As is true with many of the most desirable professions, success at writing requires a special confluence of talent, hard work, dedication, and sheer luck. As one of my favorite epic fantasy authors put it:
If you want to write, then write. If you want to be a writer, go study accounting.”
It’s not enough to be interested in a job where you can stay in your pajamas all day. You must have a burning desire to write, and a fervent love of both reading and writing. You need A LOT of patience, a fair amount of self-confidence, and thick skin.
And you really, really have to want it. Simply being charmed by the idea of writing novels for a living is hardly enough. Aspiring authors, it may be time to ask yourself a question: Do I want it badly enough? Let’s find out.
Forbes has a brief, entertaining article on why you shouldn’t be a writer. One reason: Breaking in as a published author is now more competitive than it has ever been. A number of factors have contributed to this:
- Accessibility. Anyone with access to a computer can write a novel. There’s almost no barrier to entry. The same goes for finding and querying literary agents… which is why most agencies get hundreds or thousands of queries per week.
- Economy. Lots of people are out of work, or underpaid, or simply unhappy in the current economy. These people have lots of time on their hands, almost certainly more time than you do. And they’re more motivated.
- NaNoWriMo. This past November, over 300,000 people tried to write a novel as part of National Novel Writing Month. Granted, less than 14% of them succeeded, but that’s still 41,940 new novels that you’re up against.
- Modern medicine. Yes, it’s a wonderful thing. At the same time, you can no longer rely on established authors to simply die out.
If you saw the article on statistics of querying literary agents or my guest post with Brenda Drake about hard numbers from the #PitMad contest, you know just how competitive the field is at the first barrier to entry: finding an agent.
When I looked at QueryTracker for about 20 top agents who rep fantasy and sci-fi, the overall success rate for querying them was around 13%. Think that #PitMad or #SunVsSnow contests will give you a leg up? Probably not, because their success rates are also around 10-12%.
Literary agent Richard Henshaw provides this sobering view:
Last year I received about 4000 first novel queries and partials, out of which I read maybe 150 first novels in their entirety. Of those, I agreed to represent roughly eight. Even though I strongly believe in each and every one, I won’t be surprised if I place only four of the eight.”
This one agent got over 300 queries a month, and he ultimately read full manuscripts for 3.75%. Of those, he agreed to represent just 8 (5.3%) and expects to sell four. Overall odds of success? About 1 in 1,000.
Cold Realities of Writing
Let’s say that you do manage to get an agent or publisher (or even just to e-publish yourself). You’ve managed to break in. Now for a dose of reality about the publishing industry.
- A book has less than 1% chance of making it to the shelf of your local bookstore. The number of books published has exploded, whereas the shelf space has steadily declined over the last decade.
- Authors are expected to market their own books. If your name isn’t Brandon Sanderson, don’t count on the publisher to market your book for you. That’s the author’s job, now.
- Most published authors make less than $1,000 a year. That was the finding of a recent survey by Digital Book World. If you think it’s biased by e-books, consider this: only 10% of traditionally published authors make $20,000 per year.
If you’re not discouraged enough, see this article by a publisher on The 10 Awful Truths About Book Publishing.
Perseverance Isn’t Enough
Seriously, are you still here? You are a tenacious one. Maybe you do have what it takes. But this dogged dedication alone won’t get you there. There’s a popular misconception that if you work hard at it for a long time, you’re going to get published. But let me tell you a brief vignette. On QueryTracker, I began to notice a certain aspiring writer. This person has been querying for years, with multiple novel projects. Just about every single agent I looked up has received a query from him or her.
As far as I can tell, that user received nothing but rejections. Some are immediate, some are six months later, and some queries just don’t get a reply (a common practice for agencies these days; I understand it but don’t like it). You really only get one shot to query an agent for each project, and it is quite possible to run out of agents. They have a finite number, particularly for writers who seek out qualified agents from reputable agencies who represent the right book category.
Improving the Odds: Writing Craft
You are a persistent reader, aren’t you? Since you’ve come this far, I’ll offer you a small reward. The counter-point to the Forbes article on why you shouldn’t be a writer is this one: Why You Should Be A Writer. One good reason: immortality.
Some of the factors influencing a writer’s career are not in his or her control: luck, timing, personal connections. Ultimately, however, the writing has to sell. Revising the work, and improving writing craft in general, are both essential. Not just to find an agent, but to have a book published that does well, so that you can sell publishers another one. To that end, here are some nice craft-related articles that I’ve come across in the past couple of weeks:
- The 3 best ways to physically describe your characters
- How to create a vivid setting
- Managing story length
- Giving characters a dark side
These are aimed at writers who are pretty far along already, but they’re useful to anyone interested in writing fiction that sells. For more tips and advice, see my resources for new authors page.
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