When should you give up?

Before you get published, getting published is the most exciting thing that could ever possibly happen to you. And then when you get published, it is.

"only lovers left alive"
What being published is supposed to feel like.

Being published feels like the opening of a magical door. You’re in. You’re an author. Your book is in bookshops, it sits there in the same place as Middlemarch and Gilead and Infinite Jest and all those other BOOKS. You’ve been chosen. And it is, it’s magical for a bit. And then the bookshops send all the unsold copies back and that’s it. You’re not on the shelves anymore, no one will review you, no one will ask you to be on a panel at a literary festival. You thought you’d made it, but you didn’t realise that was just the first door. Now you can sit in the anteroom of the vestibule of the foyer for the rest of your life, while the real actual chosen keep opening doors and moving in and in and in.

Little girl unlocking door
What being published usually feels like.

I’ve read a few things over the last month or so which have made me realise what a tiny step towards being an author this getting published business is. First, there was this piece from author Annabel Smith about looking for an agent when you have two published novels and a third on the way. Basically, she says, it makes no difference that you’re published. Nothing has changed, it’s still the case that no one wants you; no one cares. If you haven’t sold big, you might as well have never been published. Other authors talked about how if you haven’t sold big, it might even be an impediment to have been published – all the data about your crappy sales lives on forever on BookScan, where prospective publishers can see it and decide you’re really not worth the risk.

Then I found out that Tom Flood won both  the Vogel and the Miles Franklin for his 1988 novel, Oceana Fine, and then never had another novel published ever again (in the words of Wikipedia, he was ‘confined to short stories’, as though it were a punishment for wrongdoing).

And then there was my second royalty statement, which I got yesterday. My first one was OK, I guess. I made $1700 in the first six months my book was out. I got to buy a nice second-hand table, take a trip to the Adelaide Festival to see John Zorn and get my first tattoo at the improbable age of 44. I also subscribed to a bunch of Australian literary journals. So, y’know, that’s nice. I knew my second six-monthly statement would be smaller, but hoped it might buy me a ridiculously overpriced haircut & colour; that’s right, my huge ambition was to make $200. But no dice. Between December and May I sold minus 25 books. Who even knew that was possible?

I’m reminded of the wise words of ‘saying what everyone is thinking’ (perhaps not the author’s real name) who posted on a Wheeler Centre discussion about the lack of money to be made as a writer:

I’m going to address the elephant in the room. If you’ve done a fair bit of marketing and your book is not selling, then maybe you haven’t written a book that lots of people want to read. That’s not to say that you haven’t done your best. You just haven’t written a book that lots of people want to read. The world doesn’t owe you a living.

When A wrong turn at the Office of Unmade Lists was published, it turned my life around. Something in my brain shifted. I had permission to take my writing seriously. Suddenly I didn’t care so much that my career trajectory had been less than stellar, that I earned less than my friends and my peers, that I still, at the age of 44, had no real ambition for what I wanted to do when I grew up. I was an author. I could do whatever at work, because at home I was an author. In every spare minute I was an author. Look: I have a book: I am an author. And now, am I not? And what does that mean?

Like Annabel Smith says:

If my next grant application is unsuccessful I will need to return to teaching ESL at a local university. It is an enjoyable and well-paid job, but it is not the job I want to be doing. The job I want to be doing is writing. And aside from the financial implications of unsuccessful grant applications there is the horrible sense of being perpetually judged and found wanting, the feeling of competitiveness with other writers and the sensation of being always on tenterhooks while you await the outcome of some opportunity. Sometimes the grinding sense of being perpetually undervalued makes it hard to be gracious about the success of others; so that when I saw Graeme Simsion’s The Rosie Project on the shelves at Coles, instead of thinking ‘Good for him’ I felt like throwing myself onto the floor of aisle 3, screaming ‘Why can’t it be me?’

And I wonder if there is a point where you should decide, hey, you’re not really an author after all. That maybe it’s time to do that psychology masters you were once considering and get a real job. Or knuckle down at the day job and try to at least rise up the crappy publishing ladder to a managerial position. Because, let’s face it, I’m not really an author.

But at the same time, I am still a writer. That book that got published? I wrote that five years ago. Since then, I’ve written two more (incomplete) novels and god knows how many short stories. Really, nothing has changed. I wrote, I write, I will write. Fiona McFarlane, currently shortlisted for the Miles Franklin for her debut novel The Night Guest, puts it beautifully in this piece she wrote for the ABC:

 There’s no doubt that being published and interviewed, appearing at festivals and on prize shortlists makes a difference to the way our work is perceived. The 29 years that elapsed between The Fake God [the first thing she wrote] and The Night Guest take shape because of the publication of the latter; before my first novel came out, I was still just someone trying to write a first novel. But I’m now just someone trying to write a second novel. I love the same books I always did; my fascinations run the same course; I’m still alone in a room with my brain. I don’t mean to sound ungrateful. It’s a privilege to be published, to be read…

I’m still alone in a room with my brain. Does it matter if no one wants to read what I write?

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31 thoughts on “When should you give up?

  1. Wow, what a brave and true post. It was reading about David Ireland’s fate which overwhelmed me with the cruelty of the writing game a few years ago. There’s a lot of pressure after a book for the next one to appear, and not having one out feels like the worst kind of failure. Thanks for your honesty; it’s cathartic to read.

  2. Thanks Nathan. I’ve been inspired by Annabel Smith, who writes so openly about life as a published writer, and by Fiona McFarlane’s very revealing article on the ABC site. I’ve often wondered what happened to David Ireland…

    1. Really interesting, Nathan; thanks for alerting me to that. He seems the ideal candidate for digital self-publishing, now that such a thing exists. He’s known, there are plenty of people who would like to read more by him. But maybe once you’re in your 80s that all seems like far too much trouble.

      I would have read the Unknown Industrial Prisoner in about 1985, I think, long after it came out. No idea how I got my hands on it, probably picked it up randomly in a second-hand bookshop. But it blew my mind. It was a whole world I knew nothing about, even though it was happening just up the coast from me. It seemed like science fiction to a middle-class Canberran school girl. Brilliant, awareness-raising stuff. I’ve been trying to read Woman of the Future but can’t quite do it. Too unsettling. Maybe it’s time to read Glass Canoe though.

  3. Thanks for this bracing and honest post, JR. Much of this rings true for me, though I’ve not yet published my book.

    I’ve always justified my less than stellar and non-linear ‘career’ trajectory as a means towards a bigger end — a book, a feature for a respected masthead, whatever. Thing is, I’m not even sure if I fully believe in it. I keep hoping that one extra publication is a step above treading water, at least in a professional sense.

    I dunno. Do you resign yourself to a life of continuous struggle or do you ascend the crappy publishing/journalism ladder? Both options are depressing — that feeling of failure is probably going to niggle at you either way.

    1. Gillian, I reckon there are some of us who just aren’t really cut out to succeed: lack of a killer instinct or whatever it is. We might have talent or be smart or whatever – we probably did well at school and assumed it’d all be plain sailing from then on. But it turns out it’s not. We do OK, but we’ll never be great. Perhaps there is a way to focus on the small things that make myself content, to think less about how successful others are at a thing I think I’m better at; to somehow be at peace with just being good at something without being recognised or rewarded for it. The David Ireland article is a good insight: he just wants to write and he just keeps on writing, even though no one cares anymore. Maybe that’s enough. I look forward to it one day being enough!

  4. What a great post, Jane. And also, what a sad post. Getting a novel published is an amazing achievement. Hell, even writing a novel is an amazing achievement. Unfortunately there is an enormous gap between publication and ‘success’. It’s horrible when the bubble bursts and there’s nothing like a terrible royalties statement for doing that. What I strive for, with varying degrees of success, is to separate the writing from the ‘success’. I try to measure my own satisfaction with the books I have written, rather than measure them by external validation (or lack thereof). I still have hopes for a ‘breakthrough’ book. But in the last couple of years I have come to understand that it may never happen, and that I’ll probably keep writing anyway. Thanks for sharing your thoughts so honestly. I would say: don’t give up yet. Just because you didn’t hit the big-time with your first book, doesn’t mean it wasn’t a worthy undertaking in many other ways.

    1. I guess that’s what it comes down to – what else am I going to do? I don’t have the drive to do anything but write, so unless my crochet suddenly comes good that’s probably what I’ll stick with. It’s probably exhausting doing 100 writers festivals a year anyway: right?

  5. I found your blog via Chuck Wendig’s. I thought your descriptive passage was amazing. Just amazing.

    This post is also amazing. Not many people may want to read your writing, but after reading the passage about Giovanni Santi, I’m one of the few who want to read you.

    Keep writing.

      1. I finally got around to reading two of your stories: In Registry and A Dynasty of Square Standers. Thanks for pointing them out to me.

        Best wishes with your writing.

      1. A bit. You kind of have to get in early before everyone gets bored if you want more than one or two people to critique your stuff. But yes. And he has many other useful writing prompts and help thingos on his site too. Plus he’s hilarious.

  6. I loved this post. Writers write not because we can’t do something else—we could—but because we need to do something that fulfils us. I doubt you could go to a well-paid nine-to-five job working in an industry about which you didn’t care, or making money for a company about which you didn’t care. It would be meaningless and a waste of your life. At least you’re doing what you want and if nothing else, you now have a little bit of immortality with your published book. You’re a good writer, and who knows what the future will hold … I’m off to buy a copy of ‘A Wrong Turn at the Office of Unmade Lists’ right now. Mark that as one sale for the next quarter …

    1. Thanks so much Louise: that’s minus 24 now. But really, thank you for the compliment and for getting the book. This whole thing does feel less of a waste than a lot of the other options…

  7. Oh Jane, I am so saddened to read this post. When I read and reviewed your book I was excited by it and I thought to myself, here is another Aussie writer who is going to crack on and do more quirky and interesting books for me to read.
    I hope you don’t give up….

    1. Oh Lisa, thanks so much for saying so. I’ll keep writing. Reading and writing is pretty much just what I do. Who knows if anyone will ever publish me again, but I’ll keep writing for sure. Don’t be sad!

  8. Maybe starting life as a poet gives you very low expectations. You just want your poems to have a life in the world, which for poetry usually means an appearance in a journal not many people read, maybe a book not many people read. Certainly not fame and fortune. You just don’t expect it as a poet. And you certainly don’t expect to make a living. I (we) transferred that attitude) to novels. It’s true, no one owes you a living. And even if you write a pretty good book, the world can perfectly well survive without it. Now that you can publish our own books quite cheaply as ebooks, your book can have a life in the world. Some people will read and love it. I think that’s enough.

    On a related subject, the idea that people have to do another job when they really want to write- I firmly believe that it’s much better for writers to have another job. It keeps them anchored in the world. It stops them from getting precious.

  9. Jane, this is a great post and struck a chord with me so loudly my head is still ringing. I’ve had 3 books published, had the foreign rights to two picked up by 5 other countries, appeared at festivals etc etc and it doesn’t mean a thing. Getting another book published in this climate appears to be impossible. Not because the books are crap but because the market no longer wants a mid lister.
    I adore writing but I find the despair and indignity of continual subbing and snubbing too emotionally wearing. I don’t want to live like this, hanging on, as you say, for the results of some opportunity that I’ve gone for only to be disappointed again. Life is too short and being published isn’t all that great anyway! I never thought I’d make money and even though I did, it’s not enough to live on. The reward was always the creativity.
    So I’m almost at the point of walking away. I think it will be liberating and gut wrenching at the same time, but I have to face the fact that publishing and the world have been through a huge disruption through the GFC, the internet, smart phones and a decline in reading, and the landscape has changed for good. This is the time we’ve been given and while I will always write I’ll find my readers some other way, not through digital self publishing, but some other way I’ve yet to discover.

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