I’m not doing it right.
I mean, that must be what it is. I’ve been at this writing thing in a serious way for almost ten years. Along the way, I’ve had some successes – a few Rainbow Awards, some high-flying (of short-lived) rankings on Amazon, and I have a couple bookshelves full of copies of my published works.
So why does it feel like I’m starting over at square one, every single day?
Once a month, the Independent Book Publishers’ Association magazine arrives with new tips: I need to be launching a TikTok video channel. I should be courting influencers. I ought to be on Blue Sky, Instagram, LinkedIn, Facebook, Mastodon, Tumblr, SnapChat, Discord, whatever the latest thing is, churning out content that makes readers want to read my stuff.
Then I look around, and I see that every other author has it figured out. They are all on their paths to greatness, scoring bestsellers, winning contests, and meeting legions of their adoring fans at cons.
But I’ll let you in on a little secret: No one has this business figured out.
Those folks who seem to have it all got lucky, this time, and they have slogged through the mud before (and will again) just like the rest of us.
Writers today have inherited a splintered hellscape, where finding a stable audience is about as easy as holding an ocean of water in your hands.
When I was a kid, we had five TV channels – NBC, CBS, ABC, PBS, and some weird channel out of Atlanta that usually had old black and white movies and series reruns. TV shows could find vast crowds back then, sometimes getting upwards of 80% of the TV viewing audience for the night.
Now we live in a world where their are TV channels for everything (including about 100 different sports networks). It’s an amazing time to be a TV watcher – there are so many great shows that seem to be tailored just to me, and I will never manage to watch all of them before I die.
But think of the poor TV producer trying to get a show through to find its audience. There’s so much competition and so many barriers. About the only surefire way to reach those who might enjoy it (and this by no means guaranties that you’ll keep them) is by spending massive amounts of advertising dollars.
As an author, I’m a book producer. I’m responsible for pulling together the content, doing the post production edits, selling the book to a word streaming service (a publisher) or deciding to stream it (publish it) on my own. I don’t have a massive ad budget (or honestly, much of a budget for anything at all), so I have to do it all on a shoestring, and hope it sometimes catches fire. And did I mention I’m also the entire writer’s room?
The deck is stacked against authors. Everything costs money, and the forces of capitalism push costs (ie: the money we get paid) down, while increasing the money the distributors get to keep. Books that do succeed are often a flash in the pan, riding the charts for a few days before being summarily shoved back down into obscurity. And the ladders that once let writers climb up into the public eye via the big publishers have mostly been dismantled.
I had a great conversation with a literary agent once, in which she candidly admitted that no one in the big publishers is looking for mid-list authors anymore – you know, the ones who used to provide a steady income that paid a publisher’s bills. The Big Five (or is it down to three now?) only want the next big thing, the rainmaker, the book that will sell millions of copies, and anything less is sent a polite rejection letter as the gate is slammed in your face.
So there’s every reason in the world for me to stop writing, to take a good, last long look at my author shelf, pat myself on the back, say “You did the best you could,” and move on.
There are times when someone contacts me about what I’ve written and tells me how much it meant to them – how a particular passage touched them, or when a character really resonated with them in an unexpected way.
Sometimes when I am in the zone with my writing, I can’t imagine doing anything else.
And there are little surprises that reinvigorate my shriveled writer heart.
A couple months ago, my hardcover copies of The Dragon Eater arrived. I took the first one out of the box, held it in my hands, and I started to cry.
I’ve opened boxes like this many times over the years, and I’ve never reacted like that. But seeing my first hardcover with a dust jacket did something to me.
Buckle up, because it’s time for another “when I was a kid” story. Back in the day, books by big name authors typically came out in hardcover first, and were purchased by the author’s most rabid fans. Only six months (or a year) later did the book finally debut in mass market. And back then, there was no such thing as an eBook.
Somehow, on that day in late March, I held this beautiful hardcover book in my hands with its removable jacket and felt like I had finally arrived.
It made no sense – while the book has done fairly well, it’s no runaway bestseller. And yet it reminded me, in a deep and undeniable way, how much being an author really means to me. That it’s all about creating a bit of written magic that can move people far from here in both space and time.
So screw imposter syndrome for trying to make me feel that I’m the problem.
Screw the world for telling me that it’s all my fault, that I haven’t done enough. That my writing isn’t good enough.
And screw myself for believing it.
There is no magic formula. The only things that are real in this business are the stories I write, the people who support me and help me get them out into the world, and my fans, however many or few they may be, who find them and spend an hour (or three) entranced by the worlds I create.
If you are reading this, you are probably one of them, and I love you with all of my heart.
So am I doing this right? I don’t know, but I’m doing it the right way for me. At the end of the day, that has to be enough.
To my writer friends, do you ever feel like you’re not doing it right? That you’re not doing enough? How do you move past it and remind yourself of what’s really important?