My second grade teacher Mrs. Schumacher (a woman old enough to have wet-nursed the Kaiser and mean enough to have babysat Hitler) told us after a creative writing exercise that there were people that did nothing more for work than sit around and write stories, and it was at that point that I was 100% sure I wanted to be a writer. I wrote well, read voraciously, and figured that that one talent would be my ticket to easy street.
Mrs. Schumacher was evidently cribbing from an old issue of Vanity Fair which proudly announced it’s acquisition of first refusal rights for one F. Scott Fitzgerald to the lindy-hopping tune of eighty bajillion Fox Trots per boot-leg. Twenty-four years later, I’ve made more money taking bottles back than I have by word craft. If I hadn’t proven to be Too Hot for AdSense, that deficit might have narrowed, but as-is I owe more of my Rubenesque physique to Michigan’s generous 10-cent bottle back deposit program than to my ability to type 100 words per minute.
Which brings us to the point of this post. Someone has to tell you and so it might as well be me:
publishing is an industry, and writing is a passion. You’re not going to make any money doing this.
Like any hobby, you have to do it because you love it for its own sake and not for some reward, be that praise, money, or what have you. You’ve got to write because it scratches that itch that nothing else can reach. If you’re writing for the money, then you’re going to be sorely disappointed.
To prove the point, quick: name five rich living authors. Yes, Ray Bradbury is still alive. Okay, now name five more. Then do it again. It’s a bit harder at fifteen, right? Now name twenty-five rich movie stars. Then name twenty-five rich musicians. Finally, name twenty-five people you know personally who are doing okay for themselves, and ask yourself how many of them are writers.
What we’re dealing with here is supply and demand. EVERYONE thinks they can write. I hear this all the time: My life would make SUCH a good book! or You know what? I should totally write a book some day – it would be a best seller! all of which may be true, but it doesn’t change the fact that absolutely everyone thinks they can write. Of that 100%, something like 60% will actually try a little prose or verse. Of that 60%, maybe half will start a book. Of that 60%, less than 1% will actually finish it. Of that 1%, maybe 10% will seek publication.
Ignoring the source of those numbers for now, and assuming that we’re talking about the population of America, that means that there are at any given time there are 90,000 books floating around the intellectual aether seeking publication. That’s a whole hell of a lot, and while it’s not more books than there are available venues for publication, it’s a lot more books than there are profitable publishers looking to broker you a good deal (most publishers are pumping their “good deal” money into an ongoing but as of yet unsuccessful attempt to breed Dean Koontz with Sue Grafton to make the ultimate sub-literate printed cash-cow).
Meanwhile, as everyone is trying their hand at writing, NOBODY is reading. We’re getting a few big popular books every year, but most prose and poetry falls under the radar in print runs in the low thousands. Even with a generous dollar-a-copy royalty, that’s not a living wage, not considering the work, time, blood, sweat, and purple drank that goes into it.
So what’s a writer to do? Learn a trade. No, not writing. One might write their way into publishing, and an accomplished writer might, say, teach, but it’s best to learn some sort of skill: first, to pay for the necessities, and second because it provides near endless fodder for written material. Few things are more boring than writing about writers, so be more than a writer. We are not our jobs, but we all have them, and yours can be the link that ties you to your audience, either through your own downtrodden working-class sympathy or by sharing your world with your readers, a world they’ve never seen.
Looking Back – 13 May 2021
The numbers cited in terms of who is writing what and getting published? Made up, but not spiritually inaccurate. Most people who write do not make a ton of money doing it (if any money at all), and most people who say they’d like to write ultimately don’t, but this all requires a narrow view of writing and success, and this post, like SO MANY OTHERS from 2009 to 2013, is coming from a pretty mean-spirited place.
So this is part of a series I called “Unsolicited Advice for Writers from Someone Unqualified to Give It” and that cute little self-deprecating title seemed like, to me at the time, carte blanche to be nasty and rude and frequently *problematic*. I’ve already decided against republishing 2 other UAFWFSUTGI posts because they’re just so condescending and mean.
Again, in hindsight, my 30s were a major growing experience, and part of it was simply outgrowing my own unearned, overly-entitled, self-centered ego. So even when there’s a post like this, I say take it with the understanding that it’s not coming from a good place, even if it’s more-or-less correct.
To add to what this guy said, I say: write, write, write. It doesn’t matter if you make money if you make a difference. The closing notes of this post may have been kind-of / sort-of encouraging or instructive, but like so much of my writing from this time, it’s cruel and insulting and off-putting.
Write, if for no other reason, to spite this asshole.