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28 September 2010

A Writer's Treasure

The time of runaway author advances has ended.  In theory, an "advance" is exactly what it sounds like, an amount of money given ahead in anticipation of sales.  In reality, it would be really hard to take back money if a book does not sell or does not sell enough copies to cover the amount the publisher has paid out.  At some point, the publisher reduces its net dollar sales and gives the author a 1099.  However, there is actually a large group of published authors who do not even get an advance and have to promote the published title by themselves, driving around the country on their own dime for readings and signings, hoping to sell enough to pay for the gasoline and living expenses.  There's even another group of authors who are self-published and not only have to promote the book on their own with no advances, but may even have to pay for the printing costs.  Wait, wait, there's another group of authors!  There are those who want to give the book away online, because they simply want people reading their work.  This last group are happy to continue to be executive assistants or actors or limousine drivers or waiters or work at other non-writing jobs, because they are writing not to make a living, but for the joy of it, similar to walking in the woods, having and raising children, volunteering at food pantries and decorating the house for Halloween.  Besides, it is the interaction with other people in non-literary situations which spawn the plots, characters and real-life stories crying out for a talent to write down, right?

I write this in response to Wall Street Journal's latest enlightenment (in print) and discussed on the hammer of electronic books pounding a bleak future for writers, publishers, bricks & mortar booksellers and anyone else connected to a printed bound book.  Again, it's the "bing" factor.  Electronic books are highly accessible for those who know or believe they know what they want.  They want it, they find it, they buy it, anytime, anywhere.  Printed bound books displayed and sold in a bricks & mortar store are also for those who know what they want.  There is the problem of stores not being open 24/7 and there is the issue of  not being exactly where one wants them to be at any given time, such as in one's living room.  Printed bound books displayed and sold in a bricks & mortar store are especially accessible for browsing, for discovering, for sharing, for giving.

Back to authors' advances:  in the age where one must think about medical insurance and retirement funds, I guess we can no longer idealize the bohemian life of an artist or writer.  Much inspiration, though, especially for stories, comes from working outside the home/studio and interacting with others.  There was always the mantra, "Write what you know," which has morphed into people only writing what they believe they know which is themselves, and perhaps not even researching that, resulting in memoirs chronicling misplaced memories and imprecise writings.  I had recently pointed out a written detail of "mature honey locusts" lining an actual Chicago street as good research and writing, because the easier route would have been to say "mature trees."  But I digress.  Back to the point, readers have always delighted in reading both non-fiction and fiction work by writers as lobstermen or bartenders or mail carriers or nannies, precisely because the stories depicted real life experience in real time, not a memoir and not fantasy.  Scott Turow had the great story of writing as he commuted to work on the train and having to propose a less than full-time position (read, less than 50-60 hours of lawyering) -- similar to a mother wanting to work shorter hours or a truncated week in order to stay home with the children -- before he made enough to write full-time.  I believe he still has some clients, again, probably to stay in touch with the reality of law.

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