Today's post courtesy of J. Scott Savage, author of the Farworld Series.
When most authors started writing, they didn't have dollar signs floating around in their heads. Sure there are a few people who start writing because they want to make a living from it, but most of them realize pretty quickly that starting a novel is not a replacement for a day job. Usually you start writing because there is a story in your head that needs to get out. The process of taking what is in your brain and capturing it on paper is much harder than you imagine it to be, but so incredibly fulfilling when it comes together.
That’s art. It’s hard, frustrating, exhilarating, exhausting, and a total blast.
Then something odd happens. You don’t mean any harm, but one day you figure you should probably understand a little bit about the business side of things. You read about agents, editors, queries, traditional vs indie, sales numbers, rankings, marketing plans, platforms. It’s kind of exciting to imagine a big advance, people lining up to buy your books, a launch party, foreign rights, movie rights. You don’t realize it, but you have just started down a very dangerous path.
Don’t get me wrong. All that stuff is cool. You need to know about it if you want to do anything in the book publishing world. And frankly, it’s impossible not to learn about it if you attend any writing conference or read writing blogs. It’s the business side of the publishing business.
The problem is that at some point, a little switch clicks in your brain. That switch connects the art and joy of writing with the business side of selling books, and if you’re not careful you start to think that your value as a writer is tied to the success of your book’s sales numbers. You begin to think that if you haven’t signed a big contract, you’re not a “real” writer. You think that if your indie or traditionally published book doesn't sell as well as you’d hoped, that it’s your fault. You equate sales with quality.
STOP. RIGHT NOW. THIS VERY MINUTE.
I’m serious. You. Must. Keep. Art. And. Business. Separate.
Here’s the thing. Some of the most brilliant writers I know have sold a boat-load of books. That’s true. And they absolutely deserve all the success they have. But . . . some of the most brilliant writers I know have not sold a lot of books, or any books. That does not diminish them or their writing in any way. It does not make their brilliant art any less brilliant. But that is so incredibly hard to see when you are in the middle of it.
Trust me, I know from first-hand experience. There is nothing more devastating than having a book you love not sell. Rejections hurt like poisoned daggers. And there is no guarantee you will get over it. You think when you finish a book, you will be on cloud 9 forever. You think if only you can sign with an agent, you will never be depressed. When you sell a book to a publisher you think you have finally made it. There’s always some award, some number, some milestone that will finally get rid of the stress for good.
But here is a truth that every author has to live with. For every success, there are at least ten failures. Every time you reach a mountain peak, you discover there is a valley on the other side. No matter how much you accomplish, you will never completely stop doubting yourself.
Wait, come back. Don’t run away. Take your thumb out of your mouth and come out of the corner. That’s the bad news. And yes, it is bad. But there is good news too. You know how I said that every time you reach a mountain top there is a valley on the other side? Well every time you find yourself in the middle of the deepest darkest valley, you don’t realize that in reality, you are almost to the top of another peak. You just don’t know it, yet, because you have your business hat pulled down so low over your eyes that you can’t see clearly.
Remember back when you were writing for the fun of it? Remember when you used to laugh at the funny things you wrote and cry over the sad things? Remember when someone got completely lost in one of your stories and told you how they loved one of your characters. Remember the art?
That’s who you are: an artist. You aren't a book salesperson or a marketing guru or an accountant. (Okay, maybe you actually are, but stay with me.) Great artists create art because it is a part of them.
I used to have people come up to me at signings and say, “I don’t know how you people come up with stories like these.” I always thought they were just saying that to compliment me. Who couldn't come up with stories? Don’t they float around in everyone’s head like goldfish in a bowl?
As it turns out, no they don’t. Most people can’t see worlds and characters the way you do. They don’t have conversations with imaginary friends and laugh at dialogue they made up. Most people will never write a book, and whether you sell a million copies or no copies, you have accomplished an amazing thing.
So how do you keep the numbers from destroying the creativity? Go get yourself two hats. Whatever kind you want: baseball caps, derbies, fedoras, top hats. Grab a couple of sticky labels and designate one hat ART and the other hat BUSINESS. When you sit down to write, the art hat goes on. You aren't allowed to think about whether this book will sell or how your last book did. You can’t look up your Amazon rating or check for responses to your latest queries. You can’t worry that what you are writing isn't what agent X or publisher Y is looking for. You sit your butt in your chair and you write the most amazing book you know how. You remind yourself that you are freaking incredible. You make yourself laugh and cry, and even breathe funny when you get to an exciting part. You write what you love, because you love to write.
Then, when, and only when, you are done writing for the day, you can put on your business hat. That’s when you can check your sales numbers, send out queries, check your blog stats, look at your bank account. Stress away to your heart’s content. It’s okay, because you are wearing your business hat. The business person is allowed to crunch numbers, because they aren't going to get their spirit crushed by low sales. They are going to open spreadsheets, brainstorm marketing ideas, concoct ways to hit the best seller lists. The person in the business hat tells the artist, “Don’t worry about numbers. I've got this covered. You just keep making great art.” And any time the artist looks like he or she might be edging toward putting on the business hat, the businessperson smacks the artist’s hand away and yells, “No touchy!”
I know I've kind of made light of this, but it is a real problem. I can’t tell you how many people I know who have lost the will to write because of something that has nothing to do with writing. They get so caught up in this elusive thing called “success” that they completely psych themselves out. Don’t do that. Remember how much you love writing and why you love it. The numbers may or may not come, but you never need to stop making great art.