Burnout and Recovery: When Publishing Hurts Writers

please look after this bookThis post by Kameron Hurley on how she dealt with the burnout that comes from writing a series (itself an exhausting thing, especially towards the end) for a publisher who has let her down in many ways.

It’s not a post you see very often. Authors still tend to feel vulnerable about airing their bad experiences in public, worrying that this lack of solidarity will get them a bad reputation in the industry.

But keeping quiet can be more damaging. Not just to the other writers you fail to warn, but also to your own sense of self, and to your writing. If all writers talk about is the good experiences, we are not only letting each other down (by pretending everything is rosy) but ourselves.

We’re not always the hardbitten hacks we pretend to me – even the toughest of us do have at least one layer of self conscious, self-doubting fragile snowflake, and one bad experience can make it incredibly hard to pull up our boots and keep working like nothing has happened. Our business is emotional, and that can take a mighty toll on the work itself. Which SUCKS BEYOND BELIEF.

Good books fail in the marketplace all the time, and bad books do great. But I agree very much with Kameron that the most frustrating thing can be when a book is let down by the very people who are supposed to be promoting and supporting it.

Being robust is really, really hard.

I’ve had so many frustrations in my own career, but even more frustrating is seeing my friends, bowed down by a bad experience, even finding their own writing suffer because why would you write at your best if you’re contractually tied to a publisher who doesn’t respect you, or pay you, or promote you?

Why is it so much easier to get angry about friends being treated this way, and not ourselves? I’ve been where Kameron is (or somewhere very similar) and it messes with your head, makes you think that actually a year’s work on a book you have sweated blood over may not be worth the paper it’s printed on.

I think this piece is particularly important because it talks how she got through this bad time, and the benefit she found from separating money and financial dependence from her writing, in order to give herself a chance to heal and get back to writing for love again. It’s a really important lesson, because writing full time (or writing as an essential income stream) is not just this Holy Grail where someone pays you to do your favourite thing in the world – sometimes it can be a terrible pressure. There’s a big difference between your hobby or passion being work, and your passion BECOMING WORK.

I don’t in any way rely on my writing income to keep my family’s head above water, but I do rely on it for my sense of independence and justification for the family resources I use to make my writing happen – not earning anything becomes stressful, and that makes writing harder. Vicious circle or what? I have a big trip coming up later this year which is largely career-based (WFC!) and knowing how much money is coming out of the mortgage to make that happen is Supremely Stressful!

Don’t think that linking to the post is about bashing publishers, though, or Kameron’s publisher in particular. Publishers should absolutely be accountable for how they treat authors, but this isn’t just about how some publishers behave badly and some have room to improvement. I think the important takeaway message from this is for writers to recognise how vulnerable they can be in these situations. We can’t pretend that things like this don’t happen. Getting through it, and progressing despite the latest blow, is the hardest part of being a writer.

Our industry has always been full of ups and downs, but lately it seems we have to deal with round and rounds and sideways spirals and screaming rollercoasters driven by hallucinating pandas, which is terrifying and exciting and horrible all at once.

Sometimes the answer is to go it alone and self publish, but that isn’t the answer for every author or every book. Sometimes the answer is to find a really great publisher and editor and agent, but what happens when they fold, resign and retire all in the same week?

keep-calm-and-carry-on-writing-4Good publishers, and good editors, and good publicists, are treasures to writers. And we are terribly grateful when we get them – at least, I know I try to be! I have spent the week (my first week of Ms8 back at school!) proofing A Trifle Dead, taking enthusiastic and strange emails about publicity plans, and volunteering for all kinds of madcap notions. My current publisher may not be “big” by any stretch of the imagination (and in Australia big/small press is so laughably different to the US definitions that we seriously need different words, maybe Lilliputian and Micro-Lilliputian) but right now they are taking care of me, and I feel terribly grateful for that.

But I have my damage from previous publishers, some mild and some which has left some serious scarring. I have a great relationship with Twelfth Planet Press, but having a publisher or editor who is also your friend brings a whole new level of ‘more to lose’, which is scary. (Alisa and I have had a couple of near miss fights, but come through it still respecting each other, which is so important)

It’s so much easier to write the next book when you know there’s someone at the other end of your email who will smile when they receive it… and treat it with kindness and respect as well as professionalism as they take it to the marketplace. (Though obviously they are allowed to be mean at the editorial stage.) But being a writer is always about taking risks, and trying new things. Not every publisher will be good to you, or your friend, or the best fit for you, and even if you find the Best Publisher Evah it’s a bad idea to put all your eggs in one basket. It’s heartbreaking at times, losing books to contracts that turn out to be less than ideal. But we keep on keeping on.

Never be afraid to ask your fellow writers what their experience with a publisher has been. Even if their experience has been 100% positive, they will know why you are asking. If we don’t talk to each other – whether in private conversations or in the public way that Kameron Hurley has chosen – then we are missing out on a great opportunity to demand better treatment for ourselves, our colleagues in the industry, and our books.

6 replies on “Burnout and Recovery: When Publishing Hurts Writers”

  1. Glenda Larke says:

    As someone just emerging from a long dark tunnel of no contract in sight, I agree with all have said. It’s dark in there at times, and so hard to be creative when you can’t see the light. I have been truly astonished about how many outwardly successful authors — many of those household names — have had similar rough spots in their careers.

    They have only one thing in common: they keep writing, kept putting their work out there — and that’s one of the hardest things to do.

    Your Creature Court trilogy was brilliant. Never doubt you have what it takes.

  2. Yes. This.

    Makes you wonder how many successful authors had a rough spot they can’t publicly talk about, and also how many who might have been, but couldn’t overcome it simply by keeping writing.

  3. Nicola O'Shea says:

    Hi Tansy
    Just wanted to let you know again how much I loved and utterly believe in your Creature Court trilogy. They are fantastic, complex, sophisticated, sexy books, and you are a brilliant writer.
    Long may your writing career continue.
    All the best

  4. tansyrr says:

    Aww you guys. Was totally not fishing for compliments, but I appreciate the words very much.

    I also think that Glenda and Trudi are right that this is something many writers go through, and few feel they can talk about it publicly, which is a shame.

  5. […] Tansy Rayner Roberts on Burnout and Recovery: When Publishing Hurts Writers. […]

  6. Thoraiya says:

    Great post, Tansy, and thanks for linking to the Kameron Hurley post. There’s a couple of lines in Gibran’s “The Prophet” which go like this:

    “And when one of you falls down he falls for those behind him, a caution against the stumbling stone.

    Ay, and he falls for those ahead of him, who though faster and surer of foot, yet removed not the stumbling stone.”

    I really appreciate that writers further along the path than me, like you, Glenda and Trudi, might not be able to remove my stumbling stones, but you frankly warn me about them.

    So, you know. I can wear ankle-high, lace-up walking boots. Or something 😉

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