it really is. occasional thoughts on how to make it survivable and keep from losing your mind in the process.

On Education

On Education

I’m just back from a week at sea on a boat full of writers as part of the Writing Excuses Retreat and Workshop. Writing Excuses is a podcast hosted by some dear friends of mine and I’ve had the pleasure of being a guest host, repeat speaker on the cruise, and occasional podcast drop-in for industry questions, the perspective from the agent’s desk, and general yelling about writing about and for marginalized perspectives. It’s great. I love the podcast and I love the retreat. Mostly, it’s because I love teaching.

In case you haven’t noticed, I have some feelings about how confusing and obtuse this business is. It’s dense, it’s weird, and it’s shrouded in confusion and mystery. A lot of this is frankly by design. There are advantages to people not knowing all the details of how the sausage is made. It’s often not pretty. It’s almost never fair (this is capitalism after all). And it’s all complicated.

So, when That Piece blew up last week, I had such mixed feelings. I get all the folks decrying the author’s privilege, her blindness to the realities of the situation, the mistakes she made. But, from where I sit, all I can see are the ways the industry, the systems let her down. And I don’t mean the advances or the publishing or the marketing. Those are very different conversations. And I can’t speak to whether or not her specific agent and her specific editor failed her. I’m guessing they’re all good at their jobs but I don’t know who they are (I haven’t looked them up) and I don’t know what conversations were or were not had.

What got me was how familiar her story was. The scale was unusual, but the arc of her story was not. I’ve seen new writers, over an over, get excited about the numbers on a deal, but fritter away that windfall, expecting more but not understanding the risks and the costs associated with a career as a writer. Authoring takes time. The emails, the travel, the coordination — all consume so many hours of a writer’s life. On top of, you know, writing. Balancing those time demands with a day job, with writing, with family is so difficult and the money provided is thin in comparison.

Success takes planning. It takes research. But the question I hear over and over from aspiring writers or even people years into their career: “how was I supposed to know?” The answer is: I have no idea.

The industry, like all media businesses, sells itself on a dream. A dream of the rich, famous, beloved writer of mega-bestsellers, movie deals galore, hordes of adoring fans. That dream is not a lie. This is important. That dream is real. It exists. And it’s very hard to get to.

What we don’t talk about, because we talk about success more than failure, are the vast majority of books that are published every year which vanish without a trace. The tens of thousands of burgeoning careers ended before they get off the ground.

In spite of that, I tell people all the time to keep going. To swing for the fences. Be ambitious. Dream big. Every day I tell people this. Clients. Teenagers. Retirees. Aspiring and published alike. Because you don’t get there without trying.

But the reality is that the odds are against you. The reality is that the industry, the market, the audience are all stacked in favor of the house. The publisher benefits off of the few big successes and is ready to discard the failures at the drop of a hat.

The only antidote, is education. The only antidote is you, the writer, understanding how these systems work. How the deck is stacked. Learning how to count the cards. It’s to be armed against the sheer arbitrariness of the process. To know enough to anticipate the rolls of the dice before they happen.

But I don’t know how to do that. I don’t know how to explain enough, or show enough. To shield my own clients much less a room full of hopeful students against the vicissitudes of this industry. The capriciousness of my own whims. The density of legacy and history that obfuscates even the simplest aspects of how a book is made, printed, shipped, and sold.

Where other people saw in that piece the failings of a woman, a human who made some terrible choices (by her own admission), all I could see were my own failures. The ways in which we are all complicit in a system designed to take someone’s dream and turn it into commerce. The industry that grinds hopes and stories into the meal that fertilizes the handful of successes that drive the whole market.

But despair isn’t useful. It’s not productive. So, instead I try to teach. I try to explain how this all works. Bit by bit, I hope that a tiny piece of contradictory advice, a small clarification, a quantum of clarity, will move a writer farther down the path to becoming the professional author they want to be. The one in a million shot that makes it.

Anyhow. I really like teaching. It makes me feel good. It makes me feel like I’m making a difference. I hope it does in spite of the doubt and the surety that as long as we determine the value of art by using market systems, more will be crushed under the wheel than rise to success.

PS: I know a lot of you are new. (Thanks Chuck!) I promise these newsletters aren’t always this bleak, but also, I do feel like the title is a bit of a warning for what you’re getting into.

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Jamie Larson