishing was very different from what it is today. Back then, who could have anticipated the revolution in epublishing and the way it has given rise to self-publishing and independent publishers. Upon reflection, however, I think it’s worth considering. Let me know what you think!
Many recent articles in newsletters, magazines and websites describe the dire state of publishing and the difficulties which writers face in order to break in, let alone survive or flourish. Conventional wisdom resonates with images of loss and scarcity:
“The midlist is dead!”
“IDs (Independent [Book] Distributors) have imploded!”
“If a single book fails, your entire career is finished unless you change your name!”
“Media tie-ins and franchised universe fiction are squeezing out original work on bookstore shelves!”
The background to these declarations is grim. Approximately 50% of all novels marketed as first novels are in fact written by established writers seeking to escape from poor sales figures. This situation benefits publishers because they then need pay only first-novel level advances for solid, midlist-level books. The average advance has not increased in a decade, while those for a few, more highly promoted books have skyrocketed, further fueling the “boom or bust” polarization. Bookstore chains occupy an increasingly large share of the market and their computerized ordering practices base advance orders on the author’s previous sales. Some critically-acclaimed books sell so poorly that their authors have difficulty finding a publisher for their next work. In this age of micro-management by distant multiglomerate corporations, the success of a book can be determined before it appears on the shelves. Publishers hold “autopsy” conferences to discuss why a book which they believed would do well “failed” in terms of sales.
Advice is easily given in an atmosphere of unspoken desperation. Sometimes the suggested tactics succeed: a byline change or a switch to a more commercial form of fiction may rejuvenate an author’s sales or at least subsidize more serious writing. Too often, however, such changes are proposed and undertaken without consideration of their emotional implications. Well-meaning advice gives special privilege to forces which are inherently beyond a writer’s control and which have to do with merchandising, not creativity. The writer who follows such advice unsuccessfully is particularly vulnerable to feelings of guilt, regret, loss of artistic identity, and betrayal (“having sold out.”)
Beyond question, publishing, including genre publishing, is currently in a state of transition. No one knows the shape of the future, not even science fiction writers. All we know is that it will not be a continuation of what has come before. Current advice is in reality educated guessing or anecdotal, that is, “This worked for me, so it’s the way for everyone to go.”
Human beings don’t tolerate uncertainty well. The truth is that we do not and cannot know what will happen to any individual creative work of ours or to our careers or to publishing as a whole. But we can become so desperate, so ruled by unspoken fear, that we are deaf to our own inner strength. Is it possible to make sane choices in today’s publishing market? I believe it is, but only when they are true choices, ones we make with our eyes open.
Every writer faces the challenge of maintaining a healthy boundary between self and work. For many of us, the same sensitivity and imagination which makes us good writers also leaves us open to self doubt.
How are we, then, to remember who we really are in a time saturated with messages of uncertainty?
Does changing your name and starting all over again mean selling your soul or losing those readers to whom your stories have been a gift or winning the publisher/bookstore/sales numbers game?
It would be ironic to present an article on why not to take advice by offering some. Instead, here are some questions.
- Do I make a clear distinction between those things within my control and those over which I am powerless? How can I create a healthy distance between the commercial reception of my work and what it means to me? Can I set personal goals and celebrate success which isn’t dependent upon market factors?
- How do I recover from disappointment? What kinds of support work best for me during hard times?
- When I sit down to write, what expectations, recriminations, and misgivings do I bring with me? How many people are looking over my shoulder, telling me I’m not good enough or that I am a disposable commodity who must please a nameless corporation or be replaced?
To the extent that we give the weight to the fears behind the advice, we grant them the power to define our self-worth as a person and as a writer.
In essence, it does not matter whether I change my name, get a day job, swap publishers or agents, write in someone else’s universe, or trudge through novelizations of bad movies in order to make the next house payment. What matters is that I make these and other choices freely, that I pay careful attention to their consequences for my inner creative life. The moment of truth is not at the bank, but at the keyboard.
It is for us well to remember that the Chinese symbol for crisis contains the character representing opportunity. There will always be clever schemes for short-lived success and just plain good luck. Painful as it is to admit, we have little control over chance.
What we can control is how we feel about ourselves as creative artists, how we cherish our unique voices and tell the stories that are in our hearts. We can redefine success in our own terms that allows us to find creative solutions to the practical challenges of finding time and emotional energy for our work. When we value our writing for its own sake, its contribution to the inner richness of our lives rather than the outer wealth, we may make exactly the same choices as day jobs, work-for-hire, name changes or other strategies, but they will have lost the power to define and hence to devastate us.
Publishing fads may come and go. Dabblers may burn out or give up. The very means of transmission of the written word may be transformed. But if we nourish our creative spirits, if we keep on writing what is in our hearts to write, then we will surely be there in the end, telling stories to delight future generations of listeners.
The image is a detail from Two Tax Collectors by Marinus van Reymerswaele, circa 1540.