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3.10.2014

Long, Hard Slog Up the Middle: A Writer's Journey Part 1

I’ve been a writer for more than 30 years. I finished my first full-length novel in 1986, won my first writing award in 1991, and signed my first book contract in 1994. Since then, I've gone on to write more than 150 books, which have been read by readers all around the world.

I earned my stripes in this crazy business when I wrote for many years for the simple pleasure of writing itself. It wasn’t until 1994 that I signed my first contract. It wasn’t until 1995 that my first book was published. It wasn’t until 1996 that I was able to write full-time.

My full-time work as a writer is as a technology journalist and nonfiction writer. In those early days, I wrote articles for leading publications like PC Magazine and Dr. Dobbs. I also wrote books for leading publishers like Macmillan, Pearson, McGraw Hill, Microsoft, and O’Reilly Media. For articles, I often received $1 or more a word. For books, I often received solid five-figure advances. That was, of course, success, and I did in fact rise quickly, becoming a recognized world leader in my field in only a few short years.

Success, however, can be short lived. In publishing, a writer’s last success doesn’t necessarily pave the road to the future. A writer’s future is determined by his or her next book and often also by factors the writer cannot control. The world changes every day. Trends and tastes shift. Yesterday’s media darling can be tomorrow’s nobody.

I’ve lived the change firsthand. Between 1995 and 1998, I signed more than a dozen contracts, wrote books as fast as I could write them for readers who couldn’t get my books fast enough. I was on fire. In those few short years, my books earned millions at retail. I thought the ride would never end, until it did.

The market changed. Trends and tastes shifted. The hot topics of the day were flooded with a smorgasbord of offerings. There weren’t just 10 or 20 books on that hot topic, there were a hundred. Eventually, this oversaturation cannibalized sales of all similar books. Thus, even as my success and career were hitting new highs, I was left scrambling.

But unlike many of my contemporaries at the time, I saw the light of that oncoming freight train. I knew my options. I knew what I had to do.

I could continue to write books in an oversaturated market, try to live with sales that were a tiny fraction of what they had been, or I could look to new opportunities. I chose plan b—the new opportunities. I risked everything, left my old publishers who weren’t interested in my new ideas, and went out looking for publishers who were interested in my new ideas.

The change meant I had to rejoin the working world. I took a job with a tech company in Seattle and joined the ranks of the marathon commuters, driving 140 miles round trip every working day. I continued writing in the evenings and on weekends. I continued to pitch my new ideas to new publishers.

Days and weeks passed. Months too. By the sixth month, my wife and I were seriously considering our options and wishing we’d sold the family home and moved to Seattle months ago.
But I didn’t give up. Instead, I polished my ideas yet again and sent them out via my agent to a new publisher who I heard was looking to do something different. I just hoped that the “something different” they wanted would be my radical idea for a new series of books.

The wait to hear back from the publisher was agony because at this point it was make or break. If I heard back from the publisher and it wasn’t good news, my writing career likely was over. If I heard back from the publisher and it was good news, there was hope, but no certainty.

Thankfully, I heard back from my agent within a few days and the news was...

To be continued...

Thanks for reading,

Robert Stanek