You’ve dreamed of being a writer, getting published, and finally – you’ve succeeded. Someone has paid money for your words, and they’re out in the world for people to read! Or, maybe you haven’t yet sold a story or novel, or you’re still writing for free on blogs and hoping that’s going to get you noticed. Either way, you aspire to greatness with your ability to turn a phrase. Here’s five things you definitely need to know, but probably no one has told you:
- You’re still going to be rejected. No matter how many sales or awards or accolades you have, you will still not have them all. You’ll submit work that won’t be purchased. You’ll write beautiful prose that doesn’t get nominated for an award, or doesn’t win even if you make it onto the ballot. You’ll be left out of articles talking about the books to read this summer, or you won’t be invited to attend a conference, or be on a panel. You will always be striving for acknowledgement you don’t consistently get.
- You will have fans who care more about being able to say you’ve talked to them than your writing. If you’re active online at all, you’ve seen the superfans: folks that make a point to say hello to their favorite writers each day, or buy them gifts, or take photos at conventions and post them around everywhere. Often they’re tangentially related to the publishing industry (reviewers and bloggers are easy positions for these people to get into, which gives them access to authors). The circle of authors they cultivate can be large or small, but changes based on who’s popular at the moment. These aren’t the people who buy and read everything you’ve ever written (that’s the kind of fan we all want); the superfan wants to be seen with you, in person or online, because “knowing” you gives them legitimacy. Instead of focusing on their own writing career, they get their name out their by attaching it to yours.
- Other writers will find success that has nothing to do with their writing. An activist working in a certain community may find a strong base of readers from that community who are buying their books more for the person who wrote them than the quality of the work. A short story author may be getting nominated for awards because they’re super adorable and check off the “social justice” box of the week. A blogger-turned-author may have riled up a group of angry readers who will buy their books as a form of protest against another writer or type of people. A writer with a shtick that is cute or fun or bizarre will momentarily get all the buzz, even if their writing kind of sucks.
- How you look matters. White men sell more than anyone. Period. For everyone else, you need to be a good writer, but you also kind of need to be attractive. It’s a fact that publishers look at the quality of work but also look at whether they can sell you as a person. If you’re a woman, it helps to be thin, pretty, and young (unless the sort of writing you do appeals to readers who want to see you as a wise crone, in which case, you need to be older). If you’re a person of color, you need to either be sexy or more often, if you’re a man, charming but non-threatening. Unless they’re marketing you to an “ethnic” audience, it helps to have a white partner if you’re a person of color. Unless you’re primarily writing gay fiction, queer men are okay – if they’re attractive – but queer women should have a male partner. Trans people should be single. White women can be overweight if they write fantasy or romance or YA, but not SF or other genres. Women of color who are overweight will usually only find success in lit, and only if they’re writing about their weight, or being a woman, or being a fat woman. (You can become overweight after you gain popularity, but you need to start out thin.) All of this to make you palatable to a wider audience of readers who might be uncomfortable with the idea that queer and trans folk have sex, or that people of color might want to talk about something other than being a person of color, or that fat women might still be sexy or smart or great writers. And this isn’t just something that publishing companies enforce – society does it, too. (See above about who gets fans/awards.)
- Nearly all writers get paid less than minimum wage for writing, and you have to spend money to enjoy the benefits of writing successfully. The majority of people who write will never sell their writing. The ones who do often don’t sell all of it. What sells almost never makes enough to compensate you more than a few dollars for every hour you put into writing it. (Often, it’s a few cents for each hour.) Even when you sell a story to a pro market, for example, that couple of hundred dollars for that 5000 words may represent weeks, months, or years of writing and revisions. If you got lucky, and sold a story that you wrote all at once, in a day, it still doesn’t compensate you for all the stories you didn’t sell, and the years or decades that you spent learning to write in the first place. With a very few exceptions – writers who have been working for years and finally making decent money at it – everyone who writes for themselves for more an a few hours a week has a spouse/family who supports them. Once you do sell your work, start getting nominated for awards or invited to conventions, you need to spend your own money to attend those events. Sometimes, you’re given free admittance to the event, but even at awards ceremonies that’s not always true. You’ll definitely have to pay for your transportation, which can mean traveling to another state or another country. You’ll have to pay for your hotel and food and socializing once you’re there, because what’s the point of going if you don’t interact? Even if you are a guest of honor at a major convention, with your hotel and food covered (which, sorry, happens to only a few people a year) you have to pay in another way: you’re expected to work the convention, by attending panels and events that the con decides for you, and you’re expected to go to dinner with con runners, who you may not know or like, because they’ve essentially paid you to be there. Of course, you’re not actually paid, but even at the highest levels of being a successful author, a convention will treat you like an employee if they have to pay for you to be there, regardless of whether you’d have attended without their invitation. They won’t say it, though. It’ll just be that they want you everywhere they tell you to be because they’re such big fans.
If you read all of this an immediately think, “That’s it, I’ll never be successful, I want to quit writing,” then you should. If you’re in it primarily for the fame and the fans, because you think being a “successful” writer validates you in some way, or it’s how you think you’ll finally gets the friends and girlfriend you always wanted, there’s a good chance you’re not going to get what you want. Being a writer for the accolades is fine if you are honest with yourself – lots of people do things more to get attention than because they love the thing. I’m not judging you. But it’s hard to get anywhere as a writer if you’re starting out with anything less than all the privilege possible. If you’re a woman, a person of color, queer, trans, or non-binary; if you’re insecure or overweight or poor, it’s hard. Unbelievably hard. There are so many easier ways to get recognition and respect. If you think writing will finally make you cool, you need to quit.
If you read all of this and think, “F*** that, I’m going to write because I’m going to write even if no one reads it,” then don’t quit. Don’t give up. Go into writing as a career with your eyes open. Learn about the community and how publishing works and if you need to agitate for change, do that. Show the world that you’re so talented and brilliant that they’ll have to pay attention. But don’t blame anyone else if you don’t feel welcomed to the table, or if Cute Girl X has a bunch of twitter followers and you don’t. Do the work anyway. Yes, it’s hard and expensive and depressing and your popularity will wax and wane, but you knew that going in. Yes, it’s difficult to find time to write and when you have to work a day job and maintain relationships and write as well, it’s nearly impossible at times. You will feel like a failure. You will actually fail at times. Like with a lot of art, you may only find popularity after you’re dead. But you knew that going in.
Here’s a secret truth: If you can look at the minefield that is trying to be a successful writer and know you’ll get hurt traveling through it, it’s easier. It’s not personal, even when it feels personal. It’s hard, but it’s hard for everyone. You’ll probably need to change things from where you are to get to where you want to be, or you’ll need to fight to change the world to fit you, but that’s true of everything. If you think it’ll be easy and straightforward, you’ll be horribly let down. But if you know how hard it is and you put in the work anyway, the success you do have can feel amazing, and earned.
Because it will be.