I've had lots of thoughts running through my head lately. I'm sitting here typing this in the hopes that it will help someone else. Feeling stuck and confused in a career you thought you really wanted is never a fun feeling. I'm going to share what's working for me, and maybe it'll help you, too.
The past six months or so have been an interesting journey. As you may have noticed from previous posts, there's a lot I've been trying to figure out about my literary career and the "business" side of my writer's journey.
After enduring intense stress, hitting a lot of dead ends, and generally feeling a large amount of strain and turmoil, I've reached a very important conclusion:
I don't have a literary career. There is no business side to my writing.
It's all about the art.
At first glance, this sounds ludicrous. Even the me from a month ago would have scoffed at this idea. But I began to realize it was true when I took a sincere, deep look at several things:
- What makes me happy about writing
- What makes me stressed about writing
- What I enjoy doing with my books
- What I despise doing with my books
- What decisions I am making regarding my writing
And I discovered that they all trended toward me treating my writing as an art, something that exists for the sheer value of itself and is not out to turn a profit.
Of course, this flies in the face of everything I'd been researching when I started trying to really get my career to "take off". Everything I'd read preached the necessity of treating writing like a business. Even the most non-money-minded artistic soul, they said, had to gain business acumen and learn how to make money off of their art. I was told to think like an entertainer, constantly considering what would "grab" and "hook" my audience and leave prospective readers wanting more. Talking to other people about my writing and engaging with the public was to be a sales pitch, an infomercial, in essence psychologically manipulating the other person into thinking they need my books.
So I adopted this approach... and entered into probably the most stressful long-term period of my life since college. I spent gobs of money I never got back, I made lots of business connections whom I tried way too hard to please, and I was haunted by massive feelings of inadequacy and insecurity.
And it did next to nothing for my books. I saw no notable increase in sales. Nothing skyrocketed to the top of the genre best-seller lists. I didn't go viral.
Clearly, something was not working. So I rid my life of most of that clutter, and immediately started to feel better about myself and my writing.
But, up until very recently, I still felt a lingering sense of unease. Wasn't I supposed to be making more money doing this? Wasn't this supposed to be my full-time career that would give me financial security?
A few months ago, I read a little bit of a book called Designing Your Work Life by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans. I didn't actually finish the book, because most of it just wasn't up my alley, but a concept they expressed in the second chapter really stuck out to me: work can have meaning and value even if it's not making money.
Amazing! This flew in the face of everything I had been told about my writing up to this point. Something can still be worth doing even if people aren't buying it? If it's not what's trending? If most people just don't "get" it?
Actually, that sounds a lot like... art. The art-for-art's-sake sort of art.
I have to admit, I initially balked at this idea. "Of course you can have a job that's personally meaningful and makes enough money!" I thought irately to myself. "Anyone who says that kind of 'dream job' is impossible has never met anyone who works at NASA!"
But, over the next few months, I began to look at the facts.
My books are not making a lot of money. That's not to say they're bad books. I believe in them. And they generally get really good reviews from the people who do bother to read them. But, let's just say that eight years and six (and a half) novels into this, I could not pay apartment rent and buy groceries on book sales alone.
And, nothing I do seems to be changing this. I am not an overnight success. I am a very unknown and obscure author, even inside my genre.
I'm not saying this to make you feel bad for me. I'm just stating the facts.
I also began to notice how I talked about my work - and my relationship with it - to other people, when I was being sincere and not sales-y. I constantly talked about striving to make my writing the best it can be; of putting great amounts of heart and soul into every story, even fanfiction; of wanting to communicate messages that will make a difference to readers, and do so in an emotionally impactful and technically well-executed manner. Although "artsy" is not really the first word that comes to mind when asked to describe myself, I realized when it came to my writing, I sound very much like an artist. I began to understand that for me, my writing is an art in the purest sense of the word, and I enjoy it the most when I am treating it purely as art.
Suddenly the stress started to make sense. Of course I felt strained when I tried to introduce business aspects to my art. My inner artist was balking at having to take money and sales into consideration, when she really just wanted to focus on the joy and wonder of creating without price tags. Rather than stumble around trying to follow the marketing roadmap, she wanted to run wild and free through the vast landscape of imagination. And she was absolutely tired of psychological manipulation--she wanted to present her work with frank, take-it-or-leave-it sincerity.
At that point, the takeaway from the aforementioned book clicked into place. My work is not making money, but it has meaning and value nonetheless. I believe the only big difference between my books and what gets put on the shelves of Barnes & Noble is that I'm not putting much effort into getting my books noticed. Why? Because I just don't want that stress. It doesn't seem to be right for me, and I want to listen to and honor that inner voice, and what I learned through trial and error these past months.
I've also stopped falling into the trap of thinking that my books' worth is dictated by their sales, or even by what the reviews say. If the world isn't ready for something, or doesn't understand it, of course it won't sell well. And everybody has different tastes in books, so a 5-star masterpiece for one person could be 2-star forgettable to someone else. Except in the case of glaring technical issues, none of that is the fault of the author--I know I can't please everyone and I'm not trying to. I do, however, do the very best that I can with each book and get them professionally edited, so I am confident that even though I am not the most experienced and polished author ever, my books are at least not terrible. (Most people even think Skydwellers is good, and as that was my first novel, I'm in a constant state of apologetic groaning about how "old and crummy" it is.)
So, I've resolved to simply not sweat the business side of things anymore. It's not worth it for me. God has helped me get to a place where I don't actually need to worry about making a certain amount of money off of my books, and I believe part of the reason for that is so I can concentrate on writing as a purely artistic endeavor, because that is what brings me the most joy.
That's why I make my books inexpensive. That's why I put lots of fanfic up on this blog for free reading. That's why I get audiobooks made even with no guarantee they'll break even. All of this is about sharing my work with whoever wants to receive it, in the hopes that it will make their lives better, and about treating each story with the dignity and respect it deserves as a work of art, not a moneymaking venture.
With this realization, I feel as though everything about my writing has clicked into harmony again, and I couldn't be happier about it. I'm actually thoroughly enjoying and even celebrating my work now. The money doesn't really matter to me. I figure it will come when it's meant to come. The most important thing is that I'm using my talents to make the world a better place and it's bringing me true happiness. And that's priceless.