Every author has there own private reasons why they devote precious hours of their lives to writing a book. For this author, it is the passion I have for constructing the narrative and characters. Writing for me is unlocking a door to a room where I enter into the fictional realm. This realm feels as real as the real one. The line between sanity and the loony bin is remembering there is such a distinction.
I have far more control in the fictional world than in the real world, where like everyone else, control over most things is elusive at best.
In the world of writers there is more than a fair share of delusion. Two spring to mind. That secretly the writer feels that his or her story is so original, unique and compelling that it will be sell millions of copies and they will appear on the cover of Time magazine, receive a call from Stockholm, and Christmas cards from William Buffet and Bill Gates saying, “Welcome to the club.”
Publishing is a business where a few authors make most of the money. It makes getting a starting spot on a professional sports seem egalitarian. Here’s some hard numbers from The Telegraph (UK) about authors in the UK.
“The top 100 authors dominate sales. As The Bookseller has explained, some 100,000 titles are published every year, but these authors account for £1 in every £6 spent on books and a fifth of revenue. J K Rowling, who has seven of the decade’s top 10 bestsellers, sold 29 million books with a sales value of £215 million, but Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code was the bestselling book of the decade, selling 5.2 million copies to 4.4 million for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.”
Here are the top ten best selling authors in the UK:
1 J K Rowling 29,084,999 £225.9m
2 Roger Hargreaves 14,163,141 £26.6m
3 Dan Brown 13,372,007 £74.1m
4 Jacqueline Wilson 12,673,148 £69.9m
5 Terry Pratchett 10,455,397 £77.2m
6 John Grisham 9,862,998 £65.9m
7 Richard Parsons 9,561,776 £49.2m
8 Danielle Steel 9,119,149 £51m
9 James Patterson 8,172,647 £53.8m
10 Enid Blyton 7,910,758 £31.2m
If you are lucky enough to get a mainstream publisher in London or New York, you must be realistic that getting the call doesn’t mean you are going to break into the top ten or even the top hundred. That is an exclusive club. And even within the club you can see a huge drop between #1 and #2 spots on the list.
In the United States, how many people are book readers? That is a central question that any author needs to keep in mind. There might be 300 million people in the United States but that isn’t the market for books. It is much smaller. The former executive editor in chief at Random House, Jim Milliot has written an inside examination of what goes on inside of the mind of those in publishing houses who acquire books. There always will be the one or two authors with mega sales. And people read about those sales and figure I can write a book better than that.
People working in publishing houses are more realistic about the prospect of a book selling in large numbers. In many cases, the hugely successful bestseller is bought by people who don’t fall into the category of hardcore readers of fiction (or non-fiction). Not everyone has an interest in reading as a diversion or a form of entertainment. It doesn’t make them less intelligent, thoughtful and creative; it is just they rarely buy a book. They spend their leisure time on other activities.
The chances of being struck by a meteorite are greater than your book hitting the sales numbers of a Dan Brown or J.K. Rowling. But the volume of book sales does raise an interesting question: When the fans who buy a Brown or Rowling book are deducted from the pool of regular book readers how many are leftover?
“When you are trying to acquire books that hundreds of thousands of people will buy, read, and like, you have to have some of the eclectic and demotic taste of the reading public. I have this completely unfounded theory that there are a million very good — engaged, smart, enthusiastic — generalist readers in America. There are five hundred thousand extremely good such readers. There are two hundred and fifty thousand excellent readers. There are a hundred and twenty-five thousand alert, active, demanding, well-educated (sometimes self-well-educated), and thoughtful — that is, literarily superb — readers in America. More than half of those people will happen not to have the time or taste for the book you are publishing.”
Lesson: don’t write in order to become rich. Almost any job will produce a living with better hours, benefits and pay.
And so you are thinking, but yes, that’s the old publishing model. The ebook revolution gives me a chance to break into the exclusive list. This is more delusional thinking. Ebook sales remain a tiny fraction of overall sales. The revenues to those in the top ten from ebook sales could be classified as a rounding off error. As thousands if not millions of more writers seek to go directly to the ebook route to publication, it will be nearly impossible for any writer to make as much as a panhandler working the lunchtime crowd in Union Square.
The second delusion is that success translates into endurance over the long run. Books come and go. Some make a big splash and then like a rock thrown into a lake sink to the bottom and forgotten about. Others stick around for 20 or 30 years before drifting to the bottom. Here’s the top 15 ebooks listed on Project Gutenburg as the most popular for 23rd December. No doubt in a month other books will be on the list and others will disappear.
- A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens (638)
- The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (378)
- The Kama Sutra of Vatsyayana by Vatsyayana (347)
- The Outline of Science, Vol. 1 (of 4) by J. Arthur Thomson (323)
- Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (321)
- Manners, Customs, and Dress During the Middle Ages and During the Renaissance Period by P. L. Jacob (289)
- Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll (283)
- Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion by David Hume (266)
- The Art of War by Sunzi 6th cent. B.C. (253)
- Illustrated History of Furniture by Frederick Litchfield (229)
- Ulysses by James Joyce (212)
- The Arabian Nights Entertainments by Anonymous (210)
- Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain (199)
- The Edge of the Knife by H. Beam Piper (198)
- A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens (197)
Of course popularity must be placed in the context that these books are ebooks, free, and easy to download.
Not even a Nobel Prize is any indication of durability for an author or book. Project Gutenburg lists Nobel Prize winner for literature. Here are some author’s who won the prize that you aren’t likely to find in your bookstore or in literary discussions with your friends.
1903 Bjornstjerne BJORNSON (1832-1910)
1905 Henryk SIENKIEWICZ (1846-1916)
1910 Paul HEYSE (1830-1914)
1911 Maurice MAETERLINCK (1862-1949)
1913 Rabindranath TAGORE (1861-1941)
1921 Anatole FRANCE (1844-1924)
1927 Henri BERGSON (1859-1941)
1934 Luigi PIRANDELLO (1867-1936)
These authors won the highest literary prize for literature.
Tagore and France might ring a bell for some but the others? Stones in the bottom of the lake.
Lesson: don’t live your life as an author based on a deluded sense that immorality is yours if only you can get your book published. Live your life every day as if it is the last day on the planet. If you manage to float for awhile in the huge lake of eternal time think of that as a miracle. Sometimes miracles occur. Like a black swan the unexpected happens. But black swans are events outside of anyone’s control and should be outside of the way you decide to live your life.
Write because it is a journey you feel compelled to take. Write to explore idea, cultures and language. Write because the pleasure that comes from constructing a scene, a character, story or dialogue gives you a sense of bliss. Write because it helps you understand yourself, the world, and those you love and care about. But don’t lock yourself in a room to write because you dream of riches and fame. That’s a mug’s game.