Can You Step Away From the Publishing Rat Race?

Rat Race

Part of the reason I hated corporate life was that it always felt like some kind of crazy rat race to nowhere. You spend years chasing after promotions and advancement and for what? Money? Money is nice, but not (always) if it comes at the expense of living a life. Recognition? Professional recognition is also nice, but does it matter in the grand scheme of things? Will anyone care once you’re dead? Fulfillment? This might work if you have a job you love, but most people don’t. I didn’t, so I certainly wasn’t getting any sort of deep fulfillment out of the race.

I just couldn’t get my head around exhausting myself and putting up with all the crap for what felt like nothing to me. The moment I decided to go freelance changed my life. Suddenly the race was on my terms. I could choose meaningful projects, set my own hours, and I seriously limited the amount of BS coming into my life.

And then I got my novel published. Now, don’t get me wrong. Being published has been, in most respects, a dream come true. However, it’s worth noting for aspiring authors that it isn’t all rainbows and sunshine. In many ways, it puts you right in the center of a different kind of rat race. And it’s not for everyone.

Publishing these days seems like some sort of manic episode that is guaranteed to lead to a crash. Except you’re not allowed to crash, so you’ve got to keep going. And if you dare to step back? Doom awaits.

Publishing wants to treat your books like a TV show that can be binge-watched. They want all the books in a series to release within weeks of each other. Or, if you’re not writing series’, they want your next book immediately. This means you’d better be a speed demon writer if you want to compete in today’s marketplace.

But it doesn’t stop with the writing. You’d better be racing along in other areas, as well. You need to be constantly filling your social media with “engaging” content, taking out advertising, hawking your books anywhere you can, and going to conventions and events. It’s not only a rat race to write and publish the books, it’s a rat race to promote them, as well. Your publisher won’t help you much, if at all, so the push is all on you.

It is, frankly, exhausting.

If you have a regular job, it’s even more so. Finding time to write can be challenging enough. But finding time to write and do all of the other stuff can be nigh on impossible with a job, family, and other obligations. There’s only so much you can cut out of your life before quality of life begins to suffer.

Even if you can manage to keep up with the race, there is no margin for error. If you get sick (or have to care for someone else), or have other problems that force you to slow down, it’s very easy to fall off the treadmill. And once you do, it can be impossible to get back on. Publishers have very little tolerance for your life issues. If you can’t keep up, they have no trouble finding someone who will. The race will pass you by, leaving you in the gutter.

In many ways, it’s no different from the corporate rat race. You’re not necessarily chasing promotions, but you are chasing relevance. The minute you stop being relevant, it’s over. Oh, sure, you may be able to find another publisher, or self-publish, but once the momentum of the race is lost, it takes a significant amount of time and effort to regain it.

The truly sad thing is that this race aspect of the industry leads some people to resort to bad behavior in order to jump ahead. Endless spam is one unfortunate result. Social media feeds filled with nothing but “Buy my book posts,” are a result of this mania to stay in front of the train. Scammers try to take advantage by promising to help you win the race if you’ll just pay them $$$. And then there’s the bullying, harassment, and career-damning flame wars that some writers resort to in order to garner attention for themselves and their work.

I want to stand up and yell, “Chill out. Just do your thing the best you can do it and let time take care of the rest,” but I’d be yelling in the Thunderdome with no hope of ever bring heard. And that’s really what publishing is all about these days. You are a tiny speck in the endless noise and fighting of the Thunderdome and any noise you make is nothing but a whisper. All of your marketing, speed writing, etc. is for naught if no one is listening. And unless you crank out work that goes viral or you’re already a household name, the truth is that no one is listening.

Which leads to the saddest thing of all: Authors quitting and giving up on the dream. When they can’t keep up, many feel they have no choice but to quit. It is, after all, quit voluntarily or be forced out. We lose a lot of talent this way. By forcing people to run a race that they may not be able to run (at least for long), publishing forces out many great voices. But that’s okay, because there are thousands waiting to take the place of those who couldn’t hack it. (That’s #sarcasm, by the way.)

Obviously, not everyone finds this to be so problematic. Some people are blessed with lives that allow them to write and promote full time. They can throw enough spaghetti at the wall that some eventually sticks and they move ahead on the race track.

Others find it more challenging. They have jobs, or obligations to family. Perhaps they can’t afford to travel to conventions, or physical limitations that make even local signings problematic. Some people can’t afford paid advertising. (Ads are a Catch 22. You can’t make money without advertising, but advertising costs money that you may not have until your book takes off.) Others have mental health issues that make things like flying or appearing in public challenging, if not impossible.

And there are some who just want more balance in their lives. Writing is a part of their life, but they don’t want it to completely take over everything. When writing and promoting begins to crowd out other aspects of life, some people simply have to say, “No” in order to keep balance and sanity in the proceedings.

Now, I’m not saying publishing and being published is horrible. I’m only throwing this out there as an advisory. If you believe publishing will be some magical ticket out of the rat race, you may be sorely disappointed. I hear aspiring authors say all the time how much they want to exit the corporate rat race and write for a living. You need to know that publishing is still a Thunderdome. It’s just a different kind of Thunderdome.

That’s not to say that you can’t make it if you opt for the slower pace. You can, but it will take much longer. And the work you do produce will have to be stellar. For readers and publishers to stay with you if you publish erratically, your work has to be so great that it’s worth waiting for. (Or it has to take off to such a viral level that your name remains relevant in the culture in between books.) There are very few things that fall into that camp, so you’d better have an alternative plan.

If you step off the race track, be prepared for lower sales and people who dismiss you as a hack, or not serious enough about your work. You may have to “settle” for writing as a hobby rather than as a career that can support you financially. It’s a harsh truth, but there it is.

(Photo courtesy of Luca Ambrosi)

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