Success, then Failure

Banned Books

Never mind the quality, feel the width

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Paul Whybrow

Full Member
Jun 20, 2015
Cornwall, UK
I had doubts about posting the link to an article by Merritt Tierce, for it makes rather depressing reading. Most of us are still chasing our first book deal or struggling with how to market our self-published books, so to hear that a critically acclaimed novel made only modest sales is disheartening.

I Published My Debut Novel to Critical Acclaim—and Then I Promptly Went Broke

It certainly put the author in a quandary, for she realised that all of the praise in the world doesn't help to pay the bills. She's experiencing a form of writer's block, where she wants to write but has to earn a living by working for others.

As she says:


The very few authors who have earned great wealth from writing is a reflection of the disparity in income, wealth and influence of society—1% control a disproportionate amount.

Writing has always been a tough way to earn a living, and there are plenty of well-known authors who struggle to make ends meet:

From bestseller to bust: is this the end of an author's life?

Kind of makes me glad, that I'm used to being poor!

How about you?

Few years back a critically acclaimed, well selling Polish author revealed that she earned a total of 6800 PLN (around 1500 E) for her book. Depressing AF, even more so the reaction she got ("NOT ENOUGH FOR YOU? YOU SHOULD BE HAPPY TO GET PAID FOR YOUR HOBBY!").

I come from a poor background- and I mean no-money-for-new-shoes poor- so now, being able to afford foreign vacations, I already consider myself rich. As baloney as it sounds, I do not conflate my success or happiness with having tones of money. Deep inside my heart I would rather be very famous than very rich ;) I guess that makes me an appropriate person for both science and writing :D
A local writer I know who writes fabulous historical fiction and has many awards to her name makes less than NZ$3000 (about 1500 euros) per year from her creative writing. Of course, it's especially tough here--even the local publishers have to have day jobs. The only bonus of writing is that, if your books attain some popularity, the income from them will continue for years--a small income, for sure, but with very little work on the writer's part. So maybe the books become a bit of extra retirement income.

I think the only certain way to make decent money from writing is to do it for others--business writing, websites, etc. That has its perks, but it's not a place to be creative.
Just for clarification, I do think it is possible to make money from writing fiction, but I suspect you have to know your market well, write an awful lot, and either have god luck or good marketing behind you, preferably both. But given that my total income from fiction writing is ~USD 100 over two years, I'm not in a position to say what works and what doesn't...:)
The most I ever made in a year from royalties was just over $16,000. That's still better than the average for romance writers, which is approximately $10,000 a year in royalties. Last year I made roughly $11,000. After a while, the back list stops selling. :) After five and a half years and over 80 published novels, I think it's safe to say that while I do make some money, it's certainly not enough to live on. If I took on a second job at minimum wage ($7.25/hour), I would actually make more money doing that than I make in royalties. LOL!!! :D I do this because I love it, not because I expect to make a living doing it.
The more I hear and read on this subject the more I accept that earning even a moderate income from writing fiction is unlikely. But having come back to writing yet again I am prepared to go with it just for the love of it. Whether that's writing flash fiction, a full length novel MS, for a writer's group I am part of, or just exercises, it is about being creative come what may. If anything it just increases my respect for many authors that I admire as they probably earned very little for their toil.

What I cannot answer is why when I was thirteen years old did I decide I would write? How odd, because that was a very long, long time ago...
This is true for many businesses too.

It is so difficult to juggle writing with work so I admire all that do and get paid for their writing no matter how modest that is. As others have said it's the love of what you do that pushes you forward to continue doing it. And I am growing into love with my writing. I didn't realise I could convey my own personality in it even if I'm not always satisfied with the words I choose I am growing into love and with that other doors seem to open, whilst others close too. However, a bit of me dies everytime I do get a rejection and it shows on my face over time...seriously! I got a rejection today for 2 of my brands! And am feeling a little reflective at the moment about it all. But always there is something cosy about writing that I come back to and feel happy again.

I don't know the future of my income in writing and I would love to make it my full time job but I know I love doing lots of things not just writing, I love networking with others, I love showing off and being excited about what I do so I share it with others and try to energise children through talks and workshops. So there are so many complementary ways to turn it all into a full time job. So I suppose it's a career I am still carving for myself.
The high profile from the 1% of writers who made great wealth disproportionately to the rest have done so not just through their writing but through the rights to their work too. I'm not convinced that even having the proceeds from being a 'best seller' is enough of an income as pointed out by the 'acclaimed' author.

But again realistically there must be a dose of luck in it, who you know, how they sell your IP...a lot of dominoes must fall to get to the holy grail financial sustainability.

I remember my distributor only used to sell a few of my games at a time ...then I met him and we started to chat and he got to know me better. The next month I had a lot more sales then usual. This was sustained for a few years not just an odd month here and there. Since 2009, 3 of my games are put on their catalogue as 'best sellers'. In monetary terms that might not translate as well as it sounds but that's because they are at pocket money prices. My point is that personally knowing those in the chain of selling your work may help.
Yes, it's the cobbling together of all the things we love to do into some semblance of a professional life...creative writing is part of it, and a joyful part, though it isn't likely to pay the bills. Writing is one of those 'fields' like astronomy--many big breakthroughs are made by amateurs (in the true meaning of the word--those who do it for love, not money). And like astronomers, the possibility of a breakthrough is tantalising, but what keeps us gazing at the stars late into the night (or writing about gazing at the stars late into the night) is our love for it.

So, rock on, all of you. You're awesome!
What most authors lack, is knowledge of what makes a new product commercially viable—as writers, we spend ages perfecting our work to show how much we care. Publishers don't care one jot about the art and craft of creating a novel, though they're happy to pontificate on the technique of their new client when critics praise the book.

Mainly, publishers view books in the same way that a food manufacturer judges a new chocolate bar—will it sell, and how do they market it? Just think of all of the dreadful books, films and music albums which get released, where you think 'why the hell did they bother with that?' It's because there's an overbearing commercial element to it—the book is 'written' by a nitwit blogger with 250,000 followers, a similar superhero epic made $50,000,000 profit at the box office, or this long-ago-deceased guitarist's last compilation CD made more sales than the rest of his back catalogue.

This is especially true in an economic recession, where it's safer to go with known products—as a manufacturer and as a consumer. Experimentation is kept for when you've got money to waste. There's also a weighty inertia to overcome, trying to get publishers to support something of good quality, rather than churn out the same old rubbish.

Novelist Tibor Fischer observed that:

The way British publishing works is that you go from not being published no matter how good you are, to being published no matter how bad you are.

The thing is, am I writing for myself and preserving my own sense of self-worth, or should I sell out to pander to the squalid tastes of readers who've jumped on a trend? If so, I should be writing about sadomasochistic werewolves and vampires, who are also wizards and witches holding the secrets of the Holy Grail—and who offer affordable makeup tips!

It's often advised to 'stay true to yourself', but that is a costly credo when trying to make a living from writing.
"The way British publishing works is that you go from not being published no matter how good you are, to being published no matter how bad you are."

Nice quote @Paul Whybrow : I plotted this onto a line spectrum and concluded that being mediocre gives you a 50/50 chance of being published/not being published. I like my chances :D
Writing, like most art forms, follows a 'tournament' economic model. There are 1000 of entrants who all accept the rules, but only one can rise to the top. In tournaments, the entry costs are relatively small, but the potential gain for the winners is huge.

I write because I am passionate about my stories, making money would be an added bonus, but not my main priority at this stage.

Tournament theory - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Writing is a lousy way of making money. Most writers are poor. We hold these truths to be self-evident.
Agreed 100%
The problem is these self-evident truths are also immaterial. Writing is often a compulsion, an addiction. You write first and look for an agent/a market afterwards, not the other way around - which is why it is not a business, not most of the time.
All we can do is to continue to write and hope luck comes our way.
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Banned Books

Never mind the quality, feel the width