Friday, March 1, 2013

Are We Rich Yet

by Sheila Connolly

Gee, thanks, Patricia Cornwell, for skewing the curve.

Patricia Cornwell, successful mystery writer, lives in Boston these days, and the details of her very public lawsuit against her money manager have been all over the local papers recently.  She won her case.  Good for her.

But it's the numbers that are staggering to most of us writers.  Cornwell said she made $89 million (yes, million) over four years, and the financial firm she employed to keep track of it managed to misplace or misspend all but $13 million of it. 

I don't know Patricia Cornwell personally, but I've read and enjoyed her books.  I even read the non-fiction book she wrote about Jack the Ripper, a departure from her usual genre stories, that she published because she felt strongly about the historical case.

But twenty-two million dollars a year in income from writing?  That's astonishing, at least to me.

I don't have statistics in front of me (probably because they're depressing), but most writers can't expect to make any income at all until they sell a book five to six years after they start writing and submitting.  That's if they're lucky, because over 90% of writers never get published at all (that may be changing in the era of self-publishing).  And then, if they are lucky enough to capture the attention of a publisher, they may get a four-figure advance (against future earnings from sales).  No string of zeros.  And worse, that amount has to go toward paying for a website and traveling to conferences and buying ads and promotional materials and memberships in professional organizations.  The net income?  Pretty much zip.  The message? Don't quit the day job.

If you're a writer, even one no one has ever heard about, and you tell a stranger that's what you are, a surprising number of them say, "oh, you must make a lot of money."  Where does that idea come from?  I'd like to think it's a sign of respect, that people believe that writing is difficult and that successful efforts to write should be rewarded financially. Except it's not true, except for a small group at the top. Like Patricia Cornwell, or Lee Child, or Nora Roberts.

Most of the writers I know, both obscure and recognized, work very hard.  They do research.  They agonize over their manuscripts, from the first draft to the fifth edit.  They slog through all kinds of weather to do book signings and sit on conference panels.  And they do it over and over again, for each new book.  And each time they worry, is it any good? Is it as good as the last one? Will people like it?  Will they buy it?  You might wonder why we torture ourselves like this when we could be librarians or accountants or farmers.  We do it because we love it and can't stop ourselves

Okay, I'll admit it:  when I began, like so many others I thought writing would be an easy way to make money.  I was smart and educated, and I had read a lot of books.  I could write a book, couldn't I?  And sell it, and pay for my daughter's Ivy League education? 

Stop laughing.  I was wrong, or at least my timing was.  But I did discover that I loved writing, and that's why I stuck to it during all the lean years.  It wouldn't have been possible without a husband with a steady income, but that spurred me on—if I was going to pull my weight income-wise in our family, I was going to put everything I had into writing, twenty-four seven.  Otherwise it would be an expensive hobby.

Robert Frost captured some of this in his poem Two Tramps in Mud Time:

My object in living is to unite
My avocation and my vocation
As my two eyes make one in sight.
Only where love and need are one,
And the work is play for mortal stakes,
Is the deed ever really done

There is nothing better than having someone tell you, I loved your book!  That means you've said something that touched someone else, and that's not easy.  Sure, I'd like to touch enough people to generate twenty-two million dollars in income each and every year, but I'm not complaining because I love what I do.  And my husband still has his job.

Patricia Cornwell, I'm glad you are amply rewarded for what you do, and I'm glad you nailed that guy who thought you wouldn't notice a few tens of millions of dollars missing here and there.  But I plan to keep writing even without the millions.


Steven M. Moore said...

Hi Sheila,
I saw the same figures and said, "Whoa! What am I doing wrong?" But I returned to reality. It's the lottery effect in writing. I know plenty of writers who write better (i.e. more entertaining and better techniques) than Cornwall. I don't know what the relative probabilities are, but having even just one NY Times bestseller has to be somewhere around winning Powerball.
So, my reality is to not take fickle fortune personally. I'm not writing in order to become a millionaire. I'm writing to entertain my readers and myself. The more readers I have, of course, the better I feel about having entertained them, and that will translate into money, I suppose (I give many books away, though). But, like you said, if just one says, "I really found your book X," where X is something positive, I've had a good day.
As for skewing the curve, I used to allow for outliers in my physics doesn't do that for authors.

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