Shaista Justin

Why Writers are in a Bad Mood

In Writing Advice on February 19, 2011 at 7:25 pm

The stakes in the field of publishing and writing in Canada are low. According to what I see posted on Facebook and the literary gatherings I go to, writers, on average, are not in love with other writers. Perhaps I have the same cautious relationship with other freelancers because competing with them means a piece of the dollar pie. I don’t feel competitive with other literary writers, because, quite frankly, almost no one is drawing a legitimate income from their writing….or, as we say in Africa, unless you are one of the big 5 (lion, elephant, buffalo, rhino, leopard). So why are all these writers in a bad mood?

  1. First the publisher pays you squat (its not their fault, it’s what Canada Council gives them, and it’s not Canada Council’s fault, it’s what the public is willing to set aside to support its writers).
  2. No one in the media cares about “your work”, what they want to hear about is some personal story of hardship that you’ve overcome or some other “angle” of your life that looks good as a headliner in a press release. (It’s not their fault, it’s what the public wants to hear.)
  3. If the media pays you any attention whatsoever, you are thrilled, but then have to perfect the habit of speaking in sound-bytes or you will sound like an air-head on air. If you’ve heard me in an interview, you know of what I speak. (It’s hard for a writer reliant on the written word to achieve this.)
  4. If you are lucky, you will get invited to “read” your work to the “public” after your “book launch” which is filled predominately with your family and friends. At these readings, a ghost crew of no-shows from the launch will show up to hear you read. (Be grateful for each one! Most people hate book readings, so these people truly love you..or are milking you for a favour…who cares, they came!). The people you don’t know didn’t come for you but for the other writer sitting to your left who is working hard to pretend they are the star attraction.
  5. After spending years in front of your computer, you are now expected choreograph a dance routine to the short story you published as though you are the Lady Gaga of literary readings. Seen an awkward writer on a stage much? Yeah, I thought so.
  6. After a mild hub-bub of 3 months, everyone will have forgotten all about your book (not that it wasn’t good?) because that writer-you-ignored who read-with-you-at-that-reading, won some national prize for theirs. The really effective writers can milk this “reading” period for a year, sometimes two. In the case of Yann Martel, for a decade. (Well, it was a damn good book!)
  7. Keep in mind, usually anything “literary” you do for your book comes out of your own pocket. IE. Transportation to Kamloops to read to 7 local poetry lovers, extra copies of your book (because you keep forgetting where you put yours), lipstick (it’s a major expense for me anyway), and let’s face it, most marketing ends up being your job especially if you publish with a small press. Treasure those readings where you get a cheque, they are few and far between.
  8. Then, after the minor hoop-la, you are back staring at the blank page, which probably makes you happier than anything else on this list did because writers live to write. But, you are now in debt because you published a book not because you didn’t. In Richard Branson’s famous words about how to become a Millionaire he says: “Start off as a billionaire, buy an airline, and in a short while, you are a millionaire.” You get the picture.
  9. Oh yeah, and you didn’t win any awards or get reviewed because no one knows who you are because your marketing was half-assed, fire yourself! But, now at least you are a legitimate writer and can spend all your time trying to figure out what you else you should do with your life to keep from starving.
  10. However, because you can now bear the name of “writer” without being scoffed at, you are eligible to apply for enticing grants you rarely win, you can try to get honorable teaching work and compete with everyone else for it, or a writer’s-in-residence gig, and wonder why you wrote a book in the first place.

If as a writer you are competing for this literary pie with other writers, what does a division of debt make? It’s not your fault writing doesn’t pay, the system is against you.

Let’s get socialist for a moment and say that every published writer gets a standard $20,000 for their book. (You might be able to live off chickpeas and rice for an entire year while writing half of your next book.) And then, the public could decide which writers will get more money based on their reading purchases. I suspect if this were the case most writers would be much less crabby about the whole deal. Less financial crabbiness, and more a share of the pie could lead to a happier writing community.

So next time you meet a writer, shake their hand and buy them a coffee, they only get a $1.00 off each book they sell, and that coffee may add significantly more to their overall happiness.

(Or coffee and a book might be nice too!)





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