Who can resist a good year-in-writing wrap-up? I cannot. It’s a beautiful opportunity to pull the curtain back on the writing life, warts and all.
I stumbled into 2023 with absolutely no writing goals. I’m not against writing goals. I’ve made writing goals in the past. But this was a year in which about every other month, I contemplated the possibility of never writing again. Or at least, never publishing again. This was a year with a lot of writing feelings so maybe goals weren’t the best idea. I did write this writing manifesto, so that counts for something.
At any rate, here’s how my year in writing went.
I migrated a newsletter over from MailChimp to Substack in August of 2021, so I’ve been here over two years now. I had 49 subscribers when I started. At the beginning of 2023, I’d grown that number to 282. Don’t ask me how. I have no idea. Assuming I don’t post something that drives people away in droves in the next two weeks, I’ll finish 2023 with around 526 subscribers (oops, lost two just while I was writing this, so make that 524). I’m not a big math person, but that’s close to doubling my numbers this year.
How did I do that? Again, I have no idea. I generally posted at least once a week. Probably halfway through the year, I increased that to twice a week out of the vague sense that more posts mean more love from the Subtack algorithm. Lately I’ve been thinking I’ll go back to once a week most of the time because twice a week feels like it might be annoying to people (is it annoying to people?).
I did not pay attention to engagement or reach or any of those statistics Substack provides. In fact, in the last few months of the year, I turned off every notification I possibly could. I did write about things that were interesting to me. I did not limit myself to a certain topic or a certain style. Sometimes I shared my posts on social media. A lot of time I did not.
At the end of last year, I turned on paid subscriptions and made a concerted effort to ask (beg) people to become paid subscribers. Then about halfway through the year asking (begging) people to become paid subscribers started to feel very icky and like something I did not want to do. I published a few newsletters for paid subscribers only. Maybe, four? I didn’t like it. I didn’t like how it felt.
So I currently have 17 paid subscribers and I love each and every one of you. I know 99% of you personally. You’re awesome. Thank you. It is a lovely and amazing thing to be making some money from this newsletter, which takes a considerable amount of time to write and put out into the world. Needless to say, I don’t think I’m ever going to make my living on Substack. I’m okay with that.
Bottom line, if you want a post about how to succeed on Substack, this is not it. But I did like what Emma Gannon said here (ironically, this was unpaid when I read it but is now paid…this is probably how you make money at Substack) and it’s pretty close to my philosophy.
I did a very crappy job keeping track of pitches in 2023. This is mostly because for a very brief and beautiful few moments, I thought Substack would mean that I’d never have to pitch anyone again. Isn’t that kind of how they sold this to us? A way to escape the endless merry-go-round that is pitching? No more freelancing. All the traditional journos could take refuge here as their jobs disappeared, right?
My best estimate is that I sent out only 10-15 pitches. All of them were rejections except for one. I got rejected from places like The New York Times and Literary Hub and The Washington Post. The one acceptance was from CNN and it was in response to a call from pitches from Sonia Weisner’s newsletter, to which I owe quite a few of my successful pitches.
The piece was about gender and athletic ability, timed to the U.S. Women’s World Cup. People had a lot of strong feelings about it, so I got quite a few e-mails, some of which were nice. Publishing a piece in a national media outlet did not change my life. It did not get me an agent or a book deal. It was sort of nerve-wracking and impressive to my friends and family, until I told them what I got paid. Then it was less impressive.
At the end of 2022, I started sending some short stories out again for the first time in a while. These are stories from the collection of linked stories or novel-in-stories or whatever it is I’ve been working on the last year or so. I entered one of the stories in a first pages contest at CRAFT and it got an honorable mention, which was exciting.
In 2023, I submitted some combination of stories 17 times. This was a haphazard thing rather than a concentrated effort. The only story that was accepted was my piece for the Playing Authors Anthology with Old Iron Press, “Hemingway Goes on Book Tour.” If this was going to be my one acceptance of the year, it was a good one. The anthology is awesome (not too late to buy your copy here) and I got to meet some other amazing authors at various events over the course of the year. Also, I love this piece and reading it in front of a nice crowd at Tomorrow Bookstore was one of the highlights of my year in writing.
A few of those short story submissions are still riding it out, almost a year later, because that’s how it goes with literary magazines—slow, slower, slowly.
Workshops and events
If you’ve been with me all year, you’ll know that I did get into a writer’s workshop—Writers in Paradise—which is in St. Petersburg, Florida, in January. Sells itself, doesn’t it? I applied for a workshop with Stewart O’Nan, but he had to bow out for family issues. Instead, I got to do a writer’s workshop with Elizabeth Strout, which even a year later, I still can’t quite believe happened.
It was a beautiful week and I applied again this year for a short story workshop with Stewart O’Nan, for real this time. Stay tuned in January to hear how it went.
I did a lot of book events this year, more than I did for the release of my first book back in 2019. I went to two book festivals. I did events at four bookstores and one library. I did an online talk about Barbie for the press that publishes my sociology of gender textbook. My last event of the year was at one of my very favorite places, Viewpoint Books in Columbus, Indiana, where I finished all my holiday shopping in one go.
I’m so grateful for every venue and person who welcomed me and my books. Sometimes these events were amazing and sometimes they were soul-crushing, which is how it goes. I did learn that it’s probably a mistake for me to schedule a lot of book events during the semester when I’m teaching. The energy it takes to do a reading or to teach a class are too similar, drawing from the same well.
The fifth edition of my textbook, Questioning Gender: A Sociological Exploration, came out this year. I had to look up what edition it was. I’ve been writing and revising this book for twelve years now, which is crazy. At this point, the covers all start to look alike to me.
I should say, in the interest of full disclosure, that this textbook has made more money than the three other books I’ve published combined. Many times over. This is, of course, because textbooks are so expensive and sold to a captive audience of students who have to buy them. Yes, I have feelings and thoughts about that, maybe for another day.
The paperback edition of my nonfiction book, Throw Like a Girl, Cheer Like a Boy, also came out this year. I got to make a few changes to the introduction for the paperback edition. Not every book gets a paperback edition, so I’m happy and grateful that Rowman and Littlefield felt my book merited a paperback edition.
Throw Like a Girl is a great book, full of fascinating facts about sports and gender and race. Like why the British were so keen on teaching cricket to Indians. And how Black jockeys got pushed out of horse racing. And how in the twisted history of gender testing in international sports, one female athlete’s gender designation actually changed from one year to the next, not because her gender had changed, but because the criteria for deciding who is and isn’t a woman switched. I loved researching and writing the book.
All of that was overshadowed by everything that went into bringing my young adult novel, Fair Game, out into the world. This book consumed my year in writing. At the end of 2022, I sent some of the very last queries to agents. In the end, I queried over a hundred agents, many of whom very much liked the book, just not enough to represent it. So at the beginning of 2023, I resolved to take the leap into self-publishing.
I’ve written about that process some (here and here and here). It all went much more slowly than I thought it would. I shouldn’t have been surprised. Publishing is slow from the outside. Of course it’s slow from the inside, too.
There were moments when it felt like I was doing exactly what I was supposed to be doing. I was taking control of my writing. I got to decide what the cover looked like. I chose the title and no one changed it into something so long and convoluted that even I can’t remember it at times.
There were a lot of moments when I fucked up. I should have published the book both on IngramSparks and Kindle Direct Publishing. I didn’t realize you could do that. I should have tried to keep tighter control of how many copies bookstores and book festivals ordered for events. A lot of those books got sent back and destroyed, but the cost of printing them still cuts into my overall profits. I should have gone more slowly and done more research.
I should not have gotten so excited when I sold a hundred copies of the book before it even released. My expectations got out of whack and that led to a lot of disappointment.
How do you measure the success of a book? Are the measures for a self-published book different? Here’s what I can tell you. The book released at the end of June and in the six months since, it sold 260 copies. A not-very-rigorous Google search told me at the beginning of all of this that self-published books sell 250 copies on average. So I beat that benchmark.
It took a lot of work, though, to sell those 260 copies. A lot of Instagram posts. All the events. I felt like I worked my ass off for that number and I’m not sure I have it in me to do it again. I’m not sure what worked and what didn’t.
As far as money, I probably made back enough to cover what I paid for the cover and the typesetting. So after six months, I haven’t really made any profit. I’ve come out even. I don’t know how that will change with time. The book won’t go out of print, which happens with traditional publishing. So it can keep selling. Will it? I have no idea.
I did feel incredibly supported by friends and family and other book people in the process of getting this novel out into the world. People wrote about it on their Substack. A small group of people signed on to be my book launch team. They showed up to events and my friend Jennie Pritchard’s family I believe account for half of the Amazon reviews for Fair Game (plus, the lovely
). The way people lifted up this book broke my heart at times, in the best way. There really were tears, most of them of gratitude.
Then there was the moment at the Kentucky Book Festival, that moment that for me has to be the biggest part of how you measure the success of a book. Did someone really get it? Did it find its way into the hands of the person you imagined when you wrote the book for? So when a little girl picked up the book, read the back cover, and said to her mother, “Mom, this is awesome.”? Yeah, that was success.
So in conclusion
I love writer wrap-ups because they often include all the things we don’t talk usually about as writers. Our failures in intimate detail. The bittersweet nature of success. The money. We never talk about the money. When I read another writer’s wrap-up or behind-the-scenes post I feel a little less alone. I feel, yes, we’re in this together. We are all fucking up together and every now and then, getting something right.
I also have to say that when I started writing this yearly wrap-up, I imagined describing a pretty crappy year for me in writing. That’s the story of the year I’ve been telling myself. Then as I began to lay it all out, I realized how very wrong that story is.
This year, I did not make any bestsellers lists. None of my books made it onto those beginning of the year, middle of the year, or end of the year lists. I won no awards. I did not go viral, assuming that’s possible anymore. I did not make enough money to enable me to retire. There’s a strong probability that none of these things will ever happen for me as a writer.
Still, this year kicked ass. Truly. I put a book I loved, a book that saved my life during the pandemic, out into the world. Some people loved it, enough to spend money on it. Enough for some people to even buy more than one copy (bless you amazing people). At least one small girl thought the premise of the book was awesome. She’s right. It is.
Back in October, when I was very much still in the narrative of what a failure this year had been for me as a writer, I posted about printing out that weird short story collection and falling back in love with it. My beautiful friend Kate made this comment, which I printed out and hung on the wall of my writing room:
This is one of the many things I love about you – over and over you push past the exhausting and the bruising, because you have faith in your own beautiful writing and you love the difficult craft of it. Is that why?, maybe not but I love that you put your head down, turn your shoulder into it and keep pushing. I can’t wait to read the collection!
This also made me cry. I wonder sometimes if this characteristic in myself is even a good thing, my sheer stubbornness. I have no idea. But after writing this wrap-up, it feels like maybe it is a good thing, to go on having faith in my writing and the difficult craft of it. Not a bad way to end the year.
Happy writing, everyone, and leaving you with this quote from Joe Moran’s book, If You Should Fail:
Success feels like a sham because we crave and solicit it from others. The pursuit of it means relinquishing control over our lives.