By Kate McMurray
There’s a big difference between publishing a book and having a writing career.
Before my first book was published, I had a desk job at which I frequently daydreamed about some time in the future when I’d spend my days writing fiction and not filling out Excel spreadsheets or whatever I was doing on the job that day. I imagine a lot of you had the same dream. However, you came to be a writer, it’s likely a compulsion, a passion, something you do because you love it, and it’s something you’d like to be able to do a lot more of.
There have been a rash of articles in major publications lately about writers who sold their first book and then went broke. Money is one of those things we Do Not Discuss, so I think a lot of writers don’t know what to expect, or have unrealistic expectations, when that first book comes out. We tend to think that once we sign our first contract, that’s it, we’ve arrived. But a career as a writer is a marathon, not a sprint. And maybe knowing what to expect will help better plan how to do what you love as your career, instead of wondering if you can do it.
I have a group of writer friends with whom I have dinner once a month or so. These are my People. One of the best pieces of career advice I ever heard was from Sarah MacLean, who suggested making friends with writers who are at approximately the same stage of their career as you are. You will face a lot of the same issues and can trade notes on how to deal with them. My group are authors I met and befriended mostly at conventions, but our first books came out within a year or two of each other, so though we’ve had varying levels of success, we have a lot of experience we can share that benefits each other. Sometimes we really get into it, airing grievances, giving advice, or just shouting about things we’re frustrated with. But I always leave feeling inspired and ready to get back into the writing.
Anyway, we had dinner a couple of weeks ago, and the topic of money came up in the context of author behavior on Facebook. A trend I’ve noticed lately is writers who are diversifying their income streams. Not just by becoming hybrid authors, but by creating things like Patreon pages. (If you’re unfamiliar, Patreon is a platform on which people can patronize artists they like by paying a monthly fee, usually in exchange for exclusive content. I’m neutral on Patreon, but there was some lively debate regarding it recently.) My friends and I discussed the trend and wondered if authors were creating Patreon accounts to increase their income because they weren’t making the money they expected to when they started publishing.
So this got me thinking about the book vs. career problem. Because if you put out your first book and then sit back and wait for fame and fortune, you will likely be disappointed.
We hear about these success stories, authors whose debut novels were runaway bestsellers, or authors who have done amazingly well self-publishing. And I’m not saying this level of success is not possible, but it’s rare. For every Carrie Ann Ryan or Sylvia Day or JK Rowling, there are literally thousands of authors publishing whom you’ve never heard of.
Nor do we really hear much about what went into making those books. If you’ve ever heard Nora Roberts speak or read any articles about her, you probably know she took up writing when her children were very young and she was struggling to make ends meet. Jude Deveraux was living in a trailer when she sold her first book. JK Rowling was a single mom living on public assistance. To me, these stories show us not just that it’s possible to earn a good living from writing, but that these women have a tremendous work ethic. How many of us get bogged down in the day to day and don’t write? The fact that these women were struggling and made time to write on top of that is remarkable.
And it’s something they applied to their careers. Nora Roberts talks about treating writing as a full-time job. She does it at least eight hours a day no matter what, unless she’s on vacation. Sylvia Day wrote and wrote and wrote books until BARED TO YOU finally broke through. Success at that level is a full-time job, not just a hobby.
We approach self-publishing as if it’s a cash cow, but even E.L. James had a platform before housewives started passing around copies of Fifty Shades of Grey—she worked for the BBC, for one thing, and her Internet-published fanfiction had a huge following.
Or, just the other day, I got an email from a marketing firm that had done some analysis of sports romance. Since my bestselling book is a romance about baseball players, they thought I might be interested in their results. Research showed that sports romance is having a Moment, which I already knew, and that there’s great potential to sell a lot of books in the sub-genre. But, on the other hand, because romance is so huge and so many authors are already writing sports romance, if you’re just in it for the money, your odds of success are slim because it’s a competitive market. Dashing off a book to cash in on a trend isn’t a sustainable career plan, either.
Again, I’m not saying great success is not possible, but I think it’s important to recognize how much work a career in romance takes, as opposed to just putting out a book.
Romance is the biggest selling genre of books, no doubt. But because it sells so well, there are a lot of writers publishing it. Writing a romance is not a good way to make a quick buck. Think about how many hours go into writing a novel, for one thing. But more than that, putting a book out is not a guarantee it will sell.
This all sounds rather dreary, but that’s not my intention. I mean, I still daydream about a day when I can write eight hours a day like Nora Roberts without needing income from my other job(s). But I am saying that having a sustainable career requires some forethought and some elbow grease. You can’t just put out a book and expect it to be a bestseller. What you can do is put in some time and work: make your book the best it can be, do some of the work to build your audience, find people to help you along the way. Then when that first book is done, get to work on the next one.
Here’s your task for this month: Who is your favorite romance author? Does she write full time or have another job? How many books has she written? Odds are pretty good she has not just published one book. How long has she been writing? What does she do to promote her books? A lot of this information will be available on the author’s website. (So, for example, my favorite romance author is Suzanne Brockmann. As far as I know, she’s a full-time writer, or at least doesn’t have another job. She’s written about sixty books. Her website says she’s been publishing for twenty years. She’s on Twitter all the time, but she also does a lot of conventions and book signings—I’ve met and fangirled her a half dozen times now—and she’s published by a big house that does a bunch of stuff for her, too.)
Now let all that sink in. To me, sixty books—including a bunch of New York Times bestsellers—is a career. I’m not there yet. I’m working on it, though. I encourage you to do the same.♥
Kate McMurray is an award-winning author of gay romance and an unabashed romance fan. When she’s not writing, she works as a nonfiction editor, dabbles in various crafts, and is maybe a tiny bit obsessed with baseball. She has served as President of Rainbow Romance Writers, the LGBT romance chapter of Romance Writers of America; and as Vice President of RWA/NYC. She lives in Brooklyn, NY. Visit her at www.katemcmurray.com.