My writer friend Ian sent me this article the other day with the message attached that basically said, "Is this what we're shooting for?" It was written by Daniel Menaker, a former vice-president and editor-in-chief for Random House, and in it he paints an exceedingly dour picture of the publishing industry and its very grim prospects in a changing economy, where publishing houses are running deeper into the red than ever before, and where a dwindling "reader culture" is buying fewer and fewer books.
I won't deny that the article is very informative and even at times funny, because what better way to get to the scoop on the gritty side of any industry than to talk to a former veteran of it who has a slightly more jaded outlook than a perky entry-level acquisitions editor hellbent on being the one to discover the next Harry Potter, Carrie, Time Traveler's Wife, or The Da Vinci Code? But what about the writers who read this? After all, it's our manuscripts that get shuffled around these places (if we're lucky enough to have agents to get them there), where they more often than not go to die. If they do make it through the Helm's Deep-like battle of acquisitions editors, and sales and marketing teams, that's not the end. That's because Menaker goes on to remind us that at least 150,000 books a year get published in this country (a conservative figure, I believe, when you consider small presses and the growing indy publishing market), and maybe 75 of those are ever going to get the attention of major reviewers like the New York Times or make a profit for the publisher. So again, this begs the question: Why bother? The odds of success and making money as a novelist in today's market seem downright minuscule. Chances are you'll still have to find income from additional sources like seminars, teaching gigs, or even your current non-writing-related dayjob.
I have one thing to say to that: Welcome to the arts. The book market is not unique in how it is stacked against the droves of people trying to break through and make a name for themselves. The standards for excellence are high, and while it seems like the occasional turd pellet slips through the filters, so be it; let that serve as a grain of hope for your own chances. If your instrument is a guitar rather than a word processor, same deal. If you sing opera, dance ballet, or throw a mean fast ball or touchdown pass, the chances of becoming the next icon in your chosen field are always going to be infinitesimal. Too many wannabe Joe Montanas fresh out of college usually end up grabbing pine before the end of the pre-season.
So you have to ask yourself what your final goal is. If it's for the fame and for the money, I wouldn't blame you if you did quit, and in fact would probably invite you to do so. Our culture has suffered enough at the hands of people purveying junk to make a quick buck. However, if you feel you'll be satisfied just seeing your name on a shelf in Barnes & Noble or even just carving out a small but devoted niche of readers in your little corner of the world, then keep on working. The really big breaks often happen to those who are digging away just like the rest of us, doing what they love, before finding the bouillon. Writing is not the art of the impatient. On the contrary, it's the art of the masochist. You not only have to anticipate the pain, but some dark part of you has to actually enjoy it. You have to be like Daniel-san up against the Cobra Kai, doing a crane kick into the bully's face while hopping up and down on your busted kneecap.
For all of David Menaker's dolrums, warnings, and lamentations in that article, there was nothing in it that made me for an instance want to stop doing what I was doing. In fact, it reminded me that almost all of us have to be willing to suffer and bleed a little bit for the things we love. However, if you feel you've bled enough and that the joy just isn't there for you anymore, then by all means acknowledge you fought the good fight and pick another path that makes you happier. Everyone has their limit. Hell, I'm sure even Rocky Balboa will be done after the tenth movie. But if you haven't gotten to that point yet, if you're just starting out, and if you have the same conviction that there is an audience for your work, and that you have what it takes to endure the years it often takes to hack it to the top (or anywhere near it) in this business (or ANY business for that matter), then it should be easy enough to swallow Menaker's bitter pill and remind yourself that the harder the climb, the more satisfying the victory.