*This article originally appeared at the ESO Network website. I’m reprinting it here for… reasons.
Hey. Get in. We’re going for a ride.
No, don’t worry. We’re not going far. I’ll have you back before dinner.
So, I hear you’re writing a book? What’s it about? No, wait… don’t tell me… No. Really. Don’t tell me. Don’t care. I got my own books to write.
What I want to do is give you some straight talk about writing a book in this day and age. You’re probably not going to like it but you need to know it.
The first thing that you have to know is that no one wants to read your crappy book.
Mean? You think I’m being mean? I’m trying to help you. Sit back and listen for a minute, will you?
First off, here are the cold hard facts. It’s estimated that fewer than 1000 fiction writers in North America make a living from their writing. And I’m being generous at 1000. I’ve read some estimates that put that number at only 300. That’s out of around 45,000 writers and authors working in the United States alone. That’s .6 percent… not six percent but POINT six percent… less than 1 percent… of all writers.
Ahh, what the heck! I’m feeling generous. If the number actually is 1000 writers making a living at writing, that’s 2%.
Well, Okay, you have a better chance of making a living as a writer than winning the lottery or getting struck by lightning, true, but, those are still some slim odds.
Yes, I know, there was a time when writers who churned out short novels on a regular basis could make a living Not a great living, to be sure, and, yes, they would occasionally have to churn out some cheap porn novels under a pseudonym to make ends meet.
You think I’m joking? Have you ever heard of Loren Beauchamp? She was the author of such sleazy paperbacks as Campus Sex Club, Unwilling Sinner, and Strange Delights. She was also the pseudonym of science fiction author Robert Silverberg. I kid you not! Look it up.
My point is that it has never been easy making a living as a writer. Few authors could do it, even in the so called “Golden Age” of the paperbacks after the death of the pulp magazines. They needed day jobs or, like Mr. Silverberg, they needed to wear a mask and turn to the dark side.
How did this situation come about? Let me digress for a bit.
Back in the 1960’s the typical science fiction novel ran to about 60,000 words. These were slim volumes of about 130 to 150 pages. Mass market paperbacks in the US were sold mostly at grocery stores or neighbourhood pharmacies. They were displayed in wire racks that rotated. That’s where the thinner books were more desirable. The thinner the book, the more you could stack. You used to be able to fit about six paperbacks in a three inch rack.
So what happened? Why did these compact volumes grow to such monstrous size?
There are a few reasons, but chiefly it comes down to inflation. In the 70’s and 80’s the price of just about everything rose. That included paper and printing costs. Publishers found that they needed to increase the prices of their books to compensate.
But according to grocery store logic if you want to charge more for a product then it has to weigh more. You can’t just start using bigger typeface or thicker paper to do that so you start looking for longer novels.
And there was also this massively big book that came out in paperback, a little story about elves and stuff, called The Lord of the Rings. At 473,000 words it was a massive book that had to be broken down into three parts. But, oddly enough, that little book sold an amazing number of copies.
So, given that consumers would buy longer books and pay more for them if they were thicker, well, the writing was on the wall and there was a whole lot of it.
At the same time distribution channels dried up. The wire racks were gone. Publishers were charging more and more for thicker books, but the places that were left to sell these books couldn’t sell massive hardbacks unless they were bestsellers. Those pesky midlist volumes weren’t moving off the shelves fast enough. Stop sending us midlist books, the big bookstores told the publishers. Only send us bestsellers.
What’s that? Oh… you plan to self publish? Ahh, well, that’s different, then.
You see, according to a survey by Guardian in 2015, the average self-published author makes less than $1,000 per year. In fact, a third of them make less than $500 per year. And there’s over a million self published authors with more joining the ranks all the time.
I know, I know, I read those stories all the time too, about how a self published author sold a million copies of his book and got rich. I also see lots of stories on the news about the guys who won big on the lottery, or got struck by lightning. The fact is that most people, the vast majority of the population… don’t.
Think of it like this: You’re at a concert… an open-air, rock festival-type concert… You’re on the ground several meters distant from the stage. The stage is 100 feet high and the approach to it slopes up. 1000 people are standing on the slope. The headliners… say, Stephen King, J. K. Rowling, James Patterson and Neil Gaiman… are 100 feet in the air.
You’re on the flat ground. You’re trying to get closer to the stage. But you just can’t seem to push past all the others surrounding you… and there are a lot! They’re all waving their books in the air. Occasionally some author with a toothy grin and the right connections blows past you. Or one of the concert promoters escorts a cute red-head to the front simply because she’s a cute red-head.
You’ve been on the ground, pounding away at the ground for years on end and these fortunate few keep slipping by you and the grounds just keep getting more and more crowded.
That’s what the publishing industry is today for most authors.
So what does that mean for you and your book? Well, like I said, no one wants to read your crappy book. But… you can change that. Or at least make it more likely that someone will want to read it.
Here’s the thing: don’t focus on the stage 100 feet in the air. Focus on those around you. Be interested in their work. Talk to them. Make friends. Don’t moan and whine that you haven’t sold any of your books. Talk about your books if others are interested. If they’re not (and believe me, most people aren’t) talk about something else. What do you like? Comic books? Movies? Stamp collecting? Cookie recipes. Talk about that. Be genuine. Be present.
Have a website. Have a Twitter feed. Have a Facebook page. Talk about things you are interested in. People will find you. If this seems like a waste of time, just remember that those 1000 writers up there near the stage? They’re doing it too. So is Steve, J.K, James and Neil. They’re always out there, always talking. People like them. They like them and they read their books.
No one cares about your book. But if you are out there online or (post Covid, of course) in person at conventions or other gatherings… heck, even house parties… just be yourself. Be the best version of yourself. Be friendly. Be interested in others. If people like you they might read your book.
Look… maybe your book will resonate with a lot of people. Maybe some weird confluence of events will thrust you into the spotlight. Strange things happen. But you can’t control that. The only thing you can control is yourself. Be yourself. Be the best version of yourself. Don’t brood. Don’t moan. Don’t whine.
That’s all I got for you. I’m sorry it’s not more encouraging, but that’s life, right? And, hey! Look. This is where we started. I told you I’d have you back in time for dinner.
Take care now. Good luck with your book. Honestly. You seem like a nice person. I’m rooting for you.