Mark Terry

Thursday, December 11, 2008

What Makes You So Sure You Know What You Want?

December 11, 2008
My buddy Erica Orloff has a post today about The Accidental Writer. I posted a somewhat lengthy response and alluded to what I'm going to say today.

Erica talked about being a movie writer. That is to say, NOT writing for movies, but having the sort of life novelists seem to have in TV and movies. She cites "Cheaper by the Dozen" which I agree, is a total fantasy. She turns in the manuscript, they've got her doing a book tour a month later, etc.

"Finding Forrester" is another one, with a reclusive novelist having written one well-received book and never done another, and apparently over that 30 year period money is no object and even more so, anybody gives a shit. I suppose the scriptwriters were envisioning JD Salinger.

My wife detests the movie "Wonder Boys" and I always accuse her of being concerned that she's married Professor Tripp, the college writing instructor who's written one great, well-received novel and can't seem to write (or finish) the next, who's having repeated affairs and smokes way too much weed and is considering having a fling with the undergrad (played by Katie Holmes) who rents a room in his house. Although I question whether any editors (in this case a bi-sexual, drug-addled loser played by Robert Downey, Jr) would be pursuing Tripp's next novel when they've got agents dumping manuscripts on their desk every day, I do find that at least Professor Tripp's life and lifestyle to be vaguely recognizable as one more typical of a writer's.

And so, now that I've gone off on movie tangents for a moment, what's my point?

I like writing novels. I like getting them published. I understand that my experiences aren't necessarily across-the-board, but here's what I THOUGHT it would be like, and here's what REALLY happened. Your mileage may vary.

Fantasy: I would make a good chunk of money and be able to quit my day job.
Reality: My first published novel had $0 for an advance. The next two had advances of $1500. These were probably lower than average, but average is apparently reported to be $5000, so whoo-hooo, I hope your dayjob really sucks, otherwise, writing novels isn't going to replace it. I spent more money on promotion that I made on the books, and I had foreign sales thrown in.

Fantasy: I would be recognized as a novelist, a sort of quasi-celebrity, at least in my hometown.
Reality: Mark who? Even when I was covered in the local newspapers, nobody noticed. One person said, "Hey, I saw your write-up in the Leader?" I rather cruelly asked him if it motivated him to buy the book. He looked disconcerted. "Uh, no." "Well, I'm sure you'd enjoy it," I said.
Reality #2: My wife was recently told by someone that she was looking around to see if anyone had copies of my books they could loan her to read.

Fantasy: You will do book signings with eager fans lined up out the door.
Reality #1. Most bookstores aren't interested in doing signings UNLESS you can bring in fans that will be lined up out the door. Like John Grisham. Or Steven King. Or JK Rowling. Otherwise, you practically have to beg to do them. If there's any promotion for it, you probably did it yourself, which puts you in the hole financially. And then, people don't buy your book.
Reality #2. I did a booksigning at a mall Little Professor on the day before Valentine's Day (or VD, I don't quite remember). I started out at the desk, then started lurking in the entryway hitting up anyone who walked through the door and even talking to people hurrying past to find the florists shop, jewelry store, chocolate store, or Hallmark store. I think I sold one book.
Reality #3. A publicist lined me up to do a booksigning at a university bookstore in Detroit on a Friday afternoon in July. This was the worst possible venue at the worst possible time. Sold: zero books.

Fantasy: You'll do TV and radio interviews.
Reality: I've done some of both. They're fun. Do they sell books? Don't know. The TV interviews invariably involve you driving 2 hours to the studio, talking for 5 or 10 minutes, then driving 2 hours back home. I LOVED doing the one with Jim Hall. I did a radio/TV thing in Lansing that I felt like might have been a total waste of time. I did one last January or so that I'm not sure ever ran. Radio interviews at least can be done from your home, although they can be a little strange. Sometimes you're a 5-minutes interview on a Morning Drive program crammed in between Britney Spears tunes and ads for Jiffy Lube.

Fantasy: You'll go to writers conferences and be lauded and adored.
Reality: Your booksigning is scheduled at the same time as some international bestseller's like Mary Higgins Clark and you won't sell any books. You're there with 350 people and 100 of them are novelists all trying to sell their books. You'll sell one and be happy about it. Other writers will range from generous and friendly to paranoid, secretive and hostile. It will be exhausting. You'd be glad to spend time in the bar with other writers, but it's at a fancy hotel where smoking is allowed and a beer goes for $7, so you're broke after your second drink and there's some drunk transvestite prostitute at the bar trying to pick up a trick for the night (yeah, you think I'm joking).

Fantasy: You get to spend all day writing.
Reality: More like all day staring at your bank balance, updating your Facebook page, reading blogs, asking your agent when the royalty check will come, trying desperately to put together something that will make more money.

The point is, I guess, that what you think you want might not be, actually, what you get.

Cheers,
Mark Terry

33 Comments:

Blogger sex scenes at starbucks said...

This is hilarious. I know a lot of authors and all this is so true. I know a very good-selling author who still gets giddy when a fan approaches her, cuz they so rarely do.

My biggest reality check?

Fantasy: Writing Conferences would be all about writing and books and we'd have these in depth conversations, finding soul mates while hashing out the craft.

Reality: The last thing writers like to talk about at conferences is writing. We talk about anything but while drinking ourselves silly. (Ok, it sometimes comes up, but it's mostly whining.)

7:31 AM  
Blogger Travis Erwin said...

And sadly, this is the dream I'm chasing. Maybe I'm really am a masochist, but I'm going to keep plugging away.

7:33 AM  
Blogger Erica Orloff said...

Mark:
Great post today.

I think some of my reality has been largely positive--and there have been some hard reality checks along the way. I remember doing a signing where I had a nice crowd--and no one bought a book. Then I realized they were all very old seniors (in Florida) and I think the signing was something to do.

Then I had one last year where I sold a hundred. So you know . . . good and bad. Mostly I hate signings, though.


E

7:37 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

On the positive side:

Being able to justify working on fiction because you are either contracted for it and being paid for it is a wonderfully empowering thing. There are downsides to that, too, but overall, at least for someone like me, it makes it very easily justifiable.

And yes, Erica, I've had a couple good signings--one at a mystery book fair where I was the new kid on the block--but mostly they're a mess. And it'll be raining and the bookstore will say, "Well, it's not much of a turnout because of the weather," or it'll be hot and sunny and they'll say, "Well, it's not much of a turnout because of the weather." Or whatever.

And although I probably shouldn't say this, but anyone who's dealt with the public, say working at a bar, restaurant or retail can probably confirm this, but, uh, people are nuts. So many of us writers prefer to hang out in our office with imaginary people; promoting our work forces us out to deal with the real world. That can be a kind of scary place at times.

7:42 AM  
Blogger Jude Hardin said...

Just leave me and my delusions of grandeur alone, okay?!

7:59 AM  
Blogger Davin C. Goodwin said...

I'm with Jude..... heck, I still believe in Santa Claus!

8:54 AM  
Blogger Stephen Parrish said...

here's what REALLY happened

Let it happen to me.

10:59 AM  
Blogger Aimless Writer said...

I went to a Janet Evanovich book signing in a mall in NJ. There were hundreds of people lined up to see her. We sat on the floor for hours in line. (kinda like camping in a bookstore) Took a photo, got our books signed and left. Janet looked exhausted by the time we got to her. I actually almost pitied her. There were about 200 people in line behind us.
I don't think I'll ever do it again but I dream of having a signing like that! lol
Right now I'm just trying to get the book published. Fantasy #1.

11:42 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm with Aimless. My only fantasy is getting THE CALL. I've learned over the years that a big advance, notoriety, etc. are totally unrealistic for the majority of writers. But my family and friends still think that if/when I'm published, I'll be able to quit my job, hit the road for a multi-city book signing tour, and Oprah will call me. (Oh, and that authors get an unlimited supply of free books that they can give away to their family and friends.)

I think they're going to be very disappointed.

11:50 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, yes, but did you get what you need?

Very good summary, however, all I can say is I don't think I've ever fantasized much about the wonderful profession of writing -- not since I've been a kid when I assumed I could just grow up to be a writer and make a good living like all writers did, naturally. But I did once think there was a reasonable chance that if you managed to get published then it would be quite possible, if you continued to work at it, to move up to a level where you might earn enough to scrape by if your needs were modest. Ha ha! I might as well have fantasized about winning the lottery. The chances are about the same and the payoff's bigger.

Anonymous has it right, the real thrill, fantasy-fulfillment is just getting the call - being told your book will be published.

12:14 PM  
Anonymous Eric Mayer said...

Okay. Now I'm anonymous too. Don't know why it did that. I'm anonymous # 2 not anonymous # 1

Eric Mayer

12:15 PM  
Blogger Zoe Winters said...

Yep. When I found out a few years ago that several NY pubbed authors weren't making a living doing this, I think that was what started me on my "well screw this, I'm doing my own thing" tangent.

I mean if I'm not going to get rich and famous or prestige, or you know, much of anything cool anyway, why would I do this to myself? I wouldn't.

12:28 PM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

Getting THE CALL is pretty great. Sometimes it's a letdown afterwards, but THE CALL is pretty great.

12:59 PM  
Blogger Jude Hardin said...

Zoe:

You can call yourself a United States Marine only if you go through six weeks of boot camp hell at Parris Island or San Diego.

You can call yourself a published author only if you land a contract with a legitimate publisher.

It's a major accomplishment, and it shows a certain level of craft, even if you never make a dime.

1:05 PM  
Blogger spyscribbler said...

I think considering the "crud work" of any career you're deciding on is good advice. Every job has it.

3:25 PM  
Blogger Zoe Winters said...

Jude,

My life isn't wrapped up in whether or not someone thinks I'm a "real published author" or not. Screw that, seriously.

It's fine if that's right for you, or other people. But it's not what I want to spend my time on. Readers don't care who put a book out. They just care that it's good.

My business is legally organized, and I have a block of ISBN numbers from Bowker. I am a "real publisher" by every legal definition of that word, publishing my own work. Now if other writers want to split hairs and say I'm not "really published" because I didn't go through some bizarre writing endurance test to get something that isn't worth fighting for to me, well they can argue about that on their own time. I'm too busy writing and working to produce my work.

Both indie filmmakers and indie musicians are considered valid artists without going through someone else's gatekeeping system. And I believe that attitude will shift in favor of writers as well over the next decade. But if it doesn't, that's okay too.

I won't allow others to tell me what I "should" want out of my life and my writing.

Z

3:53 PM  
Blogger Jude Hardin said...

I'm not telling you what you should want, Zoe, I'm just telling you how it is. You know, you can call yourself...a professional skateboarder or whatever, but nobody's going to take you seriously until you start kicking it with the big boys and girls.

There's publishing, and then there's self-publishing, and the two barely even resemble each other. Anyone who wants to can self-publish. To me, that does not make him/her a "published author."

It's like someone who goes out in the backyard and throws the football sometimes comparing himself to an NFL quarterback. It's just not the same ball game.

5:00 PM  
Blogger Zoe Winters said...

Jude,

You aren't telling me "how it is" so much as you are telling me how you "think it is." You've got a certain view in your head about indie authors (as do many writers, and that's fine.)

But until anyone can give me a logical reason that indie filmmakers and musicians are valid, but indie authors aren't, I'll continue to not put much stock in the "self publishing isn't real" perspective.

In every other form of business and entertainment it's considered a mark of initiative to believe in your product enough to put your own money and resources behind it and put it out yourself.

It's the American Dream, for God's sake. But suddenly in publishing it's "invalid?" That's illogical. And I don't accept it. Your mileage obviously varies, and that's fine.

And Mark, I'm sorry I got into a debate on your blog. You may or may not welcome that here. It wasn't my intent to get into the argument at all. I'm not sure why my original comment started a debate.

I thought it was completely relevant to your original post. All those things are why I'm not interested in that. It's not meant to convert anyone or "invalidate" their viewpoint. I'm not sure why it's an issue of debate in the first place.

You guys are doing your thing, I'm doing mine. That's fine. I respect that. Different strokes, different folks. Etc.

I really don't understand why this is a hot topic, or why anyone should care about what I'm doing enough to "tell me I'm wrong." Who cares if I am? Big deal.

Me "self publishing" leaves more room for you guys going the traditional route. Because I'm not one more author clogging the agent inboxes with query letters.

Embrace it.

5:32 PM  
Blogger Jude Hardin said...

I'm not attacking you personally, Zoe, I'm just saying self-publishing and traditional publishing aren't really even close to being in the same leagues. That's not just my opinion. Ask anybody who knows anything about books. It's just a fact.

You might be a great writer, the exception to the rule, and if so I'm happy for you; but, the fact remains that most self-published novels aren't worth the paper they're printed on.

6:30 PM  
Blogger Zoe Winters said...

Jude,

I agree with you that most self published novels are crap. Anytime the barriers for something lower enough that anyone can produce something, that's the case. (Most blogs are crap too. Yet you blog, and Mark blogs, and I blog, etc.)

But me making my choice on this based on the fact that a lot of self published work is crap, would be like someone who wants to open a flower shop not doing it because some dude once sold flowers he'd picked off the side of the highway. Who cares what other people are doing?

What other people are doing or aren't doing doesn't concern me. I'm not publishing with lulu or authorhouse here. I started my own imprint.

This started with you telling me I could call myself a published author ONLY if I landed a "legitimate contract."

The label "published author" is important to you, but it isn't important to me. Not important enough to give up MY dreams and goals. Whether or not a group of writers think I'm "really published" has no bearing on a reality where I'm connecting directly with readers and selling books (however few or many that ends up being.)

You brought what constitutes "real" into this. It might not have been a "personal attack." But who else were you talking to, if not to me?

6:51 PM  
Blogger Jude Hardin said...

Zoe:

If I spend a few grand to start an imprint and then pay to have my grocery lists from the past few months printed and bound and titled How to Become a Vegetarian Because You Can't Afford the Price of Meat Cookbook, does that make me a published author?

Sounds good at cocktail parties, I guess.

7:21 PM  
Blogger Zoe Winters said...

Jude,

You're missing the point. "you're" the one who wants to run around telling people you're a published author. I'll just tell people: "I have a book out and you can find it on Amazon, or your bookstore can order it for you."

I don't "care" about the label. That's your deal.

7:24 PM  
Blogger Jude Hardin said...

That's right, and you can bet I'll be running around telling everyone. Because, when I get published, it's going to be because I put the time in and honed my craft. Not because I paid to have something printed up.

7:38 PM  
Blogger Zoe Winters said...

Um, okay. *shrug*

I've been "honing my craft" since junior high when I wrote my first novel. But if it makes you feel better to believe you care about craft more than me, have at it.

I'm as passionate about the business of publishing as I am about the art of writing. And I am pursuing "both" of those interests.

7:58 PM  
Blogger Jude Hardin said...

Best of luck, Zoe.

8:09 PM  
Blogger Zoe Winters said...

Thanks, you too!

8:13 PM  
Blogger Richmond Writer said...

I know someone who has that fantasy and I can see it will never come true. You know it's the story with no point but the niche is so unique he is getting flown to Mongolia to speak about it. But the general public will be huh? because he is a rambler that goes off on too many tangents.

It's like seeing a man with a diamond in the rough, everyone who knows diamonds is excited about it's potential but he won't polish it.

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