What Does It Mean To Be a Writer: A Conversation

Author Ken La Salle
Author Ken La Salle

Guest post
by Ken La Salle

I was having breakfast with a friend the other day and, as it often does, our conversation moved towards my writing career and what recent developments I had to report. As usual, I was full of news about this or that – new articles I was writing, new opportunities I was exploring, and the like.

My friend’s name is Sean. He and I have known each other for quite some time. I could sense a bit of irritation in him, even as I spoke, so I asked him what was on his mind. To my surprise, he didn’t quite know how to put it. “You always talk about all that other stuff. What happened to just writing?” he asked.

I explained to him something I’ve only recently come to terms with myself. “All that other stuff” is what being a writer is all about. Pick any publisher at random and they’ll tell you what they want: A writer with a platform, with a following, with an audience. Being a writer in the 21st century means putting just as much work into cultivating those things as I put into the actual writing.

“Let me ask you a question,” Sean said. “Do you like having to do all of this other stuff, instead of just writing?”

“But it’s not that easy,” I told him. “Like it or not, that’s what being a writer is these days.”

“But it wasn’t always like that, was it?” he asked.

I thought about the Isaac Asimov memoir I recently finished, I. Asimov. In it, he wrote about being a writer in the 20th century… and things were very different.

“Once upon a time, you could just write,” I said to Sean. “Your job was to write well and then sell yourself to your publisher. After that, the publisher got the books out there for you.”

“Was it better then or is it better now?” Sean asked.

“It’s not,” I began, stopping myself. “The thing is, it’s just different. Long ago, it was more difficult to become a writer because there were fewer people who had access to the tools, to the agents, to the publishers. Now, everyone is a writer. You can contact agencies directly. You can email publishers. Hell, you can self-publish – and many people do! Writing has become democratized; anyone can do it. And they do

“The thing is,” I continued, “now a writer’s job is to rise above all the chaff and, somehow, set yourself apart.” I told him about all the ways I’ve tried to do this. I have my own website at www.kenlasalle.com. I write two weekly blogs: One Path for my everyday musings and the self-titled Ken La Salle blog for insights into being a writer. Every month, I blog over on Recovering The Self, too. I try to write regularly on other websites, such as this one here. I’m even debuting a new podcast in January 2013! (And I’ve become noticeably better at shameless self-promotion.)

“So, which would you rather have?” Sean asked.

“You mean, would I rather be a writer in Asimov’s day or now?” I asked.

Sean gave me a nod.

“Now.” I answered without hesitation. Listen, I know it’s rough out there. Hell, it’s downright crazy. I just heard about an e-book that basically copied dialogue off a TV show – that’s who I’m competing against! But, you see, I’ve been there, back in Asimov’s day. It wasn’t the 1950s but it was the 1980s. I was just starting out. And I paid through the nose for postage after postage, sending out manuscript after manuscript that I’m certain ended up in a slush pile or a waste basket, call it what you will.
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But then, with the Internet, I was able to contact agencies I hadn’t known about before. I did find the email addresses to publishers. I was able to self-publish ebooks and produce my own audiobook. Yes, I’ve benefitted from this crazy, democratized business we’re now living in. If it wasn’t for that, I’d be a frustrated, old writer with very little possibility of having my work seen by… anybody.

So, what about you? Which would you prefer? Consider your answer carefully, though. After all, this is being written for “Indies Unlimited”…


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Ken La Salle is an author and playwright out of Anaheim, California. His passion is intense humor, meaningful drama, and finding answers to the questions that define our lives. You can find his books on Amazon and Smashwords and all major etailers. His philosophical memoir, Climbing Maya, is available in ebook and paperback. His audiobook, The Worth of Dreams The Value of Dreamers, is available on iTunes, Audible, and all major etailers. You can follow Ken’s writing career on his website at www.kenlasalle.com.

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22 thoughts on “What Does It Mean To Be a Writer: A Conversation”

  1. Good perspective on today’s situation. I like being Indie and the control that allows me. It’s the rising above the chaff enough to get noticed that’s the problem. I think every era, and the changes it brings has its positive and negative side. Our job is to do the best with the hand we’re dealt.

  2. Ken, first a wonderful post and thank you. I agree wholeheartedly with you. It is definitely tough out there in our new world. The thought of being able to reach one reader excites me, of course I hope for more. My turn around moment was when I realized that one, mind you one, person had the power to negate my hard work. We all know we can’t please everyone and so remembering that, I moved on to become an Indie. I found it painful to think of all the seconds, minutes, and hours of my life went into a trash bin because one person found my writing not to their liking. I may never see an income to support me, however I see the landscape of things to come and I am grateful to be part of history.

  3. I hear exactly what you’re saying, Ken. Every once in a while I go through the same thing with a friend or associate, as I’m sure most independent authors today do. I too have been around a while, I’m not as quick as you were to answer, but I generally give the same answer you did.

    Yours is the first post I’ve answered in 2013, it’s New Year’s morning here. Nice article, Ken, and a very apt post to begin 2013.

    1. Happy New Year, sir. I’m writing to you from the past. We’re all looking forward to 2013 back here in 2012 but, if the Mayans were a few days off, we’d appreciate an immediate update. All the best!

  4. It seems to me that it was always a struggle to rise above the chaff. The difference today is a writer has the chance to take their writing directly to the readers and let them decide. How can that not be better?

  5. HAPPY NEW YEAR, Mr. LaSalle,

    You are a very astute observer of the changes which have occured in the Writing industry over the past two decades. The Internet has chnaged the world, mostly for the better. While I would much prefer to be involved in JUST WRITING, that is not possible if one desires to succeed with his/her writing.

    I will be chacking out your books.

    Best regards,
    Michael Phelps
    Author
    David Janssen-My Fugitive (With Ellie Janssen)
    The Execution of Justice (Hardcover & E-Book)
    The Jockey’s Justice (E-Book)
    David Janssen-Our Conversations (Coming January 2013)

  6. I’m going to tell a quick story here. It’s about two writers. Both are midlisters, both getting traditionally published. Both are getting $5k advances, and both are expected to sell about 5000 copies of their new book.

    Writer A nods, takes the 5k, and begins working on the next book.

    Writer B decides to buck the odds. He launches a blog, which grabs two dozen new readers over the course of six months. He does signings at FIFTY bookstores, travelling on his own dime (gas and food expenses: $1500) and sells an average of five copies per signing (250 books). He runs a couple of online ads ($200) which net another fifty sales. He gets his book listed across the internet, He posts on other peoples’ blogs, on forums, everywhere he can think of. In those six months, he pours 240 hours into marketing that book.

    So instead of the 5000 copies Writer A sells, Writer B sells 5500, and has spent a good sum of the $5k advance he earned on his promotion efforts.

    In the meantime, over those six months, Writer A has produced words for those 240 hours: 240,000 new words, to be precise. Three new novels.

    The indie world is not so very different. When I did my “silent launch” of a novel, nobody knew – not even friends and family. ZERO marketing for a month. Made some good sales anyway. Then, I kicked off a big promotion boost. Blogs. Twiiter. Retweets by people. Facebook posts. Mentions on a couple of book blogs.

    So, sales went up, right?

    No. No, they did not. They continued at the same steady pace they had been before the promotion.

    I’m not saying never promote. I’m not saying all promotion is bad.

    I am saying almost every indie I know overdoes promotion. Dean Wesley Smith recommends a zero-promotion approach; Russell Blake suggests spending four times as much time on the writing as you do on the marketing and promotion (80/20 approach), but would count Dean’s blogs, tweets, etc, as promotion, so it sort of evens out somewhat. I think the best path is probably somewhere in the 20% or less range.

    In other words, the thing you should be spending more time on than anything else is putting fresh words on the screen. Add up everything else you do: promoting, reading craft books, blogging, replying on forums, tweeting, revising, editing, researching, and ALL OF IT TOGETHER should not take more time than you are spending putting down fresh words.

    Because nothing promotes your work better than your next book, even today.

    Don’t be Writer B.

    1. I’m finally going to be publishing my first book on January 12th, and I won’t be marketing it in that much because I want to get book 2 out, maybe by Easter. Thank you for giving me that little bit of reassurance I needed. 🙂

  7. Really enjoyed this post Ken.
    Like many others here I spend far too much time promoting, doing interviews and writing articles for magazines and online websites plus running my own blog, maintaining a presence on social networking sites and generally living on caffeine and no sleep for months on end.
    I should be writing my next two or three books and reading the comment above from Kevin, I shall no doubt be thinking hard about what I do and how I spend my time this year.
    The thing is…I enjoy writing all this other stuff. It has helped me improve hugely as a writer and I have discovered that I have the ability to write more than just humour. The websites I write for (cough, cough…Indies Unlimited being one of them) are full of enthusiastic people who not only give me encouragement and support but great advice too. I think I have grown as a writer thanks to being part of these communities.
    But, on the other hand I hear what Kevin is saying and I know my husband hates all the hours I spend on the internet so maybe I’ll try a different tack, see if zero promotion works for my next release in June and then come back here and tell you all how it went.

  8. There are two things here.

    1. Is it better to be interactive with readers (as we have today) or isolated as most authors were “back in the day.

    2. Dividing limited time between writing and promotional activities.

    For me, I love that I’m writing in an era where I can have direct interaction with readers. Writing is a very solitary pursuit, but we ultimately write to be read so hearing someone loved your book, or answering questions provides a real sense of connection that fuels the creative process.

    As to trying to build an audience, when you only have one novel out is not an efficient use of time to devote a lot of your time to promotion. In general I recommend that authors keep their writing/promo activities at 90% / 10% until they get their third book out. At this point you can shift and do some promotion, because getting a new reader will result in multiple sales as they are likely to read other works you have.

    One other point…the issues are exactly the same for self-published or traditionally published authors. New authors are going to be the only one who have the cycles and vested interest to audience build. The publisher does not absolve the writer of those activities.

  9. It is hard to balance both when you are a new writer, but it’s like anything else in life. I was a successful landscaper for over twenty years, but it didn’t happen overnight. People had to see what I was all about. Some people took the chance and said ‘I’ll try her’. From there a following grew into a thriving business.

    There are very few overight wonders, so get out and show people what’s in your garden. It’s hard work, but if you do it right, word of mouth will do the rest.

  10. Michael, I think the difference between self-pubbed and trad-pubbed is that the trad-pubbed author’s third book isn’t ever going to see the light of day if books 1 and 2 don’t meet the publisher’s sales expectations.. That’s a huge plus for going indie, right there.

    1. Bah, posted in the wrong place. Anyway, Ken, great post. I was doing the same thing in the ’80s that you were doing — spending buckets o’ cash on postage and banging my head against a wall. I much prefer actually getting my stuff out before the reading public.

  11. In the 1980s I was trying to break into the poetry scene and wasted a lot of postage too. I was published in a few anthologies, etc. In the 1990s I was published in a better class of literary magazine. However, I decided to write fiction, which took me a few years to get right.

    I would rather indie-publish. I have more opportunities and I don’t get those nasty no, no, nos. Plus I do like to make my own covers, format my own ebooks, and PODs.

  12. I think I like the here and now. My first book was vanity published. After that, I started looking around and getting informed. I learned about how I could self-publish and not have to pay anyone (except my editor!) and I could get better royalties. Yes, I would have to do my own marketing, but then I heard that new and mid-list authors with a publisher had to do their own too. So what was the difference? I would make more on my own, and not have to worry about their publishing schedule.
    So I read everything I could and decided to be 100% Indie. I publish 2-3 novels a year, and several short stories. I also have helped other authors by offering cover design (really inexpensively) and formatting their books using what I learned.
    Yes, the here and now is where I belong. Now if I could get that darned movie deal…

    Great post!

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