You’ve got an idea for a novel, I know that. Otherwise, you wouldn’t be here. And it’s going to be big. It’s going to be Harry Potter all over again. It’s going to be Twilight, Fifty Shades of Grey, and The DaVinci Code all rolled into one. You’re going to be an award-winning, best-selling author writing masterpiece after masterpiece on your bespoke typewriter overlooking your palatial estate.
And then you’re going to wake the fuck up and realize that you have a better chance of being struck by lightning while being attacked by a shark.
Now, there was a good chance you were nodding along with me in that first bit. And there’s also a good chance that you’re mad at me now for bursting your iridescent bubble of impossible outcomes. I would have been mad at someone for pointing out just how silly it was that I thought was going to be the next Rowling or King or Meyers or Paterson. I would have thought, “OK, maybe not YOU, but I am going to MAKE IT.”
And sure, you can make it big. That’s always a possibility. But to get success in writing – or anything – you’re going to need to manage your expectations.
The Reality of Being a Writer
The vast majority of writers DO NOT MAKE A LIVING FROM WRITING. (Yes, I just shouted that. It’s an important point.)The vast majority of writers DO NOT MAKE A LIVING FROM WRITING. Yes, I just shouted that. Click To Tweet
Most writers have other careers, other sources of income besides writing. This has long been the case. Early writers were among the landed gentry, aristocrats with nothing to do but count the rent money as it rolled in. Even in modern times, writers tend to write evenings and weekends around a day job. They have lives besides writing, which slows many of them down. It takes months – or years – to even finish a first draft. And then there’s the editing, proofreading, more editing, and more proofreading.
Then, if you’re lucky you get a book deal. (Or you self-publish.) Then you need to do the marketing, promotion, and networking necessary to get your book to stand out among the thousands and thousands of new books. This is true even if you get a traditional publishing deal, but at least you get more support than having to do everything yourself. Again, if you’re lucky you’ll get some interviews and speaking gigs, but only after lots of begging and cajoling on either your part or your representative’s.
And even when everything is ticking along nicely, and you have the awesome might of a major book publisher behind you, most books don’t even make enough money to buy an appliance.
That palatial estate is looking a bit less likely. It’s time for you – and me – to readjust expectations of what we want from this writing thing.
“I’m going to get rich writing!”
In all likelihood, no you’re not. You’re no more likely to get rich writing than you are as an actor, graphic designer, or musician. (Honestly, if you want to get rich and you’re not already in a high-paying profession, learning to code is probably your best bet, especially if you invest wisely.)
So leave that pie in the sky where it belongs, and focus on just writing. If you’re lucky, and you work hard, you can make a living as a writer. (I know because I’ve done it. And then I stopped doing it for a while because I made a better living elsewhere. Now I’m transitioning back.) You can even make a decent living as a writer, especially if you branch out into different genres and write both fiction and non-fiction. (There are a few ideas here: How to FINISH Your First Novel: Financial Wiggle Room)
Make that your goal: living your best life doing something you love. And besides, wealth is highly overrated. By many estimates, the sweet spot is right around $80K a year. If you can do that writing, on your own time in your own home, then I’m pretty sure you’ve won at life.Write because you love it. Write because it means something. Write because you have something to say, dammit. Click To Tweet
Write because you love it. Write because it means something. Write because you have something to say, dammit. Do everything right, and the money may come. But even if it doesn’t – which it may not – at least you haven’t wasted your time. You created something from nothing. If that’s not magic, I don’t know what is.
“I’m going to be famous!”
Again, probably not. For every best-selling author, movie star, business luminary, and rockstar you know, there are thousands upon thousands of hopefuls slogging their way through anonymity to make great art. We laud the successes, heap more success upon them. But it’s failure and mediocrity that define the creative sphere. (But don’t worry, sometimes good enough is good enough. Create what you’ve set out to create, then make something else.)
And to be honest, you don’t need to be famous to be successful. Especially if you’re not trying to get rich and you’re just trying to make a living with your words. Don’t believe me? Look at the math:
If you have 100 fans (including friends, family, etc.) that buy whatever you write, and you self-publish 1 book a year and make $3.00 per book, you’ve just made $300.
Scale up your readership by writing good books and finding your ideal reader, and you could get 1000 dedicated fans. That’s $3000 per book. Now we’re getting into the realm of the initial advance for first-time authors. (Though the exact numbers are tough to pin down.)
Now let’s say you’re really rocking those books. People are loving them and you’re loving making them. You have a thriving mailing list and social media presence. Maybe you’ve even got an agent or publicist working for you. Now you’ve got 10,000 fans. That’s a cool $30,000 per year, and from only 10,000 people. (For context, Yankee Stadium fits 54,251 fans.)
You can see where I’m going with this. Marketing expert Seth Godin talks about finding your “tribe.” And that’s all you need… A few thousand people who like what you do and are willing to spend a few bucks a year to see what you’ve thought up this time. With 3.2 billion people on the Internet, and with self-publishing so available, there’s no reason you can’t find a few to like your stuff.
So fuck being famous. Be you, and find your tribe.So fuck being famous. Be you, and find your tribe. Click To Tweet
“I’m going to write my legacy!”
So here’s a maybe. You never know what people are going to be into in 10, 100, or 1000 years. Your book may be the basis of a unifying religion that ushers in a golden age of peace and prosperity for the entire human race. It’s just that it’s not fucking likely. It’s far more likely that your book is going to get lost in the quintillions of bytes of data we are currently producing.
So finding your book among all that new data is like trying to find a single molecule of a needle in a haystack. Not likely, my friend. Not impossible, certainly, but also not likely. You’re just yelling for attention in a crowd of people people who are screaming into megaphones. And in the crowd, only a few will get plucked from the horde to carry the literary torch. These may not even be the best authors.So finding your book among all that new data is like trying to find a single molecule of a needle in a haystack. Click To Tweet
Your novel may be one of such rarefied genius that its readers transcend the affairs of mortals to another plane of existence. And then it gets blocked by an editor who thinks, “It’s good, but it’s just not marketable.” Or whatever. And there goes your dreams, your legacy, and your sense of self-worth. Right?
Fuck no. Write because you love it, or because there’s a story in you that needs to be told, or to show your 2nd-grade teacher that you really WILL amount to something.
“So… Should I write?”
If you’ve made this far – either from genuine interest or rage-reading – then the answer is abso-fucking-lutely. You should write. You should write morning, noon, and night. More often if you can manage it. Because you’ve got the bug.
You see, writing is hard work. We are treated to these sanitized pop-culture looks at what a writer is and is not. We often get the story of a brilliant, under-appreciated artiste who is composing a great work of unparalleled brilliance. It’s a startling exposé in some major newspaper, the Great American Novel, or even just that bit of ad copy that lands the big case. Writing has a concrete, verifiable outcome in the writer’s life. And I personally think that this is horseshit, not just because it’s not true, but because it cheapens your accomplishment as a writer.
You finished a book, goddamit. Why on Earth isn’t that enough of an accomplishment? (The start of many an argument in the Howard household, but that’s life.)
The vast majority of people who set out to write a book never complete it. (Incidentally, this is why I decided to put together this series.) Just finish that, and you’re already in a very exclusive club. Your colleagues club with luminaries like Dafoe, Shelley, Dickens, Austen, Hemingway, Woolf, Updike, Angelou and thousands upon thousands of others new and old.
As the cat says, you don’t know if anyone is going to read your book. But no one CAN read it if you never write it. So do it. Stop lollygagging or loitering or whatever it is you’re doing instead of writing your book.
Just write. Leave everything else for after.
What do you think? Whether you find me refreshing or insufferable, I’d love to hear from you in the comments below.
Want more how to finish your first novel? Check out the aptly named series: How to FINISH Your First Novel. Or for other writing advice that you’ve heard before (but not like this) stop on by Pretentious Sh*t That Works