Here’s an anecdote those of you who have faithfully read my Business Rusch blog or The Freelancer’s Survival Guide have encountered before. I apologize for the repetition, but the context needs to be here.
Trust me. I will bring this anecdote around to writing and freelancing farther on in this post.
One-hundred-and-fifty thousand years ago (or the early1980s, whichever makes me seem older), I got a job at a textbook publishing company. I came in as the lowest of the low, an editorial assistant—in other words, a secretary with a fancy title that made me seem more important than I was.
I was barely out of college and the best thing I had going for me was that I knew how to turn on a computer. (Seriously, these people had had a new computer sitting idly because no one could find the on-switch.) We did everything by hand or by typewriter, and for the bulk of my time there, that computer gathered dust.
I had come from freelancing. My (soon-to-be ex-) husband and I owned a failing business, and we were broke. So I got a full-time job to pay the bills.
Day one, I got trained by the woman I was replacing. Day two, I came in and did everything I had been assigned to do within 30 minutes. My boss, the wonderful Editor Greg, was startled that I finished so quickly. He double-checked me, found out I had done everything right, and gave me more to do. Still and all, I was done with my tasks by noon.
With Editor Greg’s permission, I read a book all afternoon. The book was one of the company’s textbooks, but Editor Greg thought that it might be useful if I knew the product.
Day Three, same thing.
Day Four, the other secretaries—I mean, editorial assistants—waylaid me as I came into work. They explained in no uncertain terms that I had to make my 30 minutes of work stretch throughout the 8 hours, or I would make every other editorial assistant look bad.
. . . .
After that textbook publishing experience, I stopped hiring out as a secretary for part-time work. (For a while anyway. Years later, I moved to Oregon, and was desperate for any part-time work. Then I got hired by a wonderful man [still a friend] who let me leave when I finished the tasks assigned me.) For most of my early working life, part-time work I got go augment my freelance income was as a waitress.
Waitresses in busy restaurants can’t slack off. If you do, you get fired. Or, if your bosses really don’t care, you don’t make money. Because other (good) waiters and waitresses will take your tables—and your tips. By the time I was out of high school, I could handle an entire Country Kitchen restaurant at breakfast by myself (with the assistance of someone to bus tables) and still get customers in and out of the restaurant within an hour.
And I had fun.
Why am I telling you this?
Because one of the things I learned in 2014 is that a lot of employees get by.
Dean and I own or co-own eight different businesses—not all of them to do with publishing. Generally speaking, we’re good at hiring people and for the most part, over the years, we have hired excellent folk. We have a good staff of people right now—people who work hard, care a lot, and do an excellent job.
Dean and I have hired and fired people throughout our adult lives, and also generally speaking, we tend to avoid the get-by folks. We get rid of them fast when we accidentally hire them.
How do we accidentally hire them?
They present well. They present as smart and talented and (sometimes) misunderstood. In their (excellent) interviews, they complain that they were in the wrong job. Sometimes, given their resumes, it seems like they actually were in the wrong job.
While the get-by folks talk a good game, they don’t perform well. After their training is complete, they can’t seem to meet deadlines or get work done.
. . . .
There are writers who get by.
I’ve always known that, but I hadn’t given it a lot of thought until the indie publishing revolution. Throughout my entire career, I’ve known writers who take five years to write a book (or a year to write a short story!), writers who never try freelancing because they can’t get their production up, writers who can’t seem to finish anything after the first few books.
I always thought, ah, it’s their critical voice that’s on too loud, or they really don’t want to become a writer, or they have some other interest that’s more important.
I never thought—I never realized—that a goodly percentage of these writers are simply folks who get by. These writers figure out how to game the system at their jobs. They do like my very good friend did at his job; they seem productive when they are not.
Unlike my very good friend, many get-by people seem to believe their own hype. They seem to think there’s a way around everything, that everyone else does this, and that successful people aren’t people who work hard but are people who know how to play the game well.
Does this sound familiar?
There are blogs everywhere on how to manipulate Amazon’s algorithm to make a book a bestseller. There are writers who cringe when you tell them the best way to sell your first book is to write a second. There are writers who simply do not believe that writing the next book (and the next and the next) is more important than promoting the only book.
. . . .
Expecting recognition for a minimal amount of work is a get-by attitude.
Why do I call writing one novel a minimal amount of work? Because I’m mean or a show-off or a hack or freakishly productive?
No, because I know writers who have long-term careers. Most of us never talk about our productivity. Most of us never talk about how many hours we spend at the computer. As Dean often says, we are successful because we work harder than everyone else.
. . . .
It is an accomplishment to finish your first novel. Go celebrate. Most wannabe writers never finish a novel. They may not ever finish a short story. They talk the good talk, but they don’t put in the work.
When you finish your first novel, you have taken that first step toward being a professional writer. But from the perspective of career writers, people who’ve been at it for years, you’re a baby who has toddled over to your parents for the very first time.
Yep, it’s an accomplishment worthy of cake and videos and applause.
Now, time to emulate that toddler and learn to run.
These days, most indie writers expect that first novel to be a success. I expected my first (real) novel to be a success as well. We all write because we know we’re brilliant, because the world was just waiting for our wisdom, because we have done something Mankind Has Never Seen Before.
Then those of us who want careers get over ourselves and move onto the next novel, and the next, and the next, and the next.
Right now, the Get-By People who wrote that first novel, gamed Amazon’s algorithms, and tried to convince everyone under the sun to buy that novel are leaving the writing business in droves. The Get-By People are complaining that “sales aren’t what they used to be.” They’re complaining that “free doesn’t work any more.” They’re wondering why no one is praising their (three-year-old) work.