Monday, November 28, 2011


by Sue Ann Jaffarian

When I first made the solid and serious commitment to be a writer, I had just been laid off from a company that had merged with its biggest competitor. In spite of having nearly no money, I decided not to pursue another full-time job, but took a part-time contractor paralegal position.  Money was extremely tight, but I managed.  I worked about 5 hrs a day and wrote the rest of the time. Not quite two years later, that company was sold and my new employer insisted I come on the payroll full time, which I did.  By then I had finished two novels, still yet unpublished.
Two more years brought another  company sale and another layoff. It happened the month Too Big To Miss, my first Odelia Grey mystery, came out in self-published format (which is another story for another time).  It would be nearly six months before I would land another full-time job. By the time I did, I was dead broke and on the brink of bankruptcy. 

In spite of my situation, I wrote every day. I marketed my book and wrote the second in the series. I self-published that, as well. With a steady job again, albeit one I disliked, I was able to begin paying back the wonderful friends and family who helped me out during difficult times. It was also during this time I landed a new agent and she sold my Odelia Grey series to Midnight Ink.  Just before the re-release of Too Big To Miss, I found myself without a job again. This time I had the good fortune to catch a lot of temp work in the legal field and one of the firm’s turned out to be the lovely firm I’m still with today, going on six years.

Okay, so now things should be starting to smooth out – right?  Wrong.  No one had told me that even though you have a publisher, you are still expected to bear most of the marketing and publicity costs. My early advances were too small to cover conferences and bookmarks, mailings and everything else I was expected to do to get my books into the public eye. Those expenses came out of my already squeezed pocket. I was still paying off personal debts and now took out more loans to cover book marketing costs.

I was sinking again. Oh – but I was a published author!  I had accomplished my dream, but the dream was bittersweet.

When offered the opportunity to write a second series, the Ghost of Granny Apples series, I jumped at it for several reasons: 1) I really wanted to write it; 2) I felt having a second series would boost my name recognition; 3) I needed the advance money to pay for conferences, PR travel, and debts incurred because of my book marketing.  I took on the third series for the same reason, even though I was already pushed to my limit time-wise with the other series and my day job. 

Things are much more stable now. The debts to friends are repaid. The commercial loans almost repaid. I still have a  job I love and many books under contract, although I am no longer under contract for three books a year – whew!  With my name more established, I have cut back considerably on conferences and focus more on social marketing for my publicity.

Would I do it again if I had a do-over? Many things, yes. Some things, no.  The loss of jobs couldn’t be helped. The business world was experiencing buyouts, mergers and downsizing long before the present economic crisis. It was the tip of the iceberg of the disaster we have on our hands today. Would I still agree to write three series? Probably.  It has done wonders for my exposure to readers. Would I take on so much debt to market my books? No, probably not.

When asked to speak to budding writers, I emphasize that they will be expected to sink their own funds into much of their marketing efforts. You spend the money hoping your books will catch fire with the reading public.  It’s a big risk, not unlike throwing your cash on a craps table.  Another point I try to drive home is that the percentage of writers who actually support themselves with their writing is very small.  I’m talking about really supporting themselves – solo – making enough money without a spouse or partner or parents or a trust fund or other savings picking up some of the tab. Some believe me, others don’t.  I can see it in their eyes. They look at me and think: “That might be true for her, but not for me.  I’m going to make millions.”

I hope they do make millions.  Truly.

The business of writing is different from the actual writing, yet the two are co-joined like Siamese twins.  It was the business of writing that brought me to my knees, not just once, but several times.  But like Rocky Balboa, I continue to get to my feet, battered and bruised physically, financially and emotionally, and motion to my opponent to bring it on!

And as a call-back to last week's question: I am very thankful for my writing career, with all its bumps and bruises, and, of course, for my readers, who inspire me get through the mine field of the business.


Mark Terry said...

Ah.... where to begin in responding. Yes, so true. Your comment about would you do it again set me back on my heels a bit. Over the years, with quite a few books, I did all the stuff the gurus and publishers claim you have to do: conferences, bookmarks, AuthorBuzz, contests, give-aways, postcards, website, book signings, library talks, Rotary Club talks, brochures, e-mail newsletters, Facebook, Twitter, blogs, writing free articles for organization newsletters like MWA, blog tours. Am I missing anything?

Well, yes. Return On Investment (ROI).

Was any of that worth it to me? Did it result in better sales? A better brand name? Any of that?

Here's the 10-year perspective (give or take). Um, no. Not really. I sold some books. I won an award or two. Got great reviews. Fantastic blurbs.

But there's no apparent link between the marketing efforts and jumps in sales.

Worse, to my mind, since I treat writing like a business, is that I'm fairly certain that over the course of the years I spent more on marketing than I ever earned on my books. And there isn't much you can do to control that except to finally draw the line and say, "Look, I just plain can't afford this."

I DO make a living as a freelance writer. But not as a novelist. And that's okay, because that's a great gig, too.

Sue Ann Jaffarian said...

Mark, I should have clarified that it's not many novelists who earn a living with their writing. I know many writers, including you, who do make a living from writing, but not from their fiction. ROI - if it were stock, we would have dumped it long ago!

KEVIN A. RAMOS said...

Thanks for the post. it was very informative. I was wondering what the advantages, publishing with a publisher had as opposed to self publishing since it seems that most of the promotional work/costs are put on the writers shoulders. At least, that was the way it sounded to me.

Rebecca Cantrell said...

Thanks for the great post, Sue Ann! It's a tough gig, isn't it?

And, I agree with Mark, the ROI just isn't there. I don't write fiction for the money, but I also don't write it go into debt. It's a tough, tough balance, with no easy answers.

Susan C Shea said...

My hat's off to you big time for your commitment and for your honesty in telling it like it is. I'm impressed at the way you stuck it out. I am betting the psychic rewards help make up for the lack of monetary ones, but you're right to point out only a few authors are lucky enough to catch the brass ring financially. Still, you're on the right track and moving forward...Cheers!

Meredith Cole said...

Sue Ann-
What a story! So glad you shared it with us. This is definitely not the business to get into if you want to make a quick and easy buck, and marketing costs add up fast. Glad you stuck with it (although the thought of juggling three series is enough to bring me to my knees...)

gregkshipman said...

An absolute slam-dunk information-wise! I think many people outside the writer's world often forget that monetary gain is not one of the perks in your craft. I'm a blue-collar kinda guy and those 'pieces-of-weekly-silver' keep the sanity meter in the green zone. However; gambling on what you love to do may not always be a safe bet... but it can be a satisfying one. I, for one, commend you for your risk-taking and your accomplishments. If not for your 'jump-of faith/desire' I would not have your books to snuggle down with (by-the-by, don't mention that last part to the B-More Corner Alumni; I gotta image to uphold)

Sue Ann Jaffarian said...

Thank you all for dropping by today. I hope my post was helpful.

Kevin, there are ups and downs with both traditional publishing and self-publishing. While I do have to do a lot of my own publicity, my publisher gets me reviewed in major publications and things like that. Also, as your career develops, the advances often increase to the point they can cover the out-of-pocket costs. Mine certainly have. Either way, it's a lot of work.