Monday, May 20, 2024

The Long Haul

What I’ve Learned in a Career that Isn’t Over Yet

A publishing friend of mine who is much smarter than I about such things once said to me, “The only true marker of success in this business is longevity.”

After 17 years and 27 books, I suppose by that metric I would have no choice but to consider myself a success. It’s funny, though — it doesn’t feel like success.

This could lead us down a deep, dark rabbit hole of what is success and what does success feel like, but instead I think I want to talk about the other side of the equation: Longevity.

I don’t know many authors who only want to publish a single book. Most people who write want to do so professionally, extensively, reliably, constantly. And, yes, remuneratively. Because it’s the money from each book that makes publishing the next one possible.

If, like me, you want to be in this for the long haul, here’s what I have to say…

Of primary importance is this: You will never know what direction your career will move in. The book of your heart — your absolute magnum opus — may tank. And the book you dashed off in a month to meet a contractual obligation may take off and change your life. You don’t know. It’s impossible to know. So…

Capitalize on your successes

My career has had ups and downs, most of them utterly beyond my control, but certainly the biggest mistake I made was following up my I Hunt Killers series with two science fiction novels. It wasn’t a completely stupid move on my part. Publishing is a slo-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-ow business and when I started working on the first of the sci-fi novels, I had no way of knowing that the Killers trilogy would be the biggest hit of my career. I Hunt Killers was my ninth novel, after all. I didn’t take into account that, with that series, I had accumulated a whole new audience, an audience that really liked the story’s darkness and real-world grittiness.

So when I followed up that trilogy with a book set hundreds of years in the future and then another book set in an alternative universe, well… That big serial killer-loving audience didn’t follow along. And who could blame them? They wanted a Big Mac and I was serving up tacos.

Again, the timing of the publishing industry made this a tough spot to get out of, but I probably could have and should have handled it differently than I did. I was (too) confident that my audience would follow me wherever I went. My big flub? It’s right there in the previous sentence: my audience. You don’t own your audience. At best, you have a long-term rental. Don’t take a readership for granted.

Roll with the punches

Towards the end of 2019, my wife and I published our first collaboration (if you don’t count our kids): The Hive. It was well-received, with People calling it one of the best books of the Fall. On the back of that book and my successful Flash series, I was invited to a boatload of conferences, conventions, and other such visits. It was definitely shaping up to be a career-changing year of travel.

Well, you know what happened, right? All of that amazing travel went into the toilet when 2020 rolled around and COVID sent the world off the rails. All of the grand plans I had disappeared like faces behind surgical masks.

You might think that lockdown would be a good time to get a lot of writing done. And at first I though it might be, but soon it became necessary for me to take a hiatus to deal with some protracted family issues. When I returned to the keyboard a year later, the entire landscape of publishing and pretty much the world had changed. Sure, I wrote. But I was also trying to figure out where I fit in and what it made sense to craft for this new world.

I cast my net wide: I worked on a variety of projects that were all radically different from each other, trying to figure out my new niche.

But I did something else, too: I had some fun! Look, if the pandemic taught us all anything at all (and these days, that seems debatable…), it’s that life can knock you off the curb with a transit bus at any moment. So why not have a little fun?

I resuscitated my moribund email newsletter, retooling it into less of a sales vehicle and more of a community platform. Every month now, I send off into the ether a melange of comic book goofiness, serial killer facts, deleted scenes from my books, and links to stuff I find cool and fun. It’s not about selling books — it’s about offering readers a nice little supplement to the books. It’s about giving something back to the people who’ve made my career possible.

I also launched, believe it or not, a merch store! I’ve always liked noodling around with design, so I sat down and had fun producing a collection of t-shirts, notebooks, stickers, and the like for readers of my books.

Are the newsletter and the store going to change my life or my career? Probably not! But I enjoy them and they keep me from getting bored with myself or — worse — taking myself too seriously.

Know what you can control

The answer to that is, sadly, not much.

You can’t control the sales of your book. You can’t control the marketing. You can’t control the social networks we all rely on now to spread the word — the algorithm can change in a heartbeat, a viral meme can steamroll your hard work, a buy-out can destroy your networking opportunities. You can’t control the overworked editors and assistants who tell themselves they’ll look at your book tomorrow…every day.

Fretting about the things you can’t control (or, worse, trying to control them anyway) will drive you stark raving mad.

But you can control the work. You can write the book. And then the next one. And the next one. Even if they’re not selling, you can keep writing them.

It’s the only thing you control, really. But you do control it.

Control the work. Cleave unto the work. The work will save you. When the rejections come, when the sales aren’t there, the work will save you. Because every book you write is a new opportunity. Every book you write is a new world to be born.

I have published 27 novels. And then life knocked me back and I had to take some time away. But I truly believe that my best work is ahead of me. As long as I choose to produce it. Someone can only choose to publish my work if I write it in the first place.

“The only true marker of success in this business is longevity.”

So, as we asked at the beginning: What is success? What does success feel like?

I think my friend was probably right. Because I’ll give you my answers, after all those books, all the ups and downs, all the joys and pains: Success is still standing. Success feels like fingers on the keys, like still being alive.

Connect with Barry Lyga on his website.

Barry Lyga is the author of the New York Times-bestselling I Hunt Killers, as well as 26 other novels that weren’t on the New York Times bestseller list, but were still really, really good. Visit him at Sign up for his newsletter at Check out his merch at


Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Twenty-seven is a lot of books.
You're right about our readers and giving them what they want. That's why I've never strayed from my niche of space opera.

Natalie Aguirre said...

I agree with Alex that 27 books are a lot of books to write and publish. And you're right that we have to focus on the part of a writing career that we can control.

cleemckenzie said...

As I told you, Barry, this is really a great post and so perfect for either the veterans or the beginners. Thanks for sharing your experience with this group.