Advice to Myself (and Others) About The Great Pause

Dear creative folks (and the people who love and/or buy their work):

Like many of you, I am looking at our current situation — which it seems were are moving toward calling The Great Pause — and wondering what this means, both in the long and short terms, for our careers and livelihoods. This is a perfectly reasonable concern! We should be having it! Because otherwise we will have to go back to actual jobs, which to be clear, are also kind of up in the air during The Great Pause. The Great Pause is like that.

The actual answer to what The Great Pause means for creatives is: Nobody knows. Because at the moment no one knows anything, except that staying at home and washing your hands so as not to overwhelm the medical system is a really excellent idea. Nevertheless, I have been thinking about the current moment a lot. Given where we are at the moment and where it seems reasonable (to me) to project where we are going, I have formulated a plan for myself, regarding expectations for the immediate future, and for the slightly longer term. I will share them with you now. Hopefully you find these points useful.

1. I’m grading 2020 on one hell of a curve. 

As many of you know, I have a new book, The Last Emperox, coming out in (checks watch) three weeks. It’s a very good book! With great reviews! And it’s the conclusion of an award-winning, best-selling series! With popular characters that people like! Which is in development for TV! If any book is positioned to do pretty well, it would be this one.

And it might! Still! Also, people are now shut up in their homes and away from their jobs, if they still have them, which rather suddenly a lot of people do not. My book tour, which is the way I usually promote my new work, has been cancelled because it’s not safe for me or my readers to meet up right now. Bookstores are still out there but a lot of them are closed for the duration. The economy is crashing and people are prioritizing where their money goes. And so, while a good book is in fact a really excellent way for people to pass time whilst in self-isolation, I understand that people, and this is an understatement, have a lot on their minds right about now. It’s possible that getting my book when it comes out may not be the same priority that it might have been even a month ago.

Nor am I the only author or creative in this position — a lot of us have work scheduled for release this year that now we’re looking at and wondering whether the audience will be there for it. Authors and musicians, at least, can get their work out; people who work in film, television or theater (as examples) are finding their work delayed, postponed or even dropped outright. It’s a mess, and it’s a mess that none of us have control over.

I want The Last Emperox to be a financial success out of the gate — I want people to find it and read it and love it. I also realize that, more than in any other year, that success is so very not up to me anymore. If the book doesn’t do what I hoped it would do in terms of sales, my official response is going to be to throw my hands up in the air and say, “It was 2020, baby.” And then watch every single creative I know nod and get a rueful look on their face. Because, man, 2020. You remember how that was. And if, in fact, Emperox does do just fine — and it might! Still! — then I’m going to be especially happy. Because, man, 2020.

So, yeah, creative folks: Don’t beat yourself up this year about how your work does, or doesn’t, do. This is nothing we could have figured into our plans. Do what you can to let people know your work is there, and be happy for the people who find it. But this year is not like other years. Be kind to yourself (and your work) when you think about it.

2. It’s going to take time to get to somewhere like we were before. 

Probably. Maybe we’ll get lucky and flatten that curve and navigate the economic fallout and come out of this all in six months not really worse for wear, and go back to something close to where we were in January. But, you know, I wouldn’t plan for that. I would plan for us dealing with this for the entire rest of the year and then spending a few years with the fallout, retrenching and then rebuilding. I’m assuming a recession of 2008 proportions.

Nor do I think we’ll get back exactly to where we were before — things are going to change and the models of how we sell and distribute and share things will likely be something other than what they are now. Mind you, “things will change and be different” is a statement that was going to be accurate anyway; a decade ago the landscape of my book sales was very different than it is now. Audiobooks came up, Borders bookstores went down, and there was a big fight over what the cost of an ebook should be. What I mean here is that the changes now are likely to come faster, because the economic situation we’re in is going to be that much more volatile. What’s going to come out of it will be good for some, less good for others, and who will be in those respective camps, we don’t yet know.

But no matter what, I’ll be working on the assumption that for the next couple of years, at least, people will be digging out from the economic mess of 2020. That’s going to affect the new books that I have coming out in the next couple of years — and also my backlist, which is my true economic engine. I expect my publisher (Tor in the US/Canada, but others elsewhere) are going to make adjustments to deal with this new era. Same with Audible, who handles my audiobooks. I think I’m going to be fine, but I also am, shall we say, tempering financial expectations for the next couple of years, which is going to have an influence on my how I plan for my life in that period. Which means, among other things —

3. Time for a thorough vetting of expenses.

I’ve always considered myself a thrifty sort of person who has an eye on the bottom line of things, and who doesn’t live extravagantly, given his income. However, having just looked over our taxes for the year prior to handing them over to our accountant, I can say that the variance between my self-image and my actual expenditures is… wider than perhaps it should be, let me put it that way. So this enforced downtime at the Scalzi Compound will not go idly by; one of my tasks for the next couple of weeks is to go through our finances and to do a triage of things we need, things we don’t need but are still willing to pay for, and things that it’s time to drop entirely.

Among those things in the latter category: Recurring online subscriptions, which as it turns out really pile up when you’re not paying attention. I currently subscribe to four separate music services, for example, which is, uhhhh, probably at least two too many. There are other services which I will have to give hard consideration about their usefulness in this era: We have Dish Network but watch streaming services rather more, so the question becomes whether to ditch Dish or at the very least cut back on the package, which features probably 280 more channels than we ever actually watch.

Other things: Last year’s biggest expenditure by far was travel. 2020 has cut into that considerably in any event by making us all stay at home for a currently indefinite period. Even after that stay is lifted we plan on keeping closer to home for the next couple of years. My MINI is ten years old next year so I’ve been thinking about whether it was time to move on from it; now I think I’ll keep it going for a while longer. I’ve been planning to make a music studio in my basement; in the short term I’ll work on getting better on the guitar I already have.

I don’t have any intention of withdrawing from the economy entirely. I will still buy and subscribe to things. But inasmuch as I do expect things to be economically variable the next couple of years at least, it makes sense to do an audit of what I (and we) spend and to bring those expenditures to a sensible level.

With that said:

4. Also time to support creatives and local businesses (more than I already am).

At least some of the savings from above will be going into the pockets of the creative people whose work I admire, and the local business that are feeling the pinch from this slow-down. In both cases, these groups are getting hit hard by this moment, and can use support. In the latter case in particular, if I don’t support them now, they might not be around to support later, and there’s no guarantee anything will spring up to replace them.

I want to be clear that on some level, as someone who grew up poor, and as someone who (factually or otherwise) sees himself as prudent with money, my initial impulse to current events is to listen to the not-so-little voice in my head which is incessantly screaming HOARD ALL THE MONIES FOR VERILY THESE ARE THE END TIMES. I’m gonna hoard some of it. But honestly, if I won’t support my local business, and the creatives whose work I like, a) who will, b) how can I expect anyone to support me and my work? And in any event, putting money into nearby businesses is an investment in the local economy, and my neighbors. Putting money into creatives means maybe I’ll get more stuff from them in the future. Again, an investment. It makes sense.

5. Try different things.

When the global economic collapse of 2008 hit, I was on, shall we say, a pause from publishing novels, out of contract and not actively pursuing one. Zoe’s Tale was published in 2008, and it wasn’t until 2011 that Fuzzy Nation came out. In the meantime, I: Wrote a novel for fun, with no immediate intention of selling it (Fuzzy); wrote a novella that was not representative of my previous work (The God Engines); edited and contributed to a shared world anthology (Metatropolis); and worked as a creative consultant on a television series (Stargate Universe). I also worked on a video game during this time, which never came out, but which was fun to be a part of. Of all of these things, the only thing I had done before was the novel-writing. Everything else was new and worth trying, one, to see if I had any facility for it, and two, to see if I could make any money from it.

I’m in a different place here in 2020 than I was in 2008 (I have a long-term contract, for one), but during this time I’m still going to try some new and different things, both to find out if I might be good at them, and also (although a lower priority, for now) to see if I might be able to make money from them. As I noted earlier, things won’t go back to exactly the way they were before, so it makes sense to me to be using this time to look at other things and see what I think of them. They could pan out! Even if they don’t, I’ll have learned things, not least about myself. It won’t be wasted time.

6. Don’t panic.

Right now is not a great time — we’re all isolated, afraid of getting sick with something that can really mess us up, worried about our financial futures and careers. Immediately after this time is not likely to be a great time, either; we’ll be digging out. I think it’s totally valid to be upset, and angry, and afraid, and bored and all those other not great things. Pretending not to be those things will often make them worse to deal with later. It’s useful to acknowledge all of these things that many if not most of us are feeling, and will continue feeling in the immediate future.

I do think there’s a difference between feeling all these things, and even feeling anxiety about them, and panicking about them. Mind you, it’s easy to say “don’t panic,” however, and harder to do, especially if there are accompanying personal life and/or mental health issues that are overlaying everything else that’s going on now. I am a huge supporter of addressing mental and personal issues, through therapy or medication or both. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, ask for help, however you can and in whatever way is best for you.

For me, however, the reason I’ve been thinking about all this stuff is so that I can put structure to it, and plan, and prepare mentally and financially for what I think is likely to happen next, without undue panic. That’s useful to me, and I think it’ll be useful for other people too. Maybe also you. This won’t be forever, and when we’re coming out of it, the planning and preparing we do now will help. This has been my experience so far. I think it’ll help in the future as well.