How to Rescue a Writing Career

Janet Grant

Blogger: Janet Kobobel Grant

Over the last seven years, all categories of authors have seen a dip in income and in sales figures. That includes those who consistently have significant sales; those who are mid-list; and those who are newbies. But in this risk-averse environment, publishers still are eager to sign up and to keep publishing authors whose next book is likely to have a strong performance.

Who can blame the publishers? Strong winds keep hitting their sailboats, threatening to tip them over. The latest challenges include Amazon, the Regular Disruptor, making it hard for online book purchasers to buy a book from the publisher rather than a third-party; the continuing loss of mass market sales; the closing of Family Christian Stores; the unending challenge of returns and the struggle to manage inventory well.

But publishers understand that producing books is a business of chance. If they don’t invest in the future, they’re nowhere. So debut authors still can create buzz in a publishing house.

The Mid-List Challenge

Unfortunately, that leaves the mid-list author to take the majority of the hit when publishers downsize their publishing lists. That means authors who have been writing for 5, 10, even 15 years and have honed their craft and built a bit of a following, are considered the biggest risk of all. Why?

Because their low sales figures trail behind them like toilet paper stuck to their shoe soles. Sales reps know that, when they present these authors’ new projects, book buyers will say, “I’ve never sold more than a couple of copies for that author; so, with my limited shelf space, I’m going to pass.”

And digital sales are likely to be lackluster as well, partly because the publisher won’t invest much in marketing since, in the past, that hasn’t proved to be effective for this author. But also because the author’s books haven’t connected with readers in the ways the author, publisher, and agent had hoped.

And maybe the author hasn’t figured out how to promote his books. This is especially a struggle for “legacy” authors who have been writing for 15 years or more. Many haven’t kept up with how energetic an author’s promo plans must be because, in the past, the publisher did most of the marketing.

That’s a tough reality to know how to respond to.

What’s a Mid-List Author to Do?

  • Talk to your agent.

    Brainstorm ideas with your agent about how to keep the wind in your career’s sails. And tell your agent how much money you need to make each year to keep writing. A few weeks ago I had this discussion with one of my clients, whom we’ll call Bob. Then I picked up the phone and called an editor at Bob’s publishing house. I explained that Bob might have to quit writing to make more money to support his family. The editor, who had been considering asking if Bob would co-author a project with a new writer who had a built-in audience, immediately presented the co-authoring idea to everyone involved. Within weeks, I had a new contract and an infusion of cash for Bob. Now, I hasten to add, no agent can pull that rabbit out of the hat on a regular basis. We don’t do magic. But if you just sit and stew, you certainly can’t resolve your concerns. Talk to your agent!

  • Be Open to Writing Work-for-Hire.

Yup, I know you didn’t sign up for that. I know you love writing whatever your creative muse bids you to. Why not think of work-for-hire (this includes collaborating with someone who needs major help completing an acceptable manuscript; ghostwriting; or writing for a publisher who wants to retain all the book’s rights) as if it were a day job? When you started to write, if your family was dependent on your income, you had no choice but to take a day job and spend your early-morning, late-night, holiday , and vacation hours writing. Sometimes those projects are connected to a person or organization that has the ability to sell large quantities of books. If your name is attached to several successful ventures, you’re more likely to receive a positive response from a publisher to your next book idea.

  • Meet Your Deadlines.

Publishers are using missed deadlines as a contractually-acceptable reason to end a publishing relationship. Don’t play with fire! If you have a contract, do everything within your power, to fulfill the obligations you’ve agreed to.

  • Think about a Name Change.

I’ve never gone this route with a client, but in the right situation, this is the best option. If you’re a strong writer, but your numbers are lackluster, changing your byline gives you the new start you might be needing.

  • Come Up with a Breakout Idea.

A number of my clients’ careers were in the doldrums when they dug deep and came up with a concept strong enough to generate book sales regardless who the author was. That’s the kind of maneuver that can reinvigorate a shipwrecked career.

  • Work Hard and Smart to Connect with Readers.

The goal is keep your sales trajectory going up. Publishers look for upward movement–or even sales that remain constant. They don’t need to see sales figures increase by tens of thousands in one, grand leap. Strong writing+great idea+reader connections=increased sales.

I get why publishers are reluctant to continue relationships with stalled mid-list authors. I really do. But I also feel sad for the industry as a whole that many fine, deeply-invested writers are having to make difficult decisions about their careers. I would hope that more publishers would step forward and do something significant to help like the publisher who instituted a plan to keep Bob writing. After all, it isn’t just Bob who has invested years in his writing; so has his publisher.

What are you or your friends doing to keep your writing financially viable?

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22 Responses

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  1. Interesting post, Janet…though I do wonder about adopting a nom de plume. It seems to me that with the required personal promotion an author must do, maintaining a fictitious identity may be well-nigh impossible, at least for any length of time. Anyone who has done this for short periods in other fields can attest to the difficulties inherent in maintaining even a very simple cover. It must be said, though, that the fields to which I refer carried a penalty for exposure that was rather higher than humiliation.
    * I’m not a mid-list author and never will be – I intend to go straight to the top of the NYT BS list and stay there – so if I may I shall posit another question…how does one justify one’s writing career, in the absence of financial reward?
    * It’s tough for me; all the remaining energy I have goes into writing my blog, and THAT thing forces me to examine the dark corners of life that I would prefer to leave alone. It’s shredding my soul, and I’ve become a very quiet person, very reticent. I don’t really like what I’ve become.
    * The justification is that these windows that are so hard for me to open are very necessary for others; I can break a trail (or smash a window, more fun!) and let the light in, in such a way that for the reader, it’s controlled. I have to delve deep to write, but that requirement is not, it seems, visited upon those who peruse my words.

  2. Self-promotion comes hard to Christian writers. It seems prideful and manipulative. But “connecting with readers” — absolutely my goal. Thank you, Janet, for this nudge to a better point of view.

  3. I love that a super idea can pull a writer out of the doldrums. It’s great that even in this difficult market, sometimes the writing is still King.

    • Kristen, you can look to Richard Bach’s career for inspiration; he wrote three lovely books for the niche aviation market (Stranger To The Ground, Biplane, Nothing By Chance) and then, after his car had been repossessed, submitted “Jonathan Livingston Seagull”.
      * He submitted it to over thirty publishers before Eleanor Friede became its champion, and got a grudging, low-profile launch. Word-of-mouth took over and Bach himself once commented that he expected the world to be covered about two feet deep with copies of ‘Jonathan’.
      * ‘Jonathan’ and ‘Illusions’, a few years later, made Bach a symbol for a sort of spiritual hope at a turbulent and depressing time; it was more than a great idea, it was a great idea that ran in parallel with a very definite but untapped yearning in the reading public.

  4. Janet, this is maybe an off-the-wall idea but I’ll put it in play – it may behoove an author to look inward, preferably with professional assistance.
    * Life and writing change us, and it can be easy to lose the meaning in what we once found fulfilling. I know that I have; there’s no way that I could write in the same voice and with the same outlook that I did only a couple of years ago.
    * To that end, mcu as couples are encouraged to see a counselor as a ‘checkup’ a couple of times a year, it might pay for someone in an emotionally intense and creative endeavour like writing to do the same. A professional counselor can establish a baseline, and can more easily see, without prejudice, the insidious growth of melancholy, cynicism, or ennui.
    * It’ all very well to say that these are perhaps turnings and marks on the writer’s soul that make the words more authentic, but authentic doesn’t always mean saleable.

  5. NLB Horton says:

    One of the biggest aversions CBA publishers have had to my writing, Janet, is the fact that it’s INTERNATIONAL suspense. Even though my seminary degree taught me that our God is a global God, CBA publishers believe that their readers aren’t interested in non-Americentric work. (None of my Christian friends read CBA, although they read Daniel Silva and general market writers who are all over the globe, as do I.) To make my work more palatable to publishers, a MS of domestic suspense is going to Rachelle Gardner next week. With Mary’d retirement and my welcome into Rachelle’s flock, this is the perfect time to retool the brand (website, Facebook, etc.) a little to reflect a view of the world that starts on our shores. (However, as a marksman, I have excellent long-distance vision and reserve the right to wander later.)

    • Carol Ashby says:

      Janet and NB, why do you think that is? Why is there an assumption that US buyers don’t want international stories? And what about international readers? Is there concern about whether they can effectively market outside the US? A lack of distribution channels? I’m getting about 5-8% of my sales from outside the US, and the only “international” marketing I have is a Roman history website that gets about 30% international visitors, with some small fraction of all visitors (US and other) clicking the covers in the sidebar or at the bottom of the home page or going to the historical fiction page with its info and reviews that include my books among many, Christian and not.
      *I would think international suspense would draw international readers. Is a potentially 5-10% international market fraction not enough to draw CBA publisher interest?

      • Deb Kinnard says:

        No idea why. But I once pitched a book to my then-agent about a missionary wannabe whose dream job was the Bolivian missions. Short plot summary was that she ended up in Iowa and never reached Bolivia. But my agent refused to pitch it because “Christian readers aren’t interested in foreign settings.” !! Really. I affirm to you this is true.

        And work for hire isn’t the right answer for midlisters. With work for hire, your name doesn’t get attached to any of the work — it belongs to the entity who hires you. I know because I’m doing some. I cannot cite it in my resume or claim it as writing I’ve done. So no joy there, sorry to correct you but it’s just not like that.

      • Cindy says:

        Deb: Some work for hire projects put your name on the cover. I have one that is on my Goodreads page.

      • NLB Horton says:

        Carol, I know so many Christian readers who read general-market international suspense, a leading genre in ABA. And let’s not forget Joel Rosenberg, THE successful author of Christian international suspense. My international suspense is driven by a middle-aged female protagonist, which places it well outside the comfort zone of many decision-makers. (If I hear, “I love it, but just don’t know what to do with it” one more time . . .) I suspect that fear is a big factor: what if it doesn’t sell? And it’s easier to do something that’s already been done than to take a risk, to preach to the choir rather than the world. Of course In business, paralysis leads to failure. And the money isn’t in what’s been done before, but rather in areas that require vision. (That mindset might explain why so many CBA publishers have suspended their fiction acquisitions lately.)

  6. An interesting and informative post. It describes the landscape that I have been trying to get to, but at the moment have a lot of oil spilled on my starting line. Perhaps by the time I reach that milestone the landscape will look different than it now looks. Perhaps better. Perhaps worse. Nonetheless, it is important to continue faithful execution of the plan, and holding fast to the faith we profess.

  7. Katie Powner says:

    For an unpublished writer such as myself, these types of posts are both exhilarating and terrifying. Exhilarating because you say debut authors can still create a buzz. And because it’s exciting to consider what it’s like to BE a mid-list author who’s had multiple books published. Oh what a problem to have!

    But terrifying because with the hopeful promise of a debut also comes the crushing pressure of making it count. And because looking too far into the future of my thus far nonexistent “career” is overwhelming and paralyzing. Though planning and strategizing are good, and I’m keeping all the advice from this blog tucked away in my mind, I think I better just take it one step at a time for now so I don’t blow up.

    • Yup. One thing at a time. Just take it “bird by bird.”

    • Mary Kay Moody says:

      My thoughts exactly, Katie. Easy to step into the overwhelmed position. And it makes me so grateful for the reminder I read this AM that God is our always available Guide. Blessings on your journey. Our journey.

      Thank you, Janet, for dusting us with your calm, seasoned wisdom.

  8. Jason Sautel says:

    Prayers going up for “Bob’s” new project!

  9. Cindy says:

    Thanks for this post. Sometimes we don’t like to talk about this because we are trying to be positive and optimistic, but it’s true. Some great tips here, though. The one about talking to your agent failed for me. My agent dropped me out of the blue, without a conversation, because I fit the description of the author you are talking about here. Is that a trend now? I hope not.

  10. There at least should be a mention of the self-publishing option, which many, many former midlist writers have opted for, with tremendous results.

    • Jim, I thought about that, but didn’t want to say it. Thanks for bringing it up.
      Janet, mid-list authors have tried many of these suggestions. It seems that publishers either want guaranteed winners with a long track record or newbies who’ll sign for less of an advance. I appreciate the work you and other agents do for their clients, but unfortunately I see the roadblock to be that this is–in the end–a for-profit business. Thanks for sharing the thoughts.

  11. Janet, could you please give us examples of those strong concepts you mentioned? What makes a concept strong?

  12. Julie Barnhill says:

    NLB Horton, I’ll read your books! (I purchase hard cover Silva books, that’s how serious I am about that particular genre.) It’s hard to believe that such parameters (“Don’t know what to do with it” “….no interest in global setting”) are still being meted out per CBA. Sigh.

    • NLB Horton says:

      Julie, I agree. It’s particularly discouraging to encounter this isolationist view in the context of an increasingly Americentric culture. I read an article a few months ago stating that the VAST majority of evangelicals are disinterested in the plight of persecuted Christians in Syria. Yet we keep sending mission trips to Africa and South America (no shot taken at those, but used as an example here) when our brothers and sisters are dying for their faith.I don’t understand our cocoon of comfort. It certainly isn’t Christ-like. Regarding my books, please wait a bit. I’ve SPed two, and have another two “parked” with the agent. The newest, a work of domestic suspense, is by far the best yet. But those two parked with the agent are very good, and I have plans for them. Hang tough, and your interest beyond our borders gives me confidence that the love of Christ can overcome what limits our perspective. Best, NLBH