Have you ever seen a farmer standing next to the broccoli in a supermarket, extolling the virtues of his product to shoppers and begging them to purchase a stalk or two?
It’s an odd concept, but is it any weirder than seeing a writer in a bookstore, trying to sell her books one copy at a time?
I can’t think of any other profession that requires so much direct salesmanship from the person who creates an item for public consumption. Sure, actors and directors go on TV and give print interviews to promote new movies, but they don’t stand outside theaters and try to persuade passersby to purchase tickets. Promoting the movie is primarily the job of the production company that packages it and gets it into theaters. When a book is published, though, the burden of selling it shifts to the writer, usually at the writer’s expense. If the book tanks, it’s the author’s fault.
Writing books is a strange pursuit. You might complete half a dozen or more novels before you actually sell one. When you do finally make that breakthrough, the odds are you’ll receive a small advance against royalties, no more than a few thousand dollars in compensation for the year or more that went into the writing. You won’t receive another payment until your book has earned back the advance and begun to make a profit – if it ever does.
Most publishers expect writers to do bookstore signings and maintain a web site, at a minimum. Writing a blog and creating an “internet presence” on sites like MySpace is also rapidly becoming a requirement. Genre writers are urged to travel to conferences – which can cost $1,000 or more each when you add in transportation, lodging, and meals – to meet fans and spread the word about their books. Ironically, only authors who are paid large advances receive financial help with promotion from their publishers, and even then only the cost of a book tour will be covered. The unknown writer with a small advance usually must take on the full expense of promotion. That small advance rapidly vanishes, and the writer may soon find herself paying for the privilege of being published. Promotion also eats into the time that an author would otherwise devote to writing, and that makes it harder to finish the next book on schedule.
Every time a survey of writers’ incomes is conducted, only a fraction of novelists report that they earn enough from their books to live on. Small wonder, then, so many work at salaried jobs to pay the bills or do various kinds of journalism or business writing to generate income. It’s not at all unusual for a novelist to work a day job, write at night and on weekends, somehow fit in book signings and conferences, write a blog, and maintain a web site with frequent additions of fresh material. Oh, and family life fits in there somewhere too.
So why would anybody want to write a novel? The most common answer authors give is, “I write because I can’t not write.” It’s a compulsion and an obsession. It’s a joyous act of self-expression. It’s a journey of imagination that takes you away from the mundane world for a few hours at a time. It’s a chance to assert control over events, to make a story come out exactly the way you want it to.
If writing is such a personal thing, why do we go through the ego-wrecking process of trying to get our work published, then trying to sell it to the public? Why can’t the writing be its own reward? I wish it could be, and I wish I fully understood why it isn’t. All I know is that a writer needs readers to make the last link in the creative circle. A story that is never read by anyone other than its author is incomplete. It’s a bird singing in an empty forest.
And so we go on writing, hoping that some stranger in a publishing company will like our work enough to invest in it, praying that it will find readers, knowing the financial rewards are likely to be meager. We write because we must, and for those hours when we’re alone with our evolving stories and characters, that is reason enough.