Thursday, February 23, 2012

Readin' & Writin' & Judgin' a Book by Its Cover

How does one become a writer? What does it take to be a writer? Why does one become a writer? That last one is easy to answer. Have a story and the desire to tell it. That also answers the second question. Have a story and the desire to tell it. The first one also has an easy answer. You sit down and start writing the story you have and desire to tell.
While those simple answers certainly are true, they don’t tell all of it. Especially in regards to that first question. In my opinion, there is something far more fundamental that is needed to serve as the foundation before one can look to writing.
That fundamental is that one must first be a reader.
If you don’t like to read, then the chances are pretty good that the thought of writing a book will never occur to you. There is something that goes even deeper than that. The phrase, “Monkey see; monkey do,” applies very strongly here. Humans—heck most mammals and a notable number of non-mammals—learn by observing others. If you read a lot, then your brain is going to be conditioned how to write by the example of how other writers have written. If I complete writing a chapter and then sit down and read a book for a while, when I return to my own writing and reread it, I catch my mistakes fairly easily. If you do not read, then you are not going to be exposed to the structures and flow of writing. Without those examples as stimulus, you are probably not going to write very well.
When I was a young boy, I was not much of a reader. The desire and motivation was just not there for me. I just could not get myself interested in reading a book. In kindergarten, I was excited about learning to read. In first grade, that excitement disappeared as I realized that reading was boring and by second grade, it was starting to get annoying and I was starting to not like reading. It was boring!
The third grade at the age of seven was a critical year for me. I knew my reading skills weren’t as good as other kids my class and it bothered me a lot. Enough so, that I began to try and figure out why I wasn’t getting into books. I used to love reading when I started learning to read. There were books that I absolutely loved pulling out! I remember when I got my first library card, I was so excited! So what was the difference?
What happened that caused me to lose interest in reading?
It was when they handed out our third grade reading books that the answer to that question began to reveal itself to me. I did not like those books at all and reading went to the bottom of my list. That only heightened my concern.
High Plains Elementary was an unusual environment. It wasn’t until my family moved and I found myself in a completely different school system that I appreciated the difference. At High Plains, the children’s culture determined your social ranking not by your size, strength or speed, but by your academic standing. That was probably brought about by the fact that the school system was a very progressive one.
For example, they started teaching the students French in the third grade. I was abysmal at it! For the next three years (third, fourth and fifth grades), French was my worst course. I could not at all wrap my brain around that language! It didn’t matter how hard I tried, I just could not understand it. The last thing I ever tried to say in French was, “I have a dog.” (“J’ai un chien”) What came out of my mouth instead was, “Je suis un chien.” (“I am a dog.”) That’s not something that you say in the fourth grade. The entire class burst out laughing and I felt utterly humiliated! I completely gave up on learning French at that point, and forever more would just sit and either sulk or daydream whenever French class would begin.
The reason for my failure at French was because at no time did anyone explain that the word order in French was different from English. As a result of this, I could never make sense of the sentences. I could never picture the meaning of what was said.
It would be many years before I would be able to understand the concept of what was going on with me. But I was beginning to understand that I was different as a child.
The foundation of my problem with learning French was the same as my issue with reading.
I realized that the reason I didn’t like the new reader books for the third grade was because they had almost no pictures in them. In first grade, we used pictures books—kiddy books—when learning the read. In second grade, the text was smaller and there were fewer images. By the third grade, they were weaning us off the picture books and going for more textual narratives.
My favorite books were several of the Dr. Seuss books, such as Green Eggs & Ham, Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, and a number of other books of which I can remember the pictures and the stories, but not the titles. I absorbed the stories through the images. I would study the images and lose myself in the images. But not the words themselves.
The third grade readers had almost no pictures in them. It certainly didn’t help that the subject matter of the stories were boring as hell. I had no interest in drawing myself into those stories. Without a picture, I couldn’t generate the image in my mind needed to see the story I was reading.
The issue being, I think in images.
My favorite books were picture books, “kiddy books”. Not exactly something a seven-year-old boy wants revealed before his peers.
On one particular day in November, soon after that realization, my class was marched down to the school library for library studies. It was not one of my favorite activities. Dewey Decimal system, pick out a book. It was all boring. But at this particular moment, I was keenly aware that some of my classmates were picking out books that were several grades above my current reading level.
Not wanting to be embarrassed, I turned my back to the book section I might have chosen and walked away. I decided it was time I look for something else to read.
A little more than forty years later, I can say absolutely that day was the most pivotal moment in my life. The choice I made that day set the course my life would follow. A choice made by a seven-year-old.
I don’t know why I actually looked at the books in particular. I think I recognized the covers on the Hardy Boys series, a favorite of my older brother. I wasn’t interested in mystery series, so I glanced down at the other books that had similar covers. The books were by the same company that published the Hardy Boys series: Stratemeyer Syndicate.
The books that caught my attention were the Tom Swift, Jr. series of books. A teenage scientist and his adventures with the things he built. Not exactly the most sophisticated reading, those books. They were written to formulated plots and set structures. But for a seven-year-old boy who wanted to read, they were perfect.
The book I pulled off of the shelf was particularly important. I flipped through the pages and noted there were no pictures in it. Oh! Wait! There were actually two or three drawings in it. Just enough to give my mind an image to build on while reading. But the cover was what really caught my eye. At the time, one of my favorite TV shows was Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea and my favorite cartoon was Marine Boy. Like these two TV shows, the book featured something that was the absolute epitome of coolness to a seven-year-old boy.
The cover featured a flying submarine!
What was so vitally important for me at that time was something that I would not quite realize until I was a few years older. The Tom Swift, Jr. books featured covers that showed a particular scene in the story contained within. It was vital because that image portrayed on the cover was the seed from which I was able to create the imagery of the story in my mind. It was a skill that I had not yet developed and it was a skill I needed to become a reader.
I sat down and began to read an “adult” book for the first time in my life. A story about a flying submarine.
And for the first time in my life, I began to enjoy reading.
It would be a few more books before I began to really visualize what I was reading. When I opened a book and began to read, I would no longer see the words on the page, I would instead see the imagery of the story like a movie played out in my mind. The passage of time would go unnoticed until I had to put the book down for one reason or another.
I began to read voraciously!
It wasn’t long before the drawings in the books that I originally relied on began to get in the way of my reading. Eventually, I graduated to more sophisticated reading.
It was my fourth grade teacher, Lark McGuire, who introduced me to the activity that would eventually become my career: writing.
The exercise was simple. She would write a sentence on the chalk board and our assignment was to take that sentence as the beginning of a story.
A fire lit in my soul like the flames of the sun! I couldn’t contain the incredible euphoria I felt! Where most of my classmates wrote one or two paragraphs, I was on page two and going onto page three.
The whole class enjoyed the exercise. So much so, that during one rained-out recess, Ms. McGuire asked us what we wanted to do for a game, and we begged her to write a sentence on the board so we could write.
I remember her asking, “Don’t you want to do anything else?,” and trying to talk us into playing a game or something. She had the biggest grin on her face when she turned and started writing something on the board. The more often we did those exercises, the longer and more fantastical the stories I wrote. A number of the kids in my class—friends and not-friends alike—wanted to see just what was going to come out of my imagination next.
I still have some of those stories, saved by my mother. And I can say with all certainty that they are pretty much as bad as the Marine Boy episodes linked above.
I loved to write. I yearned to write! Creative writing became my favorite exercise, because it gave me the excuse to write. But as time went by, creative writing gave way to more practical education. It wouldn’t be until my junior year in high school when we would have a creative writing class, and then only for about two or three weeks as part of English.
Because of the need for more “important” educational matters, it never occurred to me to just sit down and write for myself. It wouldn’t be until college when I would be sitting in a boring lecture, that I would begin to write stories again. Beyond that, the need to work in order to make enough money to survive would become my primary focus, and I kept putting off the thought of writing a book for some other point when I wasn’t so pressed.
Writing and reading go hand in hand. Each one reinforces the other. The more I read, the more I want to write. When I am having trouble writing something, I sit down and pull out a favorite book to read for a while. After that, I usually find it much easier to get started writing.
When I write, it really is the reverse of reading for me. As I read, I see the story played out like a movie before me. When I am writing, I am trying to write and describe the scenes that are passing before my mind. The more I write, the more I see the visualization of what I am writing.
I wonder what might have become of me had I not picked out that book that day? Which direction would my life have gone? Would I have ever found the joy of reading at a later age or would I have given up on it completely? I have no way to answer those questions.
I do find it interesting that the course of my life was determined by a frustrated and embarrassed seven-year-old boy over forty years ago. That my eventual career would be determined by a fourth-grade writing exercise a year later.
And that you really can judge some books by their covers….

Monday, February 13, 2012

Addiction is a Waste of Life

I was reading an article this morning about Whitney Houston, and one of her colleagues declared her "…a fighter and a survivor." She was neither. She succumbed to drug use and now she is dead. If anything, she was a victim. She was a victim of whoever talked her into doing drugs in the first place and of herself for giving in to that insistence.
I can still remember the first time I ever heard Whitney Houston sing. I was driving back to school from home and had the radio on for noise when her song came on. It wasn't the kind of music I was into, but I was struck by how perfect her voice sounded. No wavering. No searching for the pitch. Each note was dead on and absolutely solid and clear.  This perfection of voice was continued in every song I heard her sing, right up to and including when she sang the U.S. National Anthem at Superbowl 25. I strongly recommend to every celebrity who wants to sing the Star Spangled Banner at any public forum to carefully study Houston's rendition before they perform it. Every note was precisely what it should have been. None of those "artistic" undulations that sound like the singer was having a pulmonary seizure. Her voice was as clear and pure as a bell! Her singing was absolute vocal perfection! I have yet to hear anyone sing the anthem as well as she.
And then, she was gone. Houston got into drug use and her career came careening to a halt. She disappeared from the public eye and thence public interest. Her career was only just starting to roll when she fell into the abyss of addiction.
In recent years, she was starting to work towards making a comeback; getting herself clean from years of drug abuse and getting back on her feet. A number of accounts I read at random during this period were not kind to her. The drug use had taken its toll on her once-perfect voice. Though, apparently recently she sang at the funeral for her mother-in-law, and the pastor claimed her voice was perfect.
Perhaps Houston had finally beaten her demon and was poised for that comeback.
Only now, we'll never know. She's dead and we'll never be able to hear whether or not that perfect voice had been resurrected. She now joins that lengthy list of could-have-beens. Genius artists who were cut down before they even reached their prime. Janice Joplin, Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, River Phoenix… The list goes on and on, and sadly will get longer with time.
But this isn't a tribute to Houston, it's about addiction and what it does to people. How it ruins their lives. Houston said in an interview that she smoked marijuana laced with crack by her ex-husband, Bobby Brown. My impression from those comments is she was implying that she wasn't into hard drugs until that point.
I've heard the same story from many other people. "They offered me a joint that was laced with something…," are words I have heard so many times, it now comes across as a weak excuse to hide their culpability. Second to that is, "They put something in my drink."
What is sad, those statements and many others like them are both absolutely true.
My message to children is once you hear that a friend of yours is doing drugs, that person can no longer be trusted as your friend. They will do anything and everything they can to obtain drugs from that point on, including dragging you and anyone else down with them. The first stage is they will push hard to get you to try the drugs, because in their mind if you are doing drugs, then it must be okay that they are doing drugs. But as their addiction grows stronger, they don't even care about justifying it anymore. They'll steal from you or sell you out just to get anything that will let them obtain drugs.
My second message to children is that if your parents are doing drugs, your parents love those drugs more than they will ever love you. To drug-using parents who are insulted by that statement and object to those words, my answer to you is, "Prove it."
Walk away from the drugs. Throw them away and never use them again. Prove that your children are more important than the drugs.
As any addict can tell you, it's not that simple.
They want to love their children! They want to tell their children how important they are! But the siren song of drugs to an addict is just too powerful. Children of addicts all too often tell stories of being beaten when they confronted their parents about their drug use.
Have you ever been intensely thirsty? So thirsty that the first chance you got, you sloshed down a glass of water as fast as you could and then followed it with another? How about hungry? Perhaps you missed breakfast and lunch, so by dinner you were so hungry you were almost feeling lightheaded? You bought two hamburgers instead of one and practically inhaled them?
That is what life is like for an addict.
Every day.
Every hour.
And for some, every minute.
An addict's life revolves around one given chemical or another. They have absolutely no control in their lives whatsoever. Some give the illusion of having it all under control, but it is still only illusion. Like a rotting apple, things look good on the surface, but once you peel back the skin, you can see the rot hidden beneath. Eventually, like the rotten apple, the rot will come through to the surface and by then it is far too late for them to recover anything. Even when they desperately want to turn their lives around and clean up, they cannot.
I worked with one man who I can only describe as the poster child for D.A.R.E., in that they could have put his picture on a poster with the caption, "Do drugs and this is what you will become." His life revolved around alcohol and drugs.  He clearly once had a mind that could be described as brilliant. His ability to remember and recall sports statistics was nothing short of impressive. A few times I actually looked up some of the things he said, and he was dead on. If nothing else, he could have easily had a career on sports radio. But the drugs and alcohol pretty much guaranteed that the only jobs he would ever be able to hold would be straight labor jobs that didn't require any skill.
As further proof of the strength of mind he possessed, he did give up drinking. Cold turkey. After decades of abuse, he discovered that a co-worker was in Alcoholics Anonymous. That was enough that he put down the bottle and walked away from it.
Sadly, the damage of addiction had been done, and he quickly turned to other substances to fill in the gap left by the missing alcohol. One thing would lead to another that had a stronger effect, and so on. He disappeared eventually, fired from work for doing drugs on the job.
Addiction doesn't end when the addict stops taking the substance to which they are addicted. It is a life-long battle. Even if you've gotten the substance out of your life, your life will still revolve around the need to avoid that substance at all costs. You will forever be chained to it and feel the yearning for it. It does get better and easier with time, but the hunger never really goes away. It will always be there gnawing at the back of your mind and your sanity.
So, I look at Whitney Houston not as a lost star but as a waste of life. Think of what she could have been and where she would be today had she not given in to substance abuse! Instead of being the icon and pinnacle of the music industry, she was a corpse drowned in a bathtub because she passed out from drugs and alcohol. Instead of being the role model to follow for new up-and-coming singers, she'll forever be the bad example of how to destroy your career and your life.
I hope Lindsey Lohan and Britney Spears are paying attention, because this is their future if they don't clean up.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

KDP Select—A Good or Bad Idea?

Here's a question for everyone: do you have an ebook reader? I would really like to know. I know three people who have Nooks, two who have Kindles, and one who has an iPad. I'd like to get an idea of how many people out there have what. So, I've set up a survey on the right. Please click on one of the answers.
With the release of my book fast approaching, I'm looking more closely at the various distribution options. One of which is a program offered by Amazon.
Amazon has produced an intriguing carrot to dangle before authors: their KDPSelect Fund. Amazon sets up a monthly fund (currently $600K) for authors who agree to allow their book to be borrowed for free by Amazon Prime members and give Amazon a 90-day exclusive on the book. In exchange, during each of those three months the author gets paid a percentage from the fund equal to the percentage that his title was borrowed by prime members. If 100,000 prime members borrowed books in one month, and 1,500 of them chose my book, then I would get paid 1.5% of that month's fund amount. That would mean that my 1.5% of $600K would be $9,000. And if someone likes my book, that person can buy it, so I technically get paid twice for one sale. Bonus!
I could actually make more money by letting people borrow my book for free than I would selling my book! Without excluding the possibility of the sale. It may sound too good to be true, but that is how Amazon has set it up. The KDPSelect program truly does work that way.
Amazon Prime members pay $80 per year for extra privileges and perks. One of these is access to the Kindle Owners Lending Library. This library differs from the program that allows a Kindle owner to lend a title the owner purchased to a friend. This library is for prime members and gives them access to a library from which they can borrow an exclusive title for free.
Amazon benefits as well, getting an $80 sale for each member, plus they get exclusive distribution of a given ebook title for 90 days before any other distributors can offer that ebook title. Amazon gets a head start, and it encourages consumers to look more closely at buying a Kindle because of the possibility of hot titles being available on that platform first. Amazon customers who are avid readers get the benefit of being able to read the hottest new titles—exclusive from Amazon—for free. And the authors benefit as I outlined above.
So, if this is such a Win!-Win!-Win! program, why am I being so hesitant?
Because like anything else that sounds too good to be true, there are some catches and gotchas, and they are very well hidden. And where they are hidden are in the market statistics.
There is market share in the fiction market. According to statistics published by the Romance Writers of America, the Science Fiction/Fantasy market share in fiction titles sold is around 15%. I remember someone in the industry noting that Fantasy tended to have about twice the market share of hard Science Fiction. So, I'll hazard a guess that out of that 15%, Fantasy will ring in at 10% of the fiction market share. Ignoring non-fiction sales, that means out of Amazon's hypothetical 100,000 borrows from the Lending Library, at best I have a shot at 10% of those borrows: 10,000. Ten thousand potential borrows is still a pretty damned good number!
But, there is something dark and sinister lurking in the background. That thing is Amazon Prime subscribers are only allowed to borrow one title per month! Subscribers pay $80 for the privilege of having access to borrowing twelve exclusive titles through the year. You can bet that they are going to be picky about what they choose to borrow for any given month. As my ebook would be available for three months, they have three chances to choose my ebook for borrowing over another ebook. In any given month, given a one-out-of-three choice, that means that there may only be about 3,300 potential borrowers of my book.
If a popular author in any genre releases a book in any given month, given the choice between my ebook and the popular author's ebook, it's pretty good odds that the borrower will want to expend his one borrow for the month on a title by an author that he has been looking forward to reading. If George R. R. Martin, Steven King and Steven Erikson decided to release a new book at the same time I released my book into the Lending Library, I will be totally screwed. My ebook would be tied up for three months and readers would only have three borrows available. At best, I might only end up with a couple dozen borrows in exchange for leaving my ebook locked up in an exclusive for three months.
Then there is pricing. My aim is to charge $4.99 for my ebook when released. The $80 per year breaks down to just over $6.60 per month. Folks would actually be losing money borrowing my book. I could just bite the bullet and push my pricing up to  $6.99, making the borrowing a bargain. But that price could also make people think twice about buying my ebook. (It could be argued that someone interested in my book would borrow something else and buy my book outright, considering it two books for a bargain price.)
Last, there is the actual number of ebook readers that have been sold. Amazon is very tightlipped about how many Kindles have been sold. A year ago, analysts guesstimated that Amazon had a 58% of the market in ebook readers. But huge sales of Apple's iPad and Barnes & Nobles Nook through 2011 have eroded Amazon's share considerably to less than half of the total installed market. Amazon might still be the 480-pound gorilla in the ebook reader market, but do I want to risk ignoring the 520 pounds of chimpanzees and monkeys in the rest of the market for three months?
This is why I set up my survey, to determine how many people who find my book interesting have an ebook reader and what kind.
My personal conclusion is that the KDPSelect program is good for authors who already have a following and are guaranteed that readers will want to borrow their book when it is released. If you are a new author without any following, the program will probably work against you. Especially if readers are faced with the choice between your book and one released by a popular writer. Having your ebook locked up for three months while it languishes against hot and anticipated titles might not be worth the payout.
I still have a little longer before I have to make my final decisions.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

The Business of Writing: Time and Money, the Big Gamble

So, you’ve finally gone and done it. Shut yourself in a room for three years with no income or life and with dedicated and somewhat maniacal focus you managed to reach the last page of the manuscript for the next great American novel, Marvelous Marvin’s Magnificent Magical Muffin Muncher. With the last remaining credit left on the credit card that you have way over-used for the past three years to survive, you print up twenty copies of your manuscript and mail them out to different publishers. (Never mind that you could have saved yourself about $40 in postage by emailing your manuscript.)
With visions of advance checks dancing in your head, you sit back and wait for the offers to come in.
And wait.
And wait.
And wait.
Aaaaaaaaaand wait.
After about two months of dodging bill collectors, credit agencies, and hiding from your landlord, you begin to suspect that something is not aright. Just as you begin to become worried, your concerns are dispelled when, just like magic, an envelope from one of the publishers appears in the mail! Never mind that it seems a little thin, it’s probably a check! Though, in the back of your mind, you’re certain they would have sent the manuscript back with editing suggestions and corrections. Never mind that! With almost controlled desperation, you tear the envelope open and with great excitement you read their acceptance of your manuscript:

Dear Sir or Madam,

While we appreciate your interest in doing business with our company, we feel it necessary to inform you that we don’t accept manuscripts directly from authors.

We only accept manuscripts from literary agents. We suggest that you… Blah, blah, blah, yadda, yadda…

A form letter?
They didn’t even sign it, they just used a generic stamp for the signature. Gadzooks! They printed it in Comic Sans?!
Fast forward another month and you finally found a literary agent who was willing to market your manuscript, only to discover that it may be another six to eight months before he might find an interested publisher, and it might be a couple more months before a check appears if they are interested. Your agent figures you might get lucky if he finds a publisher willing to advance you as much as six or seven thousand dollars. If you get lucky.
So, being a writer, you begin to tally up the months—and pull off your shoes so you can get over ten—and you discover that it might be another year before you see any kind of money for your book. And that money probably won’t be more than $3,000.
You haven’t worked for three years. That meant no income for three years. You’ve wracked up over $25,000 in debt on your credit cards. You emptied your IRA just to keep the lights on. You are a couple months late on your rent. Now you have to wait another year before you have $3,000 in your pocket? Even then, royalties won’t come in until the advance has been covered by sales of your book.
Suddenly, Jean Shepherd’s Cold Light of Truth shines its painful brilliance upon you and you realize that you are totally screwed! And if your book doesn’t sell, you are going to have to use much stronger words than ‘screwed’ to describe the situation you are in.
Welcome to reality.
J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter series is a perfect example of a first-time writer. The Harry Potter franchise today is worth over $15 billion! But when Rowling submitted her book, it was rejected by twelve publishers before one finally decided to take a look at it.
About two years after she finished writing her first book, it was accepted by Bloomsbury Publishing and she was paid £1,500, roughly about $2,300 today. By that time, she was on public assistance.
Rowling started writing Harry Potter in 1990. She finished writing it in 1995, and it wasn’t until 1997 that she had a check in her hands. Seven years for just $2,300.
Of course, Bloomsbury started printing her book! They printed 1,000 copies.
To figure this next bit, I’m going to make some assumptions. I know my numbers are a little off because of these assumptions, but they are in the ballpark.
A new author is lucky to see maybe 5% of the net sales of the book. That’s net profit, not the full price of the book. In fact, it is the net profit from the wholesale price of the book! Not the full sale price!
I bought my hardcover copy of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone for $15. I’m going to assume that the book store paid a wholesale price of around $11 for the book. Assuming the printing cost was around $8, that means the net profit for each book was maybe $3. The net profit would have been $3,000, and 5% of that would be $150.
Of course, because she was given an advance, which is basically a loan against future sales of the book, she didn’t receive that $150. Royalties don’t come in until the sales of the book cover the advance.
Seven years of her life, and the first run of her book earns her $150.
Her agent advised her to get a day job.
(At this point, I need to be fair and point out that, obviously, Bloomsbury had more printing runs of the book, so she did make some income for her efforts. But as you can guess from the above, it wasn’t that much money.)
In order to write the next book, Rowling applied for and received a grant from the Scottish Arts Council in the amount of £8,000 ($12,500). If not for that grant, Harry Potter probably would have stopped with the first book and that would have been it.
Sales for Harry Potter in the United Kingdom were fairly mediocre.
In the spring of 1998 Scholastic bought the rights to publish Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone in the U.S. When they called Rowling, she nearly died when they told her they paid her just over $100,000 for it. When sales began in October 1998, something magical happened and Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone became a huge hit, and sales around the world began to surge.
Rowling started writing her book, it took her five years to finish, and she didn’t get a big check until three years after that. In the meantime, she ended up on welfare, struggling to make ends meet. It was nearly nine years since she began before she finally hit it big.
I love using Rowling as an example because she really is the perfect example of the struggling first time writer who comes out of nowhere and produces a big hit. Anyone who sits down to write a book, this is what they are hoping for. This is the fairy tale for writers, and Rowling is truly the real life example of it. She is what every aspiring writer hopes to be.
Writing a book is a gamble.
Writing a book takes time. A LOT of time! Like it or not, time has a value. It has both a material value and an immaterial value.
The material value is easy to calculate. Just take your annual salary and divide it by the number of hours you worked for the year. That is what an hour of your time is materially worth. How many hours are you willing to put into writing your story each day? Do you give yourself time off? When published, is your book going to pay you enough to cover the time you put into it? This is not a trivial question! When you decide you want to become a professional writer, that means you have to ask yourself whether or not you can actually support yourself.
If you become a writer, you have to consider a lot of things. The IRS wants you to consider a lot of things, such as what are you going to pay in taxes? There is no social security for self-employed people, so you have to take care of that, too. You may want to consider disability insurance. If a laborer suffers some horrific accident and can no longer work, that person can apply for Social Security. But if a self-employed writer suffers some horrible accident that leaves that person unable to write, that person is out of luck. As a writer, you have to buy your own health insurance. (Suddenly, affordable health insurance becomes a major issue for you!) Gasoline is another thing to consider. The average person pays about $2,000 per year per car to put gas in the gas tank.
As I said, writing is a gamble. You are putting your hours into generating a document from which you hope to make a living. There is no guarantee that it will be a hit or even if anyone will buy it. If it turns out to be a flop, then all the hours you put into it are lost.
The immaterial cost is your life.
Writing is a complete lifestyle change for someone who was previously an office worker. Or a steel worker. Or a ditch digger. Or a mechanic, doctor, hair stylist, etc. In fact, even for a journalist—someone who makes their living at writing—switching to writing a book is a huge shift in gears! Jay Cronley nailed it when he wrote Funny Farm, which became a movie starring Chevy Chase (one of my personal favorites). Chevy’s character was a sportswriter who wanted to write the next great American novel and discovers that wanting to and doing it are completely different things. Cue the deer…
Remember that old work schedule? You used to work eight hours a day? Go home on the weekends? Sleep late? Ah, yeah, those were the good ole days! When you become a writer, seriously a writer, you discover that things are quite different from what you or other people expected.
Many people think writers have the life. A writer can lounge around all day in their bathrobe, sipping a martini and checking the stock market on occasion. That a writer has all the free time in the world. I can’t tell you how many times people call me and ask me to take care of something for them because I “don’t work for a living.”
I put in about fifteen hours a day writing. Oh, sure, not all of that is tickling the keyboards for fifteen hours non-stop. There are times I’m doing research on one thing or another so I know that I have a description correct. I once spent a couple hours reading up on codpieces of all things! Codpieces?! Yup. Why? You’ll have to wait until book four of the Aggadeh Chronicles comes out. You’ll never look at holly bushes in quite the same way after that…
There are edits to be done. Corrections are annoying, rewriting scenes can be a chore. There are times I am absolutely amazed at the stupid mistakes I’ve made. The dumbest was when I changed the name of a character. The strangest was when I had kept writing long past when I should have given up and gone to bed. I fell asleep at the keyboard, woke up and continued writing. My editor emailed me asking, “What the hell happened on Page XX?” I sat there thinking, huh? What? Looked at it and discovered that was the point where I fell asleep and woke up again and continued writing. I had omitted a few pages of writing without realizing it! It did make for a very bizarre disconnect in the story.
When you have finally written that manuscript and you are ready to either submit it to publishers or you are going to self-publish, you as a writer have the responsibility to yourself to work out just how much you should expect in compensation for your efforts. This must be balanced on the other side of the equation.
If you are going with a publisher, you must accept the fact that as a business, the publisher needs to make a profit selling your product. Your wholesale price to the publisher is the royalty you expect to be paid for each copy sold of your book. It is vital to understand that an advance is a royalty payment given you by the publisher before the book actually sells.
In simple terms, if you agreed on a $1 royalty per book and the publisher is pretty sure they will be able to sell 10,000 copies, then a 30% advance on 10,000 copies would be $3,000; $1 each for the first 3,000 books expected to be sold. You won’t see any other royalty checks until book number 3001 sells. Then your regular royalty payments will start arriving.
What happens if your book is simply not popular, and you only sell 2,500 copies? Technically speaking, because the advance of $3,000 was a royalty payment, you owe $500 to the publisher. Most reputable publishing houses will probably write this off as a business loss, and you can probably expect that they will not be interested in future books you write. But, there are some less savory publishers who might push the point to have the $500 overpayment returned to them. Before you become incensed by that comment, think of it in another way. If you purchased a product for $3,000 and then discovered the next day it was on sale at the same store for $2,500, wouldn’t you go back to the store the next day and ask for a refund to match the sale price? Most stores will gladly do so rather than lose a sale and a customer.
If your book sells incredibly well, those royalty checks should start coming in with a delightful regularity. Plus, they might be willing to cut a much larger royalty and advance on a second book, because they know they will make that back very quickly.
This is why terms are usually so poor for a first time writer. Just as much as it is a gamble for that writer to devote so much time into writing their story, a publisher takes on a gamble by taking on that new writer’s story to sell. If they write a big advance on an unknown writer, they have to sit on their hands desperately hoping they were right and the public really likes the book and it sells like crazy. If they write too many advances to writers who just don’t sell copies, a publisher can go out of business.
You as a writer can cry, “I poured three years of my life into writing this story and this is all you can offer me? I have to pay off my credit cards and put food on the table!”
The publisher can reply, “We don’t know you and neither does the public. We think you have a good enough story to make a go at it, but if it doesn’t sell well, we’ll lose money. We have employees we have to pay so they can put food on the table.”
Consider all of the above. As a person, what is your time worth? Are you confident enough that your story is good enough that it will sell well? The more it sells, the better your royalties will be. If you are really confident, then perhaps you can negotiate a lower advance in lieu of a better royalty. At least the smaller advance will allow you to pay the bills for a couple of months until the real royalties start rolling in.
There is a flip side to this for the publisher. What if this new writer turns out to be the next Stephen King or Isaac Asimov? Two writers who were so prolific, there are times I wondered if while they were typing one story with their fingers, they were typing a second story with their toes. A writer who is popular and can produce like a machine is a gold mine for a publisher! If they don’t offer enough money for a new author to keep them interested—or even solvent for that matter—they could lose out on the possibility of greater future sales. (This is the big gamble for publishers. They have to speculate on each new author that approaches them. Remember that twelve publishers passed over Harry Potter…)
What is your time worth to you?
You must consider this when you decide that you are going to write a book. Sure! Do it as a hobby in the background while life goes on around you. If you are going to be serious about it and go at it full time sans employment, then you have to sit down and think very hard about what you are about to do to yourself financially.
Once the book goes out the door for publishing, it does not mean money will magically and intsantly appear in your wallet. It might be months before any kind of income begins to trickle in. You should be prepared for that situation. Even if it means picking up a “day job” as was suggested to Rowling by her agent.
If your book is a success and a big hit, you are then pretty much set! But if it isn’t a big hit, you have to have a Plan-B in place. Writing is a gamble and it is best to hedge your bets. Even if your story is a hit, it might actually be while before it catches on. Rowling’s stories took a couple of years before they began to catch on and become a hit. If you worked on your book right to the end of your finances, you might fall into trouble before income starts being generated by your book.
While all this sounds discouraging, it is a reality you must face as a writer. By facing this reality head on instead of trying to make believe it won’t happen, you can remove a potential source of stress that could actually cause you to stop writing. Setting up a safety net should be part of your business plan for becoming a writer.