No, this isn’t a post about editing or blood donations.
I was having a conversation earlier today about the relationships writers have with their partners. Be them a publisher, an editor, or an agent. The part I contested was the idea that this relationship must be good, mutually beneficial, or else why bother?
When I was in college, I worked for a travel magazine. I wrote up a large portion of what became the restaurant guide for it. It was a difficult assignment. The way it worked was I called up family-style non-chain restaurants and asked what was special about them. After the first 20 or so, it’s hard to come up with new phrases to say, “We’re a family-style restaurant family owned and operated for three generations.”
I didn’t do it because I planned to go into travel writing or anything like that. It PAID really well. I liked the publisher. We had a good relationship. Unfortunately, not long after that, their budget had a few issues, and I didn’t see any assignments for awhile. A new magazine at that time took about 2.5 years to get profitable. Around 6-8 months, one of the financial backers thought it would be a good idea to fire the publisher and his editorial staff and replace them with people he liked at a cheaper price.
Suddenly, I went from, “Oh, that’s Keith. Yeah, his pitch could work for the fall issue, ” to “Who are you?” and not being given the time of day. They had no interest in working with anyone part of the “old guard.”
We all can’t write books for a living. It’d be nice, but sometimes I have to write other kinds of content to pay the bills. And sometimes that leads to disappointment. I co-created a magazine for a church a year after the travel magazine. Things were great. The communications pastor did graphics and layout, I planned the content, gave out assignments and was paid for whatever pieces I wrote myself.
My wife wasn’t immune to these kind of setbacks. In college she worked for a magazine that focused on life on college campuses. She wrote two great features and they called her up to do a brainstorming retreat with the editorial staff. She thought, “Great, I can meet with all these editors, make a name for myself, and prepare for my exit from college with some serious bylines.”
At the retreat, they asked the writers to come up with story ideas for the next year’s editorial calendar. Upon returning home, she wrote about one of her four ideas. Then a few months later, she found an editor had written about one of the ideas herself and assigned the other two ideas to another writer completely. In a sense, it was theft, but those ideas were given freely with the assumption the writer given them was doing good and would be given good back in return.
It was a young-and-inexperienced writer mistake. It’s not bad to want to expect the best in people. Not everyone you encounter will meet your expectations.
I say all this to say that sometimes, you take the crap job. Sometimes the editor, the publisher, or even the agent you find isn’t your ideal. Sometimes you have to play the best hand you get from the deck. Because asking for different cards is a luxury you can’t afford if you’re a little on the desperate-for-money side of things.
I say this because if you write, you will be treated like garbage by someone. It can be a reader, a publisher, or an editor. And the worst part will be that you may either have to take your lumps or find a different line of work.
Sometimes, yeah, you’ll be able to take the high ground. But what if you can’t? The other day I received a melancholic email from a writer friend. A book she wrote was just published. Great, right? Well, not if you’re a ghost writer and you get no by-line. She was paid and everything, but she said it was heartbreaking seeing another person’s name on that baby’s birth certificate.
I guess the point of this entry is to warn the newer writers that when the writers who have been around talk of taking their lumps, paying their dues, and enduring afterwards, take them at their word. You will go through similar experiences regardless of your early fortune, your natural talent, and your likability. And, no this isn’t pessimism talking. I have had more good experiences than bad when it comes to working with clients.
Some of the print publications I worked for don’t exist anymore. I can’t go back to them and ask for work. That frustrates me, but that’s the nature of the beast right now. Dot-com sites come and go even faster! One day you may be pulling a paycheck from a great site and the next day they may no longer be there without warning. This happens!
My other point is this: Don’t burn bridges. If I ever speak of an experience at a publication in a bad light, I never use people’s names, and I rarely ever speak of bad experiences. It’s not worth the cost in building materials to me. I also have better things to do than dwell on bad relationships and rejections.
My advice to you, if you want to keep yourself from being put in a position where you may take a hit or feel like you compromised yourself: diversify. Do short stories, fiction, essays, opinion columns, news, features, blogs, and whatever else people will pay you to write. Be as diverse in your portfolio as you possibly can and always look for new clients. Never stop expanding and never have just one job in the works. If you have other clients, you have other options.
My second piece of advice is to keep records. Store your clips in a secure place (and a cloud) and write off your tax deductions (they add up).
Lastly, never stop networking. Keep building those bridges. Branch out beyond just writers and see where you can meet the needs of other professionals. And let non-writers help you. Do you have a beta-reader who isn’t that into books? It’s not a bad idea to keep one in the bullpen; provided you can keep their attention.
Take what I say here as a grain of salt. Not every writer will have as many disappointments as I have. I share mine because I hope you see similar disappointments coming and can avoid them. I hope that’s the case, but this is a business that requires very thick skin. Thick skin is something you get better at having with age and experience. So when I say “There will be blood” on this journey, you may want to stock up on helmets. Just in case.