Bursting The Bestseller Bubble

Broken Piano for PresidentThe problem with writers penning runaway bestsellers is that they’re the outliers but they’re viewed as the benchmark norm. Quibble however you will over the quality (or lack thereof) of their work, but JK Rowling, Dan Brown, and EL James are the notable exceptions to the authorial rule: They might have made so much money they need a small army of people to manage it for them (or mismanage it, in the case of also-bestselling-author Patricia Cornwell), but few other published authors will ever be required to make such hires. Instead, they’ll be looking for ways to make their meagre earnings stretch enough to cover life’s basic daily expenses.

If my memory serves me correctly (and I’m drawing on memory rather than Googling skills because the search exercise would prove so deflating that I refuse to do it), the average Australian writer earns about $6000 from their craft annually. To be clear: There’s no typo in there. Even though I’m monumentally mathematically challenged, even I know that six—not sixty—thousand won’t even cover your food, much less board and life-maintenance bills.

So it’s a necessary evil (although it never ceases to be wrist-slittingly depressing) to hear writers and creative writing teachers bursting green, apprentice writers’ misconceived bubble. You know, the one they’ll pen a book about a wizard virgin stalked by a nymphomaniac vampire lover and that together the characters will uncover and crack the code of a secret brotherhood and albino intent on killing a pope. The Bob’s-someone’s-uncle result is that they’ll have an instant word-of-mouth-driven bestseller and will soon be looking for offshore tax havens and buying a castle.

I hate that talk with every fibre of my being, both because it’s quashing people’s fragile hopes and dreams and, frankly, because even though it’s a reminder of what I already know and live every day, I really don’t need the reminder. I couldn’t stop attempting to be a writer even if I wanted to. What does that make me? Stubborn? Delusional? Crazy?

I’ll be the first to admit that I lead an interesting life as a freelance writer. But ‘interesting’ can be code for a number of things: fun, for sure, but infinitely, bone- and spirit-crushingly challenging too. All the free tickets to shows in exchange for an often unpaid review count for nought when you’re exhausted and so skint you then have to go work extra (and extra-shitty) part-time jobs to cover your bills. You work twice, in effect, to get paid once. (And I can testify that even when you’re a few years into your career and have enough publications under your belt to be the equivalent of what any other industry would consider experienced, that ‘doing it for free’ expectation never goes away.)

This bleak, little-acknowledged and much-less-discussed aspect of the job is something that I’ve always felt squirmish about and struggled to explain to those not in the industry, including to a new-ish but eminently fantastic friend most recently. I understand that ‘being a writer’ must seem mysterious and exotic when you work in a more traditional, more structured, and office-bound career. And I’ll admit that I wouldn’t swap jobs with anyone for, well, whole swimming pools of quids.

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering GeniusBut a ‘career’ in writing is a misnomer. The very word career implies earning a fair, liveable wage for fair work done. Rarely could that definition be applied to a writing career, and it’s the reason that writing careers are, at close inspection, more a bricolage of writing and editing and teaching and research assisting and working in retail and administration, and bartering with other creatives for complementary services, and foregoing holidays and all but the most necessary of health care … The starving, tortured artist archetype wasn’t forged from nothing.

My friend and fellow editor, Matt, emailed me a link to this Salon.com article. His email’s subject line quipped: Dude, where’s my royalty? Entitled the categorically blunt ‘My Amazon bestseller made me nothing’, the article by Patrick Wensink, author of Broken Piano for President*, joins (and then references) Dave Eggers’ efforts to break open and address the taboo and shame writers feel about talking about how the perception of success differs vastly from the banked money.

He writes:

I was reminded of a single page in A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius; specifically, the section where Dave Eggers breaks down his $100,000 advance on sales from his publisher. He then lists all his expenses. In the end the author banked a little less than half.

That honesty was refreshing and voyeuristic. I always said if I ever had a chance, I’d make a similar gesture. As a person learning about writing and publishing, there was something helpful about Eggers’ transparency. So here is my stab at similar honesty: the sugar bowls full of cocaine, bathtubs full of whiskey, semi-nude bookstore employees scattered throughout my bedroom tale of bestseller riches.

He writes later:

… the truth is, there’s a reason most well-known writers still teach English. There’s a reason most authors drive dented cars. There’s a reason most writers have bad teeth. It’s not because we’ve chosen a life of poverty. It’s that poverty has chosen our profession.

It’s an admittedly heavy and unpopular topic for a Sunday afternoon (or Monday morning, when you’ll likely be reading this). It also, as Matt noted, prompts such questions of how much Amazon has profited from Wensink’s book sales (irrefutably more than Wensink himself, who’s pocketed a pre-tax $12,000).

So, while I can’t propose to offer solutions for how to ensure writers are better paid for their labour (not to mention respected for the blood, sweat, and hard yakka writing entails), I can offer this Egger- and Wensink-style gesture of transparency of my own: I’ve written no bestseller, though I against all rationality hope one day to. But I can testify that there’s a lot more work than pay as a freelancer. Being able to work in your pyjamas is an incredible perk, but you can’t eat pyjamas.

*Is it poor form to admit that, though it was reportedly by Wensink’s own writing, wedged in between Fifty Shades of Grey and Gone Girl on the bestselling list, I hadn’t until reading this article ever heard of it? I do now, for the record, want to read it. I mean, what isn’t there in a synopsis that labels a book ‘the greatest political allegory since Animal Farm’ to inspire you to pore over its pages? Also, the book has tops cover art.

The greatest political allegory since Animal Farm, written by the most fantastic-smelling author of our time. Ever drank too much and forgot what happened? Don’t be embarrassed. Deshler Dean faces this problem every day of his life. Dean is far more brilliant and productive when he’s blackout drunk. In the last few months alone, he has invented a hamburger more addictive than crystal meth, scored a six-figure record contract for his terrible art rock band, and started dating a woman he doesn’t even recognize.

Worse yet, he has become entangled in the biggest war since the Allies took on Germany. When rival fast food chains duke it out for control over Dean’s burger-inventing genius, Dean and his band mates plunge into the absurd world of corporate paranoia and greed. As the violence of the burger wars spills out onto the streets, it’s up to them to win over the hearts (and stomachs) of the American people and save the country from the equivalent of a deep-fried nuclear warhead.

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Fiona Crawford

Fiona Crawford is a freelance writer, editor, blogger, proofreader, and voracious reader. She regularly appears as a book reviewer in Australian BOOKSELLER+PUBLISHER magazine. Fiona is also (unfairly) known as the Book Burglar due to her penchant for buying family members—then permanently borrowing—books she wants to read herself.