I've had several conversations with authors of late that have gone along these lines:
Me: How are things going?
Author: Eh, not so great.
Me: I'm sorry to hear that. Can I do something?
Author: Probably not. Publishing, man, what are you gonna do?
And now I'll tell you a secret, because I work on both sides of the desk in this industry, this conversation is happening with a lot of people in publishing: editors, agents, publishers, publicists, etc. It's not super hard to figure out one of the primary reasons people feel a bit of uncertainty in the state of publishing has to do with the exponential growth in number of books being published and our inability to mirror that exponential growth in terms of readers.
The tottering TBR pile is no lie. I know readers/bloggers who read 5-7 books a week and still can't keep up. On the one hand, I'm all, "yay! books for every kind of reader!" and on the other hand, I'm all, "wow, how can you possibly find YOUR readers when there are so many other books out there for them to pick up instead of yours?"
When I first started editing romance, my prolific authors released 3-4 books a year. Now, for them to make the equivalent income, they have to release 9-12. And it's a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy that their sales are decreasing because lots of other romance authors are releasing 9-12 books a year and so it's harder to break through and sell as much. And I have no judgment on this one way or another because people have to eat and pay their bills and the reality is that we're a little stuck with this system until something collapses or a bunch of people decide they're not doing that anymore. Systems of dysfunction continue to work until someone or several someones buck the system. It's the way it goes.
But here's what I do want to dissect and call shenanigans on—I've heard multiple authors say to me, "If I don't release X number of books a year, then I'm worried I'll disappear." STAHP with this. If you write remarkable books, people will not forget you. People don't forget remarkable books or authors they love. If you churn out multiple books that you and your readers all feel meh about, yeah, I can see how you might disappear. But if you bring your best self to the table, you will be invited back no matter how long it's been since the last time you sat down.
But Christa, you say, what about my grocery bill and rent? Yes. Good point. You're trying to make a living doing this. So are a lot of people. I think being a starving artist blows. But I also think that we need to acknowledge the reality of the state of publishing. There are several people who work in publishing who have 2-3 jobs. It sucks. No doubt about it. It's totally unfair. But saying it's unfair doesn't really change anything. My roller derby rink closed down and so now I don't get to dress up and be badass and I've gained 10 pounds. It's unfair, but it's life. Stomping your feet and being pissy about it doesn't change the facts.
Well, you say, then what the hell am I supposed to do? GOOD QUESTION. And here's what I ask everyone who is in this industry and feels a little adrift with their failures or with things overpromised and underdelivered or with their lack of critical praise: what is your goal post? How do you define success? How do you want to make your mark?
Then step back and see if that's achievable for you. I mean making the NYT list is a lot different than making a living as a writer which is a lot different than being critically acclaimed which is a lot different than creating work that seeks to change/challenge the injustices of the world. So what is it you really want? And what can YOU do to get there? Don't list a bunch of stuff that is out of your control, consider what is in your control and start there. Also, you may want ALL the things I've stated above, but you need to prioritize for yourself because very, very few people get to eat all the desserts at once and even if they do, a lot of them end up a little miserable because every dessert after that makes them think of that one time they got to eat all the desserts.
The other day, a friend said, "The NYT list is pretty achievable if you do a 99-cent sale and a BookBub and some FB ads and a bunch of blogger promo." And there was a part of me that thought, "Well, yes, maybe, but what if you wrote a rape book with a half-black male protagonist that starts with a graphic blowjob scene and you're giving 50% of your proceeds to a writing workshop for rape survivors and you don't really want to drop your price or spend money on a BookBub ad because how will that help rape survivors?" Do you see what I mean about figuring out where your goal post is?
I also think we spend a hella lot of time beating ourselves up about things that other people seem to be achieving/getting that we're not. And I really get it—we all want to be adored and we all want to be perfect. But the social worker in me would say that this is all bass-ackwards. You need to go at this from a strengths-based perspective. What is the best thing that you're bringing to the table? Do more of that. Inevitably it'll get you to a place you belong or can find contentment with. I mean, really, who knew that Carrie Mesrobian and I could actually find a sponsor to support our podcast where we talk about sex and books? Believe me, I was a little blindsided by it too. But our podcast is something I love and I think maybe that's why it worked out. (Although, it could just be our midwestern accents).
Finally, the other day, I read this excellent post in NY Magazine that was a "Should I give up on writing?" Q&A. It tackles everything I've said above in a much more eloquent and succinct way. Mostly because blogging really isn't my strength and I don't do much of it anymore so I feel rambly and uneven.
So...go forth, duckies, and be gentler on yourself. There are lovely and amazing things about every single one of you.