Between the Lines #53 min read

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We speak with a lot of writers, most of whom share a singular dream: to someday have the time and resources to actually write. It’s not an illusion of grandeur by any means; the vision is simply of having their expenses reliably covered so that their “job” can be writing and only writing. In other words, they dream of “making it.”

You know the fantasy. You sell your first book for just enough money. You can quit your office job and spend your days instead writing that second novel full-time. If you’re feeling saucy, imagine that during this time your reputation and clout grows exponentially. Suddenly, you’re off and running.

It’s a romantic picture, isn’t it? Except for when you frame it another way: this El Dorado you’re dreaming of is essentially a middle-class desk job with little to no benefits, probably of similar profile to the one you currently have.

But the thing is, you shouldn’t think of writing in this way, the way that our modern economy would like. If you do, you end up realizing that, as a writer, you’re producing an already plentiful commodity and trying to sell it into a market that, to put it nicely, is fickle and largely illogical. The publishing “industry,” such that it is, doesn’t make much sense in any of the ways we’re taught to view production of goods or services or any other Business Term. If described purely in terms of industry statistics and the quality of life of its participants, no aspiring person would choose it as their “real” job. It wouldn’t make any sense.

But we know that’s not why anyone picks up a pen. We’re all here for other reasons—stories, ideas, artistic craft, self-expression–that late capitalism hasn’t commodified in a manner that’s helpful to anyone. But still, the dream of “full-time” writing persists. “Making it” remains the One True Marker of Writing Success, even as all of our rents are going up, our wages at our “real” jobs aren’t, and it’s increasingly normal for just about everyone to pick up a side hustle. Even the people with real jobs increasingly have other real jobs, just to meet ends meet.

Perhaps our Writing Dream needs revising.

We’re not suggesting that writers shouldn’t do all the same things they have always done to “make it”: consistent habits, a careful eye on the industry and its many hoops, and a professional approach to improving craft and producing work will always reap benefits. Instead, we want you to think about a strange new scenario: what if the light at the end of tunnel wasn’t the ability to drop all our other obligations?

As agents, we know from experience that “making it” has almost no correlation with success as an author. Which writer gets paid what amount is very infrequently a meritocracy. The coveted advance payment for book royalties is negotiated based on a wide array of publishing minutiae that only sometimes includes “but the book is really good.”

Many of our multi-book authors published by the big trade houses go to work every day as schoolteachers. Writers published in every Cool Magazine you can think of probably did their editing between security guard shifts. There are honest-to-goodness literary savants who win awards and go to all the parties and know all the people and who still get up on Monday mornings and give marketing presentations to their bosses, just like you do.

And we think this is a good thing, if we let it be. Of course, we want talented writers to make gobs of money, but maybe if we throw away the idea of “making it,” we can feel less paralyzed and far away from what we consider to be success.

Maybe instead, the dream should be for writing to simply occupy a consistent and fertile creative space in our lives, something separate from and better than all the other things we have to do each day to avoid destitution. Should we seek out and take the chances to write “professionally,” when they arise? Of course. Demand payment when you can; fight for what your work is worth. But hold your notion of success apart from all this. Do not let the world do to your writing life what it would gladly do to every other skill or spare hour in your possession. It’s far more valuable than that.

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