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Quick Tips from a Tightrope

The other day, I posted this sobering message on my Facebook and Twitter feeds:

New writers don't want to hear it, but staying published is the hard part. Like trying to walk a tightrope in lard-slathered socks.

The publishing biz had just given me another such reminder, with my former publisher (and holder of my entire in-print backlist) deciding to go all digital, at least in the near future and whittling down its editorial staff to nearly nil in response to dwindling sales. But even in the best of economic times, it's a huge challenge to keep one's career alive long enough to build an audience and prosper, especially for the grand majority of authors, who survive on the mid-list. (Big-time bestsellerdom has its own perils, but that's another post.)

Yet somehow, I remain if not wildly optimistic, perpetually hopeful. Over the years, I've seen some very talented authors crash and burn with the fortunes of lousy covers, a line's or publisher's demise, or an editor's departure. In the eleven years since I began publishing, I've survived each one of these, and I've seen a good number of authors not only squeak out of bruising, white-knuckled escapes but come out of the debacle far more successful than when they started.

Here are a few things to keep in mind when you're in a career crisis.

1. Sh*t happens. To nearly everybody, in the long run. You don't get an exemption due to luck or smarts or talent or because you're a good girl who always makes her deadlines, and disaster doesn't make you a bad person or a talentless hack. Get past blaming yourself or blaming others, and move on as quickly as you possibly can.

2. Survivors adapt and prosper. Those who remain entrenched perish. Publishing is forever giving authors second chances. But not if they insist on continuing to do the same thing that wasn't working. Look to the market, look to your strengths, and pay attention to where they potentially intersect. Sometimes, you'll find yourself astonished at the new scenery that opens up before you.

3. Stow your pride and polish off your work ethic. If you insist you're "above" any honest writing work, or worse yet take it on reluctantly and give it only a half-assed effort, you're marking yourself as a malcontent, a prima donna, and possibly a hack. If you agree to do something, honor it, give it the very best you have to offer, and watch your commitment earn you both respect and greater opportunities. If you stick your nose up at writing work you feel beneath you, well, it was nice knowing you.

4. Understand that any change has a learning curve and an unknowable timeline. While some writers very quickly land on their feet (a good agent can certainly help) the majority go through a period of struggle as they learn what works and what doesn't in a brand new market. I've seen writers lay fallow for many years before breaking out in a very big way. I've seen others decide the struggle isn't fun any more and turn their energies to less frustrating or more rewarding endeavors. There's no shame in that choice because life's too short to spend a large chunk of it unhappy. But if you're a fighter who has something to say to the world, stay true to your course. Even unrealized, the struggle has its rewards.

I hope these quick tips from my eleven years-plus on the tightrope prove helpful. If you don't need them at the moment, you might want to bank them. Because chances are you could face some of the same issues in the future.

Does anyone else wish to share some tips for long-term career survival?


JoAnn Ross said…
You've already said it so well. But having ridden this crazy career rollercoaster for 28 yrs, I'll add that writers need to remember that publishing is a marathon. Not a sprint.

And yes, I did just mix metaphors, which has me hoping that today's writing stays on track more than this comment. LOL
Elen Grey said…
A thoughtful post, Colleen, which I found oddly comforting.
Thanks so much, JoAnn. I think I was channeling your wise words over the years in parts of this post.

And thanks, Elen. It's easy to get discouraged because these set-backs are about as welcome as a fork in the eyeball. But they are survivable injuries and sometimes just the push we need to fly.
Anonymous said…
Amen, Sister! And I do need to hear these words of truth right now. I can't hear them too much as I navigate this point in my writer journey. I'm on my way to somewhere, and I'll know when I get there. :)
Anonymous said…
Unknowable Time Line. Love this. And I think that some of the changes we make... well, we don't realize we're making a HUGE change, so we're side-swiped by the learning curve. Good Post!

Diane H.
Thanks for stopping by, CurtissAnn. I think these are the words writers need to keep telling each other! Because it never really gets any easier, but the struggle's the thing, right?
Unknown said…
Wow. This was some great advice and I'm further convinced I did the right thing, not just with requesting my rights back, but trying to see this as an opportunity to do more with a series I love and hopefully start a career instead of a flash in the pan.

Change is usually hard and usually ugly. Looking back on the hardest things in my life, I've discovered that it was really life moving me to a different door.

Great post!
JoAnn Ross said…
Oh, something Saranna said reminded me of something I posted on the Dorchester editorial director's blog yesterday. . .

That doors and windows thing is so true. EVERY time I've been through a career upheaval,as horrible as it might seem at the time, I end up in a better place.

It's so easy to fall into a comfort zone, but imo, inertia is one of the most dangerous things that can happen in writing and in life. So, if you keep a positive attitude (a bit of whining and crying is allowed, since writing isn't baseball) and remain pro-active, a shakeup can be a good thing. Here's to happy landings for all!
More wise words, Jo Ann. Thanks for sharing.

And Saranna, your reaction sounds like a thoughtful, intelligent response. May it bring you all the best!
Liane Spicer said…
Thank you for this very encouraging post, Colleen. I'll add that opportunities often come disguised as obstacles.

I was getting swamped by the negativity surrounding our publisher's upheavals and believe it or not, I just finished preparing a positive post about the whole situation, to be posted on a group blog on Monday. Just making that effort, and now reading your take, and my outlook is changing already.
Patricia Rice said…
You and JoAnn have said what needed to be said, I can only reiterate. Perseverance is the key to surviving in this business.

Listening to industry rumors, paying attention to the business, may give you a slight edge over someone so sunk into the WIP that the waves of disaster drown them.

And always having something new on the burner can be a life saver when life goes awry--and it will. Every time, sooner or later.
I bow to you, oh wise one. Terrific post and terrific advice! Times will always be a'changing.
Thanks so much, Liane, Patricia, and Jennifer. It's tough to look for the bright side without coming across like Pollyanna. Like so many of life's learning opportunities, these things aren't experiences any but the greatest masochists would choose.

May your weekends, at least, be pain-free. Mine has been filled with writing so far, and I hope to keep it up.
Mylène said…
GREAT POST. One of BoxOcto's best ever, in fact.
EmilyBryan said…
Hi Colleen! As one whose mantra has always been "Stay Published," I found this post very timely.

I'm still under contract with Dorchester and they hold all my backlist rights, but I'm one of the lucky ones. Earlier this year, my agent also negotiated a three book + novella deal with Kensington. I'm so grateful to have an agent to help me negotiate these shallow shoals.

When it comes to investing, diversification is the order of the day to guard against losses in one segment of the market. Putting all your writing eggs in one publishing basket is like investing all your money in a single company. It's a recipe for poverty.

My best advice is to find a way to invest in multiple publishing outlets for your work. I can't feel "too good" for certain formats. I know the bridge is already on fire, but I don't want to be the one setting it ablaze. What I have promised, I'll deliver. Publishing is too small a world to make a spectacle of myself behaving like a prima donna.
EmilyBryan said…
Wondered if you'd seen this, Colleen? Apparently THE SALT MAIDEN is being reissued in trade paper next year. Now available on Amazon for pre-order.
RowenaBCherry said…
Excellent discussion.

Karl Marx is said to have said, "History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce."

Someone else said, "Each time history repeats itself, the price goes up."

(I like that one. Buy up all the remaining, new print copies of your work, so if anyone can sell them one by one on EBay for $4000 each, it can be you!)

"History repeats itself because no one was listening the first time." attributed to Szasz.

George Bernard Shaw:
"If history repeats itself, and the unexpected always happens, how incapable must Man be of learning from experience."

I saw NBI thrash and sink. I hope Dorchester's woes are temporary.

What Diana/Emily said about diversification appeals to me.

My lesson is, that, unless a publisher offers you a compelling contract, try to split at least some of your rights.

On the other hand, selling your own books by yourself is tough going. As Dirty Harry said, "a man has to know his limitations" (and so does a woman have to know hers).
Thanks, Mylene, Emily, and Rowena, for the kind and wise words on the subject.

Emily, I think you're right about diversification, but this has tended to be very difficult for me. I'm a prolific but not super-prolific writer, and I tend to hyper-focus on one project/area at a time. Even that can be a challenge, with balancing the promotion of a new release, the creation of a contracted manuscription, and the pimpage of whatever additional proposal is being shopped (not to mention family and volunteer obligations and a part-time business I run on the side.) To those smart and talented authors who manage all of this with two or three publishers, my hat's definitely off to you!
Yes, I was surprised to see online that Dorchester's planning to reprint The Salt Maiden in trade in Feb.

It would be nice, under the right conditions, to see that novel (one of my favorites) get a second life. But that's all I'll say about it here. :)
Farrah Rochon said…
Thank you for this, Colleen. It's a very good reminder that ups and downs (or chaotic free falls, for that matter) will happen. I keep reminding myself that the only thing I can control is the writing.
RowenaBCherry said…
For those who have their own e-rights...

Richard Curtis of e-publishes out of print books, and shares royalties 50-50 according to his blog.

Under the Google Settlement, Google pays the copyright owners of e-books 35%

Authors should probably make the $30 investment and join EPIC (the association of e-published and e-publishers) and seek advice there.

My experience with e-publisher NCP is very happy, for instance. I receive royalty checks and a statement every quarter.
Wow, this is helpful information, Rowena. Thanks for sharing.
RowenaBCherry said…
PS The url for joining EPIC is
SusanD said…

So true. This list could well apply to any sort of publishing rejection/snafu and I wish I'd seen it 15 years ago.

Thanks for posting.

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