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So You Want to Write a Book: A Reality Check for Aspiring Authors

Today I opened the mailbox and found my first royalty statement as a newly published author. I had no expectations for what it would reveal, so there was nothing ceremonious about the way I opened it. I just sat in my car and opened it along with the rest of the mail.

The statement only covered the first three months of publication, and since there are so many variables that come into play with the sale of a book,  I still don’t fully know the answer to the question everyone is asking: “How is your book doing?”

But I can tell you this: if you are a new (traditionally published) author awaiting your first royalty statement, and you have the slightest expectation that you will make money from having written a book, take my advice: don’t open the mail in your car. Drive to a bar and have a few beers first (I am not promoting drinking; I’m just making a point in the clearest way I can). Or if you’re like me, and beer hardly passes the smell test, much less the taste test, inhale several triangles of dark Toblerone before you open the envelope. Take it to a faraway, alone place, and bring your dog for comfort.

Because there you will be forced to recall, all over again, why you wrote a book. You may have to sit and think about whether or not you really want to bury yourself under a laptop for sixteen more months to make another book that may not amount to much more than pocket change and a retweet, if you’re lucky.

If you think for a second that writing a book will make you rich or famous, please don’t do it. Spare yourself the time and trouble. I’m serious. When I hear someone say, “I’m going to write a book,” and if it’s apparent they hope to gain financially from the endeavor, I feel sad for what they will likely have to find out the hard way.

Writing, for most authors, does not pay enough for you to quit your job, let alone buy a pizza, and more people need to come out and say it. I can’t emphasize it enough, and I say it because I care about you: if you hope to make a dime by writing, please know the only check you may receive is a “reality check.” 

If you think you’d like to write a book, I would suggest you do these things first:

1.Talk to those of us who have gone the traditional publishing route. Go ahead and ask us how much money we made with our first book. If we don’t answer, it’s because we’re too embarrassed to tell you. Look at the color our ears turn when you ask. Even if you are sure you’re not writing for money, you need to know firsthand the hard truth, so you can know that you know the motives hidden deep in your heart.

Is it a bad thing to want to make money by writing? No more than it is to want to make money selling gelato or singing. It is a wonderful thing to get paid for doing what you love to do. I am simply reminding us to keep our expectations in check; be realistic–not ignorant–concerning the realities of book publishing:

Eighty percent of new authors sell fewer than one hundred copies.

2. Go to a writers conference and ask as many agents, editors and best-selling authors as you can —not your mother, dog or best friend: “Is my writing marketable?”

When I first took my manuscript to a writers conference, I made editorial appointments with all fourteen faculty members–even the editor of a travel magazine, which wasn't my genre. I opened each conversation by saying, “Look, I paid too much money for you to be nice to me. Tell me the brutal truth about my writing.

Writing is much like singing; you’ve either “got it,” or you don’t. Sure, you can improve a skill, but you need someone to be honest about your level of natural talent. (I may have been blessed enough to have landed a book contract, but I will be honing my writing skills for the rest of my life! I have a lot to learn.

If I was spending all my time trying to get a spot on “The Voice,” but sounded like the call of a baboon when I sang, I’d need a caring soul to tell me so. If you’ve ever watched “American Idol” auditions, you know there are people who think they can sing well enough to win a Grammy award; likewise, there are people who think they can write well enough for traditional/royalty publishing.

3. If the answer to the question in #2  is an all around, “Yes!”, then sit still for a while and ask yourself probing questions. Do I expect to make a significant amount of money or become well known by writing this book?

If your answer is “no,” and you mean it, good. Go ahead and write. And when that first telling statement shows up in your mailbox, you’ll know whether you really meant it or not.

Of course there are the exceptions, the surprise best sellers. I know you plan to be one of them. Many aspiring authors do. I do not write these words to discourage anyone from aiming high. You should strive to write well, and don’t give up after the first book, if it has been confirmed over and over by readers and those in the industry that you were born to write. Just be realistic and–I’ll say it again–know why you write.

Something else showed up in my mailbox today, along with the publisher’s royalty statement: it was the current issue of a book catalog, featuring my book and an accompanying story I’d written. God knew I’d need to open this second piece of mail, and read these words, penned from my heart for such a time as this:

…As I reflected on the troubling dream, I pondered this mothering journey I am on. Have I really meant all I’ve said and written about “fully embracing the joyful mess of motherhood?” Or is a part of me still clinging to the life that once was, or that could be, had not God given me “all these children?” My heart issues a resounding “yes!” to God’s call to motherhood….

I read those words again, carefully, and knew it was true, that thing we authors like to say but don’t always know we mean: I did not write for money. I am more than content to remain that hidden housewife and mother of four barefoot girls who’d rather not brush their hair, and to drive a see-through-rusty car.

I wrote for moms. The moms who tell me my words have made them feel alive again. Hopeful. Daringly joyful.

I have another story to write. Or two. If I was sure before, I’m doubly sure now, that I write for people. Payback is inherent in anything we do for the benefit of others. If I have helped a few people by using that thing I love to do, that gift God gave me, not to peddle for vainglory, but to sow as seed and leave the harvest thereof to Him, I have implanted something infinitely valuable in my small part of the world.


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