Six months ago, I quit a perfectly decent well-paying job at one of the “Big Four” firms in America to write cyberpunk fiction novels.
And there’s not a day that goes by where I don’t ask myself “Why do I even fucking bother?” This morning, I decided to try to figure that out, because honestly, it’s driving me a bit mad.
Let me unpack the situation a bit:
It’s 2018. The predominant mediums people ingest content on daily are visual. They are built for eye-catching yet highly scrollable things. Facebook is all about the clickbait — a headline and image combo catches your eye, and you stare at it for a bit, and then keep moving. Twitter is all about the snappy one or two liner, with the occasional (usually made up) tweetstorm about wacky shit that always seems too good to be true, because it probably is. Instagram is… Well, Instagram.
There’s an ever-shrinking space for starting novelists to try to make it out there anymore. Kindle. That’s about it. Or your own website, but who visits peoples’ websites anymore? If you want to feed, clothe, house and maintain yourself on your writing alone, the alternatives are, sadly, few:
- Gaming Reddit (or some other place you can have a “community” around writing). Pretending that you’re there for some other reason than self-promotion, so that you can self-promote, because if you outwardly self-promote, you’re probably gonna get chucked out of the community (which is built mostly of self-promoters pretending to not self-promote). And… Yuck. Just yuck. I lived that life. I worked for two of the biggest social news sites on the internet (at the time anyway), and three other major news organizations, and after having to look at the back-end for comments and “community” all that time and not plunge a fucking knife into my neck… Just, no fucking thank you ever again. It worked for E.L. James because she is a soulless person who has no trouble a) ripping off Twilight, and b) pretending the community she fucked over never existed in the first place. I’m not made like that.
- Keyword Gaming on Amazon et al. Yes, you can buy software that will tell you the hottest keywords by the day, hour, or even minute. The point of this software is so you can write e-books against the keywords. And there’s a literal metric ton of pure bullshit posted daily in the guise of being an e-book about whatever the hot keyword is. The only person doing anything meaningful with this is Chuck Tingle, who is a genius, but I’m not made like him — my novels are about a predetermined storyline and I can’t really play the keyword game the way he can. I’m a bit envious, honestly. But that’s the reality of the thing.
- Have your book turned into something visual. Cartoon. Movie. TV. Netflix. Amazon. Hulu. Whatever. Just something less attention-demanding than a book. I’m actively working on this, because without it, I don’t think I have much of a chance just making it on books alone. But it’s still far off down the road. I cannot stress it enough: in 2018, without crossing-over into another medium, novel writers are kinda fucked.
- Have a connection somewhere in some publishing house, movie studio, whatever. Without this, making your living as a writer is demonstrably harder.
- Live with your parents / spouse / family / friends who financially support you.
- Be rich yourself. Because the truth is, the chances that a breakout new writer will be financially successful diminish by the day in 2018. Period. End of story. And if that writer is self-published, the chances go from slim to nil almost automatically unless you have one of the 4 things above going for you.
So here I sit, on my back porch, enjoying the 66 degree sun-drenched weather, taking a break from my 5th attempt this week to rewrite a 2nd draft of the 4th volume of my series Marlowe Kana. And along with that comes my little demon screaming in my ears about how futile this entire endeavor is. “No one will care,” He says (and it’s definitely a he). “And even if they do, you won’t be able to do this forever. And even if you do, you won’t reach anyone. You won’t change a thing. The world is broken and unfixable. And also, so are you, so stop even trying.”
So, I took a moment this morning to really dig into this and figure out why the hell I bother.
As I write this, I’ve “sold” a little over 12,000 copies of the three books combined. 8,000 of those are the free Kindle version of the first volume, leaving roughly 4,000 actual for-money sales. The paperback editions of all three volumes comprise roughly 500 sales for about 1.30-1.50 profit each, leaving 3,500 e-book sales at 1.99 each. After Amazon et al’s cut of 30%, I’ve made roughly $5,500 USD in the past year on the sale of 3 volumes of my series. That’s a little under $500 a month I make on my writing, with the vast bulk of it coming in early this year. Editing services cost me about 600-800 per book ($2000ish). Paying Meghan for the covers costs me far less than it should, but it’s still about $1000 each ($3000 ish).
So, not including taxes, I’ve made about $500 profit on all three books so far. Combined with my Patreon which brings me ~$400 a month, I’m able to cover rent every month (THANK YOU PATRONS! Seriously, without you, I can’t do this!!!) There’s still food, pet food, gas for the car, insurance, etc. to cover. So, I take design and development contract gigs on the side so I can pull in enough cash to cover all my ends and keep writing.
It’s a struggle, yes. But nowhere near the struggle of waking up (late) on yet another weekday morning, trudging to the shower where I simultaneously brush my teeth to save time (because I slept late, because I dread getting up, because I’m up late the night before trying to write so I don’t go insane)… Brewing a cup of coffee while I get dressed, pulling out a food bar of some sort to eat on the 60-75 minute commute into an office that I sigh every time I enter, and the ONLY highlight of every single morning is saying good morning to my friends who work there. They are also the only reason I stuck around as long as I did, because the work itself… Well, let’s say I wasn’t challenged on any other talent or skill I possess besides patience. After futilely arguing yet another day about why you can’t just plop things on a screen and expect anyone to use them, and taking internal funding from departments to subsidize their portfolio with free software wasn’t sustainable, and any number of other fucking dead-end arguments, I get in the car and sit another 60-75 minutes to get home and finally begin on the work I felt was worth doing: writing my books.
Cutting out the 9-10 dead hours of my day where I produced nothing (except cortisol which spiked my stress) also meant cutting out the paycheck that came along with it. Because they were never paying me for my skill or talent — if they were, they would have stopped, cause they never used any of either. They were paying for my time.
Put another way, I was selling 45-50 hours of my life every week for enough money that it seemed justified.
Now that I’ve left that, I am essentially scraping by month to month. It’s not bad. I get to spend the 45-50 hours a week I sold, sitting on my deck with my dogs and crafting the next volume in a series that, let’s face it, isn’t going to be a breakout hit, or even a cult one. It’ll make the people who have decided to care about it happy, I hope. And I have faith it’ll grow as I publish more and more, and bring in some new readers who might be keen for the next series in 2-3 years.
But I’m not planning on “making it” in the conventional sense. It’s 2018. Without something visual — video, images, shitty-graphic-design-experiements-in-inspirational-quotes… your chances of going super viral are slim to none. It is a scientifically proven fact that the long-form reading comprehension of humankind has diminished in the last 20 years, and is decaying at ever-increasing rates. People don’t read like they used to, and some don’t read at all. The fundamental skill required for people to buy the thing I have changed my career to make is rapidly disappearing. This may not have been the best business decision I’ve ever made — selling books in a market where fewer and fewer people read them.
And why would they? Aside from the acquisition editor or license broker whose job it is to read text / graphic novels / whatever and decide what the next hit series should be for their streaming network, who else has the incentive?
Readers do. Even in ever-diminishing numbers, readers exist, and I know cause I’m one. And so, that’s who I write for.
My hope is within the next 2-3 years, to be selling enough copies of regularly-released serialized novels that I can afford my rent, my groceries, insurance, pet food, and perhaps even a little extra for cigars and whiskey. And my plan to achieve that is to just keep working, because it beats the alternative: sitting all day in a place I don’t want to be, for money I don’t 100% need, with stories trapped in my head because I simply don’t have the time to commit them to books and get them out in the world.
And then, there’s the fact that these stories NEED to be in the world. Or, at the very least, I need them to be.
Right now, our society is… Well, dying. Or at the very least, withering. We’re becoming more and more partisan by the day. Rapid advancements in technology and communication without even the slightest hint of moral concern for what it brings have given us Brexit, Trump, Myanmar, Chinese spying 24/7 on citizens, American Police doing the same, All of the technology you use every day spying on you, and the Saudi assassination of a US Resident journalist (if you’re wondering why that has something to do with technology, simply look at the series sheet for any tech company in the last 10 years and see just how much money comes from Saudi Arabia, and then look at the number of tech folks turning down that money out of principle… The places you get your content listed above? They benefit from not letting this story spread).
In my own state, we have a gigantic rock called Stone Mountain that is not only a monument to slavers and traitors, but is the literal birthplace of the modern Klu Klux Klan. That’s a thing here, in the state where the Civil Rights Movement was born and their leaders are canonized in murals, street names, stadium names, and libraries. And in this state right now — in 2018 — minorities are actively denied their right to vote so that our Republican Secretary can become our Republican Governor.
Shit’s fucked up.
Marlowe Kana is a story that takes place 100 years from this current timeline. It is the story of the inevitable consequence of the dissolution of Democracy in America. Yes, it has cool cyberpunky things and badass fights and cool tech — but that’s the point. The people aren’t very happy. They’re just content to live. And as the story continues down volumes, you as the reader will start to see why the United American State is not at all the Utopia it is presented as.
I have to write this story, because my only other way to express resistance involves being very physical, and right now, If i hit the streets yelling and screaming at the day to day chipping away of my rights, my society, my country, my home… I’d look like a fucking madman. Furthermore, I’d be treated as one. I would be arrested or shot as people looked on, unmoved by yet another looney losing his mind and screaming in the street.
My time to use my body and my voice is not now. It’s later, when the way I use them are more necessary. I pray and hope it doesn’t get there, but daily, I become more afraid that it will.
So in the meantime, I use my other talent – writing – to not only try to keep people entertained when they aren’t enraged, but to vent and unpack what I see going on daily. Not just with our government, but with ourselves — our mounting psychosis as reality keeps being bent further and further. The book isn’t just semi-robotic people punching each other. It’s a deep mental dive at what that means to each person’s psyche, to become more human than human, to watch these meta-humans fighting on 24 hour streaming Feeds all day; to have a corporation that employs us all running the show as nicely and benevolently as they can and what it took to get there… And what the rest of the world thinks about it.
That’s why I quit my job at a huge corporation. That’s why I spend my day writing every day. That’s why I had to choose a meager day to day existence over a numb weekly trek into futility for a lot more money.
So, that’s why I bother. And that’s why I must continue to bother. Because there is no other way for me to stay sane, especially right now.
(featured image credit: Gudetama x Jolly Awesome)