What Does It Mean to “Win” at Writing?

This past weekend I was on a Science Fiction and Fantasy panel at the Virginia Festival of the Book.  We had a large audience (take that, mainstream literature snobs!!) and a lively discussion, much of which was centered on changes in the industry and the financial challenges that today’s writers face in an increasingly competitive and uncertain marketplace.

I don’t have the space in a single post to discuss all of those challenges.  Those of us who write professionally are well aware of them, and those who are looking toward a career in writing should familiarize themselves with the issues underlying today’s publishing models.  Suffice it to say that on the traditional publishing side, author advances are falling, competition for publishing slots is growing more fierce, and the uncertainties of the industry’s future brought on by changes in technology and the contraction of options in bookselling venues is making publishers less inclined to take chances on new authors and even new projects from established writers.  On the non-traditional publishing side — self-publishing and Indie press publishing — we also face a future that is murky at best.  For now , self-publishing seems like a viable alternative, particularly for established authors who already have a loyal readership. But the numbers that accompany self-publishing “success stories” are often less than reliable. And while small independent presses might offer the best compromise for aspiring writers, such businesses are not entirely stable.

These are tough times.  As I say, the issues are complex enough that one post cannot possibly explore every facet of the new publishing economy.  And besides, that’s not the point I want to make.

During our panel’s question and answer period, one gentleman in the audience asked if all these financial factors meant that a movie deal or some other attention from Hollywood offered us authors the only real path to success. Or as he put it, “Is getting a call from Hollywood the only way to win?”

One of our panelists, who is quite familiar with Hollywood, was quick to point out that the movie/television business is every bit as messed up as the publishing business, and that even a movie option on a book did not promise instant wealth.  But as this panelist went on, and the rest of us chimed in, a larger, and in many ways more satisfying answer emerged.

None of us, it turned out, had gotten into this business expecting to get rich.  None of us measured our success in dollars.  Few of my colleagues, either established or aspiring, will be surprised by this, because most of us have heard it said again and again, “Write because you love it.”  Those are wise words.

The fact is, very, very few of us get rich from writing. Sure there are exceptions — there are some authors who do quite well for themselves. But while most of us would love to be included in this elite group, few of us expect it to happen.  I have been in this business for the better part of two decades, writing as both David B. Coe and D. B. Jackson.  My fifteenth and sixteenth novels will be coming out in the next year.  I’ve sold well enough to get new contracts from my publishers, I’ve enjoyed critical success, won an award, been Guest of Honor at a bunch of conventions.  In short, I’ve had a nice career; I’ve been incredibly fortunate.  But I certainly haven’t gotten rich doing this.  For every Gaiman and Martin and Rowling, there are hundreds of writers like me.  And for every writer like me, there are hundreds, maybe thousands of others for whom my level of “success” would be a dream come true.

At the end of the day, defining what it means to “win” in this business is a tricky enterprise.  Because if most people could see my tax return each year, they would never think that I had won anything at all.  Writing is a hard way to make a living.  Often it’s frustrating, lonely work.  The financial rewards can be pretty meager.  Which is why I believe that the only way a writer can be happy is if he or she decides for him or herself what it means to “succeed,” to “win.”   That self-definition makes all the difference in the world.

I count it a “win” when I finish a manuscript and know that it represents the best work I can do.  I count it a “win” when I get a box of my newest book from my publisher and get to hold in my hand that product of all my hard work, of the hours and hours I spent researching and writing, revising and proofing.  And I count it a “win” when I over hear one of my daughters telling a friend, with pride in her voice, that I write books for a living.

Sure, it’s a cliche, but I do write because I love it.  I write because I have stories to tell, characters to whom I wish to give voice, worlds that I want to discover and describe and celebrate.  Now don’t get me wrong:   If you all want to go out and buy my books and make me into a worldwide bestseller, I’m fine with that.  Please, feel free.  But that would just be icing on the cake, because I’ve already won.

David B. Coe


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Author Information

David B. Coe

David B. Coe (http://www.DavidBCoe.com) is the Crawford award-winning author of the LonTobyn Chronicle, the Winds of the Forelands quintet, the Blood of the Southlands trilogy, and a number of short stories. Writing as D.B. Jackson (http://www.dbjackson-author.com), he is the author of the Thieftaker Chronicles, a blend of urban fantasy, mystery, and historical fiction. David is also part of the Magical Words group blog (http://magicalwords.net), and co-author of How To Write Magical Words: A Writer’s Companion. In 2010 he wrote the novelization of director Ridley Scott’s movie, Robin Hood. His books have been translated into more than a dozen languages. Visit site.



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