How to Build a Long-Term Writing Career

by James Scott Bell

I’m going to assume arguendo (every now and then I trot out my legalese, especially if it’s Latin, because it makes me sound so authoritative) that you want to be in the writing game for the long haul. Further assumption: you would like your fiction to create a river—or at least a stream—of income. You nod your head in agreement with blogmate Laura Benedict when she describes success as, “I’m still here. Readers still read my stories—often paying for them—and I still write them.”

There used to be only one way to go about this: get a contract from a publishing house and sell enough books so you get another contract.

Now, of course, there is the viable alternative called indie publishing.

Jane Friedman recently interviewed two literary agents on the topic of establishing a career as a traditionally-published author. Two takeaways:

1. Many writers crave a large advance for a first novel.

2. That may not be a good thing to crave:

Maybe that big-advance book doesn’t get as many pre-sales as the publisher wanted, or gets mediocre reviews, or underperforms in its first quarter. A publisher at that point might re-strategize, or they might cut their losses, and the author ends up never earning out that big advance. That can hurt in the long-term. When it comes time to sell the next book, a publisher may use those figures against them by offering a lower advance or passing entirely. Publishers want to see that an author will make them money.

Thus, a modest advance is not a bad thing:

Depending on the publisher’s budget, the house might want to keep the advance lower to give the author an opportunity to earn out and also apply some of those funds to marketing. The biggest advantage to a smaller advance is that it’s easier to earn out. If your first book/contract earns out, that gives you a much better chance at a second contract.

But what if you fall well short of earning out? The publishing world is littered with the bleached bones of careers that didn’t make enough green for the house and were cast outside the gates of the Forbidden City.

Now, of course, dem bones can get up and walk around (now hear the word of the Lord) via indie publishing. If these authors can get the rights back to their published books, so much the better. [Though publishers have wised up to the asset value of backlists. So get wise yourself, trad authors: huddle with your agent and negotiate a realistic reversion clause tied to a minimum of royalty income.]

My advice for authors seeking a long-term traditional career is as follows:

  • Don’t expect a big advance.
  • Don’t expect the publisher to give you a big marketing push.
  • Get to know the basics of a book contract, but also know that your leverage in negotiating a first-book deal is about the same as Shirley Temple on a seesaw with Oliver Hardy. But even a Shirley should stamp her feet in seeking fair reversion and non-compete clauses.
  • The key to your career is not your first novel. It’s your second. You’ve labored long, and in love, on that first manuscript. You’d better be ready with a second book that’s just as good. And get it in by the deadline! Publishers have to schedule releases long in advance. If you’re late with a book you’ll gum up he works.
  • Ditto books 3 and 4. If you’re making good money by book 5, you can call yourself “established.”
  • If your subsequent books don’t earn enough (or, as sometimes happens, your editor leaves and you are left an “orphan” inside the house) you could get dropped by the publisher. That sucks. It also sucks that dismal sales numbers follow you around as you knock on other doors inside the Forbidden City. If this is the case, you may need to consider indie resuscitation, thus:

My advice for authors seeking a long-term independent career:

Finally, for all writers looking to make this gig a career: be patient and resilient. Success rarely happens right out of the gate. It takes years to get established. Setbacks are more frequent than bestsellers. But the only true defeat happens when you stop writing.

So don’t stop.

Other advice is welcome in the comments.

10 thoughts on “How to Build a Long-Term Writing Career

  1. For indie authors, I can’t stress enough the importance of good editing, formatting, and cover art. Just because there’s a button that says “PUBLISH NOW” doesn’t mean you should click it. Many readers assume “if it’s indie, it’s second-rate” so you need to prove them wrong. Your first book has to sell your second. And so on. Write the next book.

    • Good word.

      Hiring a professional, well-reputed editor is one thing I did do right the first go-around in the indie publishing world. I’m glad I did. I’m fairly well-versed in the English language and have been an avid reader since age 6, but there’s nothing like a great editor who knows and appreciates your voice to make your MS shine.

      Thanks to all the editors who work so hard for us weirdos who talk to people in our heads. (I can see some of you reaching for your phones to report me to the guys in white coats…)

  2. Take Two. The first comment I left errored out for some reason. Hope y’all don’t get identical posts from me.

    Thanks, Mr. Bell, for more great ad visus (had to look up the Latin-ha!) regarding the best job in the world.

    Sometimes I indulge in a pity party that I mucked around in healthcare administration for the last 30+ years instead of grabbing for what I always wanted to do. Now I’m in my 60+ way later years, learning to be stubborn about grabbing for it. I count on folks like you and your team to “learn me”, as my dear grandmother from Oklahoma would say it.

    Ahem! Enough of that drivel. I still have a few good years left and stories banging around in my noggin trying to get out. Best get at it. Keep the ad visus coming, TKZers!

  3. Another thought on the big advance, I’ve read, is that the publisher may actually pick a great cover and promote it instead of throwing it out into the world with almost no hope of being “discovered.”

    That first contract may also make or break your career because you may stupidly sign away any right to publish anything else remotely like or even in the same genre as that failed first book. Get a smart agent.

  4. This is great information. Thanks.
    Don’t ask me how, but I had missed “How to Make a Living as a Writer.” Just downloaded it to round out my writing library.
    Like Deb, I had a long career, although I loved my experiences in software development. I’d probably still be there if the field hadn’t grown so top-heavy in package installations. I enjoyed the “old days” when we could be creative with software design. The good news is that I am happily retired to this new creative avenue of fiction writing. I love learning the art and craft of it all and I plan for it to be as long-term as I will be. ?
    I don’t know if I’ll ever make money doing this, but my primary goal is to produce quality output. To that end, I appreciate Terry’s warning to Indie authors. I realized early on that I needed the confidence in the quality of my work that came with being traditionally published. And I knew I didn’t have expertise in all the peripheral activities of getting a good book out. So I’ll probably stay the traditional course until I feel I’ve learned enough to have a go at the indie world.
    Thanks again.

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