The economy sucks, but I have few alternatives
This weekend I attended a regional book fair a few hundred kilometers north of Gothenburg. It was my second visit. Last year the organizers had asked me to attend and “sponsored” me. I was also able to stay with friends to minimize the cost. Not so much this year. I had sold decently last year and figured I’d do well again this year. Well being about ten books, if memory serves me right. We decided to take the weekend and take our son along, as he loves train rides and hadn’t seen this part of the country. While a fun day and fair for me, financially, it was a bad decision.
The economy of a non-bestselling author
Most people don’t like to talk about money or income. I don’t have much to hide. My royalties are non-existent and I still see (on average) a book or two per day, making my Amazon author rank zig-zag between 30,000 and 250,000. It goes up when I release a book and down again after a while. Every time I sell a book, it goes up drastically. Makes you wonder how many people actually make a living from their writing. I know authors who sell a lot more who still have day jobs. I don’t. More about that (and why) in a minute.
Let’s just have a look at this weekend and the cost I incurred: train ticket, hotel, a table at the conference, the cost of books v the income of books sold. Book fairs are fickle beings. Some years you sell well, some you don’t. This year, a combination of fair weather, plenty of other events and the “unknown” of the visitor composition meant that few people bought books. Writing in English, selling books in the Swedish countryside is challenging as it is, and given that some of my colleagues didn’t sell a single book, I have to be pleased with the two I did sell. However, comparing the cost I incurred (~$458), the revenue of ~$27.50 is a drop in the ocean. Two-thirds of my royalties spent in one weekend.
Why I make these “horrific” financial choices
Some might say I’m crazy. They might just be right. Some might not make the same choice. Why do I attend a fair like this, knowing full well that I will never recoup that cost. I will also add here that these events are like best-selling lists. Only a few will ever make money. At the fair this weekend, I reckon one, possibly two authors got their money back, one being the “star” of the show, the main event. Already making money, she likely made even more and was paid to appear. I’m not envious, but as these things go, the book world is a funny place: you need to be famous to get a book deal to make money which you already have, as you’re famous. Alas, it’s the world.
So why do I (and many others) attend these events? What could possibly motivate us to throw away money? Had I not better save that money for a rainier day (e.g. my retirement?) Obviously, I don’t. So why? I think for most authors, our “need” to tell our stories goes far beyond simply writing them. Many of us also invest a lot of money to get these stories published. ONE author in Sweden was lucky enough to be published by Nordic (and global) giant Bonnier last year. One author! I have a hunch that the picture is similar for the remainder of the “big five” (regardless of what country you call “yours”.) The rest of all debutants had to either rely on small niche publishers or self-publishing. Some might even have paid for expensive vanity publishing services. My publisher is a niche publisher, a small indie house, and they make about as much money as I do. The only real income is the love for stories and to be able to read and polish stories, to make them available for a wider public.
I think that applies to me as well. I enjoy meeting readers, to showcase my work, and the joy of someone buying a book (or two as it were) goes a long way. Will I make the same decision again next year, given the meager results? Probably not. But maybe attend another book fair?
An indie author’s drive
Money can’t be our driving force, that is clear. So what is? What keeps us going? Well, I think we have those stories bubble up within us and we just can’t help it. We have to tell them. And just as some people spend thousands of dollars renovating vintage cars, collecting stamps or coins, we spend money making these stories available, regardless of the cost (to a degree anyway.)
The decisions we make to arrive at where we are aren’t driven by what is most economically beneficial to us, or even from a marketing point of view. We often choose covers because they appeal to us, because they’re beautiful, not because they sell. We write blurbs that convey an emotion of the book, not one that hooks people into buying it, and we send our ARCs to those who would’ve bought the book anyway, in hope for a review, thus losing both money (and often enough not seeing a review.) We make decisions regarding our books from a place of love, not a place of making money.
Yet somewhere, in the depth of our subconscious, we all hope that some mysterious agent might pick up our work, that a film studio will stumble across it, despite the handful of reviews on Amazon, and love the story so much they’ll send us a contract worth six-figures to sign us with all the fame and glory that comes with that. We all do. One in a million actually sees that contract. Just like the American dream, for most, it remains a dream at best.
Are you crazy? Get out and work!
I’m sure that most of the handful of people who will read this post will have this thought on their mind by now: why don’t you get a job? Why don’t you go back to working full-time? The answer isn’t an easy one, and it implies a shameful admission: it’s not as easy as it sounds. Today’s job market is brutal and we compete not just within our own countries but with bright, well-educated people around the world. I’m old, and at fifty-one (soon to be fifty-two) my education isn’t “fresh”. I’m also quite expensive (and no, I can’t call an employer and say that I’ll accept a 28-year old’s wage because they’d think I’m nuts/desperate) in the eyes of an employer given my thirty-year experience on the job market.
I’ve applied for a great number of jobs, both within what the market considers my “core” competencies and within adjacent areas. The result: one interview in three years. I’m either considered over-qualified (aka too old) or I don’t have the right industry background. Add to that that every year that I’ve been writing widens the chasm to the so-called workforce and I’m considered too remote and useless. Spice it up with a pinch of Xeno- and homophobia and my job market is all but the Gobi desert. This is all doing a stellar job on my self-esteem. So I keep writing because I can’t sit still and twiddle my thumbs. I need to work, I need to do something. And yes, I’m keeping my eyes on job adverts, too. I am capable of multi-tasking. 😉
I honestly don’t know. I have no real WIP at this time. No inspiration for the next great Swedish novel (in English.) I’m working on a children’s book, but that’s a long-term project. Short term? Find my inspiration? Make sure my self-worth, my self-esteem and what Americans so often refer to as “confidence” doesn’t plummet further? I don’t want to appear as a pity-party because I’m doing well, especially compared to the millions and millions without a meal on their table, those who lose house and home to natural disasters or those who are constantly under threat from oppressive regimes. Who am I to complain? First-world problems, right?