Living the Life of a Writer
“I write and sing about whatever I am able to understand and feel. I feel that it is healthier to look out at the world through a window than through a mirror. Otherwise, all you see is yourself and whatever is behind you.” –Bill Withers
Think you’re the next Steven King or Agatha Christie? Have the plans for your 20 room mansion and country estate primed and ready to go? Read this first.
As we’ve stated before, if you want to be rich and famous, study ACTING. If you’ve planned all your life to make your fortune writing conventional books, you might need to think again (unless, of course, you’re Colin Powell, Bill Clinton, or Rupert Murdoch).
Here are the hard cold facts, directly quoted from an article in Publisher’s Weekly:
… in 2004, 950,000 titles out of the 1.2 million tracked by Nielsen Bookscan sold fewer than 99 copies.
Another 200,000 sold fewer than 1,000 copies.
Only 25,000 sold more than 5,000 copies.
The average book in America sells about 500 copies.
Those blockbusters are a minute anomaly: only 10 books sold more than a million copies last year, and fewer than 500 sold more than 100,000.
Stunning. Painful. But it’s the truth. Fortunately, however, if you’re a great writer, you can now publish your work, virtually cost-free, by choosing the e-book route.
In the not-so-distant past, you’d have to make a rather hefty capital investment just to get a 3000-copy-run of a print book, then market, sell, and ship it; now, you can go from manuscript to book to reader’s hands all by yourself, if you’re willing to do a bit of legwork on your own.
So cheer up; reality bites, but it’s ALWAYS better to know, than not to know.
Good writing never goes out of style. First published 10/8/2011.
Every now and then, I’m contacted by people recently graduated from Ivy League schools who want to go to work for WordPros.
The potential interviewee is usually in their mid-twenties and has never published anything. Not even an article in the school paper.
Me: “And why do you want to be a writer?”
Grad: “Oh, I’ve ALWAYS wanted to be a writer.”
Me: “What have you written?”
Grad: “Oh, I’ve been too busy getting my degree to publish anything.”
Me: “Not even a blog?”
This phenomenon has ALWAYS puzzled me. But I carried 18 credit hours a semester while working three part-time jobs (yes, it nearly killed me and my GPA, but I made it). I even periodically squeezed in some volunteer work.
Gradually, over the years, I’ve realized there’s a certain class of professional student who never feels quite qualified enough to actually get a job and GO TO WORK.
So, they’re endlessly preparing, gathering credentials, planning to have all the certifications they may ever need to do the best job EVER in any field.
Without actually doing any real work. Just PREPARING. Forever.
(I even blogged about one facet of this phenomena, “failure to fledge,” last Spring).
Here’s a fascinating article from Bloomberg, highlighting a painful fact of life for holders of Masters Degrees in today’s job market:
About one-third of people with master’s degrees make less money on average than a typical bachelor’s degree holder, said Stephen J. Rose, a labor economist with Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, citing U.S. Census data.
Students who borrow to fund their further education are finding themselves in dire situations. One student plans to arrange to pay 15% of his salary for the next 25 years, with the understanding that the remaining debt will be forgiven after that time.
Is the treadmill really worth it? Probably not.
Click here to read the full story: Trapped by $50,000 Degree in Low-Paying Job.
Amazon has made the leap from bookseller to book publisher (and NOT just ebooks).
If you’re a writer, you’ve got to learn more here.
“May You Live In Interesting Times” (a favorite and prescient piece of Chinese Fortune Cookie wisdom)!
Forbes recently published an online article listing the “Ten Happiest Jobs.”
If you’re a writer, you already KNEW we were on the list.
Check out the article here to see where writers rank.
Here’s a cheerful way to start your day, fellow writers: grab a double latte before you read this decidedly bleak view of the impending death of the book and the ultimate demise of the entire writing profession by a speaker at the 2011 Edinburgh International Book Festival, novelist Ewan Morrison.
Be forewarned: it intentionally reads like a moaning eulogy.
Click here to read Are Books Dead and Can Authors Survive if you wish & then come back for a counterpoint or two.
Remembering that a good speaker always aims his speech at his target audience (this is a book festival, after all), his prognostications for the publishing industry at large are spot on; can you imagine the atmosphere at this year’s “festival”? A Scottish (not Irish) Wake, indeed.
While Morrison makes valuable and cogent points in this condensed copy of his speech, I think his view of both the present and the future for writers as a whole is actually quite a bit bleaker than the reality (the reality being that very few writers of the last 20 years have benefited from either cushy contracts, steady employment, or big book deals). It’s a jungle out there and has been for quite some time.
Granted, many writers WILL suffer from this shakeup, but much more of the suffering will be done on the printing, distribution, publishing, and marketing end (which, to many professional writers, actually lifts a heavy weight from their profit structure, as Mr. Morrison has pointed out).
I think the people who have paid the biggest price in the publishing industry for the last five years or so have been the printing presses. It’s been an absolute bloodbath for that industry as demographics shifted, papers failed, and book demand decreased precipitously. And, unfortunately for them, they really can’t simply re-calibrate their business to serve the digital publishing needs of their customers. They just have to go out of business, willingly or otherwise, as the demand for their services continues to wane. This is a tragedy repeated from the past (wagon wheel makers, harness makers, etc. never believed the notion of a car would go anywhere, either). We still need our presses, but fewer and fewer will be servicing the market, no doubt, simply because the market has shrunk. Permanently.
This shift in the publishing industry parallels the restructuring our society is undergoing now: autoworkers, pensioners, public employees, bankers, tellers, realtors, EVERYONE is living through a seismic shift in the workings of the world. And everyone is still trying to calculate the value of every profession. Some will make it, some will not.
I do disagree with the notion that paper books are dying or dead. Paper books will continue to exist, simply because some types of books don’t easily lend themselves to contemporary ebook formats (research publications, cookbooks, any type of “thumb through” book) and some readers just HATE ebooks, although, in my opinion, they’re a quickly dying breed. But there will doubtless be a move to “publishing on demand” rather than conventional book printing and marketing, which, as Morrison argues, will ultimately reduce writer’s incomes.
In the longer term, there will be more demand for skillful writing in this new atmosphere and I think the negative view of the perceived economic impact is a little too provincial, neglecting the tsunami of globalization. But the days of the writing hack are numbered. No more economic free rides for the “I can write faster than anybody who can write better” crowd. Competition is increasing dramatically and writers MUST educate themselves on how to protect the value of their various print rights as the sands shift.
IF a writer is willing to put in the time to learn the ins and outs of digital technology, it’s now possible to be your own writer, editor, typesetter, publisher, and marketing department, whether your books are digital or conventional paper. And we are profoundly blessed, as writers, to have a direct line to the consumer market through the miracle that is Amazon; no agent, publicist, publisher, or printing press needed, thank you very much.
The digital revolution has also opened exposure for writers in ways never before possible, granting a voice and a publication forum to writers who, in the past, would have continued toiling in actual obscurity. The modern writer may continue to toil, but today, he’ll at least have a CHANCE at an audience before he dies. And the better a writer is at navigating this new digital world, the greater his economic opportunity. It’s simply Darwinism in action.
Just remember that the price extracted for any freedom is a heavy one; the support structure has been pulled out from under the contemporary writer, just as it has from innumerable occupations. Today, to make it in the writing profession, you’ve got to be strong and multifaceted. You must be both a creative artist AND a skillful businessperson. But you also have virtually unlimited OPPORTUNITIES in this Brave New World. Gird yourself and go for it; the future has arrived.
This speaks most elegantly for itself: enjoy perusing the Worst Opening Lines produced by the 2011 competitors for the Bulwer-Lytton Prize (announced July 25, 2011).
Warning: not for the faint of heart; only writers, avid readers, and librarians are apt to find this funny! And here’s a link to the genesis of this imaginative competition, FYI.
We’re often asked: “What’s it REALLY like to be a writer?” The short answer is it’s harder than it sounds.
Guardian columnist Rick Gekoski recently explored this subject in his column, Why Writing is Bad for You.
And here’s a link to a few of Rick’s recent Guardian columns on the subjects of books and writing.