If you're not a writer, or are new to writing, here are a few informational pointers. This is intended in the spirit of loving human compassion, so I apologize in advance if parts (or vast swaths) seem to be coming from a place of snarkiness. I will keep reminding myself that not only is this information not generally known to the non-publishing public, most of this info was completely unknown to me until I'd written my first novel and began researching how to get published, just under two years ago.
The first question I get when I tell people I'm a writer (because I am, I write things, like whole book length things, 100k word novels) is invariably some variation on this sentiment: OH! WHAT HAVE YOU WRITTEN? HAVE I READ IT? WHERE CAN I BUY IT RIGHT NOW? HOW MANY BOOKS HAVE YOU SOLD?
My response at this point is usually to turn red, stutter, and admit I've never sold a single book. This is the hardest admission for a writer, because the other person, who moments ago was all eager like a puppy with a new toy, will slump back and instantly lose about 90% of their interest in you. I mean, why wouldn't they lose interest? A second ago, at least in their minds, you were a Big Time Author, and now you're just a kook who writes stuff. A loser. At least, that's how it feels sometimes. And then I remind myself that they're only responding with disappointment because they don't know what it actually takes to write, edit, find an agent, find a publisher, edit some more, and then publish a successful novel.
After my admission, a common follow-up question is: OH, THEN HAVE YOU EVEN WRITTEN A WHOLE BOOK YET?! Because obviously, if I'd gone ahead and FINISHED a book, it would've been published by now. Riiiiight.
Again, my reply makes me feel even smaller. I have to tell them that I've written five complete novels, and I'm working on a sixth. For me, this is the most terrifying, horrifying thing to admit to anyone outside the writing and publishing world. I can see the pity filling their eyes. I just know they're thinking, "Oh, your poor, sad little creature. FIVE WHOLE NOVELS SO SPECTACULARLY BAD YOU'VE FAILED TO SELL A SINGLE COPY OF A BOOK EVER." I then imagine them patting my head like a three-year-old who just admitted in public, repeatedly, in a very loud voice, usually in mixed company, that they made poo poo in the toilet. Yeah. That's kind of how it feels.
And then I feel I have to justify myself. More on this in a moment. But first, I usually give a little lecture about the Realities of Publishing. You may find these tidbits comforting next time you find yourself in this situation, on either side of this little drama (as the writer or as the non-writer).
- Just because you've written a WONDERFUL, GLORIOUS NOVEL doesn't mean it gets published and hits the NYT bestseller list by the following Monday. Even the most famous writers have to wait for their publication window to roll around. It can take years. Literally.
- You don't just write that MASTERPIECE OF LITACHER and then pick an agent out of the phone book to represent you. You don't hire an agent like you'd hire an employee. It's a weird hybrid sort of position, where you kind of hire each other. You apply to agents like someone seeking a job, send a resume (in publishing this is known as a query letter) that details your book and a bit about you. Then the agent reads your stuff, and decides whether or not they want you as a client. After a little back and forth, it's still up to you whether or not you want to hire the agent.
- There are 46 bazillion writers in the universe. (*note: this might be a slight exaggeration, but probably not) A fair portion of them are seeking representation through an agent. There are only a few thousand literary agents, and substantially fewer who even represent the genre any given writer...writes. There is a lot of competition. It's also not a quick process. It can take months between finishing the novel, querying, and hearing back from agents who are interested. This is also the worst time to field questions from people about how your writing is going. We feel adrift at sea already, and need to be peeled off the ceiling every time the phone rings or the email alert chimes. This is when those withering looks of pity and assumptions of our failures sting the most.
- There are sometimes questions about why I haven't gone ahead and self-published by now. I mean, really. It's so easy nowadays, right? Just stick it up on Amazon or the like, and BOOM. Instant bestseller, right? Not exactly. There are thousands of self-published books being released into the universe every single day. Unless I have the time, money, and resources to spend marketing and promoting my book (which would be as much work as a full-time job, by the way), then it would likely sell a few copies to my friends and then fizzle out of existence. I want to make writing a life-long career. The goal isn't to produce a single novel that dies in obscurity just to see my name in print. I'm in no hurry. While self-pub might be the perfect option for someone else, I would be a total failure at it. I just don't have the business-marketing-promotional skills.
- The people who ask these questions are not deliberately trying to be hurtful. They just don't know what goes into writing and publishing a successful novel. Be kind, and educate them a bit. They might turn out to be your most ardent supporters down the line!
Okay, then. Back to my justification. Five novels and not one sold? Wow, you must be a terrible writer.
No, not really, but the first two were my "practice novels," written before I learned anything about the realities of the book market. They taught me how to be a better writer. I never sought publication for them. Maybe someday, after they've been completely rewritten, but for now they live under my bed, where the world is safe from them.
Okay, but what about the other three? They're not good enough to sell, either?
Well, considering they are a SERIES, I can't sell the second two until after the first one is published. I haven't been querying the first one for the last several months. I've had some positive responses, but in the end, I was told it wasn't quite ready yet.
Then I had a revelation. One agent told me they wanted to know more about the characters. There were hints in the story about a really interesting history, a looooooong backstory. She wanted to read THAT novel, about that history. *insert flashing light bulb here* So I started writing it. I'm now about half way through that draft, but it will need editing and critiquing from my writing friends before I send it out. Maybe six weeks of work, if I get this draft done soon!
*cue renewal of interest in my writing* OH! So you're not a TOTAL failure, yet. Right? There's still hope for you?
Nope. I will only ever be a failure if I quit trying. I REPEAT: I WILL ONLY EVER BE A FAILURE IF I QUIT TRYING.
So there. Have any of you had this conversation before? How did you deal with it? Because I was double-teamed on it last night. One of the participants in the conversation had known about my writing since last summer. She assumed I'd been long-published by now, and was mildly disappointed that I wasn't. The other person learned of my writing for the first time, so he was a little less disappointed in my lack of publishing credits, but I still felt the sting. Consider this post my way of dealing with their double-whammy. :)