This is my second post on the myths of being an author. Some of these casual assumptions are great fun, but they may not be at all true to life. The reality of being an author and getting and staying published is far less dramatic than many people believe when they start out. But the truth of it is also less daunting!
The last post on “myths” was on finding Mr. Big, or the person we assume will save us and how (not) to get this person’s attention.
Myth #2. The Glamour and Prestige
Most of us starting out would never admit that there’s a teensy part of us that imagines life as an author is glamorous. We say instead that we have always wanted to write, that we have stories inside us that demand to be written, or more self-deprecating: we just don’t feel suited to doing anything else.
But deep down, there are images: sitting at a desk in front of window, sun streaming in, ink flowing from the pen; the line of people at the bookstore eager for our signature on a book; holding forth on Oprah on How I Wrote this National Bestseller. “Oprah, it started when I found a tattered newspaper on a park bench with a minor story on the Prime Minister’s cat. . .”
The rest of this delusional scenario goes something like this: Once a traditional publisher buys your book, you have really arrived. You are in the club, hurrah! You get:
a big advance
major input into your cover art
a book tour
maybe even a movie deal
Where did these ideas come from?
Big names in publishing do make a ton of money and have some of those experiences. We see their happy author pictures, we read best-sellers a lot. Since those are the novelists we see, we might naturally assume it happens rather routinely.
Most of us live further down the food chain. To be sure, it is still a great honor to be a novelist. It’s just that it is a little more–plain–than the myth.
Money, for instance. You may get a $10,000 advance, even $20,000 (A book a year gets you a job that may pay $20,000 a year.) But if this is your first novel, you will more likely get in the range of a $5,000 advance.
Your cover art. Generally, publishers keep authors far away from cover decisions. Nor do they usually want to hear your ideas. That is the camel’s nose inside the tent. If you let the camel in this far, pretty soon the whole camel is in there with you. Writers know storytelling, they don’t know marketing, are clueless about how to brand the book, and are fussy about totally unimportant details like “That fellow on the cover of my magnum opus is completely wrong. The protagonist is actually a woman, and she does Not have tight abs.” They look at you blankly. They are thinking about camels. You are showing yourself to be a newbie and they are beginning to wonder if you are going to be difficult to work with.
Book Tour. Usually, you will pay for it.
Movie deal? Only if your book sells a million or so copies. Hollywood is looking for a sure thing, not a good, even a great story by an unknown author. And, believe it or not, most novelists I know do not long for a movie deal. They long for people to read their book. Why? Because Hollywood will likely rewrite your whole concept and it won’t be your story anymore. OK, I take that back. Most novelists do hope for a movie option, because they are earning so little money that they need the option money.
Notice I said option money. Most novels optioned for film never make it into production. So what we are really talking about here is a $5,000 or so option payment that may even be renewed from year to year. But your book will not be made into a movie.
Prestige. By now you realize that you have been thinking about J.K. Rowling and James Patterson. For those of us earning less than Rowling or Patterson, people will not be impressed when they learn we have published a novel or a bunch of them. Unless they are going to make a movie out of your book. When you reply in the negative to this (inevitable) question, people will immediately lose interest in your writing career.
You may be shortlisted for an award, or even win a few, but your prestige will be short-lived. Furthermore, in today’s publishing world, everyone is an author. Oh man, I am starting to get depressed.
I thought this post was going to be a romp; funny in a black-humor sort of way, but I am feeling a bit foolish about my whole career path.
But wait! I’ve known these truths for years, and I’m still writing. I still love it (most of the time.) And I’m proud of myself that I’ve risen above superficial motives (farewell that cool, elegant writer’s wardrobe that I can’t afford) and write for what might be called loftier reasons.
There may not be much glamour in being a novelist but, you know, we do get to tell stories and share them. It’s simple, bracing, and true. If you can live with that reality, then roll up your sleeves and write. I’m rooting for you.
Next time: Myth #3: It’s a dog eat dog world.