I love writing and plan to have a long, rewarding career as an author. But one of the hardest things to understand and accommodate with a creative career versus almost any other field is the lack of a well defined ladder.
In most fields, you can work your way to the top of the career ladder. As you gain knowledge, expertise, and experience, you climb the rungs, painful rung by painful rung. With luck and perseverance, you can get to the top. "Putting the time in" often gaurantees you'll at least continue to have a job, if not get promotions.
Creative careers, on the other hand, are quite different. While you do gain expertise as you write, you can’t really “work your way up” in the traditional sense of “putting your time in.” Each manuscript stands alone. Each book must sell itself, and you can’t assume your experience and years invested will guarantee a sale.
I’ll never forget an email I read a while back. An author had published several e-books with smaller companies and after a few years, got a contract with one of the smaller New York publishing houses. She thought she “had it made at last to the big time in NY” and could use that as a stepping stone to publication with a large, well-known publishing house. She was disappointed to find that getting her “toe in the door” of the smaller New York house did not guarantee that she would now be able to find an agent and an open door to a “big house”.
What she didn’t realize was that there is no “career path” in the traditional sense. To a large degree, if you are a new author or mid-list author who has not broken into the New York Times Bestsellers list, yet, every single manuscript stands on its own merits. And let's say you have "made it" to a big-time NY publisher and you’ve got a multi-book contract, well, each book of that contract is still treated independently. Each manuscript has to be as good as, or better, than the previous.
You can never relax and assume you’ve finally “learned your job”. You can never rest on your laurels.
In a sense, each manuscript you submit is precisely like your first manuscript. It has to be the best work you’ve ever produced, and it has to have that mysterious “something” that makes people want to buy and read it.
Every submission is a first submission.
The only thing that really changes is the submission process. Once you get an agent and reach that “certain level,” you can bypass the “over the transom” submission process. You can submit an outline, perhaps, or a proposal before you write the book. Which is more of a benefit than it sounds, because it means you can avoid spending a year writing a manuscript that no one subsequently wants because even the basic concept stinks. If the concept is "pre-approved" then you know going into it that an editor is at least interested in the story. If you then write the best book you can, you have a higher probability of selling it.
But nothing is assured, and that is the most difficult lesson to learn.
The reality is: every book is a new book on a new day and you cannot trade on past sales to sell future works.
Scary, isn’t it?