What Motivates You?

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. 🙂


Filed under Life, writing

3 responses to “What Motivates You?

  1. To say that I merely consider earning money “nice,” and to contrast this with writers who are more concerned with profit is … is a bit misleading, and overstates (or perhaps oversimplifies) my take on building a writing career quite a bit.

    Because I do care about earning money from my writing. I care about it in large part because earning money from my writing buys me time to write more. Making a profit, for me, is tied to my goal of telling the stories I most want to be telling–and to my goal of getting the stories I want to tell to readers, which happens much more effectively when my publisher is making a profit too. 🙂

    It’s quite possible that Mike and I have different business models (having not discussed same with him), but I do see writing very much as a business. My working to break into and continue selling in that business is motivated by wanting to write and be heard, but that doesn’t make me any less concerned with, or savvy about, the business details.

    My business strategies haven’t involved trying to game the market, or fit into the narrowly limited vision many of these posts seem to assume traditional publishing has. I tried to write to market for a while, realized that wasn’t working–for me personally or as a business strategy–and then I figured something out: the most commercial thing I could do was write the books I most wanted to write, and truly push myself and my craft to do a better and better job of that.

    Because I realized that if I wrote stories that were true to my voice and the tales I wanted to tell–they might or might not sell, sure. This is true of every single thing any of us writes, and has been pretty much throughout the history of publishing.

    But if they did sell, and anyone else wanted more of them–well, the only place to get more was from me.

    Because maybe lots of people could write to market, or perceptions of market (which are often inaccurate), and do it better than I could–but if you write books that are deliberately like other books out there, again, you may or may not sell–but if you do sell, well, you could be swapped out for another writer who was also writing to that same market next month, or next week, or next year.

    So I don’t see writing because I want to tell my stories as something opposed to writing as a business. I see it as how I run my business.

    • I care about it in large part because earning money from my writing buys me time to write more. Making a profit, for me, is tied to my goal of telling the stories I most want to be telling–and to my goal of getting the stories I want to tell to readers….

      This is pretty much the point of the video I was reviewing and musing about. For creative, cognitively complex tasks, money is not the primary motivator once basic needs are met. I wasn’t saying that you thought money was unimportant, just that it is not your primary goal in writing.

  2. DaPoet

    All I ask of my job is to but a roof over my head, clothes on my back, food on my table and some spending money in my wallet {to hell with the girlfriend 🙂 } and plenty of time to write the poems and short stories I love and need to write.

    No do I ever have plans on giving up the freedom to write whatever I want by going professional and write what someone else wants to sell.

    Besides most of what is written today is downright boring so that I spend more time writing my own poetry and short stories then I do reading others. Eventually I’m going to purchase an e reader but mainly so that I can reread and edit my own stuff wherever I happen to be an any moments given notice as opposed to spending my hard earned money on recycled stories.

    That said Mike StackPole is one of my favorite authors {I’ve read several of his books} and he will one of the few authors whose books I will download in the future.

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