Two days ago, I wrote an article where I said, knowing your end game will help you decide what kind of writer you want to become and what path you need to take to get there.
M.A. Mercier, a dear young friend of mine and upcoming prolific writer, wrote, “I don’t understand your reasoning behind ‘genre fiction.’ I consider myself a Passion writer, but my ‘end-game’ is to write literary fiction. My ideal future where I do both content writing and fiction writing.”
Dear Mercier, this article is for you.
You have pulled the words out of my mouth and wrote them in the comments section.
It was precisely the question I was trying to understand when I wrote the article. Like you, I am a literary writer. So what is my end game, then?
Being a literary writer is not the end game. The end game is how to stay as a literary writer and make a living.
It is hard to make a living as a literary writer. For one, you can’t keep coming with a book every six months or a year. A good literary book takes much longer to write.
Second literary readers are not lining up like the fans of Harry Potter or Jason Bourne waiting for the next book. They buy the book when there are enough reviews that say that it is a great book, even if they are written by a great author. Arundhati Roy, Jhumpa Lahiri, and Khalid Hussini’s subsequent books didn’t sell as well as their first ones.
I didn’t understand it either when I was told, time and time again, that if you want to make a living as a fiction writer, you need to pick a genre.
Genre writing is what people buy in hoards. They can’t seem to have enough of Nora Roberts, Dan Brown, Stephen King, Arthur Hailey, Michael Crichton, Ken Follett, and Robert Ludlum.
Genre writers can build a following, self-publish, and make six to seven-figure income by selling directly to their readers. The model is well-established and many authors are following it and succeeding at it.
“In the 20th century, a good literary writer could earn a middle-class living just writing (citing William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway and John Cheever). Now, most writers need to supplement their income with speaking engagements or teaching. — Mary Rasenberger, executive director of the Authors Guild.
The end game for literary writers used to be to win a major literary prize. This is how Ros Barber described in The Guardian:
Traditional publishing is the only way to go for someone who writes literary fiction. With genre fiction, self-publishing can turn you into a successful author (if you can build a platform, if you can enjoy marking and are good at it, if you are lucky). But an author who writes literary fiction is dependent on critical acclaim and literary prizes to build their reputation and following. If genre fiction is chart music, literary fiction is opera: the audience is small, and there are limited ways to reach it. Self-published books are not eligible for major prizes like Baileys and the Costa and the Man Booker, and getting shortlisted for major prizes is the only way a literary novel will become a bestseller. The chance of a self-published novelist getting their book reviewed in the mainstream press is the same as the chance of my dog not eating a sausage. The chance of an indie author being booked for a major literature festival? Donald Trump apologising to Mexico. — Ros Barber
She received £5,000 for her most recent novel for two year’s work. Yet, she thinks self-publishing is a terrible idea for serious novelists.
Because she says, “Self-publishing authors spend only 10% of their time writing and 90% of their time marketing… Good writers become good because they undertake apprenticeships… My first novel was my fourth novel. It was accomplished on the back of three complete novels (plus two half novels)… The gatekeepers are saving you from your own ego… Good writers need even better editors. They need brilliant cover designers. They need imaginative marketers and well-connected publicists.”
So if making a living from your literary fiction is not your goal, then you can go on the path to become a good writer and do a long apprenticeship. I will be cheering for you. But that will take you to the hobby writer category (writers who like to write for personal satisfaction) until you start making a living from it.
Let me come to the question of ‘Passion writers.’
Maybe my definition of ‘Passion writers’ was incomplete. Allow me to elaborate a bit.
Passion writers write what they are passionate about, whether it is content, fiction, or non-fiction and make a living from it.
But even this doesn’t sound right. Maybe I shouldn’t call them ‘Passion writers.’ In the real world, they are called the ‘Bestselling writers.’ They are bestselling because they write to market demands.
But I want to stay with the term ‘Passion Writers.’ Because I believe passion moves mountains.
It was the writers’ passion who wanted to break away from the clutches of traditional publishing and create a model for self-publishing within a decade that is repeatable. They wrote in the genre they were passionate about.
Literature is a genre too. It, too, has dedicated fans. They may not be lining at the bookstores to buy the next book by their favorite author, but they do buy many books.
I think literary writers can do the same. I think we can build enough followers and make a decent living even with fewer books. We might need to become savvier in terms of selling the rights of our work. I am certain that young bright writers like yourself will find a way.
So, by all means, keep your end game to become a literary writer. But learn the market forces. You don’t have to bend to them. You need to bend them to yourself. Learn from genre writers. They are a decade ahead of you and have a lot to teach. Then, apply it to literary fiction and change the game for writers like me.
I am counting on you.
Make literary writing mainstream writing because there is nothing better to read than a well-written book by a thoughtful writer.
I hope I answered your question.
As far as my end game is concerned I am a hobby writer. I will be writing whatever I am passionate about at any given time and not worry about making money from it (also because I don’t have to). I am turning sixty this year and don’t have too much time left for a long apprenticeship or traditional publishing. I want to leave my legacy in the form of stories in whatever broken English I can tell them.
I believe in the power of the stories rather than the strength of the language. Not because I don’t appreciate good writing but because I am in awe of it.
All the best.
Some relevant reading:
How Much do Fiction Writers Earn?
Is Self-Publishing Literary Fiction Possible?
The horrible hidden truth about self-publishing that nobody wants you to know
These self-published authors are actually making a living. Here’s how.
For me, traditional publishing means poverty. But self-publish? No way