With all the changes in the business, finding success can still be problematic
This is probably not news to most people. Finding success as a writer has always been tough. Probably tougher than in any other kind of artistic endeavor. But with the changes going on in the industry writing is just starting to resemble many of the other popular art and entertainment forms in masking the harsh realities behind flashy success stories. This means that more writers than ever are running headlong into some of the ugly facts and hitting those facts harder than they used to.
Don’t worry. This is not a “mainstream publishing is bad, indie is good” sermon. I’ve always said that the business is evolving and for the writer, having more options is a good thing. Not that all writers have options (that’s a stupid myth,) but for those that do, it is a good time to be writing. Probably better than it has ever been.
Once upon a time, becoming a full-time author — creating a career out of writing — was even harder than it is now. That fact came about because of necessity. It had to be that way. The system tended to more expertly cull the herd at an earlier stage than in any other field of art. Back before the Indie revolution in publishing, the “gatekeepers” were efficient and effective at keeping almost everyone on the outside. Publishing worked differently than almost any other field of entertainment. No one moved to some shiny city, the facade of glamour and riches sucking them in, packing dreams and visions of success into a backpack and getting on a bus… in order to become the next big publishing star. Artists or actors or musicians chased their dreams, often spending years and years on street corners or cheap dives or peddling their wares out of boxes hoping to make it big. Wannabe actors went to Hollywood or New York. Musicians went to those cities or Nashville. Artists went to there too… or to Paris or Rome. Sometimes dreams didn’t get crushed for decades, and there were always success stories to keep the talent pump primed and ready.
Authors? Well, authors stayed at home and sent in queries and manuscripts. They typically didn’t take low or no-pay gigs at honkeytonks, or jobs painting houses or low-riders, or summer theater gigs for years and years just hoping to catch the eye of some power broker. An author sent a stack of paper into a system that was designed to get rid of that paper. And let’s get this straight right now… in all of these fields of artistic endeavor, almost everyone wanting to do it for a living is not qualified to do so. Facts are facts. Historically, having a large percentage of the population chasing dreams of artistic success is really a product of affluence. It is a first world problem. People have always played sports, written stories, sung songs, and made art. But only in an affluent society can we find such a large subsection of the culture trying to make a living doing those things. Perhaps this is the fountainhead of our cultural corruption, or perhaps it is the fruit of that corruption, but that is a sermon for another day.
Back to my point…
Publishing was unique in that it had developed a way to efficiently snuff out hopes earlier in the process. There wasn’t really an effective minor league system with feeder leagues, semi-pro teams, and high school squads pumping authors minds full of rainbows and stardust. For example, as a percentage of the whole population of any high school, relatively few students collected author autographs or daydreamed that if they could only practice querying agents hard enough they just might get to go on book tour some day. Maybe there were a few students in each school that harbored dreams of publishing success, but it wouldn’t have been many.
Agents, Editors, and Publishers had a well-oiled system to crush dreams early.
And based on the way publishing happened, that system had developed out of economic necessity. There were only a handful of publishing houses. Only a limited number of books that the system could handle. Only a finite amount of shelf space. And frankly, way more people watched movies or TV, listened to music, or watched sports than read books. I was probably a statistical anomaly, but way back in the day I would buy 50 music CDs in a year, but I’d only read maybe 12-20 books. I watched movies or TV pretty constantly, but had to make time to read. After all, I had limited shelf space too.
Authors stayed at home, worked “regular” jobs, and sent out queries and manuscripts in their off hours. There was no glamour, even in the dream. No Quixotic romanticism that could be seen by strangers in the streets. In publishing, the gatekeepers stacked manuscripts to the roof and had interns and jaded cynics stuffing rejection notices into envelopes all day. Only a trickle of authors made it through the process. And that was the way it had to be.
So, writing was a lot different than any other kind of art.
Actors waiting tables is a cultural cliché, but only because it is mostly true and pretty common. And however tough it may be on the aspiring actor, it has its own romantic vibe. Writers waiting tables… not the same. And who would know? There is certainly nothing romantic about that.
People will say, “but if you are an actor you have to find an agent, go to auditions, make it past casting directors, etc. so it is very similar to publishing.” It may seem similar, but it is not. Open casting calls are now and have always been pretty standard. In acting, music, dancing, sports, and the visual arts, there have always been talent scouts out looking for the undiscovered diamonds out there. Baseball scouts attend high school games all over the world. Music talent agents and scouts go to pubs and dives looking for hidden gold. I’m not saying it’s easy to make it in those fields, but becoming an author was a whole ‘nother level of difficult. Nobody walked up to a guy scribbling on a legal pad in a diner off the route and said, “Hey fella, what’re you writing? Can I take a look at it? Oh, man! This is awesome. How’d you like to be a star?” Nobody saw a writer get off a bus with her portable typewriter and said, “Oh lady, I’ve been looking for the right screenwriter and you are perfect for the job!” Aspiring actresses usually called themselves “actresses” at a party. And if you could sing and play the guitar, someone might even ask you to do your art on the spot. Aspiring writers usually didn’t tell people at parties that they wanted to publish a novel, and if they did no one said “can we hear a few paragraphs right now?”
In case you’ve missed it… my point is that it has always been difficult to make it in ANY of these fields, but publishing crushed dreams sooner and more efficiently.
And let’s face it, the casting couch has never been ubiquitous in publishing. I’m pretty sure George R. R. Martin didn’t sleep his way to the top.
So the comparisons with Hollywood don’t hold up… at least not until recently.
There aren’t just 5 studios and a few small film production companies to work for if you are an actor. Maybe back in the 30’s there were, but not since then. There are hundreds of studios working in film, TV, online, commercials, etc. There are many different ways to make it in acting. Broadway and off-broadway theatrical productions make up an entire separate industry from Hollywood, with their own economy and talent pool. There are professional theater companies all over the world, even in some smaller cities. A few years ago I took my family out to Odessa, Texas (out in the oilfields of West Texas where I went to high school) and we saw a traveling troupe that performed King Lear. So actors aren’t locked in to just trying to make it in the movies. There are many ways an actor can ply his or her trade and actually make a living at it. Not that it’s easy to be a paid actor, because it’s not. That’s not my point at all. But compared to traditional publishing, the outlets wherein an artist can find work that will provide a living were more numerous than in publishing… until now.
Sure, a writer (back before the Indie publishing revolution) could write for a newspaper or a magazine. They could be a freelancer, or perhaps they could write ad copy or write technical manuals. But let’s be honest, there were (and are) so few of those jobs available that the comparison still falls flat.
But now things have changed. Publishing has joined the other formats of the entertainment arts in providing a wider array of routes to success. There are more venues now. Authors have more ways to work their craft. And that means more people are rushing in to try to make it. This is a good thing.
More people are reading, and there are more ways to read than ever before. That is a good thing too.
Sure, there are antiquated and cobwebbed thinkers out there who are crying about the state of the business and what they see as “the death of literature.” Whatever. But I think that more people reading and more choices being available for authors AND readers is a good thing.
But here is where that new harsh reality sets in. When you open up more venues and formats and ways to success, you create suction. All of that stuff about nature abhorring a vacuum is true. And there is more science to it, but I was never good at science. Something about things moving faster as the pressure builds and new outlets form, yadda yadda. You get the point. While it still remains remarkably difficult to actually attain a full time and successful career as a writer, those who fail to reach their dreams (if that is a dream they hold) will likely hit the new walls harder than they did the old ones.
Which brings me to my next point…
As publishing begins to increasingly resemble the business model of other art forms, there are lessons that aspiring authors might want to learn from those who strive for success in those other artistic venues.
I’ll just list 5 things off the top of my head, but I’m sure that some enterprising author could put together a pretty long book of lessons writers can learn from actors, athletes, artists, and musicians…
1. Sometimes you have to take a shot at something weird and different and scary because real opportunities are rare and getting some separation from the mass of people searching for the same success is very, very difficult. Writers may not be able to stand out on the street and perform their craft, hoping to make some coffee money or get seen by a power broker, but that kind of thing takes courage and creativity and a certain willingness to gamble on something that seems like it will almost surely fail. But in this new world of publishing, we have to grab our opportunities when they appear because no one is handing out “get success free” cards.
2. If you want to be valued, make yourself valuable. Actors, athletes, artists, and musicians learn pretty early that when they’re just starting out, they have to try harder and they can’t expect anything to be handed to them. They have to continually impress the decision makers every day. If 10,000 people are fighting hard for the same job, you have to make yourself valuable to the people doing the selecting. If there are 10,000 people trying to give you money to work for them, you can be a little more picky and demanding. But people trying to make it in a harsh business where few find success don’t go around making demands or stirring up strife at work. More about that in point #4, but can you imagine a guy trying to make a minor league baseball team griping out loud about a contract or pontificating about how so many players are still being screwed by major league clubs? Probably not, and even if he thinks it, he’s smart enough to keep his mouth closed, even to his friends. Why? Because his friends want his spot too. Can you imagine an aspiring musician refusing to carry his/her own gear and demanding the venue do it all? Being helpful can’t hurt you. It can only help you. Make yourself valuable and people will want to work with you.
3. You have to constantly improve your craft. Not just the writing… of course you have to get better at that part. But you have to improve all areas of your work. You have to take it seriously if you want it to be a career. If you are a hobbyist, have a blast and don’t worry. Just have fun. But if you want to make a career of writing, you better get better at every single area of your business. If any songwriter ever had the business plan of turning in shoddy work and expecting some company or millionaire to laugh it off and give them a check anyway, I never heard of ’em.
4. Save the prima donna act until you’ve made it, and then… still… don’t do it. This sounds a lot like point #2, but it is the other side of the coin. Musicians grow up with stories of their heroes trashing hotel rooms and bars. But they figure out pretty early that you don’t do that until you can afford to. Superstar athletes often get reputations for assholery, but they generally don’t engage their full a-hole persona when they are first trying to make the team. Even jackass baseball, football, and basketball stars learn to act nice and do their jobs when they enter a free agent year. Actors, well… even they are smart enough to learn that you don’t pull a Marlon Brando until you can pick and choose what jobs you’ll take. Hemingway and other luminaries of literature could be difficult to work with at times, but that wasn’t until publishers knew that everyone wanted their books. Picasso could be Picasso because he was Picasso. I can assure you that when Elvis Presley was playing the Lubbock High School auditorium in 1955 he wasn’t the same guy as the one whose bodyguards wouldn’t let anyone sit next to him in his private theater in the 70’s. I bet he was as nice as can be to everyone he met in that auditorium in 1954 or ’55, because he really wanted that job and the other gigs that would come after it. Being a douchebag can be your schtick… it’s worked for a lot of actors, writers, artists, athletes, etc., but the talent better be soooo off the charts that everyone making decisions sees nothing but dollar signs when they see you, or you can forget it. And with publishing, especially when getting started, I’d not advise it as a strategy at all. No one is playing books on the radio or TV, so dump the Kanye Kardashian act because it’s almost a sure way to guarantee failure. And like I said… even if you make it big, still don’t do it.
5. Innovate. Don’t wait for someone else to come up with the next great idea and rope you into it. Especially if you have some of the other problems I’ve listed here. In point one I said “take a gamble,” which means look for new opportunities and seize them. In this point I mean for you to make new opportunities if you can’t find any. Don’t be afraid in a competitive market to do something no one else is doing. I’m not going to use Amish/Sci-fi as an example, but I’m sure you can find plenty of examples out there of people trying to make new ways to succeed.
There is no doubt that publishing – however you look at it – is a harsh business. It is becoming more like the other creative outlets every day. Rare successes are often held up as the norm, or as something easily achievable, and when that happens, the jackals come out and sometimes the business can get ugly. But now that publishing has begun to more closely model these other artistic formats, there are a lot of things we can learn from those other businesses.
I’m loving the adventure, but I’m also keeping my other survival skills tuned up anyway. Just in case.