Why Do So Many Artists Suck at Business? Because Businesses Like It That Way

A recent conversation on Twitter inspired a tweet storm from me at like 2 am. One author asked other writers what was the one piece of advice they would give to debut novelists. The responses were interesting and mostly upbeat, except when they… weren’t. You could pretty much guess how somebody’s first novel experience went by the type of advice they gave.

Unsurprisingly, some folks really hated the depressing, downer advice from grizzled mid-career writers like me who were like, “HA HA you thought getting your first book published was tough! SHIT KID THE WORK IS JUST GETTING STARTED. IT GETS WORSE.”

I always come back with some iteration of this because when I got into the field, I figured that if I could just get that first book published, everything would actually be easier. I wouldn’t be a nobody anymore! I would have a body of work! People would take me seriously! By the time God’s War was published in 2011, I had been writing seriously since… 1992? And submitting stories since 1995. That was a fucking long apprenticeship. If you’d have told me shit got worse, shit got harder, back then… I don’t know that I’d believe you. But the world moves on, and with experience comes insight.

Back before I’d published any books, but after I’d gone to Clarion, I’d heard about a meet up for mid-career writers that new writers weren’t invited to. I felt that was horseshit. Surely I, as a newer writer, would need to know mid-career things?

But now I get it. Most writers three books, eight books, twenty books in, have far different concerns and priorities and most of all, experience, than writers who haven’t been through the grinder. Newer writers want to talk craft. Pros are talking about their first or third career reboot, shitty sales, and how to get out of noncompete clauses and shitty contract language. There are writers whose first book struck gold and paved their career for decades, but most are building a career, a legacy, bit by bit, surviving dead publishing houses, several agent switches, and B&N ordering fewer and fewer books. You really feel the difference in these two types of experiences when you talk to writers. Those who hit it big right off look at bitter midlisters like they’ve been huffing glue, and bitter midlisters roll their eyes at insta-classic debutantes selling hundreds of thousands or millions of copies whose biggest complaint is not getting nominated for awards.

The long slog of building a career isn’t a reality anyone prepares writers for. And it often means that when a writer doesn’t strike gold, they believe they are a failure, and give up, instead of taking the long, slow road. But the long slow, uneven road is the more likely way that you will succeed. Betting everything (including your sense of self-worth!) on a single book instead of building a career means MORE pressure on yourself. MORE expectations, and MORE depression and anxiety if your first, second, tenth book fails to move more than a few thousand copies. I’ve seen this happen to a billion debut novelists. Outsized expectations meeting reality has destroyed a ton of writers (and I include public reception/criticism in all of that. I know way too many people who expected to be heralded for their genius and break out into the mainstream their first run out, and criticism, the reality of Goodreads, Twitter wars, and call-outs, paired with lackluster sales, torpedoed their careers before they even started).

My first series is still in print. That is not luck. That is me not giving up on that series even when the first publisher cancelled the contract, second publisher stole money and ran off to Finland, and third publisher (redacted NDA here). Fans and I have kept that series going. It’s eight years old and just got reissued and I saw it on shelves. That is a goddamn miracle. And because it was so hard, I appreciate it MORE. But I still have a day job. I probably always will, because health insurance.

I hear all the time people would “kill” to have my career. And I get that! Folks love my books! I love my books! But without Patreon I would have made $17k in 2017 on book payments and royalties. That’s the reality of a writer whose career you envy. Be sure you take that into account and plan accordingly.

So yes, I believe in tempering ones’ expectations. Because I’ve had to engineer a career that’s far different from the “breakout hit one million dollar advance movie money!” writing career nonsense that is still toted as a viable career scheme for new authors.

Writing is a business. Authors are entrepreneurs. It’s not about just writing a good book and cashing checks and waiting for a miracle to happen. It’s a business hustle. It means that yes, you DO have to believe in your work more than anyone else, and fight harder for it. You DO have to actively learn about covers and marketing and making good business decisions and finding the right agent and understand how to read contracts, all while continuing to level up your craft. Because nobody else – not an agent, a publisher, your partner, your fans – care about your work and your career more than you do. If somebody’s just writing for fun and doesn’t want to be a career writer fine! But I sure would have done better that first time out the gate if I’d spent a little more time understanding and acting like a business owner instead of a writer.

The truth is that most industries, including publishing, are happy to sign up the newest, freshest, most industry-ignorant talent they can find. There’s always more of it, every year. I know several authors who have literally never negotiated their contracts, and hoo boy I can tell you their publishers LOVE that! Exploiting talent with starry-eyed promises and effusive praise works every time. “Why do you need more money? Why do you need to read a contract? Aren’t you an ARTIST DOING THIS FOR THE LOVE? DON’T YOU TRUST ME?”

No, and… no.

Anyhoo. Bitter midlister rant over. Just remember that even writers who get that six-figure advance, have to make it last for all three of those books they’ve agreed to write over multiple years, and 15% goes to their agent and 30% goes to taxes. Keep that in mind when you see authors quitting their day jobs… or publishing a book and never getting heard from again.

People think I’m all negative Nancy because I want to, like, kick puppies or something. But I share the realities of my publishing experiences because I want people to be READY for that shit. I want them to be prepared, and to think like a business up front. I want new writers to have career goals and positive, collaborative agent relationships. I want them to go in LESS ignorant of the field and its realities, because knowledge is power.

YMMV, tho.

P.S. I have never gotten a six-figure advance, and yet, weirdly enough! my work absolutely deserves it based on sales alone, let alone concept. I value the fuck out of my work. My whole career has been convincing publishing to value it as much as I do. It’s a long road, for me, and I feel much more confident about navigating it now that I understand the realities of the business that I’m in.

P.P.S. I suppose if all else fails, you can hold out for a MacArthur Grant. Hope springs eternal for me on that one! I just need to be a genius. CHALLENGE ACCEPETED.

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