avocation n: something a person does in addition to a principal occupation, especially for pleasure; hobby: “The doctor’s avocation is painting.”
Writing is not necessarily something to be ashamed of…but do it in private and wash your hands afterward. – Robert A. Heinlein
I retired from engineering in 2015, which freed me to
drive needles into my eyes write full-time, something I’d been anticipating with…well, if not pleasure, at least a degree of satisfaction. I didn’t expect to make a huge amount of money from my fiction. There were already tens of thousands of indie writers screaming for attention. I had no reason to think I would stand out from that crowd so boldly that readers would take special notice of my books. But I wanted to write full-time, and I did and have continued to do so.
My expectations have been verified in all particulars. I have a readership, but it’s not particularly large. I make a little money from the sale of my novels, but not nearly enough to support even a modest existence. But I still do it, because the stories have their own impetus and the effort they require strikes me as worthwhile.
Thus, for me novelism – i.e., what novelists do – is an avocation rather than a conventional occupation. I’d imagine many other indies – perhaps even the great majority – would have to say the same, in all candor.
Mind you, there are a few indies who make significant amounts of money this way. You probably know some of the names. But what they do differs qualitatively from what I do, as anyone who’s read both my crap and theirs could tell you. As I’m terminally bored with writing about politics and public policy, I think I’ll tell you why.
If you’ve ever worked in new product development, you’ll probably be familiar with the old marketing mantra:
For a new product to make much of an impact in the marketplace, it must differ from previous offerings in some significant way. Perhaps it’s less expensive than its competitors. Perhaps it outperforms its competitors, or does things they don’t do. Or perhaps it comes from a company whose reputation for quality and customer service automatically raises its offerings above those from other firms. One of these conditions, or something of equal significance, must apply to your new product to get it a decent amount of attention.
None of that applies to fiction.
Before the indie explosion, the publishing houses had a mantra of their own:
In their case, it was an expression of the economics of publishing. It’s extraordinarily difficult for a company in the business of selling entertainment to predict accurately what will sell well. The most reliable predictor – and even this wasn’t all that reliable – is the answer to the question “Does it resemble anything else we’ve published that sold really well?” That was the case before indie-publishing, and it’s the case today. It’s part of the reason for classifying books into genres, in case you ever wondered.
The indies doing well financially are aware of this and cater to it. “What’s selling well at the moment?” they ask themselves. “Vampire novels? Great; we’ll write stories about vampires. Space opera? Okay; we’ll write about galaxy-spanning quests for new worlds, or perhaps about battles between immense space fleets that will determine the future of trillions of lives. Steamy, sex-saturated romances? Sure, no problem: we can turn those out with a few MS Word macros. And we’ll do them in series, so the reader can be confident that once he’s finished the current novel, more of the same will be ready for his attention and delectation.”
This is not mere cynicism. It’s a recognition that most readers have a very low tolerance for fiction that departs from what’s already familiar to them. A writer who wants serious financial rewards must respect that characteristic of the reading public.
So: If you fancy yourself a fictional trailblazer, someone with completely unique stories to tell or a heretofore unexplored narrative technique, the odds are heavily against you. You must derive your principal satisfaction from the writing itself. That might strike you as unfair, but as a dear departed friend of mine liked to say, “fair” is just this meaningless noise humans make with their mouths.
Just this morning, I stumbled over this piece by Freddie deBoer, of whom I was previously unaware. It’s a snarky but serious piece about writing as a paying occupation and what it demands. A snippet, for flavor:
Here’s who makes money writing books now:
- People who were already famous
- Robin Diangelo
- Those writers whose books have titles like “You Don’t Give a Fuck, Because You’re a Badass Self-Confident Woman Who Manifests Divine Bitch Energy: A Glow Up”
Nor are there a lot of high salaries in traditional journalism or commentary anymore. People who self-define as writers and journalists make money but they make it in “consulting” or PR or copywriting or ghostwriting for celebs or running vague wellness/self-care/scented candle businesses….
In broad strokes: if you want to make it as a writer you will have to differentiate yourself, in text, from the vast rising oceans of texts that surround the digital world. There has never been more text being professionally published in the history of the world, which indicates that the market has never been bigger. But that also means that there has never been more words vying for the attention of a public that also has more and more not-words to pay attention to. So you have to be different. You have to be weird. I think being unclassifiable and difficult and fractious are desirable qualities for a writer in and of themselves.
Mirabile dictu! DeBoer is advocating differentiating the product! Can he and I both be right simultaneously?
Why, yes. The above is about nonfiction writing as a paying trade. I have no doubt that DeBoer is absolutely correct about exposition and opinion-editorial writing…and no doubt that I’m correct that the road to the filthy lucre in fiction is to write to the most popular trends. But that’s only for starters. Combining the two observations yields information that exceeds what’s in either of them standing apart.
As I said two segments back, if you write fiction, and if you’re determined to tell the stories you have in mind even though there’s nothing like them currently in the marketplace, you must derive your principal satisfaction from the stories and the writing thereof. But as Freddie deBoer notes above, if you write nonfiction, following the trends – i.e., being just one more voice with your particular expertise or political slant – won’t earn you a dime. The two groups of relevant readers are too different, even when they’re one and the same.
Most readers simply like to read. But a reader’s tastes are unlikely to be uniform across the universe of prose. They’ll change according to subject matter, fiction versus nonfiction, academic, journalistic, opinion, or hortatory, and so on. That will, of course, determine what he’s willing to pay for.
There are exceptions, of course. I’m one. As an opinion writer, I’m largely indistinguishable from the legions of other op-ed writers on the political Right. Those are also the op-ed writers I most enjoy reading, as they share my premises and have reached similar conclusions about the matters they discuss. Though I prefer science fiction and fantasy for my leisure reading, I steer clear of trendy fiction about space battles, vampires, time travel, apocalypses, werewolves, witches, quests for objects of great magical power, and so forth. I want the original; the unique; the freshly characterized and innovatively told. (That’s also the sort of fiction I write, which is why my readership is small and my revenues are even smaller.)
But we call exceptions that because they’re…exceptional. Few in number and outside the mainstream of thought and taste. They seldom constitute a market that will make a writer rich.
If you choose to write, your choices in these matters will define you:
- As an occupational writer, whose efforts are aimed mainly at deriving an income; or:
- As an avocational writer, who writes as a pastime and expects scant extrinsic reward for it.
What follows won’t necessarily be a pronouncement on your skills. What, after all, is more of a cliche than unsung genius? But having made your choices, you must resolve to be content with them. All else is folly.
While we’re on the subject, have you read anything really good lately? My TBR stack is dangerously short. But no vampire operas, please. Those things can’t sing worth a damn.