The Loss of the Joy
I don’t know precisely when it really began, this loss. They say when you lose something you should go back to the last time you know you had it and work forward until you see when it stopped being there. It worked for the dog lead (it fell in the river) and it worked for my daughter’s purse left behind in a shop in Glastonbury (it was handed in, much to my surprise, money intact). I still had it when I began this blog in 2009, I know that. Looking back, though, I can see it started to disappear not long after that.
Did blogging drive away my joy in writing? No, I don’t think so. I still have a ghost of joy, sitting with me as I write this. After all, I still manage to blog once a week. How many folks can manage that after six years of blogging?
No, I think it started to go around the same time I began to explore the possibility of publishing. At the time, someone else was involved and that involvement is a part of it, because it infected me with a belief I’d never quite entertained, that my value is based on my saleability as a writer. Even during the times when I was sending off work to agents and publishers, and getting rejections based entirely on whether they thought a book would sell enough copies to be worth taking a punt on me, I don’t think it truly sank in that my value as a person was tied so closely to my commercial viability.
Even during the first year or so when Strangers and Pilgrims was first released (solely as a paperback), low sales didn’t affect me that way. It was enough that the book was out there. I didn’t see myself as a failure because it had sold so few copies. I saw myself as perhaps unsuited to the task of marketing, something at the time I thought was someone else’s job. Then when that someone was gone, it became my job and I think that’s when the rot set in.
The events of 2011 that I have avoided writing about but which affected me deeply left me unwilling and possibly unable to trust anyone with my work. Being let down and left in the lurch by someone you did trust entirely means that it could happen again. I had thought myself a good judge of character but I was wrong. I could be wrong again. So everything to do with my writing is entirely my job, from the writing of the stories to the finding of cover art, to the onerous matter of marketing. It’s probably the same for most self-publishers, so I’m not moaning about that. I know of people let down badly by micro-publishers who went under and refuse to release the rights to books back to their authors.
No, at some point from then on, exacerbated by my parathyroid tumour fogging my brain, the sheer delight I used to get from writing, began to disappear. I’ve said before how we each have an individual and limited supply of creative energy. Mine is being drained by the demands from all the other aspects of self-publishing. I’m constantly being reminded that readers no longer see a sales link and click on it (and maybe buy) and that writer-publishers need to find better and more creative ways to court their readers, make friends with them on social media and get people interested in what they write about. It feels ever so slightly like readers have become the natural prey of authors. Recent scandalous stories about authors stalking readers (right to their homes or places of work, and in one case, hitting a reader over the head with a wine bottle because of a bad review!) seem to confirm this move. There is an ick factor about this that nauseates me. At best, it is unseemly and unpleasant. Yet in essence this is what the majority of advice on marketing boils down to: go to where the readers are and solicit their attention. The cleverer you are about it, the less the victim realises they have been seduced. Giveaways, competitions, blog hops, they’re all part of the same process of getting the attention of potential readers. They take energy, and they take time and from what I have read, they yield lower results each year. Some competition winners then sell on the books they win without even looking at them. There is a vast ocean of books out there and a flotilla of rafts bearing authors all pointing their oars at a speck in the ocean indistinguishable from all the other specks, shouting, “BUY MY BOOK!” all at the tops of their voices.
And if you don’t sell, you’re a failure. You’re told to pull up your big girl panties, do your research, do the necessary work of learning new skills. Or give up and stop clogging the ocean with your specky books. Make way for worthier candidates who are keen and eager to do the work and sell the books, with more seductive cover art and lower prices and more booty in the free merchandising line.
I’ve unconsciously taken it all in, like poison, and my dropping sales figures are like a direct connection to my self esteem. I believe in poetry, and last year I released a small collection Accidental Emeralds. I’m preparing a larger collection for release this spring. Yet that first book has sold less than twenty copies world-wide. It seems utter folly and a complete waste of time and energy to put out another book so that it can bomb. I’m doing it because I believe it’s important to have it out there, but even so, it fills me with great sadness.
The rise in e-book prices because of VAT has meant I must make a decision to either leave the prices with the 20% raise that is taken in VAT, or lower them and lose that money from each sale, because people have a price point they stick to when it comes to books, and a rise in 50p or less puts mine over that price point. I don’t know what to do for the best.
It’s been the combination of all these factors that has meant that the joy I used to experience about writing has all but gone. There’s a part of me that just can’t be arsed with it any more. Everything has become overlaid with the demand for commercial success and that changes everything. There is nothing wrong per se in wanting to sell books; but when it has seeped into everything, and has changed your self-worth in the process, that’s a problem.
I used to love the process of writing, of starting a story and seeing where it might go; of spending hours daydreaming and spying on the little maelstrom of a world inside my head, and then writing it all down. Now I find I can’t. I have ideas, and then I realise they’ve all been done before and are stale, chewed over and done to death. I have no less than four novels in varying states of undress on my hard drive. One clocks in at over 50k words, and I’ve been limping along on that one for two years. It’s very good, even though I say so myself, but unless something in me changes, it may never be finished. All the energy and enthusiasm that should be going on that are swallowed up in things like trying to figure out how to produce a cover for another novel, on when is the best time to start the release process for the sequel to The Bet, and staring at a flat-lining Kindle dashboard that seems to tell me no-one wants to read what I’ve already written so why oh why am I churning out yet more?
You might say, perhaps you need a publisher to take care of all that. Well, perhaps a publisher might take care of stuff like covers, but it’s been many years since they have done any marketing for any but the biggest of authors . And I’d still have the pressure of deadlines looming over me to drive away the stories. It’s a bigger issue than that of publishing books and one that pertains to the arts in general and our appreciation and need for them. I won’t go all political one you (perhaps in another post) but the culture itself has been subtly damaged over the years so that commerce rather than creativity is the gold standard of what is of worth to us.
I’m not sure I have any answers. I don’t feel I can take my eye of the ball entirely, withdraw from trying to sell books and concentrate on finding my writing mojo again. It’s a pretty fast-moving world and the current thinking is that those with endurance skills are those who may succeed, if not by merit then by persistence. It’s certainly worked for many who have doggedly churned out four or more books a year, though in some cases I’d see those as of very dubious quality. Being constantly in the public eye is a strategy that works for some, but I’m not willing to chuck out that many books a year, even though I have a significant body of work on my hard drive. If I don’t tackle my own malaise, it’s only a matter of time before I run out of completed work.
It’s a new year and no one knows what it may bring; the changes so far in the book world have been staggering and unimaginable ten years ago. I must trust in my own journey and see where it takes me. It’s taken me some amazing places already; the fact that I’m currently mired in the Slough f Despond ought not to mean I will be buried in it.
If you have seen my joy, do return it to me. I’ll be most grateful. I do really miss it. It gave me a reason to get up in the mornings.