Thursday, July 12, 2012

Is your writing good enough or better?

Deep within the "draft" section of my post list, I found this, which I wrote back at the end of January but didn't publish it to the world because I was afraid it wasn't very good. I'm still not sure that it is, but I decided to put it out there and see what everyone thinks.

Yesterday I finished the manuscript for Ecothrifty and emailed it to my publisher. On one hand, it was a great feeling. On the other hand, I knew it wasn't perfect, and deep down inside, I worried that it might be really terrible. In fact, in the email, I asked the editor to let me know as soon as possible if it didn't suck too badly.

While there are some people who get very upset about anyone editing their words, it seems that the real writers are far more worried that their writing is simply not good -- and all the editing in the world can't fix it. I think this might be the difference between a writer and someone who simply writes. If you think that you have perfectly expressed your ideas in a piece of writing and that no one should change a word, you don't really understand what it means to be a writer. A writer knows that even though you may have sweated and cried and lost sleep over your work, it still needs to be edited. There will be things that don't make sense to someone else. There will be things that should be re-arranged. There will be words that will seem out of place or out of character.

And that is the beauty of a great editor. She doesn't change things or make assumptions. She asks questions about what you intended to say. She lets you know when something doesn't work. She helps you to say what you really wanted to say. She is critical but fair and realistic. She doesn't let you get away with writing something that is simply "good enough." A good editor is worth her weight in gold.

But even the greatest editor can't fix something that really sucks. And a real writer knows that. And that is why we worry so much about whether our work is half decent. I know I'm in good company though. John Steinbeck complained in his diary about how he worried over The Grapes of Wrath, and J.K. Rowling used to call her sister crying when her latest Harry Potter book wasn't coming together the way she wanted. I can only imagine how unsympathetic her sister must have been after Rowling had become a huge success. But I also hope she was nice about it.

Even if the rest of the world loves our writing, we worry about it. Although that insecurity might drive everyone crazy -- writer and loved ones -- it is probably what made people like Steinbeck and Rowling such great writers. They refused to stop revising and rewriting until it was better than "good enough." They kept pushing themselves until it was really amazing.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

The road to writing riches

A few years ago when I was teaching a freelance writing class at a local community college, a man came up to me during break. With a little grin on his face and speaking softly as if he were looking for insider information, he asked, "So, can you really make a lot of money doing this?"

Seeing articles like this one about an author who got a million-dollar deal for a diet book might lead some people to think that being an author is the road to riches. Uh, no, not really. Not even close. Actually, that isn't reality for about 99.9 percent of authors. I really don't know why the big publishers give advances like that. Are they really that scared that another publishing house is going to publish the book and make millions? Really?

In reality, a big publisher might pay the typical author an advance around $15,000 to $20,000, and if you're with a small publisher, it's around $3,000 to $5,000, so we are not getting rich. In fact, we're not even paying the bills unless we have a second job. "Advance" is short for "advance on royalties," so you have to "earn out" your advance before you ever see another penny of royalties. In other words, if you get a $5,000 advance, and you are getting a 10% royalty on the wholesale price of a $20 book, you will earn $1 on every book, which is 10% of wholesale, assuming wholesale is 50%. (Yes, this means the bookstore makes more money on the book than the author, but we already knew life wasn't fair.) That means that after 5,000 books are sold, you are now out of debt to the publisher -- your book has earned the $5,000 that they paid you before publication -- and now they will start sending you royalty checks twice a year on the books that are sold.

And how many copies do most books sell? That is pretty much impossible to answer, even with a ballpark figure. A first-time author's novel sells around 5,000 copies, but could sell tens of thousands. When it comes to non-fiction, you can't provide any type of meaningful number because it varies wildly by genre -- and yeah, diet books tend to sell very well, along with books telling people how to get rich or find the secret of success. But some non-fiction books sell a thousand copies while other sell more than a hundred thousand or even a million. But you can see that unless a book sells at least 20,000 copies a year, you are not even above poverty level without a day job.

So, why do people write books? Because we love to write, and we love to share our knowledge or our stories with readers. I've been writing ever since I was a young girl. It is just something that I have to do, along with eating and breathing. If you're a writer, you understand this. But if you're not a writer, maybe there is something else that you absolutely love to do, and you would do it every day, even if no one paid you -- like playing the piano or drawing.

Although we may not be rolling in the dough, writers are enjoying a rich life. We may very well complain about the lack of financial riches, but at least we are doing something we really love.