Sunday, March 29, 2009

Writing Against (Financial) Odds

OK, we get that the world is full of doom and gloom, and there is this huge financial crisis. We also get that people are losing their jobs, due to greedy or incompetent company bosses. Recent reports from the Bologna Book Fair (the biggie for children's books) indicated that US publishers had reacted most strongly to the GEC by laying off staff and reducing their programs. I guess it doesn't help that we've been told Borders is on the verge of bankruptcy, and that book sales everywhere are down. Although I've seen another report that in Australia, at least, book sales were up in the July-December 08 period. Hmmm. Have some publishers gone into panic mode unnecessarily?

Probably not. There has been talk for several years now that too many publishers were producing too many books, going for the "hit or miss" idea, because after all, who knows what makes a bestseller? Famous author brings out new book, publisher puts big bucks into publicity and marketing, bestseller follows. Pretty obvious outcome. Unknown author gets first novel published, publisher gives it the usual small push, somehow novel gains rapid word-of-mouth recommendations and bestseller follows. Who could've guessed? Maybe the editor who fell in love with the manuscript, but probably not the marketing guys or the booksellers. It can be a fickle business.

And that's the point. It is a fickle business, even though it tries hard not to be. So where does that leave an author who writes well, submits regularly, but just can't make it to the next level? When I say next level, I mean that the writer has a few small publications under their belt, and some positive rejection letters, enough to make them feel confident that they are on the right track and shouldn't go back to quilting or sailing as a hobby. But when you combine the economic woes with a week of four rejection letters, what do you do?

One option is to give up. I do know some successful writers who have said (in public) that they only continue writing because they're getting published. If they started getting rejections, they'd go off and do something else. Another option is to keep writing, no matter what, and combine the writing with a few other things that I think are going to become even more essential in the next couple of years. Things like these:

1. Market research. Make time every day to add to your store of information about publishers, what they're doing right now, what they might be looking for. If you write for children, you will find that many publishers produce newsletters - sure, they're aimed at parents and teachers, but they'll tell you exactly what that publisher thinks is important to talk about. Use marketing guides or websites - compile lists of markets for your specific kind of writing and give each one a mark out of ten on how appropriate they are for you.

2. Expand your horizons. Write other things. It's all about track record. OK, you write novels, but branching out into nonfiction or reviewing or serious blogging on current topics will expand your skills as well as give you more credibility. Look around for opportunities, don't think they'll come to you.

3. Take serious steps to improve the quality of your writing. I can't stress this one enough. If you are madly scribbling story after story, building a bank of stuff that keeps getting rejected, think about the possibility that maybe you're focusing too much on quantity instead of quality. Find a way to improve your craft and skills or use a good critique person.

4. Read widely in your genre/form/what you write. Look at what is being published now, why it's popular or getting good reviews, what is original about it. Pick out ten examples - things you wish you had written. Ask yourself why you didn't write that! Are you sticking to 'safe' ideas? Are you trying to cash in on a trend that's already on its way out? Are you writing the first idea that comes to you instead of working hard to make it into something special?

5. Keep up with the industry. There are plenty of free newsletters, websites and discussion boards out there. Instead of spending your time on the net emailing friends or looking for bargains on EBay, find some great newsletters to sign up for. If you receive a couple and think they're no use to you, just unsubscribe. (I'm going to post soon on ones I think are good.)

6. Invest in yourself. I subscribe to a free email business newsletter that has a lot of small business analysis and motivational stuff. One of the recent articles talked about how this is the time to re-invest in what you do best. This doesn't mean you should buy a new laptop if the one you have is OK (if it crashes every five minutes and you keep losing stuff, however, then you should consider a new machine). But it does mean taking a serious look at where you are lacking, and doing something about it. Maybe you need a couple of good writing books, or a writers' retreat, or an online course. Maybe you need a week away without the kids to get your head together. Maybe you need a week away at a health place to get your body working again.

7. Stop thinking about the money. If you gave up your day job to become a writer, and you're not doing so well at earning money from writing, and you need money, maybe you should go get a day job. In my experience, writers do their very worst when: a) they believe they have to write more and more to earn money; b) they put themselves under enormous pressure to try and write something that might be a bestseller (if they could just get it accepted); c) someone else is standing behind them, hoping they'll earn money from this darn-fool 'occupation'; d) they're in debt and they are starting to feel desperate.

It's really hard not to think about money when you write. For the people in your life, the money you earn is likely to be the only thing that validates your writing for them (and the time you take away from them). But that's them, not you. What happens when the rejection letters keep coming in and the bills don't get paid? That's the point at which you will really want to chuck it all in. That's the point at which I'd go back and get a day job. If you can.

Yes, it's hard to write when you have to work, too. I haven't given up my day job, but that's because I've come to see it as a kind of safety net. It actually allows me to write without financial pressure. I discovered a long time ago, when I tried the full-time freelance life, that I couldn't do it. Having to write simply for money wasn't in me. It killed off most of my enjoyment and inspiration. I don't think it would make any difference now if I was trying to write full-time as a children's writer. But that may not be you. You may be totally committed to the full-time writing life, no matter what it costs you. Just make sure it doesn't cost you your house!


Anonymous said...

Thanks for this post Sherryl,

I found it very interesting. You wouldn't be able to share also what email business newsletter you subscribe to. I'm finding it hard at the moment to be positive in the current economic climate, due to my own personal work situation. Hard to see the silver lining to the cloud and all that. Hopefully there is one though.


Sherryl said...

Cathy, I wonder daily how much longer I might have my job - where I work it's a case of powerbrokers above deciding to 'fix it even though it ain't broke'. I think that's what all of us find so frustrating. The ones 'in charge' don't seem to know what they're doing!
As writers, we might not have control over who accepts or rejects our manuscripts, but we do have the power to do everything we can to be professional, work hard on improving our writing, and understand the marketplace we operate in. It is a marketplace, despite some writers I know who want to believe it's not. And if you're serious about writing and getting published, you need to treat the selling of your work as a business.
I'll include the business newsletter when I do that post soon.

Snail said...

Top post! I'm going to print this out and pin it up on my (home) office wall.

Unknown said...

Thank you Sherryl,
I found your post refreshing and helpful. I too, look forward to your list of newsletters.
Mabel K

Kristi Holl said...

Sherryl, this was great. I never thought of subscribing to publisher newsletters to parents and teachers, but it makes perfect sense. I'll have to do that...and then READ them. I keep thinking I'll do that newsletter reading in my (non-existent) spare time. Instead, I need to put it on my calendar every week as part of my work week.