Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Guest Post: Exploring Two Sides of the Literature Coin

It has often been said that writing is a pursuit best undertaken as a hobby or a genuine passion, with any financial gains resulting from it being viewed as a bonus. Although almost every writer, whether specializing in fiction or non-fiction, likely dreams of fortune, fame and topping a best-sellers list, the contrasting reality for many is that their writing barely pays the bills, even if they have a supreme talent.

The writing profession as a whole is sometimes overly romanticized and writing is perceived to be one of the elite arts, with the printing press offering people a chance of immortality. When people speak of great writers, images of Shakespeare or Milton spring to mind, yet, on the flip side, there are a host of talented writers who have failed to achieve such far-reaching success and influence, or have failed to make money from writing during their lifetimes, despite seemingly having the talent to do so. It is clear, therefore, that the difference between success and failure is not based on talent alone. However, for some, the dream of writing a classic piece of literature that lives on forever is worth the risks that come with it.

Sex, Drugs and Rock & Roll

At the top end of the writing industry, writers can earn huge amounts of money and live lifestyles akin to those of famous rock stars. Stephen King, for example, earns an estimated $45 million per year from his books and such earnings almost certainly contributed to his lifestyle of excess, which he lived out for much of his adult years and which consisted of parties, celebrity associations, binge drinking and regular cocaine use. Meanwhile, Harry Potter author JK Rowling has a net worth of over $900 million and has used her huge wealth to enjoy lavish holidays, travel via private jet and live in a seven bedroom beachfront house, which costs over $100,000 per week. Writers who achieve similar levels of success can look forward to a glamorous lifestyle consisting of luxury hotels, VIP service, celebrity parties and a hugely inflated bank account.

Of course, not everyone can successfully secure publishing deals and even those who do manage to cannot guarantee effective marketing of their books. However, the recent success of Fifty Shades of Grey has made the dream of being a rich and successful writer seem more attainable than ever before.

E.L. James' erotic novel was initially self published via a print-on-demand service and went on to achieve unprecedented success for such a small-budget novel, generating huge worldwide sales figures on the way to becoming the UK's best-selling book of all time, making James into an overnight sensation and a millionaire to boot. It is, therefore, easy to see the allure of a career in writing, at least on a basic level.

The Other Side of the Coin

Hugely successful writers may live the kind of lives associated with rock stars and, in fact, the similarities between the music world and the world of writing do not end there. If the perks of being successful in both industries are similar, so too are the chances of failure - the harsh reality is that a complete failure to achieve a sustainable living from either occupation is the most likely result.

Despite E.L James' success, figures suggest that the average self-published book is lucky to sell 200 copies during its entire shelf life, far too few to generate a meaningful income from. In fact, the average book published by traditional means only sells 2,000 copies; again, not enough to be a sustainable living.
In addition, much like the music industry, artistic merit and credibility are not what success hinges on; or at least not exclusively. That Fifty Shades of Grey was a commercial success is without question, however, critically, the book was panned by most. Meanwhile, thousands of more skillful writers struggle to earn a living from writing. This is, perhaps, the writing world's equivalent of genuinely talented and credible musicians struggling to compete with manufactured pop stars, produced from reality TV. In both art forms, mass appeal reigns supreme.

This pattern is nothing new either and actually dates back several centuries. During the Romantic era in Europe, for example, many of the great writers, like Percy Shelley, achieved little commercial success during their lifetimes and some even associated mass appeal with a lower form of art. High art, it was claimed, was beyond the intellectual capacity of the mass market and a truly great writer was rarely appreciated during their own lifetime. Many years later, however, people would be hard pressed to question Shelley's command over the English language, or, indeed, his status as one of the great lyric poets.

However, judging writing on its artistic merits alone and completely overlooking sales figures is perhaps not realistic in the modern day if you wish to work exclusively as a writer. The costs associated with publishing a book, even if you go down the self-publishing route, make earning a living from writing very difficult and mass appeal is an essential part of being a successful writer in the twenty first century. Which begs the question, is it worth selling out your artistic principles for mainstream success?

The Bottom Line

The small chances of success and the possibility of having to sacrifice artistic merit for the purposes of mass marketing make writing a very difficult career to pursue. That said, the rewards for achieving mainstream success are incredibly high and it is understandable why so many people look to shoot for the stars.

In reality, however, perhaps the best attitude to take really is to simply write for pleasure and personal satisfaction and take any financial rewards that stem from that as and when they may come along. Completing a book can be an exhausting, but ultimately incredibly rewarding journey and you may have something with merit to contribute to the world, even if you are unable to make a career out of it. Besides, you can always console yourself by adopting the attitude of Shelley and the other Romantic era writers.

written by Eve Pearce

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