Or should I write something that will actually get read, instead?
Hello friends, the most mind-blowing examples, for me, of this Plan B approach to artistic and life choices, and just embracing what you're good at and meeting your audience where it is, might be the least likely examples ever: Shakespeare and Dickens.
Shakespeare was REALLY good at plays, but he was aiming to be a poet. Sonnets being the dream.
And Dickens? Theater. That's what he really wanted - but his allergies/propensity for colds prevented him from auditioning, and he found serialized books made the money, and of course money was extremely important to him, because of childhood deprivation.
Both went with their plan B and the rest is history.
And Jane Austen? While we think of her as traditional, she was engaging with the most experimental form there was for storytelling, and one that wasn't considered respectable or serious: novels. She also was doing it for money, at least partly, and meeting audiences where they were - circulating libraries.
Thanks for this always-honest, engaging discussion!
A thought provoking piece as always, Elle. I have to agree with Bruce Kasanoff. Your deep dives are informational an easily understable - a good combo imo :). While, I do hope that book reading revives, I guess, the mental shift we have to make is to see ourselves as story tellers. How we tell the story - around the camp fire, a newsletter, a novel, a video, or a comic strip - that is the fun part to figure out. Maybe all the options :)
Thank you for your honesty. I've learned a lot from you and other writers over the last year, and my understanding of what is realistic is so much better. Despite all this, after years of focus on non-fiction, I've started to write a novel in the last few months, and the funny thing is that it's the best thing I've done for years. Not necessarily the best thing I've done in terms of quality - I'd like to hope that my Substack non-fiction gets that prize - but it's the best thing I've done for myself. For about an hour every morning, and at occasional other times, I enter a world that brings me joy.
Whether anyone else gets to read it is another matter.
I think you are wise to consider whether you want to write something that may never get read, or at least, never get read by many people. But you may still be like me and decide to write anyway.
The most poignant part of this piece is understanding your endgame or endstate, as we say in the military. Sometimes that will be your passion driver that gets you to your ends. Oftentimes it is your grunt driver. Rather than look at it as an either or, I like to look at it in terms of efficiency. Which driver will get me the most distance in the shortest time possible? If writing non-fiction builds my brand faster, allows me to make sustainable living faster, and is close to my passion driver then why not invest my efforts there. Eventually, you will get to a point along the path where you can shift your focus to your passion driver and ride it out to the finish line -- your endgame. So, for now you may put your book on the shelf but I know eventually you will get to a point where you can pick it back up and fulfill your passion driver ;)
I think about my favorite writers - Bret Easton Ellis, Joan Didion, Charles Bukowski. Yes, they were all successful, but I think even if they didn't find success they would still write because they felt compelled to. If you write merely to have other people read your writing, yeah, you're going to be discouraged. But if you write because you feel completely in flow while doing it and love the process, why not write another novel? Who cares if people don't read it? Does an artist paint just so others will buy their painting or do they paint because something in them has the burning desire to be created on the canvas? I do understand the appeal of going towards what will bring you success, but if the story wants to be written just enjoy the process.
I have so many thoughts, but I will try to be brief: 1. I think it would be more accurate to say books aren't the EXCLUSIVE way to tell stories, rather than books are dead. 2. I agree: some stories and artists are at their best when they are innovative, some when they stick to a classic or traditional format (books vs TikTok). 3. There is value in creating art, even if it's not seen by "everyone". Creating is good for our souls and our brains, and it makes the world better. 4. I love how you make me think about things in a new way!
I'm not entirely convinced by the argument. I mean, it's a bit like saying "I can earn a living right now working as a real estate agent, so why should I waste time writing a novel that might not sell for another three years, if ever?"
Now that's not to say I disagree with the conclusion. You do have a great voice for writing ABOUT writing. But I think the real question you need to ask yourself is how strongly do you feel about fiction?
If you can see yourself not writing any anymore, then sure, go for it.
If not, then... well, there's no reason you couldn't do both. I do translations to pay the bills--it's still writing. You could do the same. Well, I don't mean translations LOL, but you can do your newsletter to bring in the cash--since it's likely to earn you more quickly than fiction--and keep writing your novels on the side.
The beauty with being a full-time writer (whichever way you get there) is that you become your own boss and can decide what to write and when.
Bottom line: there are a lot of jobs out there that will make you a lot more money than writing, and probably faster. Especially if what you write is fiction. Fiction, as has often been stated, is a long game. The sad truth is that if you need money coming in fast, then fiction is probably not your best choice.
Every time, I read, Elle's newsletter, my dream of becoming a novelist dies a little.
But it's interesting to see you experimenting with things. Good luck to you, and us all.
I'm with Bruce and Terrell, what you do here is the single best (BS free! ) source of info I've ever seen on "roll your own" publishing. You have made me do a major reconsider on the direction of getting my non-fiction tech skills out there and that's a VERY good thing. I have published one non-fiction book and realized what you address here is pretty much what happened with that book. Viable niche, lots of potential readers, lots of great reviews, but not much in the way of sales. That's a match to what you've been saying. Great to see you're being financially rewarded for your work. You definitely deserve that. Thank you!
I thought I liked this article, but then I saw the comment section.
I am so pleased for you Elle, it fantastic to see a talented writer like yourself figure out where your true potential lies and create a great community around it.
Also, it's inspiring!
Great post! I think about this all the time, and judging by the comments, many others do, too. What I’ve learned is just because I like a medium, doesn’t mean I enjoy working in the industry around said medium.
These days, I try and imagine a Venn Diagram before starting a project, where the circles are: “What I’m Good At,” “What I’m Passionate About,” and “What I Can Market.” If there’s something in the middle of all three, that’s a project worth pursuing.
Fantastic insight, to be honest, you've given me a lot to think about. While I've published several books in the past, they've all been technical books (I'm a soft. developer) and the idea of a novel has been with me since before the first book.
Now, while I do agree with you that there is space for so many other mediums, isn't there a tiny bit of yourself who secretly wants to publish that novel to randomly find it while browsing bookstores?
So many thoughts. You have a gift for writing in-depth articles about publishing. Does the mean you should abandon your love of writing fiction because it will not be as popular? I hope not!
I wrote a novel and loved the experience. It was quirky, fun to write, and I loved the characters. It only sold 100 copies. So if I decided to write novels for a living, it would be a foolish decision. But I see my novels as passion projects. I know they will not sell many copies, but my novels were designed to be novels. The stories are novel-length. They couldn’t have been anything else but novels. And I do have a small group of readers who loved my first novel. So I will write at least two more. In fact, I have been writing the second novel (sequel) “live” online on my Substack. I love that I get immediate feedback on chapters. Something you don’t get with novels published as books. But I have no illusions of fame or fortune (or even lots of readers.) Still, I want to write the story, and a few others want to read it. That is enough for me.
I love writing short fiction and humor also. It is far more popular (number of readers) than my novel, but it is nowhere near as popular as non-fiction writing. In fact, the most popular story on my Substack was one of my rare non-fiction stories. Will I abandon fiction for non-fiction because it is more popular? No. I don’t think I am better suited for writing non-fiction. I just think non-fiction is more popular on the whole. Still, there is no reason I couldn’t create a non-fiction newsletter or section based on my popular non-fiction. But then I have to decide if I am just chasing popularity. Is my heart in it? Or is the chance of money the motivator? And is that wrong?
Should a writer pursue the popular or the artistic? That is the dilemma every creative faces daily. You could argue that popularity brings more freedom, but that is not always the case. People like to pigeonhole artists and are not fond of drastic changes. If Stephen King switched to writing romance, you can imagine the backlash he would face. He is stuck with horror, like it or not. Readers who love your analysis of publishing may not care for gothic fiction. That doesn’t mean you can’t have both audiences. But it is more work. And I imagine there will be little overlap between the two audiences.
I believe many writers see a traditionally published book as the ultimate goal of writing (even if it is a waning, centuries-old format, and getting traditional published is an extremely hard feat to accomplish.) Many frustrated book writers could have far more readers writing short things online. But they are set on writing books/novels. Should they stick with the difficult traditional path of their dreams? Or embrace new mediums?
There are new mediums, besides books, to explore. For example, online serial fiction (I admit, I was swept up in the recent serial fiction fever, but the results were less than encouraging.) Yet serial fiction sites like Wattpad and Royal Road are very popular. But I think you need to have the mindset that you are writing a web serial, not a novel, for best results.
Newsletters are the latest rage. And sending your writing directly to readers is great. But newsletters seem best suited to non-fiction or short fiction. I love short fiction and humor, and they have proven to be far more popular than serial fiction on my Substack. But are newsletters well suited for novels? I think the jury is still out, but it seems unlikely to me. What about serials? Perhaps, if you can find an audience. Which is the downside of newsletters. Building an audience is difficult. And getting them to take a chance on a serial is equally difficult.
Other writers are trying to adapt their writing to sites like TikTok (again, I tried this to less than encouraging results.) A video app (TikTok) may not be the best medium for text. You may have better luck reading a story live on TikTok. In fact, I think this brings writing full circle back to storytelling, which preceded writing. The printing press turned storytelling into a mass-market format called books. Which then fell under the control of publishers, who decided what was worthy of publishing. But you don’t need a publisher to tell a story. You just need some listeners.
Do we need to be massively popular and earn a lot of money at everything we do? Is that the only gauge of success? I hope not? If you want to write a novel, write one. If ten people love it, then ten people loved something you wrote! That is a good thing! Sure we would all love to have millions of readers. But if you told a story in a pub to seven people, and they loved it. Wouldn't you feel good about it?
So my thinking is, be a storyteller. The medium doesn’t matter as much as the story. Be creative! And if you can make money writing non-fiction at the same time (and enjoy it), then you have the best of both worlds.
Ugh, I am so feeling this post. I have been having SO MUCH MORE success with my nonfiction than my fiction in terms of overall readership. I love writing fiction but the history work I've been doing has really been calling to me, and is resonating more (plus it is 1000x easier to promote). It has become apparent that I may not be able to continue to do both simultaneously as well. I don't have an answer and I won't stop writing fiction, but I do wonder if I am doing the right thing by taking the time to post it here.
I've even thought, should I try to write a nonfiction book, but then I look at the others out there and I realize it would take so much time and I am unlikely to ever sell enough to make it worthwhile - and more people will likely read my Substack than a book even on the same topic.
At any rate, I don't plan to change anything right now but all of this is definitely something to consider.
I love the effort and thought and skill you put into this newsletter. It always makes me look at writing and art through a different lens - even when I don't 100% agree with you!
I think your thesis - that people don't read books, and that you can reach more people via your newsletter - is less black and white than it seems, and I'm basing purely that on my own very subjective experience!
I also want to write a book, even though I know a book won't help me reach the biggest audience or make the most money. I want to write a book because I read books, and I love books, and I think books are the highest form of art that I, personally, am capable of making and contributing to the world.
But I also don't expect to make a living from my writing - even if I sell a novel. I have a full time job, which I enjoy. My goal to make a comfortable living and my goal to write a novel are separate things and have very little to do with one another. This isn't a better way to view art, or a worse one. It's just different.
I think about the same issues all the time. And there are other things that I do well, so I have done them and earned a living! A friend and I once talked about how much we admire people who can live in poverty for their art, but that's just not me. That being said, I love the feeling of looking at a blank page, then writing, and watching and listening as new worlds appear. Magical. And I'll never give that up totally.