The Writer’s Toughest Job? Managing Your Expectations

Writer's Block 1
Writer's Block 1 (Photo credit: OkayCityNate)

So I’m thinking Broadside is doing great — zipping along, adding new subscribers almost daily (yay!) — and up to 615 worldwide.


Then I find a blog with 12,000 followers. That’s the size of my town. Gulp. Sigh.

(Hangs head in dismayed disappointment.)

I also found out this month that a dream I’d been a little excited about, a TV deal for “Malled”, failed to woo the person whose thumbs-up we most needed. Very deep sigh.

I recently sent my first pitch to Wired magazine, which if you haven’t read it, is a smart and interesting publication.

The good news? I heard back within a day or so. The bad news? No interest in that idea.

Every ambitious writer — and if you’re not ambitious, really, why waste the energy? — wants his or her work to find enthusiastic readers, listeners and viewers. Lots of them.

Like, millions!

I see some of the shite that fills the best-sellers lists — seriously?! — and gnash my teeth and rend my garments, even just a little. But when things feel like they’re going pear-shaped (as the British would say), I seek solace in context.

I keep up with what’s happening in my industry, (i.e. publishing, journalism), and read this week that adult hardcover book sales are down a whopping 21 percent.

It’s not just me.

And e-book sales are up a staggering 123 percent; one-third of my sales, so far, for Malled, my 2011 retail memoir, have been e-books, which surprised me and my publisher, Portfolio.

I was feeling low about my sales until I spoke with a good friend who works in the industry and knows it very well. They’re fine, she reassured me.

The endless quest for a terrific agent can feel wholly dispiriting, unless you know other writers at your level in your genre, and hear their war stories. Few writers I know are 100 percent thrilled with their agent, either.

I think the smartest moves a writer can make are these:

Show up and write. As Seth Godin says, keep shipping!

Know that finding an agent is even more challenging than finding a sweetie — you need someone you like, who likes you, is smart and tough and tenacious, who has a good track record, who is taking on new clients, who rep’s the sort of genre you work in, who “gets” you intellectually and emotionally. Someone you trust enough to help shape the next phase of your career.  No pressure!

Work diligently at your craft.

Know the bigger picture of what’s really happening right now in your industry, not just what you most hope for.

Talk frequently to as many publishing veterans as you can. What are they seeing and hearing? My friends now include two heads of publicity for major houses as well as a few agents and many fellow authors. Their collective wisdom helps me figure out the smartest current strategy for my work.

Have a very clear idea what you hope to achieve with your work, and by when. Do not listen only to the naive and unpublished hopeful or those who advise them. Much as I admire writer-advice blogs, they’re too often talking down, by definition. Be prepared to dodge and feint!

Reality-check your hopes against the marketplace, your skills and how much time/stamina you can bring to these projects.

Says one friend, now working on her first non-fiction book, with every writer’s dream — a pre-emptive bid from a major house — (after a year’s work on the proposal): “This business is not for sissies!”

6 thoughts on “The Writer’s Toughest Job? Managing Your Expectations

  1. This writing business is not for sissies – no it certainly isn’t. To write, writers should do four things: write deeply, live deeply, read deeply, and compare themselves to no one. When I remember this, I am okay. When I forget one or more of these things, things go arse-up.

    Wonderful post.

    1. I think the first three are easier — not easy — than the fourth. Every writer who reads others (and, yes, some are in fact very much our competition for eyes, income, editors, assignments, publishers’ limited dollars) is likely going to compare themself to others. I agree that, ideally, we don’t do this. But, my dearest Nigel, I defy anyone living in NY to NOT do so…in my very small church, alone, there are several other non-fiction authors published by major houses!

      But I don’t let it deter me. My voice and vision are my own.

    1. The problem is that “good”, “better” and “best” are so subjective. I wish this blog had 10x the readers…does it mean the ones that do are 10 x better? I doubt it. It is what it is. I read — to reality-check — some things that are wildly popular and often heartily dislike them. So even while I envy their income (not their fame), I don’t want to BE them.

      I’m a niche sort of girl.

  2. belongum

    Thank you Caitlin – I needed a good read AND a reminder that I just need to keep on writing! I’ve set myself a ‘small’ task this year: write and write some more. I’ve tried to be realistic with my expectations. In fact (as I work in the arts already), I like to think I already have a good understanding of how one’s expectations often fail to meet their own – often overstated – abilities. Me included! So it’s good to ready about it from your point of view. I think of just how big your market must be there in The States and I often wonder how any writers break into such a huge (and finicky) market! My hat off to you for doing so – and thanks for posting! 🙂

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