In January of 2011, about five years ago now, my first book, God’s War, was finally published after being bought and sold and sold again, since about 2007. That was a long and exhausting time, that publishing carousel.
But God’s War will always have a special place in my heart, as selling that series twice enabled me to get out of the poverty hole I’d been in, pay off the three credit cards I’d been living on for a year, and move out of my friends’ spare bedroom into my own apartment.
Five years later I have published six books, with two more coming out next year. I own a house and make a decent salary, so decent I was able to pay an unimaginable amount of money in an attempt to save my dog. Which is… something I could not have ever imagined doing five years ago. Five years ago I couldn’t even pay my own medical expenses.
I have experienced the best and the worst that publishing has to offer, in those five years. I had a bankrupt publisher (that still owes me thousands!) sold to another crappy publisher, and another publisher sold off that stalled the reprint of another book. I have won some awards. Critical acclaim! Great reviews! Drinking with authors! Blurbs!
It’s a bit astonishing to look back and realize all that has happened in just five years. I mean, shit, no wonder people drop out after a decade. Just five years in the business feels like a thirty-year career.
Last year was the first year I made what I’d consider a living wage via novel writing and Patreon dollars alone. This year, I made much less, which is why I still have a day job. The writing life is, as ever, fickle. You never know what the year will bring.
It’s very strange to meet newer/younger writers who look up to me these days, or who think I’m an established pro. Because even tho, gosh, I guess I am, if you look at the year count here, I’ve only been publishing novels for five years. Hardly a lifetime. But maybe that IS a lifetime, in publishing? The thing is, I spent fifteen years prior to that just working on craft, writing other novels that didn’t sell, publishing short stories, trying to break in. So even if I only start the publishing clock at “novel published” I’m really twenty years in.
I know so many writers who don’t make it past a debut book, or a debut series. And I don’t blame them. There’s a lot of disappointment in this industry, mainly driven by flawed expectations. To be a novelist is to be a glorified freelancer, with all the benefits and drawbacks of that type of life. You write and license your content to third parties. If you’re lucky, the content makes you some money beyond the initial advance. If you’re really lucky, it takes off and becomes your lottery ticket. But most books do just well enough to get you the next deal. The next shot. The next step in your career.
Whenever I get frustrated at the grind, I remind myself that I’m just five years in, and it’s going to get tougher. Oh, certainly, some aspects are more fun, as well. Conventions are better, now that I know more people. My writing is better, even if it doesn’t come any easier. And I know myself and what I want much better, which makes negotiations and expectations better, too. I’m learning more about structure, and more about what a “Kameron Hurley” novel really is. I have a lot of ideas for future work.
When I was a teenager, I expected to be making a living writing by the time I was 24. Today I do make a living writing, and actually have been doing so, since 27. Just… not as a novel writer. As a marketing writer. It’s not a bad gig. But it’s certainly not what I expected. The novel money is the gravy. The novel money gets me to conventions. Helps pay off debt. Pays those vet bills. But it’s still not what covers the mortgage or the food.
And, you know, maybe that’s better, five years in. Five years in, I still get to write the books I want. I think about the market, but I don’t worry about it, because if I have a book that tanks, I won’t starve. Maybe that is the freedom one gets, freedom one doesn’t have later unless one has already written that one-book wonder that pays the bills forever.
For now, I am redoubling my efforts to focus on the writing itself. It’s easy to get discouraged by the business, far too easy, to the point that you forget about the work. When you realize that the money from the work saved me from a deep hole of poverty just five years ago, you can see how it can be hard for me not to worry about the money. But to worry over that is to give up one my true north, and what I’m here for. To worry about that is to worry about something I can control only marginally. Readers do the rest.
So here’s to the next five years of the writing life. I expect them to be just as exhilarating, horrifying, hilarious, disappointing, and hopeful as the first five.
And yes, I intend to be here for them. Thanks for coming along for the ride.