For the past five years that I’ve ben self-publishing I have paid for zero marketing. I’ve paid for cover art and copy editing and that’s it. Everything amazing that’s happened to me and my books has been because of word of mouth. Sure, in the beginning of my career I spent hours planning a few blog tours for some of my earlier contemporary novels and the first book in my paranormal series. But at most I’d get about twenty reviews and never did those appearances translate into significant sales. For almost two years I’ve mostly just sat back in awe at how far my stories have travelled, watching silently while people talk about and share my books online.
But after two years of having to do absolutely nothing in order to generate sales (except write more books, of course) everything sort of fell off a cliff in January. According to other indies, the immediate drop-off in sales happened sooner–around November–when the world was in a state of panic, unable to concentrate on work, let alone reading for pleasure. There was too much to worry about. There still is. But at least the fear of falling into a “Handmaid’s Tale-like” dystopia has loosened its grip on the majority of us just enough for us to actually function. Not that it can’t happen, but even in the midst of resisting the rule of tyranny we also need to eat, and pay the mortgage, and do all of the other things necessary for survival, which means we need to make money, which means we need to work.
But how do you survive in a society on the precipice of total ruin when the product you sell is (for most people) not considered one of those essential elements of survival? Writers know the essential value of stories, but art, as well as the appreciation of art, is so incredibly subjective. This means that when the shit hits the fan no one is going to be concerned with reading more books. They’re just not.
But…we’re not totally there yet and there’s still hope that I can eke out a living a little while longer. But how? How, when people aren’t reading as voraciously as they used to? How, when people only have enough leftover energy to consume the news? How, when that news is so depressing that it makes “frivolous” activities like experiencing or creating art seem even more futile?
I don’t know the answers to these questions. All I can do is write more books–books about human beings who are learning how to cast out their demons and approach others with compassion–and take more control over how exactly my books find readers. Part of this means being willing to finally spend a little money on marketing, which I conceded to when applying for my first BookBub ad. I’m still monitoring the results, which I’ll be sharing on the blog in the coming days. But at the same time, there are still so many factors out of my control. And it’s scary. Not just as an artist but as a teacher and a daughter and a friend and a human being. But maybe I’ve been afraid of what’s next only because I’ve felt helpless to stop it. Maybe it’s time to stop being helpless.
This seems to be a disturbing trend of my twenties and even though those who are older and wiser have told me that being scared and confused is what your twenties is all about…I just can’t accept it. I need to be in control. I need my plans to pan out. I need to know myself and what I want. And I don’t. Not completely.
For the past five years I’ve been driven by dreams and by my relentless fear of having an ordinary life. I thought school was the answer. I thought writing was the answer. I thought money was the answer. But none of those things have given me the kind of success or security I’d hoped for. And for a long time I decided to just wait it out, to work in another job that didn’t fulfill me spiritually and didn’t pay me what I deserved, and to just write as much as I possibly could until one day something stuck. But I’m six novels in and I’m still not earning enough to make writing my full-time career. And I’m tired of waiting.
Maybe I’m not supposed to have all the answers in my twenties but that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t be proactive about finding them. My dream is to be a novelist but from now on I won’t allow that to be my only dream. I am smart and I am capable and I am ready for a new challenge. I’m ready for a new life. So, while I’ll still write every day, I’ve also decided to go back to school to get my master’s degree in education. I love books and there is so much more I can be doing in this world to contribute to the spread of literacy and love of reading. Great stories save and our young people need that now more than ever. They need righteous examples of faith and strong will. They need to be exposed to ideas that both inspire and challenge. They need to read. They need to write. To organize their thoughts and analyze their emotions and form opinions that can’t be easily swayed. Reading breeds empathy but writing breeds independence and teens in today’s world desperately need both.
I’ve always tried to write with these things in mind and to approach each story as a means of making my readers feel connected and acknowledged but there is only so much I can do from behind my keyboard. Even with access to the internet the reach of my novels is still limited. If I really want to make a difference then I’m going to have to step outside my comfort zone and join the fight for literacy on the front lines. I’m not sure if I’ll be a great teacher, or even a good one, but I know I’ve got the passion to try. I know I’m meant to make a difference in the lives of young people, and whether that’s through my novels or through teaching, that’s exactly what I plan to do.
I used to think that answers always came in the form of a solution; that they brought clarity and finality and were always true. But answers are a kaleidoscope of emotions, sensations and opinions. Sometimes they’re loud and obvious and sometimes they’re a silent nudge. Sometimes they twist like a knife right in your gut and sometimes they shield you and make you safe. But the most mystifying of them all, the truest answers, never bring us to the end of something but thrust us toward a new beginning. “Real” answers don’t bind us, they set us free, releasing us into an even greater unknown that is sometimes scarier than asking the question in the first place.
It all depends on your perspective.
For the past few months my perspective has been cloudy and dark and I thought my destiny had abandoned me. As I walked through the world there were no signs or answers and I felt like every step I took was in the wrong direction. At first I wallowed in the fear of my own mistakes, living in that place until it started to feel like home. But somewhere along the way, that fear started to rise up and I rose with it. It didn’t engulf me and it didn’t break me. The moment I finally gave myself permission to give up…I didn’t want to anymore. I couldn’t.
Whatever dark current had me trapped, whatever wave had me pinned just below the surface, suddenly broke and all at once it let go of me. I wish I could say there was some dramatic moment of triumph involved, that it was a conscious choice on my part to overcome my fears. But all it took was waking up. All it took was realizing that every day is brand new and with that many fresh starts, with that many possibilities, there is absolutely nothing to be afraid of. I’m doing my best. I’m doing what i love. That’s all that matters. Not who’s paying attention, not who’s listening, not how many mistakes I make along the way. There is no right way or wrong way to make art and there is no right way or wrong way to live life. As long as I’m doing and being and putting good out into the world I don’t need to know what’s coming. I don’t need to know anything at all. The truth is I already have all the answers I need. Why am I here? What’s my purpose? How are we all connected? How can I make a difference? What’s the meaning of life?
It’s the answer to everything. So give it, receive it, speak it over everyone you meet and soak it in when it’s shared with you. Remember that it’s the reason you create. Because you love yourself and because you love the world, it’s the reason that you write or paint or compose or draw or sing or laugh or cry. It’s the reason that you’re here.
I thought this would be the year of answers but it’s turning out to be the year of questions. Big scary ones. I changed full-time jobs, hoping to feel less exhausted and more fulfilled but in all the chaos of the holidays and everything else that’s been going on, I haven’t written or revised or even thought about creating something in almost three months. It’s felt like an eternity and the more time that passes, the more I wonder whether I could actually exist this way.
Today was my first day off in the past eight and I should have spent it working on revisions but I just couldn’t get started. I didn’t want to. I was afraid of too many things–of spending another two years on the same emotional roller-coaster of being an indie author and of not. It would be so easy to stop, to just forget about this series mid-draft, to take my books off sale, to remove every bit of my social media identity. I actually considered it this week and not just because I got some shitty reviews or because I almost lost a friend because of them or because I’m tired and unhappy and unsure. But because I’m afraid.
I’ve faced my fears of failure before but this time is different because I’m not just questioning my path as a writer, I’m questioning everything about my life. I don’t want to be a bystander, a thin reed that bows whichever way the wind blows just because I’m afraid of making a mistake or of being alone. I don’t want to be afraid of the future but I am. Because for the first time in my life I don’t know what it’s supposed to look like.