Business

"I read somewhere that there are only about 200 Americans who can make a living from writing full time. I thought: I can't be one of 200 people in America. That's too hard." The speaker is Michael Crichton in an interview in USA Weekend (Jan 7-9, 1994). He's talking about his early years, when he was faced with the decision between becoming a writer or going to medical school. His choice was medical school. The current state of published writing in America right now is a strange mixture. There are three main areas:

1. Best-selling authors who command mega-bucks and their books are guaranteed to be bestsellers even before they write them.

2. Literary writers. Authors whose works usually sell few copies, are well received critically, and make their living teaching in the University system or off of grants. Most literary writers publicly disdain the first group and ignore the third.

3. The pack. Authors who write mainstream/genre fiction and who scrape their way from $5,000 advance to $5,000 advance; the money received only after the manuscript has been written and rejected on average by fifteen to forty publishers. Most members of the pack strive to become part of the first group and are too busy writing to make much sense of the second group.

I've talked to other midlist writers and many of them harbor some resentment toward the first group, but I think that feeling is misplaced. One friend of mine broke down Stephen King's latest multi-millionaire dollar advance into how much fifty authors could get each, but the fact of the matter is those fifty authors probably wouldn't sell as many books combined as Stephen King.

A writer like Stephen King or John Grisham or Sue Grafton supports a lot of beginning and mid-list writers by helping their publishing house make enough profit on their books to publish all those first novels, which if you remember, nine out of ten fail. The big names pick up that slack financially for the publisher.

Each of the last two lifestyles has different routes to follow, although the "streams can be crossed" to misquote the Ghostbusters, without a nuclear meltdown. The literary/academic world usually requires one of two things: an MFA in writing, or the writer to have won a prestigious award or grant. It is a somewhat closed circle and to enter it, you usually must enter at the bottom—i.e. attend an MFA program. There are various feelings about the MFA programs, but the fact is that it is a doorway into the academic writing life and the most readily accessible one (given you have the time and money to participate).

The pack is also a very difficult world to enter, and an even more difficult one to remain in. An advantage of entering the academic world is that you can gain a certain degree of security as you climb each rung. 95% of writers in the pack perish after publishing their first novel. Some hang on by sheer quantity of work—i.e. if the average novel commands a $5,000 to $10,000 advance, then they write several "average" novels per year under that many names to sustain themselves. That sort of living can be quite tasking, though. Most writers in the pack have a job in addition to their writing one.

Others get struck by lightning and break through to the first group. Congratulations. This is often as much due to luck as skill, but I don't begrudge any of those who make it because they did the legwork in order to get "lucky". You don't get lucky in the writing world doing nothing. If you worked hard enough and had a little bit of luck and have finally sold your first novel, there are many traps you have to be aware of. The work has just begun.

The first trap is thinking that you've got it made. Unless your advance was significant, you have to remember one of the rules of the publishing world: advance roughly equals copies printed which roughly equals one-half of copies sold which roughly, hopefully, makes the advance back. If you have a $10,000 advance and think to yourself: "This is going to hit the NY Times Bestseller list and sell 250,000 copies hardcover," you've got a rude awakening coming. A $10,00 advance for a hardcover book might entail a first run of three to four thousand books. You can't sell more books than they print. Keep writing.

Another trap is the track the bookselling and publishing world pushes writers into. If your first three books all do moderately well and each sells, say, 40,000 out of a 75,000 paperback run, guess what? They probably aren't going to print 300,000 copies of your fourth book. In fact, I have found in my experience, that publishers tend to cut down on the print run the longer I am with them as they see that they don't have a best seller but a solid lower level book. Publishers tend to be willing to take more of a risk on a new unknown author than an established mediocre one, which might sound strange to you at first, but actually isn't if you think about it.

Also, bookstores and book suppliers such as Ingram, own computers—those same contraptions that many of us writers use to produce our work. Except, they use their computers differently—they track books and authors and sales and punch all that into the machines and using a toad's eye, a rabbit's foot, blood of a bat, and a few free-lance witches, they (ever notice how there is always a they no matter what line of work you are in?) decide how many of each type of book they are going to order, which in turn causes the necromancers at your publisher to decide how many they are going to print. The bottom line is that once you establish a track record, breaking out of it is difficult.

Although I am not an expert on this system, the result I see is that unless you have a best-selling book, the road usually leads down which can be discouraging. But since I don't have a bestseller and am still writing, I do believe the odds can be beat. It takes luck, which to me is the application of hard work.

I have scrambled to make a living at writing through several means. Besides money for the books themselves, I also teach writing wherever and whenever I can; I also do book signings and sold remainders of my novels at military PXs—I used to put almost 30,000 miles a year on my car doing that. The bottom line is that I will do whatever it takes even though sometimes it can get quite tedious and irritating. Nobody said it was going to be easy and it isn't. As a corner man might say to a boxer who is getting beaten and bloodied in the ring—you gotta want it, kid.

There is the classic story of a young fellow who was interested in playing violin. He studied for many years and finally got his big break to play before the "master." He played his heart out and when he was done, he asked the master what he thought. The master replied: "Not enough fire," then left.

The young man was crushed. He put his violin away and pursued another career. Years later, he met the master at a social gathering. He cornered him and reminded him of the event many years ago, saying that the master's somewhat less than inspiring comment had caused him to give up the violin and change his life. The master was surprised. "I tell everyone that," he informed the young man, "regardless of how well they play. If my comment so easily dissuaded you, then you didn't want it bad enough and didn't believe in yourself enough." You will have plenty of opportunities to quit writing and not many to continue. The choice is always yours.

I think you know you're starting to be successful in this business when people start giving you grief. Nobody cares about you when you're a loser, but start getting some success and all of a sudden people come out of the shadows tell you how screwed up your stuff is.

Mid-Career Stumbling Blocks I sometimes meet or hear about writers who are stunned to find themselves 'unemployed.' Their current publisher doesn't offer them a new contract, their agent can't find a new publisher and royalty checks (if any) have dried up.

Remember earlier I mentioned how slow the publishing business is? This is true not only for people trying to break in, but also for those already in. If a writer is not planning at least a year ahead, that writer is in trouble. There are few things worse than watching a panicked writer desperately trying to sell a manuscript because they need to pay that month's mortgage—it isn't going to happen.

Such writers respond with some of the following techniques:

1. They switch agents. The problem with this is that an agent who accepts a client whose career has taken a severe downturn is picking up a ticking bomb. Several agents I've talked to have been so badly scarred by such clients that they won't do it again. It might be very difficult to get a new and better agent in such a situation. Remember, the agent doesn't sell the work, the work sells the work. If the old agent couldn't sell it, the new agent may have just as hard a time. The time to switch agents—if one feels there is a need for change—is when one's career is going well. That's also when it's most difficult to do it. It was extremely hard for me to let go of my first agent. It was also hard to do it in what I consider a fair manner—before I had a new agent lined up. For a while, I was an 'orphan'. I took the chance that I would get an agent I wanted and the gamble paid off.

2. They switch genres. This is something I've both succeeded at and failed at so I look at it both ways. I think writers have to realistically evaluate their skills and capabilities. I sometimes shake my head when I hear writers whose work is selling very well, complain how 'bored' they are with their successful series and want to try something different. I understand the feeling, but sometimes I wonder if that has been thought through. Often writers are successful with certain books because they're good at writing those types of books. Sometimes, when a writer switches genre, they have to switch their writing style to a certain extent and sometimes they don't make that switch successfully. Sometimes they try to apply the format and style they've used in their old genre to the new and it doesn't work.

On the other hand, I think there are plenty of cases of writers who've shifted their path over a notch or two and have been very successful. I start out writing military technothrillers. About five books down the line, still doing reasonably well with that, I wrote a science fiction novel on spec. That launched a more successful career in that field. However, my science fiction books features a military person as the protagonist, and the plot revolved around a lot of action, so I wasn't that far afield. When I tried my hand at a first person mystery, with my protagonist a policeman, my agent put up a big flashing red light and asked me to re-evaluate what I was doing.

My experience has been that the market is getting tighter. I think there will be a rebound effect to that in terms of small publishers gaining more prominence. Also, changes in the technology such as on-demand printing and electronic media are going to change the business. However, I still feel it is an up or out business and any writer whose career is not going up better be doing something or else that train coming down the track from behind will run him over.

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