Last year, when I traveled the country promoting my first book Blackouts and Breakdowns, I had the pleasure of visiting several of our country's finest schools. I spoke about several issues, but one question that was always asked at each lecture was:
"What advice do you have for all of us aspiring writers?"
It always took me a minute to respond and occasionally of guard. To the untrained eye, I was the epitome of a successful writer -- speaking at colleges across the country, promoting my book. Could I tell them that several of my nights on the road were spent in a car in order to save money? Should I tell them that they should shift focus and study something else because the odds of them ever being able to make it as a writer or furthermore, make money off of being a writer was slim to none? Or should I simply give my stock blase: "follow your dreams" speech and hope that once their dreams come true and the realization that it is nothing like what they thought it was going to be come to fruition, they have long since forgotten about our little chat? The truth is, the business of being a writer has changed and continues to change and not necessarily for the better.
I always believed I was born to be a writer. It is what I have always wanted to do and when I completed my first book, I was fortunate enough (after several thousand agency rejection letters and half as many "no thank you" notes from big publishers) to have a small publication company print my first book. It was a dream come true -- however, upon publication, my publisher made it very clear that while they were publishing my first book, all marketing and publicity was to be handled by yours truly. I didn't mind -- I was overjoyed that people would finally be reading my work on a larger scale. And so, I had postcards made at my own expense, threw a launch party on my dime and eventually took myself out on a forty-city book tour that was paid for by -- you guessed -- me! I didn't mind because it was what I wanted to be doing and I felt that putting the leg work into my first book would lead to bigger and better things. The thing was, that all of these things cost money and the cost of throwing a big party and going on a major tour eclipsed any amount of money I could have made off of royalties.
Because I had put in the leg work for my first book, I was fortunate enough to have a bigger, more prominent publishing company buy the rights to publish my second book. I was given a small advance, told that I needed to go on tour again at my expense and that a lot of the marketing I had done for my first book was going to be needed to be done again in order to make sure my second book was as big of a success as the first. Granted, bigger publishing companies have much more power: my second book will be available in more stores than the first, they have the press contacts to make sure the book is in the hands of the most revered and reviled critics and can market it on a much grander scale than I ever could on my own. The success of my second book remains to be seen as it doesn't go to publication until August, so in the meantime, I decided I would try my hand a being a full time writer.
With the big name publisher behind me and an amazing agent to boot, I found it much easier to get writing gigs for some of the more well-known magazines. Much to my chagrin, I quickly found out that those gigs, however coveted, were for the most part unpaid as well. I didn't fret because unpaid or not, the exposure is what mattered in the long run and in the days of articles going viral on the internet it could, if nothing else, get my name out there and hopefully lead to a paid writing gig. After months of clicking away on my laptop, I finally had an article that struck gold and went bananas online. Millions of people read it, my book sales saw a bit of a spike and for two seconds, I was an internet sensation. But in this day and age of people clicking articles at lightening speed and moving on to the next big thing with the greatest of ease, I was quickly forgotten the moment the next entertaining article came about. Hoping that this fantastic article would lead to a paid gig, I reached out to magazine editors who had reached out to me because they had liked my article. They all told me that they'd be more than happy to publish my articles, but unfortunately, it would be unpaid, although the position was very coveted.
The internet is a great resource for promoting yourself and what you do, but now everyone operates under the assumption that their opinion is important -- and it most likely is. In the past, reviews from book reviewers drove whether a not a book was going to be successful but now, anyone can review a book on Amazon or Barnes and Noble. Everyone from your mother, to your ex-girlfriend and what they have to say is sometimes biased and can hinder your success even further. So while The New York Times may love you, a jealous blogger who wants your book deal can come along and ruin your Amazon book rating and in turn, book sales. Or the opposite happens and The Times becomes obsolete. It's a never ending merry-go-round of never knowing who is saying what about you and how it's going to affect your business.
The business of being a writer isn't what it used to be. While signing a book deal with a major publisher is no small feat, if you are a writer and you plan on making a living off of being just a writer, get ready to rock the Ramen because it's tougher out there than it ever has been before. The Jackie Collins book advances and Tom Wolfe serials in The Rolling Stone are things of the past. You need to not only learn how to market yourself in this ever changing and volatile industry, you need to learn how to appreciate working for nothing. Of course, there are writing positions at magazines where you can get paid but those are few and far between and much how like supermodels were replaced with celebrities on the covers of most major magazines, career writers have been replaced by bloggers and newly graduated college kids with no jobs who don't mind working for free in order to garner exposure. With the internet providing so much information at lightening speed people don't retain half of the information provided and literally anyone can become a writer either by starting a blog and self-publishing a book on their own on Amazon, it becomes even harder to become the next big writing sensation. It really makes someone like myself, wonder if I should change what I think of as a career as something I do on the side for fun.
For every Fifty Shades of Grey success story there a million others that fall through the cracks. In order to be the best at what you do, you need to offer something that no one else can but in this day and age where any aspiring writer will do it for free, you also need to have a very legitimate back up plan -- because even if you "make it", you've still got to eat.