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The Writer’s Economy

The Writer's Economy

Stop Writing Your Crappy Bestseller

 

I remember my mother listing a whole bunch of first lines from bestselling books.

 

“The primroses were over,” she announced theatrically.

 

I pretended to understand what she meant. There was a first edition of Watership Down on the table by her typewriter but I’d never read it.

 

She dipped her chin and looked at me directly. “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” she said.

 

It would be some years before I tackled Anna Karenina and I thought she’d come up with this idea herself, so I said, “Are we unhappy in our own way?”

 

She dragged deeply from her cigarette, exhaled, then swatted at the smoke. “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.”

 

I held out an ashtray for the length of ash bowing down from her cigarette and she dutifully tapped. “Mother, I don’t know what you are saying,” I admitted.

 

“Bestsellers,” she said. “First lines of some of the greatest books.”

 

My mother knew nothing about fiction. But I knew nothing about anything, so I believed her. For years, I walked around with the idea that bestsellers were great literature and that they sparked from a single mesmerizing first line that signalled an unaccountable genius that would bring readers to their knees.

 

Perhaps for a time that I am either imagining or that existed for only the shortest of durations, there really was a link between bestsellers and quality literature. After all, not every book on the lists is bad. Not at all.  Plenty of great fiction has hit the New York Times bestseller list and will doso  again in years to come. But her notion of the bestseller, this glamorous other-wordly thing of preposterous beauty was her own invention. Watership Down is a great book but most of the bestselling books of that day weren’t even a patch on Richard Adams.

 

It took years for me to see that first lines didn’t mean much and that being a bestseller meant even less.  Even an amazing first line like John Grisham’s opening in The Racketeer (I am a lawyer and I am in prison) does not make literature. I am not sure what exactly does makes literature, but I know this: if a writer wants to write a great book, they should not try to write a bestseller. That doesn’t mean they should work hard to write in opposition to their notion of what a “bestseller” is, but that the effort to write commercially detracts from only hope of being an admirable writer.

 

James Patterson is a huge bestseller.  The man is a machine. He doesn’t write books, he writes lists of books. I hear he’s got a course he’s running, too, so that he can share his magic with all those who wish to be like him and sell a lot of copies.

 

I ran across what I hope is his worst novel. I say I hope it was his worst novel because it was a miserable excuse for a novel. I hope there are none among his hundreds of publications that are even more dreadful and tacky. I wouldn’t normally pick up a novel by Patterson but I was kind of stuck. I was staying in a hotel in Granada, Spain, and had finished all the books I’d brought with me. I went down to the lobby and had a look at the books left behind by tourists to see what I might find. I searched among the few books in English and it came down to either Patterson or a textbook of Spanish verbs. I tried hard to read about the murder of the beautiful mysterious woman but by the third of Patterson’s very brief chapters, I’d swapped for the Spanish verb book.

 

Recently, I saw an article that not only described what should happen in a bestseller but how many pages you should write, what gender the protagonist should be and the like. Really stupid facts about recent bestsellers, none of which would help a serious writer complete so much as a decent Post-It note. It wasn’t even an article but more of a chart. A kind of mind-map of the bestseller, laid out for the would-be celebrity writer.

 

The chart was  appalling for many reasons, not least of which is the idea that if you want to be successful you need to be commercial. And that this goal should be in mind from the very inception of the work itself, rather than at publication when sales and marketing teams include you in their plans to promote your book. I have no objection to authors pushing their own work once they’ve written it–that’s part of the game. But to fashion your writing to what you believe to be the fashion is vulgar, debasing, and not the work of serious novelists.

 

I hate this way of thinking. I hate it even more than I hated hearing a student at Oxford University where I teach writing, announce on the first day that one of her goals was that by the end of the course she would make a living as a writer. I made everyone uncomfortable by responding that this wasn’t a goal she was likely to achieve or that is even worth trying to achieve. It isn’t that one can’t make a living as a writer, but that if that is your goal, you are already admitting that the quality of your work is not the most important thing. The work is second to a living, or third to fame, or fourth to inciting envy among peers. Whatever it is, the notion of “success” has nothing to do with the quality of your work. That is what you are saying.

 

I find it worrying that people who purport to be serious writers think that success is measured by advance figures or bestseller lists, rather than looking at the work, itself. I recognise that it is very difficult, if not impossible, to come up with a means of measuring quality. Little (nothing?) apart the words on the page genuinely indicates value. However, the scary thing is how quickly writers are willing to capitulate to what they perceive as “the market.”  In the face of demands from publishers that their books make money, writers are willing to do whatever they have to in order to create a bestseller, even studying inane absurdities like what gender the protagonist is, how long the books is, and what happens by page 25 or page 35 or whatever inanity you care to focus on.

 

Am I just being stodgy and old-fashioned to insist writers put up some resilience and stop trying to appease the notional “market”, a market that has behaved unpredictably for as long as books have been published? Admittedly, it can be discouraging to good writers to see mediocre books being lauded, but I’ve long grown used to that. You will, too.

 

I feel we writers should have more spine when it comes to our work. We should have more dignity than to chase bestseller lists. It’s fine to do so once you’ve written a novel you are proud of, but the idea of fashioning the entire thing in an effort to create the next “big” novel, or “breakthrough” novel, defeats the purpose of being a writer in the first place. Surely, writers are meant to create something more akin to art than advertisement.

 

When I think about the great Russian artists who continued to paint in a manner true to their vision even as Soviet authorities condemned any art that lacked “revolutionary spirit,” I marvel at today’s writers easy capitulation to the toothless threat of “the market.”  I think of how the Slovakian journalist, Pavel Licko, risked his life to smuggle Solzhenitsyn’s Cancer Ward to the United States while, these days, writers surrender to an idea of what the “market demands” as though the market has guns and bayonets and firing squads.

 

So, what should you do instead of trying to be a bestseller? Read quality. Become ruined by good works so that you can’t possibly put up with much of what sits on the bestseller lists. Stop wanting to be a celebrity.

 

The first thing is to attend to is the work. The second thing is to attend to is the work. The third thing is…that’s right. The work.

 

And don’t worry too much about the first line either, because the first line, even if it is a good one, is just a party trick.

The Writer's Economy

Editors Vary

 

People working within the publishing industry just don’t understand each other.

 

In the July 26th issue of The Bookseller, Katy Guest, editor of Independent on Sunday’s books pages from 2009 until the paper closed earlier this year, made the point that former literary editors like herself ought to be valued by publishers.

 

“The closure of newspapers and books sections spells trouble for publishing, then, but I can see one silver lining: all the brilliant people who are now available for work as editors. Publishers ought to snap them up, because a former literary editor is exactly the person to help you make great books and sell lots of them,” she wrote in an article entitled “Critical Re-Thinking”.

 

After all, literary editors have spent years trawling through thousands of books, can spot potentially big titles, and have tons of contacts and friends in the media.  “What we’re really good at, though, is editing: thoroughly, sensitively and in a hurry, whether the writing is by a Booker Prize-winning author or an unheard-of amateur with a good idea,” Guest explains.

 

I can’t disagree with her, though I noted that Guest’s notion of editing was not exactly the sort of editing required of authors of book-length manuscripts. I had only a slight unease with Guest’s confidence in this direction, but a commenter on the article felt very strongly that literary editors aren’t an obvious fit for publishing houses.

 

“Book editors understand how to write and edit short non-fiction pieces. They know how to read books and to give readers their very educated opinions about the merit of books. They have a finger on the zeitgeist of book industry. But understanding the mechanics of stories is a whole different ball of wax,” wrote Colleen Subasic in a comment to the article. She admitted that Guest and literary editors like her would have “an edge on the common man” but felt Guest might be missing a number of necessary skills to be as valuable an editor for a trade publisher as was claimed.

 

I assume this is the Canadian playwright, Colleen Subasic, speaking; and she makes a fair point. She may be right that literary editors are mostly, if not exclusively, familiar with short non-fiction pieces and that they may need additional skills to become editors of book-length manuscripts.

 

However, I feel there is enormous value in what a literary editor (or former literary editor) such as Katy Guest can offer authors, even without practice in working with longer texts. One imagines that the experience of literary editors would give them a “helicopter view” of how a particular manuscript might fit into the world of books (and especially where and how to market a title). I can imagine such a person being an excellent acquisitions editor who would know how to champion his or her authors’ works in-house, as well as pull a few favours from the depleted pool of employed literary editors and book reviewers still lucky enough to appear in our national papers and journals.

 

Not all editors are alike. And this is my point: we authors believe that every other editor is like our editor, and they are not. Some editors line-edit the work thoroughly and some do not. Some are great at rallying the whole publishing house to get behind an author and some are not. Some push a book’s marketing and some leave that side of things alone. My point is that there are many different kinds of editors and no single editor does it all.

 

I imagine that literary editors would be very valuable to publishers. From what pool do publishers draw book editors at the moment, anyway?  I think I’d be looking for people like Katy Guest rather than the latest graduate whose experience in the industry consists of internships underwritten by their parents (admittedly, I am a parent who underwrites my child’s own career in the arts). Ideally, I’d take both the graduate and the former literary editor, of course. But in these difficult publishing days, how would I pay them?

 

The Writer's Economy

The New Freelancers

 

Earlier this year, The Financial Times reported that fifty-four million workers in the US are now freelancing for a living. The word freelancing, traditionally associated with writing and journalism, now extends to any job a person does as an independent contractor for a firm. Sometimes called the “gig economy”, or “agile talent”, freelancers come into a firm to conduct any kind of work – often technical work, research, or some sort of limited management function – and then they leave. They are paid for their work but with no further promise of employment once they’ve completed a project. They are not given any assurances, have no employee rights, no pension contributions and cannot expect any professional development or mentoring.

 

Writers are very familiar with “agile talent.” It’s how we get to write an article for The Sunday Times without actually having a job there. We pitch articles or get assignments and we know that after our 800 words delivered by Thursday, we have to look for another gig. My mother freelanced; I freelance. I don’t think I’ve ever questioned the practice of freelancing. Until now.

 

From the point of view of big firms, “agile management” is a great idea. In their book, Agile Talent, Jon Younger and Norm Smallwood describe the growing need for companies to “have expertise on tap” but also the problems inherent in the practice of temporary hires in which the expert is treated as separate but not equal, and most importantly, extremely expendable.

 

The global chairman of PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), Bob Moritz, told the FT’s Ben McLannahan in March 2016 that this new brand of freelancers allows him to “bring in the right talent in the right place at the right time.” What he didn’t add, however, is that the “talent” is a person, and that this person is not given any employee rights or benefits, let alone ongoing professional skills development, and that it is often this shift of responsibility that makes agile talent so valuable to an organization.

 

Nonetheless, Moritz sounds convinced that the “talent” wants it this way. “We know when you look around the world, that an increasing number of people will want to be more of an independent contractor than a full-time employee,” he said. Deloitte reports that as  much as a third of America’s workforce is now working as “agile talent” or “super temps”.

 

Nobody has to convince me of the advantages of working for oneself. I’ve been doing it for twenty-five years. I’ve even freelanced for professional services firms, though not PwC. However, working as an “independent contractor”  is not unusual for writers.  Writers have been “agile talent” for publishing houses forever. That’s just the way that the publishing business operates.  I write a novel on spec, the editor either wants it or doesn’t want it (and is usually under no obligation to accept it), then makes an offer.  With very few exceptions I’ve only been offered single-book deals and for wildly different sums.

 

This financial arrangement is acceptable to me because, I suppose, I’ve always imagined that the financial risks of writing fiction must be borne by the novelist. We produce something with a value that is difficult to define, hard to signal to the market, and about which opinions vary tremendously. Also, the publishing house is investing in us, in our books, and in our careers. There is a deal defined by cash and commitment. The publicists and marketing people work hard on the novel’s behalf. If the book is published well it is a good deal for the writer. Of course, if the book is published badly, and the publishing house does not put enough effort into it, it is always the author who is blamed.

 

With businesses now defining themselves not by what they produce but by the solutions they provide (the company that makes my dogs’ food does not sell dog food, but solutions to my dogs’ hunger), the solution my novel can offer might be to help people think about a subject in a new manner, or about their own lives in a new manner. Novels feed a kind of cultural appetite.  In contemporary business parlance, I don’t sell novels but solutions to cultural hunger.

 

But it turns out there are a lot more novels out there than there is hunger for them, which is why my book has to be just that little bit better, or my publishers marketing of it has to be better, or I just need raw luck. Usually the last.

 

I might like it to be different. I might like more job stability, financial stability, a sense of being part of a larger organization and team, the feeling of being valued by my colleagues on a regular basis instead of every few years when I bring out a book (unless they reject it, which is always a possibility, in which I feel terrible). It would be great to be groomed for success the way I imagine that executives are taught, to be taken by the hand by a publishing house and given advice on how to conduct myself during interviews, speak on television and radio, how to build networks, or make good relationships with key media figures. But that just doesn’t happen. It’s not the way publishing works.

 

If I wanted stability, if I’d wanted continued professional development, I’d have to go into a different profession, a more stable profession. If I didn’t want to have to always be pitching, selling and looking for the next gig, I’d have traded in my jeans and kitchen office for a crisp suit and a job at an international professional services firm, a place like PwC. After all, it is an enormous, profitable firm, the most prestigious accounting firm in the world.

 

Oh, except maybe I wouldn’t. Now that companies like PwC are building their “Talent Network”, so that they don’t have to offer anything more than short-term contracts, it seems that a “regular job” is becoming a rare thing, indeed. And being a writer has become no riskier than any other profession.

 

The Writer's Economy

Swimming In A Sea of “No”

 

When it comes to your writing, there will be a great number of people who tell you no. I am not speaking of agents who feel they can’t sell your manuscripts, or editors who aren’t in love with your book—these are ordinary career set-backs for both working writers and aspiring ones.  Poorly wrought novels, clumsy execution, a lack of emotional charge in the prose, and the idiosyncrasies of the publishing industry, are all normal stumbling blocks that a writer works through in her pursuit of excellence. Sometimes being told “no” becomes an essential part of the process of becoming not just a published writer, but an excellent one.

 

I am talking about the negative influences you are likely to experience all your life. Early years during which your siblings tell you that your poetry is stupid and anyone could do it. Or the awful disbelief and pity you see on your colleagues faces when they discover you really do have a manuscript in the desk drawer. I had a boyfriend who told me that my beloved New Yorker Magazine only printed cryptic stories without endings and that there was no purpose to fiction. Why bother writing things that don’t even happen? he asked.

 

Another thought it might be kinder to let me know gently my writing was just a hobby, not a serious pursuit. He asked my teacher, the short story writer and novelist, Mary Robison, whether I was just kidding myself. He was surprised by her answer. “No, are you kidding?” she said.

 

Even after I published a couple of books, I occasionally heard bad things said about my work. When I stopped writing for a few years in order to help my son, who was clearly disabled (it turned out to be autism, and he’s done very well after many years of intervention), it was brought to my attention that I was being used as a cautionary tale in a popular How-To book about how to become a successful novelist. Apparently, the author of the book listed me as a writer who, having shown great promise, mysteriously and forever disappeared.  My international bestseller, my film, my next novel, all the articles and short stories I’d written, were signs of a career that had blossomed, then died.  I had no viable career, as far as the author of this book was concerned, and was an example of failure to all.

 

The author of the book never bothered to get in touch with me to ask why I wasn’t publishing at present and learn about my son. He assumed I couldn’t get a contract, that I’d burned out and finished early. I was so discouraged by what he wrote, I couldn’t even talk about it. I put it out of my mind and taught my son how to point, clap, speak, play. I spent years on the floor with a little boy who later would feature in my novel, Daniel Isn’t Talking. That boy grew into a delightful young man who is now taking A-levels in modern Greek and French, and GCSE’s in Spanish and Chinese. He’s autistic, but social, loving, connected, curious. The novel, Daniel Isn’t Talking, really needs a sequel to it along the lines of  Now He Speaks Greek.

 

But what if I had stopped writing after a few novels? Should we vilify authors who end their careers early, or don’t get the sales figures anticipated? Should we call Melville a failure because he’d been out of print for fifteen years at the time of his death at age 72?

 

I finally got in touch with the author of the How-To book that hurt me so, asking that he remove my name from his list of literary failures. It made him appear ill-informed, I explained, as I’d published a couple of new novels recently, one of which had hit a few summer bestseller lists and had been optioned for a film. He was deeply embarrassed and we had a little laugh about it. But even now, I can recall my humiliation at the words he wrote and that thousands would have read, stating flatly that I wasn’t good enough, that I hadn’t “made it.”

 

Why would I show you all this dirty laundry? Why not post the photos from People Magazine and the five-star reviews instead? Why not show me standing with Julia Roberts, or touring with Hilary Mantel or being interviewed by The Sunday Times? I am grateful for all these events, but do you really want another diva in your life? Yet another writer who tells you how great and easy it is for her now that she’s got publishers all over the globe? Because those moments of fame and success are minuscule next to the long years of being humiliated by people who think you are kidding yourself, years of being utterly obscure, of enduring criticism of your work, your career, your choices. All  the naysaying and rankings and constant striving can dog our lives and cause us to finally turn on ourselves and stop writing altogether. I’m telling you all my dirty laundry so you don’t feel so bad about your own.  Anyway, I don’t want to be anybody’s diva.

 

“No” is very powerful, and arrives in many disguises. “No” is inside the sneer of the person you are speaking to at a cocktail party  when you admit you are a writer. It is on your professor’s mind when you tell him your write verse. It fills the air at a literary festival when the panel of experts discuss about how they no longer have time even for a slush pile, that publishers are not interested in new writers over the age of forty, that there is no market for literary fiction. I want to shout back to to these “experts.”

 

First, I want to tell them it is poor practice to show up at a literary festival and disparage the market for literary fiction. There is no market for books at all if you compare it to, say, video games. People spent 91.5 billion dollars on video games last year. If were are going to look only at market forces, not even the top selling category of fiction (romance) has any sort of market. In fact, people spend 10 billion on romance novels annually, but over three times that on tattoo removal. So, should we all go into that profession?

 

Next I want to say that if they have no time for the slush pile, they might consider hiring a few readers from the infinite pool of smart, savvy people of any age who would love a chance to read for a living. As for limiting new writers to under age 40 (or 30), what would they have done with manuscripts by Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, Mary Wesley, Wallace Stevens, Anne Sewell or the contemporary writer, Helen DeWitt? Told them, sorry but you are too old?

 

I’ve experienced much discouragement as a writer, and I know I am not the only one. But learning to swim in a sea of “no” is part of our experience, and that of most people in the arts. Some will try to wrangle their way into published work by taking a job with a newspaper (if they can get one) or becoming adept with social media, or social climbing, or becoming a critic of some sort.

 

None of these are necessarily bad ideas, but there is really only one thing to do if you wish to be a good writer. You have to take all care in your work. You have to give it the dignity and attention it deserves. You have to honour your commitment to writing and to yourself, learn to accept that the environment for a serious writer, for an honest writer, is not always kind or willing. But as long as you can keep negative people  and comments from distinguishing the joy and satisfaction you receive in bettering your craft daily, none of the doubts or fears will hurt you. Indeed, “no” never stopped any serious writer.

The Writer's Economy

The Write Way: Dream, Create, Reject, Repeat…

 

 

For writers to become any good, we must be allowed to experiment and expected, at times, to fail. We have to try out different stuff if we are ever to write a book of value. These efforts are what I’ve call “necessary failures.” But is embarking on The Great American Failed Novel, one that is never seen in print and never read, an important part of our growth as writers? Should we indulge ourselves in wild endeavours that we later kill?

 

The technology world has a new notion that it is important to “fail fast” and “fail often.” Astro Teller of Google X*, gave a TED Talk in February in which he encouraged businesses to create environments in which their employees feel comfortable working on big, risky projects, many of which are likely to fail. Google X, a company that has been voted number 1 in Best Companies To Work For seven times over the past ten years, has a unique working environemnt. Teller says, “We spend most of our time breaking things and trying to prove that we’re wrong,” he explains with a joy that makes it clear he loves his job. “We make it safe to fail.”

 

Teller even rewards his staff for abandoning a project due to evidence of its eventual doom as a product or service. Whoever heard of receiving a bonus for proving your idea is a bad one? And yet, this is exactly what Google X gives its employees who kill their own projects. What are the reasons a project is killed? Too expensive, too unwieldy, doesn’t produce the desired results, atrociously uneconomic, or outright dangerous, to name a few.

 

Not every business adopts the “fail fast, fail often” model. Despite being reliant on innovation and genius ideas from its authors, publishing is the very opposite. Most authors, lucky enough to be published in the first place, have possibly two books to prove their commercial value. If these books don’t sell well the author may struggle for a contract on the next.

 

Publishing is a “fail & you’re fired” environment, at least if you are an author. And if we aren’t being warned directly of our tenuous place on a publisher’s list, we can read about our doom every day in the trade papers. I often feel like one of Henry VIII’s wives, just waiting to either be banished from the kingdom or publicly executed.

 

The Big Picture

Sometimes, you can sell well and still piss off a publisher. If your book doesn’t sell as well as the publisher expects, for example. I remember a good first novel by Douglas Kennedy,  The Big Picture, that was sold for a six figure sum to a major American publisher in the late 1990’s. I loved the book and was surprised when Kennedy told me years later that he’d had a hell of a time after that novel, because while the book had sold very well, it hadn’t made the astronomical numbers that had been expected of it. As a result, he’d had a difficult time getting back into the American market. Since then, of course, he’s sold 14 million copies of his books in 22 languages. He is considered very much a “selling author”, so let that be a lesson in tenacity for writers feeling undervalued. Kennedy won in the end, as talent and hard work usually will, but would a different man have given up? Possibly.

 

I don’t feel a lack of commercial success is a writer’s fault. Smashword CEO, Mark Coker, tells us, “Publishers can only guess at what books readers want to read and mostly they guess wrong.” So, if they are guessing wrong, how can writers be expected to always guess correctly? We cannot. But it is we who will pay the price for commercial failure.

 

Some publishers buy books they love, not expecting instant commercial success. Those rare birds include one of publishing’s most acclaimed editors, Nan Talese, whose own imprint is part of the giant Penguin Random House. Nan represents such giant critical and commercial successes as Margaret Atwood, Ian McEwan, and Pat Conroy. She once cheered me up by saying, “Ian McEwan took many books to get any real sales. I can remember back when he was selling 9,000 copies.”  Sadly, few publishers have the patience of Talese, whose authors adore her and whose books largely succeed. But they are out there, if you are lucky enough to find them.

 

Creating Our Own “Safe To Fail” Environment

As the reading market dwindles and more books flood the market, we authors may find it difficult to allow ourselves the room we need to invent our best stories and develop our best characters. We may feel led to abandon our attention to language in an effort to produce a page-turner. Or hop onto the latest trend, however little interest we have in fifty shades of ugly.  Ours is not an industry that tolerates failure, but we must give ourselves space to try things out.

 

The best we can do is create our own Google X environment at home in which the concept of “fail fast, fail often” works well. Google X creates prototypes quickly, figures out what is wrong, then feeds back into the R&D process. They fail again and again until they get to where they want to be and consider the failures badges of honour. This is the “business model” I use for my own writing. I will try something every which way, put it on a shelf and forget about it for awhile, then get it out and re-think it through. I will throw it out, rekindle it, transform it or abandoned it. I am allowed to do anything in my space of invention. And while I don’t congratulate myself for killing a book altogether, I do sometimes breathe a sigh of relief.

 

Am I doing the right thing?  The economist, and University of Chicago professor, Steven Levitt, thinks that I am. “I always tell my students to fail quickly. The quicker you fail the more chance you have…to eventually find the thing you don’t fail at.”

 

The Perils Of Ambition

 

As a writing tutor at the University of Oxford, I’ve often talked with students who were determined they had to complete market-ready books during their master’s study or else their time on our program was wasted. I’ve had to talk students out of their ideas to give themselves four-month deadlines to write a novel start to finish, or who insist they are “writing a bestseller” ,or whose stated goal is to make a living from writing.

 

“All that is bullshit,” I tell them. “Who is putting such ideas into your head?”

 

These writers are young, talented and driven, but they often drive themselves right into a wall. The better ones labour ferociously on a scene, revising and re-writing, unable to see the scene’s faults, unable to see how it doesn’t fit into the rest of the novel at all, becoming seduced by the sunk costs of their own labor and now too emotionally attached to the scene to cut it altogether.  The less gifted slop through several hundred pages so impressed by their ability to produce a novel-length manuscript that they will need a dozen or more agent rejections before they ask whether a love story about sea monkeys really has a place in today’s market.

 

Am I, myself, ever guilty of keeping alive works that ought to be put in a manuscript box and buried in my cupboard? Yes, of course I am, which is why I have a great deal of empathy for these students and all writers. My awareness of my own faults and idiosyncrasies, the touching silliness of my dreams to become better than I can be, my faith that the only talent that can’t be improved is one that never existed in the first place, is what makes me a good (I think) teacher, and causes me to write the very words you are now reading.

 

*let me help you with that: this is the name of a man followed by his place of employment 

The Writer's Economy

Necessary Failures

 

 

In 2006 Hilary Mantel and I went on a book tour together. This was back before she became an untouchably famous, extremely revered double Booker prize winner and was just ordinary famous and touring with her novel, Beyond Black.

 

I was promoting Daniel Isn’t Talking, my somewhat autobiographical account of the early days of discovering my little boy was autistic. We were an unlikely pair, Hilary with her ghost story of a fortune teller, populated by dead or half-dead people, and me with my difficult drama of a mother’s fears about her small son’s future. But we were very jolly together. Hilary is a warm, loving woman as well as being a splendid writer. And both of us love an audience.

 

But that was just it—the audience! It was hit and miss. We’d show up to a big room full of pretty flowers and chairs all lined up, and see some empty seats. Actually, quite a number of empty seats. Given Hilary’s draw, you’d expect a full-house.  And where were the men? We had good attendance at the afternoon library events but most of the time we were speaking to all female audiences.

 

And then we discovered why. The 2006 FIFA World cup was on television. We were competing with the allure of international soccer. Hilary and I had some awareness of  football in the offing—we’d notice the abundance of cars strung with bunting, pubs full with men and the televisions on. We’d simply overlooked its impact on our tour, which was a more quiet success than Hilary is used to.

 

All of this brings me to my point, which isn’t about soccer and books tours but about publishing a book in the first place: Is there any way we can predict its success?

 

The queen could die on publication date and every interview you have is wiped off the magazine pages.  A war could break out and the book section of the newspaper goes unread for months. But barring these kind of catastrophes, is there a way of testing out whether your novel is a good idea before you put a year or two (or more) into writing it? This blog, and the one to follow explores this question.

 

Failure Is Your Friend

Last year, Freakonomics Radio re-broadcasted a podcast called Failure Is Your Friend. The idea was simple, if you can determine early that the task you are about to attempt is a bad idea, you can abandon it quickly. Finding out early saves time, money, energy and heartache. The broadcast used an extreme example of a project that ought to have been abandoned but was not: the 1986 Space Shuttle Challenger disaster that resulted in the death of the crew, including a school teacher from New Hampshire, Christa McAuliffe, who would have been the first civilian in space.

 

The reason for the disaster? NASA did not test the O-ring seals of its rocket boosters to ensure they would stand up to the unseasonably low temperatures being experienced in Florida that year. Despite warnings from their own engineers that they should abandon the launch, NASA ignored the risk and went ahead on the morning of January 28th, killing seven people and derailing NASA’s space shuttle program for years go come.

 

Some speculate that NASA continued with the launch due to what is called “go fever”. “Go fever” is the attitude of being in a rush or hurry to move on with, or complete a project, while overlooking potential problems or mistakes.  I see it expressed in novelists and aspiring novelists all the time, including myself. The “sunk cost” we’ve already made in writing a hundred or two hundred pages of a book compel us to continue writing the thing even when it is likely to fail.

 

When It Comes To Books What Can We Truly Call “Failing”?

Of course, we have to be careful with the term “failure” when talking about contributions to the arts world. A commercial success can be a critical failure and vice versa. A book can receive a whole lot of unfair reviews by people who just don’t get the book at all, and still be a pretty good book.

 

I am really referring to what I call “practice novels” (it could be “practice non-fiction). These are books we are going to write to completion, or near-completion, even though at some point we may feel they are not publishing-worthy.

 

Handling big manuscripts is as much of an art as handling a single scene and practicing novel-writing may lead to a few necessary failures, if they can be called failures at all. I’ve written two novels I have no intention of bring to market. They served their purpose of teaching me a bit more about writing and helped me make my way toward something sharper, more vivid, more accurate and alive.

 

Unfortunately, many writers spend years on manuscripts that ought to be considered “practice novels” or “necessary failures” and then, because the thing has amassed several hundred pages and looks like a viable manuscript all stacked neatly on the desk, they feel an obligation to publish it. Given how little we know about what makes a bestseller, one can understand that they may believe they have as good a chance as anyone (and maybe they do).

 

OMG, That Was A Bestseller?

That bestsellers can be truly dreadful books is a phenomenon so common there is an entire website and podcast devoted to talking about bad New York Times Bestsellers. The website, run by an aspiring children’s author and a librarian, is called The Worst Bestsellers, and it offers the following warning: If you are a publicist who wants us to review your client’s book, please think twice. If you are an author whose publicist is pitching your book to Worst Bestsellers, you might want to get a new publicist.

 

It’s a brave endeavor, all that reading of books they hate. I bring it up only to make the obvious point that “failure” is so hard to define when we are talking about books.  If the actor, Rob Lowe, can be a NYT bestseller with Stories I Only Tell My Friends, a title I would like to abridge to read, Stories I only Tell my Friends or Anyone With A Credit Card, why shouldn’t you give your novel about your fifteen cats and their distinct personalities a whirl? If one of your cats becomes a film star you might have a good shot at a bestseller.

 

I’ve mentioned in my blog Why You Shouldn’t Write A Bestseller that the London literary agent and managing director of Curtis Brown, Jonny Geller, gave a TED talk called What Makes A Bestseller. It was a great title for a talk, and you should definitely listen to what Jonny has to say. However, to my great relief, it was less about making bestsellers and more about writing good books.

 

Fail Fast, Fail Often

In the end, all we can be expected to do and all that we ought to do is this:  Write good books. If you set out to write a bestseller, or to become famous, or to be recognised as a writer, you’ve taken a step in the wrong direction. You will do better to be rigorous in the practice and improvement of your craft, true to the notion that the only thing that matters is the work. Not what every random reviewer might think of the work, not what you might get paid for the work, or who might make a film of the work, but the work itself.

 

What is the best thing to do with some of the novels you are likely to write or even finish on the road to becoming a great novelist? Know when to cut your losses. Don’t perform heroics if the novel is dead on the page. Fail quickly and get onto your next project. Be happy you are one step closer to the novel that you always wanted to write.

 

Or, practice the essential art of revision. All writing is creative, even revision, and improving your ability to detect what is wrong and fixing it may be one of the most valuable skills you develop as a writer. By chance, you may not only breathe life into the work, but envisage it so freshly it metamorphisizes into a hell of a book.

 

My next blog will look at whether writers ought to adopt Silicon Valley’s idea that we must fail quickly and fail often. If you want to be an innovator, you need to be a allowed to fail. A lot. But how do we determine when a work should be put aside? Or shall we adopt Pablo Picasso‘s notion that, even in the best case, “art is never finished, only abandoned”?

 

The Writer's Economy

Why I Don’t Count Words (or pages)

 

Economics is a study of choices: the what, why, and how of decision-making. In many ways, writers defy the principles of economics. As I’ve suggested here and here, writers cannot expect to make a living writing books.

 

If we writers made rational choices, we would take the action that is of most benefit to us for the least effort. Students understand this. In the UK, future doctors choose “A” level subjects like chemistry, biology and physics over religious studies and economics because those are the courses that will pay off when they apply to medical school. Even tiny kids understand this. If I am willing to give a child two dollars for helping me tidy the bedroom but only one dollar for helping me tidy the study, the study will probably be her second choice. But what if instead of tidying the study it was walking the dog? Dog-loving kids would probably be happy to walk the dog for free!

 

And that is where we are with writing today. We would rather walk the dog for nothing than get a fair wage for any other job.

 

This is no great crime. I will soon get into pay-offs that bring writers to make what appear, at first, to be irrational decisions. Meanwhile, I want to talk about the writing, itself.

 

Why do we proudly state the number of words or pages we’ve written each day, as though a whole lot of words is the thing that the public demands of us? Our hypertextual world is already replete with words. Words come at us through emails, news articles, company reports, blogs, instructions, guidelines, reviews, magazines, and social media feeds. Even when we try to engage only in images, words run along the bottom of our tv screens.  We already know that there is no shortage of words, so why do we present our daily tally: I wrote three pages or a thousand words or two paragraphs, as though these numbers are any indication of our success?

 

Of course, we know the answer. In fact, there are a number of answers.

 

First, every writer I’ve ever spoken to is spooked by the notion of writer’s block. Because I grew up with a writer as a parent, I heard the expression “writer’s block” before I’d even heard the word “sonnet”. What is writer’s block anyway? Is it one condition or an umbrella term we used to explain away whatever despair is preventing us from attending to our craft?

 

Among other things, writer’s block is physical exhaustion from long hours working another job, then coming home to a blank screen and a cluttered mind. It is a reluctance to engage in a process that may never produce a polished work but is guaranteed to take a whole lot of time. Its roots are embedded in our self-doubt or loss of faith in publishing or simple fatigue from so many years of campaigning to be noticed. It is an exasperation at having written so much of excellence in the past that has been overlooked, or unfairly reviewed, or appreciated, if at all, for all the wrong reasons. It is a pressure we place on ourselves to be better than we were, or perhaps even than we are capable of being.

 

A good writer is particularly prone to concerns like this last one. I have no proof of this, though I suspect it to be true: Every excellent writer reads excellent books. And our standards for what we believe to be fresh enough, terse enough, gritty enough, and important enough to spend thousands of hours on it ratchets up all the time. Meanwhile, what are the rewards for the effort we put in? A satisfaction that is privately enjoyed and, if we are very lucky, publicly shared. But what a standard we set for ourselves, what high walls we ask ourselves to climb!

 

For those who read crudely written stories typed out at a pace (often by series writers) they may never feel any of what I’ve just described. If they wish to become artful in their craft, they will first have to rise above their acquired bad taste. But why should they? Their diet of 25-30 page “books” on dinosaur erotica (I’ve included the link only the prove I did not make this up) leaves them unaware of higher quality works. And so they live on, enjoying whatever one enjoys in their world of micro-books and bodice-rippers and pterodactyl sex. Maybe they even get paid for it, who knows?  I am certain I could learn to write a book of this type in a few days, but why would I? I’d rather walk the dog for free.

 

However, I am speaking to those who really do want to write excellent work. Those who toil and revise, and examine each sentence, then paragraph, then scene, then chapter of their books. For these people, writer’s block in the form of despair can seem not only possible, but inevitable.

 

Perhaps we are responsible for our own anguish. If we are good and if we are serious, we come up with greater standards to meet all the time, demanding that we write something new in a market that only wants the old. We cannot give into lower standards and live with ourselves. “Invention, after all, is art’s main business,” wrote the American novelist and critic,  John Gardner. To abandon the notion of new or stop reaching for better is to abandon the reason we come into the room and sit at a desk in the first place.

 

And so we return to the notion of daily word count. Again, I ask the question:  Why do we talk about the thousand words we write daily when we know that a thousand ordinary, even competent, words does not equate to a few beautifully wrought sentences that express an idea uniquely? Is it that we are afraid of not being able to write anymore? For some, especially those not yet published, word count may be the only tangible evidence they have for being a working writer.

 

For others it may be a case of being afraid of the bogey man, that monster called Writer’s Block, that causes them to race fearfully through the first draft of their novel, as Gardner says, “as though sprinting across a cemetery at night.”

 

For others, they may imagine there is virtue in “more”. But why do we persist in believing that longer is better when everything that the greatest writers have taught us is that the opposite is true? The art of brevity is summarised nicely by Mark Twain in a letter to James Redpath in 1871 “I didn’t have time to write a short letter,” explained Twain,”so I wrote a long one instead.”

 

Perhaps we rush through work due to an impatience to have the “world” see our work, as though the world was soon disappearing. I know the thrill of publishing has its allure, but it holds nothing compared to the feeling we get when writing at the top of our game. And make no mistake, publishing can be a nasty business. If I were to draw a quick analogy, writing is to publishing as a dog is to a wolf. I trust and love the dog; I’m wary and respectful of the wolf.

 

I remember being at Hay On Wye literary festival in Wales the year the poet, Michael Longley, won the Whitbread prize for the first collection of poems he’d published in twelve years. Longley was asked why the long silence? Why had he waited twelve years between books? Was he not writing poetry at all during that time?

 

Longley is one of Ireland’s great poets and he looks exactly as you might imagine: white beard, ruddy cheeks, a casual elegance in his spoken expression. He wasn’t the least bit ruffled by questions regarding his process or the number of poems he produced.  “I wrote poems during those years, yes. I write them all the time. But I believe we should only publish if we really must,” he said. “Sometimes, it is better to save a tree.”

 

The Writer's Economy

When The Poverty Line Is A Step (way) Up

 

 

 

For years, my sister used call me with the great news of another writer’s success.

 

“This girl just got $750,000 for writing a vampire book,” she began one evening. The “girl” she was speaking of was Stephenie Meyers, whose original 3-book contract with Little Brown for Twilight launched her astonishing international career. “Why can’t you write vampire books?” my sister wanted to know.

 

“Vampires,” I said.

 

I was probably getting my young children to brush their teeth for bed or towel-drying their hair after a bath or sweeping up peas from under the dinner table. Children were another of my “bad” ideas of which my sister disapproved. The opportunity costs were enormous, the variable costs unpredictable. And for what? No return on the investment unless you happen to produce the next Bill Gates. “I don’t know anything about vampires,” I told her.

 

“Nobody knows anything about vampires, you idiot! They are mythical creatures. Do you know what mythical creatures are?”

 

“Like unicorns, dragons, griffins—”

 

“Noooo,” she yelled into the phone. My idiocy was painful for her. “They are invented bullshit that people make money from! Are you getting any of this? Please tell me you are writing this down!”

 

Like many people, my sister could not understand why a writer like me bothers to invest so much time and effort, forfeiting opportunity elsewhere, to settle for so little. She understood that some people are into the art world, as opposed to the finance world in which she operated.  But within the microcosm of writing itself, why wouldn’t I use my talents to do the obvious? If vampires are “in”, why don’t I invent a story about the paranormal and write a bestseller?

 

There was no point in explaining to my sister that I didn’t forgo every other career option in my life to sell out to whatever was trending in Young Adult fiction. I said, “Thank you, but I don’t have any great interest in vampires.”

 

“You don’t have to have any great interest?”

 

“Or any interest.”

 

“Do you have interest in money?”

 

“Yes.”

 

“Then think money and write vampires.”

 

“It doesn’t work like that.”

 

“Oh really?” she said impatiently. “Then exactly how does it work?”

 

 

This is what I will attempt to explain in some of the blogs you’ll see over the course of the next few months. What is it that the writer wants with her work? What is she willing to trade with the peculiar economy, or more accurately economies, she finds herself in? What is it she seeks and what does she think she is likely to gain, if anything? You might imagine, as my sister did, that it is obvious what a writer is after: big advances, bestseller lists, literary awards, great reviews and speaking tours. Even a cursory look at the industry reveals, however, that she is unlikely to get even one of those rewards for her investment in the craft of writing—ever.

 

Let’s talk about money. I received a message from an aspiring fantasy writer in response to my blog, Why You Shouldn’t Write A Bestseller. She wrote, “I’m not entirely sure why I wouldn’t want to write a bestseller.” A reasonable comment. She then went on, describing the things she might be able to buy with the money from the bestseller: a few sheep and horses and a “bucolic piece of countryside.”

 

Those who read my blog know I live in the countryside with sheep and horses, so she was teasing me. While I don’t deliberately try to write commercial books, I do shout as loudly as I can to anyone who might hire me or publish me that during a fast-receding moment in my life a novel mine was on the New York Times bestseller list. So it was a little cheeky of me to write a blog with a title that expressed a desire not to be on a bestseller list. It was simply a provocative title to a piece I wrote in response to the excellent TED talk given by literary agent, Jonny Geller, called What Makes A Bestseller.

 

I blogged about the importance of focusing on the writing, itself, without consideration of the rewards (financial or otherwise) that may be the result of the effort. I never argue against being a bestseller, but about trying to become one. And why might I discourage anyone from that?

 

Maybe because the likelihood of becoming a bestseller is so slim. In April 2015, one of the UK’s leading research institutions, Queen Mary, University of London, published a paper called ‘The Business of Being An Author: A survey of Author Earnings and Contracts’. Below is a list a few of the more sobering findings of the survey. The last bullet point is a direct quote from page 9:

 

•Earnings for authors have been falling for over a decade and authors are now earning 19% less in real terms than they did in 2005

•The typical earnings of all authors are only £4,000 and those of professional authors are merely £11,000 which represents a drop of 29% in real terms since 2005.

•A small number of writers earn the vast proportion of the money paid to authors as a whole.

•The size of advances, as well as the likelihood of any advance whatsoever in the event a publishing company agrees to publish a book, has declined since 2006

•17% of all published writers did not earn any money from writing during 2013. Further, of those writers, 98% had had a work published or exploited in each year from 2010 to 2013. Thus, at least 17% of writers are continuing to work without any expectation of earnings.

 

A few other facts about our dismal financial prospects include the obvious, for example, that we are not earning anything near minimum wage. They also include the outrageous:  That the contracts many authors have to sign to be published require them to get permission for using their own work in teaching.

 

In case you are wondering if it is any better on the “indy” side of writing, it is not. It seems that, while one can make money as a self-published writer, the earnings are low and you have very real possibility that the book costs you more in editing, proofreading, design and marketing costs than it earns in sales. Many self-published books are very badly written, not edited nor proofread for this reason. The result are poor quality books that discourage buyers.

 

However, there are also very good self-published books–I’ve read a number of them. Are those authors making a lot of money? Some are, but these are often either genre writers (romance chief among them) or non-fiction books about business productivity, social media, how to market books (or anything)…and they are marketed very well. In other words, if you have a book with a clearly definable audience who needs the information you are supplying, or if you are a decent romance novelist with a following, you can do pretty well! But if you are a literary writer or even a kind of crossover literary/commercial writer, don’t expect a pot of gold.

 

Amazon is not interested in increasing your wealth, but their own. Recognising that they were paying out more for short books than longer books in their Select and Unlimited programs, Amazon made a very clever move this year to pay authors by the book length, not the book. In other words, they will pay authors less for short books and more for longer books, but only if those longer books are read. Don’t ask me how, but they are somehow able to track what pages have remained on the screen long enough to be read. And they only pay now for those read pages.

 

Who does Amazon’s new payment scheme hurt? Poets, short story writers, some children’s authors. I’m pleased that it means that “books” about dinosaur sex and the like (yes, these 20-30 page stories exist) will take a financial hit, but it seems markedly unfair to poets. You can get the power of a novel in some poems, and yet they are being paid by the page along with everyone else.

 

The history of writing shows a long stretch of time during which only the rich could afford to toil away on stories. Charles Dickens was an exception–he started life as a labourer in a boot-blacking warehouse and his father went to debtor’s prison–but on the whole poor people did not partake in literature at all, much less write. Not only were they unlikely to have been taught to read and write to decent standard  but they couldn’t afford to write even if they were literate. Paper and ink was expensive, hours spent away from work an impossible indulgence. Anyway, they didn’t have books, themselves. Where were they supposed to see the examples of excellence in the first place if they didn’t own more than a Bible in the house?

 

That those outside the privileged middle classes can write a novel is a relatively recent phenomenon. Unfortunately, that possibility is being whittled away as even good writers are now having to settle for an income at the poverty line or well below.

 

In her 2015 Guardian article, ‘In America, Only The Rich Can Afford To Write About Poverty’, Barbara Ehrenreich explains how the problem of underpayment has hurt journalists, too, especially those who want to address serious social issues such poverty.  She writes, “There’s Darryl Wellington, for example, a local columnist (and poet) in Santa Fe who has, at times, had to supplement his tiny income by selling his plasma – a fallback that can have serious health consequences. Or Joe Williams, who, after losing an editorial job, was reduced to writing for $50 a piece for online political sites while mowing lawns and working in a sporting goods store for $10 an hour to pay for a room in a friend’s house.”

 

While it appears that writers have the great freedom to write in any medium—paper book, e-books, journals or on-line articles—that freedom requires most of us to forgo any payment for our work.

 

It is easy to blame publishers, but they are not the problem.

 

Publishers are not standing at the gates trying to stop you from becoming the literary or commercial (or both) success you can be. They want the most interesting newcomers possible and to make money launching new careers. The problem is that they don’t know what will succeed in the mysterious literary market and when they bet on a new author they are often wrong.

 

Speaking to NPR’s This American Life in July 2003, David Rakoff, who described himself as having “a negative capacity to identify trends”, describes how as an editorial assistant he was handed a manuscript he particularly disliked. He described it in his notes as “subliterate, borderline mysogynist, an easy pass.”  The manuscript in question? Men are From Mars, Women Are From Venus. And while I do not disagree with David, who was smart and educated and funny and talented, and whose death from cancer in 2012 marked yet another loss in the world of literature, I can’t help but assume that if he didn’t know what would sell, very few other editors do. David was just brave enough to admit as much.

 

If we write, it cannot be for the riches. However, there is something sweeter about money we’ve earned from using our talent, something extraordinary about earning even a little doing what we love.  Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search For Meaning includes the sentence, “Meaning is really what we make our living on” and by this he means something very different than our literal living, the food we eat, the clothes we put on.

 

Meaning has value but no price, and often no publishing contract either. You won’t find any useful meaning in the occasional romance series that sells for eight figure sums. And it is unlikely you’ll find it in the next paranormal romance either. Those genres get the money, though, and I suspect their authors really do consider their books excellent. For those who are wowed by sales figures, it might be easy to believe so.

The Writer's Economy

Can You Make A Living As An Author?

 

A month ago, I sat on a panel at the Harvard Club in London with the author, Richard Mason, and the literary Agent, Mildred Yaun of United Artists. The subject of that night’s discussion was “Earning A Living In The Writing Business.”

 

Richard Mason, who began his publishing career at the age of twenty-one with the award-winning novel, The Drowning People, and the Oprah pick, History Of A Pleasure Seeker,  is also the co-founder of Orson & Co, a start-up that combines the best of technology with the world of literature in order to create what has been called the best electronic book available anywhere in the world.

 

Mildred Yaun left her lucrative position as a management consultant at Bain & Co to pursue a career as an agent. She now represents a number of household names, from the writer/illustrator, Sir Quentin Blake, to the business expert, Patrick McGinnis, author of The 10% Entrepreneur.

 

It was a fun evening with candid, often funny anecdotes from authors and agents, and from those who both work in publishing and write, themselves. In answer to the question, “Can you earn a living as an author?” Richard put it best when he said, “Well, it depends on what you mean by making a living. During the year I spent on a development project I lived in a tent in rural South Africa. You could definitely afford to do that and be an author.”

 

Mildred Yaun’s approach was all about treating writing like a business. “My authors get up in the morning with a list of tasks they are going to do that day to promote their work,” she explained. (I bet Sir Quentin does not, I wanted to say, but I didn’t. Sir Quentin is in a league of his own.)

 

Like her authors, Mildred treats agenting as a business. If an author isn’t producing the numbers she expects she drops them. It makes sense, or at least dollars and cents.

 

That is all understandable, but I am reminded of the story of Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line Of Beauty. He’d just been dropped by Chatto & Windus here in Britain after they’d published three of his novels, including his critically acclaimed, Swimming Pool Library that won both the Somerset Maugham Prize and the E.M. Forster Award. I don’t know exactly why he was dropped, but let’s assume it was for failing sales as normally publishers do not let go their selling authors. So when he finished The Line of Beauty, the manuscript had no publishing home. The manuscript eventually ended up in the offices of Picador, who published the novel that became the 2004 Man Booker Prize winner.

 

Publishing is full of stories such as these. Authors about to be dropped, are sudden successes. What does it take, really? A bit of luck, a literary prize, a major motion picture, and everything turns around.

 

The famous business writer and visionary, Seth Godin, recently stated on a podcast to Mark Stelzner of Social Media Examiner that if you are going into books to make money, that’s a wrong idea. He states that even though he has eighteen bestselling books in thirty-eight languages, he could barely make a living off his own books.

 

Again, I suppose it depends on what he means by making a living. Godin doesn’t plan to live in a tent, I imagine.

 

Godin’s blog is read by more than any other in the world. He has 476,000 followers on Twitter while following zero.

 

While he is primarily talking about business and thought leadership books, I suspect his discouragement about the prospects of making a living as an author would be even more emphatic when it comes to those of us writing fiction.

 

To Godin, the book business is just not a normal business. He goes as far as to say it is  “an organized hobby.”

 

This statement sounds so damning that it may seem to publishers and authors that Godin is just taking a swing at them. But I don’t think he is. While Godin declares that the book industry is “broken”, he still seems to love books. His advice to authors is that they create a book that cannot help but get people excited about it and talk about. This suggests that he understands the magic of the written word, that books can ignite a fire that cannot be stopped from spreading.

 

But is Godin correct about the unlikeliness of making any kind of living from writing? Should we take this on board if we want to write fiction?

 

In an interview with Digital Marketing he makes the point that most poets don’t make any money off books, so why should any of the rest of us? After all, the world does not owe us writers a living — nobody put a gun to our head and told us to go forth and create great characters.

 

I know from some of my readers how disheartening this sounds. They haven’t even finished their first novel and they are already being told they will never succeed even if it is published. How can an author write for years in darkness and obscurity when that golden hope of moderate fortune (or at least subsistence) has been declared an illusory dream by one of the world’s great visionaries?

 

Well, surprisingly, it isn’t that difficult. I’ve been doing it for years. Hang out with me, and I’ll show you how.

 

But wait a second, don’t I have publishing deals with major publishers in the US, UK and beyond? Sure.

 

And don’t I have agents on both sides of the Atlantic, not to mention sub-agents all over Europe and Asia. Yes.

 

So, how is that obscure? How is that failure?

 

It isn’t failure, as such. And neither is the work of an indy author who blogs and tweets and Facebooks and publishes on Wattpad, slowly building an audience, until, at last, she publishes her novel. That writer can consider herself successful or not depending on what her expectations are.

 

It’s like the question of whether you can make a living off books. Godin cannot because his expectations of his necessary earnings are so high he cannot meet them by book sales alone, even though he has eighteen bestsellers. Maybe you and I could.

 

Hey, you want some room in my tent?