The tough get going! (Three things to keep in mind as you forge fearlessly into the New Year)
Seems like every conversation I have with a publishing industry colleague these days -- my agent, editors, a PR diva, fellow writers -- there's one common thread: deep abiding fear. The book business is difficult in the best of circumstances, and when the economy goes south, we're among those who feel the first (and the worst) effects. Anybody who isn't deeply concerned right now is not paying attention.
Last time I felt this vibe ribble through the book world was after 9/11. I'd just had a book come out in February of 2001; Bald in the Land of Big Hair was my third book to be published, but it was my first with a big NY house, and because the subject matter was so personal (it's a memoir about how my cancer experience led me to become a writer) I was strongly emotionally invested in the project. Harper Collins sent me on my first real book tour that spring, the publicity echo pinged and picked up speed through the summer as one terrific review after another popped up and book clubs started reading and recommending the book. As autumn approached, speaking gigs started falling into place. I was thrilled. My editor was optimistic (which is as thrilled as most editors ever get). I'd gotten a respectable advance for the book, so 2001 was the first year I was able to say that I earned more as an author than I would have as a secretary. And since the book had earned out in subrights prior to pub, I was confident I'd be able to say the same in 2002. I'd be able to say that I'd made a living writing.
I was scheduled to speak at a fundraiser in NYC the first week of October, and the first inkling I had that something was terribly wrong on that terrible September morning was an email from the event coordinator.
"Did you get my last message? Our power is being weird. I think there's a fire or something up the street." And a few minutes later, she wrote: "Something is seriously happening. Plane crash at the World Trade Center. I think our venue might be affected. I'll let you know of any change in schedule." Over the next several hours, I received a series of bizarre messages from her as she made her way home on foot through the chaos and smoke. "I think we should definitely do book sales during the break right after you speak. I'll have staff on hand to help. This is really bad here. Hard to breath but we had to run for a while." Late that night, she emailed me one last time: "I think we will have to cancel the event. People were falling."
Of course, the event was cancelled, but they'd provided me with a nonrefundable plane ticket, so a few weeks later, I went to NY anyway, walked around town, visited a few people I know. My editor was working from her place upstate, but I had lunch with the woman who'd handled PR for my memoir.
"Everything is at a standstill," she said. "It's unbelievably bad luck for anyone with a book coming out this year. At least you had a chance to get out there as much as you did."
New York was paralyzed for several weeks and traumatized for a lot longer. Sales curdled nationwide, and the market was utterly unreadable. What -- if anything -- did people want to read now? Many books were postponed or cancelled. Advances sucked. There were cutbacks and layoffs at all the big houses and frozen silence from some of the small ones. I can only imagine what was going on at the query stage, but I'd be willing to bet it was Zoloft-waiting-to-happen because I was sitting there with an agent and a strong senior editor advocate at a major house, and couldn't coax a spark for my next book. I pitched several novel ideas and was shot down. I pitched three nonfiction ideas and was shot down. Each of the proposals took a month or two to write, so we were now well into 2002, and I had nothing in the pipeline.
Deep. Abiding. Fear.
Thinking about it this week, I identified three things I could take from all that and apply to what's happening now.
1) Maintain a connection to the real world.
As the event planner (whose name I can't recall for the life of me, but bless her heart) made her way through that day, she kept reaching out to me, a virtual stranger. Why? I wondered at the time, but now I think she needed to connect to someone in a calmer, safer place. That event was all we had in common, but it was something solid, a neatly filled square on her calendar, a better day just one page away. "If you can keep your head when all those about you are losing theirs," Kipling wrote, but maybe the reverse is equally helpful: if you lose your head, best to have those about you keeping theirs. After I got The Call from my agent about BLBH getting sold, I ran up the street to meet my friend GayLynn for our daily dog walk.
"My book was picked up by Harper Collins!" I shrieked.
"Oh, my gosh!" GayLynn enthused. "Will he be able to help you get it published?"
I hold that moment in my heart as a cherished reminder that there is a whole big world out there, and it does not revolve around this business. It keeps on rolling, and so shall we all. One of the healthiest elements of my writing life is that I am married to an airline mechanic who reminds me daily that flight is about physics, not fancy.
2) Be patient. What goes up must come down and vice versa.
The publishing industry is cyclical. That's just the nature of the beast. I think it's a testament to the resilient spirit of people who love and believe in books. Things get bollixed for one reason or another, and you hear a lot of doomsaying, but you also hear the war stories of the past. You hear about innovations that were birthed by bad times, fresh energy that came out of adversity. Talk to the writers around you. How did they survive the swampy markets that followed 9/11? Or the Doldrums of the late 80s? Or the Great Upheaval of blah blah blah. The names, dates, and particulars change, but trust me, there's nothing new going on here. This business is a roller coaster. We accept that going in and make the decision daily to take the ride. Yes, we're speeding face-first toward the earth right now, but rest assured, there is a loop-dee-loop ahead.
When I was researching a memoir for Linda Armstrong Kelly, the mom of Tour de France champ Lance Armstrong, she showed me an unforgettable video from the 2003 Tour. Lance was not having a great race that year. As he rode the Luz Ariden stage, a little girl on the side of the road was swinging a musette -- a little yellow souvenir bag on a long strap. As Lance flashed by, his handlebar snagged the strap. Instant face plant. He hit the asphalt like a hard sleet. When he got up, he was roaring like an animal. (That poor little French girl; she must have peed her pantalon.) Bloodied and braying, his competitors streaming past him, he wrangled the chain back on his bike and -- well, you know the rest. If there ever was an icon for "When the going gets tough, the tough get going," it's this guy. He chose a life comprised of hills and valleys. So did we. May your adrenaline flow like Asti Spumante!
3) To thine own self be true.
Back in 2002, rather than try to come up with a project that would please the people around me, I opted to stop pitching book ideas for a while. On my editor's advice, I started writing a syndicated weekly column that kept me productive, generated a small but steady income, and got my name out there. In 2003, I did my first ghostwriting gig, which was a lot of fun. Meanwhile, I quietly worked on the novel I wanted to write. When I presented the manuscript to my editor at Harper Collins in 2004, it was a polished novel, not a nebulous idea coming at her in a storm of desperate spitballs. I'd written the book I wanted to write, the market had recovered, and HC offered me a respectable advance.
A while back, Colleen posted about the human need to bring order to chaos and why that will never work in the publishing world. Doing work you love and believe in must be your prime directive at all times. During tough times, everyone from your agent to the pizza delivery dude has advice on what you should be writing, who's really selling, where it's all going. If you try to go where you think the money is, I promise, you will succeed only in making yourself crazy. Chances are, there won't be any money, and if there's not, you have to come away from a project having gotten something else from it. Joy. Learning. The satisfaction of freely speaking your mind. Once you've gotten a taste of writing for a living, it's incredibly hard to rise above the money and write for the pure pleasure of writing, but if that spirit has been bled from your work, the work is doomed. Even if it sells, the money will never feel like enough.
The downtrend in the publishing industry and the economy in general do make it exponentially tougher to sell your book right now. But your goal is not to sell a book; your goal is to be happy. If writing makes you happy, write without fear. The rest, to a certain degree, is all tumbling dice. As it turned out, the five years following that last bombastically bad downturn in the publishing biz were the most financially successful years of my career. All I can do now is take what I've learned, work as hard and as true as I can, and hope that more bad luck will come my way.