Being an Author is a Shit Job
Even if you don’t believe any of the pessimistic reports and anecdotes about author income and even if you do believe all of the overly optimistic ones (hi Hugh ::waves::) being a book author is one of the shittiest jobs in the media industry. And that’s saying something, since sleaze and exploitation is the rule rather than the exception in media.
It’s certainly one of the shittiest professions you can have working on a computer. Even administrative assistants have better career prospects.
The problem isn’t with the tasks that make up the job. As is common with media industry professions, the tasks themselves are kind of awesome and rewarding. But, as a career, becoming an author is about as sensible as spending your life sitting outside an off-license begging people to buy you a lottery ticket.
Sure, if enough people do it, one of the beggars is bound to win the lottery, but the rest will only become masters at managing their humiliation with cheap hootch.
What’s worse, the ones that win the lottery go around telling everybody that anybody can do it if they work hard and are patient enough. That song and dance is a complete and utter deception—it’s manifestly untrue—and the other beggars know it, but that knowledge somehow never manages to remove their nagging self-doubt, does it?
“What am I doing wrong?”
“What is wrong with me?”
“Am I begging the wrong people?”
Being an author is being a freelancer who doesn’t charge based on the work involved; a freelancer who accepts payments based on rules and schedules defined solely by the buyer, rules that are based on their accounting and which the freelancer has little recourse to double-check; a freelancer who subsists on a fraction of minimum wage and a host of day jobs; and it’s being a freelancer who is bound by contracts that last their lifetime plus the lifetime of their children (or until a specific set of requirements have been met that, requirements that are set and monitored exclusively by the employer).
If the author is from the States, they probably have health insurance problems and no realistic retirement plans beyond “keep on working until my fingers fall off”.
It is a manifestly horrible career path.
Adding self-publishing into the mix improves the picture somewhat, but it also removes the support system. It replaces publisher whims and demands with Amazon whims and demands.
And, unless they’re writing for a professional audience who will pay good money for information on how to solve problems, achieving success remains largely a lottery. Only this time you have the added humiliation of a chorus of self-publishing punditry saying in no uncertain terms that anybody with half a brain can make a living self-publishing and only a moron or a lazy person would fail.
“I must be so stupid.”
Getting self-publishing right is hard—much harder than just being a freelancer. To survive at freelancing you can get away with either a lot of expertise and a little hustle, or a little expertise and a lot of hustle.
Self-publishing requires skills in management (all that freelance help you need to hire), product development, and marketing.
That’s in addition to the usual amount of expertise and hustle a freelancer needs.
It’s a shit job that’s only getting more intimidating and a lot of people who would have otherwise become good authors are going to opt out.
—Good riddance! There’s an over-supply of authors anyway.
Actually, no. There’s a shortage of authors who work and behave professionally. (Whether they actually are professional authors is irrelevant at this point given how few of them actually make a living writing.)
And there’s a massive shortage of authors who work and behave professionally, write well, tell good stories, deliver on time, and are marketable.
My point is that the people most likely to become that—become competent, professional, and successful new authors—are also the people most likely to drop the idea of authorship as a career or even a sideline. If they have the mindset required to pursue a creative career in a professional manner then they have alternatives that are, at the very least, less shitty. Even if that fails, they are likely to become good at whatever they have chosen to do instead and find it rewarding enough as far as jobs go. And they always have the option of just posting their stuff for free on the web if they want to pursue writing as a passion.
The professionally-minded authors who do succeed are either the insanely stubborn or those who lucked out before they gave up.
And my guess is that, increasingly, good storytellers are not going to even try.
The consequences of this dynamic are already obvious within the publishing industry.
What happens when publishers have convinced the world that being an author is an identity and not a profession—that it isn’t something you should expect to make a living doing?
What happens when the only real benefit to being traditionally published is transitory exposure and a momentary surge in attention? (Unless you are one of the lucky few, of course.)
What happens when the most important attribute of authorship is being an author, not telling good stories or serving the reader?
Narcissists happen, that’s what.
And the thing about narcissists is, as anybody who has ever been in a relationship with one can attest to, if they have decided that you are vital to their self-identity, nothing will get rid of them. The word ‘stubborn’ is inadequate to describe narcissists caught up in their identity performance. The phrase “crazy-arse stalker” is closer to the mark.
That oversupply of authors? An army of narcissists performing the one act play “I’m An Important Author” in a hellish Sisyphean loop.
Granted, some of them have chosen the play “I’m Big-Time Self-Published Author, Here’s How You Can Be One Too—Unless You’re A Moron” instead. It’s a little bit more shouty and foamy at the mouth but it belongs to the same exciting genre of “Me, Me, Me, All the Time” as the other one.
These are the people that dominate the discourse, flood the slush piles, and fill Amazon’s Kindle section. They have no regard for the reader (but, oh, don’t they like to talk and perform as if they do, they love reader attention and think they deserve it) all that matters is the performance.
They don’t care about anybody, not even themselves, because if they had any true self-respect, they wouldn’t be narcissists.
Being an Author is an Incredibly Rewarding Vocation
People don’t stop writing just because they don’t make it as professional authors. They never have stopped. They just stop playing your game. People who like writing but aren’t interested in turning it into a career don’t need an industry at all. They don’t need publishers. They don’t need editors. They don’t need cover designers. They don’t need Amazon, Kobo, or Nook. They don’t need your self-publishing startup. They don’t need to sell or buy publishing services or tools. All they need is a community.
And community is the thing that the web offers in spades.
It worries me that the idea that authorship should be a viable career is a controversial one. More than once I’ve heard people in publishing refer to the idea of paying authors more as ‘charity’. It worries me how difficult things are for many established authors.
It’s hard for me to see how the longterm result of de-professionalising authorship can be anything other than an industry in terminal decline.
Maybe it’ll stay the course and just stagnate. Maybe it’ll do just fine. Working in publishing will be a lot less fun, though, unless you enjoy tackling narcissists and prima donnas on a semi-daily basis.
Writing and storytelling will do just fine. There might well be less of the good stuff around. Or, there might not. I have no idea what the future holds. I just know that I’m tired of the narcissistic bloviations that dominate publishing industry discourse.