Is It Worth Being An Author? Truly?

It’s much harder to write a book than people think. Because the words never come out the way they sounded in your head. And it takes a long time to get those words out. Many people want to write a book, but most of them give up because it’s too hard. Today’s guest blogger Dr John Yeoman poses one of the question that all writers fear … are the rewards really worth the hard work and endless rejections?

The reward: creating a world

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.

Later, I apologized to her. And she apologized 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 MacDonalds.” 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.

Do authors make money?

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.)

[Note from Joanna. This article is based on traditional publishing, but we have seen a lot of authors making decent money from self-publishing, so it is certainly not true for everyone.]

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.

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.

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.

What do you think of John’s article? Please do leave your comments below.

Dr John Yeoman, PhD Creative Writing, judges the Writers’ Village story competition and is a tutor in creative writing at a UK university. His hands-on course in story writing for profit can be found at:
http://www.writers-village.org/academy

Top image: Flickr CC / Tomas Fano

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Comments

  1. says

    I’m studying for a Masters in Professional Writing right now (University College Falmouth) and recently visited the London Book Fair, where a constant theme seemed to be ‘don’t expect to make any money from this business’. Naturally enough, I came away wondering why I’m trying so hard to break into an industry that won’t pay me for my pains! But I totally agree with John’s conclusion that there are rewards other than financial ones. Thanks for sharing this informative post – and for reassuring me that I’m not the only one mercenary enough to be harbouring such doubts…

    • says

      Hi Jo, On the money side, there are plenty of people writing commercial fiction who make money. The ones who take this seriously as a business can do very well.
      I point you to the Forbes world’s highest paid authors – James Patterson $84 million
      http://www.forbes.com/sites/jeffbercovici/2011/08/17/the-worlds-highest-paid-authors/
      and if you go a little lower, Joe Konrath is making hundreds of thousands and many indies are doing well. I got a 4 figure check from Amazon last month. So there are also financial rewards. I wouldn’t have given up my day job unless I could also make money this way :) So I am pretty mercenary too!

  2. says

    Since I’m a slow writer with many projects to finish, I work part-time. I am sick of being poor, so I wondered if I would be able to give up writing very morning to make money. I instantly, like true junkie, knew I could never stop. In fact, I become ill when I life intervenes and interrupts my writing.
    The problem is that I don’t like being on the computer all the time. How to do the marketing off=line…….?

  3. says

    I loved this. I’m only an emerging writer (‘emerging’ meaning I’ve still got adulthood quite a ways ahead of me) but I think I can still agree with this. It’s true, although bittersweet. I consider the mark of an artist is one who creates art for oneself. If the reason you’re writing is to get money or get famous, then you should pack up, move out and become a dentist instead. Leave writing for those who love their craft, and not for what comes of it. Very, very good article. Thanks.

  4. says

    Hi John,

    I have to agree with your assessment. I’m writing because I have something important to help disgruntled employees get laid off, and not quit. It’s a travesty that people are just quitting without a nice severance package!

    I’m retiring from my day job after 13 years this summer and just writing. I love it. My blog has grown to almost 200K readers a month and it’s just so wonderful to connect and accomplish.

    When you can write when you don’t need the money, it is one of the best things in the world!

    Sam
    The Yakezie Network

  5. says

    Hi John,

    I just loved this blog post. It elaborates the struggles faced by poets and writers in a “dog eats dog” world. There’s a wonderful quote “There’s no money in poetry, but there’s no poetry in money either.” How true it is and even Benjamin Franklin gave up writing poetry because his father told him that he would become a beggar.

    My mom gave me similar advice but stubborn as I am, I wrote a book of poems, short stories and essays entitled “Rose Gardens and Minefields.”

    My debut novel “Indians in Pakistan” will be released within a couple of months. I just hope it’s a best seller. It’s a book based on terrorism that will provide readers a wonderful insight into the world of jihadis, the global war on terror, the history of Islamic fundamentalism, the history of the Indian subcontinent (including the creation of the Pakistani state on the basis of religion and its failure) , the Kashmir dispute, secularism in India and, above all, the magnificence of the human spirit.

    It took me nearly four years to complete this work as I had to do extensive research on Islam, weaponry and so. There’s plenty of love, romance and action in this book – but not too much of explicit details. So, watch out for “Indians in Pakistan,” a unique and exciting novel!

  6. says

    A good article, with a naked truth in it, but one that ignores a huge percentage of authors – those small-press or self published. While I’m sure that wasn’t intention (and the truth is no less true) it’s blog writers overlooking us that encourages us to think lesser of ourselves. And, in all honesty, we do enough of that as it is.

    • says

      That’s a good point, Misa, and – as you observe – my negligence of indie authors wasn’t intentional. For as long as we have that ace indie author Joanna Penn to champion small press and self-published writers I guess we’re in no danger :)

  7. says

    Getting my work published (self-publishing) was an ego trip for me. After winning many books as prizes as a child, I always wanted to see a book on a shelf with my name on the binding. So glad I lived long enough to see it happen.

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