|Believe me, he's faster than he looks.|
It wasn't until this morning that I realized, the one thing we didn't really discuss was the writing itself. We didn't talk about plot hooks, or character concepts, or cool scenes we were working out in our heads. We didn't bounce ideas for new stories off each other, or ask questions about the progress of current projects. In short, all we focused on was the business side of writing, and we all but ignored the writing itself.
In the movie Pacific Rim, a new Jaeger pilot can find themselves caught up in the memories that flood their minds when they enter "the drift" and join consciousnesses with their co-pilot. The pilot "chases the rabbit" and pursues a fleeting memory, getting lost in the conjoined memories and becoming distracted, disoriented, helpless, or even a danger to themselves and others. When I realized this morning how much time and energy I spend on scrutinizing and micro-managing the business side of writing and publishing, I know part of it is because I can see that rabbit ahead of me, that dream of becoming financially self-sufficient off of my royalties, quitting my day job (which, by the way, I loathe) and becoming a Full-Time Writer. I want to catch that rabbit more than I care to admit, and there are times when that feeling of wanting becomes akin to desperation.
When a new title goes live, I'm checking the sales page fifty times a day. When it starts to sell, I'm still checking the page while thinking of what I can do to spread the word and all but click the "buy" button for people. When a title flops, I look at it like a houseplant that's slowly withering and dying, no matter how much water and light and plant food I give it. Tweaking the cover, re-writing the description, playing with pricing, hitting the social media marketing pavement, launching promos - I'll do anything I can think of to get the word out there and sell sell sell. The only thing that keeps my promotional drum-beating in check is the fear of being "that guy" - the jerk on Twitter or Facebook who does nothing but spam followers with links to buy their books over and over again.
And the problem is, of course, that the rabbit is real. Becoming a financially successful author isn't some fantasy no one achieves except the luckiest of a lucky few. This post over at the Passive Voice Blog is filled with people who've either gone full-time or are anticipating doing so in the foreseeable future. The new publishing paradigms of the last few years have made it possible for more people than ever before to make a living - or at least, create an appreciable second income stream - from their writing. And the harsh reality of it is, you do have to pay attention to things like your cover design, your pricing strategies, your marketing, your product description, and so forth. If you don't, even the best book will languish in the doldrums, and you'll get discouraged, perhaps giving up the idea that you're any good, that you should keep at it despite a poor start.
What makes matters worse, of course, is seeing the real A-listers crushing it time and time again, and hearing the "Coffee is for Closers Only!" speeches they throw around. This Passive Voice Blog post discussing an article by powerhouse author Russell Blake became so incendiary, the blog owner had to turn off comments, because once Blake showed up and began kicking people in the junk over their own wishy-washy definitions of "effectiveness" and 'success", the knives came out. That's not the only example of such advice, of course - plenty of the more successful indie authors have thrown down the gauntlet, inadvertently or not, and made less successful writers question everything they're doing. Can't write for two hours every single day? You're a slacker. Can't get a new "book" out every month? Slacker. Your book can't stay above the "dreaded" 10,000 marker on the Amazon best-sellers list? It's a failure. Not willing to pay out $500+ for a book cover? You're just not taking this seriously, go wade in the kiddie pool with the other wannabes. And, oh, by the way - this business is only getting more cut-throat by the minute as the "tsunami of swill" covers the world, so if you're not selling a hundred copies a day right now, just give up, because the next new dino-porn craze will mean your novel will go unnoticed forever.
Chuckle at that last paragraph if you will, but I've seen all of those statements, and many more, over the last year or two, and no matter how hard you try to ignore the negativity, it's going to eat into your soul a little bit every day. You're going to start thinking to yourself, "Hmmm...maybe writing Bigfoot erotica isn't that hard...I can just use another pen name...", or paying out to professional marketers in the hopes that your poorly-selling book will finally find its audience, and some journalist will be interviewing you to ask about the secret of your success, and your story will cause other writers to furiously jot down notes, because hey - you caught that rabbit! That means it's possible after all!
Ultimately, I have to come to terms with the fact that I may never become a Full-Time Writer. Right now, my royalty stream is roughly equivalent to working a part-time job for 20 or so hours a week at a coffee shop or grocery store. It is definitely a solid, substantial source of income, and I appreciate every dollar. Over time, as I write and publish more, I hope that income stream grows, but there's no guarantee. My latest book has pretty much performed a face-plant a yard from the starting line, And I can already feel the first twinges of despair over it joining the pile of "failures" in my portfolio. That despair, of course, fuels the drive to figure out what I can do next to write something more profitable - the rabbit has gained more of a lead, and I'm pushing myself harder trying to catch up.
But what about the joys of writing? I actually love writing my Commando novels. Hanging out with Lynch, Bowen, McTeague, and the rest is a blast for me. I had a great deal of fun writing Renegade's Revenge, as well, and despite its abysmal performance over the years, I do want to write another Nanok short because I had a ton of fun writing the first story, and I want to get back to that goofy pastiche-y world I created. And of course, there's the sequel to Killer Instincts, which I do, in fact, want to write, but so many other projects come along and push themselves to the front of the line because I've decided to put success first.
This article on writing has gone on so long, it's becoming a book in its own right, so I'll conclude by saying that although someday I hope to write for a living, I never want to care more about promotions and marketing and price points than I do about my characters and their stories. Those two forces - the urge to create something I love to write, and the urge to create something I hope will make me money - will need to find a point of balance if I'm going to continue down this road without driving myself (and everyone around me) crazy.