How to Build a Long-Term Writing Career

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

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.

8+

No More Platform Anxiety, Please

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

A recent post by agent Janet Kobobel Grant offers some welcome relief on the dicey subject of “platform.” I’ve been slapping that particular bongo for years. How are new fiction writers supposed to create a following before they have any books out? I even pulled up a comment I made on TZK ten years ago (before I was a contributor!), to wit:

By far and away the best “platform” for us is OTHER people yakking it up about our books. Word of mouth has always been the most powerful marketing tool. You don’t get that by blogging, tweeting or shouting. You get it ONLY by writing books people talk about. That has to be job one.

The flip side is the best promoter in the world cannot overcome a book that fizzles with the reading public. It can get you a strong introduction, but from there the book takes over. If it does fizzle, the answer is not more promotion; the answer is a stronger book.

Yet many a publisher has pushed platform building, even for unpublished writers, leading to increased levels of scribal stress and sales of Pepto-Bismol.

A platform, as the book industry sees it, is whatever you do to engage and interact with a significant portion of the public. That includes social media, blogs, vlogs, podcasts, and even good old public speaking.

All of those things take effort and cut into a writer’s creativity and productivity time. So does it make sense to spend that capital trying to create a platform at the expense of writing good books?

There is no shortcut to platform success, either. Sure, you can farm 50,000 Twitter followers, but how many of them are truly interested in you? Or you in them (shown by actual engagement)? That’s the key to social media. Thus, I was glad to read Janet’s comments:

The second group of editors I met with started off our conversation by saying they have come to realize it’s unrealistic to expect a newer novelist to have a large platform. Upon what foundation can a fiction writer build that platform? Especially as a debut novelist, you can only engage potential book-buyers so much in your writing and research endeavors before your attempted connections take on a bland sameness.

However, Janet continues, these fiction editors do want to see that a writer is “willing” to engage in platform building. Which means at least one social media footprint. The big takeaway is something I’ve advised for years:

These editors believe that choosing to focus on one aspect of social media is the best route to go. Rather than dabbling in several mediums but not really figuring out what works for you, dig into one medium and gather all your friends or followers in that one spot.

So which social media outpost is best for you? Read and reflect on Sue Coletta’s excellent post on the topic. Be sure to follow the links and also read the comments. You’ll make wiser social media choices if you do.

Janet Grant concludes:

I hope you’re taking a deep breath as you consider that some of the pressure to collect names and online connections has let up just a bit. None of these editors would say platform isn’t important. But each of them would say she—and the whole publishing team—is taking a more nuanced look at the planks of each writer’s platform.

By the way, if you want to plow right through the nuance, write a book that blows them all away. Then you can talk about platform all you want.

As I was prepping this post, an article entitled “How to Reduce Marketing Anxiety and Confusion by industry expert Jane Friedman appeared on the PW site. Jane writes, in part:

In a great scene from Lost in Translation, Bill Murray’s character says, “The more you know who you are and what you want, the less you let things upset you.” If I could customize that for today’s authors, I’d say, “The more you know who you are as an author and what readership you seek, the less confused you’ll be about marketing.” And the less you’ll be influenced by the crowd.

It’s easy to feel anxious about your progress when you see your peers engaging in new forms of publishing or marketing and you feel pressured to join. But the more you’re focused on your own long-term outcomes and how to wisely use your time and resources, the better prepared you’ll be to consider or experiment with new tactics, adopting or discarding them as you see fit.

So how is your platform anxiety these days? Does it ever detract from your writing? What are you doing about it?

8+