My husband sent me this link to a YouTube video the other day and I thought it was so interesting that I promptly sent it out to a few friends. But I kept thinking about it and it’s implications for writing careers, and so I’m recommending you take a look at it too.
It’s pretty clear from this video that money is not what motivates writers. Janni Lee Simner agrees. She says the money she earns is nice, but the reason she writes is so she can tell the stories she wants to tell and have people read them. On the other hand, my friend Mike Stackpole is supporting himself with his writing, and he’s said more than once that when writers think about their business plan, profit should be a guiding principle. But even Mike isn’t motivated solely by money. He could be earning a steady paycheck working for someone else, but he loves what he’s doing.
Why else would we be doing this? Only a tiny percentage of traditionally published authors are able to support themselves writing, and an even tinier percentage of independently published authors earn a significant secondary income.
I think the video has it right. Self-direction, mastery, and purpose are what truly motivates writers. We’ve known that in our hearts for some time, and now we have studies that confirm it. Some may start out hoping for fame and fortune, but when they’re slow in coming, most of them don’t last. Every writer that sticks with it wants to inform and/or entertain, by sharing their own unique stories. That’s our self-directed purpose. It’s what drives us to keep getting better, to develop mastery of our craft despite the challenge of acquiring those skills, in an industry that doles out rewards at a fairly slow pace.
This has interesting implications. In the traditional paradigm, editors must buy books that not only are good, but ones they (and the marketing department) believe will be broadly appealing. They have to sell enough copies to justify spending money on advances and production. It’s fortunate for them that it’s not necessary for the books to earn out those advances to make a profit, since only 10% – 15% do. If they could figure out which ones those are in advance, they’d buy only those books, and only writers appealing to the broadest audience would be published.
Unfortunately, this is a kind of censorship and can have an effect on an author’s ability to self-determine what he writes if he wants to be published by the big six. Publishing should have standards, and they do have to make a profit. They’re running a business, after all. But an unpleasant consequence to trying to find only the books that will sell well is a trend towards homogenization of what is published.
Fortunately, many small presses have arisen to fill in these niches, and independent-publishing imposes no restrictions whatsoever. It’s an equalizer. It allows complete self-direction. Anyone can do it. It does, however, leave authors vulnerable to their egos and impatience. Without an editor to say, “This can be improved,” it’s all too tempting for a self-publishing writer to rush their work into the public eye. Only someone dedicated to attaining mastery of her craft has a chance at avoiding this trap. (Which is not to say you should revise ad infinitum, always doubting the quality of your work. Even traditionally published authors look back at their first published books and see their deficiencies. Just don’t be in such a rush to publish that you don’t do your due diligence.)
The studies cited in the video aren’t trying to say that money doesn’t matter at all. It is a motivator, but apparently the best use of it is for companies to pay enough so that it ceases to be an issue and allows people to focus on the work. How much money is that? Enough to meet basic needs like food and shelter? That much, plus enough to have a few luxuries? Everybody’s bar is going to be a little different, but according to the studies, offering a high monetary incentive (as perceived by the individual) has a negative effect on performance.
For most of us seeking publication, that’s not much of a risk. 🙂