Staying Afloat in ToughTimes

aRecent events–the economic recession plus all the changes in publishing–have left many writers in a quandary. Is being a writer still a viable option to earn a living?

To quell the rising panic, it helps me to remember that things have always gone in cycles. This isn’t the first time of upheaval, and it’s likely that it won’t be the last.

Publishing Drought

In my thirty years of being published, I’ve had two very dry periods. One five-year period when I sold nothing happened in the 90s. Another three-year dry period of nothingness happened with the last five years.

It might help you to know what I did during those times to stay financially afloat and keep on writing.

A Previous Recession

When my book career began in the 80′s, I had five or six relatively easy years with my editor Gail at Atheneum. We did eleven hardcovers together before Gail lost her job in a corporate take-over and downsizing. The publishing industry then was a lot like it is today.

At that time, I got two manuscripts back. Within six months, all my books went out of print–so there was almost no royalty income then. My last two books in a Christian series were not published either. (I found out much later that this happened to a lot of writers.)

This horror was followed by five years of no new books, sending out proposals, rewriting proposals, writing queries, and spending a ton on postage and photocopying costs when I was making zilch on my book writing. (There was no online writing then, no email submissions, etc.)

Getting Out of the Slump

Then in a bookstore I found a book called Making It On Your Own: Surviving and Thriving on the Ups and Downs of Being Your Own Boss by Paul and Sarah Edwards. In the marketing section, a statement leaped off the page. This one piece of advice jump-started my disappearing career. “You need to experiment until you discover what particular combination of your skills and abilities at what price will be valuable to what group of people within the current economic realities.”

It said to experiment, so I tried different things to see what might work. The following year I wrote a story for an anthology, entered several contests, did some short manuscripts for children’s magazines, wrote some writers’ articles. I created a new workshop on revision and did eighteen months’ of school visits with it.

Time to Evaluate

The next step recommended by the book was to use the 80/20 Principle on your experiments. So I sat down with paper and pencil and analyzed: “What 20% of my work has generated 80% of my income?” In other words, what strategies had worked for me? Where should I be putting the bulk of my energy to survive this financial writing slump?

Well, I had bombed on contests and all fifteen short stories; I did sell the story to the anthology; my fastest response and most money, though, came from writing articles for magazines and doing the revision workshop. More than 80% of my income was coming from that 20% of my work. So (while I contintued to write my middle-grade fiction novels) I concentrated on those two things to pay the bills.

Surviving the Tough Times

During that time, some nonfiction articles became a series for Children’s Writer, which turned into ideas for “Support Room” articles when I became the Institute‘s first web editor. A few years later, those ideas sparked my book, Writer’s First Aid, as well as several articles for the SCBWI Bulletin.

The slump eventually ended, as it will again for writers struggling in the current recession. After five years of selling no books, I sold four of my middle-grade novels in one year. If I had quit writing my fiction during that recession, I would have had nothing to sell when publishers started buying again.

So during the slump five years ago, I did the same thing: found ways to stay afloat to pay some bills (mostly educational writing), but also kept writing middle-grade fiction and studying and learning. Last year I finally sold two of the books, one of them being More Writer’s First Aid.

Writing slumps will come and go in cycles. Don’t stop writing in the dry periods. Instead remember that old adage: This too shall pass.

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