I was at a family thing this weekend. I don't have a lot of family, but my husband does. He seems to be related to most of Ireland. There was general chat about general stuff, and then one of my sister in laws asked me if I'd marked exam papers this year or if I'd stopped now that my writing career is so successful.
I bumbled something about having marked quite a lot, and marking international A-level papers, and moved swiftly on.
Here's the thing about writing, and about success.
People who do not write think that writers make a lot of money.
Writers do not make a lot of money.
Sometimes (quite often) we make no money. (Probably because J.K has made all the money and there isn't any left for the rest of us.) When I was first published, my hope was that I'd be able to make enough money to stop marking. Instead, 6 years on, I'm marking more. It remains my main source of income. I can afford to stop writing, but I can't afford to stop marking. How is this possible? I have an agent. I've had 2 books published by a big 6 publisher with a third on the way. I have books in book shops. I have multiple titles on Amazon. From the outside, I appear to be very successful. Surely I must be making enough to at least cut back on the number of marking contracts that I do.
But I'm not. So far this year I've earned enough to pay for my Society of Authors membership and this website. And this is the painful truth about publishing, and chasing publication, and wanting to pursue a career as a writer.
The odds are hardly ever in your favour.
You can increase your chances with a six figure deal, fifty thousand instagram followers or a famous relative, but if you've not got any of those things, then the bottom line is that your book isn't going to sell well.
When you're in this position, where you're published but not selling many books, something else happens which makes it even more difficult for you to sell books.
Your publisher stops trying as hard. Publishers don't make much effort for authors who don't sell many books. They make an effort for the ones who are selling. And those are usually the ones who got big book deals, big advances and announcements in the bookseller, reviews in the Guardian, the Richard and Judy book club (did you know that publishers pay to have books just considered for this?) Because when you get a big deal and a big advance the book gets a lot of attention, and it gets a big marketing budget, and it goes into bookshops with a head start. And then your agent will do more work for those books, and will put more time into them, but you can hardly blame them for that, because those books are paying the mortgage, and we've all got to pay our bills.
I met a woman at a writing course years ago who had written a couple of historical novels. Her aim was to have one published by Mills and Boon. When asked why she wanted that, she said that if they published one of her books, she would know that she was a good writer.
But here's the rub.
Goalposts are fickle things. They like to move. Five years ago, I would have told you that once I had an agent, I would know I was at least halfway there to being a decent writer, and making progress. Four years ago, I would have told you that a book deal with an advance was the thing. But then I got that, and it didn't prove anything, because the advance barely scraped 4 figures after 3 years of work and the book didn't sell and I'm now back at the starting line and I still have no idea if I'm capable of writing a book that people actually want to read. If anything, I'm now stood ten metres behind the line because publishers can look at my sales figures. And they will. And they will reject me because of them, in favour of a less experienced but shiny debut with no disappointing track record.
To survive in this business you need an unhealthy work ethic and teflon coated self-esteem. You need to be able to sit down and put words on the page even when it seems like there's no point. In a world where instant gratification is king, you need to be able to play the long game.
We're going to need a lot of biscuits.