So you've debuted, and you're not, in fact, a bestseller. Maybe your book/series didn't even do so hot. Or maybe you did alright, but now your genre is out to pasture and your project on sub isn't selling. Or maybe your editor has changed houses or left the business and you're left up a creek. Or maybe your imprint/small press is closing.
I'm writing this post for you all—which I suspect is most of us—in hopes of sharing some knowledge now that I've experienced a lot of post-debut, well, crap. (AKA: All of these things I described above.) Many of us are left wondering what comes next. How do we keep going if we want to still be a writer? How do we let go and move on if we don't?
Well, the first step is to eat your weight in cupcakes. Because this all sucks and you're allowed to feel like it sucks and to be upset about it. The publishing industry is brutal, no matter what path you pick, and for this moment you don't have to pretend otherwise. I won't tell your agent/editor/readers/fellow aspiring authors. Promise.
I'm going to divide my advice into two parts for ease—if you want to keep writing and if you want to stop. So, here we go!
IF YOU WANT TO KEEP WRITING
(Any and all options may be combined or used more than once or not at all. Whatever.)
Option 1: Keep doing what you're doing. You totally can stay on course if you want. Keep subbing new work, keep trying to sell what you love to write regardless of market swings, push forward knowing it'll be hard but it might happen again. This can be disheartening when the rejections and stories pile up, but many people have done this and sold more at some point in time. Just know that if you don't sell for awhile it's not you—it's publishing. Markets swing, editors' hands get tied, bottom lines are analyzed and you may be found wanting.
Option 2: Change genres. Many an author has switched up their genre and found great success in doing so. Either they change within, say, YA—from paranormal to sci-fi, or dystopian to fantasy, or steampunk to horror. Or they switch age group/subject entirely, moving from Middle Grade to YA or vice versa. Some leave YA and move into adult genre fiction. There and many ways to switch up your genre and still find success. If what you're doing doesn't feel like it's working or it's just too heartbreaking—try something new.
Option 3: Pen name. Look, it's not that publishing has "black-listed" you. It's just that the second you debut, you have numbers attached to your name. How much you sold. If you earned out. If you continued to sell or buyers dropped the title quickly. If you're being circulated in libraries. That stuff…yes, it impacts your chances to sell another book. Yes, all publishers will look at those numbers and factor them into their decision to buy a book from you. Sometimes? It's just better to change your name if you're writing in the same genre and pretend you're a debut again. Because debuts are shiny and new and have no numbers to be liable for.
Option 4: Try a different publishing path. Maybe your first book was small press and the press went under—trying Big 5 or indie publishing could be something you want to do. Maybe Big 5 burned you bad and you want control over your next project just to gain some peace of mind and enjoyment back, so you try indie (I did this). Maybe you're tired of indie and want to try to get an agent and see what happens. All of these choices are yours to make! And it really can be refreshing to try and different path and experiment.
Option 5: Contract work. Sometimes while you're waiting for your original work to sell, you can fill in the financial gaps with something called "contract work." If you don't know what this is, it's basically when a publisher is looking for a certain type of book and they hire an author to write it. You don't own rights to the story and the pay/royalties are not as great, but it can keep you going. Many an author has done contract work and done it well and benefitted greatly from it because it gets their name out there and then their original work sells better.
Option 6: Explore other forms of writing careers. There are more than just novels in the world. Some authors I've known have put novels on the back burner and are writing for video games or table top role playing games. Some have moved into non-fiction for blogs and websites. Some of taken a "day job" where they're writing materials for companies. If finances are an issue for you, don't be afraid to try any writing gig you can find.
IF YOU WANT TO STOP WRITING
(Any and all options may be used or combined or you can ignore me entirely. My kids never listen to me and they've turned out alright.)
Option 1: Be bitter the rest of your life and complain about how publishing ruined you. That sounds ridiculous, but it is an option and who am I to tell you how to go about this? I spent a good 6 months feeling like this before I got over it some. But I wouldn't recommend it. Being miserable and letting publishing drag you down is no way to live.
Option 2: Accept that publishing is not something for you right now, for whatever reasons. There are no rules saying that once you publish you have to keep doing it. No one is going to make you feel ashamed of stopping but yourself, and you don't need to do that! Writing is not the only way to live a fulfilling life. It may not be something you can do under current circumstances. You might need a long break before you're ready to face it again. Whatever the reason, do you. Be proud of yourself. Move on. Come back later if you want.
Option 3: Find things that bring you joy. If it's not writing anymore, that's okay! But there might be other things to try out there that give you that same "high." Learn a language, start painting, take a dance class or try yoga. Spend more time with your family. Travel. Once you are in the author mindset it can be hard to think of life outside our little publishing world, but it's beautiful out there and worth exploring. Go do stuff. Have fun. Don't feel guilty about doing instead of writing.
Option 4: Maybe stop publishing, but keep writing. Much of the time it's really publishing that kills the joy of writing. Sometimes you might still feel the writing bug itching you, and you just want to write something but not publish it. You can totally do that! There is no shame in writing just for fun and for yourself. In fact, that might bring you a lot more happiness than throwing your work to the wolves. Maybe that is what suits you and brings you peace.
Option 5: Get help if you need it. If publishing has left you with scars, please don't ignore that. Creative pursuits have a huge impact on our minds and we are all more susceptible to mental illness than the average person. If you find yourself unable to pull out of the bitterness and sadness, talk to a doctor and find the help you need if you're depressed, anxious, or both or anything else. Sometimes it can take time to heal from what your mind might be considering a "loss." You are making a life transition, and those can be rocky. No shame in finding support while you figure it all out.
Ultimately, my friends, you have to find the path that's right for you. I wish I could tell you what that is, but you know I can't. Debuting and becoming a "professional" author is a hard thing, and you don't know what your future holds. And even if you think you do, it can all change at the drop of a hat. But hopefully this post will help you explore the options you have. It can be easy to get stuck in tunnel vision, but really there is still a whole horizon of possibilities out there for you. And really, none of those possibilities are wrong, they're just different. And that's okay.