Career Milestones, Prioritizing Projects

As some people know, the last couple of years have been a little surreal for me. I’ve gone from having a third book in a series that tanked and nearly killed my career, making it nigh impossible to sell anything else – to being solidly mid-list, with a good backlist, some awards, and increasing interest in my work from a variety of editors. I’m being sought out, often, for blurbs, and my agent only tells me when there’s serious Hollywood interest in my work anymore, not just when people request to read something (cause there’s plenty of that). I also recently got an inquiry from a big media company about possibly doing some tie-in work for them, and much to my spouse’s dismay, turned it down. I did this for a host of reasons, but primarily because for all intents and purposes I’m pretty booked here for the next couple of years with both contracted work and original proposals that I’d like to pitch. That’s not saying I wouldn’t entertain the right property, but early 2017 is the earliest I’d consider more stuff on my plate.

One of the things that all this behind-the-scenes stuff has got me considering is how I manage and prioritize projects and make career decisions. Unexpectedly, I find myself in the place where I’m not begging for work anymore and instead have the ability to sort through my options. Another reason I’ve kept my day job is that it gives me the ability to make writing career decisions based on strategy instead of money. In speaking with other writers, what I’ve heard again and again is how they got themselves into tough situations or bad deals because they needed to say “yes” to something they didn’t want to do because they needed the money. That could be signing over a movie option to the wrong partner, or taking on tie-in work that turned into a nightmare, or taking a small advance from a struggling publisher that imploded.

I like being able to keep my options open. I like that when someone says, “Yes, we could pay you $20k for this!” I can step back and go, “OK, great, but does doing this project really get me further to my career goals of building Team Hurley?” And if it doesn’t, I can say no and we can still eat and pay our health insurance. It’s no secret that I got burned out here last summer, aiming to get GEEK FEMINIST REVOLUTION out the door while doing promo for EMPIRE ASCENDANT and writing THE STARS ARE LEGION, and it about murdered me. Was it worth it? Well, based on the reactions so far to GEEK FEMINIST REVOLUTION, yes, it was. That book had to get out the door when it did, or it would miss its cultural window. I expect most of my work to backlist really well, but this one is more likely to have just a handful of good years before it loses some of its cultural relevancy. So I know that has to make a splash up front and garner strong sales early, which, again, based on reception so far, I think it can do. But it required a lot of work on my part, and my publisher’s part, to make that happen.

From the outside, all this might look amazing, but inside, there is a lot of overthinking going on. Because with every opportunity you take, you have to turn down something else, and you’re always thinking, “Was this the right choice?” Strategy is great, but there’s an awful lot of luck in this business, and some of that luck can hinge on a single decision. I have watched many writers go from “hot new thing” to has-been in just a few years. Some of that is just that the media loves “newness.” Some of that is that their work stagnates, or never takes off, and they get discouraged. Some of that is making bad business decisions. Some of that is simple burnout. I almost didn’t recover from the Night Shade hell. It’s hard. And I expect more bumps and setbacks along the way.

But in the meantime, I am working at fielding opportunity as it comes at me. Lots of people will tell you to say “YES!” to everything, but when you’ve got a day job and a book to write in, like, four months, this is unrealistic. You have to choose the BEST things to say yes to, and what “best” means is going to vary based on your situation and what you want out of your career. I am very much at work making my own genre over here. I want to write Kameron Hurley novels. I want Kameron Hurley novels to become a genre in and of themselves. As great as a one-off megahit would be, those are harder to achieve than a strong backlist. With every new book, I see a good bump in backlist sales as new readers discover me, and I’m betting hard on drawing in Kameron Hurley readers, not just MIRROR EMPIRE readers, or LEGION readers, or GOD’S WAR readers. I want to see more overlap.

Whether or not I will achieve that in a way that makes it possible for me to write full-time has yet to be seen, but that’s what I’m gunning for. And to do that means investing in particular projects and passing on others. As wonderful as it is to have the choice, tho, let me tell you  – having the choice is almost worse, because you will always worry that it’s not the right one.

Career management is one of those things you can’t make broad generalizations about, because we are all in this with different goals. Whatever your career goals are, though, I advise you to figure them out as soon as possible, as it will make all the other decisions you need to make later on down the line a lot easier.

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