For writers: You’ll likely die unknown and poor

Anyone who would prefer to be consoled and sold false hope, please exit now and go read blogs/books by people like Tim Ferriss and Guy Kawasaki; men who are all too happy to profit from selling you books that give you the false belief that you are actually going to ‘make it’. What I am going to tell you isn’t comforting, but it is the truth.

As an author, you’ll most likely die unknown and poor.

When I say poor, I don’t mean living in a dirt shack, though that may be the case. What I mean is that you’re not going to be the next J.K. Rowling, Stephen King, or the like. Now, you might, but then you might also be the next person to win the Power Ball lottery.

I understand. You think I’m a jerk for saying this all so plainly. You don’t want to hear it. But it is the truth. People like Tim Ferriss and Guy Kawasaki have both had tremendous help and fortune (meaning: luck) in their lives, and yet both seem to either be oblivious to the fact that fortune has treated them incredibly well, or they are quite cynical in selling products to people in which they advise them that, “You too can do it!”. Kawasaki has said,

Luckily, my Stanford roommate, Mike Boich, got me a job at Apple; for giving me my chance at Apple, I owe Mike a great debt. When I saw what a Macintosh could do, the clouds parted and the angels started singing. For four years I evangelized Macintosh to software and hardware developers and led the charge against world-wide domination by IBM. I also met my wife Beth at Apple during this timeframe—Apple has been very good to me. [Source:http://blog.guykawasaki.com/2005/12/to_build_a_case.html%5D

If his friend hadn’t gotten him the job at Apple, would anyone have ever heard of him, or be gobbling up the self-publishing advice he puts out in his new book? I’d say it’s highly unlikely. No matter how good he may be at what he does, he most certainly was in the right place, at the right time, and unlike many, was able to utilize his talents in a sphere which has benefited him mightily.

The reason I’m writing this piece stems from something that recently came across my twitter feed. This quote in the article caught my attention:

Google+, Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, and LinkedIn are powerful and inexpensive marketing methods, but old-fashioned PR is still necessary. There is no doubt in my mind that spending $10,000-15,000 on a PR campaign is a good investment. [Source:http://www.digitalbookworld.com/2013/the-top-ten-mistakes-writers-make-when-self-publishing-a-book/%5D

You’ve got to be kidding me. Who among us, as self-publishing authors, has $10-15K laying around for promotion? Perhaps there is a special class of authors with savings laying around or who can afford to hire the kind of PR firm with that kind of budget outlay? While I wouldn’t be surprised if Mr. Kawasaki has some genuine desire to help others (quote above notwithstanding), his new book most certainly aims to capitalize on the current boom in self-publishing. Ape, indeed. Kawasaki is clearly out of touch with the reality of those who are trying to get their work out there and are using self-publishing sites like Create Space to do so. I don’t doubt that spending that kind of money on PR would be a tremendous help, I just take exception to his stating that fact as though it is in any way an option for the many people who will buy his book (putting money in his pockets) in the hopes that by following his advice they will break through and make it. Whatever you do, don’t take out a loan or 2nd mortgage on your house to promote your book.

Let me save you money and frustration: You’re probably not going to ‘make it’. And when I say probably, I mean most certainly. While Sophoclese was correct when he said,

Fortune cannot aid those who do nothing.

it is equally true that, just because you do something does NOT mean that Fortune will smile on you. It’s an unfortunate fact of life, but it is a fact of life.

We’ve all read the stories about famous authors who have been rejected. We’ve read about Stephen King throwing his copy of Carrie in the trash, only to be fished out by his wife. We’ve read about how J.K. Rowling was hand typing copies of her book which ultimately was thrown away by prospective publishers time and time again, until one had the sense to give the book to their child to read. Don’t get me wrong, these are tales that make us feel a bit better, they give us the hope that maybe we too might be lucky. But we’d be wrong to feed any true hopes by their reading.

Unfortunately, there are a myriad of amazing authors, composers, and artists out there who are never smiled on by Fortune, and chances are, you’re one of them too. It’s just the way it is. If you’re unfamiliar with the details of Schubert’s life, I invite you to do some reading about his most abused genius. Would anyone say that J.K. Rowling is the most amazing author ever? Certainly, she is good, maybe even great, but not the best. Yet she was in the right place at the right time, selling the right thing, and to her tremendous benefit, has amassed a fortune. What if that publisher hadn’t given it to their child to read and then proceeded to publish it? Would it be someone else filling that need at the right place and right time? We might never have known Harry Potter, which would have been a shame. How much more a shame that we don’t, and won’t know of other works?

The point in all of this is not to make you despair. I’m not in any way trying to dissuade you from writing. In fact, I hope you will spend as much time and energy as you can to bring excellence to your craft. Just don’t expect the world to take any notice. You should be writing because you enjoy it, because it is gratifying, because it brings peace to your mind in a troubled world. Nor am I trying to dissuade you from spending efforts to market your work, though for the love of all that is holy please do not spam those who have graciously followed you on Twitter, Google+ and the like. Also, don’t expect huge returns on your efforts, the world is filled with noise through which you will have a difficult time cutting unless you are aping current trends. [P.I.]

As I’ve said, I have no desire to make you despair. Quite the contrary. I simply aim to give you a different perspective to consider, and to caution you against buying books by people like Guy Kawasaki, Tim Ferriss, Anthony Robbins, and so on. I don’t say they don’t have some useful and practical advice in cases. I do say that they are selling you hope and dreams, dreams that you likely won’t achieve even if you follow their advice 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. Life isn’t like that. Remember, Guy didn’t get his job at Apple because he’s amazing (he may be, I really couldn’t say), but because he had a friend in the right place at the right time to get him the job. If you’re not at the right place, at the right time, writing about the right thing, how will you fare? You’re better off reading the works of Seneca, or Alain de Botton, for a more balanced view of life.

Also, for a great (and free) book on Self-Publishing, see Jess C. Scott’s book here.

As I see it, all is not lost. In fact, we have everything to gain by removing the mental shackles we place on ourselves in our quest to be commercially successful. All to often, we conflate what it means to be a successful writer and a commercial success. They are not, in fact, identical. Removing the burdensome need to be famous and achieve commercial success, something I’ve written on before here, can lead us to a more fulfilling life, as a person, and as a writer. No longer weighed down by the cares that attend such ambitions, we are free to pursue the best writing we can possibly produce. And, if along the way we happen to achieve some commercial success, however modest, there is no shame or harm in that. But spending all our time in the effort of achieving those ambitions can in fact hurt our craft, something I’ll write about more in future.

If this piece has in any way given you some sense of despair, I again must tell you that it is not my intention. I leave you with this to consider,

Hamlet: Why then ’tis none to you; for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so: to me it is a prison Rosin. Why then your Ambition makes it one: ’tis too narrow for your minde. [Source:http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/1524%5D

Keep well.

[Update March 19th, 2013: If this piece upsets you, please feel free to comment below and visit this page for a follow-up.]

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2 thoughts on “For writers: You’ll likely die unknown and poor

  1. I worked in the music business for over 7 years. The biggest mistake I saw almost everyone make was thinking they needed to make it the way the Rolling Stones, or the Beatles made it. We all love narratives about succes, but the most interesting stories about successful authors, musicians, or any artists really go untold.

    In the music business every overnight success takes at least 10 years to make. Most people don’t have the time or patience to do the work to build a following. Given if you’re goal is to be JK Rowling or Steven King you will surely fail.

    If instead your goal is to be successful and by successful I mean make a living doing writing it is all too possible. The key to success is to let go of the outcomes and how it ‘looks’ and instead focus on how it’s going to work for you.

    If you are truly creative you must ‘master the economics of creativity.’ Don’t believe Tim Ferris or Guy or anyone else. You simply have to believe in you own ability to find a path forward. Now excuse me I’m going to go write the next Harry Potter.

    • Thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts. I think you have a sane and healthy take on the matter. Also, I can relate to your observations about the music business. I used to be in a band called Pontius CoPilot. We had a bit of “success”, tours, interviewed at Spin hq in nyc, and all that. Unfortunately, internal pressures to “make it” ultimately led to the band’s demise. We were young, and foolish. I don’t think we realized what a good thing we had going and our own true success, musically speaking. (Also, I should say that, if you buy our record Madagascar on Amazon, it’s a pirate and we nor the label sees any money from it, despite letting Amazon know that. It’s an odd world we live in.)

      Cheers,
      EB

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