Earth/Moon Image

Books | Fact | Fiction | Wiction | Opinion | Hire | Links | Forum | Donate | Download | Contact
Bloom Aggressor Six The Fall of Sirius Murder in the Solid State Flies from the Amber The Collapsium The Wellstone Lost in Transmission To Crush the Moon Once Upon a Galaxy


Wil's Official Speculative Fiction Career Planning Guide

A career in writing is, of course, a perpetual learning experience, both because there's a lot to know and because what you know (or think you know) has an obsolescence half-life of probably about a decade. Still, after a few years of bumbling around, most of us find our feet and gain some sense of the branching paths ahead of and behind us. Too, most of us benefit along the way from helpful advice given by those who've come before, and it's in this vein that I offer the Official Science Fiction Career Planning Guide for anyone who might be interested.

If you're skeptical about the usefulness of such a document, or about my qualifications to write one, then good for you; I don't claim any special knowledge or insight, and I'm generally mistrustful of people who do. But I've been around a little, and talked with folks who've been around a little more, and I'm happy to share what observations I've gleaned, so long as there's no warranty express or implied. I'll also apologize in advance for the length, which came very much as a surprise to me. Here I'd planned on jotting down a few quick rules of thumb in a spare hour, never guessing that four weeks later I'd have a 6,500-word document on my hands. The many people who contributed numbers and anecdotes, including Sean Stewart, Bruce Holland Rogers, Kathy Goonan, Maureen McHugh, Linda Nagata, Valerie Freireich, and Sage Walker are partly responsible, and should naturally be blamed for any errors or oversights you find here. Let's begin.


Are You Sure?

The first question you have to settle is the whole "are you nuts?" thing. Professional writing of any kind is a tough row, with mucho rejection, long hours at low pay, and rewards seeming always to the wrong people or, at best, to random people. And in genre writing, perhaps especially science fiction, fantasy and horror, there's also this business of not being taken seriously by society, except at odd intervals when someone invents teleportation or something and the press needs a quote. If you think this might bug you, I'd advise you to consider your options very carefully.

If you're still reading, though, I'll assume you've got past that question and given the regrettable answer that yes, this speculative writing thing really is what you want to do with your free time for the next several decades. Which means I can talk to you as a peer, about tough issues like...


The Trunk

If you don't have one, buy one. If you do have one, plan to fill it. Any fool has a million words of crap inside, waiting to come out. The only real question is whether there's anything worthwhile behind it in the pipeline, and the only way to know that is to flush the whole thing out. I'll be brief here as well, because as a Speculations reader you're probably either selling fiction already or else hanging out with people who are, and who can provide you with better (or at least better tailored) advice than I can.

Anyway, YMMV and all that. There are those who spend a lifetime trying to pull their talent together, and others who fall directly into a writing style that's not only publishable but actually recognizable Good. For most of us, though, there's a lengthy period of experimentation, wherein we try out different voices and formats and lengths and subject matter in an effort to figure out who we are as writers. You definitely want to archive this phase, because later on you can go back and mine it. After all, who better to plagarize from than a young, unpublished (or underpublished) author who shares all your best interests, hasn't yet learned caution or fear or control, and wouldn't dream of pressing charges?

But a trunk? Isn't that a bit archaic in this age of rewritable CDs and DVDs? All I can say is, I've been writing on computers since the start of the 80s, and I've gone through at least a dozen mutually incompatible storage formats since that time, and expect to go through at least a dozen more before I die. You can fill a drawer with assorted media and trust the future to invent a way to read it all back to you someday, but my experience is that ink on paper never crashes or goes obsolete, and ages very slowly indeed in the safety of a metal trunk.

And you can throw rejection letters in there, too, if you're the sort that keeps them.



Okay, you're not only writing but selling. Congratulations! The few, the proud. But keep that trunk handy; you've probably entered the Piecework phase of your career. This means your work is at least occasionally of commercial or artistic value (or hopefully both), but you haven't yet established a lasting rapport with the one editor or handful of editors who will define your eventual career. This means there'll still be plenty of rejections, even for the stuff you're pretty sure will eventually sell, which is probably still just a fraction of your total output.

Be warned: like unpublitis, (literally, inflammation of the lack of publication) this phase can last a long time, up to and including forever. Now may be a good time to establish "victory conditions" against which to measure your future success. If Stephen King is your commercial yardstick, or William Shakespeare your artistic one, you're likely to suffer some disappointment, whereas a goal of "seeing my name in print every couple of years" can probably be met or surpassed.

Then again, if you aim low that's probably where you'll hit; it's important to know just how ambitious you really are, and how much you're willing to sacrifice. Stephen Covey, in THE 7 HABITS OF HIGHLY EFFECTIVE PEOPLE, asserts that no terminally ill person ever lamented having spent too little time at work. Apparently, Mr. Covey's "effective" set doesn't include any committed artists, who, on their death beds, all too frequently say "I wasn't finished -- I had so much left to do. Oh, all the time I wasted making love on the beach when I could have been writing science fiction!" If that's you, it's probably safe to expect your piecework phase to end.

Another note about this phase is that many SFWAns flesh it out with media tie-ins, shared-worlds, TV scripts, and other potentially quite lucrative collaborative projects. I personally have no experience with these, so I'll say very little about them, except to note that Work Made For Hire (WMFH) gigs, where the author is paid a flat fee, are not generally a good idea. Why? Because the author forfeits all future interests in the work, including spin-offs, sequels, and other derivatives. At best, this encourages authors to withold their best work and submit expedient mediocrities instead, in which case the question is, do you want mediocrities kicking around with your name on them? If not, you can always work under a pseudonym, but then the question becomes, is this a better use of your time than a real job, with benefits and growth opportunities and evenings and weekends off?

At worst, of course, a WMFH project may just get your best work, and abscond with all the benefits therefrom. If you've conceived the Next Big Thing in media SF, do you really want your cool new characters and story ideas to enrich a multinational corporation when they could be enriching you?

More to the point, are you prepared to surrender creative control to some empty suit in a tower somewhere? If that's your game, why not be the suit and live better?

Finally, there's the peeing-in-the-pool effect. Questions like "how low a flat fee are you willing to accept?" lead to uglier questions like "how low a fee will someone else accept for the same work?" This road, alas, leads nowhere but down. Any advantages -- to anyone, really -- are temporary at best.

Anyhoo, most SF writers will probably agree that original work is the cornerstone of any writing career. I've never met an SF writer -- indeed any writer of any sort -- who has no aspirations in this direction. And I'm sure everyone's heard by now that it's basically impossible to make a living out of short fiction. This may swing back someday, but for decades now the word "writing career" has been essentially synonymous with "novel career." I'm sure some folks will contrive a sense of outrage over this, but I'll nonetheless assert that solo original novels are the U.S. Dollar of today's literary marketplace. Which brings us to...


The Freshman Novel

You've slaved over it, probably for years. Maybe you've got some others in the trunk that you slaved over just as hard, but there's something special, something recognizably publishable about this one, and sure enough, there's a publisher who agrees. Soon, of course, you'll be rich, famous, and happy. Honest.

Okay, actually first novel advances are almost always under $10,000, usually more like $4,000, and sometimes as low as $1,500. This is for major national publishers, mind you; regional and virtual outfits, which pay significantly less, really belong to the piecework phase of your career. Too, with these major national publishers, multi-book deals are the norm, so no matter how you struggle, you may face the unpleasant choice of signing away two or three or even four books at these less-than-compensatory prices. It's like ROTC -- you get some experience, seasoning, and résumé credibility, and they get your ass for several cold, grueling years.

Shitty deals like this seem to be kind of a taboo subject for authorly discussion, so you may have a hard time gauging how you're doing with respect to your peers and forebears. Still, find out what you can, where you can, and talk frankly about these issues with your agent. You do need a competent agent at this stage, for a lot of reasons I won't bother going into, but getting the largest amount of money for the smallest amount of work is an important part of it.

Anyway, we all hit the ground running at different speeds. It may actually help to have some trunk novels (or regionally or electronically published novels) and piecework publications before your first major novel sale, since this will let your "debut" actually represent the culmination of several years' experience. Even the most stunning debuts, though, don't normally mean big bucks right away. Your paperback print run is probably no more than 20,000 or 30,000 copies, and if a hardcover printing preceeds this, it's probably 3,000 copies or less. Hardcover royalties should be around 10%, and paperback royalties between 5% and 8%, so the math is pretty clear: even if all of these books wind up in the hands of paying readers (the mythical 100% sell-through), you ain't getting rich off the deal. Actually, it's likely you won't even "earn out," meaning your accrued royalties will never equal your advance. That's reality check number one.

Number two is that you'll have no say in what goes on the cover. Sure, you're qualified to string tens or hundreds of thousands of words together to tell a story, but in the minds of your publisher's art and marketing departments, you're not qualified to summarize those words into cover copy, or select a central passage, theme, character, or setting for cover artists to visualize. The idea that strangers should know both your book and your target audience better than you do is a puzzling one; all too often, the covers these folks come up with manage to both trivialize and mislead, virtually guaranteeing that the people who'd most enjoy your book are the ones least likely to pick it up. Sometimes they come up with something better than you would have, which is great, but the point is that you have no veto power, and any up-front input you provide will probably be ignored, or even actively resented. My first book editor (Hi, Amy!) actually chastised me for calling up artist Bob Eggleton to talk about what my aliens looked like. That was a no-no, even though he didn't mind, so I wouldn't dream of advising you to let your editor find out you've tried it.

As sobering as these revelations may be, the hardest first-novel lesson is reality check three: your basic SF-book-the-world-isn't-dying-for typically sells between 10,000 and 15,000 copies, and moreover, nearly all of the net sales happen in the first couple of weeks. Why? First because book dealers' initial orders will be at least an order of magnitude larger than their later reorders, and second because returns -- around 50% for a typical mass-market paperback -- start rolling in as early as two weeks after publication.

Yep, half the copies of your book that get printed will wind up being destroyed, their torn-off covers mailed back to the publisher for a full refund. Books, like magazines, are sold on consignment; the risk is borne almost entirely by publishers. They pass some of this along to you, in the form of a "reserve against returns" figure which declines over a period of quarters, semesters, or years, but which counts against your net sales while doing so. There is no analogous means of sharing risk with bookstores, book distributors, and the "rack jobbers" who supply airports, department stores and other mixed-product outlets. Nonetheless, after the mergers and bottom-line mania of the late 20th century, these businesses have become so impatient that if a title doesn't show least a few sales right away, it'll be pulled down, stripped (or in the case of a hardcover, returned), and replaced with something else.

Within a few months, it's usual for a book's returns to exceed its reorders, so that while gross sales continue to climb, net sales (copies shipped minus copies returned) move into negative territory. At this point, your publisher -- at least on paper -- is losing money on you, and how long they'll be willing to do this is a function of gross reorders. It is possible for reviews, endorsements, awards, citations, and word-of-mouth to increase sales for a book, whether gradually or suddenly, briefly or -- in some cases -- for generations to come. So if your reorders remain at a healthy level, at least a few hundred copies per month, or if they're low but visibly increasing, your book may hang around for a while.

Ultimately, the goal is for reorders to hold steady or increase, while returns gradually taper off, until finally the book slides up into positive earnings again. With sufficient positive earnings, a book can stay in print more or less forever. The bad news is that even speedy returns, for some reason, take two or three years to taper off, and publishers are unlikely to want to wait this long to see additional bucks from your novel. It's a safe bet that sometime before this, they'll pulp any remaining copies in their warehouse, saving their floor space, rent, and tax monies for something more immediately profitable.

The life cycle looks something like this:

Combining these three straightforward curves yields the considerably less obvious "net sales" function...

And finally, the bottom line as it appears on your royalty statements...


These aren't to scale; don't use them for financial planning purposes or congressional lobbying. Still, they do give the general flavor. In reviewing this final curve, keep in mind that very few mass-market books remain in print for three whole years. See that ugly nadir around 12 months? That, unfortunately, is where most first-time novelists get off the ride. So your first royalty statement is actually higher than what you'll finally end up with. You should have seen my face when I discovered that little factoid.

Your book may be as good as anything the field has ever seen before, better than not only the debut novels of now-famous people, but their masterpieces as well. Most of us feel that way, and sometimes it's true. Even so, you're liable to find your eloquent voice drowned out in the hubbub of a broad and generally healthy industry. Don't sweat it; this is normal. Not fun, but normal.


Sophomore Novels

So, now that you're past that awkward newbie phase, now that you're a seasoned professional novelist with thousands of readers out there in readerland, the hardest knocks are over with, right?

Sadly, no. Our field has a fascination with first novels, which after all could be really, really good for all anyone knows. Any first novel could be the next NEUROMANCER or I, ROBOT, and readers and reviewers alike have some tendency to want to check. With second and third novels, though, these same people may feel -- rightly or wrongly -- that they know what to expect. Even if it's pure wonderfulness they're expecting, that's at least a known quantity, and therefore less urgent to investigate than the unknown possibility of wonderfulness from the next writer out of the gates. So however frustratingly minimal your first-novel buzz may have been, it may actually represent your high-water mark for the next several years.

More serious still is the issue of computerized bookstore ordering models. In the age of networking, it's fairly trivial for large chains to track every single copy of every book they stock and sell, and since they want to stock more books from authors who sell well and fewer from those who don't, it's a logical extension to use hard sales data to determine ordering policies. Unfortunately, these calculations are performed at the national level, and don't seem to take proper account of returns. If a first novel sells 2,000 copies through Wubblerbooks outlets, this probably means 4,000 copies were ordered, but Wubbler's model usually tells them to order fewer copies than that on the next time around, say 2,500 or 3,500.

Since returns are fairly constant, this means that only 1,250 to 1,750 copies of the second novel will be sold, and fewer still of the third novel. All the other chains are doing this, too, and the net effect is malignantly unfriendly to authors: the dreaded Death Spiral. Once upon a time, it was reasonable to expect your audience to grow slowly but steadily with each new book you published. Now, in the absence of external influences, your audience will actually shrink, and not necessarily all that gradually.

At its worst, this can result in pathological solutions like "It's more profitable for you to abandon your artistic reputation and your thousands of fans and start publishing under a pseudonym." Um, yeah.

That's in the absence of external influences, though; like gravity, Death Spiral suction can be overcome through the careful application of force. What kind of force? Well, at a minimum, you can make sure reviewers have received copies of your latest book, and if they haven't you can (a) bully your publisher into sending it to them, or if that fails (or if you simply don't think they'll remember), (b) you can send it to them yourself. In addition, it can be very helpful to go out and publicize yourself, whether in local media, at SF conventions, publisher/bookseller conferences, independent and specialty bookstores, or even the major chains, some of which host book discussion groups and suchlike. However trivial or futile these activities may seem, word-of-mouth has got to start somewhere, and comparing the careers of writers who do this with writers who don't, the benefits are clear, at least statistically. It's an unpopular truth, but there you have it.

A word of caution about online publicity: web pages are fine, an excellent means for exchanging information between consenting adults, but email "spamming" -- sending unsolicited notices to thousands or millions of people at once -- is rude, often illegal, and likely to stir up a lot more trouble than business. Similarly, places like Usenet are inhabited by savvy and somewhat bellicose people with their own strict customs, which explicitly discourage advertising outside the narrow confines of your .sig file. If you just want to hang out and chat, that's great, and likely to help. But here, as elsewhere, being openly pushy or solicitous is not advised.

If you're not averse to spending money -- and it helps very much if you aren't -- then advertising gimmicks like custom-printed pens, bookmarks, stickers, buttons, t-shirts, etc. can be an excellent investment, particularly for distribution to convention audiences and other highly targeted populations. Higher on the price scale, self-funded magazine ads and publicity tours can certainly get your name out in a favorable light, contributing to that all-important "illusion of momentum" which paves the way for actual momentum. It's always easier to back a winner, right?

You're the only one who can decide how much work, expense, and self-congratulatory hussying you and the people around you willing to put up with, keeping in mind that if you do nothing, the Death Spiral is a likely outcome, and if you do too much (or if you're clumsy about it), you could wind up looking pretty silly. Still, if you're uncomfortable with any of this, just remember that Mark Twain, as respectable a literary figure as America has yet produced, was also a relentless self-promoter. Try a peek at Eleanor Lang's "Publicity 101: How to do it without embarassing yourself and others" at

Note that it is vitally important to keep up the quality of your writing during this difficult period, in fact to improve it as much as humanly possible. If any sales slippage is seen by onlookers as a baffling injustice rather than the deserved consequence of slacking, you're well positioned for an eventual improvement in your circumstances. Too, it'll almost certainly help if you continue with short fiction and other piecework. This keeps your name in the public eye, hones your skills, and gives you something to fall back on if your novel sales figures melt down completely. The good news is that when you're a known quantity and a familiar name, piecework sales really do get easier.

It also helps to ask your publisher -- or, more properly, to have your agent ask your publisher -- for whatever assistance they can provide, marketwise. Sometimes there isn't much they're willing or able to do, but you might be surprised how much is available for the asking, and how little is offered to those who don't ask. Even where work and money are involved -- for example, to mail galleys or page proofs out to selected reviewers in advance of publication -- the worst they can tell you is no. Rarely "hell no," unless they see you as a disposable, replaceable, bottom-feeding sort of organism, which is something you need to know about anyway. Far better to get that out in the open. A publisher who expects to keep buying novels from you will eventually have to start saying "maybe."



So, you've kicked furiously, and managed to keep your nostrils above water through your career's all-but-inevitable sophomore slump? You've got a string of novels behind you that were reasonably well received, reasonably well reviewed, reasonably successful commercially? You haven't slacked off, burned out, or lost faith in your own abilities? It's okay if you're bitter, apprehensive, and feeling as though you're hanging on by your fingernails; this just shows you're paying attention. But if you're somewhere between your fourth and eighth novels and ain't licked yet, you may well be due for a shot of success.

I'll add several qualifiers here, to keep things real. First of all, "success" to a speculative fiction writer means something very different than it does to an investment banker, or even a cop or schoolteacher. A few hundred of us make "enough to live on," whatever that means, but that fancy house with the humvee out front and the swimming pool out back is a lot less common. And there's health insurance to consider, and retirement savings (you can't count on your backlist these days, if indeed you ever could), and if you hope to put a child or three through college, your monetary needs may be very difficult to meet with a writing career alone.

Anyway, if you're anything like me you may not be comfortable receiving semi-random amounts of money at semi-random intervals, when your monthly bills are for the most part steady and inflexible. It's a strange thing to complain about, but large, sudden infusions of money are difficult to assimilate, and if you know (or sometimes even suspect) the money's on the way, there's always the temptation to spend it early, on things you're pretty sure you need. And in terms of security, you never know when the market for your sort of writing might suddenly evaporate, as happened to horror in the 90's or disaster novels in the late 70's, and you never know for sure that you've got another good book inside you. I don't, anyway.

For these and other reasons, I've found it simpler to maintain a "real" job even in years when my wife is working and my writing is going well. Of course, I also like engineering, and take a certain amount of inspiration from it, and gain some authorial credibility for being a "rocket scientist" and working on space missions. That doesn't hurt. My employers have also been fairly flexible about work hours, vacations, leaves of absence, and other time management aids. That doesn't hurt either. Still, if you're going to plan realistically for a success phase, you should expect either to work very hard or to live very lean, for some indefinite period of time.

Because of this, the success phase can easily sneak up on you without your realizing it. However well you're doing, it's inevitable to look at the many people doing better than you, rather than the enormously larger number of people who are doing worse. This gets back to our earlier discussion of victory conditions; independence is far more achievable than opulence, and you're much likelier to be a "top hundred" author than you are to be number one. Be prepared for your quite enviable successes to feel mundane and unremarkable from the inside.

Okay, end of qualifiers.

The good news here is that publishers need stars, both new and old, to keep their business rolling. There is an entire bottom-feeding ecology of books published with low advances and zero publicity, where high birth and death rates keep the population fairly constant despite the most unforgiving of environments. Some publishers have demonstrated profits in this habitat year after year, at the cost of innumerable promising careers. You don't want this to happen to you, and publishers don't need for it to happen to you, because even where bottom-feeding is profitable, profit margins are much higher with a handful of minor Names than with a stable of cannon fodder, and higher still with one or two major stars.

Where sell-throughs as low as 30% can be expected for unknown authors, household names like Tom Clancy and Anne Rice (and Star Wars and Dungeons and Dragons) sell through at 80% or better, and at much higher print runs. This is really where the industry's main profits come from, not only for publishers but for retailers and wholesalers as well. So with 1000+ speculative fiction books published in English every year, the industry may not care if you get a star-sized slice of the pie, but it certainly does care that someone does.

The other good news is that the routes to success are virtually unlimited. You could win a major award, or score a surprise bestseller, or catch the attention of Oprah or NPR. You could make a sudden windfall by optioning your work to Hollywood producers. Sometimes it's your piecework that hits big for you, and sometimes news headlines conicide perfectly with the subject of your latest book and you become, overnight, a world expert on hackers or cloning or radioactive oil well monsters. Sometimes a publisher is "rebuilding their line," and goes looking for two or three reliable wordsmiths to cultivate as stars, and sometimes you simply have That Killer Idea that'll set the auction gavels banging.

There's really no telling what form your lucky break might take, or when it might occur, but the key is for some notable event to cause at least one publisher to take you seriously, as a mature and proven writer who warrants their expenditure of time, money, and energy. One of the most important factors here is a good agent who's willing to make requests and even pointed demands on your behalf. If you feel in your heart that your sophomore phase is nearly done, your agent should be able and willing to lay out a plan for your rise to stardom. If not, find a new agent. If your publisher can't accept the idea that you're ready for a grown-up deal, find a new publisher. Remember, your willingness to leave is their incentive to pony up.

Side note #1: after a few years on the circuit you may find that the junior assistants you used to go drinking with have become senior editors and marketeers who still like and respect you. You may also find that former senior editors have retired, moved on, died, or whatever. Remember always that other people's careers are rising and falling and mutating as busily as yours. Whether this is to your advantage or not is for you to decide.

Side note #2: while print runs today are a full order of magnitude smaller than they were a generation ago, physical, economic, and ideological barriers against international trade are at historic lows. And for better or worse, English speaking countries in general and the United States in particular enjoy a cultural hegemony over speculative fiction, especially science fiction. There is plenty of money to be made selling your work overseas, an important consideration in selecting an agent or agency. The toughest and most influential market is probably Britain, followed closely by Japan and especially Germany, which is seen as a stepping stone to the cash-poor but numerous markets of Eastern Europe. There's a sort of domino or bandwagon effect here as well; nobody wants to miss out on a hot property, so a book which colonizes two or three of these markets is likely to colonize more.

Anyway, the basic point of all this is simple: if some combination of talent, persistence, and personal connection keeps you in the game for long enough, some sort of good thing is, statistically speaking, going to happen for you sooner or later.

When it does, hey, congratulations! Here's where you find out about the Velvet Handcuffs. Of the many things you're interested in doing, you've probably found over the years that you're only actually good at a fraction of them. The next big discovery is that of the things you're good at, the world is interested in only a fraction. You can choose to be a member of that fierce, independent breed of authors who write whatever they bloody well feel like -- some have even prospered at it -- but in a culture based on brand names and franchises, it's pointless to deny the financial rewards of typecasting.

Think about it: when you're in the mood for a legal thriller, you pick up John Grisham, because you know what he's delivering is what you want. And if you hear that Grisham has finally written that hard SF novel he's always dreamed of, you're not too likely to take him seriously. Not as seriously as you would a Niven or a Benford, anyway. In fact you may be upset with Grisham for depriving you of a "real" Grisham book that year. An ironic observation I've made is that most of us as writers like to show off range and versatility and breadth of talent, but as readers we prefer our favorite authors to specialize.

Finding the right balance here is one of the greatest career challenges an author can face. Some have sold out (or bought in) wholeheartedly, some have burned their readers' and publishers' patience with endless navel-gazing exercises, and some have found a solid "backbone" career, and moved their experiments and indulgences into short fiction and other piecework, or else to disposable pseudonyms. If you're faced with these decisions, it helps to have thought in advance about what you need, what you want, and what, in an imperfect world, you're willing to settle for.

This is also the point when you find out how happy everyone in SFdom is for you, and how very much they want to hear about your triumphs over and over again, in excruciating length and detail. The people best able to understand and appreciate your luck are, of course, the ones who haven't gotten theirs yet. Boasting goes over really well with these folks. Honest! Okay, sarcasm aside, there really is a fair degree of camaraderie and mutual support among SF writers. Just don't push your luck, because you'll need some friends and wellwishers around when it's time for...



It's wonderful to be rewarded for doing exactly what you want to do. If you've experienced this, even briefly, you should count yourself among the world's most fortunate people. Which is why it behooves you to recognize, graciously, that nothing lasts forever.

It's often said that a good SF writer can expect about 10 years of solid, cutting-edge work before sliding back into yesterday's news. I've seen a lot of exceptions to this rule, but even if it's 20 or 30 or even 40 years, it's still very definitely a finite period. This doesn't necessarily imply that sales or work output will decline immediately when novelty does, although sooner or later each of these will also happen. And with a field as active and competitive as ours, there's always a fresh crop of sickeningly talented, sickeningly ambitious young writers right behind you, waiting for the slightest opportunity to grab your limelight, steal your market share, eat your lunch, and dance -- however respectfully -- on your literary grave.

That's good and proper, that's exactly as it should be for the health of the field, but the piteous cries of "What? Already?" can be very distressing to hear, particularly when it's your voice that's making them. Believe it in your heart: unless you're lucky enough to drop dead in the prime of life, this will happen to you, probably much sooner than you'd guess or hope. Your only defense is to maintain whatever balance of guilt, fear, greed, and ambition got all your best stuff written in the first place. And many of our "washed up" elder pros, determined to show these damn kids how it's done, have leveled us with blasts of unexpected genius. Writing well is never the wrong thing to do.

But when even this is finished and the retirement hammock finally beckons, what's a weary old scribbler supposed to live on? Social Security? Hah. Backlist? Double Ha. You need to believe in your retirement because you need to save for your retirement. Living hand-to-mouth is fine in your twenties -- even occasionally fun -- but you don't want to raise a family that way, much less support your golden years. You need to stay out of debt, sock money away in your fat years, and keep that IRA or Keogh plan pumped. Don't say I didn't warn you.


We're nearly done. In shopping this article around to colleagues, I got back a number of comments I wanted to share, but had no good way to assimilate. I reproduce them here, verbatim:

"I feel the self-promotion biz (conventions, book marks, ads, etc.) cannot be realistically expected to directly increase sales of books. That's not its purpose. Rather, it is to chase awards. I see it as a form of leverage: there are roughly four smallish groups of people who may have a huge influence over a writer's career. These are the Hugo voters, the Nebula voters, the other-publishers (not your own) who must be persuaded you are cool, and -- the least influential -- the reviewers. Get these people on your side and they can do good things for you. This is where self-promotion realistically needs to be directed." (There's some truth to this observation, but I'll reiterate: open campaigning or solicitous nagging of any group is not the answer. If you ain't getting rich in this biz, at least keep your dignity. I'll also add a few more target groups to the list: independent bookstore managers, bigwigs from the chains/wholesalers/rack jobber outfits, TV and newspaper reporters, Hollywood soul-vampires, and yes, even the occasional reader.) "There is a sense in standard SF that an engineer with a good slide rule and sufficient determination will eventually surmount even the toughest crisis. In the real world, it ain't always so, and when you assert that the death spiral can be averted by carefully applied force, it feels to me that you're either not being quite honest, or else saying something that is tautology.

"Do you have to stay in the game? Yes. But it's so hard. You've written, what, 6 novels while working full time in 5 years or so? I wrote nine books before I earned my first dollar. How many people can realistically do this? How many people do you know who have written two or three or six books, never sold any, and finally hit that point at which their will or marriage or bank account broke and they just couldn't go on. I know quite a few."

(Um, okay. I never said it was easy, but "it's not easy" is something that definitely bears repeating. For what it's worth, the person who contributed this comment is a successful full-time novelist.) "Something else to think about adding: Every writer should check everything. My career has been continuously plagued by stupid errors, from lost manuscripts to wrong spellings in Books-in-Print. The latest snafu is that [publisher name deleted] has me listed as a corporate account, which means they allow only a 20% discount on books purchased, which has delayed purchase of copies of [book title] by my agency, thus delaying the foreign marketing, since some of the foreign agents are apparently intent on marketing the two books together. (Says the office assistant: "France keeps calling up, pleading for a copy, so I'm going to go down to a bookstore and buy one." Well, yes. That might be a good idea.) This sort of thing has been endless..." (I agree: every autor should chek everythinq. Twice,.)


That's about all I have to tell you, except for the infinite number of things that'll occur to me the moment I mail this manuscript. Please note that these seven stages of authorhood, like the five stages of grieving or the fifty ways to leave your lover, are only approximate. They can happen out of order, stages can be skipped altogether, or you can follow some weird-ass alternative path I've never heard about or considered. If so, well, someday it'll be your turn to write a witty and informative article.

At this point, there's really only one question left to ask yourself: why, if you mean to be a successful SF author, are you wasting time with this magazine when you should be writing? No, I don't want to hear your answer. Go on, git!