Many authors in the science fiction, fantasy, and horror genres track their writing progress and provide a summary of it at the end of each year. For instance, John Scalzi, Joe Abercrombie, Tim Waggoner, and Naomi Kanakia provide fairly comprehensive years in review that cover what they wrote and published in 2020. In 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, and 2019, I published posts tracking my progress up to those points in my writing career. Similarly, this post tracks the entirety of my writing career up to and including 2020.
2020 was a much different year for me than most. Ironically, the shutdowns in California associated with the Coronavirus pandemic saved me a three-hour round trip commute five days a week or 612 hours this year since the lockdown began in California on March 20th. In other words, the virus gifted me the equivalent of 25 extra days this year to lose weight (I lost 30 pounds), spend time with family, and write more than I did last year. I don’t mean to diminish the gravity and severity of the pandemic, but it did provide me with more time to do the things I loved. During the same period, I got a new full-time job, a new part-time job as a course facilitator at Stanford’s Executive Education program, launched my first anthology as editor, and got the greenlight to produce a sequel anthology.
But before I go into all that, I feel the need to rant about how 2020 really exposed how woefully inept American leaders have become and how the American media has so utterly beclowned itself that it now can only be legitimately used as a tool for leaders to spread misinformation or for intelligence agencies to root out military targets for assassination.
My apologies in advance.
The Year of Hyperbolic Hypocrisy
From a global perspective, 2020 was the year of hyperbolic hypocrisy. It was surreal watching the media and politicians twisting themselves into pretzels attempting to justify behaviors based on their politics rather than science. Suddenly organizing mass protests became a noble endeavor imperious to criticism, but political rallies for a certain politician were irresponsible virus-spreading events (for the record, I believe both were highly irresponsible, should have been called out as such, but weren’t). At the same time, people were denied the opportunity to say goodbye to their loved ones at funerals.
2020 was also the year of a massive and staggering failure of leadership. I’m not going to go into any detail about how Trump’s bravado and failure to encourage masking behavior was damaging. It was. But contrary to the media narrative, there was plenty of incompetence to go around this year. Several governors initially mandated that COVID patients recover in nursing homes (the top three states in per capita coronavirus fatalities–New Jersey, New York, and Massachusetts–all implemented this mind-bogglingly stupid policy). One in particular, Governor Cuomo, has been lionized by the press for his leadership during the crisis. Had the media had any critical thinking skills, they should have been called him out for making a decision that killed more New Yorkers than Osama bin Ladin. But when your little brother is a reporter at CNN, nepotism has its perks.
In the early days of the Coronavirus pandemic, several US Senators monetized their special access to classified information to avoid losing money in the near-certain coming precipitous drop in the stock market. One of these vile and self-aggrandizing creatures, Senator Kelly Loeffler, is now running for Senator in Georgia, and was cleared of wrong-doing by her co-conspirators in the Senate. How did we get to this point in this country where such egregious wrongdoing gets a pass at the highest levels of government? How is this sustainable?
My state, California, was the first to shut down, presumably so we could flatten the curve and give medical professionals enough time to stock up on critical supplies and acquire more ICUs. So we all did as asked and nine months later have the worst case explosion in the country with ICU capacity at or near zero in many counties. For a country and state with the most expensive healthcare in the world, I want to humbly ask medical administrators: what the hell were you doing for nine months while we were locked down? Why didn’t you use the time you had to acquire enough ICUs? The lack of preparation and planning is all the more egregious when so many doctors and nurses have been risking their lives to save others.
Then there’s my own governor, who’s so trustworthy and honorable that he slept with his best friend’s wife. He spent the year instituting the most stringent COVID guidelines in the country, grinding small businesses into dust and harming the most economically-vulnerable segments of the population, while he himself ignored his own guidelines as he dined at a $350-a-plate minimum restaurant with California Medical Association officials–the very same experts who have been recommending these economically suicidal policies. At the same time, Steve “let them eat cake” Adler, the Mayor of Austin, had the temerity to record a video from his Mexican beach resort not to travel during the Thanksgiving holiday. San Francisco Mayor, London Breed, also attended an event at the French Landry shortly at Governor Newsom did. Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, attended a nail salon when California COVID restrictions had mandated they be shut down.
Then there’s reporting on the coronavirus outbreak. In my opinion, China was entirely responsible for not only failing to stop the spread of the virus, but also in accidentally releasing it. And then after doing so, restricting the export of critical PPE. Now, I can’t prove it, of course, and I know, it has widely been “reported” that the virus likely jumped from bats to pangolins, then to humans via a Chinese wet market. But which explanation better fits Occam’s Razor, the official story or the possibility that a Level 4 bio-containment facility located at the Wuhan Institute of Virology had an accidental breach on a pathogen it was actively working on?
Okay, now that I’ve finished my rant, let’s talk about what I accomplished in 2020.
Key 2020 Accomplishments
2020 marks the tenth year I’ve made a concerted effort to generate income from my writing. During the year, I accomplished the following:
- My first anthology as an editor, Weird World War III, was published by Baen Books in October
- 5 of my stories appeared in print, on the web, on ebook, or in audio for the first time, including:
- “The Pogonip Fog” Galaxy’s Edge, Issue #42 (Arc Manor / Phoenix Pick: January 2020)
- “My Sanctuary of Solitude“, Kasma SF Magazine, (February 8, 2020)
- “Parley“, MYTHIC: A Quarterly Science Fiction & Fantasy Magazine, Issue #13 (Founders House Publishing LLC: June 2020)
- “Santa’s Last Interview“, Bards and Sages Quarterly, Volume 12, Issue 4 (October 2020)
- “The Demon Piper of Holy Hill“, MYTHIC: A Quarterly Science Fiction & Fantasy Magazine, Issue #15 (Founders House Publishing LLC: October 2020)
- 1 of my reprints appearing in print, on ebook, and in audio:
- Making 1 professional-rate sale to Galaxy’s Edge Magazine and another to an upcoming Baen anthology.
- Selling a total of 7 short stories, including 6 new stories and 1 reprint.
- Receiving 4 more short story and anthology reviews for “The Pogonip Fog” (Tangent and SFRevu) and Weird World War III (Analog and Tangent).
- Receiving invitations to submit to a Baen anthology and the Cryptid Crate Project.
- Weird World War IV was greenlit by Baen.
- 4 out of 19 stories in Weird World War III were listed on Tangent Online‘s 2020 Recommended Reading List:
- “Shadow Rook Red” by Brian Trent
- “Deniability” by Eric James Stone
- “No Plan Survives First Contact” by Stephen Lawson
- “Evangeline” by C. L. Kagmi
2020 Accomplishments vs. Objectives
While I certainly made some progress in 2020, I came up short on many of my goals. In an effort to keep myself ruthlessly honest, I’ve coded goals I’ve accomplished in blue, goals I’ve failed to meet in 2020 because of factors beyond my control but are still on track in gray, and goals that I’ve failed to accomplish in red. I’ve also included some commentary to note how close (or how far) I was from realizing each of these goals.
- Write 10 new short stories. Unfortunately, I only wrote 5 short stories this year, but it is up from 3 last year.
- Make at least 5 professional rate sales. I only sold 2 stories this year at a professional rate.
- Sell a story to one of the big three print publications: Analog, Asimov’s, and/or Fantasy and Science Fiction. I keep trying. Still no dice.
- Appear in a “Best of” anthology. “Radix Malorum” appeared in Year’s Best Hardcore Horror: Volume 5.
- Complete my horror novel. I focused much of my time on other things this year. Maybe next year?
- Sell my novel to a major publisher. Still no progress here.
- Do at least one panel and/or podcast. While the Coronavirus pandemic made participating on an in-person panel impossible, I did appear on 17 podcasts and/or radio shows.
- Do an author signing at Between Books in my hometown. I am very happy to report that I did a signing at Between Books in October with T.C. McCarthy for my Weird World War III anthology.
- Publish my second short story collection. I haven’t done this yet, because there is still one story in the anthology that I’d like to sell somewhere else first and another story that’s been sold, but still hasn’t appeared in the publication that purchased it.
- Selling and producing a sequel anthology for Baen. I’m very excited to announce that I’m currently producing Weird World War IV for Baen, the sequel anthology to Weird World War III.
As you can see, I’ve accomplished 4 of my goals this year, am still on track to accomplish another one of them, and have failed to hit the remaining 5. While I can do better, the very discipline of setting these goals kept me focused throughout the year. As such, I will be setting my goals for 2021 at the end of this post, but before I do that, I’d like to cover my annual writing statistics starting with my 2020 writing revenue.
I still continue to make an embarrassingly little amount of money from writing. In fact, my business school classmates will probably look at me crosswise when they see the numbers and wonder why I’m wasting my time.
But you have to start somewhere. And in writing, the barriers to entry are very low. Let’s face it: all you need is a keyboard, a rudimentary understanding of English, and an imagination, and you can submit to most magazines. To stand out among thousands of submissions you have to write something that blows away the competition. Over time, as one establishes oneself, it seems to get a little easier. It just takes a long time getting there.
All that being said, 2020 was the second highest revenue year I’ve ever had. The majority of that revenue can be attributed to the second installment of the advance for my anthology, Weird World War III. However, because of the rates I paid the authors, the anthology must do much better than earn out the advance before I see a dime.
While the revenue numbers above are still low, my revenue growth rate has roughly doubled each year from 2013 to 2015 and tripled in 2016—a marked improvement. Then revenue declined–down 8% in 2017 and down 56% in 2018. In 2019, revenue shot up by 509%, primarily due to a partial advance on a short story anthology. Excluding this advance, my revenue would have been up 23% in 2019. Revenue was down 9% in 2020. Anthology revenue was flat, but short story revenue was down 47%. That said, 2021’s backlog is higher than both 2019 and 2020 revenue, so 2021 is already shaping up to be a great year.
I also find consolation in the fact that I’m literally making money by conjuring stuff out of thin air.
My revenue stream was a bit less diversified in 2020 than it was in 2019 with only 12% of my revenue deriving from short stories vs. 20% in 2019. As always, I’m hoping that a future novel sale will help diversify these revenue sources.
Other Writing Statistics
Since December 2011, I’ve written a total of 66 short stories. By the end of 2020, I sold 48 or 73% of them, and 44 have already been published. If I count the 208,200 words I’ve sold to date, I’ve sold 75% of the 278,500 words I’ve written and sent out for submission. While a 73-75% hit rate seems pretty impressive on the surface, I’ve sent out 2,420 submissions to publishers and have accumulated 2,195 rejections to get there.
I only produced five short stories in 2020, but it was an improvement over the 3 I produced in 2019 and fell far short of my goal of writing 10 new short stories in 2020. That said, I wrote the third highest number of short story words since 2011, so I wasn’t that lazy.
As I noted above, an alternative way of looking at productivity is how many polished words I completed in a year. From that perspective, 2020 was my third most productive short story writing year on record with 33,000 completed words. And given my progress on a 29-31,000 word novella, 2021 is on track to be an even more productive year than 2020.
As I noted above, I sold 7 short stories this year, which is up 40% from my 2019 sales. However, to put that number into perspective, prior to 2016, I’d sold a total of 16 stories in my lifetime. From 2016 to 2020, I’d made another 42 sales, including 32 originals, 1 corporate sale, and 9 reprints. More importantly, 2 of those 2020 sales were at professional rates. While that’s not very impressive, it’s important to note that I only wrote 5 new stories in 2020, 20% of which sold at a professional rate. Also, prior to 2016, I had only 1 professional sale; after 2016, I had 10. As I mentioned above, I have also sold 75% of the words of the stories I’ve ever submitted.
You can’t win if you don’t play, and the more you play, the more you win. For a relatively unknown author, the writing game is one that rewards persistence. There’s also a huge element of luck. Sometimes you have to hit the right editor at the right time with the right story. You can’t do that if you aren’t constantly taking shots on goal. As such, from 2014 to 2016, I’d consistently submitted at least one story a day to various publications. Since my acceptance rate doubled from 2015 to 2016, I sent fewer submissions in 2017 and 2018, primarily so I could spend more time writing than submitting. I continued to follow this strategy in 2019 and 2020, but I had far fewer submissions, mostly because I had written only 8 new short stories over that two-year period.
The writing business isn’t for the faint of heart, and rejection seems to be the only constant. The flip side of making a huge volume of submissions is that you receive a massive number of rejections. While I’ve sold over two-thirds of the stories I’ve written thus far, I’ve collected nearly 2,200 rejections. The good news is I’ve received so many of them I’ve built up enough scar tissue that they hardly bother me anymore. In fact, they only encourage me and spur me on.
The Funnel of Persistence
Putting it all together, I’ve made decent progress since my first short story submission in December 2011. While I’m nowhere near quitting my day job, I’ve made enough progress that I can see light at the end of the tunnel. Below is how the numbers have shaken out thus far for me. As you can see, I’ve sent over 2,400 submissions to various publications to yield a total of 58 sales for 48 original short stories out of a 66-story inventory. But for most, writing isn’t a blitzkrieg, it’s a war of attrition. And it’s a war I’m determined to win.
Looking ahead, there are a number of things I hope to accomplish in 2021, including:
- Write 10 new short stories.
- Make at least 5 professional rate sales.
- Complete and sell a novella to Systema Paradoxa.
- Sell a story to one of the big three print publications: Analog, Asimov’s, and/or Fantasy and Science Fiction.
- Appear in a “Best of” anthology.
- Complete my horror novel.
- Sell my novel to a major publisher.
- Do at least one panel and/or podcast.
- Publish my second short story collection.
- Complete the Weird World War IV anthology for Baen.
There’s a lot on my plate for 2021, but I’m confident that if I continue plugging away, I’ll continue to make progress.
Here’s to a very productive 2021!