If you want to be a novelist–and by that I mean you really want to write books on a regular, consistent basis and aren’t just toying with the notion of writing one book someday–then you need to be aware of the statistic floating around that claims the average novelist’s career ends after three books.
That’s a dismal statistic. I’m so glad I didn’t encounter it early in my career–much less BEFORE my career was launched.
So why am I laying it on you? Because my point is that–like so many statistics–it can be misapplied and misunderstood, thereby becoming deceptive. You need to understand what’s true about it and what’s misleading.
Long-term working writers reinvent themselves all the time. Unless and until a novelist strikes oil with a major, runaway bestseller or creates a series that becomes highly popular with readers, it’s necessary to adapt and change in order to keep pace with an ever-developing book market.
I have friends in the business who write in several genres under different pseudonyms. So you may see a trio of science fiction space adventures from author Wylie Writer, and maybe you’ve enjoyed them. But then Wylie vanishes, and you think, Oh, darn. He gave up writing.
Not necessarily. Wylie Writer simply found that revenue on the PRINCESS MONA MAMBOS ON MARS series was inadequate, or Wylie’s publisher declined to continue Princess Mona’s adventures. So Wylie is now working on a new paranormal romance project, ZOMBIE BABES, under the pseudonym Amanda Amorous.
The book business operates in a feast/famine cycle. You land a five-figure book deal. You treat your family to steak. Then you s-t-r-e-t-c-h that money over the next three years while you write your epic urban fantasy trilogy about the battle for New York between the organized werewolf clans–Canis Nostrum–and zombie invaders from New Jersey. “Yo, Fuzzy! Go down to the sewers and give Mr. Rotgut an offer he can’t refuse.”
Writing other projects on the side can help mitigate the famine aspect, if you have the focus and discipline to write more than one book at the same time. (Sometimes our day job gets in the way!)
But the first book in that trio may not sell terrifically. Book 2 is much better, but the publisher has already lost interest and doesn’t push it. Book 3 is slid onto store shelves without any fanfare at all. Writer does not land another deal with that publisher.
Again, if you’re in the business because you love to write and you can’t live without words and you intend to keep on writing despite everything, then you pitch your next project to another publisher. And maybe you do so under a different name.
The added complication–as if writers don’t already juggle enough of them–is the current publishing revolution. Traditional ink-on-paper publishing has been merged and blended into what’s now known as the “Big Six.” In a year or two, it will probably be the “Big Four.”
Vanity publishing–thanks to the advent of electronic books–has never been easier. A novelist can put up as many books as she can write. The drawback, however, remains the same hiccup that we’ve always had: getting the public to notice.
In the past, the hiccup was called “distribution.” Under the old-style of self-publishing, you paid a company to print your books then you drove around with a stack of two hundred copies in your car trunk and couldn’t get any brick-and-mortar bookstore to let you hold a book signing event. You ended up either storing the books in your mom’s garage, handing them out to your family as Christmas presents, or dumping them at a tag sale.
In the present, the hiccup is called “promotion.” The new venue of self-publishing gives you worldwide distribution online. Trouble is, you have to catch reader attention. Novelists are now spending time learning to design Web sites and constantly feed a stream of chatter into the various forms of social media in hopes of enticing someone to read their latest e-book.
Writers try new ideas all the time. They try new venues. They pitch their projects to literary agents and publishers, and maybe they’re shot down. They write the book dear to their heart anyway and publish it in Kindle format. No one reads it, and every online visit to the empty bank account (created just for e-book revenue) is a stab to the heart.
This is a business of dreams and disappointments, splurging and starving, trying something new and meeting rejection. It is a lifetime of persistence. A career novelist has to be able to endure the jerky uneven pace of this kind of existence, perhaps even thrive on it. Most importantly of all, a novelist doesn’t quit, doesn’t quit, doesn’t quit.
No matter how many reincarnations it takes to keep work going out there to be read by others, we don’t surrender. We don’t give up. We endure the dark tunnel of working on projects doomed by their publishers to fail. And now and then, we step out into the light of a new sales contract, a juicy advance, a book that’s selling, and good reviews. Like troglytes kept too long in the shadows, we blink in dazed amazement and smile. And when we descend back into the tunnel, the warmth of the good times we’ve enjoyed keeps us going.