Here’s the million-dollar question: should you write a book? For a lot of aspiring authors I’ve met during my time in the publishing industry, the answer has been a resounding nooooooooope.
Why is that? It’s not because they lack talent…though there are definitely a few hacks in the bunch. It’s not because they’re too young (you’re never too young) or too old (ditto). And it’s not because they didn’t get a fancy MFA from some top-tier writing program—after all, neither did these guys.
No, the primary thing stopping these people from being published authors is something a bit more insidious: frankly, they have stupid reasons for writing a book in the first place.
Here are three incredibly stupid reasons to write a book:
1) To get rich.
While infamous six-figure book deals tend to get the most attention within the publishing industry, the reality is a lot less exciting. One 2013 study indicated that the median annual income for authors who have been traditionally published is between $5,000 and $9,999—a hefty amount, sure, but not nearly enough to live on. As reported by Dana Beth Weinberg, the lead researcher for the study:
“Few authors are getting rich off of their writing or even earning enough from their writing to quit their day jobs.”
Self-published authors fare even worse: those that Weinberg surveyed in the study earned a median income of between $1 and $4,999, with a whopping 19% of self-published authors saying that their writing wasn’t generating any income at all. Yikes.
While there are definitely quite a few authors who are making bank, they are the exceptions, not the rule. The odds of you being able to even make a living based on your writing alone are slim enough. The odds of you becoming the next J.K. Rowling or James Patterson or, ahem, E.L. James? Nigh impossible.
So for those of you who want to write a book as part of your scheme to make it to the top of Forbes’s list of the world’s billionaires? Get ready to be royally disappointed.
2) To get famous.
For every Neil Gaiman or John Green, there are thousands upon thousands of aspiring writers who remain firmly trapped in obscurity.
Let’s talk numbers: the amount of books being published every year has grown exponentially, with the number of new print titles issues by U.S. publishers going from 215,777 in 2002 to 316,480 in 2010. To quote the Huffington Post:
“Many book categories have become entirely saturated, with a surplus of books on every topic. It is increasingly difficult to make any book stand out. Each book is competing with more than ten million other books available for sale, while other media are claiming more and more of people’s time.”
So if you wanna be famous, do yourself a favor and avoid the publishing industry. You might have better luck begging Joss Whedon to put you in his next blockbuster.
3) To get recognized.
You can picture it so clearly: endorsements from your favorite writers, thrilling write-ups in The New Yorker and The New York Times, polished mantelpieces filled with Pulitzers and Nobel Prizes.
So what if you don’t top any bestsellers’ lists, and so what if you don’t quite make enough money writing to quit your day job? The people that matter have read and admired your work, and that’s all that counts. Right?
But, again, statistics are your biggest enemy. From the moment you publish your book, you’ve entered yourself into competition with the thousands of other writers who’ve released a book that year. Even if you’ve written the most perfect prose and crafted the most interesting characters in the history of Western literature, there’s a high chance that your work will be lost in the flood of other titles.
Having a good agent, a committed editor, a publicist (if you’re signed with a traditional publishing house), and the willingness and ability to network and market yourself can help you get your book to the “right” people. However, there are no guarantees, and the odds are most definitely not in your favor.
The final verdict?
My goal in outlining these stupid reasons to write a book isn’t to discourage people from writing—far from it. If writing a book is your dream, by all means, go for it! However, your likelihood of success depends on whether or not you approach your work with open eyes and reasonable goals.
So…what’s a good reason to write a book? Well, think about this: why do almost a fifth of all self-published authors continue to publish even though they aren’t making any money? Why do thousands upon thousands of books continue to get published every year, even though the vast majority of them will sell fewer than 250 copies?
If you do it for the money, you’ll never be rich enough. If you do it for the fame, you’ll never be famous enough. If you do it for the awards, you’ll spend your whole life waiting for the recognition you think you deserve.
But if you do it for the love of writing? Well, that’s all the reason you’ll ever need.
What do you think? Can you think of any other bad reasons to write a book that I missed? Do you think I got it completely wrong?