Wednesday, September 19, 2012
Who are you calling an amateur?
by Sandra Parshall
The more things change, the more they remain the same.
With publishing in such turmoil, changing drastically at record speed (who would have thought anything in publishing could move quickly?), you might expect writers to band together to help each other steer clear of pitfalls. But no. The sniping continues. The words change, the targets shift, but it still comes down to “I’m making better choices than you are, I make more money than you do, so I’m a real writer, not an amateur like you.”
Not every writer takes that attitude. But it’s prevalent enough to be unpleasantly noticeable.
Remember when self-publishing e-books for the Kindle caught on in a big way? Plenty of traditionally published authors regarded the self-published with disdain. Poor things – not good enough to snag a real publisher, forced to resort to a new form of vanity publishing. The reaction from the other side was equally harsh: It’s stupid to hand over total control and most of the profits to a dinosaur print publisher when you could keep it all for yourself. Now that we know e-books aren’t going to put a stake through print’s heart at dawn tomorrow, the shouting has died down a bit, but the toxic sentiments remain.
The occasional success story, like Amanda Hocking’s, hasn’t bolstered either side’s argument more than the other’s. On the one hand, Ms. Hocking’s sale of a million-plus downloads of her YA fantasy e-books proves success is possible in that medium. On the other hand, her jump to a New York publisher (for a $2 million advance) proves that within every e-book writer’s heart lurks the intense desire to be published in print by a respectable house. Or so some people say.
What I find sadly familiar in all this is the use of money as the measure of an author’s worth. Amanda Hocking was just another wannabe who couldn’t get an agent or a publisher to take her on – until she started making money, a lot of it, with e-books. Even the most disdainful traditionally published authors had to respect her success. And, wow, a $2 million print contract with St. Martin’s! That clinched it. Ms. Hocking was suddenly acknowledged as a real writer. A professional.
Those $2 million contracts are scarce. In most years, not a single writer will receive an advance anywhere near that. Ms. Hocking had to prove she’d already attracted an enormous audience before a print publisher would pay a whopping amount for her work. Most advances are only a few thousand dollars. Some are considerably less. And print books are becoming harder to sell to readers. According to Nielsen BookScan, sales of adult hardcovers have dropped 8% so far this year, and mass market paperbacks have dropped 26%. That’s on top of drastic losses in the previous couple of years.
A lot of writers aren’t doing well financially. Some surveys suggest that half of all self-published writers make $500 or less per year from their work. The average income is said to be around $10,000, a figure that is skewed by the few big successes. But guess what? Plenty of traditionally published writers have similar earnings. The exact figures vary from survey to survey and year to year, but only a small fraction of writers – as few as 10% – make enough money to live on. The familiar warning still holds true: If you want to get rich quick, steer clear of writing as a career.
Yet some people cling to the idea that income is what distinguishes a real writer from an amateur. Recently I saw authors who aren’t making a living at writing described as “hobbyists” in a publication of a national writers’ organization. By this measure, 90% of all published writers are hobbyists producing “niche” books. I’m one of them. (See my guest blog for Buried Under Books on the subject of so-called niche books.) I’m published regularly by a reputable traditional press, my books receive good reviews, but I’ll probably never make enough in royalties for anybody to live on. What does my low income say about the quality of my writing? Absolutely nothing, in my opinion. And yeah, I've become a little defensive on the subject.
I wish every writer could make a good living doing what he or she loves. I wish more people bought and read books and were willing to pay a fair price for them. I wish we had better ways for readers to find good but obscure writers, both traditionally published and e-published. And I wish writers themselves would stop using words like “hobbyist” to categorize other writers.
How do you define amateur and professional?
Have you discovered a small press or self-published author who deserves a wider readership? Tell us about him or her. Maybe you’ll help make a sale or two.