There aren’t many writers bringing home big wads of cash. As in many creative industries, there are a few big earners at the top, outnumbered a thousand to one by people at the bottom who earn very little. With so many writers at the bottom eager to see their book in a book store, publishers can pay relatively trivial amounts to new authors. Many give up on traditional publishing and try self-publishing. Unfortunately, so many are desperate to find readers that they often give away their work. The ease of self-publishing creates a huge pool of new books competing for the attention of a limited pool of readers, and we’ve trained many of those readers to think a fair price to pay for a book is nothing.
Good news: It’s easier than ever to make a living as a writer!
There are two key revolutions in the publishing world that make it easier to pursue either a traditional publishing path or a self-publishing career. Traditional publishers used to be concentrated in a few major cities, and New York is still home to many big name publishers. Meeting the editors for these publisher or the agents who worked with them meant travelling to conventions and hoping to schmooze at a party or introduce oneself on an elevator. Social media has changed all this. I’m acquainted online with dozens of professionals in the industry and we respond to each other’s posts all the time. If I send an editor I have a relationship with online something to take a look at, they’ll probably read it in a more positive light than something from a complete stranger. Also, social media has revolutionized the spread of publishing information. There was a time you had to subscribe to trade magazines to get news about new imprints at publishing houses, or get the names of newly hired editors, or learn what anthologies were open to submissions. Now, this information is freely available to anyone who cares to look for it.
But an even bigger transformation in the industry is the self-publishing revolution. It used to be that getting your book into print meant getting past the gatekeepers at the big publishing houses. Today, Amazon has thrown the gate wide open. As a self-publisher you have free access to the digital shelves of the largest bookstore that’s ever existed. And Amazon isn’t the only platform. Google, Apple, Nook, Kobo, and other stores are also open to your content. Ebooks have a low initial cost to take live, and even print books are easy to print and sell thanks to print on demand platforms like Createspace. Turning your book into an audio book isn’t terribly difficult and expands your potential audience. On many of these platforms, your audience isn’t limited to America. Each month, I see revenue from Canada, Australia, the United Kingdom, India, and even occasional sales from places where English isn’t the primary language, like Japan and Germany. A great thing about these online sales is that most of the platforms pay generous royalties, have easy to follow accounting that lets you see your sales data updated each day, and direct deposit the income you’ve earned on a monthly basis. With traditional publishing, you often go six months between paychecks, assuming you ever earn out your advances. Unless your electric bill only comes every six months, the monthly revenue stream is a welcome change from the traditional model.
Finally, with self-publishing, you never need to let a book go out of print. There’s a concept known as the long tail. For a newly released book, you make most of your money in the first few months it’s in print, then sales start to decline. With traditional publishers, once your book falls below a certain threshold of sales, they’ll remainder what books they have less and take the book out of print. Your revenue for that book comes to an end. With self-publishing, your books keep earning small amounts of money year after year. It adds up. It might not sound impressive that I have some old titles that only earn me ten or twenty dollars a month, but I can look at my sales data and see that some of these books have earned a thousand dollars or more long after the point where a traditional publisher would have taken it out of print. With enough titles in print, a self-published author can cobble together something approaching a steady income. Not a flamboyant, extravagant income, but long before I was earning enough to leave behind my day job I passed through years where I was earning at least a hundred bucks each month. If you’re in an economic class where an extra hundred bucks a month won’t make a difference in your life, congratulations! For many struggling writers, though, that hundred bucks a month makes them hungry for more.
Bad news: The world is full of far more talented writers than you can ever hope to be.
Wow. That’s a bummer. But it’s something you’ll need to learn to live with. I write epic fantasy, but I don’t have a lot of hope that one day I’ll be praised as better than Tolkien or George R.R. Martin. I also write humorous science fiction, but have yet to read a review saying how much funnier my stuff is than Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. I don’t know that I’ll ever write a book as tight and disturbing as Jim Thomson’s The Grifters, or as full of madness and truth and poetry as Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. I can list you a hundred classic novels that fill me both with admiration and despair. It’s not just classics. Every year, great books by new authors win awards and critical acclaim and turn their authors into legends in literary circles. I admire great books. I cherish them as the highest art form mankind has yet created. But that same love of literature often leaves me feeling like I’m coming up short. Maybe I’m never going to write a book that changes the world. Maybe I’m always going to be a pale shadow compared to these towering titans of literature. Maybe my chosen genres of dragons and superheroes keep me from my full potential, and make me more of an entertainer than a true author.
More bad news: The world is full of writers who are much worse than you. Many produce best-sellers, sign movie deals, and fill auditoriums with fans when they go on tour.
For me, this is even harder to deal with than seeing great writers getting the attention they deserve. Seeing hacks win acclaim and earn fortunes leaves me wondering if success isn’t all luck, or, if it’s not luck, if I’m just so isolated from my own culture that I’ll never understand what it takes to write a popular book.
Good News: You’re more than talented enough to write stories people will find important.
After my novel Bitterwood was released, I got a fan letter. It was from a twelve year old boy who loved my book but was wondering whether or not I believed in God. He could see all the religious imagery I was drawing into my work. Some of my characters quote the Bible outright, and others make allusions to Biblical tales. But, the book also features a prophet named Hezekiah who is something of a monster who preaches a very violent, dark, Old Testament ideology that allows him to kill in the name of the Lord. I could sense a subtext in his letter. Since he was young but familiar with the Bible, he was probably from a religious family. But the way he asked the question made me think he had doubt, and my book had likely contributed to those doubts. And that one fan letter to this day does more to keep me writing than anything else. I have no idea where that young fan arrived at philosophically, but it was plain that my book was something he’d actually thought about. I can point to books I read when I was young that changed my whole world view. Not all of these were classics. I had a taste for cheesy science fiction novels that would now be dismissed as pulp. I don’t even recall the many of the titles or the authors. But these books still changed me, opening up a love of science and a love of adventure, and not just the adventures you find on a page. Stories about people travelling to other planets inspired me to want to go out and explore my own planet. And many of these stories made heroes of smart, knowledgeable people. Engineers, chemists, historians, linguists… they all have their roles to play in the spread of human civilization among the stars and it made me admire such people. I can assure you, a lot of these books were dreadful. To take a well-known example, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is a beloved classic still widely read. I think it’s about as poorly written as a novel can get. The characters are wooden, the plot meandering, the pacing atrocious, the dialogue stiff and inhuman. But, despite my dislike of the book, I have many well-read, intelligent friends I respect who count it among their favorite novels.
Ultimately, believing in the worthiness of your fiction is going to take a little faith. Strive to write the best book you can. Brace yourself to the indifference of roughly seven billion fellow inhabitants of the planet. Trust that somewhere out there is your reader, the one person who is going to pick up your book at the right moment in her life and absolutely cherish every word.
Bad news: Learning to write well takes years of practice.
No one expects to sit down at a piano the first time and play a beautiful melody. Learning any musical instrument is going to require years of plinking and clunking and off-tempo faltering that will only in the most superficial way resemble a song.
The same is true of writing a novel. You’re going to have false starts. You’re going to write characters no one has any reason to like, pursuing goals no one understands, across pages filled with prose that not everyone will be able to untangle. Maybe a few geniuses escape this harsh reality, but the vast majority of mankind must write a lot of crap before they become merely competent at writing a book. And, like a musical instrument, you can’t learn just how to write that one book. A pianist can’t learn to press the keys for just one song. There are scales to learn, musical theory to absorb, and a whole separate written language of musical notation that must be mastered.
To write a novel well, you’ve got to learn to craft realistic characters. You’ve got to engineer a compelling plot. You’ll need to ground your characters in a specific setting. Your writing style needs to be comprehensible. And you’ll need something worth saying, some theme or moral that breathes life into the piece and elevates it above a rote reporting of the events of your character’s life. All of these things take work to master. Sometimes you’ll need years to finally figure out how to handle all of these elements.
Good News: You've already had years of practice.
You started learning to write before you were born. There is strong evidence that during the last two months of gestation babies can hear their mother’s voice in the womb and learn to recognize the patterns of language. You mastered your native tongue at a very early age, and while you might not have understood all the subtleties and niceties of language, you knew it well enough to laugh at puns, understand riddles, and grasp metaphorical speech. If your mother ever told you your room looked like a pig sty, odds are you didn’t take her literally. It’s quite likely you had never even seen an actual pig sty, but still grasped her meaning.
You have a long term fluency with metaphorical and symbolic language. You also likely were learning stories before you could even read, and making up your own stories well before you went to school.
As far as characters go, well, you know people. And, you know yourself. While there are a few tips and tricks I’ll get to in a different essay about how to create interesting characters, the heart and soul of character creation is simply knowing yourself, understanding your own wants and desires, your strengths and weaknesses, and the origins of these traits. You also need empathy, the ability and desire to not just understand other people, but to feel like they feel. You likely mastered this at a very early age.
As for setting, you have never spent a moment of your life separated from one. You’re always somewhere. Even if you don’t want to set your story where you are at this moment, you’ll be surprised at how much fictional detail you can draw from your immediate surroundings and your own travels.
As for having something important to say, you’ve been on the planet for a while. You’ve learned stuff. If you’ve been paying attention, you’ve gotten angry at some injustice or other, and wonder why the rest of the world isn’t equally angry. And, if you’ve been paying attention, you’ve discovered beautiful things, and want to tell everyone about this beauty.
You’ve been training to be a writer from the day you were born. All those boring writing assignments you did in school… you were a pianist practicing your scales. You’ve got every skill you need to write a good book simply by virtue of having lived a life. What makes writing a novel hard is the difference between knowing how to catch a ball and knowing how to juggle chainsaws. You have to take simple skills and use them all at once, in a way that looks effortless. Sometimes, you’ll gaze at a chainsaw juggler and feel envious that he’s only keeping three chainsaws in the air, while you’re trying to juggle ten major characters, three plot thread, and five different settings. It’s not the easiest thing in the world. On the positive side, there’s very little risk of having your fingers chopped off. You’ve chosen wisely in pursuing novel writing over chainsaw juggling, I think. That choice was first step toward greatness!