There’s a Holy Grail aspect to the way authors, especially pre-published authors, often think of a writing career: that once they unlock a certain goal—signing with an agent, getting published, hitting a bestseller list—it opens up subsequent levels on their upward trajectory to being a successful author, like a staircase they will steadily climb once they reach that magical tipping point.
The reality, as many working authors know, is that writing careers are more like an especially aggressive roller coaster—with constant ups and downs, unforeseen twists and turns, slow climbs, sudden drops, and disorienting loop-the-loops.
Authors who don’t know these realities of a writing career may feel defeated at encountering them: countless rejections, bad reviews, uncertain sales, unrenewed contracts, lowball offers. Setbacks and challenges are normal parts of a writing career–of most careers, really—and knowing that is one of the key differences between authors who develop resilience and stay in the game, and those who may burn out and give up.
But one of the reasons this misleading myth about writing careers persists—and it is a myth—is because of the nature of the beast: So much of it is based on perception, and most authors are well aware of the fact that it’s important to create an image of success so that they can continue to build upon it. And that’s often all that newer authors see.
So when multi-published successful authors Liz Fenton and Lisa Steinke recently dedicated four episodes of their podcast, We Fight So You Don’t Have To, to astonishingly frank talk about the setbacks, stumbles, and failures they have recently been navigating in their writing careers, it caught writers’ attention in a big way.
“I think a year ago we wouldn’t have been ready to talk about what we were going through,” Liz says. “It’s this weird catch. Sometimes you feel like you can’t be honest, because you have to always look like you’re succeeding or the publisher doesn’t want to take a chance on you.”
What they’d been going through was a tsunami of author nightmares: Their seventh book, How to Save a Life, was having disappointing sales. They were dropped by their publisher. They parted ways with their agent.
“I was just in a hole and just feeling so awful every day,” says Lisa.
The setbacks were all the more impactful because they came after a run of admirable success. “It took us five years to get an agent on our third manuscript,” Liz relates. “And then we had arguably one of the best agents in the business. We were at one of the best agencies. And so I really thought—I know both of us felt like—this is it.”
They published three books with a “Big Five” publisher and built on that momentum, switching genres and pub houses. Their fourth novel, The Good Widow, was a breakout smash, still selling well years after its release, with hundreds of thousands of copies sold.
Lisa remembers being feted at a huge party their publisher threw, complete with a specialty drink themed after their book, and thinking, “’We’ve made it. Like, this is it. We’re finally here, all the hard work paid off.’ And we actually thought it would just keep going.”
It did not keep going.
They published three more books with their imprint, none of which quite matched the sales of The Good Widow. And when How to Save a Life didn’t live up to expectations, their publisher declined to offer for their next book and they found themselves in the market for new representation and a new publishing house.
When their new agent shopped that manuscript elsewhere, as well as a second one, they began receiving a string of crushing rejections they began bleakly joking about as “we’re going to step asides” (from a phrase often used in rejection letters).
“The really weird thing about publishing is your past successes do not dictate the rest of your career,” Liz realized.
They both spiraled.
And that was when they decided to lay it all out on the table in their podcast, talking with shocking honesty that’s rare in this business about how both of them were laid low for months, and their doubts about whether their careers were over. It’s a powerful, revealing series full of hard truths and lessons learned.
I asked Liz and Lisa why they took the huge risk of showing their bellies so openly–in a field that so often seems to ride on the hype of steady success.
“So many people had been asking us, ‘When’s your next book coming?’” Lisa recalls. “And we just felt like…not that we were lying, but that we were just dodging the question…and we just needed to finally answer it. You know, we don’t know when our next book is coming.”
“I just think we have to all be honest, because I think if you think everyone’s having all this success but you’re not, it’s really easy to want to give up,” Liz adds. “I think it’s important for authors to be like, ‘Hey, I have had some success, but there’s a lot of failures and that’s normal,’ because I think when you lose motivation, which is kind of where we’ve been at for about the last year, you start thinking everybody’s getting a book deal. Everybody’s getting a movie option. And it really makes you feel like, ‘What am I even doing?’ Like, ‘I can’t do this.’”
Letting Go of the Holy Grail
Liz and Lisa talk about the importance of “pivoting,” and how they began to diversify their creative pursuits and look into other ways to maintain their writing careers.
Their interview is powerful not just for what they reveal, but for what they learn and pass along to writers about what truly creates a writing career with longevity.
“It’s all about having joy in what you’re doing,” Liz says. “And I know that’s a very clichéd thing. But what I realized from this whole process and walking away is that the joy for me is fitting that time in to write and feeling like it’s something special…. I’ve really changed what I think success is. I think success for us is we’re happy. We’re consistently writing. We’re enjoying what we’re doing and we’re writing what we want to write.”
Lisa agrees: “It’s so easy to fall into that trap of what you think the editors want or the market wants, and honestly, no one knows what they want. You have to just write from—and this is another clichéd thing—but just write from your heart, or write what you want…. Once you just write what you know, or love, it translates.
“I think you can get caught up in that thought process of, I’ve just got to hit the New York Times, and I’ve got to do this or else it’s not worth it. And I think if you get over there, then you won’t be happy.
“I think that’s what happens to a lot of authors and why they might quit or just, you know, just hate it. Because they’re chasing after the wrong end game, I guess. It took us a while to realize that, though, believe me. We had to hit absolute rock-bottom.”
Publishing–and a writing career–isn’t a video game, where you unlock certain levels and just keep leveling up. It’s as subjective, mercurial a business as any other industry built on creative products, where the creator is often reduced to “content provider” and has little control over most aspects of the business.
Knowing that out of the gate—understanding the realities of this business, as a business, and adapting ways to navigate its many challenges, uncertainties, and disappointments—can make the difference between an author who creates a long-term career, and one who feels burned by the business and flares out. Between one who takes ownership of their own career and continues to enjoy the creative process—the spark that made them want to get into the business in the first place—and one who feels like simply a plug-in part on a production assembly line.
“I think you do have to understand when you see someone taking off like a rocket, they’ve probably had a lot of rejection, they probably finally wrote something that got in front of the right person at the right time.” Liz says. “And they had a lot of luck. And that doesn’t mean that they’re not incredibly talented—they have that, but they’ve earned it.”
In our interview Liz and Lisa opened up even deeper into some of the things they discuss on their podcast series–which I highly recommend listening to–offering a treasure trove of forthright, honest insight and advice writers are rarely privy to:
- How they persisted through three initial rejected manuscripts, and their early published books struggling to find an audience
- Quitting their day jobs—and taking them back
- Navigating the “fast-moving target” of marketing their books
- Why understanding the business of writing is an essential skill writers must develop
- The essential importance of finding your definition of “success” as a writer
- Knowing and building your author brand, and being authentic in reaching your readers
- Diversifying your pursuits so you don’t put “all your eggs in the book basket”
- Why seeking out author support systems is indispensable–but so is offering support to other authors
- The crucial skill of being able to ask for help–and take up space
- How to be happy for authors who are achieving what you want, even when you aren’t
- Learning how many authors–even “household name” authors—are struggling or have struggled, and experience the same setbacks and despair as every other author.
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