The Size of It – For Love or Money by Josh Lanyon

 

If you really like it you can have the rights,

It could make a million for you overnight.

If you must return it, you can send it here

But I need a break and I want to be a paperback writer

“Paperback Writer” by Lennon/McCartney

Hmmmm. What to talk about this month? So many possibilities…

One of the few interesting topics to arise from the melodrama at the beginning of November was the theorem that there is something intrinsically more noble about writing for love versus writing for money. There seemed to be a notion that these two motives were mutually exclusive.

Cultural stereotypes reinforce the fantasy. The true artist slaves away in virtual isolation on her LJ, selling her self-published tome to an enlightened readership of one or two hundred and then giving the proceeds to charity. Meanwhile, in Mordor, the Dark Lord — Lady — WhatEVAH — sits scribbling out cheap, tawdry commercial fiction and cackling insanely as the piles of gold multiply as if by black magic.

I don’t know if it’s a holdover from the Puritan Work Ethic, but while we all understand and approve of the concept of a decent wage for decent work, it’s hard to get past the notion that art — be it painting, pottery, piobaireachd, or poetry — is somehow more noble, even more credible when it’s done for art’s sake.

“Commercial success” is frequently translated (especially by the unsuccessful) to mean selling one’s soul for filthy lucre. I mean, how can it be right to make money off a job you love? How can it be right to make money from something so fun? (Unless you’re an actress or a sport’s figure. God knows they’re worth every penny.)

Even I admit that every so often I’m struck by the weirdness of my job description: making up stories — fantasizing on paper — so that other people can buy and read my imaginings. Crime writer Lawrence Block (who wrote, among other things, lesbian pulp fiction during his long and prolific career) calls it Telling Lies for Fun and Profit.

Writing is one of the cool jobs. It’s also one of those jobs that a lot of people feel like they could do just as well or better than the professionals. I’d never have to write another word if I had a dollar for every person who’s told me he’d like to be a writer or that she plans to one day write or that they are writers but they’ve never got around to finishing anything — or maybe it’s submitting they’ve never got around to. Whichever it is, writing is one of those occupations that a lot of people feel qualified to do, even if they have little or no training. Everyone’s got a story to tell. Writing is one of the arts, and the arts are not like banking or engineering or brain surgery. We all get a smattering of the different arts as electives in school — and receive a pat on the head for our efforts — and we all know art is subjective, so…why shouldn’t we have a bash?

The other thing about writing is that, unlike painting or playing in a band, it’s viewed as a little more secure, a little more stable, a little more bourgeois. A lot of people seem to make a living writing. And, in fact, a recent article from Publisher’s Weekly listed the median wage/salary for writers as $44,792 versus the overall workforce average of $39,280. True, it’s mostly in non-fiction that people make a living, but what with ebooks and self-publishing, more people seem to be making money spinning stories these days than ever before.

I think those twin misconceptions — that anyone can write and that all writers make money at it — are perhaps why so many people enter into a publishing career without bothering to study either their craft or the industry they plan to conquer. This lack of preparedness is validated by the underlying conviction that real artists, real writers write for love, not money. Enthusiasm and sincerity ought to be enough when we feel the story so intensely. Secretly, of course, most authors hope to make money at their writing. And I think some of these people eventually suffer a kind of aesthetic schism when their longing for success collides with their underlying belief that the real artist is above such material concerns.

During the entire year I’ve been writing this column, writers, reviewers, and readers have been demanding that publishers get with the program and figure out how to pattern themselves on all that’s superior in mainstream publishing. We’ve discussed the need for publishers in our genre to start conducting business like “real” or mainstream publishers. We’ve talked and talked about the need for qualified and trained editors and copyeditors, for good formatting, for sites that make it easy to purchase, for excellent cover art. We’ve debated at great and loud length the need for professionalism in every aspect of this genre from contracts to reviews. Yet in recent weeks whispers have surfaced about certain authors “cashing in” or “selling out.” They’re just in it for the money.

This treasured notion that artists, real artists, love their art so much that they’re happy, nay honored, to do it for free, that the act of Creation should be recompense enough, and that even if the artist can’t earn enough to support herself, passion for her art will keep her producing for the greater good is nonsense. It’s nonsense because it presupposes that the commercially successful artist, the skilled and disciplined professional, does not love his art or does not love his art as much as the gifted amateur.

This sentiment is more prevalent in m/m than any other genre I’ve worked in, and I think it’s due to m/m’s ties with fandom and fan fiction. In fandom everything — be it fiction, vid, art or you name it — is for the greater good. People contribute freely because it is all for the shared enjoyment of the fans. To make money off the fandom is a no-no. But one reason, the major reason, profit is a no-no is because the subject of all this fiction, vid, and artwork belongs to someone else. Fan fiction riffs off someone else’s creation. So charging for your Supernatural fan fiction becomes both ethically and legally complicated.

Charging for your own creative work, however, is no less ethical than mowing someone’s lawn, babysitting their kid, or performing a much needed brain transplant. It’s not complicated. You have a product, the result of your imagination and talent and time, and others are paying to enjoy those results. Pretty straightforward, right? Yet we have those who sneer at the idea of charging for music or stories or art. As though it was the god-given duty of those blessed with talent to share that talent for free.

I guess if we take that argument to its ultimate conclusion, anyone good at anything should provide the bounty of their ability — be it carpenter or gourmet chef — to the rest of us gratis. But since we live neither in the age of patrons or a global hippy commune, somehow we all have to earn a living. And it is not unreasonable that we try to earn a living doing the things we’re good at, the things we have a talent for, whether it’s fixing car engines or grooming dogs or diving for pearls or writing stories.

I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who became a successful writer of fiction simply to make money. Not least because there are easier and more certain ways to earn cash. People fall into writing like they do any other job. Sometimes there’s a game plan. I knew I would be a writer from the time I was in elementary school. But for others…it’s just the way the cards fall. Sometimes a hobby turns into a fulltime profession. Sometimes an aptitude turns into a marketable skill. Sometimes — more often than you’d think — a frustrated reader thinks to herself, I could do better than that! And a career is born. It’s been my experience that the people who want to write because they believe all writers are rich, are the people who don’t stick with it when reality sinks in.

The one single universal trait I’ve noticed in all successful writers — in fact, in every writer I’ve met — is the need to communicate. What it is we’re trying to communicate may differ widely, but that drive to reach others with our words is true of every writer I know. Maybe your own experience has been different, and if so, I’d love to hear it. I believe that even those writers who write strictly for their own pleasure are compelled by the need to record their thoughts and ideas.

Writing, like any creative endeavor, is in itself satisfying and pleasurable. That’s one reason why we continue to dream and imagine and then scribble down those fantasies long before we’re successful — and even when we never are successful. I think the only real differences between the commercial writer and the hobbyist are discipline and professionalism.  The passion for the work is the same. I don’t believe there is a right reason or wrong reason to become a writer. Hoping to make enough money to earn a living at writing is not wrong. It is not less noble than writing simply because you love to write. I don’t know any writer who doesn’t love writing — even when they hate it.

While I can’t explain what it is that drives people to want to write and share their stories, I do know that drive is a powerful one. Writing is not easy. And publishing is harder. But since the beginning of modern publishing, writers have put themselves through the gauntlet of rejection from agents, publishers, reviewers and sometimes readers because the need to share their stories is so powerful.

Every bit as powerful as the need the rest of us have for those stories to be shared.

 

84 comments

  • Hmh, sorry, Josh, but how can anyone pay attention to this discussion if all those nakked men are on the right. I try to pay attention but my eye keeps moving to the right like pulled with invisible string or something!
    What a willpower!

    Reply
  • So, remember–and don’t mock…I’m a playwright. About 8 years ago, I stopped writing for “free”. Prior to that I was akin to a whore in the stage world–a free loving one–“you want a script?” “Oh absolutely”…”my fee?”…”Oh, I just LOVE to write…I don’t do it for the money”…

    That was 8 years ago—that was until someone took one of my little, “I do it for the love of the art” scripts, changed a few words—and I mean few…and made (are you ready?) about $4,000 on it–yep–I was “stolen”–raped might be a better term. I realized that the lofty ideals I had held to: that I wrote just for the love of it, that to be paid would somehow cheapen the experience, sully my sensibilities, well, that was just a load of “shit” that had been forced down my throat from the time I was 16 and had written my first play in high school.

    After the “rape” incident, it dawned on me with a ferocity akin to being mauled by a tiger, that I could love writing, be an artist and still be paid. I didn’t have to look at payment as “selling out”. NO–in fact, I should look at it as affirmation that what I did/do has value–that I *gasp* deserve to be rewarded for all the blood, sweat and tears that goes into each product I put out there for public consumption.

    So, oh my yes Josh, when you wrote: “As though it was the god-given duty of those blessed with talent to share that talent for free.” Well–that resounded with a thud right to my core. How many of us had a professor in college– a truly bitter, rejected by publishers, college professor who day in, day out stood there in our creative writing courses and told us that a “true artist” writes only for the “joy” of writing? Well, the last time I had “joy” for dinner it left me terribly unsatisfied.

    Josh, thank you for this post. If for no other reason than the hope that some young author will stumble across it and realize that they have every right to not only charge for their work but to turn out the finest product they can and charge top dollar. It is time we writers give ourselves a break! We pay top dollar for “experts” to do everything from landscape our lawns to repair our cars—yet the most powerful tool on the earth today–the written word–is treated like a cheap second rate cousin looking for a handout–there is something wrong with that mentality–thanks Josh for setting the record straight!

    Reply
    • Thanks for sharing your insights, Sammy.

      That would certainly be a rude awakening.

      And I guess that’s a clear illustration that some people ARE just in it for the money — and if they can’t earn it through their work, they’ll take someone else’s.

      But that’s a topic for another day.

      Reply
  • Abject poverty and madness?! Hee hee. Sounds like somebody living in my house!

    Sometimes I write because I can’t get anybody to listen to me when I talk. Even when there are brownies involved.

    Reply
    • Sometimes I write because I can’t get anybody to listen to me when I talk. Even when there are brownies involved.

      See, and my first thought was you meant brownies as in elvish folk. Does someone hear a cuckoo clock? I think it’s playing my song.

      Reply
  • A little off topic here, but I have to ask. You used a word that is only used among a somewhat select group of people and a word I NEVER would have expected to see on this blog. As a person who has played a few piobaireachd in her time, and who has a son who competes in piobaireachd, I would be interested in knowing how it is you know what is. It’s not exactly something that comes up in casual conversation. Unless of course you spend your time hanging out with pipe bands. Which, as it turns out, I do. Is there a kilt hanging in your closet?

    Reply
  • Josh

    It constantly amazes me that people expect authors to write for practically nothing. I mentioned to you when I first saw this post that the gross salary for midlist authors of $45.0 was woefully inadequate considering the number of hours that they invest in their craft for a single manuscript vs the royalties earned. When the author pays for services such as technology (having someone design their website) promotion etc., and taxes, then they are left with a pittance.

    If an author produces good work he or she should be able to charge what the market will bear. Unfortunately the way the business is structured publishers have similar royalty rates. It doesn’t seem to matter which publisher an author is contracted to, the royalty cheques are not that different

    I write but not fiction and it pays much more than the rates you quoted, although my job is not as fun as writing romances. 🙂 When I left a very good job to start my consulting practice my former associates wanted me to work for cut rates and were pissed when I refused to work for less. I may not love my job as much as writers do but I can understand their frustration at the lack of appreciation and the expectation of freebies. Creative talent (writing, ballet, painting etc.) should be just as valuable as engineering or any other discipline and the financial rewards should reflect the calibre of product.

    I believe in value for money and earning a decent living which starts with valuing your own creative talent. One of the reasons that self publishing is probably going to take off is because many authors feel undervalued and want a bigger piece of the pie. Unfortunately they will need good editors and everything else that’s necessary to delivering a professional product.

    PS Your reward for working for free on this site is in the mail. 🙂

    Reply
    • I believe in value for money and earning a decent living which starts with valuing your own creative talent. One of the reasons that self publishing is probably going to take off is because many authors feel undervalued and want a bigger piece of the pie.

      It’s interesting you bring that up because the money wasn’t the deciding factor for me. I wanted more money, yes, but it really came down to feeling disrespected and a lack of creative control.

      I think the publishers who treat writers like partners or team members, will survive. I think the publishers who instinctively recoil at the thought of a changing status quo are going to have difficulties.

      Unfortunately they will need good editors and everything else that’s necessary to delivering a professional product.

      So true. If someone’s idea of creative control is cutting corners, they’re in for a rude awakening.

      PS Your reward for working for free on this site is in the mail

      I keep waiting by the mailbox. My postman thinks I have a crush on him.

      Reply
      • It’s interesting you bring that up because the money wasn’t the deciding factor for me. I wanted more money, yes, but it really came down to feeling disrespected and a lack of creative control.

        My comment about money was general and not directed at you or any other author. 😀 I can definitely empathize with the need to make a fair wage for hard work. I also understand the frustration authors feel at not being in creative control of their writing (due to publishers’ house styles) or earnings (due to royalty rates which seem to be consistently low).

        I think it’s great to try something different like self publishing, but only the best (like you) will survive. In the case of a fiction writer, if the product (the book) is not up to market standards in terms of plot (a bunch of sex scenes strung together is not a plot in my opinion, but that’s just me), characterization etc. and the editing sucks, the writer’s career will be short lived. Readers are prepared to pay the going rates for a good product but not for something that’s shoddily put together to take advantage of a hot market. I have visions of even more M/M books flying off the shelves of people who really shouldn’t be in the writing business in the first place. 🙁

        I keep waiting by the mailbox. My postman thinks I have a crush on him.

        I think you do have a crush on the mailman. You will get your reward when you go to the happy hunting ground in about 50 years. 😆

        PS Is there a picture of you somewhere in a kilt? A long time ago I had a Scottish boyfriend and I loved it when he wore his kilt because I always checked to make sure that he was wearing it correctly. 🙂

        Reply
  • Thanks for another insightful article Josh, and thanks also to the comments from your fellow authors and readers.

    I’m commenting as both a voracious reader and a small business owner. I applaud and thank all of you every day for your imaginations, your story telling talents and your “need to communicate”. My life would have a huge void without books and I wish you all every success.

    I can’t even begin to imagine trying to harness my imagination into cohesive, written pages – but I do know what goes on behind the scenes with a business venture, and that’s definitely something (and a very time consuming something) you all are involved with as published writers. :god: As far as some readers/consumers feeling entitled? There are always going to be those, whatever they feel their reasons are. And some taking “shortcuts” with their products, always some of those around too…. buyer beware and all that. Frankly, as a reader, when I got my Kindle I was floored at how inexpensive (IMO) the average e-book is. I’ve read every bit I can find about you all finding your way in the world of M/M writing and publishing and it’s certainly no easy feat.

    In closing I also extend my gratitude to Josh and all of the authors who have found/made the time to be communicative on Facebook and social media. As a fan, it’s very fun and appreciated, and it’s smart business as well. 🙂

    Reply
    • In closing I also extend my gratitude to Josh and all of the authors who have found/made the time to be communicative on Facebook and social media. As a fan, it’s very fun and appreciated, and it’s smart business as well.

      Interacting with readers is generally one of the perks of the job!

      Reply
  • Maybe I’m dense, but I’m not seeing the logic. Writers shouldn’t make money for their work? That makes no sense. So painters shouldn’t sell their paintings? Sculptors shouldn’t sell their sculptures? It would be nice if everyone was independently wealthy and could pursue the activities they want to without needing to make money. But that’s not reality. Publishing IS hard but it has changed in the last few years. That means some new authors who could not get into the business due to the roadblocks set by traditional publishing can get in. That means we do see some crap come through the pipes, but on the flip side we get some great new voices we may never have heard otherwise.

    One thing I’ve always wondered is how much authors will conform to public sentiment. Let’s say you are taking a series in a specific direction your readers are stating adamantly they don’t want you to go. Do you go in that direction because it’s your character and it’s what you want or change based on what your readers want so you don’t loose the sales. I’m sure some would consider it selling out if you changed your vision to meet what the masses want, but how can you continue to write your vision if no one buys your books?

    Reply
    • One thing I’ve always wondered is how much authors will conform to public sentiment. Let’s say you are taking a series in a specific direction your readers are stating adamantly they don’t want you to go. Do you go in that direction because it’s your character and it’s what you want or change based on what your readers want so you don’t loose the sales. I’m sure some would consider it selling out if you changed your vision to meet what the masses want, but how can you continue to write your vision if no one buys your books?

      That’s a realistic dilemma. If you write solely for yourself, you may well end up with an audience of one. And if you’re fine with that, then it’s cool. But authors who go to the trouble of publishing generally want to be read. Otherwise you don’t publish, you leave the words safely locked in your private journal.

      There do generally have to be compromises along the way. Some are small: house style says we don’t use semi-colons. Or they may be big: we need you to cut chapter 5 and rewrite the last half of the book. And they may be intolerable: make the love interest a woman/American/white/Protestant.

      There isn’t a simple answer because some people are so desperate to be published and read, they’ll do pretty much anything. For me, the key is if I end up with a book I wouldn’t want to read, then I’ve made the wrong decisions.

      Reply

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