Oprah Will Call—and Other Author Myths
Guest Post by Irene Watson
Many myths exist about the life of an author and the success that comes with being one. Most of these myths are, unfortunately, believed by aspiring authors and the reading public in general. But with very rare exceptions, these myths are simply that—myths.
Most aspiring authors I meet seem to think that all they have to do is write a book and they will become famous overnight. And many of the readers I meet instantly think I and other authors are celebrities and must be rich and famous. Unfortunately, these myths about being an author are simply that—myths. For the aspiring author, it’s best to realize at the start the reality about being a writer so the focus can be on what really matters—working incredibly hard to produce a good book. I plan to shatter a few author myths here so aspiring authors can be prepared for what they must do and face if they hope to succeed.
1. Anyone can write and publish a book—Actually that statement is not a myth, but it leaves out the fact that not everyone can write a good book. The average book takes about 400-800 hours to write, and I suspect it takes more than that when you consider time spent dealing with writer’s block and trying to figure out just what to write. Furthermore, even if you write an entire book, that doesn’t guarantee it will be a good book. It’s vitally important that authors have their books edited and proofread and they work to make the book better by getting feedback from trusted readers (preferably knowledgeable professionals and other authors, not just mom and your best friend). A good author does extensive revisions and numerous drafts. Hemingway once notably said that he wrote one good page for every one hundred bad pages. Furthermore, authors must produce a book that looks as good as any book put out by a major publisher, which means hiring a great cover artist, having a professional design and lay out the book, and paying for quality printing so the book looks completely professional. If you are up to the task, you probably can write a good book and self-publish it. But frankly, writing and publishing the book is the easy part. Selling it is where the hard work really begins.
2. Authors can live off their royalties—I know hundreds of authors, but I don’t know personally a single one who lives off his or her royalties. The vast majority of authors today are self-published, which means they don’t receive royalties off their books. They work hard to print their books, distribute them to bookstores, sell them at book signings, and then they collect their book payments. Does that sound like a way to make money? Sure, if you’re among the 1 percent of authors who actually sell more than 500 copies of their books. If you’re not, most likely you will be lucky to break even on the printing costs—and trust me, you’ll never get paid for all the hundreds of hours you put into writing the book. All the authors I know have day jobs to supplement their incomes, plus to pay for their publishing hobby—“hobby” because they don’t sell enough books to call it a true business.
And even if you do find a traditional publisher and you receive royalties, most publishers pay a fairly standard 10 percent, so if your book retails for $19.95, you’ll receive $2.00 per book at best. Furthermore, when books are sold through a distributor and a bookstore, and almost all the books are, the distributor will take its cut, usually about 55 percent, and then the bookstore wants a 40 percent cut that comes out of that 55 percent. That leaves the publisher making 45 percent off the $19.95 book, which is about $9.00 and the author’s 10 percent royalty is then 90 cents. Can an author live off such royalties? If you think you can scrape by at just above the poverty level in the United States, which for one person in 2011 was at $10,890, then maybe—but you’ll have to sell somewhere between 5,445 and 12,100 books per year to do so if you’re collecting standard royalties (and that’s selling about 10-25 times more books than the 500 copies that 99 percent of books do not achieve). Hmm, somehow living at the poverty level doesn’t sound like the rich and famous author lifestyle you imagined.
3. You can sell millions of books once you get on Oprah. Guess what. The Oprah Winfrey Show is off the air so she’s not going to call you. Even when Oprah did endorse books, it was only about one a month. And even if you got on a popular daily television or radio show that endorsed books, the networks usually produce less than 200 new episodes a year (the rest are reruns). Of the three million books published this year, what’s the chance your book will make the 200 cut?
4. Authors live fabulously fun lifestyles. The myth of the F. Scott Fitzgerald lifestyle still seems to pervade aspiring authors’ minds. Many people think they just need to write a book and they will be able to live like it was the Roaring Twenties, go to fabulous parties, dance with beautiful girls and handsome men, live like a movie star and even befriend a few stars, and do all their writing while sitting in Paris cafes. Well, I don’t know about you, but I have a hard time concentrating on my writing in a cafe—you get interrupted and distracted so much that you can’t get any writing done. And it’s not very easy to write when you have a hangover from all those parties and your phone is ringing off the hook from all those gorgeous girls calling you. Sure, Fitzgerald lived a wild life, but think how many books he could have written if the partying hadn’t killed him at the young age of forty-four.
Facing Reality: People are largely attracted to the myth of writers as famous and glamorous. But the reality is that most true writers who stick with writing do so because they enjoy putting words together. I know of many young men and women who went to college determined to become writers. They went through creative writing programs, then never finished the Great American novel, and ended up getting jobs in the corporate world like the vast majority of people. Perhaps you will be the exception, but you won’t be if you expect it to be easy and for fame to find you. The only way to become an overnight sensation is to work hard at your craft for many years to become a good writer, and then to learn practical business skills so you can run your business, and to study marketing trends and do your best to capitalize on them so you can sell more books than the average author. Writing and selling your books is one of the hardest, most time-consuming, and often frustrating jobs out there. And don’t forget, Steinbeck called writing “the loneliest job in the world.”
But writing can also be very rewarding if you do it because you love it, celebrate each small success, and use your common sense to make good decisions for your books and your image as a writer—just remember, showing up at a book signing with a hangover doesn’t count as a good decision.
Irene Watson is the Managing Editor of Reader Views, where avid readers can find reviews of recently published books as well as read interviews with authors. Her team also provides author publicity and a variety of other services specific to writing and publishing books.