Letter From The Editor - Issue 68 - April 2019

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  Writing Advice by Mette Ivie Harrison
May 2011

When Bad Things Happen to Good Writers

There is a sad reality in the writing world that the best books don't always get the acclaim that they deserve. Not in the lifetime of the author, anyway. It's not just in the writing world, I know. It happens in the sciences sometimes, and certainly in the other arts. Van Gogh didn't have it easy, that's for sure. One of my favorite painters of all time, and what did he sell? An utter commercial failure. When I first started writing, I had this sunny belief that if I worked hard enough, if I wrote a good enough book that an editor couldn't turn it down, then I would be able to make money as a writer. How naïve was that? Well, it got me through that time.

I still believe that you can be published if you keep at it, but I am not sure I believe that you can make a career of it. I know too many authors personally, authors you might think would be doing well financially, who are not making it. It's hard to be self-employed in any circumstances, but in the book world, your income is dependent on a thousand things outside of your control. And advances for books can be pitifully small. If you sell a novel for $5,000 you have a decent deal from a reputable publisher who actually thinks that your book will sell 5,000 copies or so. But $5,000 a year, if you can write a book a year, is not a lot of money. It is almost nothing, once you pay self-employment taxes on it. If you think of the cost of a computer, internet access, and paper to send out your manuscript, it really is nothing. If you do any travel at all to promote your book, it is less than nothing.

What this means is that you have to write more than a book a year to make a living as a writer. How many books a year? Three, maybe. And how good are your three books a year going to be? And how good will your living be on those three books? You may still have to supplement your writing with editing work, freelance writing jobs, consulting, teaching writing, and anything else you can find to make ends meet. Hopefully you have an understanding spouse. But even this is a rosy scenario for a writer. If you write novel after novel and keep selling it to the same editors and the publishing house keeps publishing you, you are a very lucky writer.

Bad things happen to good writers. They happen all the time. Your editor leaves the house and your book becomes orphaned. No one else at the house cares about it. This happened to me early on, my second book sale, a book that never came out. I got to the final stage. This was a nonfiction book that required more than just writing. It required buying supplies, making samples, and taking photos, sometimes drawing carefully detailed pictures. And a month before the book was to come out, I heard that it had been cancelled. My editor had left and no one else at the house liked the book enough to take it on. It had nothing to do with me or how good a job I had done at writing my book. A year later, a book very similar to mine came out with an editor's name at it from the same house. There was nothing I could do about it. I suppose I could sue the editor or the house, but how difficult would copyright infringement be to prove? How little was the money I would get from that much hassle? I let it go.

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Sometimes a book will go through multiple editors. I have a friend whose book had five different editors before it was published, each one leaving the company, and the publisher continuing to move the publication date. This had nothing to do with the quality of her manuscript. And sadly, she ended up changing the book to fit the taste of each new editor, having no idea really if she was making it any better or not. Obviously, the editors thought they were helping, but since they all contradicted each other, who is to know for sure?

If you are a picture book writer or simply are waiting on cover art, you do not have control over the illustrator's world. If the illustrator turns work in late, or not at all, the publisher can refuse payment, but that doesn't help your book get out on time. I have a friend who wrote a holiday picture book and because of problems with the publisher, the book came out a week after the holiday had passed. Another friend had a book that was supposed to coincide with the anniversary of a specific date. The publisher dropped the ball and the book came out a month late. It didn't sell well, and who is surprised at that? If only the publisher had gotten it out on time, this friend might well have made a killing. It had nothing to do with him or his writing.

A publishing house may make the decision to change your book publication date because of problems with the distribution chain. Right now, as Borders stores close across the country, it's hard to know how much the book publishing world will be affected by a loss of up to 40% of book sales. We hope that electronic books will make up for it, but who knows? Or your book may be cancelled as the publishing house tries to decrease its commitments for the future. It can be difficult to believe that it has nothing to do with your writing or your work.

And all that has nothing to do with writers who are brilliant but simply don't connect with a mainstream audience. I know a couple of writers who I would love to read more by, but their sales weren't enough to keep the publisher interested. Elizabeth Wein's books about Arthurian England and medieval Africa are some of my favorites, but for whatever reason didn't sell well. And that means that I never get to hear the rest of the series that she might have told. It is sad for me as a reader, but it is worse for her as the writer.

Flexible authors can simply shrug this sort of discouragement off and start a new series. I am sure that this is something to admire in an author, but not every author has a thousand ideas. Some authors only want to tell one story, one long over-arching story about a single character. And if they face the sad reality that no one will ever buy this story, they can either choose to quit writing it or hope that someday in the future, the work that they choose to put into this story any way will pay off. Will it? It's hard to predict who will end up being the Van Gogh of the next generation, the author who becomes wildly successful after death, when at least to the author, it does not matter.

There are days when I hate the publishing world. There are days when I love it, when our system of supply and demand seems like a thing of wonder to me. But the other days are painful ones, when I see authors who should be doing well crushed by the machinery of the system. It is not just that their work is ignored, it is the sense I have that their souls are destroyed, as well. They lose hope in themselves and lose faith in their writing. It makes me think of all the geniuses we have out there who turn to more mundane work because it keeps them alive. Yes, there is something to be said for not giving up and continuing to write despite all discouragement. Another word for this might simply be insanity, expecting that you will get different results doing the same thing.

I wish that I had a magic wand so that the authors that I think are deserving would be able to continue to work unmolested by the capitalist system. Then again, maybe I would choose the wrong authors. I know I wouldn't choose the same ones that other people choose. There are friends who love authors I am indifferent to. Other friends who love authors whose work I actively dislike. So my judgment is definitely subjective. But today, I encourage you to go find a book that is small and undiscovered, a book no one else has discovered yet. Maybe it's not even in a bookstore, but only available online. Find the book, read it, and make much of it. Tell your friends. This won't help the other crappy situations that authors find themselves in, the ones where the wreckage is all hidden behind the curtain, but it will help some.

Read more by Mette Ivie Harrison

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