2.14.2013

The Ever-Shifting Definition of Success as an Author

Shelf space is its own hunger game
A long time ago, when I would walk through the hallowed aisles of Barnes & Noble, gazing upon the venerated front tables filled with the latest and greatest releases from the world's most talented and sought-after authors, I thought that was the ultimate endgame. That was the dream. That was my threshold for success.

I used to read the best-seller lists from the New York Times and would think that I couldn't possibly have "made it" as an author until I was gracing the top ten. I used to read about all the Big Six publishers and dream of the day I'd call my mom, tears streaming down my face, and screaming "I just got signed to a three-book deal at Random House! I'm sending you a million dollars and buying a pony and moving to Italy!"

I would read prestigious publications like The New Yorker or watch what was the latest and greatest in the Oprah Book Club and think, "Gee, if I can get here, then I'll truly have achieved something."

I would gaze at literary agent listings and think that unless I had the biggest badass bulldog hotshot in Manhattan peddling my books, I wasn't going to get anywhere as a writer.

Palpatine is a great agent. Very high commissions.
Then I really started learning about the publishing industry and its dark side. I started reading about how even authors who hit the bestseller lists aren't exactly rolling in it these days. I learned how many authors had been chewed up and spit out by their publishers over things like non-compete clauses or not earning out their advances and therefore not being able to publish their next books. Or how publishers demanded an option of an author's next book, only to turn down that book and then dump the author entirely. I learned how much money it costs publishers to buy space on those prominent tables in bookstores, and how ultimately meaningless it is when those businesses are falling like dominoes and everyone is buying their books online. I learned that agents, even the best ones in the biggest firms, are struggling right now and looking for ways to remain relevant when authors can produce and upload their own work and not give away 15% of their earnings.

I learned that if I wanted to stay in this business, I had to change my definition of success.

"Milk or dark chocolate?"
This isn't to say that being on the NYT Bestseller list or nabbing that three-book Random House deal wouldn't make my ego feel as amazing as bathing in hot fudge with Christian Bale, Daniel Craig, and/or a couple of unicorns, but I now know it's no longer necessary to have those things in order to feel fulfilled as an author.

The only things an author really needs to feel like a real author (other than written material) are readers and royalties. Readers come from everywhere, and royalties, well... they might be peanuts starting out, but you'll eventually find that those peanuts are like little nuggets of gold that scream out: ERMAHGERD! SOMEONE GAVE YOU MONEY FOR YOUR STORIES!!! And that's often enough to make you keep pushing for more.

There are many advantages to working with a small press that you won't get from a large publisher. They're more flexible, more personable, more keen to your creative wishes. Every book they accept has to, without question, do well or they won't be able to keep the lights on. They don't have multi-million dollar book deals with Snooki or the latest disgraced politician to keep their ships afloat while midlisters rise to and then drop from their ranks like flies. The right small-press, one that invests in its authors, knows that they have to sell or everyone loses. Also, their contracts are often fairer. Some of them can even give you a better share of royalties and pay you more often. And when you're self-publishing and can manage to do well for yourself, that's complete freedom right there.

When you make it to a certain point in your career where you've attained enough success in the "minor leagues" to attract the attention of some of the bigger players, you start to get a sense of what you really want. The lens comes into focus and you find that your original dreams aren't exactly what you thought they were. No more does that huge writing contract seem as alluring if it comes at the expense of certain freedoms, or a shorter shelf-life for your book. That front table at Barnes & Noble doesn't seem all that important when you think about what you might have to sacrifice in exchange for it.

Think of your book as this cute kitten. Would you want to sacrifice or orphan this cute kitten?
You realize that bigger isn't always better. For most authors signing with Big 6 publishers, they're lucky if they're going to get more than $5000 for an advance, and if their book only performs moderately well, that's likely all they're ever going to make before it's taken out of print and the publisher moves on to the next big thing (often while you're struggling to get your rights to that book back, depending on the kind of contract you signed). That's right. Five grand. Sure, it's probably five thousand more dollars than you're making on your writing right now, but when you think of the time you put into that book (years, in many cases), suddenly a job in a sweatshop seems a tad more lucrative. And even as an author with a big, rich publisher, you're still going to be making a fraction of what you think you're worth. If you're depending on a day job to keep food on the table, you're probably going to still need it after you get that book deal. You're going to be spending a lot of your own money for promotions, travel, and other events. Your life is still going to be as challenging and ordinary as it ever was.

I have a feeling I could have attracted a good agent with my book STRINGS. It's more mainstream than my other work, it has a large audience (thriller), and not to toot my own horn, but I think it's pretty darn good and possibly the best thing I've ever written. But in the end I stuck with what was working for me. It's a big, scary world right now, and with all the transition happening in the publishing industry, I don't feel much like venturing out into open water to swim with the sharks. Hobbes End has been excellent to me, I love working with them, and I believe they are very skilled at producing books, marketing them, and getting them into readers' hands. In the end, that's what I'm after.

The moon might also be covered
with carnivorous dust particles.
/shameless plug
So when it comes to a writing career, I don't want to discourage people from shooting for the moon, but rather to think about what the moon actually is. It's gorgeous from down here on earth, all glowing and majestic, but in reality it's a dry, airless rock floating around in the dark. Maybe you'll find that works for you. Maybe you're able to survive in such hostile environments. Or maybe you'll find you're happy with another destination. Either way, I think a realistic adjustment of your expectations is a good thing, especially when you realize that as a writer, there are a lot of different ways to get "there." Wherever "there" happens to be.