Tag Archives: money

Personal Journeys in the Book Business

28 Aug

It’s been a while but I’ve been busy — publishing three novels and putting together a new anthology. Lazarus Risen is due back from the printers next week and, in the lull, I thought I’d bring you up to date.

Distribution

I recently ended my relationship with my distribution company. That may seem like a crazy thing to do but actually the decision was pretty easy. It all came down to money.

Selling books is hard; selling anything is hard but books are harder because it is the only product that stores can return for a full refund. This practice started in the 1930s when publishers were looking for a way to kick start book sales in the depression. The mass market paperback was relatively new and was designed to be printed cheap and distributed widely. To encourage book sellers – a notoriously conservative lot – to take the risk on unknown writers, the books could be returned for a credit against future sales.

This worked pretty well for publishers, who in those days mostly distributed their own books. They didn’t actually have to give money back – they simply took a loss in the future, which as any economist will tell you, is a discounted loss.

It doesn’t quite work that way anymore. As the world became more complex, sales processes became more specialized. Publishers outsourced their warehouses to distribution companies. Gradually those distribution companies developed their own salesforces (on top of the marketing departments of big publishers) and took over marketing for medium and small publishers.

And of course they took their cut of the sales – which would be okay if they also didn’t charge fees for every transaction they undertake. There is a fee when they send the book to the store and another larger fee for when it comes back. And if the books stop moving, they charge you a fee for storing them and a different fee to dispose of them or return them to the publisher.

Generally you are told you should budget 30% for returns, though the distributor assures you they will do everything possible to keep it below that. But what if they sell your books to the wrong stores – such as stores that don’t sell a lot of science fiction, or stores who won’t keep new or relatively unknown books on their shelves for more than a few weeks? Returns can quickly rise above 30% and, with all the associated fees, it is possible to actually lose money through distribution.

Which is what happened.

I could see that it was coming and I have thought of an alternative – two, in fact. One would be to find a new distributor. There are several out there but getting them to take you on is not as simple as asking. You need to have a certain size back catalog, you need to publish a minimum number of titles each year, you need a certain size print run.

Requirements vary, of course, but obviously, the bigger the distributor (access to more stores, larger sales force, and so on), the stiffer the entry requirements. And returns are still a problem. Still, I’m looking into the possibilities.

Not all distribution companies are created equally and some are as hard to work with for store-owners as they are for publishers. Complex accounting processes and inefficient shipping practices can lead stores to refuse to work with certain distribution companies.

I’ve talked to a few book sellers about the problem and they either suggested a smaller, but reliable, mostly Canadian firm (there are several) or to do self-distribution. If authors can self-publish, why can’t publishers self-distribute?

So, for at least the interim, that’s what I’m going to do. I’ve created a catalog that includes all the backlist (and announces the titles of upcoming publications) and I’ve started sending it out.

My first experience was a good one. A few weeks ago at When Words Collide (which was a great success – we won an Aurora Award and had a successful triple book launch), I approached a couple of regular book sellers with the catalog. One took the catalog and the other took some books. So while supplies last, Calgary readers can buy Bundoran Books from the Sentry Box. I’m hoping to add a lot of names to that list in the coming weeks.

The secret – deep discounts for the book sellers (more than the traditional 40%) and no returns for the publisher. Even with shipping costs I expect to make more money than I did with my big American distributor. And I certainly won’t lose money. Obviously this approach is unlikely to work with the big chain bookstores and it definitely won’t work on Amazon – but it might actually result in more books sold which will be good for both me and for the authors I publish.

E-books

Like most traditional publishers, I publish e-books of all the books I also publish by print. I’ve even published one stand-alone novella. Some have sold okay – mostly when both I and the author independently promote them – but none have been spectacular. The only exception is my anthology, Blood and Water, which sold a lot of copies by being included in a book bundle with nine other Aurora-winning or nominated books.

I’ve done all the usual things to promote e-book (and print sales): Twitter, Facebook, (including ads), Goodreads, blogs, manipulating the Amazon algorithm, but the results have been so-so..

But then there was Stars Like Cold Fire by Brent Nichols, which in the last two weeks has sold more units than all the other titles (except for the aforementioned Blood and Water) sold in the last six months. How did this happen? Neither of us have a clue. It’s not like it has become a best seller in its category (Space Opera) – although apparently that doesn’t mean what you might think anyway – but it has ticked along very nicely. Neither Brent nor I are likely to get rich – but you never know. Maybe a year from now, we’ll be referring to Brent as the new Hugh Howey. And I’ll have sold my company to Random House.

Speaking of e-books, the debate continues to rage over which is doing better – e-books or print books. Some would have you believe that e-books are in decline and print books are on the rise and sales figures would suggest they are right. Total e-book sales have fallen since 2013, while print books have shown a modest but steady increase.

Others would point out that e-book weakness is largely because there wasn’t a breakout YA novel in 2014 or 2015 – which shows how a single author like J.K.Rowling can move the market more than 10,000 other lesser selling authors. And at the same time, the rise in print sales is almost entirely due to the recent fade of adult colouring books.

That’s right. Colouring books. Maybe I need to produce a book of colour-it-yourself space ships and alien landscapes.

My own view is that – publishing is a tough business and few people are going to make a decent living at it. Most people who make a living as a writer start out being supported by family, friends, spouses, and lousy part-time jobs. Or if they live in a country that values the arts – by public arts granting agencies. For Canadians, things recently got a little better – but it’s still a rough go. Here are the median individual incomes in Canada. If you are doing better than that as a writer – count yourself lucky.

Still, we persevere – both as writers and as publishers. After all what else can we do?

Yeah, I know, get a haircut and get a real job

 

Short Stuff

14 Feb

When I was young and first reading science fiction and fantasy, short novels were the norm rather than the exception. Many of the books I read – indeed many of the famous books in the field – were relatively short, forty or fifty thousand words or under two hundred pages. In fact all the major science fiction awards still define a novel as work of fiction over 40 thousand words.

The reasons were varied but the low cost of mass market paperbacks versus other formats was a factor. As well, the readers of such books were more interested in plots and ideas and less in characters or literary style. This is not a knock against these books – a lot of them hold up today and are still read by a lot of people, which is more than you can say for some of their more literary contemporaries.

Sometimes, even shorter books would make it into print. Ace – which is still a major SF imprint – used to publish novellas as Ace Doubles. Read one story and then flip it over and red the other. Two ripping yarns and two exciting covers for the price of one. The format proved so popular that, when I was a teenager, I joined a book club that offered literary formats in the same style, though they were cheap hardcovers. I may have been the only 15 year old boy of my acquaintance who had read all of the Bronte sisters and most of Jane Austen. I sometimes think the format was the trick to suck me in – though it was the content that kept me reading.

Short novels were nothing new and not only in the genre fields. Two of the classics of the early twentieth Century – The Sun Also Rises and The Great Gatsby – were not much longer than those novels by Heinlein or Norton. I’ve sometimes wondered if technology had something to do with it.

Hemingway described his writing process thusly. The first draft was written by hand (standing up) and the second draft corrections were made right on the page. Only then was a draft produced on a manual typewriter. Every subsequent draft had to be re-typed, usually by Hemingway himself. Revisions were made by hand, or sometimes, as he typed. By the time it was approved by the publisher he had typed the book five or six times. No wonder he kept his prose economical!

First novels were often (though not always) short in those days. Second and subsequent novels got longer, maybe because the authors could afford to hire typists. In those days, too, there was a significant cost differential for printing a small book as opposed to a larger one – while prices didn’t necessarily rise as dramatically.

Of course, there have always been long novels – War and Peace comes to mind – but what was termed popular fiction (Hemingway and many of his compatriots would not have been offended to have their work so labelled; they wanted to be widely read) tended to be shorter rather than longer.

In the genre field, short novels lasted well into the sixties and seventies. This may not be surprising, science fiction also retained a large market for short stories in mass market format – even as that most quintessential form of America writing was finding fewer and fewer outlets. Short story markets for non-genre short fiction still exist but generally don’t have as wide a readership as they once did and nothing to compare to that of genre.

But then came word processing. Suddenly the limitations on producing long novels were no longer a technical one but one of markets. And those markets were changing. More and more readers demanded more from their books than plots and ideas. Character and setting – world building – became a bigger part of the literature and books, especially in the fantasy world (which always did run longer than pure SF), began to lengthen. As printing costs fell, profitable books could be almost any length and the typical SF novel climbed from 60 or 70 thousand words to almost 100K. Novels of 150 thousand words or even a quarter of a million in fantasy became common place.

Some people complained that the new technology that allowed longer novels to be written with less physical effort had ruined the genre. It seems that someone or something is always destroying science fiction. But the market had spoken – as it always does in commercial fiction – and like it or not, longer novels became the way of the world. They were more popular and more profitable. Maybe that – rather than some quaint conspiracy theory – is the explanation of why some books are more popular than others.

So you might think that as a small publisher, I would be inundated with massive tomes and that I would eagerly publish them. Well, I do get a few but the longest I’ve published has been under 110K and most have been in the 75K range.

As usual, the reasons are various. First of all, I like short novels. The growing length of fantasy novels is one of the reasons – though not the main one – I mostly quit reading fantasy ten years ago. As well, the length I mentioned is an economic sweet point, the place where costs are not too high while the price I can charge maximizes revenue. A short book costs a bit less but the price is generally lower; you can charge a bit more for a big book (though not a lot) but the costs are also higher. Price is not a tremendously important factor in the sales of print books but it is a small one. It may be a factor in digital books – but probably not a determining one. Studies have been, well, inconclusive, no matter what proponents on both sides claim.

Still, short is one thing but SHORT is quite another. During my latest round of submissions, I received far more submissions under 60K words than I did over 100K which mark the limits of my preferred range. In fact, a lot of the books, quite well written ones at that, were under 45K words, some as little as 33 thousand. Many of the rest barely topped sixty thousand in length.

This too may have a technological cause or even a sociological one. Digital publishing – nearly all of the submitters of short books have tried their hand at self-published e-books – doesn’t care about length. While there is a cost in terms of editing and cover design, the cost of printing is irrelevant and distribution is relatively cheap (though as always marketing is the issue). People may well be as willing to buy a short novel (or novella) as long one in part because, for one thing, they aren’t confronted with the physical thinness of the volume.

And, then there is NaNoWriMo that encourages people to write 60K ‘novels’ in a month. Not everyone succeeds but many of those ‘failures’ still have a relatively complete 40 thousand word manuscript that they then polish and improve without significantly lengthening them. Having once won the 3-day novel writing competition, I would argue it is a lot easier to write a novella than a full-fledged novel. Expectations are lower so it is easier to meet them.

While the general rule is that most books benefit from having 10% cut from them – there is even a writing guide that focuses mostly on that process – these days short  books almost always feel incomplete to me. Characters are not fully developed; plots have gaps, worlds and even ideas are sketched rather than painted. The final versions of these slim volumes are almost always ten or even fifteen percent longer – and are better books for it.

But adding 15% to a 35K manuscript still barely qualifies it as a novel even in genre terms. Add any more and it will either becomes bloated or turns into something the writer never intended to do. So, sadly, even though some were very good, I have almost always had to reject them.

Hmm, maybe I can look into the economics of publishing Bundoran Back-to-Back Books. It would at least save me the trouble of having to come up with back cover copy. Would you buy two short novels printed back to back?

In the News

Our next book is Transient City by Al Onia which will feature our first attempt at back cover art. We hope you will find it appealing. Watch on Goodreads for a giveaway in a few days or go to NetGalley to get an uncorrected proof review copy in PDF format.

A new report from Amazon suggests that while a lot of people are making a little money from self-publishing, only 40 have really hit the big-time in the last five years.

Meanwhile incomes from full time writing continues to fall – not exactly news but still disturbing. At the same time rich authors are getting richer. The 1% doesn’t just exist on Wall Street.

 

Iggy Pop’s Speech

20 Oct

Further to my last post, it is worth reading Iggy Pop’s speech in its entirety.

Your Regularly Scheduled Program

7 Sep

It’s been over five weeks since I’ve posted anything new here at Bundoran Press’ blog — so I guess it’s time to return to a more regular schedule. I’m not sure if I can maintain a weekly post here while still doing my daily posts at 10 Minutes of Words and striving to blog monthly over on Hayden’s Hubris but we’ll start today and see where that takes us.

August was a busy month personally but I did manage to complete some publishing work while roaming across Canada and parts of Europe.

I’ve been working on the final edits to M. Darusha Wehm’s novel, Children of Arkadia. They should have been done today but I still have a few more chapters to go. The book is slated for release in the spring — probably launched at Ad Astra in early April — but I hope to have it pretty well ready to go by late October so I can spend a good five months pre-marketing it. There’s not a ton of cash in the advertising budget but sometimes effort over time can be just as effective. No spoilers yet but it’s in the vein of a dystopic utopia with space stations, artificial intelligences and love.

I’ve also completed the first editorial suggestions for our other spring release, the second volume of Alison Sinclair’s Plague Confederacy series. Contagion: Eyre looks to be even more exciting than the first book. It’s already in pretty good shape and, if I put my nose to the grindstone, I’m sure I can have it ready to go by the end of November, giving me four months to push for reviews and pre-release publicity. Everything in the publishing business is about building buzz.

I also managed to sit down with Edward Willett while we were both at When Words Collide (WWC) in Calgary and had a good conversation about where we need to go with the first draft of his new space opera, Falcon’s Egg — a follow-up to Right to Know, which SFRevu called ‘wildly entertaining.’ We have a longer lead time for this book, as it is slated for release in August of 2015. I’m hoping to get it near completion by the end of March.

Also at WWC, the launch of Al Onia’s Javenny was a great success. We sold so many books that I had to get Al to give back his author’s copies when we ran out. (Don’t worry; I mailed him some more on my return to Ottawa).

I had a presence as both author and publisher at LonCon III, where I sat on several panels and met many old and new friends in the field. On Sunday, we had a small book reception where we were able to introduce a couple of dozen people to our product line. We certainly had fun if nothing else comes of it.

In eight more days (September 15), submissions open for our new anthology, Second Contacts, which I will be editing with Michael Rimar. You can see the listing on Ralan.com and Duotrope and read the full guidelines on our web-site. We will be receiving stories until January 15th with a view to releasing the book in October of next year. In the meantime, I’m reading a few solicited submissions for novels for release in 2016. More to follow.

Publishing continues to be challenging for everyone. I had a number of conversations with publishers, editors and writers that brought that home this summer. Being visible, delivering the product to readers, finding the optimal price point to maximize incomes for creators and meet the needs of the bottom line are challenges that all publishers — large, small and self-publishers alike — face. Not everyone succeeds in overcoming them and I’ve heard rumours of some further consolidations in the field. However, I’ve also heard some interesting ideas for innovative solutions to our problems, too, so I remain optimistic. More on that later.

Still, it was no fun to come home to the news that Quebec-based Lebonfon Printing is closing their doors at the end of October. They’ve been a major force in Canadian printing for a number of years and were our printer for most of the books published in the last two years. Marquis, also in Quebec, is acquiring some of their assets. I’ve dealt with Marquis before so I’m not worried about any loss of quality. But with one fewer company in an already narrow field, I suspect prices may rise — not something that makes me happy.

On that note, I’d like to direct your attention to our new fund raising campaign on Patreon. For as little as a dollar a month (or, better yet, the cost of a latte a month), you can help make sure that Bundoran will continue to publish quality science fiction into the future. We’re passing out a few nifty benefits, too. So please take a look and consider contributing. And don’t worry: you’ll hear more about this in the coming months.

Publishing News and Notes

Resolve by Neil Godbout is a finalist for Best YA Novel in the Canadian SF Aurora Awards. Bundoran partner, Mike Rimar, was nominated in the short story category. Voting has now ended and the winners will be announced at VCon in Vancouver the first weekend of October.

Angry Robot books closes two of its imprints.

You think it took a long time for your novel to be published? Margaret Atwood has to wait 100 years.

 

Some Thoughts on Money

15 Jun

Hardly a day goes by without another debate between those who believe in self-publishing versus those who opt for traditional publishing. Despite the best efforts of some writers to shed light on the fiscal realities, information remains sparse and, mostly, anecdotal. Methodological pitfalls abound and, in the end, all the data points are idiosyncratic.

I can’t judge the current efforts to quantify the economic viability of any particular path to success (or, more usually, lack thereof) but I can comment on my own situation as a writer and publisher.

Before I do that I will make a few general observations about making money in the arts and, especially, in the literary arts.

Writers, like everyone else, are sometimes reluctant to say what they make. They are, after all, freelancers or, if you like, small businesspersons. Even the question of what constitutes income can be difficult for writers — gross income versus net income is often quite different because writing (full-time at least) is a ‘tax-deductible’ life.

Publically reveling one’s private income can have consequences, (attention one from the taxman, for example). If it happens to be high, it can draw requests from family, friends, even complete strangers. If it is low, there is the stigma attached to all activities that generate low incomes.

In any case, for some people income is a private matter. I used to do opinion surveys for a living and questions of income were always the last asked. Ask it first and a lot of respondents refuse to answer any questions at all.

Some people, for reasons of ego, even inflate their income. Given that most surveys of writers are non-mandatory, with respondents self-selecting, one might suspect that these ‘braggers’ will be over-represented.

The only real data we have is contained in the census and statistical analysis of tax data. What that shows is that both the gross and net income of all artists, including writers, is remarkably low. Visual artists do slightly better, dancers somewhat worse and writers are somewhere in the middle. But the average artist is better educated, works more hours and receives less pay than the average worker. That has certainly been my experience over the years as I’ve moved from public and private sector jobs to the arts and back again. More anecdotal data.

But it is a nice lifestyle.

Personally, I’m inclined to think the choice between self-publishing and traditional publishing is a lifestyle choice. If the reality is a relatively low rate of return for their efforts — it does come down to what you want to spend your time doing.

Some people want total control over the final product; others love the marketing process. But many writers want to be left alone to write or make the occasional public appearance or blog entry. The former are likely to be more attracted to self-publishing; the latter to the traditional route. Some people have gone the self publishing route because they had to and jump at the chance to have someone else do all the design and marketing work when the opportunity presented itself. Amanda Hocking comes to mind.

But what about all those people who make a fortune from self-publishing?

Think of it this way: there are well-over a million e-books on Amazon. The limited data we do have is that an average e-book will make about $500-1000 over its lifetime, many make much less. Still, if 1 book in a hundred makes $50,000, that means there are 10,000 happy writers, at least some whom are out there shouting about how easy it is to make a living from self-publishing.

Writing has an income curve similar to professional sports. There are a few people in every sport who make $5M or more a year; quite a few more who make a million. But for every one of them there are dozens perhaps hundreds making a lot less. Some are playing for $50 a game and a meal allowance. Why? Because they are doing what they love. Sound familiar.

Not everyone can make the major leagues. There isn’t enough room at the top.

So do what you love; do it as well as you can and hope that the combination of talent, persistence and luck eventually pays off. Because you need all three if you’re going to make good living or even a modest one in the arts.

The final thing I’m going to say on the subject of money is about the amazing profitability of publishing — especially small press publishing. Now I have your attention, there’s this bridge I’d like to sell you. It’s located on prime real estate in a Florida swamp.

There are, of course, the big five. They do make money — more in fact than they ever have. This is not because of an explosion in the popularity of reading. Rather it is a direct result of corporate consolidation. When there were more publishers and the difference between big and small was less pronounced, a Return on Investment (ROI) in publishing of 8 to 9% was acceptable. With the increasing involvement of big capital, ROIs had to rise—by head office fiat—to 12% or more. This was accomplished by cutting marketing and other budgets and by cutting loose any authors whose books didn’t sell well enough. It was viewed as a far better risk to publish five new writers — who couldn’t command high advances— than to continue to publish mid-list authors with known sales limitations. Which is why so many writers now have two book careers.

Some of the displaced authors wound up in mid-level houses — thus displacing their mid-list writers— and so on down the line.

After 2008, big publishers claimed the recession was killing them (not clear that it was) and asked even their A-list writers to take less cash. They were surprised when they agreed. Since then advances have remained low and big publishers have become more and more attracted to sure things, such as successful self-published authors. Sometimes loving your work too much is not a good financial decision.

Meanwhile, mid-level houses were facing ever more difficult times. With fewer physical outlets to sell their books and Amazon always trying new ways to squeeze their margins, they too had to reduce publishing plans, cut back on advances and make ever more use of eager young interns, working for little or no pay. If Hachette— one of the big five— can barely stand up to Amazon, you can imagine what clout a mid-sized publisher has in a fight with Amazon or for that matter the few remaining bookstore chains.

So where does that leave the small press publisher. Pretty much the same place as everyone in the low end of the arts: living on hope and the day job. Some of us make money from year to year; others subsidize the company from their owners’ bank accounts, hoping that one of their books will be a breakout publication to let you move both into the black and up to the next level of business operations. It is again a labour of love and, as my wife says, cheaper that a blond and red convertible.

In the meantime, we all seek solutions to endemic cash-flow problems, trying to cut non-fixed costs and discover effective marketing tools that don’t cost more than they deliver in the way of sales.

Many of us rely on arts grants from government agencies or private foundations and, increasingly, on crowd-source funding activities like Kickstarter, Indiegogo, and Patreon.

Bundoran Press didn’t get a Canada Council grant this year (not that we got one before despite 3 applications but one always hopes) and our sales aren’t substantive enough yet to qualify for Ontario Arts Council grants Our recent Indiegogo campaign didn’t reach its target. Because it was a ‘fixed’ campaign, we will receive none of the generous contributions people made (it all gets returned to them). I’ll blog about that later —after the bruises heal.

Which is all to say that, while our August book, Javenny by Al Onia, will come out as scheduled, the two books that were scheduled for November 2014 will now be pushed back to next March. The anthology, Second Contacts will proceed but will pay semi-pro rates and be published a few months later than originally planned.

We carry on but at a more modest pace. It would be nice to go faster but the only way to do that is to sell a few more books. Check out our catalogue on our web-site. You can buy them direct from us or from your favorite on-line or physical retailer.

The Political Economy of Anthologies

13 Oct

When I was applying for a scholarship to go to university, I was asked to write a thousand word essay as part of the application (even though I was planning a degree in Chemistry and Math). I began the essay with a quote from Samuel Johnson: “None but a blockhead writes except for money.” My argument must have worked as I was awarded the largest scholarship the university gave – it covered tuition, books, room and board and about $100 left over for incidentals. All I had to pay for during my first four years of school was beer, music and the occasional pair of pants. To this day, I believe writers should get paid for their work – despite the frequent requests to do it for the honour or for ‘exposure.’ If I want exposure I can go to the park.

The Strange Bedfellows anthology recently closed for submissions. Final choices haven’t been made but will be soon. Throughout the process I noticed some interesting patterns. The guidelines said:

We are considering stories in the 2000 to 7500 word range with a definite preference for 4-6000 words.  Shorter and longer stores MAY be considered but no more than two stories shorter than 2000 words will make the book and no more than one over 7500 (hard maximum 12K). Payment is 5.5 cents per word (Canadian funds) on publication, plus one contributor copy.

To me, this was pretty clear. I wanted stories for the most part in the 5000 word range, plus or minus a thousand. There is even a hint that shorter is slightly preferred to longer. While I didn’t keep exact stats, I did find an inordinate number of stories in the 7000 to 7499 range – much more than you might expect from random chance. I even received more than fifteen stories over 7500 words in length. There were perhaps 7-8 stories shorter than 2000 words.

The economics of this seem pretty simple. If you did succeed in selling a 10K word story it’s a pretty decent payday. For some people, that higher payday was worth the increased risk of not making a sale at all. After all, if the chance of selling a story is only 1 in 17 (5000 words out of 84000 in the anthology) anyway, why not go for the gold even if your odds are now one in 271? Others tried to limit their risk while maximizing their payday – coming in that magic range of 7000 to 7500. Not that I think people deliberately aimed for that length. Rather, they probably had longer stories and stopped editing as soon as they fell below the threshold.

And there is the problem for me as an editor. A flat 5.5 cents a word encourages people to do the least work possible. Why edit your story to the proper length if it means you will make less money? Clearly that is not in your economic self-interest. Except, of course, a bloated over-written story is less likely to be chosen in the first place. The more experienced the writer, the less likely they are to make that mistake. Making a story exactly as long as it has to be – and no longer – is one of the hallmarks of good writing. Hemingway is famous for saying: Write drunk, edit sober. What that really means is write with abandon and edit with care and thought. The real way to maximize your income is to actually sell the story.

I did think that I could offer a graduated scale: 2 cents for the first 1000 words, 3 cents for the next 2000, 9 cents for the next 3000, then 1 cent for every word above 6000. But despite having a minor in math, it seemed like an awful lot of arithmetic just to make the free market work as it should.

A Belated CanCon Report

It was a great Con.

I guess I could add a few details. I was editor guest of Honour at Cancon in Ottawa. With a table in the Dealers Room, a party on Saturday night and MCing the Aurora Awards on Sunday – along with regular programming, I was kept pretty busy. One highlight for me was my joint interview with Robert J. Sawyer where he revealed he won’t have a book next year (don’t worry he’ll be back in 2015) and that he recently signed a deal to write a screenplay of Triggers.  My big news is that Rob and I will be guests at Northwords Writers Festival in Yellowknife next June. An even bigger highlight was awarding Rob his lifetime achievement Aurora on Sunday morning. You can read his acceptance speech here. And you can see pictures of the Con here. Oh yeah, I won an Aurora, too. For editing Blood and Water.

My third big time highlight was launching Tom Barlow’s first novel, I’ll Meet You Yesterday, coming in November to a store near you. Tom gave a great reading at the party and we all had a great time until a grumpy neighbour complained and had hotel security shut us down.

And we actually sold a lot of books.

On Professionalism, Compulsion, Creativity and the Desire to be a Writer

31 Jul

I was going to write today about the importance of re-charging one’s batteries but a recent conversation with a friend has prompted me to open a larger can of worms: What does it mean to be a professional writer? It’s more than getting paid. But because my initial impulse has bearing on this larger topic, stick with me for a few minutes.

I just spent eight days in Nova Scotia, one splendid day and evening in Halifax, looking at boats, eating good food, drinking and listening to music, followed by seven days in a beach cottage, swimming, reading, playing games, visiting family, eating, drinking and relaxing. Other than 4 e-mails to deal with a small publishing problem (small business people are never completely off) and two hours spent reading stories for a contest I’m judging, I did no work, no writing, no editing, no nothing. I had planned to write and to start editing a novel for publication, but I didn’t. It was wonderful. Even a summer cold didn’t make it less so.

I read two books – one SF novel and one memoir completely outside the field. I thought a little and, to a lesser extent, talked about writing and editing with my wife. But none of it was directed toward any actual project or plan. When I returned I was full of energy and ideas. I’ve had a great three days work and anticipate going full speed ahead for fourteen more days.  Then, a short 3-day re-charge with friends and another six weeks of 7 days a week before another little break. Getting away from it all – really turning off all the ‘creative’ impulses is difficult but can often be the most creative ‘work’ you do. Clear your mind; your sub-conscious will keep working.

Part of being a professional writer is taking care of yourself – physically by getting some exercise (never enough in my case), eating well and not overdoing the vices; mentally through relaxation and diversion, that is, getting outside your normal thinking space, reading, watching or listening to things that aren’t related to your work or that stretch your understanding or what can be expressed by the human mind. Spending time on relationships and engaging in the broader world will always make you a better writer. And a more professional one. Because a professional understands where they fit within their profession and where that profession fits within the larger world.

I’m often inundated with exhortations – even angry demands – to write every day. Word counts are posted; comparisons are made. NaNoWriMo challenges are issued – now spreading past November to summer boot camps. As a former winner of the 3-day novel writing competition, I know the pleasures and rewards of writing lots and writing fast but at a certain point, more words are just more words. When Stephen King said you have to write a million words of shit, he didn’t actually mean shit. That way lies madness. (Think Jack Nicholson in The Shining.)

Writing regularly is like exercising regularly. It builds up your stamina and increases your power and prowess. Writing madly every single day is likely to have the same effect as three hours at the gym every single day. Sooner or later, you’ll do yourself an injury. Your writing may go from muscular to bulky. What you gain in punch, you may lose in flexibility. Writing is only one part of being a writer. In my experience, it may not even be the most important one. Thinking, imagining, observing, reading, editing, reflecting, being with other writers and readers, living a real life – all contribute to the mix. Writing regularly does not mean writing every day. It varies for everyone. When I’m working on a novel (having spent 2-6 months researching, thinking and planning), I try to write 15 to 22 times a month (I checked my stats for the last three books).  Generally, I’ll write for four days and then take three or so off. Sometimes, near the end, I’ll write ten days in a row.  Then I take six weeks off and don’t write a damn thing. Gradually, I’ll return to writing – maybe a short story, maybe some editing, starting the pre-writing process of the next book.  During that time before I start a serious push, I attend to other aspects of life that may have been neglected. My marriage, my family, my hobbies, my household duties (and, of course, through much of my writing career, I’ve actually had a full-time job that I had to do even when writing novels).

If you feel compelled to put words on paper (or screen) every single day, maybe you need help. Seriously, see a therapist.

All of this is to say, that to be a professional of any kind, you need to find a work-life balance. Well, you don’t have to – but the alternative is often burn-out and dying alone and unloved. And the sad thing is – you’ll probably be a worse writer for it.

Writing is a job and like every job it has its benefits and its challenges. Writing full-time (which I theoretically did for a six years – I also acted, taught and worked in a bar) is great fun. You set your own schedule, follow your muse, get rewarded from time to time with money or praise. However, for every moment of creative joy, there are moments of dark despair and self-doubt. And if you don’t work, you don’t get paid (true generally, but you can have an unproductive day in most jobs and they don’t dock your salary). No benefits, no vacation leave, no retirement fund that you don’t provide for yourself. Some years – EVEN WHEN SUCCESSFUL – you would make more money as the assistant manager of a MacDonald’s. A few full-time writers get rich; others (fewer all the time) make a decent middle class living; most struggle with poverty or rely on a supportive spouse or a part-time job to survive. Teaching plays a significant role in most full-time writers’ lives. That’s reality and dreaming doesn’t change it. Still, for some, even a bad day writing is better than a good day doing other things. And some people would rather write hungry (in both senses of the word) than do anything else.

A professional writer doesn’t need to write; they should want to write because it is what they do best; it is what most satisfies their need for self-actualization. But as anyone who has studied their Maslow knows, self-actualization is difficult if you are tired, hungry, lonely, unloved or stressed-out. Sometimes, part of being a professional writer is recognizing you are not ready or able to do it full-time.  And there is nothing wrong with that. Norm Foster, Canada’s most produced playwright (and probably best-paid) continued to work as a radio host for nearly fifteen years after his first plays were produced (and seven years after writing the most produced play in Canada in 1991). In part, he did it for security – but in equal part it was because working brought fresh insights and creative impulses to his writing.

Creativity comes in many forms. Personally, I take almost as much pleasure from an inventive supper, a well-designed balcony garden, a good photograph, an exciting relationship or solving a policy problem in the day job as I do from a well-crafted sentence or a completed story. And I certainly enjoy other people’s creativity as much as I enjoy my own.

Did I become a writer because I was compelled to because to do anything else would have ruined my life? Not at all.  I write and edit and publish because I like doing it and because I want to do it. I’ve spent a lot of years honing my craft and pursuing a professional career as a writer.  I’ve also spent long stretches of time (2 years in one case) without writing a single word of fiction, because I had more important things to do. At 58, I’m working harder than ever – as a writer and now, a publisher (while still holding down the day job).

I can only do that because I’ve found the necessary balance between writing about life and living it.