Un-sellable

By Lamar Giles, Spalding MFA Writing for Children and YA faculty

Let’s start here.

This tweet from literary agent Hannah Bowman of Liza Dawson Associates got plenty of attention and salty rebuttals on Twitter around the first week of June, which prompted a bit of back tracking on Hannah’s part.

I’m not posting it to pile on—though, for the record, I think these sorts of blanket declarations are never a good idea (be mindful of your posting Future Professional Authors!).  They almost always come from people who aren’t deep in the trenches of the thing they’re downing, in this case Young Adult fiction. I am posting this to talk about publishing difficulty. You should prep for a hard road.[1]

Selling any writing, for any age group, at any given time is arduous. There’s no road map beyond persevering. There are some nuggets to be picked up from people who have done it, and who still do it (me!). Not advice, per se. Examples. Additions to your perspective as you carve your own path.

What did it take for me to become a full-time professional writer with my sixth and seventh novels publishing in 2020? From 2001 – 2011, it took me waking up at 5 a.m., Monday through Friday, writing until 7:30 AM then going to a day job I hated for nine to ten hours, coming home exhausted, and going to bed by 10PM just to wash, rinse, repeat. During that ten-year stint, my writing income averaged something like $700 per year. That’s the average. It’s only that high because of a really great year in the middle where I made $5,500 in prize money. There were at least six years where I made $0. In those years where I made no money, I promise I made up for it in rejections. How many novels did I write in that time? Six. How many of those novels did I publish? One. Fake ID, the one I sold in 2011.

But my life changed after that, right? The fairy tale came true? Nope. To quote one of my favorite rappers, J. Cole, from his Water Break (Interlude) freestyle, “Thought I’d get a deal and head straight to the dealership/but looking at my deal I probably can’t afford benefits…”

I still got up at 5 a.m. Still went to the job I hated (because responsible adulting). I did that through the publication of two novels (Fake ID and my second novel, Endangered). Both of which received high critical praise, both nominated for prestigious awards, neither generating enough income to cover my expenses. Then I got laid off from that day job. So, with two published novels to my name, juggling a part-time job along with my writing, I enrolled in an MFA program. Why? Because I was all-in on developing my craft. Because I wanted to know what skills I might be missing. I wanted to become a better writer to improve and sustain a career.

I’m going to back out of the autobiography now because there’s so much more nuance to everything I’ve written—from my initial sloppy query letters that probably made my road to publication longer than it had to be, to the racial politics that also made my road to publication longer than it had to be because my industry is one that has maintained a persistent myth that people of color can’t sell books. I’m not telling you this stuff to discourage, believe it or not. Remember, this is all about perspective, and what I want you to do is look at my story and adjust your perspective. Embrace people who doubt you; consider every rejection[2] a merit badge because if you’re producing work and submitting that work to the gatekeepers (agents, editors, contests), you’re in the game!

So, what, exactly, does that mean to you? What are the steps?

  1. Decide what you want. When I was twenty-one, and knew I was about to start on a “good job” corporate career path I wasn’t enthusiastic about, I decided I’d put some energy into the thing I actually wanted to do: write books. If you, too, want to write books, then make a deal with yourself. What’s the deal?
  2. Don’t be a liar. If you’re a writer who wants to be a professional writer (two different things, mind you), there’s something you’ll have to do pretty consistently. Write. If you’re not doing that…
  3. It’s okay to do something else. If writing is miserable, and you’d rather spend personal time on more enjoyable endeavors, it’s fine. Just understand that the publication dream is hard to accomplish when there’s nothing to publish.
  4. If you’re not okay doing something else, then it’s time to figure out how to improve your skills daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly. This may be where a structured program can help you, and the Spalding MFA program is a great place to start.
  5. Know you will run into naysayers at every step of the journey. Learn to discern good advice from ill-advised hot takes (like “YA is unsellable ”), adjust if you need to, but never chase trends.

Bottom line: Write what you’re passionate about, even if it’s unsellable. Every written word that ever graced the shelves of your favorite bookstore or library was also unsellable. Until it wasn’t.

[1] Hopefully, you won’t have a hard road, but…

[2] The best writers in the world went through it too. You’re in good company.

Citation:

J. Cole. “Water Break (Interlude).” The Warm Up, J. Cole, 15 June 2009.


Lamar Giles is a well published author and a founding member of We Need Diverse Books. Lamar has two novels forthcoming in 2019: his debut middle grade fantasy THE LAST LAST-DAY-OF-SUMMER (Versify / HMH) and his fourth YA thriller, SPIN (Scholastic).


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