The single most popular post I’ve written here is Ten Brutally Brutal Writing Commandments. It’s the one that brings in the most daily traffic, and I still think it represents my thinking on writing pretty accurately.
This is a follow-up post from Caleb J Ross, one of my great writing friends, whose novel Stranger Will I’ll be re-releasing in a bigger-badder version through Perfect Edge this month now that his old publisher closed down.
Nobody gives a fuck that you wrote something.
Every internet-savvy person writes enough text messages, emails, blog posts, or forum messages to fill out multiple books per year. Producing, in-and-of-itself, is not an accomplishment worthy of praise and monetary reward. The truth is nobody but your therapist gives a fuck that you wrote something. And in your therapist’s case, she’s getting paid to feign interest in your output.
Let’s dissect a few of the most common assumptions made by new writers.
Soul Destroying Assumption #1: “People need to read my book”
Most new writers have delusions about how successful they will become as published authors. “Sure, the odds of professional success to the level of sustaining a median lifestyle are terrible. But,” says the naive optimist, “my book is something that people need to read.”
Who the fuck cares? To make a living as an author, you have to forget what you think people need to read and instead focus on what people want to read. This basic rule of economics is precisely why Author is not my primary job title. I write what I want to read. When other people like it, I’m ecstatic. I feel like I’ve found a like-minded community. I’m connecting. All good things. But none of these things are commercially viable on the small scale. I’ve learned this hard lesson, and you should too.
Soul Destroying Assumption #2: “Everyone will love my book”
Writing a book is easy. Publishing a book is easy. When the production of a product is easy, gaining market share (ie, competing against the trillions of other authors out there) becomes incredibly hard. “But everyone,” you argue, “is going to love my book.”
If everyone loved every book ever written, consumers would gladly pay $20 for an ebook and Borders would still exist. The truth is the market simply cannot support every book.
The back-of-the-napkin math
I know that the circumstantial observations I’ve noted above are not going prevent most writers from assuming themselves as the exception. After all, people still buy lottery tickets. So let’s delve into some math.
For an author to make $50K/year, s/he would have to sell 25,000 books annually (10% royalties of a $20 cover price, no advance), using a traditional publishing model. It is commonly stated that a traditionally published book sells around 1,000 copies during its LIFETIME.
For self-publishing, the numbers still aren’t very good. Let’s ignore for now the learning curve and additional expense inherent in self-publishing (hiring editors, cover artists, and printers). If selling your book on Kindle exclusively, at say, $9.99 (which is quite high in my opinion, but I’m trying to paint a rosy picture here), the author would have to sell 7,153 copies annually ($6.99 royalty per book). The average self-published book sells 100-150 copies during its LIFETIME.
The very act of authoring a book is not special. The author, in making a conscious effort to write professionally, is essentially saying “I just invented new blood-borne disease. Who wants it? WHAT?! Nobody wants it?”
Verdict: a substantially small percentage of people give a fuck that you wrote a book.
Soul Destroying Assumption #3: “I’ll be set for life if I can write just one good book”
I’ll give you points for optimism. But as you’ll learn, you can’t feed a family with points.
Think of the publishing sales structure like a grocery store sales structure where the grocery story is equivalent to a bookstore. You approach the canned good aisle. Hundreds of varieties of cans (books) line the shelves. Del Monte (A publisher) knows that it cannot viably support itself by canning and selling only peaches (only romance fiction). So, they produce many different foods (genres), in hopes of integrating themselves into every meal a person eats. You know where the author is in this model? In the fields, picking the peaches, pears, and pineapples to fill the cans.
The publisher has the financial benefit of multiple revenue streams to keep itself alive. If Del Monte only packaged and sold peaches picked by a single picker somewhere in California they wouldn’t survive. Likewise, an author who wants to pick peaches for a single season and be financially set for life is banking on some unrealistically amazing peaches (Nobel Prize winning book).
Writing begins with the message, not with the medium
Writing a novel must be approached as a component to overall personal gratification, not unlike other selfish activities like eating donuts, taking the trash to the curb in the winter without wearing shoes, and masturbation.
The inherent difficulty is that what constitutes personal gratification literally prevents the act from being gratifying to anyone else. But this is the risk we take as authors.
My advice: determine early in your career what kind of books (yes, plural) you want to write.
- If your primary goal is to be financially sound, then write what sells the most: currently this is fast-paced, young adult, hard-genre fiction or cookbooks.
- If your primary goal is to write life-changing literature, then do just that, but make sure you’re not burning any day job bridges.
- If your primary goal is to be financially sound and write life-changing literature, then get a different primary goal. You might luck out and win the lottery, but counting on a lottery win is stupid.