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Friday, August 25, 2006


Myth of Millions or the Long Tail of Literature

When I started working as an editor just over a year ago, I began to learn about the strange world of publication. In this series, I'll be your inside man on books. I'll get you the hook-up, the scoop, the hush-hush, the low-down. This is part three of a series where you'll learn the real deal.

This is the biggest myth I hear from prospective writers. They dream of hitting it big and making the New York Times Bestseller List (more on that soon).

You’ll only make a few cents per sale,” I say, “a dollar or two at most.”

But they know Max Lucado has sold over 33 million books, and they can do the math. $1/book X 33,000,000 books = $33,000,000.

“Of course, I won’t be a Max Lucado,” they think. “Maybe I’ll just sell a humble 3% of what he sells. That’s still a million dollars! I’ll still be rich!

One of my friends in publishing gave me better advice that I shared in A Little Celebration. In the State of the Blog Address 2006, Real Live Preacher shared numbers on his first book that confirmed what my friend told me:

In case you're wondering, I made a grand total of $3600 on the Eerdmans book, RealLivePreacher.com. And this is a book that won the Independent Publisher's Award for essay/nonfiction in 2005. It's a tough world out there for writers.

And Real Live Preacher had an audience.

Writer Randy Alcorn hears similar assumptions from aspiring writers. People ask him, “I'm not a published author but feel God has gifted me to write. Do you think it is a realistic goal to expect my writing to provide my yearly income?” Read his answer. And also go read the general publishing advice he offers on his FAQ page. (You’ll have to scroll down a bit.)

If that’s not enough to depress you, read Greg Johnson’s general discouragement for writers.

“What’s the point of all this schadenfreude?” you ask because you like German words with no English equivalent.

First, I want to dispel the romantic myth of writing for a living. Sure, it happens on occasion. But don’t quit your day job. Most well-known writers had other occupations.

Max Lucado and Rick Warren are both still pastors. C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkein were both professors. Flannery O’Connor raised birds (really). Walt Whitman was a nurse, a teacher, and a journalist. Jane Austen lived with her brother. Shakespeare was a producer. Chaucer was a diplomat. Few writers realize monetary success from writing during their lifetime. (Consider the famous poet, John Keats.)

Second, here is the practical and potentially uplifting part. If you are going to write, write with your eyes wide open. Know that you are investing in a hobby that may benefit posterity. Know that you are probably creating for a very small audience . . and that is okay. As a teacher, I called it gift writing, and it’s the Long Tail of literature.

Third, if you insist on writing for money, then at least be realistic. Your work will need to sell large numbers. That means it will need to appeal to a large audience. And it will need to be very good. If you expect to make millions, you probably aren’t being realistic.

So don’t worry about making millions. Don’t worry about making anything. Just have fun, and treat any kind of publication or monetary reward as a bonus.

Write for pure joy.

HillCountryWriter Category: Publishing
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I agree - write for the joy of it. A writer has to write...whether there are potential monetary reward is secondary...you do it because it's how God wired you.

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