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A Year in the Life of an Independent Author

A small fraction of those who excel in sports or the arts in high school and college become professionals in those fields. Fewer still become stars. It certainly is true in the publishing world for struggling authors like me. Even achieving the presumably necessary prerequisite of obtaining an agent is nigh impossible for most. Without that, there’s no chance of having one’s manuscript accepted by a traditional publishing house. So it is with me. This causes many aspiring writers to simply give up, to shelve their work where curious readers can never find it—and decide for themselves if it’s any good or not.


I won’t do it. I won’t stop writing. I can’t stop writing. Something inside me compels me to turn thoughts, experiences, and observations into written prose. Perhaps the greater curse is the drive to find an audience for my works. I can’t help it: I’m a writer, and I’m too old to quit now.


I write in my day job as well. Twenty-three years at the same company: a strategic communications firm. During my tenure there, we have changed our titles several times. Originally, we were writers. These days, we are creative leads; in my case, a senior creative lead. We have made these changes because of the impression that writing is tactical, not strategic; as such, people will not pay as much for a writer as they will for a consultant (who just so happens to write). I have always resisted this. Begin a writer is a noble thing. At a client meeting recently, where a couple of new people from the client side had joined, we went around the room and introduced ourselves and our roles. When it came to be my turn, the primary client—senior vice president and chief development officer of a notable hospital—responded to my short introductory spiel with, “Writer extraordinaire.” I could not have been prouder. She didn't care what my title was, she only cared about the quality of the work I did for her, and that work centered on telling their story with the written word. I would love to put that descriptor on a business card.


But that’s my day job, which mostly sucks the life out of me. Not because of the work or the clients or my colleagues, but because I’m writing for others and not for me. That’s why I write books, short stories, poems, and lyrics outside of work. That’s what feeds, rather than depletes, my soul. Why, then, do both? Because the day job provides regular, predictable income; health and dental insurance; and a 401(k). With the creative work, I get none of that. Any money I earn selling my books and stories comes from my direct efforts and goes to offset the costs of self-publishing. That means manning a table on hot summer days at summer craft fairs and street festivals, and on cold winter days at winter craft fairs and street festivals. It means pitching libraries and store owners on hosting me for a book reading. It means begging on social media, bugging friends to buy a book or attend an event, blogging to a modest choir of my own making, and bagging any hope of becoming a literary household name.


It's hard work. Maybe not as hard as writing a book but it does take a lot out of you, mainly because you don’t have access to the things that really sell books: reviews in the New York Times, appearances on television, advertising on all forms of media. People won’t buy a 300-page book unless they know—or feel—they will like it. And one of the supposed imprimaturs of quality is the book being put out by a major publisher. It’s not just potential consumers who rely on those factors, it’s librarians and bookstore owners, too. Joe Schmo and his self-published paperback does not have an easy in with those audiences. And yet, everyone has read a book they thought was crap, reputable publisher and decent reviews be damned. Such a book sold because people were aware of it. I have three published books to my credit: only a few hundred people are aware of them and that’s because I have limited resources for marketing my fifteen-dollars-a-copy works. For the most part, the only word of mouth my books get comes from my mouth.


But I keep at it, because I work too damn hard on writing them just to have them languish on my laptop or in a drawer. My latest book, Villainy Ever After, which came out in 2021, has sold nearly 200 copies. In 2023 alone, I sold 47 books—all but five of them Villainy. It’s a collection of classic fairy tales told from the point of view of the villains. Fairly original, easy to explain, relatively compelling. My other offering, a collection of two historical novels titled Ancient Tales Newly Told, is a harder sell because it’s harder to explain. It’s two stories, not one. The older novel—The Grave and the Gay—was originally published on its own in 2012 and is based on a 17th-century English folk ballad. The newer one—King of Kings—is a retelling of the romance between King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, based primarily on the Ethiopian tradition. When I finished it I realized I had two stories set in olden days based on pre-existing texts and so I packaged them together under the aforementioned umbrella title. I thought that would make them easier to sell but I was wrong. It just takes too long to explain it. I’m currently wracking my brain to think of ways to rectify that, because I still have a box of them to sell.


A local crafts store that sells my books just alerted me that I will be receiving payment for 2023 sales. Six books. The store takes fifty percent so I earn forty-five dollars instead of ninety had I sold them myself. I also received money recently from the self-publishing company I chose for Ancient Tales. There, what I earn per book depends on whether they sold it, Amazon sold it, or some other online vendor sold it. One copy was sold as an Amazon Kindle product. I made five bucks on that. The self-publisher also takes a fee just for sending me my payment. Most of my direct-sale proceeds are via Venmo; they appear in my bank in one to three days because I don’t want Venmo to take any of my money. Again, if I don’t sell my books myself, someone else is making money from my work. Yes, that happens with traditional publishers, too, but the stakes and the potential rewards are much bigger. I sold forty-seven books in all of 2023—not bad but certainly not great—and the entities wanting a piece of that are numerous.


This past year I broadened the scope of my offerings by putting together an in-person journaling workshop, The Joy of Journaling. I have done it three times and received strongly positive feedback; in 2024 I have workshops planned for January and February so far. These pay me between one hundred and two hundred dollars. I enjoy journaling and I love doing the workshops; also, it’s a little extra cash. This year will also be when my latest manuscript either gets picked up or I self-publish it in one way or another. It’s the longest book I’ve ever written and the most personal. I firmly believe there is an audience for this book, but convincing the publishing industry gatekeepers of that is a steep challenge. In the past few months I’ve been focusing on short stories and hope to put out a collection of those as well. Of course, where the money is going to come from to pay for that—in self-publishing you have to cover all the costs upfront—I have no idea.

But that’s a story for a different time….


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