when the business runs your life

One of the great things about attending a writer’s conference is that you hear juicy gossip.  I myself am worthless as a source of gossip; living up here in Siberia, otherwise known as Maine, I never know anything about anybody. I rely on others to tell me what’s going on.  While in Chicago, I heard about the travails of a bestselling author who’s under so much stress trying to meet her deadlines that she’s a physical wreck.  “She says she throws up every morning,” my source said.  “She’s a nervous wreck because if she doesn’t deliver her manuscript on time, the publisher’s bottom line suffers.”  Which means that people might lose their jobs. She feels personally responsible for the livelihoods of a whole host of people — editors, publicists, and assistants.

She has become what’s known as a “payroll author.” 

On the surface, it sounds like a great position to be in.  Wow, what a power trip to be so valuable to a publishing house that they need your new book just to balance their budget.  We all want to be needed, right?  We all want to feel indispensable.

The problem is, this author no longer feels in control of her life.  She’s a millionaire several times over, she’s got a guaranteed slot on the bestseller list, she has legions of fans, yet she’s so stressed out, so overwhelmed by the responsibility, that she spends every morning heaving her guts into the toilet.

Is that the kind of success anyone really wants?

Looking at this author’s career, anyone might feel a twinge of envy.  But when you hear what her life is like behind the scenes, when you hear the turmoil she has to go through to earn those multi-millions, it reminds you that getting to the top isn’t for sissies.


15 replies
  1. Kyle K.
    Kyle K. says:

    That’s absolutely insane! No one person should have that much riding on their backs… especially a writer, considering how prone we are to self doubt!

    I feel like such an awful person, because I actually want to know who you’re talking about! It can only be one of a very few people… but she deserves her privacy, whoever she is.

    I’d like to say that I wouldn’t mind being in her position, but you never really know how you’ll react to something until you’re actually living it. It sounds like she could use a nice break, though.

  2. DebPiccurelli
    DebPiccurelli says:

    That poor woman, feeling like she has the weight of the world on her shoulders! We tend to think only of the glamorous side of the business, but hearing this really makes a person think. I don’t know if I’d be able to handle the pressure, either.

  3. therese
    therese says:

    I watched this happening to a friend of mine and it was the deadlines, not that she was ‘responsible’ for the whole company bottom line or was going to make millions. Instead she had set her goals to write for a specific genre line, and x# and types of books within x time frame.

    Her ‘method’ was to go into a self-obsessed panic the week before deadline, gritting her teeth, not sleeping, etc. But she was so goal orientated she couldn’t see what she was doing to her health until the migraines and medicines shut her down.

    Another author friend was so concerned about writing across genre’s, YA, straight, suspense and paranormal romances – working for more than one publisher – that she missed the ‘cues’ from the universe that every time she would be contracted for two or more books to a specific line, the line would shut down or the editor leave. Again – a severe health scare has shut her down.

    I guess I’m saying it’s not uncommon for authors to put themselves into a state of panic that damages their health and is this is not exclusive to authors. Many people feel like they have the weight of the world on their shoulders and lose sight that the most important thing in their life is living life.

    Goals need to be reasonable and consider the process of the individual to meet those goals. Unfortunately, many of us learn this lesson, sometimes by watching others crumble.

    Thanks for sharing, Tess!

  4. knaster
    knaster says:

    Hi Tess,

    Isn’t that true for practically ANY profession? We all want to be the best at our job, we strive for profession, and when and if we don’t meet a deadline (isn’t that an apropos word? dead-line?) we start popping the Xanax.
    Can’t we get any credit for the effort? Sure, practice makes perfect, but who the hell practices that much to be perfect? Is anyone really perfect? I don’t think so.
    But to get to the point of throwing up every morning, this woman needs to reevaluate her life and slow down. Sure we need structured deadlines in our life, but not to the point where it endangers our health. For God’s sake, people, take a step back and look at yourself. Is this the way you want your life to run? If you can truly answer ‘yes’, then more power to you. (wow, I sound just like one of my mom’s lectures).
    If you answer ‘no’, slow down, take a deep breath, and continue at your own pace. Do a little each day until it’s done. Don’t be a statistic to the “deadline syndrome.” It ain’t worth it.
    I do envy an author’s life, but not to the point where he/she makes him/her self sick. I always say…”I’d rather give you flowers, than send you flowers…”
    Thanks for sharing, Tess.

  5. SheilaC
    SheilaC says:

    I see the world of writers with a huge fence running through the middle. On one side is the herd of hopeful wannabes, who think that selling a book is the most important thing in the universe. A lucky few manage to climb over the fence, but, as you point out, they don’t realize the downside of landing on the other side.

    I hope that we don’t let success, whether it’s one book or a dozen, suck all the joy out of our writing. As others have said, if you find yourself in that position, step back and take a deep breath, and figure out what you really want.

    Sheila Connolly (with more deadlines looming that I want to admit)

  6. BernardL
    BernardL says:

    She needs to count her blessings, enjoy them, and stop obsessing into insanity. An intervention from family or friends might be in order before her health fails completely.

  7. drosdelnoch
    drosdelnoch says:

    Tess if you speak to the authoress or know someone who does can you pass this on from me please.

    There are a number of points to be addressed here.
    1) Any publishing house that puts all thier eggs in one basket on a singular author are fools, seeing as theyre still going, theyre not and so its about profit margins. Having a new best seller from the aforementioned author makes these easier to obtain.

    2) They know which buttons to push to make her feel guilty and thus try and make her create to thier time schedule. (Hence the use of sacking people.)

    What the author needs to do is to have a word with her agent who and I say this in all due respect, should be telling her publisher to take things a bit easier as lets face it pushing an author into a nervous breakdown or worse will lose them thier “cash cow” (and by that I mean a bankable product.) IE no profit to be had, and thus allow a better schedule to be worked out as opposed to every 6 months or 12 months move it to 18 months. THis is key, it will remove a lot of the stress and as such help the author to work on a level that she’s comfortable with.

    Doing this will also destroy creativity and turn out a product that could be either half baked, a rushed effort etc. This in turn will lose fans and then to top it off, decrease the profits, their income along with the writers and agents as well as not gaining new fans and increasing the brand.

    Its simple stuff when looking at it as an outsider but at times its stuff that needs to be said.

    All the best,


  8. Terry Snipes
    Terry Snipes says:

    “…But when you hear what her life is like behind the scenes, when you hear the turmoil she has to go through to earn those multi-millions, it reminds you that getting to the top isn’t for sissies.” © Tess Gerritsen.

    I just love your style of writing, and your thought process. That last sentence was so real that it echoed off of the screen.

    Makes you evaluate what your definition of “success” is.

    Thierry Snipes

  9. NewMexicanAnn
    NewMexicanAnn says:

    Shiela: I’m on the other side of the fence than writers like Tess. I don’t really mind the view right now ’cause I know I might step into something really bad once I jump that fence. 😉

    Tess: I’m sooooooooo glad I work in the mental/behavioral health field. I know where to find the best psychiatrists. Hehehehee!

  10. lwidmer
    lwidmer says:

    Envy’s not exactly what I feel. Empathy is more like it. If you can’t keep a good balance between work and life and work is taking over, how exactly does that enhance your life? It’s running your life!

    I’m in a situation right now where I have literally more projects due than I have hours in an abnormal week (abnormal being 10 and 12 hour days). Because I agreed to them, I have to take time on the weekend to complete them. The book editing must be done because the client wants it out by June. (Luckily, I wrote the darned thing for her, so it’ll be easier knowing I tend to edit as I write.) Articles due Tuesday, Wednesday, and thankfully April. Insurance course module due by the 29th.

    I’m seeing it as a temporary situation, but if I had to live like this all the time, I’d be puking, too! LOL

  11. M.J.
    M.J. says:

    The author needs to immediately get a new agent and perhaps find a therapist.

    First – Only a very very small house would have to fire people if one writer was late with one novel by months or even a year.

    The big houses don’t rely on any one author to make their bottom line. Even if she is huge, its simply not the way the money works. For one thing every house makes more than 70% of its operating capital from backlist books not front list books.

    The business really doesn’t work like this.

    So if the writer believes this he or she has misunderstood the situation.

    Which sounds like the agent has not been doing his/her work.

    Or – The author is suffering from real and serious issues and needs outside psychological help to resolve her conflicts.

    I don’t know the writer but I do a lot about psychology and some people need to fee pressure in order to create and it sounds like it might be the author creating her own pressure in order to get the work done.

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