Creative career? Leave the ladder at home - Katherine Roberts

It's taken me a long time to realise this, but now that I've been 'writing with the expectation of earning money' for over 15 years, it's increasingly obvious that a creative career is not the kind of career you can plan in a linear fashion from your first stumbling steps until some time in the hazy distance when you get your pension... that is, starting on the lower rung of an imaginary ladder and climbing to the top, where you hit the dizzy heights of your chosen career path, buy yourself a big house and a yacht, and lord it over all the minions eagerly scrambling up after you on the same worn old rungs.

Ladder of Divine Ascent
About the only time the ladder image might apply to a fiction-writing career is in the beginning, before you publish your first book, when there is (or at least used to be) an accepted path to publication. Many industry professionals will still tell you that it's the only ladder available, and you'd better start climbing it if you want to be published. It goes like this:

You write a book.
It's rubbish.
You write another book.
It's slightly better.
You write another book (repeat as many times as required, or fast track by taking a creative writing course)
It's almost publishable.
You send it to an agent or editor.
They work with you to make it publishable.
They publish it.

Although there were no university writing courses in those days, the traditional route worked well for me back in 1999. My first published book Song Quest won a children's book award in the UK (the Branford Boase Award), which was an excellent start because winning any kind of award brings an automatic contract from a publisher for your next book - and in my case, with the help of a lovely and experienced agent, also brought a contract from a major publisher for a series of seven. I was on the ladder and climbing fast.

But after that, what happens?

Your first book sells in bucket loads - maybe slightly smaller buckets than you imagined, but it's out there and selling and your publisher is still speaking to you, hooray, so...
You write another book.
There's no guarantee it will be publishable. Some books work first time, others need more work, every book is different. Eventually you'll make it publishable, because your basic writing must be good enough, or that first agent/editor would not have bothered working on it with you.
You wrestle the book into shape and send it to an agent/publisher.
They work with you to make it publishable.
They publish it.

So now you have two books out there, and a second experience of the process. Does it still feel like climbing another rung of the ladder? Maybe it does if your publisher sends you flowers and another contract. Great. You're probably safe enough to climb a bit higher. So what do you do next?

You write another book.
It's almost publishable. After all, you've already climbed the rungs of the ladder that got you as far as that first publication, and you haven't forgotten how to write in the meantime.
But what if... shock horror... the agent/editor/publisher does not want the next book?
Does that mean it's TOTAL RUBBISH?
Do you have to climb up that ladder all over again? Who knocked you off, anyway? You didn't even notice the rungs breaking, because you were so busy enjoying the bubbly sensation of being published at last.

Falling off a ladder hurts, and the higher you have climbed the harder you fall. At this stage, your ladder built of fictional steps is looking rather more like a snake charmer's rope when the music stops.

But your lovely agent (who loved your previous sales figures and absolutely knows you can do it again) calms you down and tells you the book is actually almost publishable, only the market has moved on. All right, you accept that, you're a professional and can now see how lucky you were to get your first book published. So you rewrite the 'problem' book several times, and eventually it reaches an editor. Persuaded by your past sales figures and your lovely agent, they work hard with you to make it publishable for today's market, by which time the market (whose team is working on an entirely different ladder in another part of the building) has moved on again. The bookshop doesn't support your book and it sells only one bucketful, which is a toy one the publisher bought.

I'll stop there. I'm sure you can see where this fictional career ladder is leading. There might still be author career ladders out there strong and sturdy enough to make climbing them safe. But on dark nights I really don't enjoy the image of any author teetering at the top of a long and unstable ladder composed of maybe hundreds of published titles, unaware of all the hazards beneath that might at any moment knock the bottom of that ladder flying, or whose lower rungs are, even as you read this, rotting away unseen. And any change at the business end of the ladder such as the collapse of the Net Book Agreement, your publisher going into receivership along with your unpaid advance/royalties, a big bookselling chain going out of business, ebooks becoming an alternative to paper books, your publisher being taken over by a bigger publisher who promptly makes a clean sweep of your supportive editorial department, or any kind of internal reshuffle that has the same effect, even your lovely agent dying (all except one of which have happened to me, and I consider myself fairly lucky as far as publishing goes), can threaten the author who builds a career on the rungs of someone else's ladder leaning against someone else's wall. Sales and marketing people are more likely to build their careers on things like The Tipping Point which, if you are planning to get to the top of your game by using a ladder leaning against the sales and marketing department's wall, sounds to me like an accident waiting to happen.

So how can you protect yourself?

Once you've mastered the basics, writing fiction seems more of a circular path to me than a ladder. An author goes through the same stages for every new book, getting better at each stage and more experienced as they write more books. What happens after that depends on your chosen route to publication, but the truth is nobody can control book sales - you can lead readers to the book, yes, but you can't make them read it.

How you think about something affects how you approach it, so if you can't change a thing (such as book sales, or any of the potential career-killers mentioned above) then at least you can change your attitude to the thing. That's why for my own sanity I've tossed out the ladder image and now view my author career as a spiral path instead.

I like spirals. They are circle-like but always growing. Galaxies come in spirals. Each new book builds on the whole, enclosing and protecting earlier work, rather than leaving it open to outside forces that might suddenly knock the bottom rungs of a ladder out from under you. At the centre of this spiral is whatever feeds your writing... soul, muse, some kind of higher power, whatever you like to call it. There's a unicorn at the centre of mine (don't ask). Writing each new book takes you around the same cycle of creation, but within sight of your previous work, which is no longer abandoned on an inaccessible lower rung of the ladder in order to progress higher. It's possible to reach into the centre of this spiral at any stage if you need to draw on previous experience to feed a new project. And if something knocks you off balance while you're working on the new thing, then you always have something within reach to remind you that you can do this writing stuff because you've done it several times before.

A Spiral Galaxy
(Image credit: European Space Agency & NASA)
A spiral is difficult to knock down and destroy, because it can't be planted in one place. It's possible to be creatively ambitious with a spiral in the same way you can be ambitious climbing a ladder. But there isn't really a tipping point. Try to tip a spiral, and chances are it will just float away spinning gently. Publishing juggernauts cannot destroy a floating spiral as easily as they can demolish a leaning ladder - they will merely bruise its outer rings leaving the inner core intact.

So where is all this spiralling taking me?

In 2000, my second book Spellfall was published by Chicken House in the UK, and became my first title to be published in the US. My American publisher Scholastic flew us to San Francisco to launch the book at the American Libraries Association conference, and the book did well enough to enjoy a re-issue in the UK in 2007 before finally going out of print in 2010. With rights reverted, Spellfall became my first ebook project. The story has not changed much over the years - I removed one offensive word for the ebook edition - but it has worn several covers in its life, prompting last autumn's blog post here on Author's Electric:

2014 - Covering Spellfall

It's now 2015, and this summer I finally wrote a sequel to the book, which I have proposed to the original publisher as part of a possible trilogy. A few years ago, teetering on my ladder, this sequel might never have been written because I was too afraid of it not being published and wasting all that work. But of course creative work is never wasted. Having restructured my ladder into a spiral floating in the creative ocean, I now feel much freer to follow my muse and yet - strangely - more in control of my career.

So what shape does your creative career take? Are you a ladder person or a free-floating spiral? Or another shape entirely? Have you ever changed shapes and where did that take you?

original 2000 cover -
still my favourite!
In the spirit of seasons and cycles, Spellfall is on special offer for Halloween. Until 31st October you can download the Kindle version for only 99c/99p:


See more of Katherine's books at


Dennis Hamley said…
Katherine, that really is the best account of a process I too have experienced,though mine started a quarter of a century before yours and ended round about when you were getting going! The unstable ladder which we mistakenly believe will bear our weight for ever is a perfect metaphor. So is the spiral. It expresses the feelings I have - more, I hope balanced, certainly more reflective and philosophical. Yes, I am free-floating now and I like it. I miss the discipline of contracts to be fulfilled, but I don't miss the stress fulfilling them could cause and I have probably become a little too leisurely for comfort, so projects important to me keep stalling when something else turns up. But it means I can still have ambitions in writing which are new and different and their fulfilment is on my terms, not theirs any more.
Mari Biella said…
Loved this post, Katherine. I've often felt that a spiral or web image is more suited to any pursuit that is, in essence, creative. Unfortunately, and because we live in a world where linear thinking is more widespread, it can be hard to avoid seeing it as a straight line, or a ladder we have to climb up. But, and as you say, the idea of teetering at the top of a rickety old ladder doesn't really appeal that much!
Nick Green said…
The term 'publishable' is a vague and slippery one. It should never be confused with 'good'. Sometimes the categories overlap purely by accident.

In all but exceptional cases, when a publisher wants to publish a book, they are saying one thing only: I believe this book can support our current business strategy. That's not quite the same thing as believing this book will itself make a profit - many don't - but what they are saying is that this author is expected to be profitable in the long term.

If the early signs don't indicate this - maybe the first book doesn't sell quite enough, or the author writes too slowly to be commercial, or the trend that prompted the initial book deal passes by - then the author is often dropped. This may in no way reflect the quality of the author's subsequent work.

When you're an aspiring author, you tell yourself, 'If only I can get good enough, I'll be published.' But being good is perhaps only half of it, perhaps even less. In some cases, it's not necessary at all. If you're really AMAZING, then it may be all you need, but few writers are at that level.
In a way, I agree with you. Spirals are better than ladders which are precarious at best. But I really think a career as a writer is a switchback and perhaps that applies to pretty much every self employed sole trader - which is, after all, what we are. I agree with Nick too. Publishable is indeed a vague and slippery term, and once you reach a certain level of competence, really only ever means that your book fits into their current business strategy. I've had the experience of being one of three finalists for an award, being published and selling well - but the publisher wouldn't even look at the next book from me, because their strategy had changed in the intervening period and the kind of thing I was writing no longer fitted in. I have had various agents. One - the best one - died, one was good but only represented me for plays, the other three were not so good and in two of those cases worse than useless. I had thought of them all as 'lovely' at some point. But they weren't at all lovely. They were in hock to - and in awe of - the acquisitions editors they were approaching supposedly on my behalf. If my accountant or web designer had behaved like that, I would have fired them immediately, but because they had that magical 'literary agent' aura attached to them, I stayed for too long, hanging on in hopes of that promised 'jam tomorrow'. In retrospect, I wonder why on earth I did it! At the point where I decided to do without an agent, everything improved exponentially. Partly because I could self publish, thanks to Amazon. But I also think it was because I had genuinely started to think of myself as being 'in business' where before, I had only paid lip service to the concept. For sure I write for love, but since everyone else involved publishes for money, the writer has to take that on board as well. Now I ask the questions, take decisions for myself - make my own mistakes. Even making mistakes - and I do, all the time - is infinitely preferable to finding out that you've been let down by somebody you thought was meant to be on your side!
Enid Richemont said…
Oh I loved this post. It's such an accurate description of what happened to me, and the higher up the ladder you go, the greater the fall. Catherine - I'm really interested in what you said about agents, and would love to talk to you less publicly about this. The spirals image is lovely. I always thought of the process as: up, up and away, but it's not like that, is it?
Oh yes, Catherine's switchback sounds believable too! I am not sure I write for love either - I need to earn a living so am always very anxious about money. But I guess apart from that I write because I've always written and can't imagine not writing. And If I can make some sort of living from it for the next 15 years, I'll be happy.

Yes Nick, 'publishable' definitely changes from year to year and editor to editor! I suppose the best way for an author to define it these days is: 'if this is published X way, will it have a chance of earning me Y amount?' (Y being whatever you need to stay alive while you write your next book.) Publishers probably ask a similar question, except in their case Y is a considerably larger amount!

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