Mama, don’t let your children grow up to be writers

There have been some interesting pieces circulating online recently about the writer’s life and selling books. It turns out authors aren’t automatically showered with money for their first book, which everybody in the country then goes on to read. Who knew?

NPR has an insightful article about the actual numbers of the books business — insightful and slightly depressing. “When it comes to book sales, what counts as success may surprise you” says that the vast majority of writers are essentially doing it as a hobby, as it’s nearly impossible to make a living as a writer these days. (Yes, yes, I know there are exceptions. But they are the exceptions, not the rule.) I say it’s only slightly depressing because most writers already know this.

“A sensational sale would be about 25,000 copies,” says literary agent Jane Dystel. “Even 15,000 would be a strong enough sale to get the publisher’s attention for the author for a second book.”

But if that second book doesn’t sell, says Dystel, odds are you won’t get another chance. And that brings us to the Authors Guild survey. Just over 1,400 full- and part-time writers took part in the survey, the Guild’s first since 2009. There has been a 30 percent decline in author income since then and more than half of the respondents earned less than $11,670 (the 2014 federal poverty level) from their writing related income.

I should point out that in Canada, 15,000 copies would be a sensational sale.

The Bookseller highlighted this issue in a story about the Man Booker long list, which revealed that some writers who made the long list have sold only a few hundred copies.

And author Kameron Hurley talked about numbers in her piece “The Cold Publishing Equations: Books Sold + Marketability + Love.” Hurley points out most books sell only a few hundred to a few thousand copies — and then those authors tend to get dropped by their publishers. Hurley says that as long as you’re writing and building an audience, then you’re doing OK as a writer.

The average book sells 3000 copies in its lifetime (Publishers Weekly, 2006).

Yes. It’s not missing a zero.

Take a breath and read that again.

But wait, there’s more!

The average traditionally published book which sells 3,000 in its entire lifetime in print only sells about 250-300 copies its first year.

But I’m going indie! you say. My odds are better!

No, grasshopper. Your odds are worse.

The average digital only author-published book sells 250 copies in its lifetime.

It’s not missing a zero.

It’s enough to get a writer down on the best of days, and it often does. But I like what Shawna Lemay says over on her Calm Things blog:

You don’t have to be a writer. No one is making you. You do it because you love it in some weird and fragile and cool angsty way. You do it because it reminds you why you are alive, and you want to share that with someone who might enjoy your odd and particular way of looking at the world.

I’ve had this conversation with a couple of my writer friends lately, about how for most of us, your book comes out and there’s a bit of fanfare, mainly the fanfare you drum up for yourself on social media etc. You launch your book and that’s always nice. Some people will buy it, say decent things at some point in the near future. You’re lucky if you get one good review, and not too many horrible ones. Actually, you’re lucky if anyone reviews you at all. So you’ll get a little self-created moment in the sun and within two to three weeks, your book is just another of the millions and billions of books out there floating around in the world. As “Polly” says, ‘almost all books tank.’ Which is totally fine.

As for me? Hey, I’m happy to be able to write and publish books for readers like you. It’s what I’ve always wanted to do, ever since I was a kid. Writing and telling stories is in my DNA. The number of copies sold, the money earned, all that stuff, it’s gravy and it’s nice when it happens. I was pretty thrilled when I became an Amazon bestseller! But it’s not why I write. I figure if I leave the world with one character or one story that people will remember, then all the hours at the keyboard and all the sacrifices will have been worth it.

Thanks for reading.


About Peter Darbyshire (Roman)

Nothing to see here. Move along.

Posted on September 21, 2015, in Journal, The Writing Life and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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