Arithmetic for writers, part 2: publishing equations


Silk’s Post #88 — Confession time. I have read much about, listened to experts on, contemplated, discussed and agonized over the lifeblood topic of getting published (a.k.a. what’s supposed to happen after your book is written). Nevertheless, if I had to take an exam on the subject, I’d flunk the course.

It’s complicated. The traditional versus the independent (self-published) routes. The large and small publishing houses, the agents, the editors, the book doctors, the vanity presses, the e-books, the online marketing channels, the promotion. All of it doesn’t sound like much fun, frankly. So I’ve been putting off any truly serious study of this topic on the theory that I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it.

A couple of weeks ago, I read an account by a writer whose digital publishing dream turned into something of a nightmare. It finally pushed me out of my warm, feather-lined, fledgling writer’s nest and into the wild blue yonder called Today’s Publishing Reality.

So, reluctantly, I started flapping – in preference to going splat on the ground before I even have a manuscript ready for publishing consideration. That day will come. I’d like to have at least a rudimentary flight plan before it does.

The digitally disappointed writer is journalist and successful book author Tony Horowitz (Confederates in the Attic and other non-fiction titles), and his plaint, “I Was a Digital Bestseller”, was published in the NY Times op-ed pages this month. Okay, don’t get too freaked out. There are a lot of caveats, buts, qualifications and exceptions to this story as it might apply to you and me, the unpublished novelists of the world. First, his book on the Keystone Pipeline titled Boom was a topical, long-form journalistic work, not a novel. Second, after all sorts of disappointing complications such as his digital publisher going belly up, he still managed to get paid $15,000 to write itI assume he also got paid something by the NY Times to write about writing it. I know. What’s he whining about?

For me, the point was that an experienced, “name brand”, published author (with an agent, even) found himself lost in space when it came to the realities – the opportunities, challenges and pitfalls – of today’s increasingly complex and fragmented publishing industry. What does that mean for a nameless little baby chick like me? Or maybe you?

So after being shook up by one author who has sworn off publishing e-books and has resumed his love affair with traditional print and traditional publishers, I checked out the other side of the story. You can too in the blog post by author Brenna Aubrey, “Why I Turned Down a Three-Book New York Print Deal to Self-Publish”, which makes a compelling argument for just the opposite. How to judge who’s right, if either?

So I started doing some basic research, and of course quickly got lost in a thicket of information and perspectives. Paula, our 5writers Research Queen, initially came to my rescue with an excellent report on the website Author Earnings by Hugh Howey, titled “The 7k Report”, which neatly sorts through a ton of data regarding the financial side of various publishing channels (Independent, Amazon, Small-Medium Publishers, Big 5 Publishers, Single Author Publishers). The report’s conclusions favour Indie publishing over other routes, in terms of benefits to authors.

But the eyebrow-raising numbers, including the apparent explosion in the number of published authors and books – now that just about anyone can do it for themselves – only served to raise more questions for me. Like: how many books really are published every year? How many authors are out there? How many of them make a living at it? What are the chances of “making it” and what factors really differentiate those who do from those who don’t?

The first thing I discovered is that “official” numbers, such as the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, are useless. Writers of novels are grouped in with a whole bunch of other kinds of writers, including advertising copywriters. Also, such counts are based on people’s self-reported primary jobs, so everyone who isn’t a full-time writer who makes their primary income from writing (but may have published some novels, or perhaps has secreted 27 unpublished manuscripts under the bed) likely doesn’t get counted.

The second thing I discovered is that in seeking the answers these questions, I was travelling down a well-worn path. What one might guess would be easily obtainable facts turned out to be quite hard to nail down. And many have tried. For a highly entertaining account of one Austin, TX writer’s rigorous pursuit of the answer to the question “How Many Novelists are at Work in America?”, see Dominic Smith’s terrific essay on the website The Millions.

But what of the writer’s chances of success? Are there no statistics that can shed some light on that burning question? Again, yes … and no. Novelist and Pulitzer prize-winning journalist William Dietrich took a stab at this in his essay on Huffington Post titled “The Writer’s Odds of Success” in 2013. It was a good stab, but he failed to even draw blood, and the question escaped unanswered (sorry, no Pulitzer for this post, William). It’s still a good read, though, with lots of gossipy bits about the earnings of bestselling writers. Probably the essay on numbers and success that tickled me most was a post on Kirsten Lamb’s Blog titled “Are Successful Writers Just Lucky?” (one of her observations was that the harder a writer worked the luckier he/she got).

All these essays and blog posts are worthwhile reads. If you’re like me, they will enlighten and confuse you at the same time. However they offer many insights and interpretations that go beyond mere numbers. I especially recommend “The 7k Report” for its rigorous use of statistical data to clarify trends, complete with eye-popping charts and graphs.

But to cut to the chase (and without spoiling the recommended articles for you), here is some arithmetic for writers gleaned from various and sundry sources. I make no promises about their accuracy or reliability whatsoever, and caution the reader to recall the quip sometimes attributed to Benjamin Disraeli and made famous by Mark Twain: “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics.”

  • James Patterson made $94 million in 2012 (might as well start off with the good news) — Horowitz, citing Forbes magazine
  • More than 80% of Americans would like to be an author — Dietrich, citing polls
  • Only 5% of the millions of people who say they want to write actually do it. — Lamb
  • Only 5% of this who start writing a book will actually finish it. — Lamb
  • According to US Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were 145,900 American writers and authors in 2012, a quarter of them part time and two-thirds of them self-employed, with median earnings of $55,420 (but remember they include a ton of non-novelists) — Dietrich
  • Between 1990 and 2005, there was a 39% increase in the number of self-reported authors in the US. — Smith
  • In 2011, there were 329,259 books published in the US — Dietrich
  • In 2012, the number of adult fiction titles published with ISBN numbers in the US was 67, 254 — Smith, citing sources
  • 2.2 million books were published worldwide in 2011 — Dietrich
  • Self-published books make up 25% of the top 100 list on Amazon — Howey
  • Of 1.2 million books tracked by Neilson Bookscan, only 25,000 (just over 2%) sold more than 5,000 copies — Dietrich
  • A #1 ranking in “page turning narratives” on Amazon Kindle Singles is possible to achieve with as few as 700-800 sales — Horowitz, citing statistics for his book “Boom”
  • The average book in 2006 sold less than 500 copies — Dietrich, citing Publishers Weekly
  • The highest percentage of genre e-books on the bestseller lists (more than one third) are indie-published — Howey
  • Indie-published authors outsell Big-5 (traditional large publishing house) published authors on Amazon. — Howey
  • 76% of all books released in 2008 were self-published — Smith, citing sources
  • While the often-cited “rule of thumb” proportion of overall book sales represented by e-books is 25%, this figure accounts for only e-books through major publishers (Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, iBookstore, Google Play) and does not include self-published books or those e-published by small presses. — Howey
  • 86% of the top 2,500 genre fiction bestsellers in the overall Amazon bookstore are e-books. — Howey
  • While Big 5 publishers typically pay 25% of net revenue to authors for e-book sales, self-published authors usually keep 70% of the total purchase price. — Howey

That should give you a lot to think about, and hopefully some further reading that may toss you back and forth between elation and despair. But let me end by quoting some encouraging words from Kirsten Lamb, which bring some much-needed wisdom to this crazy writing and publishing game:

” … the odds are actually better than we might believe when we really take an honest look. This job is like one giant funnel. Toss in a few million people with a dream and only a handful will shake out at the end. Is it because fortune smiled on them? A few, yes. But, for most, the harder they worked, the “luckier” they got. They stuck it out and made the tough choices.”


Is craftsmanship an anachronism?


Silk’s Post #86 — Anyone who knows me will immediately know my answer to this question as it relates to writing. (For the rest of you, my answer is “no”.) For me, arts & crafts are an inseparable couplet, like love & marriage, salt & pepper, thunder & lightning, scotch & soda, birth & death. But the question perhaps should be: what is craftsmanship in writing? I had a spirited debate with myself about this the other day as a part of my frequent self-nag about getting more words on paper, faster.

Back at the beginning of our 5writers5novels5months quest, I wrote a hopeful post titled Arithmetic for Writers, which championed the 1000-words-a-day mantra. In fact, if you surveyed all of the 457 posts since we started this blog, a good percentage of them deal in some way with productivity … Getting started. Overcoming writer’s block. Writing while travelling. Writing while moving. Writing through all manner of disruptions to the Writing Life. Why the writer didn’t get any writing done. How to motivate yourself to write. How to avoid the brake of your internal editor and just get that messy, hellish first draft down.

pattersonAnd then there are the examples of prolific bestselling authors to contemplate (which are either inspiring or disheartening, depending on how you look at it). This list surely begins with James Patterson. The man has written 119 books. He wrote 14 books in 2013 alone – more than a book a month, for godsake. James Patterson isn’t just a writer, he’s an industry. And how does he do it? In his own words:

“I’m not a writer’s writer. I’m not a craftsman. I could be, and that would be a one-book-a-year operation.”

But what exactly does he mean by that? You don’t sell 119 books without some level of craftsmanship coming into play. So I started searching for other writers’ words on craftsmanship. The comparative paucity of references, differences in perspectives, and haziness of definitions were … well, thought-provoking. There is no shortage of soaring quotes about inspiration, talent, creativity and other qualities associated with great writing. But craftsmanship? It seems to be the poor cousin, the stuff of how-to literature and workshops for “aspiring” writers, a.k.a. the unpublished.

Even in that context, the emphasis tends to be on fairly basic rules and techniques to escape the slush pile. Helpful and necessary, for sure. Critical when you’re just starting out. But this kind of writing advice seems analogous to how to build a house that actually has four walls, a floor, a roof, and some form of ingress and egress. Creating a literary structure that readers will want to inhabit, explore, marvel at and never leave – well, that’s another level of craftsmanship.

So, is writing an art, or a craft? Or both? Happily, my quest did yield some true gold.

virginia-woolfThe literary luminary Virginia Woolf gave a talk in 1937 as part of the BBC radio broadcast series “Words Fail Me” (it is thought to be the only surviving recording of her voice and is therefore a celebrated artifact). She was assigned the topic of “Craftsmanship.” Aha! Just what I was looking for!

However, she promptly dismissed “Craftsmanship” in her first sentence as an impossible subject.

“The title of this series is ‘Words Fail Me,’ and this particular talk is called ‘Craftsmanship.’ We must suppose, therefore, that the talker is meant to discuss the craft of words – the craftsmanship of the writer. But there is something incongruous, unfitting, about the term ‘craftsmanship’ when applied to words. The English dictionary, to which we always turn in moments of dilemma, confirms us in our doubts. It says that the word ‘craft’ has two meanings; it means in the first place making useful objects out of solid matter – for example, a pot, a chair, a table. In the second place, the word ‘craft’ means cajolery, cunning, deceit. Now we know little that is certain about words, but this we do know: words never make anything that is useful; and words are the only things that tell the truth and nothing but the truth. Therefore, to talk of craft in connection with words is to bring together two incongruous ideas, which if they mate can only give birth to some monster fit for a glass case in a museum. Instantly, therefore, the title of the talk must be changed.”

And that was just for openers.

Being the sublime (and I dare say crafty) intelligence that she was, Woolf then uprooted the conversation and took it on an odyssey that sought the nature of words and truth. “Let us then simplify and assert that since the only test of truth is length of life,” she said, “and since words survive the chops and changes of time longer than any other substance, therefore they are the truest. Buildings fall; even the earth perishes. What was yesterday a cornfield is today a bungalow. But words, if properly used, seem able to live forever.”

But Woolf perceived a problem. “Think what it would mean if you could teach, if you could learn, the art of writing. Why, every book, every newspaper would tell the truth, would create beauty. But there is, it would appear, some obstacle in the way, some hindrance to the teaching of words.”

Her diagnosis of this problem was brilliant, and – in an irony that could only have been entirely deliberate – a beautiful description of craftsmanship.

“Where then are we to lay the blame? … It is the words that are to blame. They are the wildest, freest, most irresponsible, most unteachable of all things. Of course, you can catch them and sort them and place them in alphabetical order in dictionaries. But words to do not live in dictionaries; they live in the mind.”

She bemoans the fact that right there in the dictionary lie half a million English words that are capable of becoming another Antony and Cleopatra or David Copperfield, and yet crafting them to the writer’s own purpose is trickier than it seems.

“It is only a question of finding the right words and putting them in the right order. But we cannot do it because they do not live in dictionaries; they live in the mind. And how do they live in the mind? Variously and strangely, much as human beings live, by ranging hither and thither, by falling in love, and mating together. It is true that they are much less bound by ceremony and convention than we are. Royal words mate with commoners. English words marry French words, German words, Indian words … Thus to lay down any laws for such irreclaimable vagabonds is worse than useless. A few trifling rules of grammar and spelling are all the constraint we can put on them.

All we can say about them, as we peer at them over the edge of that deep, dark and only fitfully illuminated cavern in which they live – the mind – all we can say about them is that they seem to like people to think and feel before they use them … They hate being useful; they hate making money; they hate being lectured about in public. In short, they hate anything that stamps them with one meaning or confines them to one attitude, for it is in their nature to change. Perhaps that is their most striking peculiarity – their need of change. It is because the truth they try to catch is many-sided, and they convey it by being themselves many-sided, flashing this way, then that … And when words are pinned down they fold their wings and die.”

shawNobelist George Bernard Shaw put the writer’s challenge of using words to carry that which is in his own mind into the mind of the reader more succinctly: “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” 

So what is the alchemy needed to tame these flighty, slippery, shape-shifting words and put them to work, bend them to the writer’s purpose of conveying the intended meaning to the reader? How do the greats use mere words to make readers’ hearts beat faster, sweat dampen their brows, tears come to their eyes, insights light up their minds, laughter and joy erupt from the depths of their hearts?

Johannes Brahms’ insights on music apply equally to writing: “Without craftsmanship, inspiration is a mere reed shaken in the wind.”

Literary lion William Golding said: “I’m against the picture of the artist as a starry-eyed visionary not really in control or knowing what he does. I’d almost prefer the word ‘craftsman’. He’s like one of those old-fashioned ship builders who conceived the build of the boat in their mind and after that touched every single piece that went into the boat.”

Bestseller Jeffery Deaver assures us: “If you have a craftsman’s command of the language and basic writing techniques you’ll be able to write – as long as you know what you want to say.”

The legendary Emile Zola said: “There are two men inside the artist, the poet and the craftsman. One is born a poet. One becomes a craftsman.”

Last word to Thomas Steinbeck (son of John Steinbeck): “My father thought of himself as a tradesman. A craftsman.”

On that down-to-earth and hopeful note, I rest my case.



Note to blog followers: apologies for missing my post last week. I have tried to make up for it with a big, juicy one this week. Fact is, I’ve tried to be a fast writer. To not be so bound by slow craftsmanship. To dash out first drafts of novel and blog with wild abandon, and worry about the niceties later. But this is just not the way I’m made, or the way I make things. Hence, my self-debate about craftsmanship. So I’m resigned to never becoming a rich author like James Patterson. Just to be an author, a published one, is more than enough.

Shhh – great secret revealed

Joe’s Post #79

secretsOk, get the kids out of the room. Close the blinds. Stop looking at Pinterest (seriously, stop looking). It’s time for a secret to be revealed. It’s the secret of how to keep writing in the face of daunting obstacles, both real and imagined.

This secret is so secret it doesn’t have a name. At least before now. Now, I shall call it the Reset Secret.

So, for any of you out there, me included, my 5/5/5 partners included, this is for you. For you, too Stephen King. And James Patterson. I know you have your dark moments, too.

One of the things that drags us down as writers (hey, even as non-writers, though I know not how you people thinketh), is the past. For writers it’s I didn’t get anything written last week or I had a lot of rejections or the dog at my outline.

Worse, we go farther back. I didn’t get a novel written on time. I have some many rejections that I could publish a novel of rejections. The dog ate my hard drive and peed all over the portable back-up.

It piles up and piles up until we’re so heavy with guilt or regret or disillusionment that we stop writing.

So, why not do what any child would do in any video game that locks up?

resetRestart. Reboot. Reset.

It’s simple in theory. Harder to do in practice.

But it can be done.

Today is day 1. Throw out all the old mind-f*cking junk. It’s day 1. It’s not the 30th day you haven’t written. It’s the 1st day you have a chance to write.

You’ve just come back from vacation and can finally sit down and write.

You’ve just got your computer repaired and can finally write again.

You’ve stopped for a moment in the coffee shop and have a few minutes to write.

Reset your mind. The past if full of things we cannot change (at least until I get my time machine in my basement to work). The future is full of possibilities yet unrealized. So, we have only the present that we really live in. In the present, we can write.

Living in the present is how I survived the death of my wife. The past had been devastated and the future looked hopeless and full of pain. Only in the present was there any sense of peace.

And there were bad days. Make no mistake. Many of them. But I tried to start each day as if it were day one.

As if I’d reset my life.

zenSo that’s what I do now. In my writing life. Reset. Today is day one. What can I get done today?

It’s the secret to the long struggle that is, for most of us, the writing life. At least for me.


Blogs I’ve read that are awesome: Blurt . Funny and cool.

My opinion on unicorns: They are the Kardashians of the mythical equines.

Number of blogs written: 2 – Parenting and Hockey.

Number of times I felt smug: 2

Number of times I nearly had a heart attack while watching the SF vs Seattle game: 35

Number of queries done: As of 9am, 0. RESET!

Number of short stories sent out: As of 9am: 0 RESET!


Reading week(s)

Stack of books

Paula’s Post #22 — Hello out there? Is anyone still listening? Er… reading?

When my fellow 5writers voted to continue our blog posts, I must admit I wasn’t fully onboard. Sure, blogging about our 5 month marathon was fun, but my inclination was to say ‘hey, it’s over baby’. At least until one of us has some good news to report.

On reflection, however, I realized that my colleagues were right. It isn’t over, not for Joe, not for me, not for Karalee or Helga or Silk. We are at different stages in our writing. Joe has completed two full drafts, (Wow! Way to go Joe!), while I’ve only completed a first draft. Karalee, I’m guessing, is close to being done, then we’ve got Helga in the middle and self-proclaimed Tortoise, Silk, bringing up the rear. I can see why the three yet-to-be-finished writers, especially, would appreciate the continuing support from our readers as they work to finish their first drafts. But Joe and I need your support, too. And your ideas, and maybe, if we’re really brave, some Alpha and Beta readers. People willing to read our rough drafts and provide input.

But that isn’t the only reason to keep up with our blog. The writing life can be a lonely life and if we still have followers out there listening to what we have to say, provinding encouragement and rooting us on, we  want to keep our readers in the loop.

So, for anyone who is interested, while Tortoise and her friends use the next few weeks to play ‘catch up’, I’m going to indulge in a variation of ‘reading week’ (or more likely reading weeks). We’ve all put a lot of pleasurable things aside during our 5 month epic challenge and for me, one of the most difficult to give up was the simple joy of reading.

Now, it would not be entirely truthful to say I didn’t read at all during the past 5 months. I did. Including a marathon session over Christmas when I ploughed my way through Ken Follett’s World Without End the sequel to his enthralling, epic, Pillars of the Earth, a sprawling historical novel chronicling the building of a Cathedral in 12th Century England.

World Without End

World Without End starts in the early 14th C and concerns the lives of citizens of the Cathedral town of Kingsbridge, the same setting as Pillars of the Earth. It doesn’t sound like scintillating stuff, but trust Ken Follett to mix in enough scenes of gratuitous sex and violence to mix things up and keep readers interested in mortar and flying buttresses. But for me, the joy of reading World Without End was somewhat diminished by the consequent guilt I felt, every time I pondered how many pages I could write in the time it would take me to read all 1024 pages of this massive tome.

I also feared that, midway through my novel, my characters might suddenly start sounding like 14th Century merchants and peasants. So you can see why I was a bit distracted, even when I did give myself permission to read.

I’ve heard that at least one successful, popular novelist, Mary Higgins Clark, admonishes against reading while writing, proclaimed that, while working, she simply can’t read other authors’ novels.

But I’m not liket that. At least I hope not. Because reading gives me ideas. Hints at how to subtly portray complexities of character and techniques for keeping multi-character dialogue from becoming stilted or confusing. Often, I feel one can learn more from reading the works of successful writers then from just reading ‘how to’ books on writing.

But these aren’t the only reasons I read. Like you, I find reading not only mentally and emotionally engaging but also just plain relaxing. Sometimes, I want to just enjoy ‘story’ without my ‘author’ persona creeping into the picture. But she’s always there, lurking in the shadows. Right now, she’s telling me to read more YA Novels.

Switching up genres has been a challenge for me. My favourite authors are mystery writers like Michael Connelly, Elizabeth George, John Grisham and now also Canadian’s Peter Robinson with his wonderful DCI Banks series and of course Sean Slater, and his fantastic Jacob Striker series. You may not be aware that Sean, a Vancouver police officer, is one of the ‘founding members’ of our critique group, the group that has now morphed into the 5writers.

So, with a lot of mysteries and thrillers in my personal library, I found it quite difficult to switch it up and embark on a YA Novel for the 5writers project. I especially had difficulties specially keeping my story ‘age appropriate’ and my character’s ‘voices’ authentic. Before writing the first draft of my own YA Novel, I read a trio of novels penned by popular adult novelists including James Patterson, Kathy Reichs and Harlan Coben.

But I know that’s not nearly enough.

So for the last week, I’ve been reading Divergent, the remarkable debut novel by Veronica Roth, a young author who states the idea for the novel came to her while still in college. Ms. Roth is close enough in age to her young protagonist to ‘get’ what she’s thinking, what she’s feeling, what she needs and what she wants, but for those of us of a certain age, we need to do a little more work.

Divergent is both compelling and a fast read. I admire Ms. Roth’s ‘world building’ abilities and also her ability to show her readers a strong female protagonist. She deserves congratulations: film rights have been sold and the studio, Summit Entertainment, is in the process of casting. The title of the film will also be ‘Divergent’.

So I’m going to be busy. Divergent isn’t the only book on my reading list, just the first one. I’m going to be reading quite a few YA novels over the next few weeks, maybe even months. When I’m ready to start the second draft of my novel, I want to have a solid idea of the YA genre. My characters need to be fleshed out, sub-plots developed and dialogue sharpened until it sounds authentic.

So, happily, reading is going to be my avocation for the next several weeks. If you’ve a great YA novel to recommend, I’d love to hear from you! If you have any other suggestions for this 5writer, your input is most graciously welcomed. Thank you for sticking with us!