Writing: The Third Way

I’ve started carving out a new way to think about my writing. I’d like to share it with you, not because I think you should do what I’m doing, but to let you know that you can.

I am one of those very rare writers who had the good fortune to be traditionally published. I spent four years putting “writer” as my occupation on my tax returns. And parts of this were pretty great. Twice I was sent on book tours that were a lot of fun, though they were an absolute disaster as far as actually selling books. I did panel discussions at conferences; I got to go to Ft. Lauderdale in March for a library event where I met other cool writers and where we were feted at the home of some wealthy library donor who lived on the top floor of a 14-story with a wraparound balcony—the Atlantic was visible from one side, and the Intercoastal Waterway was visible from the other. The appetizers were delicious and the booze was free.

And, of course, I made money from my writing, and so my workday looked like this: get up, walk the dog, go to the gym, go to the coffee shop and write for 2 or 3 hours, come home. It was a very sweet workday.

But, of course, not everything was wonderful, especially after my advances started shrinking. I was envious of writers getting more attention and making more money than me even though, from my point of view, they weren’t actually any better than I was. I was worried all the time—what if the next book doesn’t sell? Will this movie option pan out? Why aren’t more people buying my books?

As I’ve mentioned before, I kept defining success upward. Though I was, objectively speaking, one of the most successful writers in the country in that I got published and got paid for it, I felt like I had a tenuous grip on my newfound status, and I was angry and resentful that more people didn’t buy my book, that Rashida Jones backed out of the movie adaptation of one of my books, thereby sinking the project, that I wasn’t getting my due, which was a lifetime career as a writer accompanied by untold riches.

But here’s the thing: almost nobody gets that. And the great majority of people, including past me, who are able to write full time are able to do so because they have a spouse with a real job. (Don’t yell at me that writing is a real job. I have taught high school classes that began at 7:30 AM. THAT’s a real job. Staying home and making up stories is definitely not. And that’s what I liked about it.)

Now, again, I’m not telling you not to aspire to be traditionally published. But I do recognize that even my success, which is probably modest by the standards you’re imagining (no bestsellers, no movie deals, no becoming a household name), makes me an outlier. Most people, regardless of their talent, will not achieve this.

There are lots of reasons for this, but most of them boil down to this: publishing is a business, and agents and publishers are in it to make money, so that’s the criterion they will use to judge your work: can it make me money? (The great majority of books that are traditionally published actually don’t make money, which adds a certain amount of desperation to the search for surefire sellers.)

But, of course, it’s easier than ever to self publish. And you can certainly read a million blog posts about how to crank out a series and how to game the Amazon algorithm so people discover your book, and how much you can expect to earn back if you spend a bunch on a cover, etc. I like that there’s a way to bypass the traditional gatekeepers and get your work out there, but if you’re going to go this route, you’re going to need to be both a writer and a marketer, and you’ll need to spend more time and energy on the marketing than the writing.

Some people can do this, and if you’re one of them, good for you. But the primary problem with this approach is that you’re still defining your artistic success in terms of how much money you bring in. Which means you’re in danger of winding up disappointed and frustrated, because you could always be selling more. The person who wrote the book you bought about how to make self publishing a profitable side hustle told you so! (Though if they make so much money self-publishing fiction, why do they feel the need to sell you a book about how to self publish?)

Faced with these two options, many people give up. But this, I think, is a mistake. I’d like to suggest that writers have another option, and we should look to other arts (and crafts!) for inspiration.

Many people paint. Few people sell paintings. A lot of people just paint because they enjoy it. Tons of people knit. Almost none of them sell their work. I could go on, but you get the idea. If you’re knitting a sweater, you don’t measure success by how much money someone will pay for it; you measure success by whether it turned out the way you wanted to, and possibly by whether one other person liked it.

I did a self-publishing event with my friend Kirsten Feldman about ten years ago. ( I was plugging Enter the Bluebird, and she was plugging No Alligators in Sight, which is great) Someone asked her why she’d invested a lot of money into making her book look so professional, and she answered, “a lot of people spend money on their hobbies. This is mine.” I’ve thought about that a lot since then—I know guitarists with tons of gear (so many pedals!) who will never make that money back. They just like making music. Don’t even get me started on the cost of wool to make a sweater. Most people who draw or paint have to buy supplies and never hope to make the cost back.

But also, you don’t have to spend a ton of money to put your work out there. It’s pretty easy to make a decent-looking cover with a Canva Pro subscription that you can cancel as soon as you’re done. Editing is much harder—you can rely on yourself, of course, or you can hire an editor, or you can find another writer to swap with—you edit mine, I’ll edit yours. Ebook conversion is trivially easy—you can get LibreOffice for free, and it will convert your file to .epub.

And then you can just make your work available on your own website or on Gumroad or a similar platform and not have to worry about whether you’re making lots of sales. You can just be thrilled when someone wants to read your book!

I just released I See Red, a noir novel set in a high school that is unsellable to traditional publishers for a number of reasons, but that I’m very proud of. Eight people have downloaded the book so far. That’s not many, but you know what? I’m delighted. That’s eight more readers than I would have had if it was just sitting on my hard drive!)

Uncoupling my art from commerce allows me to define success on my own terms. And it allows me to write whatever the hell I want without worrying about whether it’s sellable. (I’m currently having a great time writing a play in iambic pentameter, a project with absolutely no commercial potential! It’s coming out really well! I’m very proud of it so far!)

Now let’s address the privilege question. Isn’t it a luxury to have spare time to write that you don’t have to monetize? I mean, I guess, but we all have things that we do for fun and not money no matter how busy we are. And the fact that it’s nearly impossible to write for a living unless your spouse provides the health insurance and regular paychecks means that we don’t have to do it for money! We can do it for fun! And that doesn’t make it any less valid!

Now, again, if you can get a traditional publisher to pay you tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars to publish your work, you’d be foolish not to take advantage of that opportunity. But if you’re facing ten years of rejection and you’re feeling like a failure, and you’re thinking that the stuff you’ve written is failed art because nobody wanted to pay you to publish it, just be aware that there’s another way.