Friday, February 22, 2008

Survivor's Lament: On the Thorns in Flora's Garden

HALLIE: Well, our little corner of the blogsphere is abuzz this week over Kate Flora's "Here's the Truth: Staying Published is like Spending Twenty Years on Survivor" on

Kate reveals how tired and angry many published authors get at their truly shabby treatment at the hands of publishers. Yes, it's a rant--a very honest, very angry rant.

The sad truth is that it's a whole lot harder to get well published once you've BEEN published and, despite hiring your own publicist, taking book tours on your own dime, mailing postcards to the world, and and and..., your wonderful books made a less than a humongous sales splash. I speak from firsthand experience.

Yes, that sucks. By midlist book 3 or 5 you've really got to knock their socks off with something new, different, phenonenal...because why should they put their money on publishing another novel? Even if it's really really good (and it is!) they've got eight gazillion unpublished writers jostling for a chance to strut their stuff and who knows, might have written the next breakthrough book.

The notice about Kate's essay, posted in the Sisters in Crime group, seems to have inspired a rash of interest in joining Guppies (a mutual support group for the Great Unpublished). Which seems an entirely appropriate response.

Because there really is wide open opportunity out there for first-timers. But be forewarned: the higher you get, the thinner the air.

ROBERTA: I think part of the problem is there are so many writers who want to get published, that we are a dispensable commodity. I was idly wondering last week after the writers strike was settled whether mystery writers could do the same. I concluded probably not.

The publishing industry has problems right now--not enough people buying books and reading them, maybe even too many published. I don't know the answers, but I agree with Hallie: get as much support as you can (Sisters in Crime is a great way to start) and learn as much about the business as possible.

Like Kate, I get frustrated about how hard I work and how difficult it is to make a living in this business and have your work appreciated. On the other hand, I'm not ready to quit! But have I learned anything over the course of 8 published novels? As Kate says, the writing has to take top priority. And then we all have to figure out when to move on from a cherished project.

Publishers today have short attention spans and are looking at the bottom line. Even if I thought my golf mysteries were delightful and the character arc was incomplete, they weren't selling in a big enough way to compel Berkley to continue.

Thanks to Kate for opening this dialogue!

JAN: There's a great chapter in the book Freakonomics on this whole situation. It's the oversupply of people who dream about second-tier "glamour jobs," like writing books. (First tier are movie acting, professional sports, Broadway...)The truth is there is very, very, little room at the top to really make a living out of these kind of professions and no shortage of people who want to try. On the flip side, the jobs no one dreams about jobs like accounting, prostitution etc. These professionals really pay!! (career change anyone?)

I liken publishing to playing the lottery. Actually getting published isn't winning. It's being able to purchase the lottery ticket. Then you start playing the long odds.

My solution?? Sadly, I've stopped dreaming. I haven't stoppped writing, but I've stopped thinking about it as a career.

HANK: I remmber when I met some of you for the first time: Hallie, Roberta, and I think, Lynne Heitman, and Kate Flora. At Kate's Mystery Books in Cambridge, MA. It was a few years ago, when my first book was written, but before it sold. My only real connection with mystery books was reading them and loving them. And, as I've said, meeting that group was like meeting the Beatles. I couldn't believe I was actually talking to you all.

So it's good to remember that your fans have no idea of how tough it is, and just admire you for your wonderful books.

Also then, "fan" me had no idea about the rigors of publishing, or what any of you had been through or what you worried about. And I was all smiley about my prospects and Kate said something to me like, "Oh, yes, it's all fun now, but just wait."

And I remember thinking--wait for what? What could be so horrible?

Now, it's fascinating to make the change from dream to reality. And then see what that reality is. But it's kind of the same in my TV world...where every day there's someone newer or more interesting or with better hair or a different schtick. And you just have to put your head down, and keep working, and do your very best.

RO: It's difficult for me to respond to this for a few reasons. My first book just came out 2 weeks ago, so I'm still in the honeymoon period. And I know a lot of people in the book publishing world, in fact I worked for a publisher for a few years, as did my husband (more than a few years.)

I'm thrilled that a publisher said yes to me, and I feel that part of my job as I switch gears from writer to author is to help him sell the book. I don't resent the activities I engage in to make that happen. Do I wish I had more time to write? Of course. But the publisher didn't adopt me. He gave me a chance. That's why - after writing the best book I could - I dropped in on 12 bookstores in the Chicago area yesterday, had a signing in Winnetka when it was 0 degrees outside, drove 5 hours to Dayton Ohio today and I'm now sitting in a Holiday Inn after speaking to three (count 'em) people who came out in a snowstorm to hear me at the local Books & Co. The booksellers made a wonderful display and poster, and somehow found daisies in the dead of the winter. The writer wrote the book, but the author (who looks like me, and sounds like me, but dresses better and smiles a lot more) has to, in this day and age, play a more active role in its success. I'm betting on myself the same way that the publisher is.

I can imagine the eye-rolling and almost hear people saying "sure, you say that now, talk to me after 10 years." I can tell you now, if it's still fun, I'll be doing it, if it's not, I won't.

As Hank says, you put your head down, keep working and do your very best. (Although I don't for a minute believe there is anyone with better hair than Hank's.)


  1. Maybe there's something to be said for waiting until later in your life to start writing (we're all of a certain age, right?). We've been knocked around by life and we're not starry-eyed any more. We have a realistic view of the chances of success in this erratic business--and we still do it, because we love it.

  2. It certainly helps if you've saved enough $$ so you don't sink or swim on your royalties.

  3. Well. That was some piece by Kate Flora. I don't find it discouraging, though, quite the opposite: Don't write with expectation, just write.

    Thanks for highlighting it.

    Amy MacKinnon

  4. Ro -- It's terrific that you feel that way, and no one is rolling their eyes! You can't win this lottery if you haven't bought the lottery ticket. And if you think of promotional events as bribes to the bookie (and I mean that in only a positive way) you are giving yourself much better odds! Keep dreaming for as long as you can!

  5. Wow. A lot of sobering comment in Kate Flora's post. I agree with Amy -- if anything, the cautionary tale says to me, "This is how it can be. Write your best. Put on your game face and a thick skin. Be prepared -- emotionally, intellectually, financially."

    And then get on with it. Writing is good. Promotion is hard. There be dragons here.

    I love Ro's comment: "I can tell you now. [In ten years --]If it's still fun, I'll be doing it. If it's not, I won't."

    Hear, hear!

    Because I don't write in this genre, and to some degree the way books are packaged and promoted and the approach to platform varies, my own first ride in this looks to be a bit different. Not better by any means, but in a different corner of the amusement park, with its own hard turns and low places.

    I expect there will be some fun, and through Kate Flora's piece (and Anne Lamott's painfully funny take on it in Bird by Bird), I've already begun to grit myself up for the really not fun experiences that will surely Neuter my Woot.

    I take comfort that when the discouraging experiences happen to me (and they will), at least I'll have my dog literally beside me to say things are still wonderful. Good dog! I look to her for encouragement and grace when I no longer have any at all.

  6. I admire Amy MacKinnon's comment about the writing coming first. I know the marketing end of the business is becoming more and more critical, but I'd like to think that the art part is still paramount.

  7. Hi Paul--and yes, I agree. And it all comes together with Hallie's point (if I may be so bold) that there has to be "the beef."

    I'm still in the honeymoon phase, too, although I've gotten at least one big punch to the jaw. And, as sometimes happens, that turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to my career. (So far.)

    And I'm sadly kind of additcted to the promotion part as much as the writing part. I always have this tipping point idea that the very next person I meet and get to buy the book might be, you know, Meg Ryan's sister. (The one who is scouting for her next big role.)

    Anyway--back to the point. Susannah and Amy--I agree. Hearing about other people's travails made me understand that it may not be personal. That kind of thing can happen to anyone. In which case, press on.

  8. I'm sitting in a Borders in Dallas as I write, and recognizing that there are these troughs where discouragement must be the order of the day, I came back to this thread.

    I wanted to let Rosemary know that there is one hardcover copy of Pushing Up Daisies here, and a space where I think another one must have been, because the one hardcover copy is half-pulled out, the empty space beside it is the same size, and the next shelf alphabetically starts with a different author. There's movement on the shelf. This morning's movement, a salesperson tells me. This is her section; those shelves were tight and tidy when the day began.

    I wrote Hank yesterday that I'm keeping an eye out for the JR writers' books in situ wherever I find them. In that spirit, I just sent my agent two photos of his own books -- one in a Readers Recommend end cap, the other on a Borders Staff Recommends table, and a third book that he represents on another end cap.

    A couple of years ago, I was in an airport reading Mike Perry's wonderful Population: 485, and a woman crossed the terminal to ask me, "How do you love that book?" Which I did and do, but I remember I dropped him a line to let him know a stranger had done that.

    While I love writing in bookstores with the tangible murmur of all these writers behind me, I'm mindful that sometimes it must feel very strange and small to have a copy of your book in the middle of a store holding thousands of others. So you good women of JR --and JR respondents -- you bet I'm taking pictures where relevant. Cell phone cameras rock.

    Promotion may sometimes be a very hard road, but I'm convinced your love and effort make a difference to individuals, and if you know they're out there, it helps. No career guarantees, but connection. Believe: someone, somewhere, closes your book reluctantly, and someone else neglects the laundry a long moment just to see a chapter to its end.

    More than a few times I'm that someone. Thank you.

  9. I'd really love to hack into publishers' accounts and do some analysis (though being neither a hacker nor an accountant, it ain't gonna happen). My suspicion is that there is a steady if not spectacular profit on many mid-list books, and that the losses are in gambling on the Next Big Thing with inflated advances.

    I recently read that 7 of 10 books in trade publishing fail to recoup their costs. I'm guessing at least two of the three that turn some kind of profit were midlist titles with modest advances, but it's just a guess.