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Newsflash: It’s hard to be a writer!
Written by
Brooke Warner
September 2017
Written by
Brooke Warner
September 2017

This past Sunday’s New York Times opinion page ran another one of those sky-is-falling publishing op-eds that always raise my hackles. Writers eat this stuff up; it seems to serve as some sort of validation for why it’s so fricking hard.

This particular op-ed, “The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Reader,” by OR Books co-publisher Colin Robinson, is ostensibly about how readers are disappearing (although it's really about the fact that so many people publishing books makes it hard for writers to stand out and Robinson is really bummed about it). Even if you ignore the statistics Robinson cites in his own piece—that profits are steady at the big houses—there is ample evidence out in the world that in fact readership is at least steady, if not on the rise. It just looks different than it used to.

The attitude conveyed in this piece is exactly what prompted me to leave traditional publishing. Book industry professionals love to bemoan the state of the industry. If you’ve been in the industry for over ten years—whether as a professional or as an author—it’s hard to not remember how awesome it was before digital publishing and massive consolidations turned everything upside down. Things were simpler. There were fewer books and therefore less competition. The established order and way things had always been done was comfortable and writers knew their place in that order. If you couldn’t get published, there weren’t viable alternatives, so it kept everything safe and secure and ordered for industry folks. The gatekeepers did what they did well—and readers listened to them, providing said gatekeepers with a sense of power and control. Marketing teams had strategies that worked that didn’t require them to be nimble the way the Internet forces them to be now. There was no such thing as social media and “platform” was not a buzzword.

For those who’ve been around, the new state of things feels hard. I get it. It’s hard that relatively few authors can make a full-time living as a writer. It’s hard to get discovered. It’s hard to get reviews. It’s hard to get publicity. It’s hard that so many people think they can write a book and that so many new books are published every year. And wah-wah-wah. I hear these kinds of complaints all the time from writers. Sometimes they’re just venting—and that’s fine—but sometimes the complaints start to sound a lot like those of my seventeen-year-old stepson who feels like senior year is just so haaarrrd—you know? I, of course, can’t help but wonder how some of these same writers would have felt ten-plus years ago when there would have been nothing but closed doors for the majority of them. Now, of course, we all have the opportunity and privilege to greenlight ourselves, if we so choose.

The reality of writing and publishing is that it’s a privilege. It always has been. Writers have always struggled and worked really hard to get paid. Now it’s that much more difficult because there is so much competition. And the playing field has changed. Social media and technology are in the mix, and while some authors are thriving under this new paradigm, others have been left in the dust, feeling quite overwhelmed and even paralyzed by all the demands.

But today, as writers, we also have more access, more control, and more possibility than ever. Not even my New York Times best-selling client makes a living exclusively as an author. The people I know who do make a living on their writing alone are those who are writing their asses off and producing, producing, producing—at least one book a year, and multiple articles. Always submitting. Read this very convincing post by novelist Dean Wesley Smith about how writers really can make a living on their writing.

Other full-time authors are teaching (online and offline), speaking, and consulting. The writing fuels these opportunities, but there needs to be new content being produced in order to keep the engine running. To paraphrase Dean Wesley Smith, you need to be filling up your store, putting more and more inventory on your shelves. Discoverability today is not about having one breakout book; it’s about consistency and the long, steady, slow race to build a fan base and a loyal readership.

Meanwhile, mid-list authors, the ones Robinson is concerned that we’re losing, are the authors who are opting out of traditional publishing. The brewing question is this: Why would you give over 93% of your earnings to a publisher who is not going to spend any publicity dollars on your book and whose sole marketing strategy is to leverage your contacts? (Read Kamy Wicoff’s post about why she turned down a deal from a Big Five publisher to understand the thought process behind an entrepreneurial author’s decision to say no to this nonsense.) So maybe mid-list authors are being left behind in this new publishing landscape, but there is so much more going on outside of traditional publishing that is exciting and cutting-edge and hopeful.

We need to be very careful when we read and share these kinds of articles and op-eds to not engage in the propagation of this sky-is-falling mentality. The sky is not falling. You, as writers and authors, have agency. You choose how you show up to play. You can get depressed and mope around, or you can buck up and get with the program. There are proven ways to be a successful writer today, but it involves a constant tending. It will not just happen because you’ve written an amazing book—as much as we all love to fan the flames of this beautiful dream. Dedicate yourself to building your message, getting in front of your idea, tending to your platform, and creating spaces where your readership comes back for more. And no, there’s nothing easy about it, but is it rewarding? Oh yes. Very.  

Oh—and Bay Area folks: if you're interested in how to tend to your message and your platform, please come to my Book Passage class on February 2. Super excited to be spending the day at this beloved bookstore teaching writers about fun and positive ways to stay in and ahead of the game.

* This article was originaly published in January 2014 *

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  • Kathryn Meyer Griffith


    they run $75 for ebooks (in many formats like Kindle, and front only)and $150 for the print version (front and back). A great bargain for how swiftly and beautifully she does them. She's doing another one for me right now for my soon to be self-published mystery All Things Slip's stunning. She lives in Canada so if you live in US you'll have to pay in International Money orders which you can get with cash at your post office.  She has a website, too. Here's her name and email address: Dawné Dominique   [email protected]   Tell her I sent you.

  • kelly mccann

    Kathryn, how much do her covers run? They are very well done.

  • Suzanne McKenna Link

    It's hard! I agree, but I love it so! Just like motherhood, writing is the most grueling job I've ever loved.

  • Kathryn Meyer Griffith

    Talking about costs to publish or self-publish your books...I use a great cover artist, Dawne Dominque, and her amazing covers are very inexpensive.  

  • Tammy Flanders Hetrick

    Thanks for this opportunity to exhale! It's going to be okay.

  • Martin Fass

    Kelly,thanks.  Lower cost to print in quantity from China.  But for a hardcover picture book, even $20 per copy when the quantity was a hundred or so--that proved not to be enough, and gave us an inadequate product.

    And yes, while I've observed young children captivated by a picture book on an iPad, that's not the way we want to go.

  • kelly mccann

    Oh my, that's a lot of money.

    You do know that's not necessary?

    There are professional places that charge way less, but again, it's your choice to spend that.

    I haven't seen your other posts, I'll read them when I can, I understand your not wanting to over share, may I assume it's a children's book?

    Not sure of the market for that, I would think there's much less of a demand for that than for other types of writing, especially for e-readers, which is where self publishers have a level playing field.

    Good luck, Martin.

  • Martin Fass

    Kelly, thank you, I won't exactly elaborate; I've written about much of these over the past few months under the overall topic of CreateSpace vs. IngramSpark.

    In short, we've spent about eight thousand dollars for professional book designing and printing, locally in Rochester, and learning as we go, with this, our first picture book (my spouse being both the writer and illustrator, that is) I overlooked the obvious, as one example, that we were printing hardcover and softcover books without a title and author on the spine!  

    I am not giving up, but getting realigned here in 2014 to look for a genuine publisher, who doesn't ask for a subsidy, and would find the book appealing.  (It has been sold through personal efforts locally, and via the Amazon Marketplace.  Cheers.

  • kelly mccann

    Martin, would you care to elaborate on your experience with self publishing?

    Like any business venture, what you bring to the table, helps you succeed.

    Marketing isn't neurosurgery, you can use social media at minimal cost (free or at most $100 a year with domains, inexpensive web design, privacy and hosting), or you can go totally free with twitter, fb, blogger and a free wp, or you can pay however much you want for paid ads, Bookbub, those services.

    Who in self publishing is trying to eat you?

    Amazon, Smashwords, Kobo, Apple?

    Brooke, you hit it on a great point, writing is not a one and done type of living (not that it ever was, except for very few), to succeed, you need to have lots of product, especially with e-readers, if a reader clicks with an author on one book, the ease of buying the entire backlist is so tempting, no going out in the rain and fighting traffic hoping the bookstore carries the backlist, no time to say, screw it, I don't need more books, no forgetting how much you enjoyed the book, just one click and the entire backlist is sold!

    Also, with self publishing, the more prolific a writer is, the more money one can make, no longer are we limited to one genre, one name, one type of audience, if you want to write explicit erotic, the great American novel and a hardboiled detective series, all you need to do is write them, upload them, and you can release all on the same day if you choose, no waiting for it to be released on the publisher's schedule, no praying that the book store puts it out when they're supposed to, no waiting for anything, period.

    I see it as a good thing :)

  • Martin Fass

    Brooke, again you provide a lot to think about.  

    First, I continue to see the value and potential for self-publishing.  I was referring specifically to the sharks (or others with teeth and the tendency to bite) who pounce on authors and illustrators, which benefits only the sharks.

    Yes, one benefit from self-publishing might well be seen in other areas of one's work, profession, social and educational activities.  Meanwhile, though, to keep turning out books might, in terms of the books themselves, require more and more expense, and with only some of the money ever being earned back.  Overall, it would be nice to break even...if only that would be possible.

    Maybe some of one's focus could be on actions to result in opening those doors without going onward into the red.  The old definition of public relations as opposed to publicity, as you and others may know, was that getting publicity costs money, while public relations, unless one goes off the trail and starts paying a fee to a self-styled expert, is all free of charge.  Not to forget time and energy, naturally, and in a world where many people adore getting things for free, but are unwilling to pay even a token amount.  Look at all those who listen to public radio and watch public television and never donate a dime.  (Buying a DVD or a t-shirt doesn't count as a donation.)

  • Brooke Warner Outlining

    Martin, where's the like button. I like that word too. But I disagree with your assessment of self-publishing. It should be looked at as a way to get your message out into the world—one of many inlets that connects you to a larger stream. Books and content are not a way to get rich, but they are a way to get people into your funnel. If you want to make a living being an author, you need to have product. It's not the case that you just write one book and then can or should expect to make much money. It's a way way bigger picture kind of thing than that. With my own book, I've basically just broken even, maybe made a few hundred bucks beyond what I invested, but the credibility aspect is huge, and the number of new clients I have as a result of writing a book has increased dramatically. It also has brought speaking engagements, so it's opened doors. And the more books I write, the more this multiplies. So it's the perspective R.E. Donald mentioned in her comment below—it's a marathon.

  • Patricia Robertson

    Helpful article. I also enjoyed article by Dean Wesley. Thanks for sharing this!

  • Martin Fass

    PS...I think I just made up a word with that typo.  Comprehensiver.  Maybe a good thing to BE one? !!

  • Martin Fass

    Willingness to work hard, as an idea by itself, few (but the lazy ones) would disagree with.  Working hard can be deceptive, however.  Even assuming we enjoy it, doing some comprehensiver calculating might reveal that out of our hard work we are earning (to the extent money matters) a pittance.  Far less than minimum wage--a dangerous possibility.  Or worse, we may be going deeper and deeper into the red, especially if we are seduced by the tricks and traps of the subsidy outfits.  

    It seems to me, the more I look at it, that self publishing these days can leave you mainly as a lamb among those who would eat you up.  No, none of the sharks (and flatterers, lots of flatterers) are vegans, either. 

  • Ellen Hampton

    Exactly! We had a conference last month here in Paris on the same theme, how the possibilities are far greater now but you have to work hard to make them shine for you. See video clip:

  • Brooke Warner Outlining

    Martin, I guess I ALWAYS think a writer, or anyone for that matter, has something worthwhile to express. It may be hard work, perhaps, to understand how to package your message in a way that makes people care about it. But very few writers set out to just market themselves with no substance—unless we're talking about reality TV stars like Paris Hilton or Snooki, who of course, sadly, are getting book deals. But the average writer I work with always has a passionate message. Often they just don't know how to talk about it. Or more commonly, they're afraid of expressing it, of being vulnerable, of being seen, etc. My two cents anyway.

  • Martin Fass

    Hello, Brooke.  Many good points, as always.  Meanwhile, though, this is a note about a writer having phrases in their messages which seem to have meaning, yet don't, in reality, say anything.  For example, "...getting in front of your idea."  Perhaps one of the constant questions to ask oneself is, "Do I have anything worthwhile to express, other than a subtle marketing of good old me?"


  • Daya Wakens

    Brooke, thank you for your voice and so eloquently....boundaries, yes please.

  • Brooke Warner Outlining

    Daya, I actually think this is a good attitude, and you can build slowly. You don't have to engage 24/7 in the craziness of being too connected. I'm sure it's not healthy for us. I actually believe there have been many studies published to that effect. The irony, of course, is that writers come to write because they love to read, and both writing and reading are solitary experiences. But the industry forces us to be doing the exactly the opposite of solitary activities. And this does just suck sometimes. No question about it. So another call for boundaries, right? Thanks for weighing in.

    And Lisa, thanks for asking about that. I will certainly post something if and when I come to LA. I am down there all the time bc my family is down there, but have been reluctant to do a workshop because my son is still a little guy. Soon. It's on my radar!!

  • Laura Nicole Diamond

    Thanks, Brooke. I am interested in your program on Feb. 2, but can't make it. Any chance you'll be doing more, perhaps in L.A.?

  • Katherine Miller

    My initial thought on reading the piece over the weekend was to burrow under the covers. But there are much more optimistic takes on the current landscape, and you've pointed these out beautifully. I've worked with traditional publishers (academic ones) and there are indeed challenges that come with that often elite bureaucracy. I'm just now starting to do the "develop a writer's platform" for a new phase in my writing career, and it's daunting. But we can make choices about social media that allow us to connect with readers and other writers in valuable ways - and still find time for the creative process. The trick (which may never be mastered) is in making choices on both a daily and long-term basis. 

  • Daya Wakens

    Brooke, I so feel the pain in regards to the social media expectations and the time it consumes to do so. A couple of members in my local writer's group wear their IPhones as a piece of necessary jewelry. Both of them are stay-at-home moms and have their websites, blog sites, pen name FB, personal FB, twitter, etc., etc., and etc.  I have only a personal FB & Twitter Acct and a Pen Name FB & Twitter account. At my full-time job, I have to deal with 2 different email servers and usernames. At times, I have to stop and think "Who am I?" at this moment. I would much rather spend my time collecting my thoughts in creative writing. This is why I tend to lean more towards self-publishing....more freedom in writing and I figure I can jack up my social media platform when I am ready to fly while keeping in mind that my passion is priority, sales is a bonus!

  • Brooke Warner Outlining


    And thanks for your comments, Tami, Carol, and Kelly. I feel like shouting out hear! hear! This is the value of these conversations too. You guys motivate me.

  • I agree with Kelly Mccann. (Especially the part of the rude diet syndrome.)  I dedicate myself to learning the self-publishing/marketing bit this year.  My novel is finished (well, the final chapter is still getting out of bed.)  I'm ready for the next step.

  • R.E. Donald

    Good post, Brooke! My own experience bears it out. The competition for readership is daunting, but good stories, well-written, will gain repeat readers.

    After a round of rejection letters for my first two novels in the late 90s, in spite of encouragement from one or two major New York agents, I got discouraged, not to mention busy with a small farm. I'd always vowed never to self-publish, for it was synonymous at the time with vanity publishing i.e. paying money to see your book in print, with little chance of ever making that money back. Then in 2011 I realized that publishing had changed and I could publish my own novels, both digitally and in print, at virtually no cost. My main expenses are related only to marketing. I now have three novels in my Highway Mysteries series published and am working on the fourth. As an author/publisher, I make all the decisions, work at my own speed, and never have to worry about my contract being cancelled. I would have to think long and hard before giving that up for the pressure and uncertainty of a traditional publishing deal.

    One thing to keep in mind, making a career as a writer is not (except for the lucky few) a sprint, it's a marathon. With each new novel, I gain more fans for my series, so my income may not be increasing quickly, but it is increasing steadily, and I'm doing what I love.