Defining ‘failure’

I start a full-time job on Monday.

I’m well aware that many people would see that as a success, and I’m even more aware that what I’ve accomplished since 2017 – six published novels – is also a big success. And yet.

And yet, it hasn’t been successful enough to keep my finances stable. In the last two years I’ve taken on more and more writing projects in a desperate attempt to fill the financial void and it just hasn’t paid off, pun not intended. And so it’s back to work full-time and once more trying to juggle writing with a job, and now also with added poodle (thanks, poodle).

My goal with this blog has always been honesty about the publishing world, so that as-yet-unpublished authors get a view of what it’s really like, and what they might expect. And right now, I feel like I’ve failed.

Was it a mistake to give up work in 2017? Absolutely not. I’d sold the Godblind trilogy in five territories and the money was good enough to live on. It had always been my dream to be a full-time author and I spoke about it at length with my husband, who supported me all the way.

Do I regret it? Absolutely not. That dream was everything I wanted it to be (except that I’ve spent the last five years living on less than minimum wage to make it this far, which has been unbearably tough at times).

Do I wish that the publishing world had been more open about what to expect? Yes. Right up until the offer for the Songs of the Drowned trilogy came in, I’d been operating under the expectation that it works the same as any other industry: the better you get as a writer – and I’m a much better writer than I was in 2017 – the more you get paid i.e. the bigger the advance. So when the advance for Songs came in and was 1/4 my previous advance, I had a very rude awakening. Added to that, there were no foreign rights deals.

Why? Because Godblind didn’t do as well as predicted, so the marketing spend for Darksoul was reduced. When Darksoul subsequently didn’t do well (due to lack of marketing) the marketing budget for Bloodchild was cut. And so on. By the time of making an offer for a new series, my sales were low enough to justify only a small advance.

A small advance means a small marketing spend, so there was very little promo for The Stone Knife, which shows in the number of copies sold. I expect The Jaguar Path and Untitled Book 3 will also see small sales figures. Which means that any publisher who might make an offer on a new project from me will also offer low. This is how midlist authors get squeezed out of publishing.

And I’m white – I well know that even this is better than what happens to authors of colour. I can’t imagine how tough it must be for them.

When no one explains this to you, it’s easy to think it’s your fault as the author. That you’ve failed. When your dream of being a full-time author withers and you end up having to go back to work, it’s easy to feel like a failure then, too.

Don’t worry, this is not a cry for validation – I don’t expect anyone to comment that they love my books. This isn’t about that. As I said, it’s about honesty for all those writers striving to make it in the traditionally-published world.

I’ve had the most amazing five years as a full-time writer, writing every day, going to conventions and festivals, taking on projects I never thought I’d get to do (hello, Marvel and Secret Project), bringing back much-loved characters (thanks, Warhammer Horror). And you can bet your arse that I’ll be working towards becoming that full-time author again one day. That said, I expect it’ll take years this time – and maybe I’ll be a bit more cautious about how, when and if I take that step, just in case the sales figures aren’t what’s predicted.

Songs of the Drowned book 3

I still have days where I stare at the prospect of going back to work and think I’ve failed – myself, my dream, my family, even my publishers. And then I remind myself that very, very little I can do actually makes a significant impact on those sales numbers. That’s down to marketing and publicity, and I don’t control either of those.

And also, my extremely wise BFF (love you, Lisa) just told me this on the phone in response to me saying I feel like I’ve failed: “I would love to have accomplished your list of failures”.

So yeah, perspective.

But for now? Back to work, Stephens. In all senses of the word.


7 thoughts on “Defining ‘failure’

    1. I have never self published but I have friends who publish that way. I believe their biggest challenges are upfront costs- editing, artwork, and marketing – in order to produce a quality product and to gain visibility and build an audience. Trad published authors face the same problem with finding an audience, but our costs are covered for us. That doesn’t always include marketing, or not enough of it, however, leading to us facing the same issue as indie authors.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. You have a big advantage, which is you have a trilogy that’s already been edited to a professional standard, and it was received with critical acclaim. You’d have to pay for new cover art (or buy the art from the publisher, which I’ve done: it’s a faff, but cheaper than commissioning new art). You also have a readership, who can help spread the word before you need to spend any marketing money. And don’t forget you get 70% of every sale, and you’re paid monthly. You can soon build a war chest that you can use for marketing. I think you’re sitting in a gold mine and more and more trad authors are doing this. Drop me a line if you want to know more!

        Liked by 1 person

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