Publishing · Writing

If You’re a Writer, You’re a Gambler

Among those who write, you get some who love starting new manuscripts, adore it beyond anything—the freshness of the prose, the chance to put new words down, the excitement of creating characters.

And then there’s the other kind, who hates it beyond anything.

I’m in the latter group.

It’s never that I’m not looking forward to writing a new book, it’s that starting a new one is so much work. Rather than going, “gosh, what needs to happen next,” instead I must think, “where can I start this book that’s most effective?” I’ve gotten it right so far, but it’s a difficult judgement call to make. Which leads to plenty of dawdling, dithering, and flat-out staring at the page.

Can you guess what I’m supposed to be doing today?

Let’s rewind for a moment.

I love, love, love my Saint Flaherty series. If you’re reading this blog, either you got here organically and have been seeing bits and pieces about it for a while, or you found this via my newsletter and have read at least part of a book. You know I’m flipping dedicated to that thing. I have novels, I have shorter novels, I have short stories. I have two off-shoots that may or may not ever be finished, untold ideas, and more prose that’s been cut than has been published. I’ve been living that thing for over a year now.

Unfortunately, the world at large does not love Saint Flaherty quite as much as I do, and it’s been a little slow, which is discouraging as hell. Those people who enjoy it seem to do so to the max, but people mostly seem a little reluctant to take a chance on it, which is why, this summer, I decided I wanted to break away for a month and write something a little more on-genre.

So I wrote an M/M romance. (That’s male/male for those who don’t know.) And now I’m writing a sequel. And right now, at the very beginning of this thing, I’m doing my usual little “but what if it’s not good!” panic dance that is my ritual at the beginning of every fresh Word document.

This is, of course, silly. It’s not like I habitually write the wrong thing and have to throw out thirty thousand words at a time, but neurosis knows no bounds. After all, last novel I got 30k in and decided that I needed to have an alternating point of view, and so went back and inserted one, deleting around 10k total. This made the novel better, but man, it’s not fun.

I also read an article this weekend that mentioned “no one is paying you to write. They may pay you for something you wrote, or promise to pay you for something you have promised to write.”–but not what you write.

That was a brilliant point. No one pays me for the 10k words I produce and dump—they pay me for the 20k I keep. (Actually, so far, they don’t, but that’s another argument.) This is a stupidly speculative business. I write a novel, pay to have it edited, pay for a cover, pay for promo, and stick it up for sale in hopes of buys. No guarantees, no “pay extra to get more,” nope. I can put up lightening rods on everything I own, but if there’s no storm, I’m not gonna get hit. Seriously, for those of you who enjoy gambling, horse racing has nothing on publishing. Loan me a grand for expenses now and I might pay you back in twenty years. Possibly.

The one comfort is that it’s also difficult for traditional publishers. It’s not like they have a magic way to make books sell. Just look at the first half of 2016. Sales fell for every single member of the Big 5. (Those are the five conglomerate publishing houses who control almost every single book you will ever see in a book store or library—you want conspiracy theories, just think about that for a moment.) The only reason a couple of them didn’t fall in overall profit was because they cut staff. Big 5 blamed it on not having another “Go Set a Watchman” (unfinished manuscript published against the wishes of a dying woman) and no “Cursed Child” until July (play script not even written by woman whose name is on the cover) for the flagging sales. They just didn’t have a breakaway hit.

Seeing as it’s big publishing’s job to pluck breakaway hits from the slush piles, that’s basically them admitting they don’t have a clue what will sell big, which is true. So there you have it, I don’t know whether my books will sell, but neither do they. We’re like a band of gambling junkies.

This is ironic, because I hate gambling. I’m not a risk person, not most of the time. If there are no pictures of a hotel online, I don’t stay there. I show up ten minutes early for everything. I only invite people over if I know them very well.

Of course, you can point to the obvious and say “you freaking moved to Japan twice,” but, well, that’s just the thing. You know Air B&B? Right. They rank countries by how much people are willing to take risks. Places that like risks decided Air B&B was great and adopted it right away. Japan? Not one of them. Japan basically went “haha hell no” and so Air B&B had to structure a whole special program to get people to try using it—either to travel or to host. Japan does not like risks, and I fit right in there.

And yet that’s what I do. I am, let’s admit it now, a professional gambler, because the way I make money is not by writing. No one pays me to write. They pay me for the risks I take: putting books out there. Every time I decide a cover, it’s a massive, expensive risk. Do I want this branding or that? What will draw readers in? Choose wrong and pay the price: low to no sales and money down the drain. The title is a risk, the branding, the website. Everything.

Sitting here at my kitchen table with my laptop in front of me, staring at a fresh page one, it’s no wonder I snail along a phrase at a time. Beginnings sell books, and each one has to be stellar. This must not only keep to the standard of the last one, it must exceed it. Be better. Be more interesting. Everything hinges on it.

Actually, everything hinges on every choice. Get one wrong? Thanks for playing, try again.

Perhaps the reason I don’t like taking risks is because I’m already taking so many. If my career is so uncertain, the least I can ask for is to know that my meal will taste nice, or that the movie will be good. Because everything else? Who the heck knows.


I’m S. Hunter Nisbet, writer of post-apocalyptic dystopian novels of the dark and gritty type. When I’m not beating my head against my desk while editing, I’m staring at my laptop screen wondering how to start the next chapter. Lots of staring. Days of it. It’s part of the creative process.


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