After almost two years of being a starving artist and contractor, I finally landed a full-time job at a wonderful organization and I couldn’t be happier. Now that writing is officially back to being a hobby, I can safely unload about it as a career.
There is a certain mystique to being an author. It felt strange telling people that's what I did at first but it was true. I had written a book and had no other source of gainful income. I was a real author, if not a famous one.
I’ve had friends proudly tell their friends that they’re in the presence of a “published author” as if that were a big deal. As someone who’s lived it I have more sympathy than awe for my fellow writers.
Invariably the conversation turns, as all things do, toward money. “How are book sales?” is a common question. You don’t get in other professions as it is basically the equivalent of asking “How much do you make?”
As an author, you’re in a difficult spot. If you say the real number, you come off looking like a failure. So, I defaulted to some version of positive spin like, “I had my best sales month ever.” Without any mention of how low the bar is.
First, it is Actually Kind of a Big Deal
Anyone can self-publish, true. And trad-publishing is no guaranteed seal of quality. But even your worst hack author, actually finished something and took the leap of putting it out there. That alone deserves respect for the level of discipline, courage, and dedication it takes to write a book.
If your definition of “good sales” is a sustainable income and widespread readership, then they were... awful.
In 2016 I made around $392. I sold 223 books plus roughly half that in other revenue (KDP). My top seller remains my first book, which outsells the second and third book combined. At this rate, if I don’t smoke and exercise regularly, I may earn back the money I invested in cover and editing before I die. I’ll be cutting it close.
If your definition of “good sales” is selling more than most people, then my first book was a modest success, at least in the Kindle store.
My book has been a near permanent fixture in the top 10% of Amazon’s LGBT Fantasy category which includes Anne Rice and Richard K. Morgan in addition to a bunch of books about Alpha werewolves. I’ve made it as high as the top 10 in the category. I’ve never dipped below a million in Amazon sales rank… which is the limit of how many titles Amazon counts (officially anyway).
Book one is currently selling better than some of Tor.com’s new fantasy releases… as eBooks, anyway. That's not nothing.
Was it Rewarding?
A few people really got the books and that feels amazing when they share their experiences. But mostly there were crickets.
I was more worried about negative reviews but no one ever said a harsh word. Someone who hated the book had ample fodder to take it down. I mean aside from typos, there was a scene where a woman masturbated in front of her prison guards. Still, it got good critical reviews and a 4.26 rating on Goodreads which is much harsher than Amazon.
But interaction with my readers was minimal.
That was probably the hardest thing to deal with. Being alone all day, living on a shoestring budget and writing into the evening… it stopped being fun especially through the second book. Every writer secretly, or not so secretly, loves to talk about their work.
But you don't want to be that person who's always blabbing about their book to people who don't want to read it. And it's poor form to discuss your writing with other authors, where there can be claims of intellectual property infringement. It also seems needy and self-promotional so it's forbidden in online communities. So, I really had no other human being to discuss my work with besides the editor that I paid.
Around the middle of book two I broke my knee and my life sort of spiraled into depression.
If My First Book Was a Bestseller I Would Have Been Insufferable
You know how everything happens for a reason and all you have to do is want something badly enough? Yeah, right.
Looking back, I probably would have pulled a complete Hugh Howey and rubbed my success in all of your faces as I wrote about travelling the world in my boat and encouraging others to follow in my non-repeatable path to fortune and success.
Being broke and unsuccessful is a humbling experience for someone used to easy success. It’s not just that I didn’t hit the bestsellers lists (… yet) but also, I didn’t appreciate what I had when I had a job.
I was reckless with money in way that I would never be again. Hand-tailored shirts hung like museum pieces in my closet as I shambled around my apartment in sweatpants, living on a diet of boxed wine and TV dinners.
It was a reality check, and one I badly needed.
The depression, the unhappiness… that was all there before. Stripping away the dual distractions of a medium-powered career and a never-ending stream of shiny new possessions put me face-to-face with my demons.
Would I Do It All Over?
I came out of the last two years remarkably unscathed and in a better place than when I started. Given distance and perspective it would be hard to call “following my dreams” a mistake even though they didn’t end up taking me where I thought they would. It absolutely could have ended worse if not for some good luck.
I wrote and published three more books than the average American; two more than the average novelist. Nothing will ever take that away from me.
Is there any upside to all of this?
Your business losses are tax deductible so if you’re frugal, which I wasn’t, your first book is basically free. I got a way bigger tax return when I cut my salary in half.
Also, putting “independent author” on my LinkedIn profile landed me my first independent consulting gig which eventually landed me a job. The manager needed someone with my unused technical skills and sent me an email with the headline “How are book sales?”
Will You Still Write?
Yes... I'm just not sure what.
As it stands my next series, Age of Wonders, is on hold. The books are set in partly in this universe in 2020 at the earliest. It's not a world where I can just give everyone better smartphones and allude to a female president. I need to see where this goes because I think the events will prove stranger than fiction.
So... Maybe a short story?