Recently, someone shared a Substack post titled No One Will Read Your Book (and other truths about publishing) As you can imagine it got a lot of interaction on the discussion board where it was shared. Very successful writers, average writers, and those who barely make a living all chimed in about how hard it is to be a writer.
Of course, I couldn’t pass up a chance to wax philosophically, too. I’ve been a published author since 1978 when I wrote a Middle Grade chapter book aimed specifically at children who had difficulty reading. I was part of a special project for children with reading problems to get them back to grade quickly. We needed a reward for them at the end of the six-month program. I developed two things: a board game and a science fiction book that used some made up words that forced them to sound the word out phonetically and still undertsand the context of the word. It was written at the reading level of 4th grade. The book was published by Utah State University Press.
I so enjoyed writing that book, I went on to sell over 30 short stories to a variety of SF magazines and anthologies over the following fifteen years. My career in Academia took me away from fiction for a couple of decades, but I did a lot of nonfiction article writing and had four textbooks published. One by Pearson and three by Routledge Falmer. But it wasn’t until I turned 50 that I made the decision to start writing novels.
For me, I’d found that writing gave me a voice in the world to share my thoughts and opinions without having to compete in presentations or speeches with those who were louder, more assertive, and loved the limelight. I’ve done a lot of presentations over my lifetime–many to rooms of 100 or less and a few to rooms of 5,000 or more. I’m fine doing that when I’m the only speaker. I hate managing that when there are four or five of us on a panel because inevitably there are two who want the limelight and will battle it out on stage to get the most time. I will take the role of listening and, maybe, trying to moderate.
Writing books, whether fiction or nonfiction, is the equivalent of me being the sole presenter. Yes, it’s true that I still have to fight to be “discovered” or to find readers. But it’s a different kind of fighting than in person. And, honestly, I’m not an extrovert. I’m not good at fighting for attention even in a small group of five or eight. I’ll let others talk. I won’t butt in. I won’t take over unless asked.
As with all creative pursuits, it’s about WHY you do it. IF the expectation is to be the 1% who make a substantial income, then the likelihood of being disappointed is very high. If the expectation is to find a readership that consistently likes the type of books you write, the likelihood of doing that is at least 50% with a lot of work. If the expectation is to complete the book and know that you have done your best to make it available, then even if only a few people buy it you will be happy.
Among the hundreds of writers I know personally, who begin writing their first book, generally fall into two categories: 1) Everyone has told me I’m a great writer. This book is the great American novel, and I know I will get a movie out of it. OR 2) I believe I have the ability to write well, I’m doing the best I can and I will complete this book and see what happens.
90% of the first group never complete that book. The 10% who do–whether they find a publisher (usually small press) or self-publish–spend at least a year trying to make money and get more and more discouraged. They rarely write another book. A few do keep at it, but change their expectations.
The second group, interestingly, has the same results. Again 90% never complete that book. It’s just too much work. The 10% who do complete the book spend at least a year trying to make money. I often hear the phrase: “I’m not going to start the next book until I know I can make money at this.” Even though their initial goal was to simply complete the book. Now that they’ve invested all that effort they realize that time is money and that their payback is pennies per hour.
Yes there are always outliers who succeed on a debut novel and make it big. There are also those who appear to be new writers, but who have written several books that went nowhere and now on Book 5 or 8, they’ve hit on something and make it big. But most of us who stick with it, do so because we can’t conceive of not writing. We have a need to communicate our thoughts and for someone to choose to hear/read them. Some are simply happy to have written. The knowledge that ten or maybe a hundred people, who are not family and friends, have read it is sufficient reward. Others are looking for a thousand who consistently read what they write and aren’t satisfied until they reach that number.
If I went into writing with the expectation I would be a bestseller, I would have given up long ago. I’ve had good years where I could pay most of my bills with writing, and I’ve had horrible years where I wondered why I was spending so much time, effort, and emotional capital on this profession for no substantive pay. When I’ve left for any period of time–six months, a year–I always come back because I need to tell my stories, to share my experiences.
I do share with new writers my experience of the publishing world but there are those who don’t listen, those who “know” they are different because they are younger, smarter, writing in a different genre, have more money, know all the right people…. And who knows, maybe it’s true. That person may become part of the 1%. If so, I’ll celebrate their success.
For me, joining that 1% group is like winning the lottery. I buy a lottery ticket maybe two or three times a year as a lark. Even knowing the odds, I can’t help but feel a form of hope–hope for the cost of a dollar or two. Every time I buy a ticket, I say to myself: “Someone has to win, why not me?” And I have that little bit of hope until the drawing and then I’m done for several months until I buy it again.
The key is I’ve never even considered planning my finances around winning the lottery. I’ve never tried to buy 10 tickets or 20 tickets or 100 tickets to increase my odds. That is important with writing, as well. It’s okay to harbor that hope of becoming a bestselling author and joining the 1% who make it big. For some people that hope is what carries you to complete the book when you get to the hard parts. But using hope to power you through is great. Using hope as a measure of success will drive you out of writing.
Anytime I start a new series or write a stand-alone that I think is important and speaks to the zeitgeist of the time, I still have that hope welling inside me that this one will do better than the last. This one will be the one after nearly 30 books that will have legs. But I never plan my finances around that hope being realized. I never spend into debt (e.g., advertising, PR, etc.) with the hope that it will vault me to the 1%. I’ve seen far too many writers do that and then the disappointment becomes devastation.
Write because you must for your own well-being. If you are fortunate to make a good income that makes a difference in your life, excellent. But if you don’t, you have created something special for your own well-being/enjoyment and likely for a few others as well. Decide how much of your energy, time, and hope will be put into something that will not bring you riches. For me, that is what puts it in the right perspective and provides a balanced life where writing brings me joy and purpose, yet it is not the only thing that is important in my life.