I've Realized Something Big About My Writing Career — and There's an Interesting Take-Away for Aspiring Writers
My work in traditional media was always a cold, hard slog. But every time I embraced new media, I found massive success.
Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about my writing career, which has now lasted 30+ years.
I’ve definitely had my share of writing failures, but I’ve also had a few unqualified successes.
I can think of four big ones:
In 2000, I sold my first novel, Geography Club, to HarperCollins. It was only a paltry $5000 advance, but when the book was released in 2003, it was a big hit right from the start. It ended up selling 100,000+ copies, was adapted as a feature film, and inspired eight more books. It was also very buzzy and influential — the start of a huge wave of popular LGBTQ YA novels from mainstream publishers.
In 2004, some friends and I co-founded a website, AfterElton.com, which covered gay and bi men in popular entertainment. Before long, we were massive, with over a million unique monthly visitors; together with our sister website, AfterEllen.com, we were the largest network of LGBTQ sites on the internet. Eventually, all the websites were sold to Viacom/MTV in a multi-million-dollar deal, which made us even more influential. We soon had top access to figures throughout the entertainment industry — people like J.J. Abrams, who we actively pressed to finally add gay characters to the Star Trek universe. Two years later, he did.
In 2013, a friend suggested that I should try this new thing called “self-publishing,” and on a lark, I did it, reprinting two older, out-of-print books and also releasing one new original title. They were such big successes that I ended up self-publishing seven more reprints or original books, and they’ve made me much more money in royalties than I’d ever made in traditional publishing (except maybe from Geography Club).
In 2021, Michael and I wrote a memoir about our lives as “digital nomads,” but no publishers were interested, so we started a “Substack” e-newsletter about our travels, Brent and Michael Are Going Places, and within a year, it was earning us far more money that we probably would have made had our memoir been picked up by a traditional publisher.
First, let me be very clear: before, during, and after these four big successes, I had a ridiculous amount of rejection and failure — all of which is documented at great length on my website, and also in this newsletter, which I am specifically using to tell the whole truth about my writing career.
But thinking back over my four “successes,” I recently had a big epiphany.
I’ve spent the vast majority of my writing career working in “old” media: writing books for traditional New York publishing, and writing screenplays for the Hollywood movie-making system.
But despite selling ten novels to traditional publishers, and having had more than ten screenplays optioned by various Hollywood producers, my only real break-out “traditional” success was that first novel of mine, Geography Club.
Meanwhile, I’ve written for “new” media only sporadically — and usually very, very reluctantly. With both AfterElton.com and my self-published books, I had to be dragged kicking and screaming into those projects. I was always much more focused on and excited about my mainstream novels and screenplays.
And yet the three times I did embrace a new media or medium — with AfterElton.com and self-publishing, and also with Michael’s and my travel e-newsletter — I found really big success almost right away.
Now it’s worth noting that with all three of these successes, I got in with these new media fairly early on, right when the new platform or technology was exploding in popularity. For instance, we founded AfterElton.com right as the world was deciding that “content websites” were going to be the Next Big Thing — that in the future, this was how advertisements would be delivered to consumers. In retrospect, it’s not really surprising that corporations were suddenly throwing massive amounts of money around, buying up all the most promising websites.
By 2007, social media had entered the scene, and Google, Facebook, and Amazon quickly figured out how to sell niche-targeted ads, and content websites immediately lost almost all of their value.
In short, vibrant, fresh “new” media can become tired, irrelevant “old” media in a shockingly short amount of time, especially these days. In new media, timing is everything.
But even so, in retrospect, the difference in my working in rising media versus old media seems absolutely striking to me. In fact, it’s as different as night and day.
When I was working in old media — in New York publishing or Hollywood movie-making — it was always a cold, hard slog. The barrier to entry was ridiculously high, and so was the extreme skepticism, even hostility, of every gatekeeper I encountered.
Until very recently, I assumed I wasn’t having more success because I just wasn’t a very good writer. Clearly, others were more talented and harder-working.
But now looking back, I see I was somehow talented and hard-working enough to find big success in new media — virtually every time I tried it.
Which has me wondering if maybe my problem was less my lack of talent or hard work, and more simply that I was trying to break into very established industries that were either contracting (in the case of New York publishing) or where acting very conservatively and then later also contracting (in the case of Hollywood movie-making).
Yes, there was still big money in those legacy industries, but almost all of it was going to established players. And the people involved, perhaps realizing that the pie was shrinking, were maybe even more fiercely protective than before of their piece of that pie.
But there was also lots of money in the new and rising media. And all of that money was being made by new players — by definition. After all, everyone was new!
On some level, I think I knew all this, but at the time, I was confused and intimidated by these new media — and I didn’t want to take the time to figure out the unfamiliar technologies and the weird new social rules. Hadn’t I already done enough Goddamn networking?
Plus, I assumed the older systems worked well in identifying and nurturing new talent — that I would “get my due” eventually.
Now I know that the pre-existing media systems are currently terrible at identifying and nurturing new talent. And now I also see more clearly that if I didn’t know the new social mores of some rising media, no one else knew them either, including established writers, which could have given me a huge advantage.
Even now, I still haven’t given up on traditional media completely. Indeed, I have a couple of movie projects in the works that, if they really get made, seem like they’ll be the Culmination of All My Writing Dreams. There’s still cultural legitimacy in legacy media, and I’m not ready to walk away from those opportunities just yet.
But, well, writers also need to eat, and there’s more than one way to tell a story or gain an audience.
Also, that cultural legitimacy I somehow still crave? It’s decreasing by the hour. Do younger generations give a shit if a book is traditionally or self-published? And, sure, I’d love to be nominated for a screenwriting Oscar, but if I had to choose, wouldn’t I rather have a large and profitable video platform rather than a movie-sale to some streaming service that ends up burying my project after a week?
Let’s face it: what impresses most people is the audience-reach and impact — and, of course, the money. And, well, that’s kinda what I care about too.
Looking back, I truly wish I hadn’t been so bullheaded — and probably also so snobby and elitist — about media and mediums that didn’t fit my preconceived notions of “success.”
And so, this is my advice to younger readers: open yourself up to new experiences — not just in terms of story. Do it in terms of media and platform too.
I think my writing career would be a whole more successful and satisfying if I had.
Brent Hartinger is a screenwriter and author. Check out his other newsletter about his travels at BrentAndMichaelAreGoingPlaces.com.