Salon has a great article by Patrick Wensink bemoaning the vast difference between what being an “Amazon bestseller” ought to be vs. what it actually is. His book is published by a small press, and he made it to Amazon’s bestseller list with “somewhere around 4,000 copies sold.” For that, he earned $12,000.
It’s important to understand a few things: first of all, he was getting about 65% of sales, which is much more than he would get if he published through one of the big houses. Also, the way Amazon calculates its bestseller lists is such that only selling 4,000 copies qualifies. With that said, he actually did pretty well for himself, considering how many copies he sold.
But that wasn’t the point of the article, at least as I understand it. I think what the author was embarrassed about was how the reality of being an Amazon bestseller was not as he (and many of us) imagined. He wasn’t able to quit his day job. He couldn’t even build a studio in back of his house.
It’s frustrating how little we make, as writers. Sure there are some few of us who skyrocket to the magical realm of superstardom, raking in the really big bucks. But for most authors, it seems we’re stuck pounding the keys in the trenches, squeezing our writing time in between actual paying jobs and family obligations. And when we finally “make it,” i.e., finish a manuscript that is then bought by a publishing house, we get scandalously little for our work. It feels exploitative, since the person creating the primary product is paid such a tiny percentage of the income it generates. I suspect it’s the same in the entertainment industry, and I blame it on consolidation. When only a few companies dominate a market, they can pretty much do whatever they want.
So why do we do it? Obviously, because we have to. It’s a strange obsession, a mania really, that compels us to write. It can’t be explained logically. Yet it’s just this strange spark that we call “creativity” that makes us, as a species, human. Without art, music, or literature, we are merely clever apes. So the sage advice is to forget about the money and just write.
But there is another side to the coin. Sure, we can forget about the money, but our landlords and utility companies and grocery stores sure won’t. There are certainly jobs out there where you can write just for the money, like freelance copywriting. I’ve done that (though not as a freelancer, but as a full-time employee). Any writer worthy of the title will tell you it’s not the same. Creating words designed to sell products and services is a far cry from creating stories designed to thrill, entertain, and/or educate people. No ad copy altered the course of history the way novels have.
The answer may well be to self-publish and cut out the middle-man (or -woman). The downside is that you have to do your own marketing, and that is a full-time job that requires a certain set of skills that not everyone has. Either way, it’s a trade-off.
My take-away is that there needs to be more fairness in the publishing industry; give the big-name people a little less so you can give your debut and B-list authors a little more.