Mark Terry

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Making It Big (Or Just Making It)

January 22, 2008

While walking Frodo in the snow this morning, I was thinking about this whole "success" thing as it regards to writing and making a living at it.

I, like undoubtedly many novelists and aspiring novelists, have had dreams of "making it big." That, presumably, means, making a ton of money. I was inspired, after all, to try my hand at fiction when I read an essay by Stephen King where he talks about how he received a $2500 advance for the hardcover rights to "Carrie" and then $400,000 for the paperback rights to the same novel--in 1972. (Here's an eye opener, people. My advance for The Devil's Pitchfork was $1500. Then take my agent's 15% and the government's 28% and throw in website fees, postcards, postage and other promotional items and, well, you do the math).

What I was thinking about today was that, if you take bestselling authors out of the equation--just eliminate Stephen King, Lee Child, Barry Eisler, Sue Grafton, Dick Francis, John Sandford, et al., then your image of the publishing industry and novel-writing takes a very big hit.

Yes, there are a fair number of novelists out there making a living as novelists who are not bestselling authors. They might creep onto a bestseller's list from time to time, but they are not, per se, our name brand bestselling authors.

Then there's another bunch, a really huge bunch I think, who can't be said to be writing novels for money. Clearly I'm one of those at the moment. For the hopes of money--maybe. From a strictly dollars and cents point of view, I can make more money writing a magazine article or two for some of my regular clients than I make from my novels and I don't have to spend a dime on promotion. I can spend the same amount of time and energy on some of my bigger business projects as I would on writing a novel and outstrip the money made by factor of 10 or 20.

But this isn't about WHY DO IT THEN? That's a subject for a different day.

Here's partly where my brain was going. In terms of nonfiction, my writing business, I'm really very successful, I think. Certainly in the top third, maybe even higher (knock wood, it's a slippery business). I've surpassed my own expectations, shattered them really. I've also watched my writing go off in directions I never (ever) dreamed it would. I'm writing things I wasn't even aware existed for freelancers 4 or 5 years ago. And my willingness to learn and tackle new things has been part of the success.

But back to my point. That is, for that group of novelists who aren't bestsellers and who aren't "the rest of us" but who write novels and actually make a living at it, I'm struck by several things. They may or may not apply in all cases, but here they are:

1. They write a lot. Sometimes multiple books a year. Sometimes under pseudonyms. Sometimes in multiple genres. Short stories. They may very well supplement their novel writing with other things like writing magazine articles or teaching writing part-time or putting on seminars. They are, to put it mildly, working their ass off. (They may also have spouses with sizable incomes, but that's a different matter, ultimately).

2. They promote a fair amount. Some of them promote like their hair is on fire. Some, to my surprise, promote very little because their publishers do a fair amount of it for them (go figure). But they're all very aware that they need, somehow, to get the reader's attention.

3. They're very aware of subsidiary income and placement. These are 2 separate things, but what it comes down to is, first, subsidiary income--they might get a hardcover sale, but they also get a paperback sale, and an audiobook sale, and foreign sales, and maybe a movie option, and an e-book sale. In other words, a $1000 sale to Slovakia doesn't do much for their pocketbook, but a $1000 sale to Slovakia, a $2000 sale to Germany, an audiobook sale for $800, and $1500 to France, a $500 e-book option... it adds up. Placements means: my book gets on the shelf at Wal-Mart or at the bookstores at airports or next to the cash register at the grocery store or on the front table at Borders and Barnes & Noble. Although they may not have control over this, it's a big freaking deal, and they're lobbying someone for it--agent, editor, publicist, God, sacrificing virgins, whatever.

4. They're not getting rich. Just like if they were freelance writers (like me) or journalists or accountants. They are "making it" but not "making it big." It's a job and they're doing okay.

5. No freaking stability, but faith anyway. This is my impression. They all know they could be dropped by their publisher. That in this business, shit happens. Editors change houses. Publishing priorities shift. Publishers go out of business or cancel contracts or whatever. They're aware they're in the position of someone free climbing a cliff in a gale, but they have faith in their skills that they can hang on and proceed up the cliff without getting blown off.


I'm wrong.

Mark Terry


Blogger spyscribbler said...

SSHHHHHH!!!!!! You musn't say things like that. I'll never stop writing in my little niche if you talk like that!

Keep the faith, dude. I know I've said it ad nauseum, LOL, but I don't know a single author in all of existence who writes women with the mix of kickass, realness, and femininity that you manage. That's cool.

I'm only an observer, but it seems to me there's one more thing: the writers who make it big, or even just make it, seem to hit a sweet spot, kind of find the perfect book for their voice where everything just seems to sing, seems to be just perfect. Like, look at Evanovich, her romances that were great, fine, funny, and then when she hit that spot around book Six of Stephanie Plum, everything started to just sing. She suddenly got funnier. I think that sweet spot is hard to find. Because we can all write good books. We gotta find that sweet spot, too.

2:55 PM  
Blogger Erica Orloff said...

Hmmm . . .

I ALONE support a family of SIX as a writer. Have for five years. I work my ass off, so yeah, that part is true. I have NO job stability (hence I write across genres) . . . I fit some of those things you list and not others. My income is more than six figures, but it's not Stephen King rich by any stretch, especially when the government takes its cut, my agent, and so on. I supplement with magazine writing and editing . . . but it CAN be done. It really can. Part of it is I view it very much as a job---hence I've learned to get in the zone and make sure I have a healthy number of contracts as well as new proposals generating . . .

4:28 PM  
OpenID eric-mayer said...

This seems a fair assessment. I think each of us needs to figure out why we want to write books. The desire to get rich -- or even to make a living -- writing books aren't the only reasons or even necessarily very sensible reasons for most of us.

Publishers, at least the big publishers, want to make as much money as possible off books and they do make money, which may in fact put them at odds with authors who see individually very little remuneration. For example the publishers, who make a profit, naturally want all their writers to promote and help add to the profit, but given what the individual writer is liable to earn promotion might not make much sense.

We seem to be constantly pushed in the direction of writing for money. Money is a measure of success. To an extent it determines whether we can get published or continue to be be published. But there are other reasons to write.

We might write just for the challenge. To manage the feat of completing a novel and even of seeing it in print. People generally run marathons for the challenge, not for the pay.

Or maybe we write simply because we enjoy the process. Or because it puts us in touch with people whose company, in person or electronic, we enjoy.

And given how exceedingly small are the chances of real financial success, who is to say that such non-financial reasons aren't the best ones? Well, I imagine most novelists who have written for any length of time have come to that conclusion or else they wouldn't continue to write.

If this sounds like I've been in the process of trying to decide why I ought to write...well, I have been.

6:56 PM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

At a book talk I participated in this summer, one of the writers said that he wrote novels because it was his way of processing the world around him.

I thought that was spot on.

4:43 AM  
OpenID eric-mayer said...

Yes, that's a good answer. Hard to believe there are lots of people who don't feel this need to write. What weird people!

6:21 AM  

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