Like the sperm whale plunging toward the surface of Magrathea, existential questions are something that most writers think about. Not necessarily ones relating to their own existence, but to that of the book they’re working on.
“Why am I doing this?”
It’s actually one those questions that, generally speaking, is easier to answer for yourself the first time around than the 20th (Trust me on this, I’m past that mark. And it’s still hard.)
Now, in that question, in first book, we’re all still fueled by the dream that our book will become that instant success. We may well (as was my case) assume that if you wrote a good enough (or better) book, a publisher would read it, and after that, it would be relatively plain sailing. Maybe not awards and bestsellerdom, but into a career, where you could do something you loved (mostly) and earn a reasonable living at it – if your book was good enough, that was. I certainly assumed the system was fair, merit based and that publishers invested a lot money into 1)finding out just what people want to read (and therefore know precisely) 2)searching new offerings for just that. And they must be searching, because you can’t find enough of your favorite kinds of reads. Honestly, I’d say most writers are driven by a mixture of desire to emulate their favorites (I certainly was) and a reaction to what they just bought “I could do better than this. Publishers MUST be desperate for anything half as good as xyz, my favorites, if they’re publishing THIS.”
By time you get a little further into the experience ranks, you’ll know that all of the above is wrong. Certainly when I broke in in there was just one sf/fantasy publisher reading slush. And that year they had 3000 subs and bought one. The others didn’t TELL you they didn’t accept un-agented submissions. They just listed their requirements in the various marketplace books as ‘whole manuscript and a SASE. In the case of UK publishers, it would have been impossible for them to read the manuscripts past page one (I included a ‘please discard this page if you have read this far as page 2’). I got them back by immediate return of post. I did have two manuscripts I sent to US publishers (DAW) and a smaller YA one stay away a long time, get to editorial board level (and in DAW’s case they mislaid the manuscript) – but really, unagented you had little chance. Merit, a system, knowing what readers actually wanted on the basis of research. Nope. If you didn’t have contacts or/and a huge amount of persistence, you had about the same chance of winning the lottery. Hey, people chase that dream too.
Now, things have changed. Very little at Trad publishers, but they just haven’t yet made the transition from a world of superabundance in which they were the only gatekeepers, to a world where, for new authors, increasingly, trad is a vanity choice, or that of those who haven’t really kept up with the changing world of reading. It is why, steadily, they’re losing ground.
Indy of course has its own problems with the process and it isn’t plain sailing. BUT it is an alternative, and yes, people without contacts in the industry do succeed. Hard work and merit in the eyes of the reading public have somewhat more of a role than trad publishing. It’s still, for most who lack the marketing or following, mostly a long hard slog, simply getting discovered. But it can be done.
So: you might say for the first few books ‘why am I doing this? (when I’m selling tens or hundreds, not 100 000 copies) is still justified in the effort as building towards that dream of doing something you loved (mostly) in the hope of eventually building a career and earning a reasonable living.
But the truth is I certainly could earn more doing other things, and my income is at least in the top quarter of writers. It’s still at where I could equal it here in Oz as a farm-hand. Ok, that’s not the lowest paid job out here (it’s hard, dirty, physical, and all weathers, outdoors) but really, if it were just for the money, I could do better. The top-selling 1-2% do indeed do very much better. Maybe that will be you.
If you’re a writer who doesn’t care about being paid… well, fine, you’re probably happy with whatever you personally get out of it. I gather awards are very important to these folk, 1)because they feel it gives them status (even if the award means ‘avoid’ to readers). It’s really vanity publishing and partner or trust fund or patreon pay the bills. 2) to many it is intended as an entrée into teaching writing at college – because their writing sells not even vaguely enough to call earning a living. What the value of such teaching is, I leave to you to decide.
Being paid for your work, does say readers like it enough to pay for it. There is no more sincere vote of approval than someone who doesn’t know you personally, opening their wallet to spend money on your book. That’s why awards – if they are to be relevant at all, should go to people who sell enough not to rely on a trust fund or partner or patreon.
But there’s a big group in between the top 1-2% and the ‘only my mum and my partner bought it’ (And the guy who claimed a refund).
I’m there. Many of you are. And many of you will get to a point in your book and think ‘why am I doing this to myself? (because for most of us, if you do it properly, it’s hard work).
I still have this. I can only tell you my reasons. It’s not vanity. Aside from the fact that I care very little what most people think of me (which the SJW and their little twitter pogroms find frustrating) I’ve got a slab of trad published books.
It is at least in part that, yes, I love to create stories and solve problems and build characters. I build onion-skin layers of plots and meanings only I will certainly get all of, because I enjoy doing that. I love to make books I would have loved to have read.
It’s also part of straight-up hero worship emulation. Authors… at least the great ones, that took me from little sick kid (I spent most of my first 7 years on the ‘are you going to die’ list and ‘you must stay in bed, not play outside like other kids’. By the time I was a teen-ager I was mostly fine, but it was a long road. I had an older sister who died, from what we now believe was cystic fibrosis. It made my mother and father nervous parents, and I was pretty frail to start with.) to being a warrior the canals of Mars, or fighting the kragen in the seas of the Blue world, or changing history like ‘Mouse’ Padway. I could not have respected and admired a profession more. I wanted to be like them, even if I would never be their equal in my eyes. (How do you tell who the vanity crowd are? : they’re the ones denigrating the greats of yesteryear to make their pathetic efforts look better).
And then there is the response you get from some readers. You’ll strike the right chord, and your book will mean the world to them, go on the comfort-read shelf, and be re-read. Some of them will write to you and tell you so. It’s not about the money, but you feel like you did something worthwhile.
And then there is also being too obstinate to quit.