Why are you writing books, author?
This is not the first time that I’m grappling the topic of why authors write, I know. But it’s been a while, and with different times come different words, and who knows, my reasoning may have changed, mellowed, or hardened. You be the judge of that. The main reason why I’m revisiting this topic is my post from last Friday, about author economy, it, too, not the first time I was dabbing my feet into that particular topic.
During my years as author and blogger, I’ve spoken to hundreds of colleagues and friends in the industry about “why” they have become authors. Some of those I even interviewed here on my blog. Simply search author interview and you’ll find them. I’ve also spent a considerable amount of time soul-searching myself about my own plans, and why I am pursuing this particular “career”. Just last night, I applied for a day job, and that step once again propelled the question front stage and centered. What will I respond a potential interviewer if they ask me why I write books? And why I consider working full-time again? And what about my writing? Will it interfere with my day job?
All valid questions. I would look at the whole question of “why are authors writing” from two perspectives: a) those who do so full-time and b) those who do not:
- Full-time writers
- Make a living off of their writing
- Journalists / celebrities
- “commercially successful” authors
- Supported by a patron, e.g. a spouse.
- Make a living off of their writing
- Part-time writers
Ever since 1/1/2013 I’ve been falling under category 1.2, at the beginning being paid by the Swedish government as I was under parental leave and thus paid for that, and after that living off of money from my father and my husband (thanks again guys!) I would say that the absolute and vast majority of authors today belong to category 2, but as I said Friday, almost everybody dreams of 1.1.2, where maybe, maybe 1,000 people on the planet belong to. Because even writing a bestseller doesn’t necessarily guarantee you riches. Most authors “living” off of their work barely get by, which makes you think about their driving forces. WHY would anyone live off a salary of maybe 20-30K USD, if they could make a lot more in a corporate career?
Needless to say that the table above is simplified. There are of course variations to the theme, but for the purpose of this post, it’s complex enough. So what is driving us to write? I totally understand that dream many readers (I don’t necessarily see non-readers dreaming of one day writing that novel, I might be wrong) dream of writing. I don’t think I’ve been to many author-reader conferences where not most of the readers also held author dreams or were already working on a book. Maybe there is an analogy to musicians writing music?
From my perspective, I’ve always been writing. Nothing ever came of it, not until I was an adult. But writing a book was something I aspired to. It was something that made you “immortal”. Sure, I could’ve also written music, but since I have no voice to write home about and since my piano playing days ended in me being sexually assaulted by my piano teacher, that part of my life ended before it even had a chance to begin. And I guess, being a geek, an outsider, bullied and usually lonely in my room after school, writing diaries and little stories from early on, provided me with an outlet, a “friend” who would always listen, never argue, never talk back: paper.
When I finally did write a book, it was angsty poetry and a short story, self-published back in 1991 and I made all the horrible mistakes only a self-publisher makes: no editor, and a proof reader who had no idea what she was doing, apart from doing me a favor. I cringe when I open the pages of that little booklet today and see all the typos and errors EVERYWHERE. At least the photographs, the typesetting and printing were done professionally, by a friend who was in that particular industry.
Writing had always been my dream. Today, nine novels later (the tenth to be finished this month), two non-fiction titles (both in two editions), and three other books, the aforementioned poetry book, a short story collection and a book about how we became parents, I have more than lived and fulfilled that dream. What is left is the next big question for me.
Many of my author friends talk about this “need” to write, they speak of “plot bunnies” and everything and anything sets off ideas in their heads, ideas for stories. My ideas have become a lot more scarce recently, and as a writer of existential fiction (for lack of a better term) in a sea of sexy and romantic novels, I sometimes feel like something the cat’s dragged in, and I don’t necessarily feel inspired to write. Please don’t get me wrong, I love the LGBT writing community dearly, and my M/M friends are an important part of my life, but in terms of my work, my craft, my art, I get very little inspiration.
Some of the authors I’ve met through the years write to make money. Most of them are Americans, dreaming about the promise of the “American Dream”, and the riches and success it beckons with. Yet as alluring as it may be, it often reminds me more of the rat catcher of Hameln than something actually seriously worth pursuing. Because again, given today’s market, you have to sell a boat load of books to make a million. Consider this simple example:
Book sold at $3.99, a fairly common price for an e-book. If on Kindle Unlimited and KDP exclusive, the author makes 70% (if self-published), otherwise it’s more like 15%, but alas, let’s consider them self-published. They make $2.79 a book. To make a million USD, they’d have to sell 358,423 copies of said book. That’s a lot of books! Now, if you’re with a publisher, do the math yourself, based on your terms.
Yet when we read how Mr. Yiannopoulos announces a book deal for a whooping $250,000 with a respectable publisher, thousands and thousands of “hobby” authors begin to dream anew. However, and this isn’t about Mr. Yiannopoulos political views (which I personally despise), he is already a bit of a household name. At least within his realm of right-wingers. He’s a celebrity, and a journalist, not an unusual combination, and thus a relatively safe bet for a publisher, a fun queer, delivering his bile sugar-coated with jokes and campy antics, unlike his mentor Steve Bannon. As cynical as it may seem, publishers today care little about the “good of the world” and only about shareholder value and next quarter profits. To Simon & Schuster it seems to make sense to cash in on the current political heat wave in American politics and the upswing of fascism (or as some call ‘alt-right’). We’ll see how successful that books turns out to be for them once it’s out…
In today’s economy, to sell a run of 100,000 copies of a book, you better have a strong selling point. And a household name would be just that. It’s no surprise that many sports personalities and former politicians end up (ghost-)writing books. Often enough, they’re already successful (financially as well as publicity-wise) and therefore safe bets for the big publishers of the world, which often sell language rights to each other across country borders. Swedish soccer player Zlatan Ibrahimovich isn’t just a star in Sweden. I’m sure his book sells equally well in Italy, France and now the U.K. where he’s currently playing. And I’m sure that George W. Bush’s biography “Simple Minds” is laughed at in Moscow as well as Beijing… kidding You get my point.
Those books, whether they’re from journalists, politicians, celebrities or sports personalities are rarely novels. They’re biographies or non-fiction, although you never really know the difference between fact and fiction. When it comes to the great bestsellers in the fictional arena, you’ll see two big trends: big names or big topics. Not often do you get to know a new name or a new topic. So why do people still pursue the dream of writing? In all my talks, the only common denominator to this question is “I have no choice”. Be it plot-bunnies replicating faster than the Hobbs in Bunnyborough or the urge to get that ONE story out of their heads.
I don’t mind which drives you my friend. However, I have one request: make sure you don’t just fall for Amazon’s sweet talk about how easy it is to self-publish and how many millions of dollars their Unlimited-fund is filled with quarter after quarter. Those aren’t your millions: think pennies instead, be realistic. And get an editor, a good one. Pay them! Get proof readers. Get a good cover artist. Pay them! And even if you decide to create your own PDF to upload to Amazon et al., read up on typesetting. Because the craft of a book is as important as the art of it. The delivery of a story as important as the story itself. While I would never dispute your right to publish anything just because you can’t afford to pay for quality help, I question the wisdom. Do you really think people are going to enjoy plot holes, typos and other issues? And what a start to your author career if your reviews reflect those shortcomings? Grant you, not even a publisher is always going to do their job, I once fell into that pit with my first English non-fiction title, but it’s rare. I was a rookie and naïve. If you’re me, get help, ask for advice. Be patient.
Why? I know how badly bad reviews hurt! And nothing is worse than a bad review that you know is the truth, mercilessly delivered not just to you personally, by an editor who wants your best, but to a global audience who’ll shun your work… Think about that.
We live in a day and age where it’s easier than ever to publish a book. We also live in a day and age where our enjoyment of literature is increasingly governed by the shorter attention spans we grant our entertainment. Books become shorter, novels turn into novellas who turn into short stories. And the somewhat finite pool of money spent on books (shrinking in 2016) is spent on more and more authors, and more and more titles. In the end, fewer people will be able to financially support themselves as writers. If that is why you want to get into writing, you may try the lottery instead, and invest the time saved into a DIY project or your family. However, if your heart is bursting and your mind is spinning with a story that just must be told, by all means, do give it to the world. Just make sure you do it justice! Everything else would be a shame, don’t you think?
Have a wonderful week. As you read this, I’m traveling north to the village of Ammarnäs in Swedish Lapland to do my tenth novel justice, doing research into my main character’s place of birth and his cultural heritage. I’ll tell you more on Friday when I’m back…