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Be My Victim: Sarah Langan – Writing for a Profession

Oh that annoying day job. Eight to twelve hours of your day – hours you could spend writing your next novel – devoted to a job you loathe. Or maybe the day job isn’t so bad, but you think about writing full time, because it will stand as a marker of your achievement. Well many of us – myself included – have chucked the nine-to-five and devoted ourselves to writing full time. Many of us – myself included – have come to regret this decision, but only because we didn’t really know what to expect at the end of that rainbow (hint: It ain’t gold).

My guest this month is award-winning author Sarah Langan. Together we will look at the pitfalls of a career in writing, and hopefully give some of the newer crop of professionals some idea of what’s ahead so they can make the transition to writing full time something less than a headlong dive into what-the-Hell?

Lee Thomas I think my first indication that writing professionally wouldn’t be the way I’d imagined was when I realized I wasn’t traveling to fabulous destinations, eating in chic bistros with interesting people, and getting day spa treatments, but rather, I was writing, constantly, from early morning, until late, late on different projects just to keep the rent paid and the car running. One year I had to write 5 or 6 novels; it’s a bit of a blur. I will say, they weren’t all great pieces of art.

Sarah Langan I think my experience was a little different. I’d never made a decent living before I sold my first novel, so for me it was a real step up. I paid off my credit card, bought some new duds, and put together my part of a down payment on a house. I also had pretty low expectations, since I knew a lot of writers from graduate school. The only ones rolling in dough had movie deals. Even best-sellers, if they don’t keep the momentum, struggle.

A good friend, who has since become a very popular literary writer, was working at Barnes and Noble when he sold his first novel. When he found out, he bought lunch at Subway during his break, instead of eating what he’d brought. That was about all his advance would pay for. I now write out of a communal office called the Brooklyn Writers’ Space, which I find a great antidote to the isolation of the job. There are screenwriters, novelists, playwrights, and academics, and we all talk. I’m probably the only genre writer, which is refreshing. Given the market out there, and the horror stories I’ve heard, I’ve learned to be grateful for my good fortune. You can always get a job, once you’ve published a book. Maybe not a great job, but you’re probably never going to have to dig through trash for leftover Cheerios.

The thing that astounded me was how much I had to learn about the business end of things. All I wanted to do was write. I didn’t want to go to conventions, or shake hands, or hold up my book at panels in the obnoxious hope that a fellow writer might buy it, and magically make me a best-seller (if it hasn’t happened in week one, it’s not going to). I didn’t want to think about next deals, or blogs, or websites. But if you want to keep selling your fiction, you have to do that. What’s worse, so many writers dole out advice, as if they know what they’re talking about. Most don’t. Specifically in genre, their information comes from friends, instead of a wider, and more accurate base. It’s selection bias.

As for writing constantly to pay the bills, if it comes to that I’ll get a day job (or downsize, and stay at home with my daughter). I can only produce one thing at a time otherwise my work suffers. I admire the prolific– they keep their names out in circulation. But I’m not one of them.

Writing is thankless, except when you get published, and somebody reads what you wrote, and tells you that it meant something to them. Then it’s awesome. In fact, writing is always awesome – even when you don’t get published. So few people find fulfillment in their work. Writers are lucky that way.

LT: Amen. Like you, I find much of the marketing and self-promotion a tedious, ugly, hateful, bitchy, soul-sucking… yet necessary… evil. Publishers focus their marketing dollars and hours on a limited number of projects, which is why many of us end up spaghetti against the wall – and few of us stick.

You mentioned bad advice, and where so many authors go to get it (inexperienced peers – and even worse, strangers on message boards). The sheer volume of stupid that is passed off as good advice is overwhelming, though many of the suggestions sound perfectly rational, particularly to writers with no industry experience (I know this, because in the way-back I listened to plenty of it). I’m certainly not suggesting that anyone is out to sabotage anyone else’s career, but there is definitely a “blind leading the blind” component to all of this. Further, all books/authors/careers are not equal. What works for one book/author is not necessarily going to work for another in the same way. For example, Joe Konrath made a killing in ebooks because he was an early adopter and a champion of the format. Someone just starting out, who thinks she will make the same kind of impact in the same time frame is likely mistaken. That’s not to say she shouldn’t try, but it would be important to note that Joe had a rather strong internet following and a base of fans from his print books before hoisting the standard for e-lit.

SL: Oh, I think sabotage is part of it. But every business has its stinkers. The greater fault lies not in our stars, though. Writers don’t act from positions of power, and publishers, treat us like mushrooms (in the dark, knee deep in shit). We should know the publishing plan, where the book is going to be sold, how many copies and in what format. We should be asking whether we can meet with regional managers of bookstores. We should be involved in cover design, press release, back copy, acquisition of blurbs and where galleys are sent for review. As creators of the work, we know our target audience better than anybody. We ought to be a resource to our publishers for that reason. But instead we feel indebted, and lucky, and terrified of burning bridges. It’s stupid. The longer I’m in this business, the more I learn, and the more I realize how many stupid mistakes I made because I didn’t know any better.

To play the devil’s advocate, I can see how publishers and marketing teams might want to avoid prima donnas. I’ve met plenty of writers with crap books who act like the second coming, and treat publicists like retarded stepchildren. But there’s a way to do it that’s neither obnoxious nor ingratiating. All of the above are fair questions, and in a business deal, you ought to know the details of the contract you’ve signed. Especially when it’s your life’s work.

As for the new media, it seems to me that a new, advertising-based model will surface. Attention is the new commodity. Half-wit bloggers with zero content get half a million hits a day, and that translates into money, if they place a banner for Crest toothpaste or whatever at the bottom of the page. It’s not too hard to extrapolate from there, that novels will be free with advertising. What I also think might happen is that, with all the information about Internet users out there, market research companies will define our audiences. Say, I’ve got 15% of the young white men under thirty. Someone else might have the Murder, She Wrote, set. The percentages and demographics will be worth different amounts of money to different advertisers and that’s how we’ll get paid. At the highest tier, there might be a pay-for-read option. At the lowest, another pay-for-read option, for those without enough economic clout to get advertised to, who are subsidized by the government/libraries. I may be totally off base with this, but I think it’s a possibility. Writers will need to be a lot more business savvy.

I do hope that with this change comes a rise in tastemakers– reviewers and editors advocate certain books, and it’s their names readers recognize. This tends to be more fair, I think. For example, I love Laura Miller at Salon and trust her taste. I also trust HC editor Diana Gill’s taste.

A note on self-promotion–it’s gotten so frenzied it’s obscene. Writers take photos of themselves while on panels to post to Twitter. They blog thirty times a day, to eight different outlets. The greater their following, the more they’re apparently worth (though I’d be interested in learning how great the correlation is between consumer attention and consumer spending. I don’t think it’s direct, and I’ll bet it varies from author to author). I get the purpose; but even the successful writers who do this seem desperate. It’s almost like their books don’t matter, their personalities do. I didn’t start writing to sell myself. First, I’m not that interesting. Second, it’s a total corruption. Responding to fans in that way forces you to become what they want. And who’s to say they’re representative of your actual fan base?

LT: Obviously, it’s the signal to noise ratio that has prompted so much of the self-promotion. Ebooks may have leveled the playing field, but even the guy selling peanuts is on the field now. All of them (us) believe in our work, and all of them (us) believe our work deserves to be noticed, read, lauded, and awarded. I think it’s great that so many fine authors can get their work in front of a wider audience, but without gatekeepers – some quality control – it’s all a blur, and I ultimately ignore a lot of it, and the baby goes out with the bathwater and is summarily eaten by dogs. It’s become a party where everyone is talking so loud to be heard, it’s all just a din, and many folks have chosen to leave the party. They read the authors they know they like and refuse to venture any further, because who the hell are you going to believe? The guy with a hundred blurbs from authors you’ve never heard of? The gal with the awesome book trailer and sixty self-published novels under her belt?

So… wow… it looks like we’ve gotten a bit off topic. But this is good stuff.

My advice is to understand you’re in a business. I didn’t. Things sucked for a long time because I didn’t. You have expenses you may not even think about, and an advance may have to last you two years between acceptance and publication, unless you’re loading more projects on top of it (and there’s no guarantee future projects will sell for more or less cash). Many writers think that first book deal is the goal, but that’s the starting line, and it’s from that point forward you have to plan. So look at those numbers and think about health insurance, and think about your car breaking down, and think about eating on a regular basis. Do a solid budget.

Or, you know, marry rich!

Many thanks to my guest, Sarah Langan. Buy her books and come visit her at the World Horror Convention 2011 in Austin, Texas, where she will be one of the Guests of Honor.

Next Time: I’ll be chatting with horror master John Skipp, discussing all of those pesky zombies. Where did they come from? What do they want? Will they ever just lie down and give the living some peace?

Sarah Langan’s first novel The Keeper was a New York Times “Editor’s Pick”. Her second novel The Missing won the Bram Stoker Award for outstanding novel, was a Publisher’s Weekly favorite book of the year, and an IHG outstanding novel nominee. Her third novel, Audrey’s Door, about a woman who moves into a haunted apartment building on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, has sold to the Weinstein Company for film.

Lee Thomas is the Bram Stoker Award and the Lambda Literary Award-winning author of The Dust of Wonderland and In the Closet, Under the Bed. His novel The German is forthcoming from Lethe Press.

1 Comment on Be My Victim: Sarah Langan – Writing for a Profession

  1. Wow. Tons of food for thought. I’m going to have to read this several times. Thanks Lee and Sarah!

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