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Nobody's Buying! What Do I Do?

The economy is in the crapper, the promised turnaround is out there somewhere hiding with "prosperity is just around the corner," losing pro ball players are getting multiple millions, and long-established professional writers are on seemingly permanent raman noodle diets. Editor George H. Scithers once told me that, in tough economic times, books and magazines have to compete with beer, and when it comes to a choice between beer and something to read, well, bet your investment dollars on Bud.

Where does that leave writers? Okay, the big-name blockbuster writers, the airport newsstand authors, those blessed by Imus and Oprah, might possibly see a slight decrease in sales. Perhaps they might have to put off the diamond-studded yacht until next year. They are not running from the wolves.

The so-called "midlist authors," however, are wolf meat. As it was explained to me once, "midlist author" is a term of sales art used by marketers to avoid identifying a publisher's other-than-bestselling-writers as "bottom list" or "bottom-of-the-barrel." The reality, however, is that the vast majority of professional freelance writers are "bottom list." And don't get your nose out of joint--I number myself among them.

When the manuscripts sell to book and zine publishers, your agent kisses you on both cheeks when you meet, you can pay the mortgage, buy Bunky that new baseball mitt, and put food on the table, times are good. This phrase: "I am a success," creeps into one's thinking.

However, when Washington is doing its very best to cripple the economy, sales are few and far between, every time your agent sees you he cries and goes, "Awww!", economic times suck. The biggest mistake a writer can make in such times is to allow the phrase "I'm a failure" creep into his or her thinking. Why? Aren't you simply being realistic?

What is "success" to you? This is a question of life-and-death importance. Your answer is dependent on what you consider yourself--what you consider writing. If you regard writing as a business and yourself as a businessman or woman, success and failure are determined by the bottom line: Profit & Loss. If you aren't netting millions, you are a long way from the top, a long way from "success."

If you regard writing as an art and yourself as an artist, however, "success" has a different measure. The creation of a work of art, bringing a truly great (to you) story into existence, that becomes "success."

Vincent Van Gogh never sold a painting during his entire career. He went insane, in part I believe, because he thought of himself as a failure. Was he a failure? Millions of art lovers disagree. Do you believe Van Gogh would have been happier, regarded himself as a "success," by painting fuzzy little woodland creatures or flattering "realistic" portraits of the plutocrats of his day? Would he be regarded as more of a "success" by you?

These are important questions. If you are an artist and are bringing heartfelt, fulfilling works into existence with your writing, you are a success. If you should happen to sell a manuscript now and then, that's even better. You will always have work, regardless of the economy, and you will always be a success--and will feel that way!

If you are in the fiction writing business, however, measuring your success or failure by net profits and losses, your writings always will be shaped by what you hope will sell. It's rare that such an approach ever arrives at art and artistic fulfillment.

Are you an artist with works of art for sale, or are you in business with your integrity, your soul, your inner artist on the auction block? Important questions only you can answer.

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What About This Blog?

For writers & readers. For writers, this is stuff I've learned, am in the process of discovering, and stuff that is imparted to me by other writers. For readers, I believe the more one knows about what goes into the writing of a story, and into the life of being a writer, the more one appreciates an author's writings.

This is a two-way blog. Your comments on the blogs are welcome, as are your questions. Comments on blogs can be made directly on each blog entry. For questions and comments not related to specific blogs, use the eMail link below.

Barry B. Longyear is the first writer to win the Hugo, Nebula, and John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer all in the same year. In addition to his acclaimed Enemy Mine Series, his works include the Circus World and Infinity Hold series, Sea of Glass, other SF & fantasy novels, recovery and writing instruction works, and numerous short stories.