Career Trajectory

May 7, 2009

Once you write on a regular basis and start the submission process, you need to take some time and think about your career. Getting a contract puts you into a position of responsibility. Your work creates jobs, and people now rely on your for their paycheck — before your first book even ships. The agent took a chance on you. The editor took a chance on you. The publisher took a chance on you. The marketing department took a chance on you. The bookseller took a chance on you.

You better be ready to deliver.

What does that mean?

You’ve written a book good enough to convince all these different factions to take a chance on you. Now, you’re responsible for dealing honestly and clearly with edits, turning around proofs on time, doing your part in the marketing go-round, and, most importantly, writing.

Hopefully, you already wrote your second book while the first book was out on submission, and you’ve started your third. If you haven’t, you need to stop and think about where writing falls in your life.

There is nothing wrong with “writing on the side” because you enjoy it and it’s something fun whenever you can fit it in. But, once you enter the business realm of publishing, it’s no longer just about you. There’s often more flexibility in epublishing to move deadlines if life gets in the way, but print books run on a very tight schedule. You’ve got several dozen people dependent on when you meet your deadlines, and if you screw up things for the team assigned to your book, it also throws off the whole publishing house and you get a reputation for being unreliable. Unless your book is a huge seller, it will reflect in your next contract, and the possibility of not getting another contract rises. It doesn’t matter that your husband wants you to spend time watching TV or your kid has a cold or the dog needs to go to the vet — you’ve got to get your proofs in on time. If it means pulling an all-nighter here and there because you’re incapable of drawing boundaries with those around you and sticking to them, then that’s what it takes. It’s no longer about you, it’s about the business of putting out a book. It doesn’t matter if the dog ate your homework. You have to turn it in on time anyway.

If you’re not willing to move your writing from something “on the side” to “second job” status once you’re contracted, you might still publish. Occasionally. But you can’t expect a business that counts on reliable production to wait around until you happen to fit them in, and then jump at the chance to do business with you. Writing is a business as much as it is an art form.

If you’ve decided that writing’s place in your life is that of a second job or your only job, you have to look at the big picture, no matter how much you love any individual book. The bulk of marketing is now on the writer’s shoulders now. I disagree with that, and, as you work your way up the contract ladder into higher advances, start thinking about how much time/money the marketing aspect is worth and build that into the advance you or your agent negotiates. The trend that your entire advance should all go into publicity is yet another example of slave wages for writers. Your writing is worth a living wage. Your marketing time and the skills you build as you market are also worth it. Bust your ass to make your early books sell well and then factor in marketing time and materials to future advances. You should be earning a LIVING wage for the work you put in on the keyboard and on the road.

Part of earning a living at the writing trade is the ability to handle multiple projects. It might be a series of freelance projects with quick turnaround times at the same time you’re working on your novel. It might be short stories that tie in to the novel. Whatever it is, figure out the time you’ve got to devote to the writing, and schedule in ALL the necessary projects, so that you attack your career from multiple angles.

Marketing time is figured separately. It must NOT cut into your writing time. If you need extra hours in the day, you need to cut out something not related to writing or marketing. It’s usually a good idea to start with cutting back on TV time. Now that so much marketing is done online, it’s amazing how much you’ll be able to do in the time it takes to watch a one-hour show — which isn’t even an hour anymore, due to commercials. Do NOT do your work in front of the television, or you will make stupid mistakes and hurt your reputation. If it means getting up an hour earlier or going to bed an hour later, then do it. So, you’re tired for a while. You will learn to adapt. Pick 3-4 days in your week where you’ll wake up early or stay up late and devote that time to the writing or marketing.

The other important thing to do is to build in time off. You’ll probably still think about writing and marketing, but it’s important to have down time when you’re not actually in front of the computer. It’s important to go out and live life with family and friends and refill the creative well. Just don’t let that time overrun the writing time.

Decide where you want to be writing-wise in a year, in five years, in ten years. Don’t think of it in terms of how much you want published, because you don’t have control over how long it takes to get a book through the production process. Think in terms of writing, marketing, and positioning yourself so people know you exist and get interested in your work.

Decide on what kinds of writing you want to do. Do you want to use multiple names and experiment in different genres? Do you want to specialize? That’s a very personal decision. Talk to your most trusted writing buddies. Remember that your family, you agent, and your editor will have THEIR agendas in the forefront when you discuss it with them. Your writing buddies, hopefully, will be a more objective sounding board.

Once you contract regularly, output is important. Your agent, editor, and publisher want to make a long-term investment, not have a one-shot wonder. Your part is to keep writing, keep generating good work, and grow from project to project.

You will have to reshuffle the priorities of the day, well, daily. That’s part of it. But if you expect to keep landing contracts, not only is the quality of your writing important, but so is your reliability and your demeanor. If you’re a pleasure to work with and remain professional and reliable, you’ll keep getting hired. If you’re disorganized, full of excuses, and can’t deliver the goods on time, eventually, you’ll work your way back to the roster of the unpublished.

The choice is yours.

Devon Ellington publishes under a half a dozen names in both fiction and non-fiction. She writes “The Literary Athlete” for THE SCRUFFY DOG REVIEW. Visit her blog, Ink in My Coffee and her main website, www.devonellingtonwork.com


One comment

  1. A good post. And good advice.

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