Saturday, March 16, 2013

The writer's life

"Oh, he wrote that only to make money!" You hear those words whenever someone wants you to dislike an author, no matter what the book and no matter who wrote it or why. In the world of non-fiction, those words are flung at all writers who take a non-conventional view of history, science or society. If a would-be author even attempts to research a work about current events, he'll run into that phrase on repeated occasions. "All you care about is the almighty dollar..."

Here's the truth. A writer is very lucky if he makes $5,000 from a book -- and if he writes a heavily-footnoted work of non-fiction, the work may take years to complete. Greeters at Walmart do better.

Wanna be a writer? Jump on in; the water's fine.
I'm guilty of that, Joseph - saying/writing that certain writers are "only doing it to sell books". Only re certain writers though: some authors of stuff about UFOs or ancient mysteries spring to mind. First time I ever said it was, I think, about Erich Von Daniken , long ago. I thoroughly enjoyed Chariots of the Gods when I was young, but the sequels were a pain in the ass.

Revisionist history can also be a pain in the ass - and the more extreme the revision the more books the author will hope to sell.

Then there are the writers who really don't need more money, or fame/notoriety but write to attract the attention of TV producers in the hope of getting an interview - or a whole programme.

I take your point though, that there's not a lot of dosh to be made writing books these days.
I'll bear that in mind the next time I'm inclined to rattle on about the motives of some author or other. :-)

I don't know if Erich von D. was or was not sincere when he wrote that first book. Since then, he has become a fairly obvious huckster.

I didn't mean to imply that there aren't con artists in the book writin' trade. Casteneda comes to mind. Longsam Rampa is another example. But I think that sort of thing is harder to pull off in today's market.

Long ago, of course, there was Leo Taxil -- a veritable god among men. All hail Leo!
My novel earned a princely $2.67 last year. Yessiree, livin' large!
Anyone who thinks there's 'gold in dem dar hills' doing this writing thing is definitely working the wrong gig. That's not to say writers shouldn't be paid for their work. They should but often aren't. Or they are paid just barely enough to keep body and soul together. So, there's great wisdom in the advice: 'don't quit your day job.'

Are there a lot of bad books out there? Absolutely. And people keep buying them or falling for the same tired marketing schemes. Where there's a scam, there's a way. And then, there are many deluded writers, who all imagine themselves as the next Shakespeare. But . . . the vast majority of writers [people you've never heard of and most likely won't] write because they love the process and the exploration of whatever issue, character, 'what if' scenario presents itself. Writing is thinking, another vehicle to navigate the world. It's not the only one, of course. But for some of us, it's what we have.

Bob, I'm so sorry. What's your book about?

I've spent years on my novel about the fall of the Second Empire. Still haven't gotten to Sedan. If ever I finish, the final product will no doubt rack up a number even lower than yours.

So why do we do it?
As an author I have been relatively lucky. I have written two books as fee-for service jobs for which I was specifically recruited. One, an early book about the Internet, took me six months to write and earned me $7000. My newly published book about Hollywood legends and lore took me more than a year and earned me $10,000.

It galls me when I hear someone like Vincent Bugliosi (who got paid a reported $1 million for his Oswald-was-a lone-nut book "Reclaiming History") claim that JFK-conspiracy researchers are in it for the money. Patriots such as Harold Weisberg and Penn Jones spent decades writing and self-publishing their work, with no payoff.

If you're a writer, you'd better be in it for the love of words and ideas, which will never love you back in equal measure.
True. Absolutely true.

I'm too embarrassed to disclose the time I spent on mine and the meager compensation in return. In hindsight, in pure time vs monetary returns, posting it on the web in blogpost instalments would have been more lucrative with just the adsense clicks.
For anyone who's driven to write something and doesn't want to sell out and put their name to the usual bland and mind-numbing shit, the main problem isn't writing; it's marketing.

A few years ago, I had a proposal for a book, and pitched it to an agent, who was so pigshit stupid that he couldn't 'think' outside of his own same-thing-every-day marketing ideas, and couldn't bring himself to listen to mine, and therefore rejected the book.

More recently, I had an idea for another book, got the same response, and then a year later I saw a title based on exactly the same idea, but utterly pathetically executed, standing in face-up piles in a major bookshop chain, aimed at pre-Christmas impulse buyers! In the UK, that's a market segment that could well constitute the greater part of the entire book market. To make things worse, I later saw huge hoardings advertising the book on the London underground system!! My version would have been incomparably better, and would also have had a much juicier hook. The published book, though, was one for what sophisticates would call the post-publication slushpile. Probable sales of mine would have justified an even bigger marketing spend. The one that got away, eh? :)

I could tell several other stories of the same kind.


Anyone who knows anything about the book trade knows that it's mainly advertising that creates the market. Leading authors who want to pretend they're critical of the racket have done things like send their agents their new manuscripts pseudonymously, which of course get rejected, usually without being read.

Advertising has fuck all to do with either creativity or industry.

Further thought has brought me to realise that in fact there is scope for guerrilla marketing of a self-published book, starting by getting in under the radar.

The problem is to do so in a way that a) chimes with what's between the covers and b) allows one to retain one's self-respect...

PS You mention Leo Taxil. I thought Foucault's Pendulum was great, and also enjoyed The Name of the Rose, both of which are among the handful of novels I've read more than once. The Prague Cemetery had a few interesting devices, but I only just managed to get to the end without chucking it down. There's no real understanding of anti-Semitism there. As for The Island of the Day Before, which I thought I might enjoy, he's just cashing in on his name; the book is crap!
Terry: You may have the wrong idea of how much Adsense brings in. I used to get a hundred dollar check every few months. Now -- thanks to the popularity of ad blockers -- I get one of those checks every year or so. Actually, my ladyfriend gets the check and doesn't tell me (and she thinks I don't know!).

(Google's terms of service disallow me, technically, from discussing payment. But since the only reason I keep the Adsense ads up is to thank Google for the use of their service, I really don't care that much about the TOS.)

B: Well, I thought "The Prague Cemetery" was Eco's best book, but perhaps that's only because I've been reading about those guys for years. In real life, though, Taxil would not have worked with anyone else -- and certainly would not have had anything to do with a group that also backed Drumont, whom he detested.

Also, I have a particular interest in Des Mousseaux, who might be considered the founder of modern conspiracy theory. (He also met with Bernadette once, although Eco doesn't mention that.)

As you know, I've long had an interest in the fake documents concocted by reactionary conspiracy theorists. Eco understands something that took me a long time to get my mind around: The people who concoct these items also genuinely believe in their own concoctions. The psychological processes necessary for that deserve greater study.

Okay, as for guerrilla marketing -- I think this is both under- and over-rated. Marketing is marketing. It all comes down to a willingness to grub and push and hustle. That kind of hustling is, I now feel, a young man's game.

That's why you can't be JUST a writer these days, at least not in America. You must become a multimedia star.

If you write liberal political works in this country, you had better be willing to get your mug on MSNBC at every opportunity. And you must have a good speaking voice and off-the-cuff communication skills. You have to sound erudite speaking extemporaneously about matters outside your field of study.

In short, a modern writer must be a talking head.

Personally, I can't do that. I tried radio and failed miserably. Just not good at it. TV would be even more embarrassing.

But that's how you sell books!
You're probably not as bad at radio as you think, Joseph. Probably just a bit microphone shy and over-sensitive. One way around it, of course, is to record long interviews and then edit them down so only the best moments get used.
That's not the way it works, alas, Anon. The guest does not control the interview.

You know who's really, really good on the radio? Dakinikat of Skydancing. For a while there, I kept pressing her to write a book, because not only is she a very good writer, she could do the multimedia thing really well. But I pressed to the pint where I think I kind of bugged her.

Same thing with Riverdaughter. I have no idea what she'd be like on the radio, but the TV cameras would like her face a lot more than they would like mine. It seems, though, that she'd rather moan about her unemployment than write a book. (Don't tell her I said that.) Still, I think she's a terrific writer.

Actually, the modern situation kind of pisses me off. Why can't a writer simply WRITE and leave it at that? We can do that within blogworld, but only if we give up on the idea of being paid for our efforts.
Joseph, you are blessed in that you can also draw. Have you considered comic strips, editorial cartoons? I know you lost a good chunk of your graphic novel....have you taken that up again?
I have to do it, zee. But I have lost all self confidence. Everything looks like crap. When I sit down to draw, I refer to my seat as "the torture chair."

I admit that here because I'm pretty sure that no-one but you is reading this thread.

But I must do it. I know this.
Better to write for yourself and have no public, than to write for the public and have no self - Cyril Connolly

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