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Sunday, January 27, 2013

Are Unrealistic Expectations Killing Your Writing Career?

I published my first ebook, Winterland, as an experiment. That was a year ago October. Recently, I received my third quarter royalty check from Smashwords for Winterland and was pleasantly surprised.

It takes a lot to surprise me. Which, I think, is good for a writer.

Anyway, I have made significantly less money from Winterland than I have from my two trad published novels. However, the money I've made from The Resurrection (2011) and The Telling (2012), has all come by way of advance. I have yet to see a royalty check (authors must earn back their advances before they can receive royalties). Hopefully, that will change in 2013. I don't know. Either way, I'll keep plodding forward in my writing. With or without fat, rewarding, regular, career-affirming royalty checks.

Several months ago, my literary agent Rachelle Gardner posted a rather motivational article entitled There Is No Time for Despair. She begins by listing a host of things writers can despair about, things like

  • Many authors who have published numerous books are finding their advances going down, not up.
  • With self-published books now plentiful, there are more books than ever before for readers to choose from.
  • A book’s potential sales are highly unpredictable.
  • Many authors’ books don’t live up to the publisher’s sales expectations, meaning the publisher might not want to renew their contract.

It may be a coincidence, but I personally know at least a half dozen authors who've recently been dropped by publishers because they didn't "live up to the publisher’s sales expectations." It's one of those hard, but commonplace realities of the writing biz. And it always produces at least a twinge of despair.

But one of Rachelle's points particularly hit home:

  • The publishing journey often doesn’t live up to an author’s expectations.

I'm a pessimist at heart. Frankly, my pessimism has saved me many times. It’s been said, “A pessimist is never disappointed.” Which could explain why I rarely get down or disappointed about my writing career. You see,

  • despite the slog
  • despite some bad reviews
  • despite not being re-contracted by my first publisher
  • despite not being a marketing expert
  • despite having to do the bulk of my own marketing
  • despite not cracking the royalty threshold on my published novels
  • despite having to keep my full-time job, write whenever I possibly can (which usually means 4 AM and lunchbreak), and feeling constantly crunched for time

despite all these difficulties -- I rarely despair, get moody, or vow to bail on writing.

And a lot of this comes down to "author expectations."

I keep mine very low.

Please, don't mistake my low expectations for mediocrity, a concession to poor sales, disregard for conventional wisdom, low self-esteem, or a defeatist attitude. In a way, it's a survival skill. I've seen too many authors crash and burn because they had unrealistic expectations.

  • They expected to be agented and contracted.
  • They expected all their friends to be thrilled and intrigued by their writing pursuits (instead of looking at them cross-eyed).
  • They expected to sell books.
  • They expected to make some money. Maybe, a lot of money.
  • They expected to generate buzz.
  • They expected to get good reviews.
  • They expected to get a lot of good reviews.
  • They expected to gain a reading audience, a lively base of fans who can't wait for anything they write.

Is it any wonder they succumb to despair?

Of course, I can rightly be charged with being a pessimist and having too low of expectations. You're right. The thing is, I'm just trying to keep expectations in their place.

  • I have low expectations for what I CAN'T control.
  • I have high expectations for what I CAN control.

That's a huge distinction. Which is why Rachelle closes her post with these words:

You need to refuse to spend time worrying about things over which you have no control (the publishing industry at large, for instance) and focus on what you CAN influence.

Writers don't have control of a lot of things. And if you tie your expectations to things you can't control, despair is inevitable.

  • Expecting everyone will love your stuff.
  • Expecting to sell more books than you do.
  • Expecting that people will automatically respond to every marketing effort.
  • Expecting mostly good reviews of your novels.
  • Expecting a writing career to be easy.
  • Expecting to find your niche and sail off into the sunset.

Listen, these are the kinds of unrealistic expectations that can kill a writing career. At the least, they will drain you of the joy, imagination, camaraderie and appreciation for the business and the craft that is so desperately needed to keep plugging away.

Call them low expectations if you want. But these are the things I have control over and build my expectations around:

  • I expect to improve as a writer.
  • I expect not everyone will "get" me.
  • I expect to have to work hard to make a name for myself.
  • I expect to have to motivate myself.
  • I expect to have to learn more about the industry and stay on top of trends.
  • I expect to expand my circle of writing friends.
  • I expect to have disappointments and letdowns.
  • I expect to have to change direction, eat crow, and stay flexible.
  • I expect to make mistakes along the way.
  • I expect my writing career to not go as planned.

Yeah. I'm a glass-is-half-empty kind of guy. I purposely keep my expectations low. This doesn't mean I don't expect a lot from myself. It means I don't expect a lot from anyone else BUT me.

* * *

Mike Duran is a monthly contributor to Novel Rocket, and is represented by the rockin' Rachelle Gardner of Books & Such Literary. Mike's novels include The TellingThe Resurrection, an ebook novella, Winterland, and his newly released short story anthology Subterranea  You can visit his website at


  1. I like you post a lot, it's very helpful.

  2. Thank you Mike, I can appreciate you and Rachelle's straightforwardness. Sad to say we don't receive enough of it today. As a new writer I find this EXTREMELY crucial, helpful and usefull advice.

  3. Excellent post, Mike. I'm with you--expecting much from yourself and little from the world is a good way to have your expectations met and to keep things going on an even keel. And...when you expect much from yourself, you often find that others give you more than you expected and you are pleasantly surprised, as you were with your royalty check.

  4. Mike,
    Thanks for the post. I'm trying to find that balance between goals and reality that allows me to keep a proper perspective. I want to push myself, but don't want to seem pushy to others. I want to press forward with stubborn determination, while still enjoying the journey along the way. Thanks again for your "reality check" post.

    1. Larrywtimm took the words right out of my keyboard. Words like "balance" and "reality check."

  5. It's interesting that you call yourself a pessimist. I'm an optimist who has been beaten over the head so many times that I live by "Yet though He slay me, still will I trust Him." So, folk disappoint, but if we hold onto that scripture and include with it the word that we're to do our best at whatever our hand finds to do, then I think you and I stand pretty much in the same place--both looking at the same point, but one from in front of it and one over her shoulder. Think about it: if your glass is half-empty and mine is half-full, we're still talking about that same middle line--the halfway point!

    Obviously, very few folk get me (or you or anyone other than their intimates, really)--else the journey wouldn't have been so tortuous. Is that going to change now that two of my stories are about to release? I doubt it. But all anyone can do is take the risks inherent in allowing others to read our words. And, as you say, keep our focus where it belongs.

  6. Mike, I appreciate this honest perspective. Thanks for the reorientation!

  7. Basically, I concur. Expecting others to meet our expectations, outside of contractual obligations, is usually fruitless and sometimes exhilarating. Do what we CAN do and always trust that God knows what He's doing in our lives along the way.

  8. You sound like a realist, not a pessimist, Mike." I have low expectations for what I CAN'T control. I have high expectations for what I CAN control." Exactly how I look at it too. And I think because of this I'm constantly pleasantly surprised rather than disappointed. Everything others do for me and my work is gravy because I don't count on it. I've been very blessed with my publisher but I don't take it for granted. Glad you got a nice surprise royalty from your ebook. Those are so nice.

  9. What a great post, Mike! So many good points and tips that I'm going to have to print it out and keep it on my desk. For me, this came at just the right time as I had been feeling despaired myself and thinking seriously of tossing in the towel. But somehow after reading this post I'm thinking I need to get a new perspective, change my expectations and find the joy in writing I once had.
    Thanks much!

  10. Thanks for the post, Mike. I sometimes tend to think more highly of my abilities than I ought to. Ten years of trying is good for building up humility. You're quite right, learning to control what we can is something that comes with time and experience (dare I say wisdom?). It's a lesson I'd like to pass on to my kids. It would save them many sleepless nights.

  11. A friend recently taught me the Chinese saying "mei banfa" which means accepting what we cannot change. I have a sticky note with this Chinese saying near my computer. It's one of the few that stays. Love this take on expectations. So much of it comes down to that & learning to adjust.

  12. Excellent post. I needed to be reminded of what I can and can't control. Thanks!

  13. Love this! I was once accused of having 'unrealistic expectations' and I'm a pessimist in the extreme.

    What I wanted was prehaps realistic for this person, but was not for myself.

  14. My greatest expectation is that God will be in control of my writing. Always.

  15. Thanks so much for this post, Mike. Such great thoughts here.


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