Monday, May 02, 2005

Long-term career prospects for writers

You don't have to be around the book-publishing world very long to discover that there are a whole lot of ambitious young novelists out there, most of them dreaming of becoming a full-time writer, with all the riches and fame which that status (allegedly) enjoys.

Anyone with such ambitions would do well to keep an eye on Bookangst 101. This is a blog run by Mad Max, an editor with a New York publisher. Max's latest piece, 28 April 2005, offers an autobiographical account from 'Keith', a thriller writer. (Most people who contribute to Max's blog seem to do so on an anonymous basis -- telling the truth, it seems, could prove harmful to one's interests.)

Keith's story will be familiar to anyone who has been keeping an eye on the publishing scene over the last few years. In summary, it runs as follows. Keith writes book; agent gets excited; publishers get excited; Keith gets contract; writes several more books; each is sold for a smaller advance than the previous one; each sells less well than the previous one; publisher loses interest; agent offers Keith to lots of other publishers; editors love Keith; their bean-counters look at his sales record, snigger, and say get lost; end of career, at least in the US and at least under his own name.

This is a familiar story, and one which could be told many times over; it's an everyday story of publishing folk. So my point is this: if, after years of struggle to write novels, you suddenly find yourself being offered enough money to give up the day job, then please, for everyone's sake, do not assume that you will be a writer for the rest of your life. Statistically, that is unlikely. The most probable outcome is that you will publish a couple of books, they will make little impression on the reading public, and even less impression on the bestseller lists, and then your publisher will politely decline to do any more.

The damaging effects of such a 'career' should not be underestimated. As a minimum, there will be unpleasant and possibility lasting effects on: your mental and physical health; your marital status (or girlfriend/boyfriend thing); your financial affairs; your relationships with friends; and your prospects of getting any other sort of a job.

Given that that is the case, you may care to ask yourself whether the writing business is worth all the effort. After all, to get to the point where you are likely to be offered a contract by a major publisher, you are going to have to put in a good few years of hard work -- work which will certainly distract you from your social and professional life. And, as we have seen proved time and time again, the commitment of time and effort is by no means sufficient to guarantee success.

Think carefully, is my advice. Perhaps, while you are briefly enjoying your status as a full-time writer, it might be a good idea to take evening classes in how to become a plumber.


Andrew said...

Sound advice indeed.

archer said...

The following comments on the subject by H.L. Mencken appeared in the Chicago Sunday Tribune on December 28, 1924.

Like most other editors, I receive a great many letters from them [young authors], and many of those letters ask for counsel. One question is in nearly all of them: ShallI throw up my job in the rolling mills and devote my
whole time to poetry (or to short stories, or to criticism, or to the novel), or shall I hang on to my job and try to write in the scant leisure of my evenings, or on the Sabbath, when I should be engaged in religious exercises?

My answer is always the same: I advise them all to stick to their jobs. And for a plain reason: I do not believe it is possible for a man to write more in a day of 10 hours--that is, more of the best that is in him, more that is genuinely worth writing--than he writes in a day of three hours. The view to the contrary, so common among young authors, is a great delusion. It is grounded upon the error of assuming that creative work is a mere matter of time. It is, in fact, nothing of the sort; it is a matter purely of ideas. The more good ideas, the better the artist. I believe thoroughly that the world has never seen a poet or a novelist who had more good ideas than he could get on paper in three hours' work a day. There have been plenty of men, of course, who write more, but what they wrote after the three hours were up was second-rate stuff--and sometimes third-rate, sixth- and tenth-rate stuff.

The danger that confronts the young author with nothing to do all day but write lies in the temptation to go on after the period of good work is up. The day lies before him. He still has paper on his table and ink in his well. He has notions of industry; it seems shameful to quit so soon; moreover, it is apt to cause talk within his family. So he plugs away gallantly and the result is a great mass of stuff that begins by being good, then proceeds to be indifferent and ends by being dreadful. But it is all precious to him. Contemplating it, he quickly loses his critical sense. In the end he is judged by his average; and his average tends to go lower and lower. I could name names, but refrain in Christian charity. The beaches of beautiful letters are strewn with the corpses of diligent men.

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