[Forgive this being overlong. I’m compensating for the fact that my travel plans will limit how much I can respond to comments today, and that I’ll be off the grid for all of next week too.]
The core bloggers on this site lead quite different lives and I’m hoping that my post today will generate some competing ideas based on their backgrounds and experience. My subject is the age old problem of whether or not fiction writers should drop everything to make their dream real, and my title suggests where I fall on the issue.
As some of you know from previous posts, it took me a LONG time to get published (er… 2 decades), and that wasn’t for want of trying. Now that I’ve had some success I find myself wondering if I could have gotten to where I am faster if I had dropped out of grad school and pursued nothing but writing. My completely unsubstantiated instinct is that I could, if only because I would have generated material more quickly, but whether I would have made it to that point is another question entirely.
Say that in this alternate past, without a dissertation to write or classes to teach, it took me half as long to get published as it did in the past I actually experienced. That’s still 10 years mooching off my wife, ten years of being a financial burden and generally feeling useless. But maybe writing full time wouldn’t have shaved 10 years off my path to publication. Maybe it would have been more (let’s ignore the possibility, for now, that it might have been less). Maybe I would have found a publisher in only 2 or 3 years. Surely I could have reached that point without too much soul-searching? And then the money would start to roll in and I’d be soaring up the best seller lists and still (just) in my twenties!
Cue the knowing snickering from the published authors out there.
Because the problem with this sketch of my alternative past is that it makes the mistake that I often made before I was published. It assumes that once you are published, once you’ve got your foot in the door of that big New York publishing house, the streets are paved with gold and they all go right to the top. The hard truth is that most writers don’t make that much money and that a surprisingly small number (names we could probably generate between us in about ten minutes) make the really big bucks. Many authors consider themselves lucky if they generate thirty thousand dollars for a book, and a lot make considerably less. A few years ago I read that the AVERAGE advance for a book was a little over $5,000. That number has gone up some, I’m sure (most major NY presses cite about $30,000 as an average advance), but publishing remains, as they say, no way to make a living.
[I won’t bore you with the math, but you might consider just how impressive the bigger advances really are as well. $100,000 for a book sounds great, but then you have to deduct 15% for your agent along with any other expenses the book entailed (research travel, for instance, but also your computer, your workspace etc.) and any peripherals you would get from a regular job (like health insurance!), before factoring in how long it really took to produce the book and figuring out what you are actually making per year. Less impressive now, huh?]
Of course, you will be the exception. Your book will be the one whose hook, whose style, whose sheer freshness and insight will launch you to the top of the New York Times bestseller list right out of the gate and bring in the million dollar advances.
Because that is what everyone secretly hopes, right?
But here’s the thing. The last numbers I saw (and these are all open to debate) suggest that 62,000 novels are published each year in the United States alone. That’s novels, not books in general (total numbers of books are close to 300,000 with traditional presses, and neither number includes the approximately 750,000 self-published titles now released annually). Of those 62,000 only a few hundred will make the bestseller lists, and if you look around your average book store you’ll get a sense of how dominated the market place is by a handful of high-visibility titles at any given time. (The mechanics of how books attain that high visibility is material for a different but similarly disheartening post).
What this all adds up to, needless to say, is that the odds that you’ll make a pile of money off your book are very long. Most successful publications struggle to earn out the initial advance paid to their authors (70% don’t, according to the NY Times), and shelf life is limited. Bookstores are constantly having to make room for new inventory which means that your book may have only a few WEEKS to make a splash before being shunted into some dusty corner or returned to the publisher. And it gets worse. According to one book publicist, most titles only stay in print for eighteen months.
If these past couple of years have taught me anything, it’s that in publishing you are only as good as your last book, and by “good” I’m not referring to the quality of your prose. I’m talking about the only thing the industry finally cares about: sales. If the economy tanks, or your book gets slammed by a high profile reviewer, or any other factors combine to make for poor sales it’s not just the author’s chance of making a pot of money off this book that takes a hit; it’s the chance of making much of anything off the next book too since poor sales of one book may make the next book tough to sell at all. Publishers scrutinize previous sales very closely and any hint of a downward trend can make you a liability: hit a bad patch (even one fairly obviously tied to a collapsing economy) and suddenly you have an albatross round your neck. “I loved this story,” says the editor you have just submitted to. “Great characters, wonderful plot. I laughed I cried. Let me just look over the sales figures for your last one… Ah. I notice you have an albatross round your neck…”
Suddenly your New Shiny “doesn’t fit our list” or “doesn’t make economic sense to our accountants.” Not good.
Contrary to everything I believed before I was published, the first time author actually has a better shot at the big time than the established writer whose previous sales have been only middling. Success might breed success, but limited success can actually scar your future possibilities very badly. The shop window displays vanish. The advances fall to nothing. And before you know it, your agent wants to “re-evaluate our relationship.” I’ve had glimmers of such moments in my own career and know plenty of other writers who have had versions which have effectively ended theirs.
So. Would dropping your day job to write full time get you published faster? Perhaps. But is it the only way to prove your seriousness as a writer?: is it making the break from hobby to career?: is it practical?: is it smart? For most writers, I would say, simply, ‘no.’ Not if you aren’t independently wealthy (or at least fiscally stable), not if you haven’t already built a track-record of publishing success, not if you think that writing full time is either a.) romantic or b.) a short route to a pot of gold. Think long and hard before you make this subjective and capricious business the bedrock of a family, and always have a back up plan. No matter how well you seem to be doing, it can stop in a heart beat.
And let’s not forget that there are upsides to a day job. I’m not sure I could stand being in the house alone every day. I need people around me, even if they sometimes drive me nuts. I am, moreover, fortunate enough to have a job that feeds my writing, in my case by keeping me thinking about art and literature, though writers draw on all kinds of occupations for inspiration. There’s also something to be said for maintaining that sense of “hobby writing” even when you are doing it professionally, that you’re doing it because you want to, because it’s fun and not simply to pay the electric bill. For me, knowing I’m not absolutely dependent on the success of my next book gives me some creative license, frees me from the panic that I won’t be able to make the mortgage payment if my next ‘product’ isn’t sufficiently commercial. Without a job I might find myself desperately pursuing trends, or copying other people’s success instead of writing what I want to.
And let’s not forget the old mantra that work expands to fill the time allotted to it. If I had more time at home, time devoted to writing instead of having to jimmy it in among all the other stuff I have to do, would I crank out four novels instead of one in a year, or would that one novel just bloat to absorb all my waking time without actually getting any better? I’m not sure, but until I start making so much money from my books that it doesn’t matter if I never sell another, I probably won’t try too hard to find out.
To end on a fractionally more positive note, let me say that money isn’t a great incentive for a writer and it shouldn’t be what pushes you to finish your manuscript. Writers write because they have to, because they have something to say, to share, because they love story and character, conflict and resolution, because they think the world will be a little better with their book in it. These are the things that should drive you. The rest, if it happens, is just profit.