Follow the Money or Follow the Bliss?

From the “Writing Precariously” pamphlet, on the website here or via .pdf here (5,064 words):

I read somewhere that, on average, a published novelist earns about $11 thousand per book: not enough to make a living, as everyone agrees. Again, the average is skewed sharply toward the right end of the distribution by the one percent, the heavyweight celebrity authors who bring in six or seven figures for each new release. [The median is around $6K: half the writers make less than that per published novel, half make more.] Meanwhile I read somewhere else that the typical agent makes around $50-60K per year: still not much, especially if you live in NYC, but you could scrape by, and it is five times as much as the average published author in your stable makes. Then there’s the rest of the book revenues, the other 85% of total book sales that the author never sees, divvied up between all of the middlemen. They don’t take much of a cut on a per-book basis, but they make it up in volume. Everybody in the book business is making a living – everyone, that is, except the writers.

Writers might well resent the disparity, opting to go the self-publishing route where they can take a much bigger slice of the pie. The problem, of course, is that the pie is much smaller. I’ve read that the average self-published fiction writer earns around $600 per book – 5 percent of what the traditionally published average author makes.

Obviously commercial publishing is a ripoff for the writer, but just as obviously the publishing industry offers a higher return than going it alone on the self-publishing route. Or does it? What percentage of novels submitted to agents and publishers actually get accepted for publication? Ten percent? Five? Most sources say that it’s less than one percent. So, if you write a novel and you get it published you might hit the average of $11K, but multiply that dollar figure by the 1% chance of getting published and you get an expected return of around $110 from the publishing industry. Now self-publishing looks like a better deal — five times better. Still, $600 for all that work you put into writing and editing and formatting and selling — is it really worth it?

From the pamphlet again:

Why haven’t the writers wised up, gnawing their way out of this trap and moving on to more lucrative pursuits? Again, I don’t know many writers, so I can’t generalize from experience. But maybe it’s possible to extrapolate. In American Amnesia (2016), authors Jacob Hacker and Paul Pearson, both political science professors, observe that people tend to underestimate personal risk:

“It doesn’t help that we vastly exaggerate our competence: One study found that 88 percent of American drivers thought they were safer drivers than average, which we thought was pretty funny until we learned that 93 percent of professors think they are better-than-average teachers.”

Which means I’m probably not alone in the conviction that I’m a better writer than most.

Once I wrote an alternative interpretation of Genesis 1, proposing that the narrative describes the gods creating not the material world but rather a proto-scientific scheme for understanding the world. This was around the time that the New Atheists were first hitting the bookshelves, so I thought my book had a chance when I submitted it to the agents. It didn’t. One day over lunch I described my book to an old friend of mine, an evangelical. He thought my central thesis sounded like heretical trash. But, supportive friend that he is, he offered to buy a copy of my book from me, even though he told me there was no way he would ever read it. Offended, I told him I’d rather give him the book and have him read it for free. We let it drop; the two of us have never again spoken about that book, a ripe fruit suspended from the tree of knowledge that withered and died before anyone could consume it and be expelled from the Garden.

But the terms of the trade have stuck with me: would you rather have a reader or a buyer? Would you rather have 300 readers or $600? 5,000 readers or $10,000?

Yes, I know, the terms of this trade are unrealistic. Books are commodities, sold one at a time, such that most of a book’s readers are also its buyers and vice versa. It’s both/and. Okay, would you feel satisfied if 300 people were to buy and read your book? Would you feel satisfied with your book even if no one ever bought or read it?


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