Being an author, I have discovered, is nothing like anyone ever expects it to be.
For instance, it is a profession with both stigma and mystique attached to it.
It's a profession that everyone who hasn't published a book could do "if they could only find the time," and yet almost everyone who does it for a living goes through long and frequent bouts of feeling like a complete and total fraud, at least for a few years.
When someone asks what you do and you tell them that you're a writer, you get reactions ranging from "Cool, a real author?" with stars in their eyes* to "Oh, that's nice," while they wonder what you really do or who pays your bills.
And no wonder. Most people who jump into writing full time are surprised when publishing their first novel doesn't lead to immediate fame and fortune--or at least cover the coffee they consumed while writing it. This now includes traditionally-published authors. And, while I may have had less illusions than some, it also includes me.
I worked myself into this "writer" thing slowly. I dusted off and published The Friday Night Date Dress in 2015, "as practice," I always say. And then I was pleasantly surprised at the consistently positive response from people who read it—even from complete strangers who had no reason to be nice to me. :-)
That was also the year I lost my son. There are few changes as major, that change you as much, and that make you re-examine your life choices as intensely, as the loss of a child.
Less than a year later, I knew I had to change what I did for work. At the time, I owned an online equine tack business that required nearly full-time hours for barely part-time income. (Like, I could have made more in a few waitressing shifts back in college.) After eleven years in business, my income was actually going down, not up (for various reasons, all of which were out of my control). And most of that time was spent doing accounting—possibly my least favourite thing in the world to do, right after mending clothes and dealing with dog barf. Or any barf.
I was also teaching a few students piano—something I actually enjoy, but not something I want to do forever, especially once my own children have graduated from school. Besides this, I design and sell enough knitting patterns to pay for my yarn habit.
By the beginning of 2016, I knew that what I wanted to do as a career until I couldn't do anymore was to write, mostly fiction, but I would be happy to write other things, too, if I could get paying work. Which I did.
I got a job writing for Move Up, a local quarterly magazine. I sold that soul-stealing tack business and took on more students (which I still enjoy!) to make up the difference, cutting my "day job" hours from 35+ per week to only about 15, a fraction of which was accounting, and actually increasing my available income.
And then, in the midst of grieving, I began to develop the habits that I knew successful freelance writers needed, the most important of which is Write every day. Last year, that paid off when I released my second novel, Finding Heaven.
I went into freelancing with business savvy, the ability to structure my time, marketing know-how (which I had already been studying specifically in relationship to being an author, besides my "regular" business experience, not that I'm "there" yet), and a fair amount of self-discipline and work ethic. I had a "day job" that paid well (enough) and a supportive spouse, willing to endure the long hours of work that I warned him would occur for several years with little-to-no pay while I got my fiction-writing career off the ground. Really, for someone diving into freelancing, I couldn't have asked for a better setup or expectations.
So what was the big surprise for me? (Besides star-struck strangers in bookstores, I mean?)
The surprise was that, by the time I produced a commercially-viable book, I'd no longer want to trust its fate to a traditional publisher.
The publishing industry is changing, a lot. The archaic traditional publishing model (which is a dinosaur the likes of which no other business would dream of using, but that's the subject for another post. If you're curious, see this) is dying, as it rightfully should. And authors who are willing to take the risk and learn business and publish independently can actually make a better living than those who publish traditionally.
That's right. While authors like Andy Weir (of The Martian fame) created self-made platforms that brought them success and Hollywood movie deals (and publishers coming calling on them), successful traditionally-published authors are complaining that they can no longer make a living from their writing alone—all while the profits of publishing houses soar. That's right—instead of fixing their business model, publishing houses seem determined to commit slow suicide by squeezing out their primary sources of income: the writers.
I published my first two books independently for a variety of reasons, none of which were because I didn't believe that I was good enough to submit, but because of other factors that I thought made them not good fits for the traditional publishing model. (Well, there were some confidence issues for the first one, before I started developing a fan base because of it.) Plus, learning the skills to self-publish didn't scare me.
Honestly? I love independent publishing—most of the things involved with it, anyway. It's a lot of work, but it's awesome. However, one of the lessons I have learned this year while marketing Finding Heaven is that some forms of marketing can give you a very poor return on investment, plus eat up a lot of the time that you could be using to write your next book.
So far, I have reinvested every penny I have made from writing back into my fiction career, because I am very much at the point where it is costing me money, not earning it for me. (Hear that, Russian pirates? You're stealing from the poor, not the rich. Not that either one would be acceptable.)
Because of all this, and knowing that my current project has the potential to be very commercially successful, I have been debating for nearly a year about whether or not to—
- get an agent and
- submit to a traditional publisher
—despite the many horror stories I've heard and despite having to give up control of things I would rather not give up control of. But I have been tempted, all for that elusive carrot of REACH.
I've been praying about it, and talking about it, and researching it. And today, I have made my decisions about both.
I personally know many independent authors who are on the slow path to success—being their own bosses, shouldering their own costs, taking their owns risks—and you know what? They are succeeding. Without agents, without publishers, without advances.
One of my professional friends, P.D. Workman, works a full-time job as the sole bread-winner of her family, volunteers with her church, exercises, and usually cranks five thousand words per day. (For laypeople, that's about 20 paperback pages, or several hours at a word processor). She publishes in multiple genres and puts out many books per year. She helps other writers by teaching classes and giving advice. Many of her books are about serious issues, the kind that require hours and hours of research. She's been publishing independently for almost five years (though she has written prolifically since she was a child), and she told me a few months ago that she hopes to be able to completely replace her day job income in another year or so.
Is this the easy road? No. Is it risky? Yes. But can it be done?
So this is the day I commit. I am not a fast writer (yet). My career may not look like a P.D. Workman's, Steena Holmes', or Adam Dreece's (yet). But it could. And I'm determined to find my own path to success as a fiction writer.
Because if they can do it, so can I.
Now that that decision has been made, stay tuned for more about my next book, The Mermaid's Tear, as I start putting together marketing materials for it over the next little while.
All this to encourage you—it's never too late to dream big. It's never not worthwhile to take the hard road to get you to your dreams. In fact, most things worth having are difficult to get.
*I kid you not, I had more than one person at signings this year hang out and talk to me, not because they wanted a book, but because they had some starry-eyed notion that a real author was someone exciting and famous to talk to. Ha! My favourite was the guy who dragged his young daughter over—"Look, honey, a real author!" She was much less interested than he was. Lol.
**Edit, 2018/07/09: See this article by Jane Friedman as a counterbalance to the sensational headline of the Guardian article. Thank you to the ladies at Writers Helping Writers for bringing both of these articles to my attention. I have not changed my decision for now—I want to continue working and learning the business of writing while making my own mistakes so that when I start to achieve success, I'll know what it is I did to get there and be more able to maintain it. Will I ever go the traditional publishing route? Maybe. I'll cross that bridge if it seems wise. But for now, full steam ahead at My Secret Wish Publishing!