Thursday, February 6, 2014

Life On The Midlist

Books are a lot like luchador masks: huge variety, yet all the same,
they all tell a story, and are highly subject to
personal preference. (Taken at Old Town, San Diego)
I'm a midlist author.

Heck, I may not even be that. I could be low-list, really. But I don't think that's a term (perhaps too depressing?), so I'm sticking with midlist.

It seems like in the online writing community we're afraid to talk about that, as if it's this horrible thing to be. When really most authors are midlist.

But on social media we're all supposed to pretend that our books are a Big Deal and that only awesome things happen to them and that every book is treated the same by a publisher. I think we all know that's not really true, but we're not supposed to talk about it because people get all uncomfortable with where their work stands and how "important" or "not important" they are.

Today I'm just gonna do that thing where I talk about it realistically. I do that. Maybe I shouldn't, but I have this problem where I suck at lying so I usually just opt to take the honest route and its consequences.

Basically, publishing is a brutal business.

It is. Plain and simple. It may make author dreams come true, but because there are only so many spots it also has to crush a lot of dreams, too. It's not personal…though, man, does it feel entirely personal at times…it's just the reality of a business that sells a product that, well, doesn't get purchased that much. You've seen the studies about how little Americans read—so yeah, we're all trying to sell products that aren't really in that high a demand. We all wish that would change. But hey, in the grand scheme of things books are a bit of a "niche" market. Then you start dividing by genre and you can really get a picture of how little pie there is to share when it it comes to trying to turn a profit.

This is starting out really depressing. I honestly don't know if it'll get better, but I'll try!

I knew I was going to be midlist at best the second I got my advance offer. It's really easy to tell, actually—if you didn't get high six-figures or you're not a book package, then you fall somewhere in the land of "not a lead title." And even though most everyone who sells a book lands here, you feel a bit deflated. At least I did. I think because you have all the potential in the world when you're querying and on sub. You COULD sell big. You never know!

When you finally sell, well, you know where you stand. I knew I wouldn't get any more than the standard debut marketing package, if that. I knew there would be titles in my debut season that would get more press and love and push than my book. I knew there would never be a tour. Et cetera and so forth.

Jealousy is a beast. As a midlist author it's like envy is always there in the shadows waiting to pounce when you least expect it. Especially now that social media seems to be a huge part of being an author, you get to see all the things other people are getting that you aren't. It looks like everyone is selling more than you and you're doomed.

And it can be very easy to get bitter and down on yourself and your work. It's easy to want to give up, to feel like your writing isn't special, to wonder why you wanted to publish in the first place, to maybe even regret slaving over words for so long and for what?

Perhaps this is why I'm writing today, for all those authors—and there are a lot of us! maybe even all of us!—who wonder if any of this is really worth it.

Is publishing worth it?

I mean, it's a valid question. I thought I'd heard horror stories before I sold my book. I'd spent 2 years in the query trenches and 2 years in submission hell—I had been through and heard a lot of stuff! I'd racked up over 200 query rejections, I'd done the R&R dance with an agent for 9 months, I'd gotten harsh crits that made me cry, I'd rewritten an entire novel, had an agent leave, gotten so close to selling I could taste it but still got rejected. And I watched most of my writer friends go through the exact same types of stuff.

You want to think this torture goes away once you sell. Because, goodness gracious, the trials should end at some point, right?

But the tough tales never end. I've now gotten to watch authors I know lose their editors, and thus their novels get pushed to the bottom of the totem pole. I've seen writers pitch idea after idea to their editor, only to be told that it might be time to part ways with no more sales. Authors I love and respect have had to leave houses because their novels "aren't meeting expectations." People who "deserve" attention don't get it. Constantly. And sales never pick up. (Because there just isn't enough to go around, as I said before.) Books "flop" with no explanation, even with a huge marketing budget. Covers go bad. Reviews can be harsh. Or non-existent. Publishers fight with bookstores and sometimes authors and their novels become casualties.

It's a flipping battlefield out there, guys.

Some of these things have happened to me. Some haven't. It's hard to watch your friends deal with it, too, because it's a very real reminder that the same thing could happen to you. That nothing in this business is sure. That it can all change in a day, for better or worse.

Honestly, it's enough to make this mormon girl want a drink and let loose with a few swear words. I seriously never understood why people drink until I started trying to get published—and now I'm all, "Damn, that sounds nice I wonder what my favorite alcoholic beverage would be."

Not that I'd drink, but I've thought about it.

So back to the question, is this worth it?

A lot of the times, my answer is no. I kid you not. I know I'm supposed to say, "Yes! Because there are all these emotional rewards and fan letters and I just love to write so much!" But well, emotional rewards don't pay the bills, and I have a lot of those. I am trying to supplement my husband's income. I do want to get paid because I have three mouths to feed and all that junk. And monetarily speaking, no, writing is not currently worth it. Maybe it will be in the future, but that'll be over a decade at this rate. Seriously.

As far as emotional pay off, that is a big ol' can of worms. I mean, I love to write. I honestly do. I still fall in love with my stories and my characters, and there is something very rewarding about a reader feeling the same way. But at the same time, I did have a nervous breakdown that was a direct result of trying to publish, and it exacerbates my anxiety like nothing else I've ever come in contact with. I know so many writers struggling with anxiety or depression it's not funny. Like, really not funny—it scares me.

When it comes down to it, no, I don't think I get as much from writing as I put into it. Yet I want to keep writing and I can't imagine doing anything else. I seriously have no idea how that works, but I may be a masochist. The question I've been asking myself a lot lately is this:

Does it have to be worth it?

I'm starting to see that maybe it doesn't have to be. At least not in the traditional senses. I think there's a lot to be said about doing something hard, not giving up, and pushing yourself to grow. Regardless of whether or not the activity will "pay off." Maybe I give more to publishing than I'll ever get back, but somehow I love it all the same.

And I think most authors will tell you the same thing. Yes, the business is hard as hell, but they still do it. Because writing never stops being a labor of love. Sacrifice is part of that. I don't know where I'll be in another few years, except for the fact that I'll probably still be trying to write and publish stories. Maybe I'll still be selling "not up to expectations," maybe not. The truth of the matter is, "not meeting expectations" hasn't stopped me yet, and it probably never will.

Life on the midlist? I think more than anything, it's the life of a fighter.

*puts on luchador mask*

I'm still standing. Bring it.

43 comments:

  1. I LOVE how open and honest you are, Natalie. It's very nice to see something other than the "this is awesome always always awesome" posts that seem to be a staple in publishing. It's real, and it makes the rest of us realize that our struggles are common. We are not alone.

    Thank you. :)

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    1. I think it's really important we all remember we're not alone, and that we share so much in common despite our very different journeys.

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  2. Natalie, I love this post. And I love your honesty, always. Maybe it's not wise for you personally, but it's beautiful and heartening and important. I hope you know that your bravery doesn't go unappreciated.

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    1. Thanks, Kristan, for always reading and supporting me:)

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  3. If I knew what this writing journey would be like, I probably wouldn't have started. But I was naive and in love with it so I pushed on. And thanks to human nature, I tend to forget. I forget the tears and heartache and stress of one bridge after another. So I totally get this and agree with you...I don't think it's worth it a lot of the time, but I'm glad I didn't realize that at the start. Because I love what I do and will probably still be doing a decade from now, no matter what happens between now and then.

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    1. Ilima, I totally agree—I'm glad I didn't know. I think I would have believed I wasn't strong enough to do, and I'm finding more and more that I am:)

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  4. From a reader who enjoys your fabulous books and a fellow blogger who loves reading your insightful posts, fight on! There are so many people in your corner. :-)

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    1. Thank you! Support really goes so much further than I can even express to you guys.

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  5. I love you and love this and seriously. I feel the same way. My journey has been very similar to yours and yet here I sit, still fighting the fight and trying to make my dreams come true. Publishing is hard. It hurts. It's so emotional and can seriously tear me down so low, just from reading a negative review or getting a rejection from an editor. It sucks sometimes. Truly. I love writing though and this is what I'm meant to do. I know it's what I'm meant to do. It's the stubborn part of me that won't let this crazy writing journey go. So, as you said at the end of your amazing and honest post. Bring it.

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  6. As a fellow mid-lister (or not even-- I'm with a smaller publishing house), I can only say YES and THANK YOU and LET'S HUG AND EAT CREPES. I've had so many of these same thoughts and feelings and experiences. Sometimes it sucks, but it is what it is and I love to write, so I keep throwing myself into the trenches.

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    1. CREPES. It's a wonder I'm not 500 pounds with all this stress eating;)

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  7. Thank you for the brutal honesty.

    I find it interesting that I've seen an increase in articles/postings like this. Before, such things were usually murmured in person, rarely with someone the writer didn't trust, as if speaking of them would mark one as troublesome. Now, more writers are speaking honestly. And honesty comes from confidence.

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  8. Thanks for another incredibly honest post about the ins & outs of publishing!

    I think we writers are dreamers, and a bit delusional at that. At whatever stage we're at, we always think we could be the next big deal, whether it's with this book or the next one. The possibility is certainly there. I do think asking yourself whether it's all worth it is valid. Certainly, we are sacrificing many things to be in the business: time with our family & friends, social lives, possibly cash from more lucrative ways to earn a living. And the answer is different for each of us. It's also worth it to ask ourselves whether traditional publishing is the way to go. A lot of us are in it to share our work, share our stories. There are many ways to do that.

    Hugs to my fellow dreamers!

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    1. Dreaming is the best part. I've found that if I just keep doing that, it's not so bad:)

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  9. Beautifully written and so true, Natalie. I will have a drink on your behalf. Maybe two, because I'm generous like that. ;)

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  10. A brave and honest post. Too often, the realities of publishing are hidden behind the happy tweets and blog posts. I'm fortunate to have a wonderful crit group. We share our realities. I encourage everyone to find this kind of support, because you need partners in this fight. Best of luck to you, Natalie!

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  11. Love the post! I completely agree that publishing is not worth it in the traditional sense. I was moaning to my husband just this week, asking, "WHY do I do this?!!" But the worth comes from completely different things, which, in the end, as crazy as it is, works for me. Writing is how I make sense of the world, and despite the harsh realities that come with it, I just can't stop.

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  12. You are truly an author Ninja and yes it took me few minutes to convince myself to write that and tell myself how lame I am lol seriously I adore you simply because you are so honest and that honest has helped me although it didn't take long to toughen the ole skin its a brutal world but your right writing has to bring so much joy to balance out the other stuff that is out of a writers control.

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  13. I'm one of three close friends who self-publish. Success-wise, I'm in the middle. Some of what you mention about comparisons are true even for indie authors. I look at our A author and wonder how she got her lucky break, and why her methods don't work for me. (Different genre for one.) My friend with more modest sales will ask me the same.

    Publishing might not ever be worth it. You're right; it's a brutal business. So instead, let's focus on writing. Is that worth it? Set aside the business--do we get enough pleasure out of the process of creating a book to keep doing it?

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    1. It's true, Nancy, that this isn't just a "traditional" publishing issue. Every author asks themselves why they aren't the big, popular one. Sometimes it's hard to face the answer, but I've come to accept my own answers and am happier for it.

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  14. that's because you still waste your time with traditional publishing.

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    1. I wouldn't say any type of publishing is a waste of time. I have indie friends who also feel they are on the indie "midlist" and can't seem to improve their sales no matter what they try. And I wouldn't be surprised if when I publish RELAX, I'M A NINJA on my own that my sales stay in an average range. Sometimes it's not about type of publishing, but more about not writing commercial-type stories.

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  15. This is a big struggle for SO many of us. Separation from work is hard when almost your entire life is spent on said work. I think that, if we're writing to receive approval and/or acceptance, we're in it for the wrong reasons. (There. I said it.) So much emphasis is put first on being good enough to be offered representation and then, secondly, to be "sold", that by the time books come out (whether in the traditional sense or the indie version), all that we know is that 1) we've worked our tails off, 2) we lost a LOT of well, *everything* time in spending it all ON that work, and 3) we are now just wait wait waiting for responses and hope hope hoping for acceptance/people to like it.

    Granted, our work needs to be "accepted" on some level or it's not readable, but at the same time, that defeat arrives and grows (and can take over) from a basic misunderstanding that response to our work = who we are as people. We have to remember WHOSE we are, and, much like, say, cleaning our house (for example), yet not expecting how well it has been cleaned to be considered a representation of who we are as people, our books are a reflection of our work and not a representation of who we are, either. You know? At the end of the day, our work is our work and who we are is still... who we are. They are both intertwined, yes, but work is a small, small part of us, and the reaction/response to it cannot change that fact unless we let it.

    (After all of that, did I even get my point across? Basically: If we look to publishing as our sign that we're accepted or considered "good enough", chances are we will never be satisfied.)

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  16. Thanks for the honesty, Natalie! I was one of those people at first that thought 'author' was synonymous with 'big bucks'. I've since learned better! Sometimes I've wondered if even trying to get published is worth it. B/c if I can't afford to quit my day job to write, then I've just put even more on my plate w/deadlines and such. But I guess dreams aren't always a walk in the park! Instead of pixie dust and rides on unicorns, sometimes they seem to be more like gritty alleys and bare knuckle fights. =)

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  17. I reeeally love how you do posts like these. It's like a bit of a reality check, as well as letting us (newbies :) know some more of the inside-scoop.

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  18. An excellent and honest post, Natalie. Like you say, you write because you love it.

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  19. Love your honesty, Natalie. And I can so relate to it all even though I haven't even queried. I've seen many friends on midlist, not sell another series, lose agents, etc. To be honest, if I ever get an agent or a book contract, I'll be happy but realistic that it'll still be a brutal experience possibly and not make much money. I have to support my family so am glad I have another well-paying job that is my career that doesn't say "no" so much. And when I get laid off when my company closes, I'll be focusing on a new job and do like I am now, squeeze in the writing.

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  20. Publishing is tough. Really tough. I've learned that just from two years in the query trenches (with minimal success). You can work your butt off for years, even decades, and still not get back what you put into it. You really have to look for validation in places other than tangible/visible success -- I'm still working on that one! But what keeps me going is that I am madly, passionately, ridiculously in love with writing. Whenever I even think about never doing it again, I can't stand the idea because my life without writing would be dreadful.

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  21. Oh man, I absolutely love how honest you are. These are the conversations that usually only happen behind closed doors with writer friends and it's great to get some reality out there.

    And I will join you in admitting that this was exactly me: "you feel a bit deflated...because you have all the potential in the world when you're querying and on sub. You COULD sell big." And feeling oddly deflated made me feel worse because I thought it made me ungrateful - but then I talked to a writer friend and she said the exact same thing :) We all have those big dreams, even if we know they're probably just dreams and the reality will be far more low-key.

    The only part I'd disagree with, in my limited experience, is that books have to get high six figures to be a lead title and any decent marketing. I'd certainly say this isn't true for medium to smaller publishers, who may not be able to afford to buy a book for a big advance, but then will put a lot of love and effort into pushing it.

    Anyway, thank you again for such a great post and all the luck with your books :)

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  23. Best blog post ending EVER.

    This sounds like a post I would've written 3-4 years ago, pre-agent. Some things never change. You gotta write cuz you love it.

    Or you love the fight :-)

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  24. I love this post. Thank you so much for writing it - I really needed to read it.

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  25. Thank you for another fantastic, honest post. The business side of writing can be so brutal and heartbreaking, but you're absolutely right that it doesn't change my love of writing itself!

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  26. Natalie, as always, your honesty, humor and perspective are an inspiration.

    I'm proud to be midlist & fighting out there with you!

    p.s. I also don't usually drink - for metabolic reasons (I'm Asian). But you're right... sometimes...

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  29. Mark me down as a writer struggling with anxiety and depression. Writing is hard! And lonely! Loved this post, Natalie.

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  31. Love this, Natalie. Your honesty, the truth of the business, the whys, and the fight you have to still stick with it. That resonates with me, as it has with so many commenters here. To the death! (Yikes. I hope not.)

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  33. Thx for your honesty Natalie. I'm beginning the journey but am realistic about the outcome. There's still a kernel of hope there that my book will SELL! But truthfully I love writing, it is what I am/what I do, and I will continue writing until my last breath. SD
    http://www.sandradanby.com/

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