Who Foresees a Withering Fortune?

An old fortune-teller is reading a young woman's fortune by looking at tea leaves at the bottom of a cup
“Reply hazy, try again.”

Let’s begin with compassion for Heather Demetrios, a writer who came to my attention this week not for her young adult novels but for her lament about the fickle fortunes of the publishing industry. Specifically, Heather gives us a confessional expose´ on her own meteoric rise as an author and the lack of mentorship she suffered along the way that she says led to a precipitous decline in her financial state. She recounts the thrills of receiving $375,000 in advances on her books, the swift upgrades she made to her lifestyle in response, her expectation that the future would only get brighter…and the panic-induced retreats she was forced to make when her books didn’t sell enough to earn-out those advances, causing her publishers’ subsequent offers to decrease accordingly. It’s not the painful life lesson any hard-working writer (make that hard-working anyone) deserves, so I won’t minimize or revel in her struggle.

An omniscient virtuoso gestures boastfully at all the knowledge that lies available to him. Etching by G.M. Mitelli, c. 1700.
Sometimes we are our own best mentor

Heather’s essay has been making the rounds throughout the literary world in the past two days, and any writer or publisher tuned-in to the zeitgeist has likely read it and formed an opinion. Some readers, like myself, may come away with a mixed reaction. Chuck Wendig offered up practical advice to writers hoping to avoid the same pitfalls. Ron Hogan takes Heather to task for not expecting the publishing business to behave like a business. I admit that my own first response was incredulity, a distaste for what seemed like whiny entitlement without taking responsibility for her own decisions and lack of knowledge. I mean, come on. As someone who has run in these arts-and-letters circles throughout my life, who earned an MFA from the same great writing program as Heather (different years, different concentrations), and who started working long before the boon of instant internet research, I have never been under the impression that earning a sustained and extraordinary living by telling stories would be easy, or simple, or even attainable.

While I have often felt chagrin at what seems like our culture’s undervaluing of working artists (as compared to engineers, programmers, scientists, etc., at least in terms of paychecks), I have always known the risks of choosing a writerly life. Even back in high school and in my undergraduate days as an English major, even when I was surrounded by other writers and teachers who loved and respected the arts as much as I do, we all knew the score. This is a field one enters for the sheer love of the work, because we are compelled, because we hear a calling we ignore at the potential peril of our own happiness and soul’s fulfillment. We rejoiced at the dream that could make writing our life’s work. However, no one had to tell us that success would not be guaranteed should we choose the path of our hearts’ desire over more traditionally lucrative studies. We knew that few writers make a big, ongoing living from their work, regardless of its quality. We knew that our educations were costing the same amount as those of our engineering and computer science-focused schoolmates. (Hmm. What if tuition costs were based on median income of the graduates in each respective track?)

Anyone seeking mentorship need look no further than Jane Friedman, who has been helping authors navigate the murky waters of publishing for many years. She offers books, online classes, a helpful blog, and a lively Facebook group. In her most recent book, The Business of Being a Writer, she gets very specific about what authors should expect from publishers, and vice-versa. In discussing the limitations of even big firms’ marketing resources, she says, “publishers are more likely to be helpful if you proactively show them your plan and ask for what you want, as opposed to calling up and demanding to know what they’ll be doing to support your book.” Her experience in the industry helps writers approach their publishers as partners, not adversaries and not bosses.

Jane Shares the Knowledge
A young boy standing in a room tearing up books and papers. Engraving W.C. Wrankmore after C. Wrankmore.
Destroying bills, or manuscripts?

Even without being handed an illustrated user manual to the world of publishing, I was able to cobble together enough anecdotal evidence from writers in workshops, journal interviews, etc., to know I would need to secure a way to pay for that education and feed myself once I’d graduated from the cozy nest of academia. So, I added a double-major in Communications and studied journalism in addition to literature. Joining the Army as a broadcaster helped me pay off the undergraduate loans. Later, once I’d attained that MFA, I took a look at the subsequent bill and decided I’d better get a JOB instead of focusing all my time and energy on writing and publishing. I was blessed to be able to attend those university programs — the first person in my family to do so — but they were not cheap, and I have sometimes made financially-motivated decisions over artistic ones. I’ll be the first to admit that my writing practice has suffered as a consequence.

Which brings me back to compassion. Perhaps my initial response to Heather’s post was simply begrudging her seeming naiveté. Surely, she must know how many great writers out there would fall over in gratitude to the universe to be acknowledged by a Big 5 publishing house and receive that amount of money as an advance. They would love the opportunity to make mistakes with that kind of windfall resulting from their creative work. Surely, anyone signing a contract that involves such sums would take time to understand the rules of the agreement, right? Was I just jealous that I’ve made practical choices in order to pay the bills that have at times run counter to my literary aspirations, while Heather skipped-along, blithely considering her publisher her employer? Did I harbor a repressed desire to ignore what I’ve always inherently known about a writer’s working life and simply live according to what the law of fairness would dictate, that hard work in a beloved endeavor will always pay one’s way? Yes, probably. In hindsight, though, I would rather celebrate an artist’s success and optimism. We all make under-informed choices about our lives constantly, and most of the time, we never really know if our decisions are the right ones, whether for now or in the long term. Who’s to say? Today my bills are paid and I have a comfortable life, and yes, I am finally able to turn my attention back to a writing and publishing career that’s been on hold for several years. Meanwhile, Heather Demetrios is walking her walk, staying true to her calling, and reaching out to help other writers learn from her mistakes. I certainly can’t fault her for that. In fact, I am rooting for her. Though I’m no fortune-teller, I predict she’ll keep adding to her professional author credits and growing her writing consultancy, and I hope that she’ll continue to live her best life with no regrets.