The Other Job of an Author

I was watching an interview with R.A. Salvatore. To be honest, I’m not a huge fan of his writing. However, he is successful, he sounds like a great guy, and at the very least he’s wise. I don’t like horror, but I still am glued to anything Stephen King says. You don’t need the author that has you stuck to the pages to find an author who can give sound advice.

Salvatore was asked once what the best college degree would be for a writer. The response left me puzzled.



Why engineering? Maybe if you wanted to write about architecture? Either way, there was a lot of confusion.

You can’t write when hungry.

Bring home the bacon! (GotCredit (c) 2015)

In this age of self-publishing, if that’s the path you will be taking, it also costs money to make money. You are your sole investor. It’s $200 for an editor on a novel, often times more, rarely less. Even more rarely if you want quality.

An artist is at least $300 for the cover art. Sure you can do the layout. Of course you can go with stock photos that look immensely generic and someone else may have used. However, don’t you want something original? Something tailored specifically to your book? It just looks better.

Then there are book fairs, conventions, writer friend hangouts, and buying enough books up front so you can sell them at different events. This isn’t cheap. Don’t even get me started on the investment in marketing.

Guess what you can’t do if you’re a starving artist? Any of this. You’ll perpetuate the starving part and art will be a miserable endeavor for you. I have friends in this boat. They can’t sell out. Getting a job outside writing will nullify their dreams (marketing, guys, you are all marketers of some sort).

I sell restaurant equipment. This is what I am known for. I sell restaurant equipment and go on mission trips. I work about 50 hours a week. Fortunately in outside sales there’s a little fudge room. I am struck by my muse and 4:30 and nothing is happening? As long as I get caught up on emails before 8 am the next morning, I’m good. I’ve gone on a writing rampage to answer emails at 1 am.

However, this job is my literary life blood. With it I was able to go to a convention in Utah where I learned, networked, and met a friend I’d known online for around three years. I was able to buy original cover art which will eventually become metal bookmarks. And marketing. I so hate marketing.

All of this was because during the day I sell restaurant equipment. I work a normal job. One writer I met in Utah was a lawyer. His hours were significantly less forgiving than my own and he had a family.

The world works on money, and money from a primary source makes it easy to fund the writing (or drawing, painting, sculpting, etc.).

The short of it? The whole Bohemian thing is really cute. Now get a job.

Write, but Don’t Write for the Money

2c9cb67So, 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.

tumblr_lv4ndj59en1qi5zdvPublishers 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).

1090078Second, 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.

Sunday Unpost Part 2

Well, this is turning out to be a very expensive month for me. Not because of my computer (though paying for that is certainly part of it), but some… well, we’ll say some other things have come up and leave it at that. So, unfortunately I am still unable to upload any of the absolutely fantabulistic pictures that I’ve dredged up in my many harrowing expeditions into the depths of the internet. I do have a question for you to consider though: why is it that no matter what you type into the google image search engine, at least three pictures of either naked or almost naked women appear in the search results? I don’t know that I really need an answer, I think I can probably figure it out for myself. Still though… New York Homeless? Really Google?

What Should a Fantasy Economy Look Like?

Stack Of CashMost of us don’t know a lot about money. We might know how to spend money, we might even be able to handle our own finances well (… well, you might: I kind of suck at it), but I find relatively few authors who double as economists and really understand how money works in the broad strokes. This is true for modern authors as well as for fantasy and science fiction authors. However, modern authors have the advantage of never having to create their own economic systems… fantasy and science fiction authors don’t. So, one question that you need to answer in your writing is: How does money work?

There are a lot of lesser questions involved in this, and I’m probably going to take a few posts to treat them, or at least the one’s that I actually understand. However, the single most important question, and the question that most of us would never think to ask (I actually just realized this myself… I’ve been listening to a course on Chinese history that deals heavily with their economics), is: how do the people of your world think about money?

turkey_market_goodsGenerally there are two ways that a culture conceives of money. Either money is an abstract entity that does not necessarily have a physical existence (the American economy is a good example of this), or money is tied directly to some physical product. Steven Erikson and George R.R. Martin give us good examples of each of these concepts in a fantasy setting in the Malazan Book of the Fallen series (Midnight Tides  and following) and the Song of Ice and Fire series.

Until fairly recently (historically speaking up until the past two hundred years or so) money has generally been thought of as physical wealth. For instance, trade was done in goods (i.e. gold, silver, food-stuffs, etc), and bartering was fairly common. While many nations had ‘money’ it was often restricted to mercantile classes, and other population groups would trade in goods (essentially a barter system). Even government taxes where historically paid in goods (for example, China didn’t begin collecting taxes in money until the 14th-15th century, and even then taxes were paid in silver). Thus wealth was an inherently physical entity. This physicality of wealth placed certain controls on how property changed hands (for instance, you couldn’t sell 100 bushels of wheat if you couldn’t transport 100 bushels of wheat), and on how money moved (The dominant currencies in China were silver and copper, although they did experiment with paper money in the 11th and again in the 15th centuries, but there was only so much silver and copper available, and thus wealth was limited). The concepts of debt and credit existed, but they did not dominate the civilizations, they were a relatively minor part of the economic system.

(Photo Credit)
(Photo Credit)

Martin effectively expresses this kind of system in his Song of Ice and Fire series especially well in the debt of the crown to the Lannisters. The debt of the crown is measured physically, and, because it is essentially unpayable, the Lannisters are able to use that physical debt to manipulate the crown.

Many modern economies have an abstract concept of wealth. Money is not an inherently physical entity, and thus spending and value also become abstract. Instead of directly selling goods or services the majority of people are employed by large corporate entities that pay a set wage and demand varying services in exchange. Both the wage and the services demanded are variable, but they are no longer truly dependent on one another. The abstract concept of wealth also means that debt and credit take on a much greater place in society. Debt becomes expected, instead of an extreme, and the amount of debt, and the manner in which it is handled, determines how much credit an individual is allowed. The more debt you have, the less credit is available, and the worse you handle the debt you do have, the less credit is available. This is important because credit becomes the primary source of purchasing power in an abstract economy. Instead of physical goods and wealth, an amount of credit is afforded to an individual depending on what how the individual can be expected to handle the debt that the individual accrues.

Erikson effectively embodies this abstract notion of wealth in his Letherii empire. By giving the Letherii empire an abstract concept of wealth, Erikson is able to build a believable society built on the concept of debt and credit in a fantasy setting. This is quite an achievement, but it also helps the reader to understand the importance of how we think about money in the first place, and of how we then act on those thought.

For Love or Money

So, I've never seen this movie...but it has a really young Michael J. Fox in it...and the right title!

I recently attempted to write a science fiction story – something of a mistake.  Not that writing science fiction is bad, but that I was attempting to write the story for the sole purpose of entering a contest.  So, the question it comes down to is ‘Do I write for love or for money?’

I would love to make money from my writing.  I have made a little, but only a little.  However, the question of import is: am I willing, or capable, of forcing out a decent story just to earn a buck and some praise?  The answer that I have come to is no, I’m not.  Simply put, I can write the stories I want to write, the ones that matter to me, and I think that I can write them reasonably well, but I can’t write a story that I don’t care about.  I learned that through this experiment.

Writing always becomes work – eventually.  Even when you care deeply about a story there are times when you just don’t feel like writing, times when you have to sit down and force yourself to figure out what comes next, times when you trudge through a section of the story that you just aren’t that interested in.  If you give up when you get to these points, then you never finish your story and you never get to tell the parts you do love.

I'm going to have to say: Love.

However, if there isn’t any part of the story that you’re in love with, then you have to ask yourself if you should be telling that story in the first place.  This is the problem I ran into.  I came up with a character that I thought was interesting, and a fairly generic story that I thought would appeal, but I didn’t care about any of it.  There wasn’t anything that truly captured my imagination, or settled in my heart and compelled me to keep writing.  Finally I got to the point where I was forcing out everything, and I realized that even I didn’t think it was any good.  Again, every author is going to have moments when he thinks his writing is crap.  I have days where I read some of my best work and can’t stand it.  Then, I have days when I read my worst work and think its amazing.  You shouldn’t believe yourself on either of those days.

I know there are some people out there that write for money.  They can force out a story out even when they have no particular care for it.  Maybe someday I’ll get there.  It would be a nice place to stay for a while, but I’m not there yet.  So my advice – the purpose of my post: As my mother always tells me, ‘The best authors have stories they have to tell.’  If I am not willing to write for nothing, for the love, then I need to give up and walk away.