Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Why writers are their own worst enemies

by Rick Blechta

For the past couple of weeks I’ve been bouncing back and forth between my three jobs (graphic design, music, and of course, writing). It’s not as if I don’t do this a lot, it’s just that it’s been much more intense lately and therefore more noticeable to me.

First, I have a new novella being released by Orca next fall. I’ve had to focus my attention first on getting the copy-edited ms back to Orca, but second, on thinking about how I’m going to do my share of the promotion, organize signings and do a book launch.

My 9-member soul band, SOULidified also has a critical gig fast approaching. We’re expected to promote it (sound familiar?) and that’s a huge responsibility – and a time-consuming one. (In light of that, I encourage everyone to visit the band’s website (soulidifiedband.com) and to “like” the band on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/SOULidifiedBand/.) We thank you!

Finally, I have an enormous graphic design job that I’m in the middle of. It has taken hours to get it to the mid-point and will take many hours more before it’s sent off to the printers and web people. The sad thing is: most of what I’ve written and designed will get chucked into the garbage since it has to do with renewals for a well-known Canadian magazine, and those renewal letters almost always get chucked out immediately. Sad but true.

So, you can see that my three endeavors are all creative and all artistic in nature. It’s what I do and that’s because it’s what I’m good at, and to a large extent I really enjoy doing it.

But to get back to today’s topic – and to explain why the introduction to this post is so long and detailed – most of what I do pays squat. I need three jobs to make ends meet, and even then, I’m certainly not on the road to easy street. Why? Because I’m not really that good at any of these things, so therefore my income is low? Au contraire, I’m pretty darn good. Understand, I’m not a boastful person by nature, but I also understand that one can devalue one’s talent by being modest. I don’t usually say this out loud. I’m a very good musician. I write well. And enough people value my copywriting and design skills to give me employment helping to promote their businesses.

So why is my income not big enough to allow me to concentrate on one endeavor and still survive? The answer is simple: income for all three of my jobs has been steadily declining. Since Type M is about writing, let’s concentrate on that.

It’s become clear to me by hanging around with a lot of writers that we do what we do because we have to. The need to tell stories is very akin to an addiction. I’m not alone when I feel withdrawal on those days when I don’t write.

But crafting a novel, novella or short story takes time. In order to justify that as much as the desire to have people read or stories drives writers to look for payment. Trust me, starving in a cold garret is no fun. There is also the possibility of not just getting paid, but getting paid very well if you “hit one out of the park” and that’s a very big incentive to keep working.

Trouble is, most of us don’t hit one out of the park. What happens then? Well, you can no longer expect much money when you sign a contract with any publisher these days. When the whole advance-against-royalties idea was inaugurated, its purpose was to allow a writer the financial support to complete their writing project. “We’ll make sure you don’t starve so you can complete the terms of your contract with us and deliver your ms.”

Most publishers have conveniently forgotten this of late. Economics has a large part to play in this. Most are hanging on by the skin of their teeth (or so they claim). But even so, publishers know one very important thing: writers will do nearly anything to get their work into print.

We now work for slave wages. I know a publisher that generally offers $1000 to complete an 80,000-word novel. I worked it out. For me it works out to $1.85 per hour start to finish (and that doesn’t include my time spent on promotional activities that are now “required” of all authors.

Why do we do it? Why don’t we just walk away? Some do. Maybe they’re the smart ones. The rest of us can’t. We have to tell stories.

So we put up with miserable financial return on our labour. We take large amounts of time to promote our work. We pay money for websites, publicity, and drive hours to readings and signings, all because it’s part of the game.

Is it too much to ask for reasonable compensation for creating product for the publishing industry?

Just ask the writers, painters, actors, sculptors, dancers and musicians. We’re all in the same boat. Those who sell our art realized a long time ago that artists are addicted to creating their art and are willing to put up with a lot in order to do it. It’s sad but true.

And don’t get me started on the music industry…


Rick Blechta said...

One thing I forgot to mention (and has nothing to do with my post this week) is that for some unknown reason 4709 people visited our little blog on Sunday. Previously, our daily view high water mark was around 700. It's pretty cool, but also puzzling because on either side of Sunday, we were at our usual levels.

Wonder who all these people were?

Eileen Goudge said...

Interesting about the rise in traffic to the site. Must have something to do with SEO. Did you do anything that would change the Search engine rankings? Anyway, it's all good. Thanks, too, for another thought-provoking post. Yeah, we do it for love. Why else would we work for slave wages? By the way, since you're a musician, thought you'd be interested in the latest technology in digital publishing. Booktrack puts soundtracks to e-books as with movies. You ought to check it out. They approached me about one of my titles. You could even offer to provide the soundtrack with yours.

Rick Blechta said...

That is indeed a very interesting concept that I will check out. Thank you very much for the suggestion!

PS I wonder if they bother to pay royalties on any music they use which they don't own?