How to make money writing…or destroy yourself…

At the moment there is an active thread over on Amazon’s Kindle Authors forum, debating the best way to make a living writing. I’ve restrained myself from commenting on the thread, because I would be tempted to use words like “hack” in my response to the original poster. Name-calling does not foster reasoned debate. Besides, there has already been enough of that kind of thing.

The more I read through the posts, however, the more I start to wonder if the OP isn’t on to something– not necessarily something nice, or useful to me, but perhaps just a spark of truth.

The poster’s point– which he presents as rock-ribbed truth, rather than as opinion– is that, to make money as a writer, we need to identify the “niche markets” that are currently “hot”, and write in those niches. Our personal tastes and desire to express ourselves in our writing must, according to him, take a back seat, if not get shoved into the trunk. He says, “Do you want to write what you love to write or do you want to write what sells?” which just about sums up his attitude.

My initial reaction to this sort of assertion is disgust. I have to admit, though, looking at the current state of publishing, and, in particular, self-publishing, it is hard to argue with his basic premise.

Erotica on Amazon, Smashwords and elsewhere sells well. The world of genre publishing is currently flooded with Hunger Games imitations. Supernatural romance/adventure, particularly involving vampires, zombies and werewolves, is everywhere. What’s left over seems largely occupied by people who want to be the next Diana Gabaldon or J. K. Rowling or Rick Riordan.

And, of course, we are all suffering through the Age of Fifty Shades of Grey, perhaps the greatest niche novel of them all. I recently saw a self-published author on Google+ advertise his novel as “Fifty Shades of Grey on Steroids!” The mind boggles.

It is evident a lot of people are trying to jump on a number of different bandwagons. This is, however, nothing new. There was a time when every new fantasy book seemed to be a re-tread of The Lord of the Rings (many still are). When Mickey Spillane was big, everyone wanted to do violent, hard-edged detective fiction. You can, in fact, trace this sort of thing right back to Homer– we know that subsequent writers/poets elaborated on The Illiad and The Odyssey.

There is, in short, an instinct in many writers to want to imitate what has succeeded before. It’s easier, perhaps, to adopt the formulas of others than to create your own, especially if those formulas appear to be lucrative. Hollywood, in fact, nowadays largely runs on this principle. And there has never been a shortage of writers willing to slot themselves into formulas that appear to pay dividends– who are willing to create material, not based on their own creative vision, but on someone else’s.

This all raises a central question– why, after all, do we write?

Perhaps, however, that’s too broad a question. There’s no accounting for all the different motivations people bring to writing. I can really only talk honestly about why I write. And when I focus on my motivation, the answer becomes clear.

I write because I have stories in me. And I always have.

When I was six or so my father bought a plastic model kit for a KC-135 Stratotanker. I watched him as he assembled it. He did a beautiful job on the model, working hard to put it together just right. When he was finished, he mounted it on a stand and put it up where I could not reach it and told me, “Don’t touch.”

I remember going absolutely mad with frustration.

Because I didn’t want to admire the model as a piece of statuary. I wanted to take it down and play with it; to make it fly, at least as well as my pudgy little child’s hand could make it fly. I wanted to go adventuring with it, going on bombing runs (the distinction between “tanker” and “bomber” being fuzzy in my six-year-old mind). Maybe there would have even been an encounter with a UFO or a crash-landing or two.

In other words, I wanted to create stories with it.

Most of my childhood play was story-telling in one way or another, and when I grew older, my play simply transmogrified into actual narrative. My earliest tales were, of course, derivative of Star Trek and Lost in Space and DC’s Legion of Super-Heroes, and mostly narratives I told myself before I went to sleep, but they were explicitly stories, and before I was eleven I knew I wanted to write them down.

Eleven was a long, long time ago, and I hope that my tales have become a little more sophisticated and a little less derivative in that time, but they have all come out of the same story-telling impulse. And more and more, I have come to insist on writing down my vision, not someone else’s.

That is my basic motivation for writing. Would I like to make a living at it (or even just a noticeable amount of money)? Certainly, and at one time I thought that was a possibility. In the last year or so, however, that possibility seems to have dwindled away. It’s quite possible, putting it in the terms of the original poster from the Kindle thread, that my Divine Lotus series does not belong to any recognizable niche. In fact, as a novel about a teenage girl that’s not truly a young adult work, and a science-fiction tale that is as much about the impact of development and cross-cultural assimilation as it is about adventure, almost certainly not. It is entirely possible that this is why it has not attracted a noticeable audience.

If so, will I be re-writing these novels to fit some niche that’s currently selling?

$%#%@!%! no.

I could try to fit my writing to someone else’s scheme, but I can hardly think of a quicker way to destroy myself. I have written what I have within me; to try to do otherwise would be self-betrayal. Not that I have some tremendous artistic vision, worth of a Sistine Chapel– I just have mine, and that’s enough. And if that doesn’t attract an audience, well, I wasn’t planning on quitting my day job anytime soon, anyway.

So, perhaps there’s a grain of truth in the OP’s assertions. Making money from writing is not the same thing as expressing yourself, and never has been. We live in a cynical age in which a piece of garbage like Fifty Shades of Grey can, somehow, hit the zeitgeist’s happy button and make millions. If you come to writing just to make money, pick your bandwagon and hop on.

But that’s not for me. And I’m okay with that.

Later.

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4 thoughts on “How to make money writing…or destroy yourself…”

  1. You have many wonderful and thoughtful points! I agree that one should not write in a specific niche just to make money, but I do have a slightly different opinion about why people write in those niches (mainly, I don’t think it’s all about money).
    People write the types of books they love to read, the types of stories they want to devour. Books like Harry Potter and the Hunger Games are popular because people love to read them. The explosion of these genres isn’t just people wanting to make a buck by writing in a genre that’s popular, it’s people writing the types of stories they enjoy.
    I for one love to write romance, but I don’t do it because it’s a popular genre and thus I feel I’m likely to get published. I write it because it’s fun.
    Best of luck to you with your stories!

    1. Certainly, I agree people should write the stories they enjoy. That’s actually the point I am trying to make about my writing. But it’s precisely because certain genres and niches are popular that the the mercenaries come calling. And the poster on the Kindle board then took it to another level, telling all and sundry that the definitive way to make money was to write without heart or soul, but rather out of cold calculation. That sort of thing always torques me.

      Thank you for reading.

  2. At the end of the day, people will buy into the books or not. Whatever the motivation of the writer, it has to resonate with an audience or it will die. Many people are just looking for diet tips or 10 Things to See in Curaçao. They are not looking for anything deep.

    The 50 Shades case is an interesting one, as I consider it appalling but millions of people found something in it. Stephen King would say she is a talented writer as she has hit a chord. Whether it is “good” or “bad” writing is a little irrelevant given the clear success.

    I suppose it comes down tot eh debate about writing for writing’s sake or writing to achieve something specific (such as to reach $10,000 per month in passive income – I’m sure you recognize the phrase 😉 ).

    From the vantage point of Cannes, I can see daily the best and the worst of writing in its visual forms. They live side-by-side, yet do different things.

    1. There is plenty of fiction written for commercial purposes that meets the usual criteria of being ‘good’– i.e., it’s readable and entertaining. And there are all manner of gradations of ‘commercial’– from literary fiction out of which the author still hopes to make a living down to imitative self-published drivel with bad spelling, the author of which thinks will make them the next E. L. James. The thing about the Kindle thread that got me rolling was not so much the idea that authors should create works with the hope of remuneration, but that the original poster seems to be promoting the, to me, cynical idea of merely imitating what sells. For my money, that’s a level of dishonesty I have no interest in visiting.

      Re: Fifty Shades– I will have to respectfully disagree with you on the irrelevancy of whether the writing is good or bad. A creative work can be hugely successful, and still be either puerile in style or questionable in its moral positions (I’m thinking of “Gone With the Wind” as an example of the latter), or both– and those deficiencies can have long-term negative effects on both art and people’s attitudes. Otherwise, we would have to assert that literature and art have no impact on people and society, no relevance, and that incoherent trash has the same value as cogent, thoughtful creations. I don’t think that’s a place any of us want to go.

      Thank you for reading.

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