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.
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.
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?