Writing on the brink? The author as a profession

Drawing: Katharina Matschiske

Drawing: Katharina Matschiske

It is the dream of many who love to write: To earn a living with their own books. Turning one’s hobby into a profession is considered by almost everyone who hasn’t tried it yet to be the ideal way of earning a living. I do not want to destroy this dream, on the contrary. I want to counteract the impression that many professional authors currently give of their work, that this activity ends in frustration, depression and burnout in the long run, because the relentless, purely commercially oriented publishing machinery simply does not allow for personal happiness.

I do not want to deny anyone among them the right to take this position, nor do I want to deny that they are sincere about their experiences. However, what sticks in the minds of ambitious novice authors (both male and female) is a good-and-evil image that, in my opinion, does not correspond to reality as a whole. The big publishers and agencies are not monsters that feed on the tattered ideals of creative people with bared teeth and bloodied claws. Those who write with this idea will not achieve much.

This article is primarily aimed at authors who have the desire to earn a living with their work one day. My credentials are not a collaboration with a major publisher, as many of the authors who write about their depression claim to be. First, I write from the perspective of an author who has consciously decided NOT to write for a living. I have good reasons and I would like to explain them to you. Secondly, I’ve learned a lot about the music business from my non-fiction books about the music industry, which may not be transferable one-to-one to the book world, but has certain parallels in my eyes.

Questions that should not be ignored

Those who dream of being an author often do so under the impression that there is not much time left for writing besides their job and their family. It would be great, many people think, if they only had time for their books. That would be much more productive, just writing all day and not having to worry about anything else.

This is exactly the fundamental fallacy: Full-time writing is not just writing. And the author’s life is quite different from the inspiring indulgence in the garden pavilion at home with the only problem of when to find the time to answer all the fan mail. That’s why I’ve written down a few questions to help you avoid falling victim to depression as a full-time author. These questions will not completely prevent it, but if you are clear about certain things, it is easier to decide whether you really want to realize your dream of becoming an author or whether it is much more useful as a dream to enrich your life.

Professional author – Why NOT me?

There is hardly an author who does not write with heart and soul. The question of how good you are, whether you have talent or whether you are just a laughing stock, hovers constantly over your head. It takes a long time to even dare to show your text to someone else. When the first positive feedback comes, it is experienced as a feeling of elation, the effect of which drives to further outrages. It becomes a refuge, an outlet for everyday frustration and finally a voice of one’s own, with which one says the things that are close to one’s heart. Writing can’t give you more than that, a precious, priceless, unique feeling that is worth any effort, no matter how great it is. And you get that feeling no matter how many people read your book.

So, out of this feeling, many think that writing is the true destiny, the true purpose of life, and quickly feel that the obligations of life, especially earning money, are a burdensome burden. There are so many authors who earn their money with their passion. Why not me? This question is very right, if you ask it correctly: It should be: Why NOT me??

The first and most important reason is the love for the feeling I described above. This feeling does not get better with greater success, even if one imagines otherwise. Writing is great, no matter how much money you make from it. On the contrary, the more you burden your passion with the burden of financial return, the faster this feeling may lose its innocence. While 100 enthusiastic readers are great for the hobby author, the professional author must first and foremost ask himself: How can I achieve more so that I can make a living??

If the hobby becomes a profession, what is the hobby then??

Depression and burnout arise primarily not from too much stress, but from a lack of compensation. Too one-sided focus on writing is no better than on any other activity. One experiences what the rest of humanity also goes through in its everyday working life. Whether it is a colleague who is not more qualified but has had lunch with the boss more often who gets the promotion we long for, or whether it is an author who has written the umpteenth copy of the same thriller who ends up on the bestseller lists instead of our book written with heart and soul, the feeling is the same. As a professional author, a question arises with unprecedented urgency that an amateur author must ask himself at most in a creative crisis: How do I gain distance from writing? And can I afford it at all? Through what do I find relaxation? Where new energy comes from? It doesn’t come from writing, because that’s the job. So what will be the new hobby?

Therefore: Anyone who believes that as a full-time author he can only devote himself to writing is robbing his own substance. On the contrary, the feeling of freedom becomes more and more a feeling of compulsion and this is often poison for creative work. Of course, even as an amateur author, you sometimes have to force yourself to sit at your desk, but if you don’t, not much is lost. As a professional author, the pages must not remain empty, otherwise the refrigerator will also remain empty. This brings us to the most uncomfortable question:

How much money do I need and what do I have to do for it?

The most important question that an author ambitious to write professionally (like any other person) has to ask himself is the financial one. There is no way around it. At the very least, you have to eat, live, make phone calls, have insurance, provide for your old age, maybe you want to watch TV, go to the movies, read books, or whatever else costs money every month. Therefore, before any realization of the (romantic) idea of life as an author, there is the (completely unromantic) calculation: Can I afford it??

Nursing staff in hospitals are, quite rightly, considered to be underpaid. Let’s assume that an average nurse earns 28000 euros gross per year and thus just about makes ends meet. That makes ca. 2200 Euro per month. What do I have to do as an author to raise this amount of money?? Assuming a book price of 20 euros per copy and the usual author’s fee of 10%, 14000 books per year must therefore pass over the normal counter, so that one earns as much as the underpaid nursing staff.

The next thing is to find out what are the chances of selling such a number of books. The survey is worthwhile. I don’t think there are that many authors among the Facebook friends and Twitter followers who reach this value. But what about the advances? If you actually know someone who gets advances from a publisher, he will immediately have to admit that these must first be recouped from sales until the next transfer arrives. That’s why they are PREVIOUS. Even if you’ve published several books, sales of the older ones don’t necessarily make up for it, because most copies sell right after publication. The later ones are usually peanuts, to stay in the capitalist jargon.

Thus, right at the beginning, you have to deal with the question of where the necessary money comes from that you can’t make from book sales. A side job is needed. But then can’t you just stick to your, usually better paid job? This question is very important in any case. Or, to put it another way, how many authors in literary history have lived meager lives despite their fame and talent? And how many have done it without becoming famous?? God knows many, I’m afraid. Are you ready to do it yourself?

If I have to make money writing, when do I write what I want to write?

Even if writing brings in enough: Those who make money writing books write primarily to make money, not to write stories. This is an undeniable fact. No one can sit down and expect there to be a (paying) audience for their book just because friends, relatives and even editors have said it’s great. The many projects of the heart inevitably take a back seat in the face of the obligation to sell a certain number of copies per year.

The solution, apart from side jobs, is mainly to work on books, a certain number of which are likely to sell in any case. As a rule, they focus on topics that appeal to a certain target group and have less literary value and more entertainment value. Don’t misunderstand: You also have to be able to write such books first. But rarely are they projects of the heart. So it may well happen that, in view of these obligatory tasks, the bottom line is that, as a full-time professional, there is even less time left for the work on the books in which one puts all one’s soul and all one’s creative energy.

Do I have to choose a genre?

Of course not. One can write what one wants. But the first question I get in casual conversation from other authors, editors, or booksellers is: what genre do you write?? So many say you have to choose a genre. It has undeniable advantages because you immediately know where the publishers are and where the target audience is for your books. On the other hand, there is usually a lot of competition for a certain genre, which means that it is difficult to stand out from the crowd. Without a genre, most people don’t know what to do with the books and you have to work hard to convince and publish them until you find your audience. On the other hand, one is perceived more as an individual. So both variants have their advantages and disadvantages.

What’s wrong with big publishers?

It’s one of the most talked about topics in the author world, how to get a publishing contract. Most of them want one at all, others flirt with the fact that they have contracts, even with big publishers, but are being ripped off by them. Very few seem to be satisfied with a small publishing house in the long run. Why not, if the big ones are so bad?? An attempt to shed some light on this:

In the music industry, the big companies work like this: they sign ten bands, put them on the market with a corresponding advertising budget (much less today than in the past), eight of them drop out after a few weeks, two become so successful that they finance everything. Of course, from the perspective of the eight, this looks like they’re getting dropped real quick. And that’s also true. Nobody cares if you are a good musician, if you make great music (which is always a matter of taste anyway) or how long you have worked on your product. If it does not work quickly, it is out. This doesn’t have to be due to predictable factors, it can also be that a promoter who wanted to give it his all gets sick and then someone else takes over who doesn’t care so much. That’s the way it is in music, and that’s the way it will be with the big publishers, too.

So, at second glance, it’s not so obvious why everyone dreams of landing a contract with a big publishing house. However, those who want to go for it with all their might will and must realize at some point that they are writing for the market. These publishing houses are big because they have an enormously cost-intensive infrastructure of editors, promoters, and administration that needs to be financed every month. They have to concentrate on their mainstays, which of course also come under production pressure. Here, writing is a business on which many livelihoods depend. Whoever wants to hang such weights on a manuscript written with heart and soul should simply know what he is getting into.

Of course, in such a capital-intensive business, not everything works out fairly. It is not even particularly fair. But anyone who works in the private sector will confirm that fairness is rarely an issue here. It’s all about numbers. You can complain about that, but it’s pretty naive to think that’s a grievance. Jumping into a shark tank increases the risk of getting bitten in the ass, even if you are a good person and probably don’t deserve it. You can go swimming somewhere else.

What’s wrong with small publishers?

It is a fallacy that once you are with a big publisher you are big yourself. You might even sell fewer books with a big publisher, where you are just a number, than with a small one, whose few employees put their heart and soul into their work and believe in their own product. I know some authors whose name recognition is based on the work of small publishers, who went on to big ones and are now happily (and full-time) back with small publishers. Of course, this requires effort. You can’t sit at home and wait for settlements and transfers. You have to get out, 50-100 readings a year, because that’s where you sell the most books. It’s exhausting and a huge logistical effort. But it’s worth it if you’re willing to take the risk.

It’s clear that even on this path, writing takes a back seat at times, and yet there’s still pressure to publish at least one book every year if possible. Because even if you do a lot of networking and public relations, people want to see something new on a regular basis, and that doesn’t just write itself.

That small publishers automatically work with more passion than large ones, however, is also a fallacy. Again, you have to look, get a little lucky to get to the right ones. Because a goodly number of publishers do not work full-time themselves and have to earn a living. You can’t afford to be at trade shows every weekend and promoting your books 24/7. Here you just have to see if the collaboration fits.

Conclusion: Author as a profession – nightmare or dream?

It’s a nightmare if you go into it with the wrong ideas and don’t ask yourself the right questions at the right time. The fact is, every cent you earn from whatever you do has to come from somewhere, so it’s money that someone pays you in return for doing something in return. Nobody gets paid for working on a book with passion and perseverance. That is voluntary self-realization. There are many imponderables in this, as in any business, and often a fair amount of luck is required to actually make a living as a professional writer. That’s not a flaw in the system, that’s the system! Reasonable is the one who knows what he is getting into, unreasonable and extremely burnout-prone is the one who thinks idealism is an attitude with practical value. It is rather an art to keep your idealism in the face of many setbacks and constraints. It is not in the least a guarantee for success, if at all only a prerequisite.

A dream when you actually know it’s worth all the hardships. If I was content in my life to live as a single person in a small two-room apartment without a family, then I would definitely have become a professional writer. But besides writing, other things are important to me: just family, some free time, and especially as far as writing is concerned, to deal only with what I really care about. With my hobby I get around a lot, meet a lot of nice and interesting people, have a balance to my job and, on top of that, can be happy about new readers with every book, without having to pay too much attention to the sales figures. So, why spoil it all for myself by making it my profession? So, in conclusion, I can only say:

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