“...vigor and creative flow have their source in internal strains and tensions. It is the pull of opposite poles that stretches souls. And only stretched souls make music.”
Eric Hoffer, 1958
Harder is good. I’ve known that, but I have to learn it over and over. Because what we’re taught is that it gets easier, and the strongest and the most determined ones last.
Though the middle is having trouble holding these days, as we witness the publishing, newspaper, television, film, music and radio industries deteriorate before our eyes, reduced to monocultures much as the contraction in food production has heralded, we wonder what will we do without the agencies to whom writers like me have had to appeal for acceptance. But it’s not just that disturbance in the realm I’m worried about. I have felt the unease about the survival of familiar institutions that stabilized the economy and provided options, however limited, for getting my work noticed, but remind me...why again...?
Oh, right: because it‘s different now.
Odd that the plight of publishing would affect me, though. I will be coming out with a new book in a couple months, and like a lot of authors throughout the years, not the least of them Twain himself, I will publish and sell it myself.
I have often felt like a bit of a fraud for not always going the conventional publishing routes, vulnerable to the common misperception that writers, any more than musicians or producers, must be losing ground now that big box retailers are vanishing from the landscape. But I am mourning the passing of something that not only didn't have a lot to do with my writing, but was an inefficient mechanism for sourcing good work. I actually have always favored the dusty little bookstores I still haunt, talking with a bookworn proprietor about authors and arcane works, enjoying discovering something, soaking up the quiet and the must wreckage of the place every bit the manifistation of my own jumbled brain.
As it is, and I have had to learn this the hard way, had I been confoundingly lucky and picked up on this book by one of the major publishers, I might have been permitted an advance of a few thousand dollars against sales, before I saw more in some step-scheme about which I had no say and no ability to track. My agent would arrange the deal, building in automatic percentages for him or herself. They would have done nothing else because heck, that’s how it’s done and how hard did they actually have to work to get me in covers for the money they made anyway? Better to spend time on authors who know how to deliver the lucrative subjects that reliably turn profits. Agents are just sales and marketing people and they do their job well, but protecting me would be low on the list. Assuming things went well enough, on the other hand, my percentage of the book sales overall - being that I was and am a nobody - would be about 5%.
Of a book I wrote, I want you to remember: Five. If sales continued unabated, I might eventually ratchet that up that to as much as 8% or 10%...if I was really knocking them dead, running my gross into the mid hundreds of thousands.
A good day in the market with ten thousand books sold - a $270,000 gross, let’s say - and I would have likely gleaned all of $20,000, which would mean I had been more successful than most all authors can ever hope to be. That translates into about four to five dollars an hour for the three years previous, optimistically, not counting the time I would have to spend signing at bookstores and traveling the circuit on my own dime.
I’d have done better hiring out as a knife swallower at kids’ parties. You don’t do it for the money, normally, unless it’s porn, ugly political hacking, or New Age philosophy ostensibly intended to change the world.
Five, I’m saying. Percent. My book. I wrote the thing.
So before the metrics changed and all life went viral, I paid to publish, design, print and sell sold my own book, MILK TEETH, a collection of short stories, out of the trunk. I didn’t make my money back but it wasn’t a big loss either. I did all the leg work agents and publishers are supposed to do - but never would for someone like me. Still, for my labor I got 60% of sales, sometimes 100%.
For the record, Barnes and Noble, Border's and other megastores routinely have always sold at least one copy of no more than half (meaning 50,000 book titles) their stock. The other half languishes without one sale the whole year. Bookstores have to appeal to everyone, and authors can get lost in those big boxes. Today online, especially on Amazon of course, there are on the other hand 1.6 million titles and counting, of which 98% have had at least one sale, and of course authors like you and me can expand our reach around the world. I have a site, where you are now, where I can conduct sales for years, not just in the brief window opened up for an “owned” writer by people who will decide his worth without ever having read his work.
Unequal to the task of telling a story or making a cogent point, the majority of those publishing online would admittedly not have deserved to formally be awarded a contract and be in print under any circumstances. But they have stuff to say that someone along the way will find useful or inspiring, so good for them. It's communication without an impresonal leviatnam endorsing one's right to do so. Beyond the usual vanity reasons that have always been true, some people will always try to reach us in print because that is how they feel safe sharing their thoughts and interact with us, and we can decide if it’s deathless fiction and moving portraiture and so on that we want, or not. At the buying end, in that sense, nothing has changed. Sometimes you see a real clunker of a movie that shouldn’t have been made but it was, by professionals who are supposed to know better. But rarely do we consider: who said they were "professionals," or even good? Or did they just know the right people? That's just the business, and the Hollywood model is a strange one that, like publishing and music, didn't make sense under genuine scrutiny: some 90% of film lose money.
Your market and mine is more direct and immediate in its responses. Rely on the fact that if your book is no good, word won’t spread, and you won’t sell, as only a precious few of officially published and sponsored authors will. Again, business. So I like my odds better self publishing, because I’m the real item and if I’m the one controlling the product, I’m confident my writing will reach the audience I deserve. And where I could make only $7500 to $12,000 on sales of $150,000 in the traditional industry in the past, I can make that same $7500 by selling only about 550 copies on my own.
As we contemplate the economic battering the publishing and entertainment giants are suffering, we are overstating it to call it a tragedy. Interestingly, the nationally expanding "buy local" movement, a natural and not unhealthy backlash toward big box and monopoly retail has increased small bookstore membership by 50 in the last year, raising the number to 1800, after a decade of declining numbers. Today, small booksellers have still only lost under 15% of their stores, yet some of those remaining have even increased sales by 2%. Though we expect more will fall as things shake out, their larger competitors have a lot more wasted stock and space to contend with in the dwindling marketplace, and a lot more tough decisions to make than the little guys just yet. But just as 7-11 never wiped out the Ma and Pa party store and hardware stores have survived the onslaught of megastores on the strength of their personalized service and more specific ability to address odd part procurement and situational needs, the little bookstores will be around, as will worthwhile writers, who may be harder to find, but “easy” never should have been the goal anyway.
Maybe I will sell the heck out of my new book from my site and use my networking to great effect. I am aware that because of the perception relating to high profile circulation in prominent places of business around the country like WalMart (even though I would be selling hardly a copy per store), I might end up feeling like a happy, if deluded, big shot. Losing money, but making a splash. Isn’t that why we have reality shows for former child actors and anger-management graduated, drug-addled flash-in-the-pan rappers?
I don’t want that. I have already met “screenwriters” when I was in Hollywood who spent a lot of time in bars around town bragging that they had been optioned nine times...but never produced. That was enough smack for them. That’s where we all get lost, forgetting what we did it for, forgetting how important it is to be actually heard and understood by even one person. To shape something they can understand, appreciate, feel, and use.
Which is also why I want to say I genuinely appreciate you reading this.