Some Sobering Reflections

For aspiring writers everywhere, it’s wise to acquaint oneself with the experiences of established authors before embarking on a writing career. There’s a lot to be learned, including bursting the bubbles of many myths. It’s amazing how many people believe that getting a book published is a road to riches – that writers all make lots of money. But the truth is far more sobering: Few writers earn enough to live on. Moreover, getting traditionally published can be a long and frustrating process, and so demoralizing at times that many people are inclined to give up. Indeed, one could legitimately argue that one of the factors behind the explosion of self-publishing is the painful lengths to which writers must often go if they wish to be traditionally published.


After all, who needs rejection? When an agent sends you a reply to one of your queries informing you your book just isn’t for her, it’s a blow to your ego and you feel your sense of self-worth wither away. Now multiply that by the tens – even hundreds – of rejections many writers face when starting out. It’s not difficult to imagine how that must feel. Death by a thousand paper cuts, if you will. At some point it’s inevitable that you’ll begin to wonder if maybe you were kidding yourself about this whole writing thing, that maybe you’re work just isn’t any good. If you’re not careful, it’ll send you into a spiral of depression, and that’s one of the worst enemies of a writer.


Of course, you may get lucky, land an agent, get a book contract, and feel you’ve made it, that the hard part is over. And certainly there’ll be joy and a sense of achievement. Well-earned rewards, to be sure. But reality can soon set in once you’ve overcome the initial barriers to getting published, and it can be just as discouraging – after your book has been released – to realize that you’re not going to be one of those breakout stars whose novel sells millions of copies and is on the New York Times bestseller list for weeks and months on end. There isn’t going to be a world tour. No TV appearances or interviews with noted media. No movie or TV series deal. Your book isn’t going to be translated into dozens of languages and sold in markets all over the world. It isn’t going to win awards. And when you face the possibility that it might not even earn out its advance, it can really hurt. Especially as you turn an eye to your writing career and begin to wonder if there’s even going to be one. You may even have the misfortune of having your agent dump you, which I can tell you from personal experience is a real possibility (and extraordinarily painful and deflating if it comes about a week before your book releases, as was the case for me).


If you think there’s refuge in knowing there are more writers like that than there are successes, think again. True, we all judge success by different measures, but it’s almost certain that anyone who writes a book really wants it to be a hit. A writer wants millions of readers and the sales commensurate with those numbers. He/she wants the attention that goes hand-in-hand with that sort of success, because I’m pretty sure nobody wants to be a failure. Particularly not at something for which he/she has great passion.


Unfortunately, writing is like many of the arts, and the rewards must often be reduced to little more than the pleasure of executing the craft. Anything beyond that usually has to be seen as gravy.


It would be nice to say that things are getting better, but the truth is they’re not. It’s far more difficult to be a successful writer now than it was ten years ago. Worse, still, than it was in the days before the Internet. Perhaps almost ironically, more people are writing books than ever. I’ve heard estimates that in excess of a million books were self-published in the US alone in 2018. Add the hundreds of thousands of traditionally published books, and you've quite a number. The unfortunate part is that the audience for those books isn’t really growing. Some would argue it’s even shrinking as more and more segments of the expanding leisure and entertainment market vie for the paying public’s time and money.


It took me years to get my book traditionally published. Naively, I once believed that getting that first book out the door and into bookstores would mean smooth sailing after that. I know better, now. The hard work, the self-doubt, the dark days…they never seem to end. Often, when you feel you’ve gotten past the most difficult parts, you’re hit with something else. And maybe that’s one of the worst aspects of this writing business: there’s no security. There’s no certainty. Even if you have a hit on your hands, there’s no guarantee your next book will follow suit. It’s like living on the edge of precipice, staring into a dark abyss, hoping it isn’t as fathomless as it looks and wishing you’d a safety line to hold you and a light by which to see.


Quite simply, writing as a career is not for the faint-hearted. If you’re thinking of going into it because you have this notion of it being easy street, of you being able to sit back and just write, think again. Because unless you really hit it big – big enough that you’re never going to have to worry about money again – it’s a life fraught with as many moments of pain and sorrow as there may be of joy.


Yeah, I know: You think writers like me should be telling you uplifting stories of how it’s important not to give up, to struggle on against the odds and overcome adversity. You want me to inspire you, to tell you you’re going to make it if you just work hard enough. Well, yes, you should definitely work hard and you shouldn’t give up at the first sign of difficulty. But there’s no sense in pretending. It’s true some will be truly fortunate and strike the motherlode and go on to great careers in writing. They’ll land an agent right out the gate. They’ll get the big six or seven figure book deal with a publisher. They’ll be New York Times bestsellers and international hits. There’ll be book signings and TV appearances and world tours. Movie or TV series deals will follow. Their lives will be every writer’s fantasy.


But here’s the thing: That’s going to happen to fewer than one out of every thousand or so writers. The chances you’re going to be one of them? Well, I think you can do the math.


If all this puts you off, then writing probably isn’t for you. But I’m betting that if writing is truly in your blood, if the words sing in your veins and clamour to be written, then nothing is going to dissuade you. In your heart you’ll feel you can be one of those rare gems, one of those one in a thousand hits. Nothing is going to stop you. And who knows? You just may be the next big thing. But you won’t find out until you try. So dream big. Dare to reach. But in the meantime, you might want to consider plan “B.”