Kameron Hurley: How to Survive a Decade in Publishing
This January marked the tenth anniversary of my first published novel, God’s War, back in the halcyon days of 2011.
It was a long road to publication.
I finished the book in early 2007, shopped it in late 2007, had it picked up, then cancelled in early 2009 after the crash of 2008. Another publisher eventually bought it for the second time, then that publisher was sold, and the third book in the series tanked along with the publisher. It’s rumored one of the original owners ran off to Finland with all of our royalties and became a tax exile.
Publishing is weird, and I experienced some of the best and worst of it with that first series of mine. Everything I’ve endured since then is always measured against that first foray into the publishing world. Oh, another of my publishers is being sold? That’s fine! They didn’t run off with royalty money! You got a less-than-great cover? Who cares! It didn’t get whitewashed in the first pass. Your book went to publication without your final proofing edits? At least you got a final pass!
I’ve written before about how, if you stay in this game long enough, you will get to experience both the best and worst that publishing has to offer. It hasn’t been all bunnies and roses, but with the help of a great agent and the backing of several strong publishers, I’ve been able to carve out a career for myself over the last ten years. There have been glorious highs – Hugo Awards, a Spanish book tour, events where fans burst into tears on meeting me – and very low lows where I felt my career was already over and I was just passing time.
In speaking with other writers who’ve been doing this as long or longer than I have, these highs and lows are fairly typical. The one thing we can control in this wild business is the words on the page (and if your proofs don’t make it to print, sometimes not even that!). The rest of it – sales, awards, movies, Stephen-King-level fame – is more nebulous. These things rely on timing, marketing and sales support from your publisher, Hollywood personalities and purse strings, and the strange luck of connections and personal relationships and tastes that will drive you mad if you try to untangle them.
The business of publishing can wear you down, over time. I have watched a good many of my peers publish a book or two and disappear from the genre or from writing all together. I’ve seen debuts who got massive advances struggle to finish a third book that underperforms, and who never come back from it. Others are not waylaid so much by disappointment and disaster as from the simple revelation that writing a novel or two was plenty enough, and they have no interest in a writing career and all of the trappings of it. Conversely, I’ve seen writing peers I thought were middling achieve phenomenal success and fame; it’s important to note that one of these groups is much larger than the other.
Writing is a business, a profession, for many, but it’s perfectly fine that for others it’s a hobby, a sometimes-treat. Life does not always afford us all the time, luck, and circumstance to make it more than that. I get it – but it’s tough to watch some of our brightest shining lights move on.
Writing can be a lonely profession, and what has kept me going this last decade is a great agent and the wonderful friends and colleagues and connections I’ve made over the years. Newer writers in the field often feel that the vibe of the bar meetups of “big name writers” at cons are intimidating. I’ve been there. I still feel that way myself, often. What I found is that instead of trying to break into those circles, I should work on creating my own with peers that I can grow and change and commiserate with. This is how those “big name” circles start: these are folks who met at Clarion, or through a blog post, or on a panel, or when one read the other’s book. When they come together at the bar, they are often commiserating about the very best and very worst publishing has offered up to them in the last few months. When I meet up with these folks once or twice a year (pre-pandemic), I find a great deal of solace and comfort in it. Mid-career writers, in particular, understand the joys and horrors of the work and the industry. They no longer have that starry-eyed idealism. They are the ones that help me keep going, because I know that I’m not alone in what I’m going through as my career ebbs and flows.
To survive a decade in publishing, create a strong support network.
Get a good agent.
Understand that everything changes.
One of the most surprising things I’ve learned over the last decade is that, as I change and the world changes around me, my writing process also changes. The days where I could write 20,000 words in a weekend are – if not long gone – certainly rarer. Writing 11 or 12 books in ten years, and a short story a month for the last five years, is a fairly brisk pace for me, especially while holding down a day job on top of that.
I also found myself leaning on the creation of particular types of characters. While I’ve enjoyed writing them, ten years of it starts to feel like retreading old ground. I’ve learned that I need to continue to stretch myself and my skills in order to feel fresh and engaged in my own work. That’s why I’ve recently started reading another series of craft books, looking into ways to improve my work here as I enter my second decade as a novelist.
Some of you may be shocked to learn that, even and especially after ten years, rejection and disappointment are still a huge part of this business. Whether that’s publishers passing on books or movie studios passing on development, there is always rejection. The key is to understand that very rarely is it personal. It is about the market and where your work stands in the middle of it; I often think about how some of my work would have done if it was published five years before or five years later than it did, or with a different publisher, but that sort of thinking isn’t very productive.
Each novel I write is an artifact of a moment in time. It is a reflection of a specific time and place and emotional state, and that’s why they can never be truly replicated or rewritten without completely changing what they are.
After a decade, I find myself, like many, wanting to spend time looking back and second-guessing. But as I survey the ups and downs I find that the only way out is, as ever – through. I have survived a career in publishing by adopting an attitude of grim optimism. Despite all the odds, I’m still here. The plan is to continue being here another decade or two, and to achieve that requires, for me, a dedication to both optimism and realism, pragmatism and hope.
As I have learned, it is not the technically most skilled writers who stay in this game. It is the most persistent, who have nurtured and lucked into strong support systems, who carry with them a grimly hopeful anticipation of the future.
Here’s to another decade of persistent highs and lows.
Kameron Hurley is the author of The Stars are Legion and the award-winning essay collection The Geek Feminist Revolution, as well as the God’s War Trilogy and The Worldbreaker Saga. Hurley has won the Hugo Award, Kitschy Award, Locus Award, BFA Award, and Sydney J. Bounds Award for Best Newcomer. She was also a finalist for the Arthur C. Clarke Award, the Nebula Award, and the Gemmell Morningstar Award. Her short fiction has appeared in Popular Science Magazine, Lightspeed Magazine, and many anthologies. Hurley has also written for The Atlantic, Bitch Magazine, The Village Voice, and Entertainment Weekly. She posts regularly at KameronHurley.com.
All opinions expressed by commentators are solely their own and do not reflect the opinions of Locus.
This article and more like it in the February 2021 issue of Locus.
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