Last revision: March 13, 1999
Part Eight: The Writing Life
by Lawrence Watt-Evans
So you want to be a writer. Why?
Last time I talked about what it's like waiting for your first book to come out. Now I'm going to talk about some of what comes after that. It may disillusion some of you; if so, good.
If you think getting a book published means riches and fame, think again.
First, let's consider time and money.
How long does it take you to write a novel?
This varies wildly; at least one SF writer once turned out a serious novel in three days, while others take several years for each book. Typical writers of my acquaintance seem to be able to produce a novel in six or seven months, if all goes well, but there is no standard.
Let us suppose, though, that you needed a year to write your first novel. This is not at all unreasonable. It's roughly one page a day, six days a week.
So how much are you going to get for that year's work?
A typical first-novel advance right now seems to be running around $3,000.
Not real good pay for a year's work, is it? And you'll get even that in installments, most likely, and long after you've done the work.
What about royalties?
Well, maybe someday. Royalty statements are sent out twice a year; most publishers seem to send them the first week of April and the first week of October, but that's by no means universal. Ballantine does February and August, for example. There's a four-month lead time built into that, too.
So if Weed-Eaters from Mars is published in, say, May 2001, by Avon (which does April/October), the first accounting period will end on June 30, 2001. In October of 2001 you'll get a statement reporting sales from January 1, 2001 through June 30, 2001. It won't include a check; there's this little detail called a "reserve against returns" that the publisher subtracts, so that there is never a check in the first statement. An accountant who sent out a check with the first statement would probably be lynched.
In fact, all the figures in the first statement, except the print-run (if it's given), are pretty meaningless.
If the book does really well, the second statement might include a check. That's April of 2002, now.
Which means that your first chance at royalties on a book you wrote in 1999 and got accepted early in 2000 doesn't come until the middle of 2002.
Now, will you be getting royalties?
Maybe. Many books don't earn out their advances--particularly books by unknown authors.
Let's suppose your book goes out there at $4.95 cover--that's out of date now, but was reasonable when I wrote this originally. You get 6% of that from each copy sold in the U.S. That's 29.7c per copy--call it 30c. To earn out a $3,000 advance, therefore, you need to sell 10,000 copies.
Yeah, you can probably manage that. In fact, most SF first novels these days, last I heard, ran between 15,000 and 20,000 copies. So you should eventually get paid royalties.
On a sale of 20,000 copies, therefore, you'll earn about $6,000 in all, spread over a period of three or four years. If you write two novels a year, at that rate, that's an annual income of $12,000.
And you'll be known to 20,000 readers in a nation of 250,000,000 people.
Rich and famous, huh?
As a matter of fact, in a study a few years back, the average professional writer--meaning someone who had actually been published and been paid money for it, and who had joined a writer's organization, that being how they found their sample--earned $4,800 a year from writing.
Quick--you're SF and fantasy fans, right? How many authors can you name? A few dozen? Maybe a couple of hundred?
Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, Inc. is over 1,200 members now, and plenty of SF writers aren't among them. Have you heard of 1,200 SF writers?
The ones you hear of are the ones who did become rich and famous, or at least reasonably successful--but they're a small minority.
It's like being a pro ballplayer. Just because you've gotten past the try-outs and been given a chance doesn't mean you'll make the big leagues, let alone become a star. Plenty of players spend their entire careers in the minors, playing to tiny crowds for inadequate pay.
So you want to be a writer. Fine--but make sure you've got the right reasons. Fame and money are not among them.
And be aware that when you're a pro writer, it's not all glamor and glory. In fact, damn little of it is glamor and glory. Mostly it's sitting in front of a computer writing the next story, the next book--if you ever stop producing, you'll fade from memory pretty quickly.
Who remembers J.T. McIntosh or Daniel Galouye or Louis Charbonneau?
Galouye was a Hugo nominee for best novel once--how many of you can name a single one of his books?
Hell, those folks were just midlist; how many young fans out there today ever heard of A.E. van Vogt, who was a bona fide superstar of the field once? He's still alive, you know--but he's not writing.
And being a well-known SF writer is being a big fish in a very small pond. Lots of people have heard of Asimov and Heinlein, but try mentioning Greg Bear or David Brin to a non-fan and see what reaction you get.
So suppose you sell a novel, and it's published, and you're all excited. What do you have to look forward to?
Neighbors who ask, "Is it in the bookstores, or do I have to special order it somewhere?"
Family members who ask, "Am I in it?"
Relatives who say, "That's very nice, dear, but why didn't you write something worthwhile, instead of this silly science fiction stuff?"
Strangers who tell you, "Hey, I got a story you should write about, my cousin Bruce, he's a stoker on a tramp freighter, now that's what you should write about!"
People of every sort who say, "Gee, I always wanted to be a writer, but I never had the time," as if all it takes is a few weeks of free time. Or, "Gee, I have some really great ideas, but I can't write; tell you what, how about if I tell you my ideas, you write the stories, and we split the money fifty-fifty?" As if story ideas are the hard part--they aren't, ideas are cheap and plentiful, it's turning them into stories that's tough.
And everybody will expect you to give them free copies, and will be hurt when you don't, and will not believe explanations about, "They only gave me ten free copies, and I need to keep six of those for reference, and after that I have to buy them just like you."
(Actually, this is something you can haggle in the contract--a beginner can usually coax twenty-five copies of a paperback out of the publisher. You really do want to keep half a dozen, though--you may need them to sell reprint rights or foreign rights.)
About the only way to deal with people who want free books--and by the way, they're never the people you'd really want to give free copies to--is to ask, "Does your doctor give free medical advice?" or some other comparison to a professional in another field. Plumbers, for example.
Incidentally, the people who wheedle free copies or make a big point of showing you, "Look, I bought your book!" hardly ever actually read it. It's a ritual thing, a totem--they can haul it out and say, "I know the author," and impress their friends.
People won't believe you when you tell them how little money writers actually make. They're all fixated on Stephen King getting ten million dollars a book; they assume that if you take a year to write something, it's gotta pay at least fifty grand. And if you have a book published, aren't you going to be on Oprah or something? The fact that there are more than eight thousand books published every year in the U.S., of which at least seven thousand remain obscure, isn't well known, to put it mildly.
Fans are often the worst. Non-fans are usually willing to accept that they don't know anything, but fans... "Come on, give me a book, they don't cost you anything. You pay for dinner--you're a writer, you can afford it."
And on top of all this, there's the really big challenge: Can you do it again? One novel isn't a writing career, it's only the first step.
There are plenty of one-book wonders out there, people who wrote a novel and then couldn't sell another.
So you want to be a writer?
If, after this little discussion, you find yourself wondering the same thing, don't be surprised. The rewards of writing aren't as obvious as money, fame, or respect; they're more internal than that. They lie in knowing that you've created something--a world, a story, characters and places and events--that never existed before. In knowing that you've entertained a few thousand people.
If that's what you want, then go for it--write that novel!
If that's not enough, if you want riches and glory--well, friend, then you don't want to be a writer!
All contents and referenced pages are copyright by Lawrence Watt Evans except as noted.
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