The fiction of writing fiction

Thu Nov 21, 2013

I am a professional writer. And like most professional writers, my income comes from writing non-fiction. For me, it’s mostly technical documents and magazine articles. For others it may be reports, press releases, proposals, business plans and so on - the usual corporate stuff that makes for a gratifying career but doesn’t really scratch the creative itch. Very few writers make money writing fiction. I once heard that only a couple of hundred authors in the world actually live off their royalties. When we read stories in the press about J.K. Rowling being richer than the Queen of England, I think people assume this number would be higher.

Successful authors are maddening flukes - more often a book eclipses its author. The Catcher in the Rye is such a book. Its success turned J.D. Salinger into a recluse. But that book, published in 1951, went from mass censorship to a staple in the high-school curriculum and still sells 250000 copies a year. Regardless of whether it’s objectively even a good book, nobody can deny that The Catcher in the Rye is a cultural phenomenon, like the Bible.

Even if you publish with an indie publisher with a generous 5050 split, being on the bestseller list won’t make you rich. Patrick Wensink spent a week on Amazon’s bestseller list and only made $12,000 after selling 4000 copies. If you sign with a mainstream publisher you will get far far less.

I recently finished Hugh Howey’s excellent Wool Omnibus. Howey is a poster boy for the burgeoning self-publishing movement where the author keeps all the rights. He claims that most of his months are six-figure months. I believe it - his work is solid and I was happy to cut out the middleman and give the guy $4. And for a book that is far superior to the utter drivel that publishers sometimes push on us with their marketing muscle. In a blog post (and it’s worth reading the whole thing), he admits that writing to become rich is a bad idea. So no newsflash there. He goes on to extol the virtues of habit and so on, which I’ve heard before from other writers.

But the nugget in Howey’s post for me was this:

When I finished my first novel, I was on a complete high. This is when you think your book is the shit and you wonder why Oprah hasn’t called. You’re gonna be rich!

This feeling lasted a few days. That’s when I started writing my next work. My father at the time wondered why I wasn’t spending all of my time promoting that first book. I told him I had my entire life to promote my works. I only had now to write…

My father now agrees with this approach and sees the value of having a dozen titles available. This is going to sound strange, but you are MUCH better off with your 10th work exploding than your 1st work. You’ll never have quiet time to crank out quality material ever again. And when your backlist matches the growth of your first breakout, you’ll do very well for yourself. Be patient. It’s been said by many others, but I’ll repeat it here: self-publishing is a marathon.

What Howey doesn’t admit here is that his first book was probably not very good. But he kept at it and wrote ten more. I’ve always thought that just managing to write one book would be the crowning achievement for a creative writer. But writing one book doesn’t mean you’ve crossed the finishing line. In fact, your magnum opus may be ten books away, or it may be a fever dream, inspiring you to keep going. Too many authors give up after writing one book and failing to find an audience for it. But what if the only audience that matters for that first book is you? And you can still publish that book. Even if you never sell a single copy, you will be a published author!

So, I’m not giving up my day job and nor should you. But the good news is that all of us have at least one shitty book in them. So excuse me, I’m off to work on mine.



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