It seems like everybody has been touched by this lousy economy. I read a report yesterday that explained why this is by far the worst economic climate of our lifetimes. Not only is unemployment at more than 8%, but the world of work has changed considerably. Over the past decade, there were many more people who were working at home, working part time, telecommuting, and cobbling together a living. If you include all those people (who weren't "laid off," they simply no longer have freelance jobs available to them), the unemployment rate is something closer to 15% -- the worst since the Great Depression. We've certainly seen that in publishing. Every house has cut staff, most have trimmed the number of books they'll release. Borders is on the ropes, some publishers look like they may be in trouble, and even Scholastic (who made a fortune introducing the world to Harry Potter) appears to have some serious issues. There's carnage everywhere in publishing. And even though we know that books are recession-resistant, overall sales have been down.
What does a writer do in this sort of economy? I'd like to make a handful of suggestions to you.
First, while things in the world economy may be dire, a depression isn't just about the world. It's about your individual projects. So, if you don't mind, I'd like to suggest you take break from the unrelenting bad news heard on the mainstream media. And even the sidestream media. I mean it -- turn off the TV, don't listen to talk radio, and stop checking FoxNews.com. It's the Christmas season, so give up broadcast media for a while. Consider yourself on a "news fast." You might think it's silly, but if you try it, you'll soon realize the benefit of not having fear-mongers and outraged talk show hosts fill your head with bad news. Decide you're going to take from now until Martin Luther King's birthday and stay away from the news. See if your attitude doesn't improve. (And let me tell you how this works for me: While many agents are spending time whining about the lousy publishing economy, I just keep working on the projects my authors represent. And I find them selling. Maybe not as many as two years ago, and maybe not for as much as they'd have sold for one year ago, but I"m still doing deals for people. Even in this bad economy, there are book deals to be made. I've found this to be true with other agent friends of mine -- we just keep working.) So turn off the Chicken Little, World-Is-Coming-To-An-End types, assume somebody will tell you if something important happens, and focus on your writing.
Second, I want you to consider recent sales. Because the contracts I negotiate for my authors generally have confidentiality clauses, I'm not going to reveal the particulars, but I can tell you this much: the majority of deals I've done in the past five months have been exclusive. In other words, the project was created with one particular publisher in mind. There was forethought put into what the project would be, and who it would be aimed at. The author really focused on the needs of a particular house, created it especially for that publisher, and we sold it to them. Of the last ten deals I did, eight of them were designed with ONE publisher in mind. Let me offer one example, since it shows some insight into the way this works... Gina Holmes runs the popular "Novel Journey" website. She has worked on that for years, meeting people, making connections, slowly building up a name that people in the industry would recognize. When she began writing, she didn't have one particular house in mind, but she knew she had a strong story that would work in the market. Over time, we began to target one publisher that would be a nice match for her story.
I spoke to the editor in charge of fiction there, so she'd know Gina was working on a book for her. The two spoke, the editor offered ideas for helping improve the story. Over time, Gina created exactly the novel that publisher wanted. And because Gina wasn't in a hurry, she was able to create a much stronger book. In the end, they made Gina a great offer -- much better than she'd have received if she had simply banged something out. There's not any one factor in this, but several ingredients that came together -- Gina's platform, her story, her writing ability, the relationship with the publisher, the allotment of time to let the story build, the feeling of partnership that developed (since we all prefer to do business with people know and trust). In a lousy economy, that's how publishing still works. So think about creating a book that is ideal for one house. (And this would be a great place to mention that Gina's novel, CROSSING OCEANS, is releasing next summer. It's going to be great!)
Third, even if there's financial discouragement around you, commit to write every day. It's what you are gifted at, and what you are called to do. Why give up your best gift and your calling at a time when things are tight? Fix a time in your schedule, sit down at the same place each day, and bang out those thousand words (or those five thousand, depending on how fast you work). Continuing to write is probably your best therapy when the rest of the world looks like it's falling apart. Besides, in a world that's struggling, there is still a need for books that will change us, inspire us, encourage us, spur us to action, offer us an entertaining escape, or cause us to live more effectively.
Fourth, if you really are worried about your writing career in this lousy world economy, do something for someone else each day. I mean it. When you do something tangible for someone else, when you encourage them or make a point of complimenting or thanking them, it changes your attitude about the world we live in. In her wonderful book Making a LIterary Life, Carolyn See says the two essential elements in a writers life are to write a thousand words a day and to send someone a charming note each day. That's great advice. So if you're concerned about the world and the economy, then take eight minutes every day and send a thank you note to that editor who talked with you at the conference, or write a note of encouragement to that author whose book you liked, or tell your publicist how much you appreciate her. Sure, it's a great way to network. But that's not the reason to do it -- you do it because it's one of the few things you can do as a writer that will get you out of your own world and into the world of someone else. Aren't you always encouraged when, out of the blue, you get one of those nice "thank you" notes for something you did that you considered a small token? Hey, we've had some very tough things happen lately. A couple authors I represent are married to people who have lost their jobs. A couple folks have faced serious health issues. A couple authors lost a parent or father-in-law. Several are facing a serious financial crunch. One good buddy, a wonderful guy who is doing a series of books with Bethany House Publishers, lost his twelve-year-old son unexpectedly just a few months ago. He and his family are facing their first Christmas after a huge loss. People need encouragement, and that's one tangible thing you can provide.
Fifth (and get ready because I'm about to sound like Pastor Chippy), examine your faith in God. Our treasure isn't in this world. Our trust really isn't in our stock portfolio or our 401k's. Our trust is in God, and He wasn't surprised when this depression began. He isn't sitting in heaven, slapping HIs forehead in surprise and saying, "I sure didn't see THAT coming." The fact is, I don't care if you're one of those people who reads this blog for the publishing advice and doesn't really believe in God. I have full confidence that God is still in charge, and still paying attention to this world, even if it looks like it's all falling apart. He still cares about you, and will still take care of you, even in difficult circumstances. So learn to trust God, however you perceive Him to be. If you're finding it hard, commit to reading your bible a bit each day in order to build your faith, and take the time to talk with someone about your concerns. We're all in this crazy business together, and at heart, we all love it. Publishing can be fickle, and certainly has the ability to ruin a promising day, but the fact is, we all know that words still matter, and if God really exists, that means He is in charge of publishing just like He's in charge of everything else. End of sermon.
I hope you have a merry Christmas. If you've got a question for an agent, send it in, because next week we're going to do a series called ASK AN AGENT. You can ask anything you've always wanted to ask an agent, and I'll try to answer it briefly but completely.