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Saturday, July 11, 2015

The Truth About Being a Writer

Imagine a doctor opening a clinic and having no patients.

Imagine an attorney passing the bar but his grand office has no clients.

Imagine a builder developing an idyllic neighborhood but it remains a ghost town.

Imagine a grocer stocking all the shelves but no one ventures inside.

This is what a writer's life can be like. In the wake of a down-turned economy, I saw scores of people putting pen to paper (or fingers to the keyboard) believing all they had to do was put their thoughts into words and they would be firmly established with a lucrative career as an author.

But placing words on paper does not create a professional career any more than stocking a medicine chest makes one a doctor.

The truth is, no one needs fiction to live. Unlike medical treatment, a roof over our heads or food in our bellies, fiction does not sustain life. In a weakened economy as disposable income becomes more rare, often we must wisely select where our money goes, and reading for pleasure can be easily discarded.

When my computer books were released, they flew off the shelves; the personal computer industry was in its infancy, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs hadn't yet made their millions (or billions) and people needed to learn computers to remain viable in the workforce.

So how does an author of fiction sustain an audience?

First and foremost, by writing something so compelling that readers will spread the word. When you hear someone say, "You have to read this!" there's a good chance that book will sell some copies.

Second, by giving readers what they want. Reading is highly subjective; some people relax with a western, others with true adventure, still others with romance or suspense or a sci-fi trip to an uncharted galaxy. Write something that no one cares about and the book will flounder.

Third, by making it easy for readers to find them. This is where the largest publishers excel because they can afford the sales forces needed for maximum exposure. Even if a publisher does not spend a great deal of money on media advertising, they still hold all the clout in placing their titles where readers can spot them.

Fourth, an author is only as relevant as their latest title. I can't think of an author since Harper Lee who has been able to earn a sustained income from one book title. Today, the market is all about producing; some authors have even begun writing novellas in lieu of full-length novels so they can get as many as a dozen titles a year in front of their audience.

Fifth, by constantly perfecting their craft. Each book must be better than the last one or that climb to the summit will result in a few brief moments at the peak before plummeting back to base camp. I've met many New York Times bestselling authors who don't have two pennies to rub together today because their moment in the spotlight was all too fleeting.

Sixth, keep your eyes on the market. A downside to the largest publishers is their focus on constantly increasing book sales; one dip can mean a cancelled contract. Small and mid-size publishers have far less overhead than the big guys, but they still need books that sell to keep them in business. This means constantly viewing the market and assessing what will sell and what won't and making adjustments where necessary.

Seventh, understand each author is a brand. When Fifty Shades was released, I saw countless authors leave a set of genre fans behind in the pursuit of becoming the next millionaire author in another genre. Even more interesting were those authors who left the mainstream in order to write for a small niche market, believing that would be their claim to fame.

For every author who earns a living writing, there are thousands who can't sell books to anyone outside their immediate circle.

So considering the odds, why write?

First, don't write for the income. If it comes, it's icing on the cake but don't expect it.

Second, write because you love the process. Write because that story inside you absolutely has to come out, even if no one else ever reads it.

Third, write even if no one notices. If you are writing for the constant accolades, you'll be disappointed. If the attention comes, that should be an unexpected bonus.

Fourth, understand your words may never die. In this age of technology, it is possible for books to remain in print long after the author has died, even if they are not profitable. I've seen many authors dropped by traditional publishers who have re-released their titles as self-published eBooks. It is possible that long after the author is gone, the book could find an audience. One need only look at the authors we revere today who were unappreciated in their own time.