Stalled Careers, Writer's Block and Monsters Under the Bed
by Melisa MichaelsHello, my name is Melisa and I'm a survivor of bad sales records.
There's a reason I've opened with a line that sounds as though it belongs in a twelve-step meeting. A twelve-step program wouldn't be a bad plan for writers whose careers have stalled out. It's something "nice people" don't talk about, but it can happen to any of us, anywhere, at any time. It can be life-threatening, it's something outsiders assume one could have prevented, and it responds well to therapy. Sharing horror stories would show us that we are not alone and that we are not to blame: sharing the trials and tribulations of our recovery would show us how to accept responsibility for the things we can control while relinquishing responsibility for the things we can't: and sharing our secret shame would show us that it is not, in fact, shameful.
When my career crashed and burned, I didn't know any of that, and there was nobody to tell me. I was isolated as many writers are from any sort of peer group. It had been six or eight years since I had lived in the SF Bay Area and hung out with other writers, and I'd never heard of any of them failing once they got started. I had no idea it had ever happened to anybody else, and I certainly didn't know what to do about it. I was so stunned I hardly knew how to get my shoes on the right feet in the mornings. I felt like an impostor: seven published books and perhaps a dozen short stories notwithstanding, I wasn't really a writer after all: everybody knows that real writers' careers, once started, keep going.
Only they don't, necessarily.
From earliest childhood till middle age I was obsessed with writing. I nagged my mother to teach me how to read and write before I was old enough for kindergarten. Once I'd learned, I wasn't comfortable if I didn't write something every day; I used to tell people it wasn't a vocation, it was a virus.
It didn't really bother me that it was difficult to break into print. I knew that was standard for nearly everyone, even truly great writers. I believed the common wisdom that once I'd learned to write well it would be only a matter of time till I got the right manuscript to the right editor, from which point everything else would follow automagically.
I didn't expect to make a fortune, mind you. I knew enough not even to expect to make a living. But I did believe that getting started would be the only major hurdle. Everything I had ever heard or read about writing as a career assured me of that.
In 1979, I sold my first short story to Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine. It was an easy step from short story sales to the acquisition of an agent, and from there to the sale of a series proposal to Beth Meacham at Tor.
I had a contract for three novels. I thought I had it made. This was the big time. I was going to turn out at least two or three novels a year for the rest of my life, and the only problem would be getting around the odd notion publishers had that a writer would be competing with herself if she published more than one book a year.
The minor flaw in this reasoning is that it assumes good books will sell. And mine were good books--fluff, perhaps, but good fluff. I wrote good space adventure, Tor did its usual fine job with production and advertising...and the books didn't sell.
Nobody could understand it, but nobody could do anything about it either. Tor took a chance on three more books from me anyway, and the sales figures on those were even worse. My agent managed to sell one of my mysteries to Walker & Co., but that was the last sale. Tor couldn't afford to take further chances with me, and editors from other houses who were interested in my work lost interest right quickly when they heard about my sales figures with Tor. The Walker book (which, incidentally, was orphaned by editorial musical chairs) didn't sell very well either, so that didn't help.
I went on writing as diligently as ever, still convinced there couldn't really be a problem: I'd got my start, hadn't I? Everything just follows from that, doesn't it? It's all a matter of hard work and good fortune, and I'd had the necessary bit of fortune, so all I had to do was work hard. Now that I was well started, everything I wrote that was fit to publish would get published sooner or later. That was the way things worked.
About the time I finished the best book I've yet written, I realized it had been something over a year since my agent last responded to a letter from me. Still believing all was essentially well with my career, I fired her and took the new book to a new agent, where I learned that its subject (rock stars) was unmarketable in its genre (mystery). She liked it so well that she handled it anyway, along with several sf/f proposals I had ready; but nothing sold and she went out of business after a year or so, leaving me with a new list of agents to try.
Things weren't going quite the way I had anticipated. Somewhere in the back of my mind I began to have an inkling that the world had ended, but I have a rich fantasy life. I managed to convince myself this was an odd, temporary setback due to the crumbling midlist market, and that at any moment things would straighten up and start Acting Right. I would get yet another agent (everybody knows it's easy for a working writer to find a new agent) and keep going.
I worked through my list of agents, and when I ran out of those I tried other lists of agents. The response was almost universal: my work was good, but they already had enough midlist writers, thanks. (Anyway the polite ones told me that. One just scrawled "No," on my letter of inquiry and sent it back, which inclined me to kill or at least maim her should the opportunity arise. It didn't, however, and I've since forgotten her name, so I've reluctantly decided to forego that gratification.)
I tried sending out manuscripts on my own, but the responses ranged from "I love this book but I can't buy it" to "We don't accept unagented manuscripts," and I very quickly lost heart. I'd never been any good at marketing my own work, and my growing awareness of impending doom did not have a salutary affect on my abilities.
I was sitting on two good new manuscripts that nobody would publish. All my older manuscripts and proposals (those that hadn't been lost with the loss of the second agent) had been everywhere already without a nibble. My published books were out of stock and one by one were going out of print. One day I'd been a working writer and the next I was a wannabe. I couldn't even claim has-been status: I hadn't "been."
I'd never heard of such a thing. As far as I knew, it hadn't ever happened to anyone before. I didn't know what to do. How could my shiny new career be stalled? I'd done everything I was supposed to do. I'd worked hard, written well, met my deadlines...and failed anyway. That wasn't right.
Since it wasn't my fault, it had to be Tor's fault. They hadn't publicized my books well enough. The covers were lousy. The blurbs were inadequate. They hadn't sent out enough review copies.
Or--No. Wait. it was Beth's fault. She changed jobs at Tor and moved to Arizona for her health without even asking me. She turned my books over to a junior editor who bought the second three from me and then left Tor, leaving all my books orphaned. Beth didn't pick them up again. Nobody did. So it was Beth's fault. Or the junior editor's. Or maybe it was Tor's fault after all, for hiring people who had lives.
Or it could be the fault of the industry, with its returns policy that gives paperbacks a shorter shelf-life than yogurt. Any sane industry knows you don't just produce a product and throw it on the market for a couple of weeks, then call it a failure if nobody buys it. You have to back it, tell the consumer about it, convince people to buy it. And you have to make it available to the potential purchaser: there were still people who wanted my books but couldn't get them because they were out of print or "out of stock indefinitely," a term that lets distributors and bookstores know the book is really OP without the publisher having to admit it.
Yes, that was it: it was the industry's fault. And Tor's. And Beth's. And the other editor's, and perhaps my agent's, and probably several others' fault as well.
Unfortunately, not even this very careful apportionment of blame seemed to affect the situation. My sales figures remained bad. With bad sales figures, I couldn't sell new work. And if I couldn't sell new work, I wasn't a writer.
So I quit writing. I'd done my best and it wasn't good enough. I'd had my chance. Why write what nobody's going to read, right? Now I just had to figure out what to do with the rest of my life. Nothing I wrote would ever be worth reading anyway, so I might as well find something I could do. Surely I had another skill? (There must be a pony here somewhere...?)
And Monsters Under the Bed
Quitting wasn't a conscious decision, and it's only in retrospect that I can put it in these terms. At the time I had no idea what was happening to me. I couldn't even think of it as writer's block; one who doesn't write is not a writer, and consequently cannot have writer's block.
It's just possible I wasn't thinking with perfect clarity. Everything that I had hoped for and worked toward through some thirty-five years of my life had come to a very quiet, unspectacular, altogether insipid end. My identity and my sense of self-worth were tied up in a label to which I no longer had any right.
I truly believe that if I had known such a thing were possible, and what to do about it if it happened, I would not have wasted the years I did searching for the ideal place to lay blame and/or a second marketable skill that would take my mind off writing. I'd have been less disabled by shock and better prepared to fight for what I wanted instead of thinking I must deserve what had happened and ought to resign myself to it.
As it was, I felt like a child who's been told there are no monsters under the bed and so leans over the edge to look...and finds monsters. The sense of betrayal (they lied to me) and shame (I believed them) was devastating. I couldn't decide whether I was a fraud and a failure, or whether I'd been singled out by some venomous divinity for a foretaste of hell for my sins. Either way, nothing was as I had believed it to be and been told it would be, and I knew of no way to put my world back in order.
When I had occasion to mention my published books I felt embarrassed, as though it were my fault they were nearly all OSI or OP and there would be no new ones. When I tried to write I felt foolish and defeated before I began. And yet writing was and had always been the core of my life. I couldn't do it anymore, but I couldn't quite give it up either. I couldn't give up the habits of thinking, and I couldn't give up the hope. Writing was the point and purpose of life. I'd proved myself a failure at it, and I knew I should admit that and go on to something else; but there was nothing else.
Intermezzo, With Violin
For three years I fussed and fumed and felt like a failure, and did nothing to fix it. By the time I stumbled (by pure good fortune) onto the SFWA community on GEnie I had got past the blaming stage to bitter and bewildered resignation, but I still wasn't writing. I was sitting at the computer for hours every day staring at a word processing screen, but I wasn't writing.
At first it was even more depressing to be on GEnie among all those SFWA members. I joined the club to get freeflagged so I could afford GEnie, and then I lurked in the private SFWA categories because I could. One of the first conversations I ran across there was a variation on the membership wars, with Big Names announcing that people should have to requalify at intervals for Active status because it was meant to be an organization of working writers.
They had a point, but I wasn't concerned with that: what bothered me was the notion that if I couldn't sell my work it wasn't work. There seemed to be an underlying assumption that if one works hard enough and writes well enough, one's work will sell. That was exactly what I had always believed and what I was very much afraid was true, but that had to mean either I hadn't worked hard enough or I hadn't written well enough, and I didn't want to hear it.
I knew I'd worked hard enough. I'd written for ten to fourteen hours a day, seven days a week, for the last ten years. Therefore I must not have written well enough. That was confusing, because there were successful writers who didn't write as well as I. Or was I deluding myself about the quality of my work along with everything else?
You Are Not Alone
For my sanity I unmarked the SFWA topics where they talked about membership, and reverted to authors' topics. For months I listened to writers talk shop, and I struggled with writer's block, and I went from total funk to grand optimism and back again to total funk on a daily basis. And then I met a working writer who wrote under a pseudonym because her first three books failed.
I read those three books. They were at least as good as mine, probably better, and I couldn't see any more reason for them to have failed than I could for mine to have failed.
"It happens," she said. She was very matter-of-fact about it, quite as though it weren't a terrible, secret shame. "We were ahead of the trend. Space adventure sells now, but it didn't then, and we got caught." Concept. We wrote good books, they didn't sell, and we weren't to blame. And I wasn't alone.
"I probably won't ever be able to write under my own name again," she said. "The chain bookstores look at an author's sales records and won't stock books from the ones that don't sell. But my pseudonym sells, so they're willing to stock her books."
Pseudonym. New start. Try again with a different sort of book. Concept.
I'm sure it helped her that she had an agent who stood by her when her first books failed, but that wasn't the essential difference between us. The important thing was that she believed in herself. She rejected the conventional wisdom that good books sell and that real writers' careers don't crash. When she failed under her own name, she chose a new one and kept on keeping on, and it worked.
I'm not saying it was easy for her, because I don't believe it was. But she didn't quit. I had toyed with the notion of doing what she was doing, but I hadn't done it because I didn't really believe it would work. She just did it. Her first books failed? Okay, she wrote new ones. She couldn't sell them under her name? Okay, she chose a new one. No big deal. It's a business, and you do what you have to do to sell your product.
In a very real sense, I hadn't quite fully understood before that it is a business. I'd thought all I had to do was write. I had never been good at the business end of things, and I'd thought I didn't have to be. But on GEnie I listened to writers discussing the minute details of contracts, rights, royalty percentages, sell-throughs, genre fluctuations, distributors, even publishers' overhead (in the form of paper costs, cover art, "to foil or not to foil," etc.), and it began to get through to me that I had been, to put it very kindly, a damned fool. I had thought it was the publisher's and/or my agent's job to worry about all those things, just as I had thought it was the publisher's and/or my agent's job to do all the advertising, review copy distribution, blurb acquisition, and so on.
I was wrong. The publisher and the agent should of course do those things, but it is the author's job to know what's going on, to nudge them as needed, and to fill in the gaps where their responsibility, interest, or abilities flag before the job is done. I had thought it stupid of publishers to throw books on the market for a couple of weeks, then accept returns and call the books failures; yet I had been cheerfully handing my books into that system with no effort to alter or affect it, and calling myself a failure over the results. My failure wasn't in the writing, it was in the follow-through. Perhaps I couldn't have saved my first books, but I might have saved myself: the effort to improve those sales figures might have kept me aware that they were only sales figures, and not a measure of my worth.
The knowledge that I was not alone, that what had happened to me had also happened to others, and that some of them had known what to do, done it, and got their careers going again, made a world of difference to me. I didn't get over my writer's block overnight, and I'm still as ashamed of my poor sales figures as if they were my fault. But I know what to do now. I have plans and goals again, and courses of action to take. Here they are:
The first thing a writer should do is beyond my means now, though I can certainly do it the second time around: don't abandon your books. Don't depend on your agent or your editor to sell them. They are your product, and their success is crucial to no one but you. Do what you can do yourself: publicize them. Make sure the publisher is sending review copies to as many reviewers as possible, including the Nebula jury no matter how unlikely winning seems. Even one Nebula recommendation can help sales.
Send press releases to local newspapers, book stores, and special interest groups. Arrange signings at local bookstores. If you travel, arrange signings at bookstores in the cities you'll visit. Some authors even visit their local distributors and chat with the drivers in an effort to get more of their books into the racks. Do anything you can think of to make your books known on a local or a national level. The initial sale to your publisher was only the beginning: now you have to sell the product to the consumer.
For older books that are going OS or OP there are still some things you can do: get the rights back, for starters, if your publisher won't reprint and make a new push with the reprint. (If there is a reprint, treat it as though it were a brand new sale and promote it every way you can.) Once you have the rights back you can search for a new publisher, try the Science Fiction Book Club, investigate the foreign market, and anything else you and your agent can think of. The exposure you'll get if you can resell them is well worth the time and trouble it will take to do it. The more books you have in print, the more seriously editors (and readers) will take you. It's relatively inexpensive advertising, and advertising is crucial to the sale of any product including your career.
Of course if you've lost your agent, you'll have to do this yourself or find a new agent. If the latter, it's better to bring him or her new works: you can concentrate on the older books after you're started with the new ones. Finding an agent is not as simple as it sounds, but with perseverance and good new manuscripts to market, it can be done. If you can follow the course recommended for new writers of selling the manuscript first, then hiring the agent to handle the contract, you will have a better chance at your first choice in agents. If you just haven't the temperament to market your own work, you'll have to be patient and persistent. Friends' recommendations might help, if you know any writers who know and like your work. (I finally found my present agent through a friend on GEnie.)
If your books are still in print but orphaned, the best course of action is to make the new editor fully your editor by selling her another book. Once she's the purchasing editor for one of your books, it will be easier to convince her to give better attention to the earlier book(s) as well. Alas, the editor who takes over for another hasn't always a similar taste in books, and so may not be willing to purchase another from you. In that case you'll have to decide how important the matter is to your career. If you're busy selling other books elsewhere, it may be as well to let that one slide. If you're not selling other books elsewhere, you may feel that the orphaned book is the one to which the future of your career is hitched. In that case you must do what you can to increase its sales, but don't spend time on it that you could be spending on the effort to sell new books. In the long run it's always the new ones that will make the biggest difference to your career.
Selecting a pseudonym, even when everyone involved knows it's still you, may be all you need to do to get a second chance. Fortunately there's no need to try to fool anyone. The idea is just to get around the bad sales history attached to your name.
As a general rule, the chain bookstores will not stock books by an author whose previous books didn't sell. It's nothing personal: they are quite reasonably trying to maximize their profit by stocking the products that sell best. If a grocery store found that a certain brand of toilet paper didn't sell, it would stop stocking it. It's the same principle, with the author's name as brand name.
If the author changes "brand names" by employing a pseudonym, the chains will give him or her the same chance they give any new author. The process starts over with the new name. If the books sell, they get stocked. If they don't sell, they don't.
This principle applies equally to authors who had some success in short stories but crashed and burned when they moved to novels. To the chain bookstores, the success of the short stories means nothing. They don't handle short stories. Maybe your name at the top of the list of contributors would sell an anthology in a big quick hurry, but your first three novels failed miserably. (One or two novels might not be enough to turn the chains against your name, but three would certainly be.) My advice would be to consider a pseudonym for future novels, whether or not you continue to use your own name on your short stories. If the pseudonym sells and you want your own name back, you can always ease your way into it by having reprints say you're you, "writing as" your pseudonym.
Switching genres, even temporarily, can also give you a new start and is well worth a try if there's another genre of interest to you. The chainstore author-name taboo seems to be genre-specific: they may be willing to carry mystery books, for example, by an author whose sf/f failed (perhaps their computer programs have no cross-reference function). If you achieve name-recognition in the new genre, in time you may be able to return to your first-choice genre without fuss. In any case you'll still be a working writer, which to many of us is really the important part.
Writing is a business. Just as you must learn to accept the rejection of your manuscripts with some objectivity, so must you learn to accept the failure of a book (or the stalling out of a career) with objectivity. It is not you who has been rejected or who has failed. It's only your work, and you can do new work. Eventually, even in this fickle business, hard work "may" pay off.
There are no guarantees, and I'm certainly no shining example of what can happen: I haven't sold a book since 1989. But at least I'm not a failure anymore. I've learned what to do, and I'm doing it. I'm writing, my agent is marketing the results, and with any luck at all I will have a new career. I'm no worse off than any beginner, and better off than some because I already know for certain that I can write publishable prose.
Now all I have to do is sell it, and I have a better chance at that than I had a year or two ago. Then, I had given up. I know I just said there were no guarantees, but there's one: if you don't write, or if you don't try to sell what you write, you will certainly not get published. If you try, you may succeed.
My writing faculties are so crippled these days that it's taken me two weeks to write this article. I've done it, though, and now I'm going to send it off to see whether I've done it well. If you're reading it, you'll know I've made one small step in the right direction. If you're not, then I'm talking to myself and I'd best shut up and go write some fiction. Either way, I'm a writer again.
Act II, Scene i
When I wrote this article, I did not seriously believe that I would ever sell another novel. Turns out it really is a good idea to keep your manuscripts in the mail no matter how hopeless you feel: today I am under contract with Roc for two urban fantasy novels. The first one, Cold Iron, was released in 1997, and the second novel, Sister to the Rain was released in October, 1998.
I've inadvertently followed other pieces of my advice. I've made a small change to my name: I started my writing career as Melisa Michaels, accepted it when Tor added my middle initial, and have now gratefully accepted Roc's decision to drop the middle initial. Whether this would be enough to fool the chain store computers, I don't know.
The agent I had when I wrote this was not the best for me. On the strength of an editor's interest in Cold Iron, however, I was able to get an excellent agent to handle the contract and future sales. It really is better to wait till you have a sale to bring to a prospective agent.
Since the first manuscript to sell was a fantasy, I've changed genres, having never sold fantasy before. I hope to write space adventure and mysteries again, but I may have an easier time of it if the fantasy books do well.
They may, of course, sink without a trace like all my others. That's perfectly possible. I think they're good, but so were the Tor books. Roc has given me a great cover for the first one; but lots of books with great covers fail. In publishing, as in a TV sitcom, "anything can happen (and probably will)."
However, if another career crash turns out to be part of "anything," this time I'll be ready. I know it can happen, and I know what to do about it. Should I have to, I'll just change my name more radically and keep on keeping on.
** Born in the Midwest, Melisa Michaels has lived in many parts of the United States, before settling in Hawaii. She has worked for a private investigation firm and also spent a number of years as a singer. For the last fourteen years she has lived on the island of Oahu in Hawaii, where she and her husband recently bought a "fixer-upper" on the leeward shore that they share with two cats, two computers, and many (but never enough) power tools. She is the author of six science fiction novels, including the Skyrider series from Tor; and one mystery novel published by Walker, Through the Eyes of the Dead. She also serves as the Webmaster for SFWA. Her most recent novels, starring private investigator Rose Lavine, are Cold Iron (Roc, Aug., 1997) and Sister To The Rain, (Roc, Oct., 1998). You can visit her website by Clicking Here.