Sunday, May 22, 2005

Happy to Report

I think of this one as the anti-rant, a happy report from Darlene Ryan, author of Rules for Life and A Mother's Adoption Journey.
I didn’t start writing to end up on the Today Show or the New York Times best-seller list. But if either of those happens I’ll be dancing in my green yoga pants and calling everyone I’ve ever met. I’m not even writing to get rich. Not that I would be offended by a big advance, should Random House come calling. I write because I like it, because I’m pretty good at it, because I’m a lot nicer to be around when I’m writing than when I’m not.

Yes I want to be published. Yes I want to be paid. I didn’t make enough money last year from my writing to live on. But I did make enough to buy a new refrigerator and pay for my kid’s skating lessons. Pretty cool. I have three books and a dozen or so articles published. No I haven’t been published by a “big name” publisher or in any magazines like Redbook or Good Housekeeping, but I’ve worked with some talented editors at reputable companies. I haven’t given my writing away and I haven’t paid for it to be published.

I’ve been a fitness instructor, a commercial copywriter and a late night disk jockey and I like being a writer more than anything else I’ve done. (And I loved working in radio.) I like it on the days when everything I’ve written sounds stupid. I like it on the days when getting each word on paper is like pulling out my nose hairs with a set of pliers. I make stuff up and people pay me for it. I’m not a doctor saving people’s lives. I’m not a teacher, teaching twenty-five second-graders how to multiply. I’m not a plumber up to my elbows in, well, you know what. I make stuff up.

I had a snazzy book launch party for book number two and I got to sign lots of books. Also pretty cool. A friend found book number three in a bookstore in New York City. That was enough to get me dancing in the previously mentioned green yoga pants. I get a rush out of seeing one of my articles in print. When I hold a new book for the first time I’m a wild as a five year-old who’s had too much chocolate. Sure I’d like to have more readers and make more money. But whining about how unfair publishing is isn’t going to make either of those happen.

Publishing is a business. That means at the end of the year they need to have made a profit. That means they buy manuscripts that will make money for the company. So if the choice is between a relationship book with a catchy tag-line and a flip, funny young author, or a book that suggests relationships are (Gulp) a lot of work, penned by an academic, guess whose manuscript they’re going to buy? Guess which book I'm going to buy? I know relationships are work, but I like catchy lines and flippant people. I also know that a bowl of broccoli is a lot better for me than a Hershey bar with almonds. But guess which one I run for when life gets rocky?

I like my current editor a lot. But if he had to choose between a young adult novel penned by Jessica Simpson or one written by me, I think he’s smart enough to take the slam-dunk.

Publishing houses are not charities. They don’t have to be fair. They don’t have any obligation to nurture new writers. If an agent or an editor doesn’t like my work that may be a matter of personal preference. If sixty-seven agents and editors don’t like my work it’s a pretty safe bet that what I have isn’t saleable. Maybe the market is saturated. Maybe my manuscript doesn’t fit any established niche. Or maybe the writing just plain sucks. So I’ll write something else.

Sure, I want a book that’s a best-seller. Sure, I’d like to be on Oprah or the Today Show. Or both. And I’m trying to make that happen. But if it doesn’t, I’m still happy with my writing career.

28 comments:

Bob Freeman said...

Bravo and ditto.

Anonymous said...

"I write because I like it, because I’m pretty good at it, because I’m a lot nicer to be around when I’m writing than when I’m not ... I didn’t make enough money last year from my writing to live on. But I did make enough to buy a new refrigerator and pay for my kid’s skating lessons. Pretty cool ... I’m still happy with my writing career."

You don't have a writing career. You have a hobby. Of course you like it better than all your jobs.

"Publishing is a business."

So, optimally, is writing.

"Publishing houses are not charities."

Neither, optimally, is writing.

You are subsidising your publisher by accepting lower-than-living wages: do you think -they- 'didn't make enough money last year to live on?' You are being taken advantage of, and, like most writers, you're very thankful for the opportunity. Your editor is smart enough to choose a book by Jessica Simpson, because he -is- smart, he's professional and savvy and self-interested. He's also smart enough to pay you less-than-a-living wage, for all the same reasons--and you thank him.

If you wrote this same post except said, 'I made -barely- enough to live on,' I'd say congratulations, you're living the dream! But if they're not paying you living wages--while they, of course, insist upon living wages plus for themselves--something is very wrong, here.

Bad Mood Mickey

Darlene said...

Hey Bad Mood, (I hope you don't mind that I'm using your first name.) Both my publishers (I had two books out last year) paid me a living wage. When I said I didn't make enough last year to live on I meant to support my entire family and pay for extras like swimming lessons and soy mochas at Starbucks because for me they are part of living. But I certainly made enough to support myself if I were single...and never went near a Starbucks.
BTW why are you in a bad mood?

Kelley Bell said...

I spent 20 years as a graphic artist, and know the thrill of seeing my work in print.

It is a great feeling.

Now, I have turned to writing because the thrill is not enough anymore.

I have graduated to the hard stuff. I need a bigger fix.

I want to express myself AND connect to others...and hopefully strike a chord that will resonate beyond the grave.

I write because I brood over my own mortality. LOL

Katharine Weber said...

There is a great deal about this post which confounds and irritates me. Imagine a thoracic surgeon, say, saying it was really fine to be paid just a small amount, the important thing is just being allowed to go in there and operate, and meanwhile you get on all the lists that say you're a doctor, and everyone thinks of you as an important doctor, and you get to hang out with other doctors, and you get to have good self esteem because you always wanted to be a doctor, and those are the things that count. And they do give you some money, so that's good. But it really doesn't matter.

Okay, let's see a show of hands -- how many people here would choose this surgeon to operate on you? Why?

This speaks to the huge disconnect that exists between some kinds of writers, the kind who all but say they would pay for the privilege of being published and getting to be seen as writers, and, well, some other kinds of writers, the rest of us who work seriously. And want to be taken seriously. In every sense, by every measure in our society by which we reward what we value. Money matters.

Anonymous said...

I don't know why I was actually surprised that Darlene was criticized for her happy post. I've read all the comments on the rants and other posts and pretty much everyone just wants to complain.

I think the key point of Darlene's post is that she's willing to start at the bottom, or near the bottom, and work her way up because she gets joy out of writing and, therefore, is willing to start small and hopefully end up with a hit one day.

Don't we all?

I loved writing when I called it a hobby, before I "got serious"; I loved writing when I called it my future career after I "got serious" and focused on improving my manuscripts -- even before I was published. I love it now even when I'm staring at a seemingly daunting revisions letter. I'm dying to dive into the revisions and tie my vision with my editors and come up with something really, really cool.

Why is Darlene's contentment with her slow, steady career suddenly a hobby? If any of her three books suddenly hits the charts, she'll be paid royalties. Just because she didn't get a huge advance (which is all in the eye of the beholder), why is she not working for a living wage?

I have a family to support. Many, many people can't support their families on one income. That's why both mom and dad are out there working. I was paid a very good advance for my books, enough so that I could "quit my day job" because it was the equivalent of two years salary, but if I didn't have a husband who also worked, I'd never have been able to quit because I have children to feed, clothe and house.

Should I attack my former employer for not paying a "living wage" because I couldn't support my family on it without a second income? I'd bet there are millions of dual income families in this country because both spouses HAVE to work to pay for the house, the two cars, etc., etc.

Anyway, back to the point: as writers, we get paid a small to large advance and if we do really well we'll start seeing royalties. As in most careers, you start at the bottom and work up. I started at entry-level and worked myself up, nearly tripling my salary in a decade. Darlene said she'd be able to support herself if she were single and wanted to forsake the extras in life. Why isn't that a living wage?

Anyway, sorry for the "rant on the ranters", but I've found that attitude is one of the most important things in life and I'm a little tired bad attitudes.

Publishing is facing a lot of problems with decreasing readership -- MJ Rose had a blog on this recently -- and marketing issues and competition from the instant gratification entertainments like videos, video games, etc. We should be talking about those issues. Why? Because more readers=more books sold which means ALL of us will do better at the bottom line.

s/ anon suspense writer

Katharine Weber said...

Apparently we have very different definitions of "bad attitude," anonymous. Any reason you don't want to say who you are?

Darlene said...

Me again. It seems that somehow several of you have the idea I'm writing for no money. Nope. (I was listening when my grandmother talked about cows and free milk.)I was paid small advances for both books that came out last year and have already earned back both advances and royalties. In the case of the children's picture book, that book was available from the end of April. The entire print run was sold and I was paid on time. (Book two didn't come out until November.)

zornhau said...

Some very odd responses here.

I don't get the sense of entitlement. Publishers don't pay authors a salary, they pay them in royalties. If that turns out to be a "living wage", great. If not, too bad.

Overall, I salute this author's attitude.

M. D. Benoit said...

Publishing doesn't happen in a vacuum. There's this offer-and-demand thing, people.

There's a fact: most people don't read anymore.

If everyone were healthy and only a very small portion of the population needed a heart surgeon, those who wanted to become one for the love of it might be willing to accept low wages (or none).

I haven't made a whole lot of money from my writing, but I don't give a damn. I'm a much happier person now than when I was making close to $100K as a consultant and hated every minute of it. How many people do you know who make tons of money and hate their jobs? A friend of mine died from the stress of a job he hated with passion (he was waiting for the pension -- 2 years later).

Life's too short for not being happy. Those who equate success with money have a pretty skewed view of life. Not saying one precludes the other, just that "there's no free lunch". You want money, you got to work for it, maybe at the cost of your freedom.

Instead of complaining that we're not valued and we're exploited by our publishers, maybe we should put our energies to finding out ways to get people to read --and buy-- more books.

Anonymous said...

Hey Darlene,

Don't let the bastards get ya down.

:)

Great post!

Mary Stella said...

Darlene, your post sums up how I feel about writing. I'm darned delighted that I've sold two books to an advance & royalty-paying publisher. The advances are small, but the publisher rocks on the amount of advertising and promotion that they pay for, which should translate to more sales and royalties. It's a start and I'm building my career. In the meantime, I subsidize my writing career with another job.

As my sales increase, so do my advances. The deals will continue to improve and, hopefully, so will my royalty statements.

The doctor comparison doesn't work for me in the days of managed health care when the insurance companies don't pay doctors anywhere near what they deserve.

I compare my writing career to baseball. Right now, I'm in the minor leagues, but I'm working my way up through the publishing system and one day will be swinging in the big show.

In the meantime, I won't ever lose that delight I feel when I hold my work in my hands or see it on a bookshelf. (I took a picture with my camera phone the first time that happened!) I recently attended a romance booklovers convention where I met at least two dozen people to whom I am not related who had all read my book and told me they loved it. That's bliss!

Anonymous said...

Katharine, I choose to stay anonymous because publishing is a small business and I really don't want to accidentally tick someone off who then will go and try to trash my career. It's happened to more than one published author who gave his/her opinion and then had these little juvenile whisper campaigns going around that took time and energy away from writing to deal with when they started snowballing into potentially career-damaging rumors.

To me, a bad attitude is when people jump all over those who are happy/content with their writing career because what makes them happy/content is somehow "wrong."

Unlike Darlene who said she's not in it to make money, I am. However, I wouldn't have chosen to pursue my dream of being a published author if I didn't love, love, love writing stories. This is my childhood dream that was put on the back burner so I could have a "real" career. Well, I dumped that real career and am working to make writing my real career. But I want to make a living at it, too. Right now I can -- but of course, if my husband lost his job we'd be struggling to make ends meet. Like most dual income families.

Anonymous said...

This post sums up the tyranny of low expectations that runs right through the heart of publishing today.

Books as fodder- one more piece of intentional detritus passing through our hands. As disposable as newsprint, advertising, and for that matter, blogging.

Publishing is a lousy way to make money.

It should be this way because, at its best, publishing ought to be about shaping and founding taste- rather than chasing it.

Chasing it means soliciting authors who care very little, for whom writing isn't much more than a passing thing and letting them be typical and hope that their typical book connects with how a lot of people feel about things RIGHT NOW.

In five minutes, the reader is different, the book is irrelevant and even the author (perhaps as blase as this one) has forgotten about it.

Trying to hit that tiny window is a lousy gamble. But worse still, it's a gamble that means pushing aside everything worthwhile that writing can do.

Nobody said...

The thing with the way the free market works is, "living wage" really doesn't enter into the equation. You get paid what the market bears for your services. Whether or not Darlene's advances and royalties could allow her to live in the manner to which she is/wants to be accustomed isn't really relevant. Given what the average writer makes, peeps who want to make a very good living might consider boning up for the actuarial exams. I'm not arguing that the value our market places such things is right or wrong, or even arguing at all. Just saying.

Darlene, I enjoyed reading your post and appreciated your point of view. Thanks.

Serenity Now! said...

Good for you Darlene! I think your attitude is wonderful and that you enjoy your writing. These poor people that think that if they are not suffering and bitching then they must not be writers - they can go suck rocks if you ask me!

See, the thing is.. they want to make the wages of a thoracic surgeon. But, um.. they aren't thoracic surgeons.

Now, if I had to commit $50K or so to graduate from a school and become licenced as a writer.. yeah, I'd feel entitled to a bit more money too.

And they don't like you because you have the audacity to LOVE what you do. For people like us, a royalty check or an Amazon number don't equal our self worth. Ultimately we will die happier.

I don't care who thinks my writing is a 'hobby' it has allowed me - a single mom - to provide for my son better than the former two income family could.

I have a friend who works in the stock market, when I ask what a stock is 'worth' he says "whatever the market will pay for it". Publishing as a business is the same. Writing is not necessarily so.

Anonymous said...

I'm sorry guys, but this is lame. The writer of this anti-rant is a success in all possible ways: she's published, making money, and she loves what she does.

My grandpa once said that you're truly lucky if you can make your hobby or passion something of a career, and it appears she has done so.

Those who would detract from her success with statements about how you're not a real writer unless you make a living wage from it... Lame.

Even writers who earn six or seven figures per year often seek to augment their income in other ways. You can never have too much money, but at the same time, doing what you love to do is a recipe for success.

Katharine Weber said...

What a fascinatingly incoherent series of posts, just about each one in its own way a non-sequiteur or a misreading of a previous post.

Anonymous said...

It should be this way because, at its best, publishing ought to be about shaping and founding taste- rather than chasing it.

I respectfully disagree. I don't like being told what to think, what to feel, how to behave, what is morally acceptable or not, nor do I think my "tastes" need to be shaped.

I read for a variety of reasons. Sometimes I like a more serious, thought-provoking literary novel. But most of the time, I prefer to sit down with a mystery, a page-turning suspense novel, or a happily-ever-after romance. Why? Because I want to be entertained. I want to lose myself in the story and be satisfied when I reach THE END.

Lynn Viehl said...

I'll sidestep the literary bitchslapping and simply thank Darlene for using her real name. I was getting tired of being the only one who had.

Also glad to see you here, Mary. You still dancing with dolphins?

Douglas Clegg said...

It's great Darlene spoke up from her side of this. Every writer has a different perspective on how this business runs, or doesn't run, and the most important thing is "how it runs for you." I don't think anybody should be -- or should feel -- chastized for keeping the joy of writing alive.

I write to make a living, and each time out, I want to make a better living than I did the year before.

This is one of my expectations as a writer, and I work hard to realize it and it does not come from me wishing it would happen. I've had to learn things fast in the business, say "no," to publishers and agents more often than I've said "yes," and to stand up and walk away from the table when things aren't working for me.

Additionally, I've had to reinvent what I'm doing with each novel so that I never get bored with what I'm writing, and so that I will give the reader something special each time out. I used to wonder what a good novel needs to make a reader (and writer) happy.

I now know: a good novel needs everything. There's no one thing -- a good novel has to bring the world in a box to the reader. The box is called story.

And publishing gets rough at times.

None of that takes away from my love for writing or my happiness at being a professional novelist.

None of it ever takes away from my respect and yes, love for editors and sales reps and marketing people and publishers and copy-editors.

Like Darlene, I also write for a dozen reasons that have nothing to do with the business of publishing.

I want to add one more joy: writing for a really great reader.

The readers pay my bills, after all.

And the really great readers "get" what I'm writing. That is its own joy.

Since publishers are advancing money _against_ royalties, it's always those readers who are actually paying me -- the publisher is just giving me a terrific interest-free loan against the moment those readers start paying me 10% or so of the book's cover price, just as they pay the bookseller about 40% or thereabouts, and then they pay the publisher that final 50% or thereabouts.

And from that 10% the reader pays me, even my agent gets paid 15% of my percentage.

All of us are paid by the reader.

And if the industry is to improve, _we_ have to focus on that reader more, because that reader is paying our bills and that reader can tell us what we don't know from our side of the fence. By "we" I mean writers, publishers, marketers, booksellers.

I don't see publishers as the problem. I do see a lack of partnership between publishers and writers as part of the problem. A writer is the CEO of his or her own company -- and a CEO who signs a contract with a publisher is on equal footing -- at the moment of that signing of the contract -- with the publisher. Both are there to create something that will sell, and be read, and be significant.

Want to make reading books an essential of everyone's life?

Find out how to reach that reader, and you'll solve that problem.

I know I've gone off-topic here, but to me, all the problems of the industry come down to: we need to learn how to reach the readers.

I find it interesting that one of the top bestselling writers in this country clearly spends months each year on the road doing booksignings, and did this before she was an enormous bestselling writer.

Who?

Well, I'll let you guess, but it's someone who has long understood the importance of getting to know her readers.

Katharine Weber said...

Great post, Doug, thank you for that. We agree about far more than we disagree.

I don't know if you are thinking of Luanne Rice but she certainly puts in her time meeting readers and going out there for her books, and has done so for many years.

Anonymous said...

Hey Katharine Weber, I though I was supposed to be commenting about the ORIGINAL post. Not necessarily having a dialogue about the other commenters... If I want to have a dialogue, I'll go join a forum.

Oh look, darn it all now I've gone and had a dialogue. Crap.

Allison Brennan said...

All of us are paid by the reader.

And if the industry is to improve, _we_ have to focus on that reader more, because that reader is paying our bills and that reader can tell us what we don't know from our side of the fence. By "we" I mean writers, publishers, marketers, booksellers.


Coming out of deep lurk (one of the few boards I remain silent on) to give a high five for this comment. It bears repeating, but more than that, we need to act on it. Thanks, Doug.

Diana Peterfreund said...

Darlene is a professional writer. Her work is published by a royalty-paying publisher, and she has received money for it. I salute you, Darlene -- for doing what you're doing and loving it!

I completely disagree with someone who says that the amount of money someone is paiud for doing something signifies its value. If that were true, policemen and teachers would be millionaires, and supermodels would have to take night jobs.

If I am working two jobs in order to support myself -- say, full time work at an office from 9-5 and then a few hours at Starbucks every evening to help me pay off my student loans and car payments and in general make ends meet, am I a barista hobbyist? Hell no. It's a job. There's no law that says that what we do for a living has to be one thing.

Patry Francis said...

Emily Dickinson never made a dime for her poetry. Does that mean she wasn't a real poet? Genuine art of any kind has never been defined by money. Sure, writing is a profession, a job, and all that, and it's grand if you can make a buck or two, and maybe even pay the mortgage or buy your kids skates while doing it. But if it's not also an avocation and a passion and an obsession, it's not worth crap--no matter how many six figure advances it commands.

Anonymous said...

Darlene:

My apologies. If you're making a living wage, you're a Queen Among Women! You ARE living the dream. That's fantastic. Congrats, and my wholehearted support.

(I'm in a bad mood because--what else?--I got a nasty smack-down in a pretty big metro newspaper for my latest, and shit, that never stops hurting.)

Also because of some of the crap expressed in the comments. A commitment to a slow, steady rise in a career is not a hobby: that's a smart vocational choice. But eagerly celebrating being tremendously underpaid is not smart, and it's not good for the industry. (And I'm not talking about you, here, Darlene: anyone who makes a living writing is a hero to me.) If you accept $5,000 for your novel, you undervalue yourself, and your work, and that's your prerogative--but you -also- undervalue the work of every other novelist out there. I'm -all- for serving an unpaid apprenticeship, and I have the drawers full of crap novels to prove it. I spent years writing novels that wouldn't, and couldn't, sell. I celebrate publishers' unwillingness to buy my stuff: it was crap. They were perfectly right to reject it.

What I abhor is when a publisher says, "Yes, we want to publish your novel!" and then offers $3,000 or $1,000 or $5,000 as an advance. (And don't talk to me about the real payment being royalties. That's seven kinds of bullshit. Even if it were true, why don't we ask editors to work for $5,000 a year, plus royalties? Because we all think editors are the true professionals in the business, and writers are ... writers. You know. Dreamers who'll take $1,000 for a year's work, fantasizing about appearing on Oprah or sleeping with Chabon.)

If a reputable publisher makes an offer, the implication is you wrote a professional-quality book, right? Otherwise, why offer? If the book isn't professional-quality, they should reject you. But if it -is-, the should offer a professional wage, because they've -already- admitted you're a professional. I'm not saying $50,000, or even $25,000--hell, or even $15,000. (My personal cut-off was $10,000, which strikes me as embarrassingly low.)

That -is- a sense of entitlement, that's exactly the fucking point: I'm entitled to get paid a professional wage for a professional work. Because I can't control the marketing or distribution, despite a million wanking words on blogs about author promotion, I MUST GET MY MONEY UP FRONT. In exchange, the publisher gets more money per book, and all the control. The only things I can control are 1) the writing, which I must believe is the only thing that matters and 2) the deals I accept. I won't accept being treated like a hobbyist. I'm not.

One of the anonymouseses said it just write: a tyranny of low expectations, which promotes authors with unprofessional attitudes and expectations--and probably skills. If every writer woke up tomorrow with a burning desire to rejection any advance under $10,000, we'd see some changes, all for the better. The way to get people to buy and read more books is: BETTER BOOKS. You don't get better books by paying crap money for books by hobbyists. You flood the market with shit by paying crap money for hobbyist books. You get better books by paying more, not less, and by sticking with authors longer, not shorter, and by publishers fewer, not more.

Five Star Press publishes 300 novels a year, at an average advance of I believe $1,500. If they published the top 30, for $15,000, how much better would that be, for everyone?

Douglas wrote: "All of us are paid by the reader."

That's true ... but writers are the only ones we ask to work on a percentage basis. Because writers are the only non-professionals in the publishing industry. That's what annoys me. I'd have absolutely no argument, here, if editors and publishers, if PR people and page layout and cover design (a pox on them!) all worked for a small advance against royalties. Maybe they should. Then we'd all be doing our glorious work together, trying to sell each book best and make our weekly envelope. But instead, -everyone but the writer- is treated as a professional, with a guaranteed wage and often benefits. Why is the writer paid -last-? Isn't that kinda odd, given we're sorta central to the whole enterprise?

I believe--and someone correct me if I'm wrong--that even SALESPEOPLE in publisher aren't paid on a percentage basis. Is that possible?

Bad Mood Mickey

TLG said...

The only thing I like better than stories with happy endings is a little happiness in the middle :)

I'm glad things're living up to YOUR expectations, and that you're content with what you have. It doesn't matter how much we have in life, or how much we're given for our work, we'll always want more. And we're not entitled to ANY bit of it.

I'm also glad things're going well.

A VOCATION OF UNHAPPINESS [Courtesy Georges Simenon (1903-1985)]

"Writing is considered a profession, and I don't think it is a profession. I think that everyone who does not need to be a writer, who thinks he can do something else, ought to do something else. Writing is not a profession but a vocation of unhappiness. I don't think an artist can ever be happy."


PRACTICAL MARKETING [Courtesy Zornhau, 2005]

"They should put the 1st couple of pages up in subway adverts. Having read them several times, you'd feel compelled to try the book - if it was any good."


PLATE OF SHRIMP [Courtesy Alex Cox’s REPO MAN, circa 1984]

"A lot of people don't realize what's really going on. They view life as a bunch of unconnected incidences and things. They don't realize that there's this like lattice of coincidence that lays on top of everything. I'll give you an example, show you what I mean. Suppose you're thinking about a plate of shrimp. Suddenly somebody will say like "plate" or "shrimp" or "plate of shrimp" out of the blue, no explanation. No point in looking for one either. It's all part of a cosmic unconsciousness."