Here’s a dangerous game. A long time ago, I went to a literary festival and asked a newly successful novelist before an audience of her fans: “Was it truly, honestly worth it?” The room fell silent. Everyone stared at me, the heretic who had made a rude noise in church.
“What do you mean?” The author looked at her agent. He studied the ceiling. “If you mean in money terms,” she said hesitantly “of course, not.”
Gasps from the audience. “But in terms of my self-esteem, yes!”
The audience relaxed. “Not least, I have the pleasure of standing here before you wonderful people today” she glared at me “so somebody can ask me that damn fool question.” Laughter and applause.
It was a good question.
Later, I apologised to her. And she apologised to me. “It was actually a good question.” She smiled. “It took me 15 years to get my first novel published and even that was a fluke.”
“But you’ve just received a $150,000 advance,” I said. “Surely that makes it all worthwhile?”
She shook her head. “I had to write and throw away five novels in that time, more than one million words. On an hourly basis, I’d have been better off working at McDonalds.”
Then she sold me her novel.
No, I won’t tell you her name, though you’d know it. Her novel was turned into a film and she now tops the bestseller lists. She might answer my question differently today. But the truth remains: only a few authors make any significant money from their novels. The upside is, if you accept that truth from the start, it doesn’t matter.
Is it the truth?
Four out of five published novels by new authors lose money and most new authors never earn out their advance (J A Konrath, The Newbies’ Guide to Publishing, 2011). Fulltime novelists in the UK make 33% less than the average industrial wage (The Society of Authors). And most mid-list authors have to moonlight to pay the rent. (Check the tutors at writing foundations. Why else are they there?)
But there’s another ‘truth’. From the moment they see their first novel on a bookshop shelf, very few authors would choose another trade. Money or not.
In September 1999, I nearly missed my plane when I spotted my first published book on sale at Heathrow airport. I wanted to stop every passenger and cry: “That’s my book!”. My wife had to drag me away. I went on to publish eight more books across twelve years, both fiction and non-fiction. One of them, The Lazy Kitchen Gardener - a work of fiction despite its title - netted me around £90,000 ($150,000) in year one.
Has the money been important to me? Of course. Writing is my principal source of income in retirement. But I’d have done it, money or not. Why? For the sheer joy of ‘meeting’ those thousands of readers who have mailed me, signed up for my newsletters and, in recent years, subscribed to my on-line writing classes. I’m still corresponding with folk who bought my first book in 1999.
That explains the mystery of the Blog Dance.
I’d long wondered why authors, otherwise sane, would periodically embark on a gavotte of mutual admiration, making guest posts on each others’ sites or doing blog tours. "What inspired you to write [insert title]?"
They couldn’t be doing it merely to sell a handful of books at a few dollars each, could they? Or to chase that will o’ the wisp, an extra point on their Google page rank? The ratio of effort to monetary reward would make no sense.
Then I realized, the pay off is not principally financial. It lies in validation, recognition and self-esteem. Whether a bestseller or newbie, a published author creates a fan club and joins a community of peers. They’ve ‘arrived’. The respect is priceless. Money is a bonus.
A novelist creates a world for the reader. Then the reader creates a world for the novelist to live in.
So is it worth it, truly, honestly? Of course, it is! If only so you can attend a literary festival one day, stand on a podium and hear somebody ask you that damn fool question.
Why do you write? Is it for money or fun - or some other reason? And is the effort truly, honestly worth it? Add a comment and share your thoughts with us!
Posted by John Yeoman. Posted In : A Writer's Confessions