To the Pain: Is Writing a Career or a Hobby?

writing at a typewriter, writer, pain, choosing our pain, Kristen Lamb

Pain is simply part of life. I think THAT much is clear as we are almost two weeks into 2023 *thinks of carbs and cries* Truth is, we have little control over most of what happens to us. This is true in life and in publishing. Control, in many respects, is an illusion. We can only do our little part on most things then hope and pray for the best.

This might sound a lot like me being a Debbie Downer here, but the truth can actually be quite liberating. When we recognize there is only SO much we can control, it narrows down our focus and all the things we “care” about.

We can set expectations accordingly and realize what is within our purview (finished books sell WAY better than unfinished ones) and frankly, what’s totally out of our hands (novels featuring left-handed snake handlers are all the rage!).

Dealing with Change

Publishing, like every other industry on the planet, has experienced a drastic transition over the past 12 years or so. An industry that had remained relatively untouched for over a century crumbled. Whether we like it or not, Amazon and on-line shopping dismantled an institution.

And yes, I hear all the writers collectively groan and wail. I don’t like it either. Shopping on-line just isn’t the same as browsing a bookstore all day, feeling paper in your hands and having a physical thing, right away you can touch and read and (if you are me) scribble in.

If you do want to set out to write professionally, then it is wise to understand exactly what you’re getting into. The actual path to publishing, not the “Made for TV” version we can be way too fond of (especially when new).

Writers are entrepreneurs and entrepreneurs are wise to do what is called a S.W.O.T. Analysis (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats).

So the “bad” news first.

Pain and Publishing

writing professionally, deadline, pain

The consignment model that bookstores have relied upon for well over a century is, for all intents and purposes, gone. For anyone curious how this model worked (and is now likely limping along) the The Hard Truth About Publishing—What Writers & Readers NEED to Know provides a detailed breakdown.

Regardless, publishing will continue to go more and more on-line for a number of reasons. The consignment model, as I’ve pointed out, is and always has been grossly inefficient. This was all well and good so long as bookstores and physical books had no competition, no cheaper alternative. But that is no longer the case.

Additionally, want to know something about paper? It is freaking HEAVY, which means, with the cost of diesel right now, the profit from any paper book is tied to the cost of crude.

If it costs a small fortune to ship books, that eats away at any profit. Eventually, there is a ceiling that even bibliophiles will reach. We’ll only pay SO MUCH for the paper books we love, especially when digital is a fraction of the cost.

All this to say that Ye Olden Days of Publishing are gone, and have been for a while. Which is fine, but also scary. In the August 2, 2022 article in The New York Times, The Books Merger That’s About Amazon:

The elephant in the room is Amazon. Book publishers want to become bigger and stronger partly to have more leverage over Amazon, by far the largest seller of books in the United States. One version of Penguin Random House’s strategy boils down to this: Our book publishing monopoly is the best defense against Amazon’s book selling monopoly.

Shira Ovid, The New York Times

Whether for good or for ill, a judge blocked NY publishing’s plans to merge two publishing titans—Penguin Random House and Simon & Schuster—in hopes of faring better against their ongoing nemesis, Amazon.

Initially, the duo claimed they’d fight this decision, but have since withdrawn any future plans to merge.

It’s Just Business

writing, professional writer, pain, pain of writing

In the face of a recession that’s steadily nibbling away at profits as well as supply chain issues, the future of publishing is, as always, uncertain. This has always been the case in traditional publishing (especially when an excruciatingly small minority of authors are responsible for most of the profit).

This said, publishing is a business. Writing, if we want to go pro, is a business. We are wise to understand that business and how it works (or doesn’t). I totally get you and wish I had different news. What I would GIVE if all I had to do was WRITE. But, when we go pro, there’s a lot more that goes into being an author than simply getting words on the page.

And enough about that.

My goal here isn’t to utterly deflate anyone’s dreams of becoming a successful author, but this is a voyage. Like any voyage, it’s simply prudent to be honest about the trip ahead and plan accordingly the best one can.

It’s Looking Up…Maybe

One good “trend” I am seeing is the resurgence of older titles. In a November 1, 2022 article in The New York Times, A Big Publishing Merger Was Blocked, but Brought the Industry Little Clarity:

Simon & Schuster, however, has been having a very strong year, outperforming many of its rivals. Its revenue grew by 34 percent in the second quarter of the year, driven in large part by older books that have taken off on TikTok, including “It Ends With Us,” by Colleen Hoover. “The Last Thing He Told Me,” a novel by Laura Dave, spent a year on the best-seller list and has now sold two million copies, Simon & Schuster said. Ada Ferrer’s “Cuba: An American History” won a Pulitzer Prize.

Elizabeth A. Harris & Alexandra Alter The new York Times

What do I see in this? Readers are tired of the slush pile being dumped in their laps. I’ve always held issue with how the big publishers and major retailers like B&N conducted business, namely because they kept trying to out-Amazon Amazon instead of playing to THEIR strengths.

Big publishing’s largest strength has ALWAYS been the relative quality of their books (overall). Even the worst traditionally published book generally has a cohesive plot and isn’t riddled with typos. When readers are thrust into a market saturated with unreadable, unedited or poorly edited stories, traditional publishers have always had the advantage.

Ironically, the entity they fought tooth and nail (social media) is the main component that now seems to be saving them.

What Does This Mean?

It means, firstly, that there are two fundamental aspects to being successful as an author—> Good books and solid platform.

I think we are, blessedly, moving beyond the early fascination with the shiny widgets and we (readers) want quality reads. We also don’t have a lot of time, and resent wading through bad books, regardless how they’re published.

People will always want good stories (Fiction) and information (NF).

The fact that older, pre-digital age books are coming back big, is a sign to me that we have more readers than ever, and they’re enthusiastic about excellent stories. Not only enthusiastic, but also addicted to social media, so they will InstaTwitFace all day about what they love!

We’re also seeing an explosion of different KINDS of stories, thus creating opportunities for different kinds of WRITERS. Short works are making a BIG comeback. The digital age has resurrected many forms of writing that were almost lost to us (E.g. poetry, essays, novellas, short stories, serials, etc.)

I’ve published traditionally, indie, and self-pub. Since I’m a control freak who enjoys breaking rules, I prefer self-pub and agree with Stephen Haunts that we indies really are The Punk Rock of Publishing.

So more good news. We are no longer in a One-Size-Fits-All profession. Yes, we’ll have to choose our pain, but at least now we have more options for our publishing suffering.

To the Pain

Princess Bride meme, pain, life is pain, choose pain, Kristen Lamb

For those of us who want go pro, it is time to get to WORK. I love NaNoWriMo as much as anyone. I’ve been doing it for years and most of the projects I’ve completed are now published works.

Yet, when we make the shift from hobbyist to professional, every month is NaNoWriMo.

We have to understand that, while there is nothing wrong with writing for fun, hobbyists play for fun. Pros play for keeps. Make a habit of writing every day. I don’t care if it is 500 words (2 pages). Two pages every day of every week soon becomes a book.

As Mark Manson reiterates in his best-selling book The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F**k, it is easy to fall in love with the end result. To imagine our books on every end cap, in People Magazine, trending on TikTok, or being made into a Netflix Original. And those are the dreams that will keep us going through the giant span of SUCK before the breakthrough.

Yet, in the meantime…

What KIND of Pain Will You Enjoy?

What kind of PAIN will we enjoy most? Because we cannot truly control anything in the industry beyond a certain point. To go pro, we must be honest about the pain writing entails then ask if it is worth it.

Would you STILL write even if I told you you’d never make a dime and likely die in obscurity? If the answer is yes, then we’re off to the races. If we write because we love it and wish to master it, then that is all that truly matters.

That passion will make us show up day after day and turn out word count. We’ll become experts at FINISHING. No half-perfect novel ever became a runaway success, but a lot of completed “crappy” books have.

We will have to keep an eye on the industry, understand how it works. If one publishes traditionally, then there is the pain of whatever limitations/expectations a publisher might place on us.

If we publish non-traditionally, then we not only need a good book, but we have to oversee the blurbs, back copy, formatting for paper and e-book, cover design, ISBNs, marketing, platform, brand, etc.

Which, for the record, ALL authors are responsible for marketing, platform and brand so there’s no Publishing Sugar Daddy that is going to shield us from that.

Peace with Pain

When we are okay with the pain of working alone, dealing with setbacks, learning to stick and move with an industry that changes at the speed of algorithms, and we’re willing to do the hard stuff because we love to write THAT MUCH?

Going pro is probably a good decision.

The better news is we’ll have lasting power our peers don’t possess. Believe it or not, most of being successful in anything is the discipline to consistently show up.

Every legendary book was written one word at a time.

Writing as a hobby is ALWAYS a good decision for those who have a passion for story. We don’t HAVE to monetize everything that brings us joy! It is OKAY to simply have fun.

Remember this when looking back at those New Year’s Resolutions still freshly inked on the page. If we fall in love with process, we can accomplish almost anything.

What are Your Thoughts About Pain?

Other than you don’t like it? Same. What I would GIVE for a pain-free option, but sadly life doesn’t work that way. Do you love the process or just love to fantasize about the end victories?

Hey, I was TOTALLY guilty when I was new. I spent more time imagining my books a movies than actually writing. Now? I am guilty of the opposite and need to do more dreaming.

It is 2023, so what have you decided? Go pro? REALLY? Or just learn to enjoy dabbling? Maybe a mixture of both? Do you need to be stricter with yourself, or maybe learn to lighten up a little?

I LOVE hearing from you!

18 comments

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  1. Kristen, you put it right out there with this post. Thank you. The pain in writing is like the pain in “labor.” I’m a self-pub, and the end products are both extraordinary endings. I’ve gone “pro” and “crazy” taking on a sequel to the debut book published in May, 2022. Going big with marketing both books. That’s the hard part. Christine ?

  2. Kristen, I’ve enjoyed your writing wisdom and your wacky sense of humor for a number of years. To be honest, your wacky sense of humor wins over wisdom, because I’m afflicted with wackiness, too. I’m an 89 year-old guy who’s writing the first draft of a fifth murder mystery story. I’ve self-published three of the previous books, and hybrid-published the fourth. Your post on pain and publishing convinced me that I’ll continue managing the exquisite pain of working to improve my writing skills sentence by blood-soaked sentence, realizing this is my goal, my reason for writing. If I sell some books, great. If I don’t, well, great. Thank you, Kristen. You helped.

    1. I really appreciate the feedback and am so honored I have been and continue to be part of your journey. I LOVE murder mysteries. Yes, writing is not for everyone namely because it is a lot like farming. Work and work and work and pray for rain!

  3. New to these parts. But hoping to make 2023 the year I write…at least write more than I have been writing. No delusions of grandeur. Just hoping to maybe get some of the crazy things that have happened to me down on paper that would serve to kindle fires in the fire pits of my family members when I am gone.

    This statement spoke to me: Would you STILL write even if I told you you’d never make a dime and likely die in obscurity? If the answer is yes, then we’re off to the races. If we write because we love it and wish to master it, then that is all that truly matters.

    I love to write. Have no hope of seeking fame and fortune from my words. Just want LIFE to slow down just a bit to give me time to write while still providing me something to write about.

    1. Well, first of all, FABULOUS to meet you! Secondly, you will never FIND time, you need to learn to MAKE time. It’s never going to magically happen. TRUST ME. Make your writing a priority, and everything else works around that.

        • Rachel Thompson on January 14, 2023 at 9:33 am
        • Reply

        I agree and will add an idea. If you steep your mind in writing you will make time to write. What we think most about is what we are compelled to do.
        .

  4. Hey Kristen, Long-time Listener/First-time Caller here. I reckon I first came across your name over a decade ago when all one had to do was chuck up a website for Writers Groups and become hugely popular (my beloved pagebuoy.com died when I got scroodgied out of the domain). I don’t even remember subscribing, but MAN, when this piece came through my inbox and I read so many words and similar sentiments to mine, am I glad I did.

    This piece presents great truths about the ever-evolving industry we’re in without self-aggrandising some idea of Success or trying to wangle a buck from me to further my hopes for it. A rarity. I’m as in need as the next writer of a cheerleader to happily wave their pom-poms no matter what stage of whatever I’m in, but I think we’re all in need of more hard-truths that don’t sugarcoat things in order to keep us interested in this career so that we’ll sign up for some course or pay for some membership. I especially loved that the message of hope and perseverance underpins the entire thing.

    Because that’s always been the truth: if you’re willing to put the time in, you’ll get something out of it. Be that happiness and contentment or a dollar amount. Just like the other comment, I LOVED the line about if you’d still write if you’d never make a dime or see any fame, because that’s a fundamental truth of it that many might not think about. I sat in stasis for years before my wife stuck her finger in my chest and said, “Stop overthinking the entire process. You’re a writer. And writers WRITE.” Next thing I knew, I had two novels drafted and two more on the way.

    Thanks for sticking your finger in some chests. You rock.

    • Sybil McLain-Topel on January 14, 2023 at 8:15 am
    • Reply

    Realistic assessment of the writing profession and publishing industry, including the pain gap between conception and completion. Thanks!

    • Rachel C Thompson on January 14, 2023 at 9:25 am
    • Reply

    The only pain for me was that I knew legacy was doomed before they were and that screwed with my motivation, but it also changed my perspective, and so, in the end, it was better for me. Pros need to crank out 2 or 3 books a year and I can’t do that. I’m good for two book drafts and one done in a year. I have 6 in print now and two more in the can which I’m getting ready to publish now. I have more planned. I haven’t done any social media. I can write or I can promote. But, I do have a marketing plan which is a throwback. When I hit ten books, and I will, I will stop writing 5 hours a day and promote my stock fulltime but not on the internet. I will tour the nation in my camper and do free presentations (I have a list of targets). I’m good with people, I speak well. That is the strength I’ll play too. I know my books are pro level. I write because I love it and the goal is and always has been to write better. I’m testing the idea that if one writes a good book people will read it. The trick is getting it in front of people. Nothing works better for me than face-to-face contact. I may fail at selling but I won’t fail as a writer. It’s not about the money. I’ll continue perfecting my craft and if the money follows, so be it.

  5. I love to write. I’m published with an indie publisher, and have 12 books published.
    I’m hardly making even pocket money, but that doesn’t matter. Every time my royalties come in, usually around the £100 mark or less, I’m delighted because it means some people read my books.
    I’m not sure if I’m a hobby writer or not; largely because there is no way I could live on my earnings. My family think I’m a hobby writer! Which is a problem as they (mainly my husband as my children are grown up) think I can stop at any time, “Because it’s not important. You’re not making money at it.”

    • michaelmichaellantripcom on January 15, 2023 at 4:19 pm
    • Reply

    Why do I write? Because I can’t not write. I’ve tried it. I can’t. It’s like breathing. Fortunately I’ve already published 10 non-fiction books before turning to fiction. Those business books are paying the bills so I can enjoy learning this complicated formula for storytelling. Write for money or write for enjoyment, but write.

  6. Great post, Kristen. The entire book creation process can be painful, especially when one is just starting out and learning what an uphill climb it is to publishing. It’s a big mound of fear we have to face, and for me, climbing each one of those fear mounds has been a huge accomplishment. After years of trying to find the right agent, I created my own publishing company, and with help from two great editors, an amazing book designer, multiple proof readers, I now have 3 books published with the fourth coming out this fall. As a business woman, the working end of this venture has been easy to grasp. It’s the marketing and building my social media platform that has been most painful. No, I’m not making enough to support myself, no yet anyway, but I do received little royalty payments that show up in my checking account pretty much every month. And when I make a connection with another soul, someone I’ve never met who loves my books, well, that’s called pure joy and it’s worth all the pain it took to get there. The statement you made in this post says it all: “Believe it or not, most of being successful in anything is the discipline to consistently show up.” Thanks for reminding us of that.

  7. The main reason I love reading your blog is because you don’t pull punches. I’ve spent the last 3ish years fantasizing more than writing. I have also been plotting several books that tie into each other, but not doing the writing.

    Between impostor syndrome and it’s already been written syndrome writing is harder than anything else right now. I want to do the work without doing the work and that’s not possible.

    Luckily, I have an amazing support group and they nudge me to putting words down. Writing is life and life is pain, but worth every single torturous moment. XoXo

    • claragbush29 on January 24, 2023 at 3:00 pm
    • Reply

    Great Blog, Kristen. Thank you for the motivation. At this time, my frustration comes after just purchasing two novels that were highly acclaimed Best Sellers, (traditionally published) that I couldn’t finish because they were so tedious and laborious to read. I kept reading, because I reminded myself they were bestsellers. Then, half way through, I realized I hated the books and was wasting my time. I read the reviews and numerous reviewers had the same experience I did. How these books get traditionally published and a great debut author is overlooked, is beyond me. Whew. Vented that out. Thanks. (Your left-handed snake handler, on target!)

    1. Clara, how old were these best-sellers if I might ask?

  8. I started reading your article Kirsten thinking to do my usual skim and delete but I sat here and read it all. Interesting and true to life. In the past I was trad published. Now, (without a deal) I self-Publish. There are positives and negatives to everything. Things change. You are right, you just have to go with the flow. Excellent article. Five stars from me.

  9. Oh dear. I spelled your name wrong, please accept my apologies, Kristen. Scots and Nordic, tis always Kirsten here and I was not paying enough attention. Lol. Probably because your excellent post left me thinking. Does flattery help? Joking, it really was an excellent post and I feel terrible for spelling your name incorrectly. Kristen

    1. LOL, most of the time I don’t notice. OR if y’all don’t tattle on yourselves I do a Quick Edit. But flattery is ALWAYS approved and really happy you enjoyed the post. Great to know you!

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