Some (expanded) thoughts on a career in writing

I put up a little thread on Twitter on this subject last week. A lot of people seemed to want to hear more. So here it is. A long read I’m afraid and please note… this is about conventional commercial publishing, not self-publishing, a field I don’t know. Note too that these are just my opinions. Feel free to disagree. There are no rights and no wrongs in a subject like this. You can also read this post on Medium where it is open to comments.

At the beginning of 2017, after a quarter of a century in this business, I wondered if my time was up. I’d quit my long-term publisher and didn’t have a scrap of work in front of me.

This isn’t a new experience. Unless you hit the starry heights, anyone with a long career in writing will usually find they need to throw aside the past and reinvent themselves every decade or so. It’s good practice. You can’t keep playing the same tune. But here’s the difference: I’m old. Next month I pick up my pension. Do I want to bother? Do I need to?

The answer to the second is clear: no. I was lucky enough to start writing fiction back when advances were higher and books hadn’t been devalued (in the UK anyway) to the cost of a cup of coffee. Thanks to sales, foreign earnings, options and audio, after 25 years I could if I wanted retire and happily spend my declining years circumnavigating Italy by bus and train, a fine idea since every time I go back there the country seems to get bigger and bigger.

But there’s that first question. Yes. I do want to bother. I love writing. I’d like to think I know a bit about it. I don’t want to stop until there are no more stories left inside me, and that’s far from the case right now. Truth is my ideas folder is bursting with potential stories, so many I’ll never get to tackle them all.

Still, here’s the hard truth…

Twenty five years ago I was the family breadwinner and there was no way I’d let them starve for my literary ambitions. We had to survive and we did, very tidily. But today, for most people writing books, the money simply isn’t there. I don’t think it would be easy at all to follow the kind of career path I enjoyed and make ends meet. So what do you do?

What all threatened species try to manage, of course. You adapt.

Here’s the first big change you need to embrace.

The past is dead and it isn’t going to rise from the grave

Unless you’re among the few to have established a brand already — or one of those rare writers a publisher has decided to make a brand — it’s time to accept the old way of business is dead. When I started out the formula was simple. You signed a multi-book contract with a single big publisher, often for a series, wrote a book a year and crossed your fingers hoping it would work.

Yes, there are deals like that now. But the climate has changed. Think of publishing like a trip to the horse races. In the old days publishers used to spread their bets around, some on front runners, some on outsiders they fancied could turn favourites over a few years. Today many of the big guys only want to bet on guaranteed winners, either existing ones or winners they’ll make by spending a fortune hyping them. They want to come in at the top of the pack and they want that to happen now. A very senior person with a big mainstream publisher blurted out to me not long ago, ‘The book’s not as important as it used to be. It’s more to do with the marketing potential.’ Then clammed up realising what they’d just said.

What that means is pretty daunting: if you’re playing in that part of the pitch it may not matter one whit how good your book is. If your publisher’s not backing your work with the money to get it into supermarkets and other promotions it will never reach that many readers, however hard you try to promote it yourself. Authors, I’m afraid, can’t make books. We can and should help our publishers to get them out there. But we’re not in a position to put titles on shelves. Only the trade can do that. If they’re not behind you the chances are you’re stuffed.

It’s getting very crowded in the middle of the road

I think it was the agent Jonny Geller who coined a phrase — ‘the race to the middle’ — that says a lot about the state of publishing today. There’s always been a trend for me-too books, whether they’re chasing Dan Brown or Fifty Shades of Grey. But now it sometimes feels as if there’s nothing but me-too books. In crime the huge pressure on writers to turn out female psychological thrillers along the lines of Gone Girl — preferably under a female name even if you’re a man — is still there even though many in publishing wish it would die the death. It will one day… only to be replaced by some other trend to chase.

It’s almost as if there are now two kinds of publishing. The old, traditional, build-an-audience, hope-that-quality-will-win type. And the sell-it-like-soap-powder business where massive and expansive promotion is meant to put titles on the bestseller list through sheer force of marketing power.

The reasons behind this are complex and open to debate. They range from the death of independent book stores to the end of price maintenance. But they’re largely irrelevant since there’s nothing you can do to change them. We have to live with the consequences.

If you want to try to leap on that bandwagon… fine. I’d never dream of telling anyone what they should write… or read. But bear this in mind: the middle of the road has never been as crowded as it is today. Standing out among all those hordes of books with similar titles, similar covers and often similar themes is getting harder and harder.

Throw away the safety net

More to the point you need to ask yourself… is this what I really what I want to put my name to? I’ve got something like thirty books to my name from the past 25 years (you stop counting after a while). Some I barely remember. Some I can tick off as check marks for turning points in my career. A few I would rewrite completely now. I don’t regret any of them. They are all mine. Even when I was asked to adapt The Killing to novel form I kept the right to be able to change the TV narrative — and did.

Once your principal aim becomes chasing the market you’re liable to start thinking differently. Yes, you want to write a book that editors and readers want. But if meeting a perceived market demand is your primary focus you’re straying close to imitation. That can work for a while. Every new trend has its me-too successes. In general though it’s a good rule to equate career longevity with writing the books you feel are yours. Forget being the next Dan Brown or J. K. Rowling. Try and be a better and more original you.

Starting any book is like stepping onto a tightrope over a ravine. It will always be a better experience, for you and your readers, if you do that without the safety net of joining the race to the middle.

It’s time to expand your range

Ask someone my age where stories come from and they’ll say: books. Ask someone half my age and they may say movies or TV. Put the same question to someone younger than that and they might add video games, the web, comics, animation and audio.

We’re kidding ourselves if we think the world of storytelling stands still. And remember: this business didn’t begin with books. It started with the human voice, narrative poets like Homer reciting or singing their tales to audiences who couldn’t even read.

When people used to ask me how I learned to write I’d direct them to the library and tell them to read more books. Today, a more accurate version of that advice might be to read, to watch, to listen too. A contemporary novelist has as much to gather from great TV drama and the growing range of audio productions as a good book. Scene structure, brevity, dialogue, narrative threading are a few of the dramatic techniques that are fast becoming part of modern fiction, just as they are on the screen.

So be brave and bold and try to spread your wings. Don’t just write crime because that’s what the publishers seem to want. Explore other genres, invent one of your own, try your hand at scriptwriting and other media. This is good practice even if you never sell a thing. Ploughing a single furrow is a poor way to learn. Over the last few years I’ve moved between books, audio and drama at regular intervals. Every time I’ve faced the challenge of working in a new medium I’ve picked up skills I would never have encountered any other way. You never learn to write. You only learn you’re always learning. If you think you’ve cracked it… you’re wrong.

You can’t do it on your own

The cliche image of the lone author in a garret is a myth. Yes you may write like that. But behind every successful work is a team of people, mostly unseen even though they’re vital: agents, editors, publicists, booksellers, bloggers and reviewers. You need to be plugged into that network and they need to know they can count on your support in return.

A good agent is essential to steer you through the stormy seas and make sure the contracts you sign — which seem to grow ever more complex by the year — are fair and reasonable. You also need to find a home with a committed and supportive publisher who’s going to give your book some kind of a chance. A chance is all you can expect. You’d be amazed how often some books don’t even get that.

Beware the false security of the web

The internet has not been kind to the bank balances of creative people. Musicians, photographers, writers, performers… we’ve all taken big hits over the years. And what did we get in return? A lot of hype for one thing. For years authors at book conventions in the US got nagged by people flogging marketing services that promised to turn you into a brand. It sometimes seems there are more folk out there making a living selling advice to wannabe writers than there are writers selling books. I once sat on a panel with one such marketeer who said, in all seriousness, that any author who didn’t spend three hours a day on Twitter and Facebook could never have a successful career.

This is balls and dangerous balls to boot. Authors need an internet presence because without one people will assume you’re dead. A web site is the modern equivalent of a business card. Beyond that and… it’s marginal frankly. I enjoy Twitter but more for fun and occasional illumination than professional promotion. I have an author page on Facebook. They’re worthwhile but I do not spend a lot of time there. You get a lot of contact, most of it enjoyable, with readers over the web. Dealing with online book review sites is usually worthwhile too. But you need to be realistic. Does all this sell many books? A few I guess. But I return to my earlier point: the real sales come from publisher activity, not round robin tweets. Keep you web time under control or it may take control of you.

There’s a kind of chumocracy on the web too which on occasion makes me a little uncomfortable. Coteries of authors praising one another, with genuine admiration I’m sure, but it can come across as a circular conversation all the same. Talking to friendly fellow authors on social media is fine but it’s a community activity not a professional one. The advice of chums is never as useful as that of someone whose job it is to sell your stories. Publishing is a business. You want it that way.

Size matters less than enthusiasm and talent

For years the storytelling business has been dominated by a handful of giant international players. That’s starting to change. New players and new forces are coming into the market. Some, like Netflix and Amazon, are huge. Others are tiny and looking to fill gaps that the big boys may feel aren’t worth their attention they’re too busy trying to pour money into the next big winner.

Today it’s important to judge the people you work with on how enthusiastic and talented they appear, not the size of their office. Some of the bravest and brightest voices in this business belong to independent companies testing fresh waters. Equally some of the most jaded ones lie with the big boys desperate to publish me-too books they think (often wrongly) are guaranteed to sell, usually on the back of expensive marketing campaigns. And when they fail it will, as always, be the author who pays the price.

It’s all about the work

Self-doubt is a necessary condition in writing.

Is this thing I’m working on really any good?

Will I earn enough money to pay the bills?

Am I running out of ideas?

Do I have any real talent at all?

If these thoughts don’t surface in your head from time to time there’s something wrong. The call and response of internal interrogation is an essential part of the creative process. If you lack the honesty and courage to criticise yourself, harshly when necessary, you’re handing off that vital task to others, who probably won’t welcome it or do the job as well as you.

Still, on occasion, it can become a touch existential. If the self-doubt becomes so large and intense you think you may pack it in you really have only three options: plough on regardless, start something new, or give up.

The last route is the way of career death. However bleak things look, however empty the horizon appears ahead, one way or another keep going. That doesn’t mean you have to write every day (common advice which I think is just plain wrong).

Writing’s about more than tapping words into a screen. It’s editing and thinking. It’s walking the dog and realising along the way the problem’s not on page 184 where it first appeared but back around page 90 where you took a wrong turn. It’s taking a holiday and not thinking about the project for a while. You’ll be amazed how often a seemingly insurmountable problem turns into nothing more than a tweak when you step away from the screen for a week or two. Some of my most useful insights into a work in progress happen when I’m walking the hills around my home (and I always make a point to tap a note about them into my phone).

The alternative is a blank page, something no one will ever buy. Lots of great books have taken years to find the right publisher. It’s that kind of business.

The greatest crime in writing, the one that will sink any career, is giving up.

Here comes 2018

As it turns out 2017 wasn’t bare of projects at all. I ended the year exhausted from the busiest round of work I’ve ever known – two books and a major script, for all the reasons above. And perhaps perseverance above all.

When I scan the year to come I can look forward to the exciting and nerve-racking moment those three stories go public. There are a few potential projects in there air too, at least some of which I’m sure will come to fruition. But once again I have no forward contracts, no commitments, just a great sense of freedom. I may not earn as much money as I used to — few authors are in that position at the moment. But I’ve never felt happier with what I do, or surrounded by so many potential ideas I could end up undertaking.

Uncertainty and professional peril are a part and parcel of our world. Anyone who comes into this field expecting fame, fortune and security clearly hasn’t done their homework.

Writing has always demanded a mix of stubbornness, sweat, talent and good fortune. Today more than ever. Good luck in the year to come with yours.