Perforating people's dreams • 13 February 2008 • The SnowBlog
Perforating people's dreams
Em and I often hear about the sadness of authors who are desperate - or at least very determined - to get published - and very frustrated if it doesn't happen. I'm not talking about Snowbooks' authors (potential or actual); I'm thinking of stories you see in the news or tales you read on someone's blog, often rather heartbreaking ones.
As with most things, publishing seems less glamorous from the inside (though both Em and I make a point of dressing in snappy 1940s outfits, working only in crisp art deco premises, and making sure our hair is always immaculate). To some prospective authors, getting published is a portal that leads to a different life, a different world. It is also an acknowledgement, perhaps even a vindication. Or I'm sure it can seem like the chance to earn a living in a way that nourishes rather than withers your soul. In fact I suspect there are as many reasons for wanting to be published as there are authors (or at any rate, more than half a dozen).
What worries Em and me is that from this side of the curtain, on the nuts and bolts side of the book business, the act of being published seems like a very small step into a world which may be just as inhospitable as the unpublished one - perhaps even more so because setbacks become much more personal when your heart's desire is mixed up with your work.
I've sold maybe 75,000 books in a dozen or so languages - I mean ones I've written not published - and I can't say that it's changed anything. Some days I think it proves that I can write, that I know what I'm doing, but then other days I'll think about bad reviews I've had and how completely scornful they can be of my talents and I think perhaps it doesn't prove anything. And you may think to yourself, 'oh, but I won't get bad reviews', because of the quality of your work, but if what you're trying to do is in any way ambitious and original (as opposed to telling fun stories, which is all I try to do) you're even more likely to be floccinaucinihilipilificated*, if for no other reason than that your writing is misunderstood.
And most authors, particularly of literary fiction, won't sell anywhere near 75,000 copies of their work. Ten thousand copies would be pretty good going for a novel. And that isn't enough to live on or get you noticed. And even quite strong sales don't automatically lead on to anything else or open any doors. And, since books are generally bought before they're read, you don't even know how many of your readers enjoyed, or even finished your book.
I know all this is rather depressing for both published and unpublished authors alike - assuming you believe a word of it - but if it makes someone question why they want to be published and have a conversation with themselves about it, then it will be a good thing. Not because I want to put anyone off. Personally, I am forever doing things that are unlikely to succeed, and I'm happier for it. But when you get published one of two things is likely to happen and you need to be prepared for either outcome. Scenario One: nothing changes. It's all a huge anticlimax. The grass still needs cutting, no one takes you any more seriously than they did last week (and your parents still treat you like you're twelve). Or Scenario Two: your book sells enough copies or (more likely) has enough marketing spend behind it to make a splash. You do book signings, radio and press interviews, you give talks. You constantly have to answer questions about your work and you have to talk about what you're working on next. You have to have photos taken of you and then read about what you were like - and probably how attractive you were - in the paper. The good news is that you can now pay bills with money you made from writing. The bad news is that in order to make the same income as a good computer programmer you'll probably have to go on book tours, give Q&As at festivals and meet thousands of people and be judged by them. Someone who wanted fame would be better off being famous for something else. And someone who didn't want fame could certainly finder a better paying job that involved less scrutiny and criticism.
Personally, I think I have it just right. Maybe you don't believe me if I say I wouldn't want Joanna Rowling's success, or even a fraction of it, but I wouldn't. I want to sell few enough books to be virtually unheard of, but still enough that I make minimum wage, or thereabouts, for the time I spend writing. I want obscurity, without total penury. So I think I'm fairly objective about being A Published Author. And the purpose of this post is just to make sure that you are too.
And if anyone out there wants to share their reasons for wanting to be published, I'd love to hear them. A book deal and a six-figure advance to the best answer. Hmmm. Is that joke funny or just cruel? Anyway, that's publishing for you.
* I thought it might be nice if that word was, just once, used for something other than scoring highly in a word game.