So, my fiancee just beat me horribly at a game of monopoly… seriously, my luck in this game was just plain pathetic… and I might have made a bad trade call that effectively ended the game… still, with better luck I could definitely have pulled it out. Anyway, I was low on money, and even mortgaging my properties wasn’t going to pull me out of the hole I was in. A lot of us have been at this point in real life as well. I know I have… honestly, most of my friends are tired of hearing my story about the time I could only afford to eat a can of green beans (which I got for free) a day. It was rough, and when things are rough it’s easy to put your faith in stories. As writers, most of us have heard about how J.K. Rowling was living on the British welfare system until the first Harry Potter novel brought money flowing in, or we hear about some self-published author who’s making a living wage off of one book that sells for $.99 a copy. Now, I’m sure that there’s more to each of these stories than we often think. I have no doubt that a lot of sweat, tears, and yes, possibly even blood went into the books that sent these author’s into the literary stratosphere. However, even if you are willing to put in the work, which most of us generally aren’t, and have the skill, which most of us probably don’t, something similar still probably won’t happen to you.
Consider that Rowling is a truly excellent writer. Of course, there are plenty of published author’s whose works I pick up and the first thing I think is ‘I can write better than this.’ This is the first lie that we tell ourselves – 1) even if it isn’t a very good author, if I’m honest I can probably write as well as that author, but maybe not better. We all tend to exaggerate our own skill, especially when comparing it to someone we don’t like reading very much. The second lie we tell ourselves is ‘this will happen to me.’ Note, we often phrase this as ‘this could happen to me.’ However, I have to admit that when I decided to self-publish my first book I did a lot of research. I knew the stories of several self-published authors whose work took off, but I also knew that most self-published books were lucky to sell ten copies. Even though I knew that, there was a little part of me that said, ‘I’ll be the exception.’ My book will sell, people will love it, a publisher will find out about it and beg to give me a huge contract to write a series, and soon stickers will be put on my books that read ‘2 Million Copies Sold’… …my book sold about a hundred and thirty copies, give or take ten.
Publishers receive tens of thousands of manucripts a year, and even with an agent (and your chances of getting an agent for a first novel aren’t incredible), you book isn’t likely to get published. Further, even if it does, most works of fiction don’t stay on the shelves for very long. The books that stay on the shelves are the ones that sell. Often the ones that sell are the ones that 1) are written by household names or cult favorites, and 2) the ones that are advertised out the wazoo and receive stellar reviews from influential critics. So, even if you do get a book published, don’t expect to make a living off of it. I met an author a couple of years ago who was a good writer… he’d written over 150 books and most of them were out of print. When I met him he was working on two different projects just to keep a reasonable income. On top of this, even if you book does sell fairly well, it’s likely that you’ll never receive royalties that overrun your forward. If you do publish a book the company will generally pay you for the right to publish it and make money off of it up front. I’m told that this is usually about $5000 for new fiction authors. That sounds like a lot, doesn’t it… how long did it take you to write that book? Now consider – most people make over $20,000/year, and you’ll probably never make more than that first $5000 off of your book.
So, with all of these challenges, why would anyone write, much less try to make a living writing? Well, first of all, the majority of authors in the world don’t make a living writing. Most authors have a day job and write because they love it. They don’t expect to live off of their income from writing and this is actually less true now than in the past. Further, most writers who do make a living writing actually write non-stop, and they’re good at it. I remember reading a passage from Terry Goodkind… he pointed out that he generally spends 12-14 hours a day writing. Also, many writers who write for a living are journalists, not fiction authors. Writing magazine articles is a lot different than writing novels. So, as a writer, don’t expect to make a living off of your writing. Keep your day job (at least until you’re making enough to live on).
Second, as I mentioned in a post a few weeks ago, writing is worth it even if you don’t make money. The point of all writing should be, in the words of Aristotle in Poetics, ‘to entertain and to educate.’ If you make a little money along the way, that’s great. However, the best works of fiction are those with a point. Think about Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, Herbert’s Dune, Dante’s Divine Comedy, or Asimov’s I, Robot. Here we have two works of moral philosophy, a work of philosophical theology, a work of theology, and a work of speculative science and philosophy in the guise of fiction. Truly great books have something to say and what the author’s are trying to say is more important than making money. Now, this isn’t to say that we should sacrifice story for message, but it is to say that writing for money masks the real purpose of writing – to say something meaningful to the world.
Third, writing is catharsis. I mentioned this as well a couple of weeks ago. The book I wrote was, honestly, as much for me as for anyone else. I think it’s a worthwhile novel with a worthwhile message, a good story, a strong voice, and an original world. Those who’ve read it seem to agree. However, it also helped me deal with some serious questions I’d had, and with a difficult time in my life. Write for yourself and your message first, money is a bonus.