Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Realistic Expectations

When people at work hear that I've written a book, or that I've got one in the works, they always ask something like, "When are you going to be rich and famous?"  Now, I'll admit, that when I was younger I just assumed that someday I would write books and be a famous author.  Of course, I didn't actually write anything, I just figured I'd start writing when I grew up.

I guess it took me longer than usual to grow up because I didn't start writing until my late 30s and it wasn't until a few years ago that I wrote my first novel.  Once I started writing, I also started to hear from the doom and gloom crew.  Like most beginning writers, I had no idea how tough it is to get published.  It didn't take me long to start hearing horror stories about that. What took me even longer to realize is how rare it is to sell well even if you do manage to get published. For a long time I just assumed that if your book was published, you were successful.  Over the last ten years I have begun to realize that my odds of getting published are about as good as my odds of marrying prince charming and, if I want to be rich and/or famous, I'd be better off buying a lottery ticket.

There was a time when, if you wanted to be a writer, you had to actually write, longhand. Then, about the time  Mark Twain was writing about runaway slaves on the Mississippi, you could pound out your prose on a typewriter, if you could afford one.

Computers, as they tend to do, changed everything about the writing biz.

I was a senior in high school when we got our first computer, it had a word processing program on it.  However, I lost interest in it pretty quickly because we had no printer.  This was in 1979, and even though email had been introduced 8 years before, it would be a couple of decades before I had access to it.  What was the point of writing something you couldn't share, and you didn't have room on the 48kb memory to store it anyway?

Jump ahead thirty years and at least 75% of Americans have access to the internet, and word processing is so much a part of our routine that it's hard to remember a time when it was a novelty.  What does this mean to publishing your novel?

Remember the old saw about monkeys typing and Shakespeare? That's what is going on in basements and back rooms all over the world right now. Any idiot with a computer can imagine herself a writer, and programs like NaNoWriMo feed the flames.  Now, I'm not knocking NaNo, I love it, and I'm participating for the third time this year.

The problem is that more people are writing than ever before in the history of the world. It's remotely possible that there are more aspiring writers in the world at this moment than in the entire combined history of the world combined.  (If you do the math and I'm wrong about this, I'm not surprised.) At the same time, people are reading less, buying fewer books and the pressures on publishers are increasing every year.

What happens when you have more supply and less demand?  I don't remember a lot of my economics classes, but I think it goes something like... the supplier gets screwed.  In this case, it's the writer.  Sure, the J.K. Rowlings, John Grishams and Stephen Kings of the world can still sell books, and every year some lucky schlub breaks out with a debut novel. But that's not the norm, and it's not likely to happen to me.

I'm not a bad writer, but there it is. Even if I were a better fantasy novelist than Anne McCaffrey, David Eddings and Mercedes Lackey combined, my chances of success are slim to none.

So, what do you do?  Do you put your head down, ignore the realities and dream of success?  Do you give up on writing completely? Do you go the self-publishing route and pump yet another unedited mess into an already over-saturated market?  Sure, any of the above and more. You might beat the odds. 

Or, your books... my books... could sit on a hard drive, unread by anyone but my most patient friends and family.  Will the world be richer because you've written your novel even if no one reads it? I think so. If you paint a painting and only the visitors to your home enjoy it, is that a failure? If you fill a scrapbook with beautiful pages using the best techniques of the art and no one looks at it but you and your loved ones, would you consider that a failure?

Writing is an art.  Yes, it would be fun to share my words with millions of people. But, like every other art, the act of creation is just as important as the audience.  If I am the only one to read what I write, it is still worth the effort.

On the other hand... wanna read my book? :)

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