Writing Excuses 15.44: Rebooting a Career
Key Points: You might be orphaned by editors. Or maybe your books stop selling, the series doesn’t click? You have to stick with it, keep going. Dedication, hard work, keep pivoting. Look at your brand right now, and think about how to build on that to do the thing you want to next. Diversify! Multiple pen names, projects, brands. Your skill set can carry across a pivot or reboot. You can use short fiction to explore where your strengths are quickly. “Never let more than 40% of your income come from one place.” If you quit your day job and write full time, you are a freelancer. Diversify your income stream. Plan ahead. Learn how to track where your money is coming from.
[Mary Robinette] Season 15, Episode 44.
[Dan] This is Writing Excuses, Rebooting a Career.
[Dongwon] 15 minutes long.
[Mary Robinette] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Howard] And we’re not that smart.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Dongwon] I’m Dongwon.
[Mary Robinette] I’m Mary Robinette.
[Howard] I’m looking for something now.
[Dan] Well, we have got something new for you. We teased this episode all the way back in our very first episode of the year. Which, for us, we recorded 10 minutes ago, but you…
[Dan] Had to wait 11 months for it. Thank you for your patience. So, this is something, again, that came up in an audience question. I love this topic, because it has happened to me. I’m actually in the middle of it right now. I sincerely hope by the time this airs that everything’s stable and wonderful. But I have been orphaned twice by editors.
[Mary Robinette] Let’s define what orphaned means, in this context.
[Dan] Orphaned… Okay. In this context, what it means is the editor who acquired my book initially at a given publishing house, I am no longer with that editor. I was moved to a different one. Then that one actually left the publishing house altogether. A year later, I am currently, as of this recording, do not have an editor at that publisher. Which is sad because now the books are not being shepherded, and my own career is a little bit in flux. So this is something that I’ve dealt with personally, but I’m not going to answer the question, I’m going to ask the question of Dongwon. What does an author do when they’ve had some success, they’ve had some books come out, and then they either get orphaned, or their books stop selling, the new series they have come out just doesn’t take off or it tanks completely? They need to change something. How do you know when you hit that point, and how do you know what changes to make? Now talk for 15 minutes.
[Dongwon] I really… I could talk for an hour here. I really love this topic, because it’s a really, really important one. I think the greatest determinant in whether or not a writer is successful in their career is their ability to ride with the tough times. Right? That’s sort of stick-with-it-ness, that’s sort of like ability to just keep going in the face of a lot of setbacks, is the thing that I see more often than not how people get to where they want to be. Right? I’ve been in publishing now for 15 years, and over that time, I’ve seen people over and over again who I looked at them, I looked at their sales numbers, I looked at where they’re at in sort of the market, and I was like, “Ah. They’re such a nice person, it’s too bad their career’s over.” Then 10 years later, they’re New York Times bestsellers. Right? I can think of half a dozen people off the top of my head of been in similar situations. Right? So many people we talk about as overnight successes really spent years and years writing books until something hit it. George Martin’s a famous example. But I think the guest host for this year, Victoria Schwab’s another great example of somebody who was writing for a long time before she really blew up in the way she has. It takes dedication and hard work, and the ability to keep pivoting and keep working with it. It’s one of my favorite things is to take a writer who is in a position where… Not necessarily a bad position, but one where you could be doing more, and help them figure out, “Okay, what’s next, how do we reposition this to grow from here?” So, I think there’s a lot of different strategies. I think the thing that’s really important is considering what’s your brand right now, and how do you build on that for the thing that you want to do next. Right? So I think Daniel Abraham is a really great example to look at. He had a series with Tor, that was The Long Price Quartet, which was an absolute brilliant fantasy series. Sales were probably not where everyone wanted them to be, because it’s a very worthy series, but not necessarily like the most commercial, like, it’s not a lot of like big action romps there, right? The thing about Daniel is he had multiple brands going at once. He was also writing as M. L. N. Hanover, an urban fantasy series. Then, when urban fantasy started falling off a little bit, he was looking to pivot again. So at that point, he came to me, when I was an editor at Orbit, and pitched two different projects at once. The Dragon’s Path, which is an epic fantasy sort of following in the vein of what he was doing at Tor. But then he also was like, “Hey, we also have this co-written science fiction project with this guy Ty Franck.” That was what is now The Expanse. Again, that was under yet another pen name. Right? So the thing that Daniel kept doing is he kept writing new things and different things. He was doing it under different names with different brands. Until one of them just really clicked in and took off. I mean, The Expanse is really one of the big successes in science fiction over the past 10 years. Has the big TV show and all these things. Again, that’s somebody who didn’t have the kind of commercial success and attention that I think he deserved early in his career. But, just kept going and just kept pivoting and kept trying new things until finally something really clicked in, in the way that it did, with The Expanse.
[Howard] In 1998, I was working in tech support at Novell. I looked at some of the things I’d been doing and realized that within the company, within the industry, my brand was talking to people about the way the software works. Kind of being an advocate for the product and being educational about it and being entertaining. I wanted a position in the company where I could keep doing that. I got one. I like the sound of my own voice, and did a lot of presentations and a lot of traveling as a result of those presentations. Until I left the company in 2004. In 2008, I started doing Writing Excuses. Writing excuses has now been running for longer than my entire career at Novell.
[Howard] Okay. I was just doing the math as I was looking at the spreadsheet.
[Howard] Sorry, this totally came out of left field. The idea that the career that nobody… I say nobody. I don’t think many people are going to look at me and think, “Oh, yeah. That guy who was a software communications person back in the 90s and just vanished. Wow. Such a shame his software support career tanked.”
[Howard] No. They’re going to remember me for whatever’s most recent. There was a huge pivot in there, from doing software to doing comics. But the skill set of I know how to stand up in front of people and advocate a thing and be educational about it and occasionally be funny, and leverage the comic drop of self-deprecating humor from time to time, that piece of my brand, that piece of my skill set has stayed with me and continues to serve me well. As we are having this conversation, it is September 2019. This is airing in November of 2020. Schlock Mercenary, the mega-arc, ended about five months ago, if everything went according to plan. From where I’m sitting right now, I do not know what my career reboot looks like from 2020. I’m coming up on that, and I’m terrified. But I know that the guy who is terrified is also the guy who has rebooted his career before and made good on it.
[Dongwon] There’s always more opportunities, any time you find yourself in that spot.
[Dan] Okay. So. Our book of the week is one you’ve already talked about, Dongwon. This is Leviathan Wakes, the first one from The Expanse. What can you tell us about that book?
[Dongwon] Leviathan Wakes is a really wonderful space opera, that is examining, not necessarily galactic exploration, but the exploration and colonization of our own solar system. So the whole set up is, they don’t have interstellar travel yet, but they can travel between the planets somewhat easily. So, the political situation is there’s the Earth and then there is Mars, and they’re in conflict and in tension over resources. Those resources are specifically being the asteroid belt, which is being mined by both of those great powers. Into the middle of this, a new artifact, biological weapon, has been discovered which kind of sets the whole system to the brink of war. This is a nine book series that is on the cusp of wrapping up right now. It’s really, to my mind… And I am biased because I was the editor on the first couple books…
[Dongwon] But, to my mind, it’s really one of the most exciting, wonderful, rich character work in a space opera series that I’ve really ever seen. I could not love this more. The show was also great, but read the books first…
[Dongwon] Because they’re even better.
[Dan] We did have Daniel and Ty on the show at some point a year or two ago. So if you want to hear them talk about it, you can find that in our archives.
[Mary Robinette] We’ll include that in our liner notes.
[Dan] Yes, we totally will.
[Dan] Okay. So, I like what Dongwon was saying about trying new things while still staying true to what you’ve already been successful with. This is something that I have done. So, just very quickly, I hit the New York Times bestseller list with the Partials series, which is science fiction. Then, my next science fiction series, Mirador, really tanked. Like, I cannot overstate how little it sold.
[Mary Robinette] Which is a shame, because I love that series.
[Dan] Well, thank you. So do I. It did not click with the audience in the way everyone expected it to. It didn’t click for the publisher the way we had hoped it would, to the point that they didn’t even bother doing the third book in audio. I had to buy the rights back from them. So, as I set out what am I going to do next, I said, “Well, I’m going to continue with science fiction, but I’m going to twist it in a new direction.” So I started doing middle grade science fiction. That’s where Zero G and Dragon Planet and things like that came from. At the same time, because a far bigger success for me has been my thrillers, like I Am Not a Serial Killer, I didn’t want to neglect that audience either. So I’m trying… This is a much more risky experiment. But I wrote a new… I started a new thriller career, essentially, by doing historical thrillers. That’s where Ghost Station came from. So I’m trying these two different paths at the same time and just waiting to see, like you were saying, which one clicks in which one takes off. It’s a lot of work, and it’s a lot of faith, and you just kind of gotta hope that… And maybe neither of those does, and I’ll… I don’t know, come crawling to you at some point and say, “Dongwon, help me figure out what to do?”
[Mary Robinette] So, one of the things is that… I also got the whole orphaned thing, right after Ghost Talkers. When I was working on Calculating Stars, my editor left, and I got transferred to another editor, who’s been wonderful, but it was… The process of learning to work with her. But the reason that we decided to switch me from doing fantasy to doing science fiction was that we looked at what I had been doing in short fiction, and I write all over the map in short fiction. My science fiction that’s short fiction kind of consistently gets noticed for awards. The general thing was maybe you should be writing to your strengths, which appear to be science fiction.
[Howard] Kind of consistently, that was… Oops, two Hugos?
[Mary Robinette] I mean, yeah.
[Mary Robinette] Yeah. So, anyway…
[Dan] So, friends, we have to brag about Mary Robinette, because she’s too modest to do it herself.
[Mary Robinette] I mean, I only have four Hugos. One of them I got with you guys, so it really doesn’t count.
[Dan] Barely anything.
[Howard] That’s actually the only one I’ve got.
[Dongwon] The one that doesn’t count.
[Mary Robinette] No. I’m kidding. I am… I… Obviously kidding, or I would not…
[Dongwon] Of course.
[Mary Robinette] Have made that joke. But my point being that when people wonder when they’re novelists, natural novelists, and they wonder why to do short fiction, one of the things that it does allow is a faster, easier way to see which of your stories are hitting with audience. Like, just, if you are getting more acceptances from your science fiction, that’s a thing that’s worth noting. So I didn’t actually have to go through as many iterations as Dan did to figure out, oh, maybe I should be writing some science fiction novels. And, Calculating Stars have done significantly better than my fantasy.
[Dan] Or, phrased another way, you did do arguably more iterations than I did, but they were in short fiction, so you were able to do them more quickly and see results more easily.
[Mary Robinette] Yes. That is arguably accurate.
[Dongwon] The thing that I just want to point out is, following again on what Dan was saying, is the key to so much of this is diversification, right? Not putting all of your eggs in one basket. Sometimes that is a genre thing, sometimes it’s a category thing in terms of adult or YA, and sometimes… That’s even an industry thing, like writing for games and writing for comics and writing for film and TV if you can get that work. But often times it’s also just not writing for one publisher, right? Having multiple publishers in place, so if you get orphaned at one, even if that’s the thing that goes very badly, which it sometimes does, you still have other things in your pocket that you can turn to and emphasize. If that’s not working there. Then, sometimes it takes a couple of years to cycle out, and then you can pick up with a new contract or with a different publisher or with a different editor at that publisher. But having lots of different things moving out once is often the way to sort of stabilize your career overall.
[Howard] In 2006, at Emerald City Comic Con, Robert Khoo, K-H-O-O, talked about the business of web comics. This is the guy who went to the penny arcade guys before they were big and said, “You’re leaving a whole bunch of money on the table.” They said, “We don’t know what money is.” He said, “I tell you what. I will work for you for free on the understanding that if at the end of the year, I haven’t earned for you a marketing guy’s salary of $80,000 a year, which you can very comfortably pay me, then I will quit and you don’t owe me anything.” They were like, “This sounds too good to be true, but it’s probably not a trap. So, join us.” Robert Khoo totally reinvented them. Out of his work grew the penny arcade Expo, which was the thing that replaced E3 as the big consumer thing of displaying… It was huge. Robert Khoo… So I’ve established his bona fides. He said, “Never let more than 40% of your income come from one place.”
[Mary Robinette] This is a…
[Howard] That stuck with me. I’m not very good at it yet. But we go over our books, Sandra and I go over our books every year and ask ourselves, “What is the thing that will hurt the most if we lose it? How do we build something that will cushion that, in case it goes away?”
[Mary Robinette] Yeah. That is absolutely a thing that they teach you in puppet theater, as well. I mean, just in general as a freelancer, this is a really important thing to understand. If you quit your day job and decide to be a writer full-time, you are a freelancer. Your publisher is your only client, unless you’re at multiple publishing houses, unless you’re doing hybrid stuff which, in this day and age, is a sensible thing. It’s a good thing that you can do if you get your backlist back is bring it out yourself. So, remembering that you are a freelancer and trying to diversify. Like, I diversify my income stream also by teaching. That’s one of the ways that I diversify. It doesn’t have to be writing. The other thing that I kind of wanted to say about what happens when this moment… Like, I was orphaned by an editor, and that handoff was actually very, very smooth. But it was also because the previous two books had done so poorly, and not through fault of my own. I think. Obviously, other people have different opinions. But I had… The first of those last two books had been Of Noble Family, which was the last book in a five book series. We… There is a thing that happens in a series, where you have a slow decline in numbers. Then, the next book, Ghost Talkers, which is actually one of my favorite things that I’ve written, came out, and they sent me on tour. My first day of tour was election day of 2016. Everybody’s sales tanked. Actually. But mine… Just like, there was… When I was on tour, the audiences were half the size that they normally were. Everyone looked shellshocked. It didn’t matter, actually, which side of the political spectrum you were on, that period of time was really fraught. So, yes, obviously, my numbers were lower. But what that meant was, when we were doing… With my new editor, who was working with me on the two new books, when she was looking at acquiring another book after that, there was no incentive to do it until Calculating Stars and Fated Sky came out and did very well. At that point, I realized that my agent was part of my problem because my agent was not advocating for me and was not explaining… Like, the narrative of what was going on. So sometimes when you’re midcareer and things are not going well, if you’re starting to think, “Well, I wonder if I should go with a new agent?” The advice that I got from a very good friend who is sitting on the couch with me…
[Mary Robinette] Was that when you begin asking yourself that question, you should probably change agents.
[Dan] I had my book, Extreme Makeover, came out the same day. Mary Robinette and I did a signing together…
[Mary Robinette] Yeah.
[Dan] In Chicago. Actually, the two of us and Wes Chu. So there were three authors, and I think maybe five people there…
[Mary Robinette] Yeah.
[Dan] If you count the bookseller. I actually, like, I love Calculating Stars, but I still consider Ghost Talkers my favorite of your books. I think Extreme Makeover is the best written thing I’ve ever done. No one’s ever heard of either of those books. Because they got completely lost. Anyway, I assume that there are a few people who are listening to this episode who are in this situation who need to reboot their career. But I… And I hope that they do. But I suspect that most of our listeners are still looking at this from the upcoming side. Right? That’s why I really want to tell you what I did not know is that you need to be planning for this already. You need to have all these income streams in place before one of them fails. Which is the lesson that I have very painfully learned. And five years later have managed to build myself back up to the point where I more or less okay.
[Howard] Or back even further up from that, we’ve said… I quoted Robert Khoo. 40%. Don’t let any more than 40% come from any one place. Do you know how to do the math to know where your money is coming from? If you don’t know how to do that yet, learn to do that. Because if you can get ahead of that, for you start receiving royalties, before you start getting advances, then you are in a position to career plan and to build your bugout bag for…
[Mary Robinette] I’m going to do a plug for something called you need a budget dot com. Which, if you are like me, and not terribly good with numbers, is a very useful way as a freelancer… It’s a bud… It’s a financial planning kind of tracking thing. But it’s very, very useful to get a handle on exactly how much you need to make, and to figure out how to have enough of a nest egg so that if you have a. Where you have to reboot, that you have some money set aside.
[Dan] Which is a great resource. Go for it.
[Dongwon] One thing I just want to point out is as were talking about 40% of your income coming from different places and all that, remember, your day job can be one of your sources of income. Right? So the people, the clients that I work with who have widely diversified careers in terms of doing adult, middle grade, and graphic novels, and tie-in work and film and TV, those generally are the full-time writers. Right? Those are the ones who are only writing as their day-to-day job. If people… If you have a day job, it’s much more feasible to focus on one thing at a time and really focus on just having your one main series because you have the financial security of that day job. Which is why my general advice is hang onto that job as long as you can stand it. Or until your… The authoring that you have to do in terms of emails and touring and things like that make having it no longer feasible to do so, right? But then you need to be planning and preparing for that transition by starting that diversification work as early as you can.
[Dan] Absolutely. Now, we are out of time. Though obviously we could talk about this for a long time.
[Dan] But we do have some homework for you, which is coming from Mary Robinette.
[Mary Robinette] One of the things that will happen to you when this happens, or in the early part of your career, is that the imposter syndrome is going to kick up. It’s like you feel… You can feel a sense of despair, you can feel like blah. So here’s a weird bit of advice, which is that I want you to write a letter to a role model. This role model does not have to be a living person. Explain to them all of the things that you’re afraid of, and all of the problems that you’re struggling with. Then, I want you to write a letter from them back to you with the advice that you think that they might give you. The reason I’m suggesting this is that a lot of times you, in fact, know the answer to the problem. But we are often kinder to someone else then we are to ourselves. So, by putting yourself in the shoes of someone else who has been through this, I think that it might be a way for you to access the part of your brain that knows how to handle this. You do. It’s just terrifying.
[Dan] Sounds awesome. So. That’s been our episode. You are out of excuses. Now go write.