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So, You and I Want to Be a Novelists?
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[This is the fourth of five entries in which I reflect a bit on Michael Allen’s long essay on randomness in the publishing industry, On the Survival of Rats in the Slush Pile.]

Michael Allen writes of On the Survival of Rats in the Slush Pile:

“The essay should be particularly useful for writers, because they are the ones most likely to labour for years, motivated only by dreams rather than hard cash; and, when their dreams fail to materialise, they are the ones most likely to suffer psychological and physical damage, as a result of powerful emotions such as anger, bitterness, and frustration. It will do no harm at all for these people to have a clearer idea, at an early stage, of the nature of the problems they face.

What odds does a would-be writer face? I checked the U.S. Labor Department's Occupational Outlook Handbook for recent figures on the numbers of persons employed in various professions. Consider these numbers:

lawyers -- 695,000
accountants -- 1.1 million
doctors -- 583,000
real estate agents -- 308,000
school teachers -- 3.8 million
truck drivers -- 3.2 million

There are no figures for novelists, but let's say for argument that to be considered a novelist one has to have a book published during the year.

According to Bowker's BookWire, there were published last year in the U.S. 25,000 adult fiction books. Thus, the number of "openings" for novelists is absurdly small compared to those for other professions.

But, many of this small number of books provide even a year's minimum wage for their authors? Very few, from what I understand. If I'm not mistaken, most novels never earn $10,000. So how many writers make a living solely from their novels? Certainly most lawyers and truck drivers and accountants make a living from their work. To my way of thinking, you can’t be a professional if you don’t make your living at your profession. (I am careful to specify that I have co-written novels professionally, (i.e. for pay) but I do not consider myself a “professional novelist.”) The estimates I've seen, on writers who make a living off fiction, have always been in the hundreds.

Think about it. Hundreds, in a country with a population of over 300 million. If you're talking about making a living writing novels (never mind a fortune) you might as well be talking about playing in baseball's major leagues or the NBA. Heck, it would be easier (statistically speaking) to make an NFL roster.

Do you feel like Derek Jeter? I don’t. I don’t even feel like Bubba Crosby, but that’s the level we’re aiming for if we are thinking about living off novels.

If you have a book out from a reputable publisher you are competing on a national scale. You are going head to head with the best. Readers are not choosing between your book and the manuscript your neighbor wrote for an adult education course in creative writing, or the thriller your uncle says he’ll write if he has a free weekend sometime or the heroic fantasy the teenager down the street has uploaded to his website. You aren’t even competing against the five lousy and embarrassing manuscripts in your drawer, however pleased you are at finally having surpassed them.

No, as far as the book buyer is concerned, it's you or, oh, maybe John Grisham, or Stephen King or Mary Higgins Clark. Their books cost pretty much the same as yours. The books are all sitting on the same shelves. Readers don't expect less entertainment for their dollar from you. (After all, they worked the same to earn the dollar you’re getting and they aren’t your mother) As an unknown author or first time novelist, you may feel like a Little Leaguer who's scaled the heights just by taking the field at Yankee Stadium (or at least I do) but no matter how much it might seem you've accomplished simply by getting there, once you’re at home plate you’re up against Randy Johnson's high heat.

And let's be honest here, as far as making barrels and barrels of bucks, Mary and I (like virtually all published authors) have struck out.

But have we “succeeded”? That’s a question I will save for my final installment of this saga, tomorrow.

[As a bonus, here is an article from Baseball Notebook I ran across this week on fantasy baseball in which the author warns players (similarly to Allen’s warning to authors) not to let the results cloud their judgment of the probabilities.]

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