Keep your day job. That’s the term we have heard when an artist, usually a musician, doesn’t quite have the talent to make it professionally. I believe that most of us have an artist, or two, inside us. If we won a lottery, many of us would immediately give up our day jobs, which we do for subsistence, and do the art that we love to do. We would paint. We would sculpt. We would sing or play some musical instrument. I think of Paul Allen, who earned a few billion, then creating his own rock band (plus hundreds of other personal interests endeavors). Not that his band was any good, but it was one of his many loves and he didn’t need the money of a day job to distract him.
Then there are the artists who create, even if it means resulting in their financial ruin. I’ve seen incredible houses build of scraps, but arranged through the eye of a talented sculptor. Usually, it was an old man with no training in the arts, who the whole village thought was nuts. The stories behind these people are that they spent every penny they had, and their family had, on the building and died in poverty, but without regrets.
We are all artists at heart because we were created in the image of the great artist. The one who created the spiral galaxies and the colors of the Mandarin Duck is the same who wrote the software of our souls. Few of us can earn our living by what we create. Blessed are the artists who do. Really blessed are those who do it so successfully that they are able to move out of the ranks of the “starving artist” into the realm of the comfortable artist. The comfortable artist does not have to waste emotional energy worrying about how to pay the rent but just create.
While some people have a hidden painter, pop-singer, sculptor, woodworker, shipwright, or architect inside them, for me it is writing. There’s a lot of us. Five thousand new books are published every day on Amazon alone. Probably many times that over are the writers who write but never attempt to publish.
The Demise of the Dream
I am sitting and thinking about this topic because I just got my first royalty check for Butterflies in the Belfry—Serpents in the Cellar. I will not belabor this, but I will cut to the point. It cost me $7,000 to get the manuscript to print. That’s typical. There are legal fees, editing fees and then running the presses. This $7,000 does not include marketing. I have spent $2500 on that alone. I am being told that I have been very successful. I’ve sold several hundred books. I’ve received great reviews in public and private (even from some very successful, but un-named, authors). However, my check today was for $92. That’s it.
I’m not shocked as I had been notified that the check was in the mail and I knew the amount. Also, I knew that most of my book purchases have occurred through Amazon, which bills about $19 when you include shipping and handling, but only .30 of that makes it to the author. That’s right 30 cents.
When you become a realist, which I tend to migrate towards, I know that I would have to sell 31,666 books just to break even. That would be considered very successful and end you up on the New Times Best Seller Top 100, list. That would even start to pay me back for the estimated 600 hours of work I put into it. But, like most humble artists, we expect to give the labor for free. It’s really a labor of love. The other reason that I’m not surprised about the math is that this is my third book. As they say, I’ve been to this rodeo before.
There is nothing on this earth I love more than sitting and writing while drinking a cup of coffee like I’m doing right now. Nothing. The only caveat is doing it is a better setting. I’m in a coffee shop in downtown Anacortes, Washington. It isn’t bad, but last year, I spent three weeks sitting in a small outdoor café on the edge of the Mediterranean, just outside my (cheap) castle flat. Yeah, an old flat that was recreated out of the dungeon of a seventeenth-century castle. I was finishing up my book Butterflies in the Belfry. I was surrounded by men restoring their gondolas and fishing boats during the off season. Life could not get any better than that.
The odds of making it as an artist are one in a million, literally. Those odds are not determined simply by talent. I’ve known many talented artists, including my sister, who never achieve the comfort level professionally. Most don’t.
For a writer, it must be the combination of notoriety, talent, subject matter, timing, hard work, and luck. The best example of that last item is a friend of mine. He was not passionate about writing as I am. I sense that his talent and experience in writing were limited. However, someone suggested that he put his work stories, in writing. Then he happened to share a cab in NYC with the editor of one of the big publishing houses. He handed the guy the manuscript. Not only was it published, reaching great success, but was made into a movie.
In today’s market, notoriety is the biggest asset. When you approach a big publishing house their first question isn’t about your experience as a writer or even the subject matter, but who do you know and who knows you? That’s business. They don’t print books for altruistic reasons. If I had taken Oprah to the prom and she owed me a favor, then my book would be published and promoted because with Oprah’s exposure, it would be an automatic success despite the talent.
Blessed are those that do succeed. I’ve never had the fantasy that I could earn a comfortable living by writing. That hasn’t been on my radar. I started writing in the 1980s by writing articles for journals. I was paid about 65 cents per each hour I worked on them. I wrote about thirty for national and international science journals. I did have the dream of, some day, earning enough from writing to pay for some of the expenses of getting a manuscript to print. This was my goal so I could keep writing. It was this week that I realized the death of that vision and that death seems final. Of the 5,000 new daily titles, one will be financially successful. Not comfortably successful, but reaching the break-even point. It is like the fisherman who catches just one little fish, enough to keep him alive another day to fish again.
What Does This Mean for Me?
So, why am I writing about this? This is a personal journey of mine and I think many others share some version of it. The practical implications include the fact that I have stopped all promotions for Butterflies in the Belfry. With the return of a couple of pennies on the dollar for advertising, it just doesn’t make financial sense for me to keep on, and I’m not a rich.
My purpose for writing Butterflies in the Belfry was never financial. It was because there was a story there that had to be told. It was my mission to get that story out, in the same way, that a war correspondent must get the news out of what’s really happening. I wasn’t even hoping to recoup all the money that I spent, but to get close enough to stop the financial hemorrhaging. I had about 10 more books in mind that I wanted to write. I have never tasted “writer’s block.” But those books will have to remain unwritten. That is my greatest remorse.
The other practical implication is that my last book, a novel, The Waters of Bimini, which went to the editors this week, will be my last attempts at writing. It too will cost me thousands to get into print. But, unless a miracle happens, it will be my finale.
My wife has always suggested that I write just for myself. “Create a book, then delete it,” she said once. That would be much more financially sensible. I just can’t. I think all artists would agree that it would be very difficult to create a work of art, for your eyes alone, and then destroy it. The passion would be lost. All artists, I assume, savors the sharing of their art as their purpose for creating it.
For me, it was never an issue of fame or adoration. I would be happy to write books as a ghost-writer. As a writer, it is the joy of having others authenticate your observations of reality, your deductions, your talent for syntax, and your discernment for beauty. Last year when I sat in the cool January air, two feet from the edge of the Mediterranean harbor of Senglea, Malta and I wrote, I did not write for me. I did not write in the same mood as I would construct a “do list” for a day off. No, I could visualize the readers as if they were sitting at the same table and listening, sipping their own cappuccinos. It was so real to me that I remember giving my waiter my order one morning and then looking across the empty table as if there would be other orders. I could see those, like me, who were struggling to makes of evangelicalism. Like me, those who were seriously thinking about leaving the Church or even leaving life, by choice. My writing was for them.
So, as it is for so many of us, the death of a dream to give up those hopes. To put away the easel. To put the guitar in the case for the last time or sing karaoke with the last dream of making it work. Maybe it is pulling the sound-proofing off the garage walls, knowing that rock band will never practice there again.
Blessed are the artists who make it, even if that making it does not set them completely free from poverty. They are truly blessed. There is nothing better than creating, nothing that pulls you closer to the creator.